The Presidents' Gatekeepers: Time to Reconsider Chief of Staff Position?

The subtitle of the Discovery Channel documentary is “The World’s Toughest Job.” The average tenure for chiefs of staff has been less than two years. As the role and power of the chief of staff position have escalated, so have tales of arrogance, pettiness, megalomania, and bad judgment. (FDR said that one prerequisite to being a successful White House aide was “a passion for anonymity.”) A lot of them have been fired.

Many chiefs of staff have gotten themselves and their boss in trouble since the 1950s: Ike’s Sherman Adams was forced to resign when it was revealed that he had accepted a fur coat as a gift; during the Nixon Years, H.R. Haldeman famously went to prison due to the Watergate scandal; Carter’s leader of the “Georgia Mafia,” Hamilton Jordan, was accused (falsely) of using cocaine and called “Hannibal Jerkin” by Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill after failing to meet with congressional leaders for over two years; Ronald Reagan’s second chief of staff, Don Regan, presided over the Iran-Contra scandal and was forced out; John Sununu, under the first President Bush, recommended breaking the Republican “no new taxes” pledge (he was also forced out), a decision that helped sink the 1992 Bush re-election effort; Bill Clinton’s “Arkansas Mafia” always seemed to be getting into trouble, and Clinton was impeached. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama went through numerous chiefs of staff.

None of the presidents considered among the greats -- Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt -- had dominating chiefs of staff. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. points out that those presidents functioned as their own chiefs of staff.

Not every chief of staff has been ineffective: Alexander Haig played a key role in persuading Nixon to resign (though he later made the disastrous gaffe of saying that he was “in control” after President Reagan was shot); former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker helped rescue the Reagan presidency in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal; and John Podesta helped Bill Clinton survive impeachment in 1999. But they are the exceptions.

The job is almost certainly too difficult and complicated for one person. Such a track record strongly implies that the troubles of this office go beyond one or two flawed personalities.  The fundamental problem is that the job of “assistant president” is nearly impossible, thus almost guaranteeing failure. The whole concept of a “gatekeeper” for the president is simply wrong: keeping people and ideas away from a president adds to his isolation. The president must be accessible.

Whatever the possible future directions for the White House staff, change is definitely needed. Bill Daley, the second chief of staff for President Obama, called James Baker for advice and was told: “Congratulations, you’ve just got the world’s worst (bleeping) job.”

The newly powerful White House chief of staff has proven to be a disastrous development. It is time to downsize the position.