TOPICS > Politics

Erskine Bowles: New Chief of Staff

November 8, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: We get two perspectives on this key White House post–NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss is a presidential historian and Jack Watson was President Carter’s chief of staff. He now practices law in Washington and Atlanta. Welcome, both of you. Mr. Watson, what is the single most important quality in a White House chief of staff, a successful White House chief of staff?

JACK WATSON, Former Carter Chief of Staff: (Atlanta) Margaret, I think the most important quality is to keep calm on this–a lot of things exploding around the White House and the President and the chief of staff–keeping a kind of quiet, calm, and order in the minds and sort of the actions of the people that are supporting the President in his immediate orbit of the executive office of the President.

MARGARET WARNER: Does that include the President, himself, trying to help keep the President focused or in order?

JACK WATSON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. The President now having served four years in that cauldron called the White House is very accustomed to the pressures and the highs and lows and the incoming rounds that are–that are part and parcel of the presidency. But keeping a focus on his attention and energy and keeping priorities set, keeping the flow of information and ideas around some carefully selected priorities, making sure that the President’s political capital and the President’s time and attention, which are a part of his political capital, are not spread too thin, those are–those are some of the chief responsibilities of a successful chief of staff.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael, what does history tell us about what makes a successful chief of staff?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, it suggests that a couple of other things are helpful too. One of them is really knowing Washington. If you look at James Baker in the first term of Ronald Reagan, a California governor without Washington experience, the fact that Baker had been here and knew how to deal with Congress and the press, I think that was a big asset for Reagan. I think another thing that’s helpful is modesty. Oftentimes, you have chiefs of staff who want to be figures on their own, such as Donald Regan under Reagan and John Sununu perhaps under George Bush, people who in some cases would not take the blame away from the President. John Sununu once said after George Bush had made a faux pas that the President was freelancing–just the kind of thing a chief of staff should not do. And I think one thing that is also very important is knowing when to tell the President no. Every President oftentimes gets angry and says things that he later on wishes that he hadn’t said, oftentimes gives rather silly orders. You have to have a chief of staff who has that innate sense of knowing when to carry out certain orders and in other cases knowing when to delay them.

MARGARET WARNER: Being able to do that, Jack Watson, does that always–does that presuppose having a strong personal relationship with the President? Is that necessary?

JACK WATSON: It helps enormously for the chief of staff in substance, in reality, to have a close personal, a close, trusting, and confidential relationship with the President. It also helps very, very much for that relationship to be perceived in that way by the people who are working in the White House and for that matter in the government at broad, at large, and in the Congress. If it is well known and widely understood that the chief of staff has the confidence and the trust and the ear of the President, then it’s much harder for anybody to make end runs around the White House chief of staff. I don’t mean–I don’t mean to mislead or be misinterpreted there. One of the most important responsibilities that the chief of staff has is to balance protecting the President against unnecessary and irrelevant, immaterial, unnecessary information, while, on the other hand, making sure that he gets the information and the points of view and the perspectives that he needs in a very free-flowing way. So the balancing act of the White House chief of staff’s role is one of the most important ones of all.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael this is such–considered today such an important job, but it’s a fairly recent vintage, is it not?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s a very new job. You know, for most of American history, presidents have prided themselves on just having really a handful of aides around them. Then you get to Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, a military man, a believer in the staff structure. He appointed someone who is not called a chief of staff but served essentially as that–Sherman Adams, the former governor of New Hampshire, as what he called assistant to the President. Adams was terribly powerful. One of the things that Adams tried to do was not only run the White House and the Executive Branch almost as a business but also keep Eisenhower away from unnecessary distractions. And, you know, that’s been a tendency for the last 40 years or so–a constant shift back and forth between very strong chiefs of staff like Adams, Bob Haldeman under Richard Nixon would be another example, and then on the other hand, chiefs of staff for people who filled essentially that role who tried to preserve the idea of spokes of the wheel, all sorts of people having equal access to–or nearly so–to the President. And usually, the Presidents who try the spokes of the wheel in the end opt for stronger chiefs of staff. I think that probably has happened in the Carter administration.

MARGARET WARNER: True, Jack Watson?

JACK WATSON: It is true. And the old theory about the spokes of the wheel, with everyone having an equal access to the President, while it sounds good in theory, doesn’t work very well in practice. That’s one of the things I meant about a chief of staff’s responsibility to–to be able to–to control and manage the flow of information to the President in a way that he knows and that the President knows is going to serve the President, not insulate the President from the information and the ideas that he needs to have.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And I might say that in the Clinton administration, President Clinton at the very beginning very much wanted to have that kind of operation. We had these scenes early in 1993 of all sorts of people crowding around the President as he was writing a speech that was shortly to be delivered to Congress. That’s a scene you don’t see anymore, and that is because President Clinton now has turned to two people who I think are very strong chiefs of staff, Leon Panetta and now Erskine Bowles.

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact–

JACK WATSON: Michael, I would note that almost every President, as he enters office, wants to do and wants to believe in the spokes of the wheel, and almost every President finds out that it won’t work very well.

MARGARET WARNER: And Jack Watson, what are the other–is there another big pitfall that you would warn–I mean, if an Erskine Bowles were to call you and say, what do I need to watch out for, what would you tell him?

JACK WATSON: As Michael said earlier in the program, one of the things the White House chief of staff has to be able to do is to talk honestly with the President and say no to the President when he thinks the President needs–needs to take off on a different direction, or to reconsider a direction, a path that he’s on. So–and saying no to the President of the United States or undertaking to redirect the attention of the President of the United States is a difficult task, particularly when you have a President like President Carter, or President Clinton, both of whom are very energetic, very powerful, intellectual folks, who want to be involved in the making of a policy. They are not people who stand back. They want to be right there in the formulation of the policy. They want to understand the bases of the policy. They want to talk to as many people as they can and get as many ideas from as many different people as they can. So while that’s a very admirable and I would say necessary quality in a strong and effective President, it’s also a quality that the President needs to be protected from a bit.

MARGARET WARNER: Your view of the biggest pitfall.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think one of them is perhaps hubris. You had a case, I mentioned earlier, of Donald Regan, who came in at the beginning of President Reagan’s second term, he wanted to be a prime minister. He wanted to be sort of a great figure in Washington, and the result was that he really erected a wall around the President and tried to be almost a co-president in the way that got him a lot of enemies, and in the end–

MARGARET WARNER: Including Nancy Reagan.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Including Nancy Reagan, the most powerful enemy of all that one could have in the Reagan administration, and perhaps the thing that really did it was he once said in public, Regan did, “I’m like the person who cleans up after the elephant in the parade who makes a mess.” That’s not something that pleased Nancy Reagan or Ronald Reagan, and it also showed that he was not someone so modest that he was willing to take the heat for the President; they felt he had to go.