Junk the chief of staff

Jack Valenti

November 11, 1992|By Jack Valenti

BILL Clinton triumphed because Americans chose to march under his banner of change.

That means he should junk a Republican innovation and, like John F. Kennedy, not create a chief of staff.

Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson did just fine. Neither had a chief of staff.

Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush did.

Many of those chiefs of staff resigned in disgrace, performed below par, were flung aside or went to jail.

Over 40 years, of those who served any length of time, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Jack Watson and James Baker were among the few who were quality performers.

However one may carp at JFK and LBJ, even the surliest critic will acknowledge that their staffs ranked among the best in this century.

No voter ever elected, nor did any Congress consent to, a chief of staff, who in effect becomes the deputy president. Army commanders seemingly need chiefs of staff -- but army commanders are not elected.

The chief becomes the funnel through which all dissent from the staff and outside world must flow, and then inevitably disintegrates. The chief absorbs the cautions, rebuttals, bTC innovative ideas, other-side-of-the-coin arguments, and almost without exception passes on only a wisp of what the president ought to know before making a decision.

Mr. Clinton will be a smart, hands-on president. Thus he really needs what the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, without a chief of staff, had in abundance: fiery debates among White House assistants, all within the president's earshot, so that he could listen, weigh and assay.

Nothing can smooth the serrated edges of an idea better than the abrasion of Oval Office debate between first-class assistants who can help ventilate the pros and cons of an issue before the president has to decide.

Mr. Clinton will find that no decision during his tenure will ever be made with enough information. Ever.

As he ponders a decision, he will first walk down a corridor clearly mapped with facts, fiscal arithmetic, precedents and data ground out by computers. Then the corridor will grow darker as he nears the outer rim of decision time.

Soon the corridor is unlighted, uninviting, no guideposts, no arithmetic, no further facts, no alternatives weighted with data.

But, as LBJ used to say, at 9 a.m. the next morning the president must decide. What does he do?

He must call on intuition -- the stuff of political judgment and the final arbiter of a president's place in history.

Intuition seems to work with more celerity and richness of final purpose when a president has witnessed the most querulous debate among his staff members, none of which has been filtered and homogenized by a chief of staff.

Jack Valenti was special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson.

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