Staff Chief: The Center of the Web

December 08, 1991|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE | GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE,Gilbert Lewthwaite, a correspondent in The Sun's Washington bureau, covered the Carter and Reagan administrations at the White House.

John Sununu's departure as President Bush's chief-of-staff last week adds another colorful chapter to the turbulent history of a powerful job which, since World War II, has helped mold presidents and shape policy.

Positioned next to the Oval Office, in constant contact with the chief executive, screening who and what reaches him, the chief-of-staff is the spider and the center of the political web that is Washington. As power has been centralized, the chief has become more powerful.

After the Watergate cover-up showed how the White House could be tightly sealed by a powerful chief of staff, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter both started out trying to do without one. They couldn't.

There have been good ones and bad ones, diplomats and bullies. Some, like Mr. Sununu, have come to grief. Others, like James A. Baker and Dick Cheney, have gone on to further glory, respectively as Secretary of State and Defense.

The chief's power lies in his near-total control of those two most valuable of political commodities -- access and the president's time. He is the gatekeeper and the naysayer.

He must referee clashes between strong personalities and derail what he perceives as misguided policies. He can stall issues or accelerate them. He can wake the president during the night or let him sleep. Remember how Edwin Meese decided not to disturb President Ronald Reagan's slumber when U.S. fighters shot down two Libyan planes over the Gulf of Sidra in 1981?

He advises the president when to make a public statement or keep quiet. He can decide who should be invited to a state dinner. He makes enemies almost more easily than friends.

In the busiest office in the world, he manages day-to-day business and sudden international crises.

It is a job like no other. Each chief has a thousand tales to tell, and a few years ago eight of them, spanning the 25 years from the Eisenhower to the Carter administrations, did just that. They gathered for a symposium at the University of California, San Diego, in 1986 and gave an unprecedented insight into just what happens behind closed doors in the White House.

Professor Samuel L. Popkin, who collected their anecdotes into a book "Chief of Staff: Twenty-five years of Managing the Presidency," wrote: "Implicit in every anecdote in these transcripts is an awareness of the multiple constituencies and goals that vie for a president's time and energy."

Whether it was Dick Cheney talking about the "great personal hostility" that developed between him and Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller when he was President Gerald Ford's chief-of-staff, or H. R. "Bob" Haldeman revealing how he had to ensure President Richard Nixon received wider economic advice than only that offered by the favored Treasury Secretary John Connally, the normally-closeted chiefs relaxed discretion for once.

It is worth retelling some of their stories to grasp just how pervasive and powerful the White House chief of staff has become since President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced the military rank into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1953.

John Sununu was simply the ultimate example of a chief of staff who became too powerful for his own good. Beyond the normal advice and control involved in the job, he was either delegated or assumed control of major sections of domestic policy. While Mr. Bush was preoccupied with ending the Cold War and pursuing peace in the Middle East, Mr. Sununu was busy negotiating the 1990 budget agreement with Congress which has set the parameters for national reaction to recession, and with handling such political policy time bombs as health care.

There can be little doubt that had the economy not soured, he would not have had to be a lightning rod to protect the president. But protection of the president is the chief of staff's core responsibility.

Dick Cheney decided that Henry Kissinger was getting too much credit for U.S. foreign policy -- at President Ford's expense -- when he was both the president's national security adviser and secretary of state. The result: Mr. Kissinger lost the NSC job.

Sometimes a president has to be protected from himself as much as from others. President Carter couldn't be. Jack H. Watson, who replaced Hamilton Jordan as Mr. Carter's White House chief in 1980, recalled how he and others tried to warn Mr. Carter of "over-involvement" in his first two years in office before he appointed a chief of staff in 1979. Mr. Carter wanted to be the hub of the wheel, with the various departments as the "spokes," all leading directly to the Oval Office.

"I think the president was involved to too great an extent in too many things. . . . I think that many of our problems on the Hill, many of our congressional relationships, difficulties [over] who's speaking for the president, would have been solved had we started from the very beginning with a strong chief of staff," said Mr. Watson.

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