The Virtues Of Being A Grown-Up In Washington

Aboard air force one, most people scoop their M&Ms by the handful from a big candy bowl. Not Warren Christopher. The secretary of state plucks just one M&M from the bowl. Then he lays it on a yellow legal pad on the conference table in front of him, where, says an aide, "it just lies there and wobbles for the longest time until you wonder, 'Is he going to eat it with a knife and fork?'" Finally, Christopher consumes the single candy and -- with maddening self-control- picks up his pen and goes back to work.

A man who really eats just one M&M?

Christopher's friends say that speaks volumes about him: his precision, his decorum, a sense that people are watching him-even if he says he doesn't want them to. In a hectic, gobble-it-all-at-once world, say his admirers, there's something reassuring about someone so deliberate and steady. Six months ago, as he offered Bill Clinton his resignation, it seemed unlikely that Christopher would end up with a secure perch as the senior wise man in the president's cabinet--but he has. "Chris's true value is providing intimate advice behind closed doors," says a White House official. "It's taken a long time for people to figure out that's a good thing." As one former White House adviser puts it: "He's the grown-up in a place that often needs adult supervision."

The 69-year-old Christopher has undergone something of a classic Washington redemption: the same qualities ridiculed one day are deemed virtues the next. Once regarded as meek, he's now valued by the foreign-policy team and his fellow diplomats as an oasis of calm in a presidential circle that can often be distracted. Yet on a grim Tuesday before Christmas, Christopher was ready to leave the town he has never liked. Tortured by two years of rumors about his imminent departure and blame for the administration's foreign-policy gaffes, he tried to quit. The president --partly because he knew how difficult it would be to get a replacement past Jesse Helms's Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but mainly because he likes Christopher-asked his secretary to stay on "indefinitely." Since then, Christopher told NEWSWEEK, "I've recognized the need to be more assertive."

The public at large doesn't see that. It sees a frail, stiff, anti-charismatic figure who neither embodies nor projects American power. More important, in an era that begs for clarity and definition, Christopher has been unable, indeed unwilling, to lay out a foreign-policy doctrine for the United States. "An artificial effort to find a single formula can be misleading [and] distorting," he says. Christopher is not, and can never be, a brilliant orator or a Kissingerian strategist. His approach is still incremental and oddly self-effacing for a man long familiar with the power cultures of Washington and the Los Angeles legal establishment.

Yet those around Christopher see a subtle transformation. They note how he persuaded Clinton to impose a total trade embargo against Iran despite opposition in the cabinet and among Washington's allies. They admire his meticulous and evenhanded management of the Middle East peace process. When U.S.-Russian relations plunged last December after Boris Yeltsin's declaration of a "cold peace" and Moscow's invasion of Chechnya, Christopher held a tense series of meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. The strategy worked. Last May's Clinton-Yeltsin summit, while lacking any dramatic agreements, went off without a public meltdown. And at a recent NATO summit, Kozyrev finally signed Russia's membership of NATO's "Partnership for Peace" program.

Yet still the old diffidence haunts Christopher-and with it, America's foreign policy. Christopher may give good advice in private, but it can be obscured by a Delphic delivery. As lawyers should know, the best advice is worthless if a client ignores or doesn't understand it-a lesson Christopher relearned earlier this month. After hundreds of U.N. soldiers were taken hostage in Bosnia, Clinton's foreign-policy team thrashed about, wondering whether to offer U.S. ground troops to help reposition U.N. forces. Christopher, meeting with allies in Europe, consistently warned against any commitments. As Clinton was heading to speak at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Christopher called Air Force One and cautioned national-security adviser Tony Lake against pledging ground troops in the speech. The secretary argued that any commitment, no matter how hypothetical, would be misinterpreted by Congress and blown up by the press. Lake penned a phrase hinting at the "temporary use" of American ground forces anyway. The offer backfired; Congress erupted and officials beat an embarrassing retreat.

Bosnia, in fact, has seen the worst of Christopher's low-key style. In 1993, on his first mission to Europe as secretary of state, Christopher was meant to persuade the al-hen to support "lift and strike"-Clinton's proposal to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian government and conduct air-strikes against the Serbs. The Europeans turned Christopher down, and were shocked to meet a U.S. secretary of state who humbly accepted their rebuttal and trundled back to tell the president. At the start of a six-month period that would see foreign-policy fiascoes in Somalia and Haiti, the trip was a catastrophe. "I made some mistakes," Christopher now admits of the trip to Europe. "If I had it to do over again I would have fought harder within the administration, and then I would have continued to try and persuade the allies."

Christopher has a year to show that he really can learn from the mistakes of the past. If so, his reputation could yet be rescued from the depths into which it fell during 1993. Persuasion should come easy to a man who admits to missing the courtroom (to this day, his conversation is more animated when it turns from foreign policy to the law). But fighting--at least of the kind that Washington has loved since Henry Kissinger's time--will never be his style. "Kissinger changed the job description for secretary of state," says Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy. "To be considered good, it's now become one of the requirements of the job to dominate the media or manipulate it."

That's Christopher's problem. So long as the job of secretary of state is defined by showmanship on TV, he will always fail. His private virtues are public weaknesses. His politeness can be taken for timidity; his modesty is hardly in keeping with the image of the world's sole superpower. But suppose that the age of diplomat-as-showman ended with the cold war and its terrible certainties. In an era filled with crises, none of which mortally threaten the United States but all of which are messy and confused, Christopher's dogged, methodical, behind-the-scenes qualities may yet be those that future secretaries of state find necessary. One M&M at a time.