This winter break has been chock full of dinner conversations with my family in which they ask - so are you sure you want to go to Africa after graduation? Don't you want to work in public policy - Washington, DC is so much fun! Well - after a month of my dinner conversations revolving around what I want to do after graduation - I’ve finally figured it out. I want to be the next Chief of Staff. Like CJ Cregg of The West Wing, I’d be sassy, smart, savvy and ready to give candid advice to the president. I’d be adaptable, and energetic, and a hard-worker. I’d be reliable and like a Jack Lew - only female. But one doesn’t become Chief of Staff overnight so I’ve been thinking - how do I work my way up to Chief of Staff status? How does one get selected for that business anyhow? While I don’t think it’s my calling to be named in 2013 - I most certainly can prepare myself for a 2021 bid - pending it’s a Democrat in office, anyhow.
Well - pulling from a recent National Journal blog post - here is what journalist Matthew Cooper says it takes. Wish me luck as I try to get an insider perspective and work my way up all in 8 years! Okay, so maybe a 2033 bid is more realistic.
So here are six qualities worth keeping in mind for the next chief of staff:
- Know Washington. Americans may like presidents who come from outside Washington (Governors Carter, Clinton, Reagan and the second Bush) but a chief of staff really needs to have a big address book of Washington politics and know which buttons to press, because this is their habitat. Mack McLarty was a widely liked oil-and-gas executive who was Bill Clinton’s best friend growing up in Arkansas, but those qualities didn’t help him as chief of staff. The organizational mess that was the Clinton White House in 1993 fell on his watch. Donald Regan had many admirable qualities as a former Marine and head of Merrill Lynch, but his tenure as Treasury secretary didn’t prepare him for the chief’s job.
* Unfortunately, I don’t know Washington. But I hope to. I want to move there after graduation. I’m thinking for one to become an expert you’d only need, what, say 3 years in the place? I’ll be good to go in 4 years!
- Be a Jerk, but Not Too Much of a Jerk. A White House chief of staff spends a lot of time saying no: denying aides a chance to walk into the Oval Office, handling calls from congressional leadership that aren’t deemed worthy of going straight to the president. But there’s a way to do it without being a complete jerk. John Sununu, George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff and a former New Hampshire governor, was famous for belittling staff, being manifestly arrogant, and widely disliked. When it emerged that he had commandeered planes for his own travel and had even gone to stamp-collecting meetings in a White House car, everyone was eager to dime him out. Obama’s first chief, Rahm Emanuel, may be famous for his profanity, but he wasn’t considered cruel.
* I’m not really a jerk. But I could be I guess. Nothing makes me more mad than people who don't cooperate. And I'm pretty persuasive.
- Understand the President’s Weaknesses. A chief of staff needs to game out what the president needs. Jimmy Carter had a tendency for micromanagement that led to him personally attending to the White House tennis court schedule — possibly the iconic moment of his crippled presidency. His chiefs, Jack Watson and Hamilton Jordan, didn’t tame this tendency in their boss. As a former legislator, Gerald Ford was used to meeting one-on-one with legislators and staff but Chiefs of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, for whatever their later faults, understood that Ford had to be managed, lest he overcommit.
* I’m very good at seeing people's weaknesses - well, everyone’s except my own!
- Be a White House Veteran. It’s not enough just to be a Washington veteran. The best chiefs of staff have been White House — or at least Executive Office — veterans, too: James Baker, Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles, Andy Card, Jack Lew. The White House is its own unique beast and time in the executive branch is different than time spent in, say, the House. This is important to understand, because the peculiar rituals of each office — the staff secretary and the National Security Council, the public liaison and the Domestic Policy Council — all have their own niches. Knowing them helps.
* Okay okay, so they’ve got me here. I am not too much of a White House veteran. But you know - a few years as a legislative aide and then a few more as press secretary or something and I’m golden! Just gimme a shot!
- Meet the Press, but Don’t Be Too Out Front. The best chiefs of staff have been good press manipulators, willing to talk to reporters but without taking the high-profile, Sunday morning role. Baker was probably the master of this, as were Lew, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. Being too out there can only diminish the president you’re serving. Sununu was too far out there as well. Sherman Adams, the first chief of staff under Dwight Eisenhower, was all-controlling until he was undone by accepting a vicuna coat as a gift. The joke circulating in D.C. at the time went like this: One Democrat says, "Wouldn't it be terrible if Eisenhower died and Nixon became president?" The other replied "Wouldn't it be terrible if Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became president!"
* I’ll have to learn this one, but hey - like I said, I’ve got 20 years before my position of Chief of Staff becomes a reality.
- Fit the Moment. The White House is always busy, even when the president is in the last year of his second term. But it’s important to have a chief of staff who fits the moment. Rahm Emanuel made sense for the first kinetic years of the Obama administration where a member of the Democratic House Leadership was a wise choice to work with the Hill. But burning like a Roman candle made less sense after the Republicans took over the House. During Ronald Reagan’s second term, Howard Baker was the perfect choice after the Iran-Contra affair and the mess of Donald Regan. He was known as impeccably honest from the Watergate hearings and as the calm and trusted Republican leader in the Senate, which helped quiet Washington. Insiders like Ken Duberstein (Reagan) and John Podesta (Clinton) made sense as calm end-of-term managers, as did George W. Bush’s Josh Bolten.
* My moment is 2033. I'm telling you! Just 4 more seasons to watch of The West Wing and I'll practically be an expert on what it takes to be the next Chief of Staff. Oh - and then some experience in DC. That'll help me too. And then I think America will be ready for the greatest Chief of Staff they've never seen!
Further emphasizing my ability to kick butt in the White House, as the White House Transition Project Report from 2001 reads, “As recently as the beginning of the Carter administration, it was possible to argue that the White House could be run without a Chief of Staff. Those days are past. The complexity of the modern White House requires discipline and coordination that can only be achieved if there is a central coordinating point, someone other than the President to oversee the operation. This job is not easy. Long days, constant crises, and persistent rivalries, much of them built into the institutional structure and processes, the roles of the personnel that occupy the White House, and overlapping missions and interests, create a pressured short time-frame in which to operate. Many chiefs see their job as the second most important and most difficult in Washington. To underline the point, James Baker, who served as Chief of Staff under two Presidents, includes the Chief of Staff office along with Presidential personnel and the counsel as the three jobs that should be filled first, because these people have “got to help the President pick the rest of the administration.” (J. Baker, I)
I'm announcing it now on a public forum - this will be me in the future! Then it’s Bronwen for President 2036!