When the Staff Becomes the Story
What we now think of as the modern White House staff dates back to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Before FDR – Woodrow Wilson, for example – presidents had a White House staff that basically included a secretary to handle correspondence and scheduling and maybe a typist or stenographer. Roosevelt changed all that just as he changed almost everything about the modern presidency and the operation of the White House.
When fear was expressed that FDR was engaging in executive empire building by expanding the White House bureaucracy, he famously responded that his assistants would be characterized by a “passion for anonymity.” What happened to that idea?
I’d be the first to concede that the demands of the 21st Century White House, at least in some respects, pale in comparison to those of FDR’s day. FDR didn’t have to deal with the 24 hour news cycle and most everything moved more slowly. Still, Roosevelt battled a depression and won a war with a handful of personal staffers who for the most part didn’t become household names or the subject of long profiles in the New York Times. There wasn’t a Rahm Emanuel or Karl Rove in the group.
I got to thinking about this while reading what was, at least for political junkies, the admittedly fascinating piece on Emanuel in last week’s Times Magazine. If the piece was intended to restore a certain calm to the No Drama Obama operation and tamp down the storyline that the president’s Chief of Staff is – take your pick – tired, discouraged, out of sorts or sync with his boss, too visible, too overbearing, a lightening rod, etc., it doesn’t seem to have worked.
Emanuel has been the subject of a Letterman Top 10 List, countless stories and even a sole-subject blog Rahmblr. The Rahmblr will be profiled, along with his brother, on “60 Minutes” on Sunday. Can you say overexposed?
I’m admittedly from the old school. FDR had it right. In my old school view, political aides, generally speaking, best serve the boss when they aren’t always part of the story. While there is something to be said for a political aide taking the arrows for the boss when the going gets tough, there is not much to be said for political staffers becoming the story.
After a campaign in 2008 where turmoil among Hillary Clinton’s staff and John McCain’s advisers seemed to define the out-of-control nature of both their campaigns, I had a naive notion that an Obama White House might not succumb to the usual inside the beltway fixation on who is doing what to whom among the president’s closest advisers. Naive indeed.
Political operations are unique beasts organizationally and culturally. There is nothing quite like them. Nonetheless, in at least one way, a political operation, be it the white hot White House or some backwater congressional office, are like corporate boardrooms or big league baseball locker rooms. When the antics of the CEO’s underlings or the third baseman’s relationship with the shortstop start to get more attention than the substance of the business or the score of the game, then the boss or the manager usually has a big problem.
Considering the qualities and intelligence of the people involved, it is amazing to me that Clinton and McCain didn’t immediately put a stop to the dysfunction in their staffs during the last campaign. Their failure to do so speaks volumes about their own management and leadership abilities. Stay tuned to see if Obama tolerates more of what seems to be the building drama in his organization.
I think I know what FDR might have done. He had a few trusted advisers – Louis Howe, Steve Early and Harry Hopkins, for instance – but he never let any one adviser totally dominate the administration or his thinking. He kept his own counsel, often not sharing his thinking while keeping his own staff guessing and agile, and he made sure that he, and he alone, made the big decisions.
A little more anonymity, and frankly modesty, from people who haven’t been elected to anything would be a good thing.
My old boss, Cece Andrus, the only fellow elected governor of Idaho four times and someone, as even his detractors admit, who knew how to work the levers and make decisions, used to remind his Statehouse staffers – me included – that “there are lots of names on doors around here, but only one name on the ballot.” In other words, I’m the boss and you work for me. Keep your head and your profile down and tend to business.
Words to govern by.