June 01, 2020

The Clinton transition to power

By Amelia Ziegler

Mack McLarty, former White House chief of staff, shared insights on the Clinton transition as well as President Clinton’s first year in office, as well as the privilege of serving alongside the president, a friend from childhood. 

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Read the highlights:

Dave Marchick asked about the importance of President Clinton’s economic stimulus package, the hallmark legislation of his first year in office, that decreased the deficit and laid the foundation for his presidency. 

Mack McLarty “There’s no question that President Clinton’s economic plan was the pillar, the foundation of his first year in office. That’s what the campaign had been about, and that’s what he had been focused on both in the campaign and the White House.” 

“I think the other point that was so important the first year was for President Clinton to step onto the world stage in a confident, statesman-like manner. We really worked at that. If you go back to the first year and really through his entire presidency, (he) established enduring, deep relationships with leaders around the world and that served him well.” 

McLarty reflects on Bill Clinton’s hesitancy toward robust pre-election transition planning.  

Clinton “did not want to be seen as…a candidate who was already beginning to measure the drapes in the Oval Office. So, his instinct, his inclination was not to have a robust, focused transition…There was a (pre-election) transition group that was formed…I never sensed or felt that the candidate really focused.”

McLarty acknowledges that the Clinton team may have erred by choosing Cabinet members before many of his top White House staff. 

“You either have to do them [choose the White House staff and the Cabinet] simultaneously – or perhaps even better, focus on the White House staff first and then quickly move to the Cabinet. But there was just not enough work done before the election. And once you get behind, you just don’t have room to catch up.”

McLarty shares insights on what the team could have done differently with respect to the transition. 

“Well, hindsight is a no great substitute for wisdom. I think more fundamentally, the real answer is to begin the transition process planning much earlier in a very formal way…Spend some time and focus on the elements of a transition, including at least a framework for personnel.”

Dave Marchick asked how McLarty dealt with the pressure of being White House chief of staff. 

Mack McLarty: “It was a demanding period…There’s nothing like working in the White House, and particularly as the chief of staff, you really have to keep a sense of perspective about what you’re trying to accomplish, why you came to Washington and do your best to keep your eye on the prize…You really try to remember the mission, why you went there to serve the American people.”

Dave Marchick asked what McLarty wishes he had known before he became White House chief of staff. 

Mack McLarty: “A lot. I think a formal transition planning well in advance of the election is just absolutely imperative, both from a national security standpoint and from an economic security standpoint. That’s obviously one I wish I would have known.  Secondly, there’s no question that in politics – and particularly in the first year of any presidency – perception is reality. I think you’ve got to really be focused, serious and thoughtful about how you keep your message in front of the American, and people in the world, more broadly.”