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APPOINTMENT OF PANETTA PUTS PRESIDENTIAL SHIP BACK ON COURSE

SHARE APPOINTMENT OF PANETTA PUTS PRESIDENTIAL SHIP BACK ON COURSE

With one appointment, that of former California congressman Leon Panetta as his chief of staff, President Clinton has dealt with the three main criticisms of his White House operation.

The first is that Hillary Rodham Clinton actually barks out the marching orders and keeps tabs on who fails to obey - regardless of what the Executive Office of the President organization chart might have said.Thomas McLarty may have had the title "chief-of-staff," the thinking went, but Hillary Clinton had the job - especially in a crisis.

This perception gained legitimacy with the publication of Bob Woodward's "The Agenda," which portrays the first lady as the president's most feared taskmaster.

The second criticism is that Hillary Clinton - not the president - is the one pushing the White House agenda in an aggressive, liberal direction.

The relentless call for "universal coverage" in the refusal to compromise on health-care reform has often made it seem that the first lady's favorite topic is not just the Clinton administration's No. 1 priority but its only one.

The third knock on the Clinton White House deals with the staff, especially its youthful members. The presidential team was derided recently as a band of left-tilting twentysomethings "with an earring and ax to grind." While the jibe was made by Oliver North, the Republican Senate candidate in Virginia, a man notorious for White House helter-skelter himself, it rang here with painful truth.

Making Panetta his new chief-of-staff addresses all three perceptions.

First, it thwarts the first lady's clout among the staff.

Before Monday, it was presumed that White House deputy chief-of-staff and Hillary Clinton ally Harold Ickes had the inside rail to replace McLarty. Had the New York liberal been elevated, Hillary Clinton's image as backroom power would have been confirmed.

The second effect has been to put the White House paper flow in the hands of a fiscal moderate who enjoys good relations on Capitol Hill, a solid reputation in his home state of California and a political identify firmly anchored in the center.

The most instantly beneficial impact of the Panetta appointment, however, could be on the image of the White House staff itself. Despite his easy good humor, Panetta is an undeniable "square."

In one fell swoop, Clinton has put a presidential staff known for its youth, hipness and liberal ideology under the no-nonsense control of a veteran political figure known for fiscal responsibility, political maturity and personal integrity.

It was a telling rebuke to recent White House hi-jinks. Whatever else might be said of Clinton's new chief of staff, he is not the sort to grab either Marine One for a quick golf excursion or the towels from an aircraft carrier.

Nor would Panetta condone such unprofessionalism by those in his charge.

The two other staff shifts are consistent with Clinton's newfound reliance on more conservative aides.

Alice Rivlin, the deputy director of the Office of Management who he promoted to the top position, is another intent on seeing less government red ink.

David Gergen, the senior White House aide Clinton nominated Monday to be counselor to the State Department, is a former communications director for Ronald Reagan and speechwriter for Richard Nixon.

His new assignment, though short-term, will enhance Gergen's prestige dramatically. It will be viewed as a vote of confidence for his work in shaping presidential strategy over the past year.

It is also seen as shoring up the recognized weaknesses in Secretary of State Warren Christopher's ability to articulate a U.S. foreign policy for the post Cold War era. The Gergen appointment will be perceived as a slap at National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, the man who carries responsibility for relations between the State Department and the president.

This elevation in status suggests that this veteran of past Republican White House operations is now being asked to do for Christopher what he did for Clinton. It is a powerful vote of confidence to a senior aide who has been viewed by younger aides as too Washington, too conservative, too middle-aged.

Based upon his appointments Monday, those are the very qualities their boss now finds most impressive.