JUDGE Abner Mikva, who was named last week to succeed Lloyd Cutler as White House counsel, acknowledges that he is not joining President Clinton's team at the ideal time from a lawyer's standpoint.
``The best thing that a lawyer can do is to give a client good preventive advice before problems arise,'' Mr. Mikva said in a telephone interview Friday. ``It's always more difficult when a lawyer is called in to help resolve a controversy that is already raging.''
But with the Whitewater investigation buffeting the White House, Mikva knows that damage control, rather than preventive lawyering, will be a top priority when he replaces Mr. Cutler on Oct. 1.
[A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity Sunday, told the Associated Press that a key figure in the Whitewater investigation, Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, was expected to resign soon after his return from vacation yesterday. Mr. Altman had damaged his credibility with his congressional testimony on Whitewater, which contradicted the testimony of other Treasury officials, Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine told NBC's Meet the Press.]
Mikva says he hopes to have a good working relationship with Kenneth Starr, the new independent counsel conducting the Whitewater investigation. The two men served together for about five years in the 1980s as judges on the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia, before Mr. Starr resigned to become solicitor general in the Bush administration. Mikva is currently chief judge of the D.C. court of appeals, which is often called the second most powerful federal court, after the Supreme Court.
``I have high regard for Ken Starr and for his integrity,'' Mikva says. ``The administration's policy is to cooperate with the independent counsel, and that's what I will do.''
Cutler, a respected Washington lawyer, replaced Bernard Nussbaum as White House counsel in May after questions arose about Mr. Nussbaum's handling of the Whitewater probe. Cutler announced he would serve only temporarily, however, and over lunch this summer he recruited Mikva to be his successor. Mikva says they have known each other for many years.
Like Cutler and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, Mikva brings extensive government experience to an administration that has been criticized as short on Washington savvy. Mikva was a congressman from Chicago for five terms during the '70s, before being appointed to the court of appeals by President Carter in 1979. Mikva says that he and Mr. Panetta ``go back together to my days in the Congress.''
Mikva notes that in his new role, his client is the office of the presidency, not Mr. Clinton individually. ``Usually the two will be synonymous,'' he says. ``The presidency is not an empty vessel; a real-live person with human needs and concerns occupies the office. A White House counsel can represent the person while recognizing that the lawyer's ultimate loyalty is to the office. Occasionally, there may be a conflict between the office and the person, and in those cases my top responsibility will be to the country.''
The new counsel says he doesn't expect to make personnel changes in the White House legal staff. ``I am very impressed with the work of the staff under Cutler,'' he says. But Mikva says he hopes his longtime executive assistant, a lawyer, will move with him to the White House.
Mikva's successor as chief judge of the circuit court, determined by seniority, will be Judge Harry Edwards.