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The 6 Habits of Highly Effective Chiefs of Staff

Nam Y. Huh/AP

There’s a scene in The West Wing where the president is off to give the State of the Union and the designated survivor — the cabinet member who would be president should the Capitol be destroyed — comes to visit. President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) asks him:

"You got a best friend?"

"Yes, sir."

"Is he smarter than you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Would you trust him with your life?"

"Yes, sir."

"That's your chief of staff."

In the next room, the president’s chief, Leo McGarry overhears and smiles. (The scene is found here.)

Now that White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew is likely to be nominated to be Treasury secretary, it’s a good time to ask: What makes a good chief of staff anyway?

After all, it’s been called the second-most-important job in Washington, and also the worst. James Baker joked that he was “stupid enough” to take it twice, under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

The post is a function of the modern White House, only coming into bloom after World War II as an extension of the president’s personal secretary post. It’s evolved to become part CEO, part fixer, part personnel manager, part gatekeeper, and part therapist.

They need to strike a balance between giving presidents what they want and what they need. (One of the inside jokes during the ’90s was that Clinton’s exasperation with his staff over not having enough free time to think led to more open blocs during his day — that were in part filled by the Monica Lewinsky dalliance.) In other words, saying no to a president is part of the job, too.

So here are six qualities worth keeping in mind for the next chief of staff:

  1. Know Washington. Americans may like presidents who come from outside Washington (Governors Carter, Clinton, Reagan and the second Bush) but a chief of staff really needs to have a big address book of Washington politics and know which buttons to press, because this is their habitat. Mack McLarty was a widely liked oil-and-gas executive who was Bill Clinton’s best friend growing up in Arkansas, but those qualities didn’t help him as chief of staff. The organizational mess that was the Clinton White House in 1993 fell on his watch. Donald Regan had many admirable qualities as a former Marine and head of Merrill Lynch, but his tenure as Treasury secretary didn’t prepare him for the chief’s job.
  2. Be a Jerk, but Not Too Much of a Jerk. A White House chief of staff spends a lot of time saying no: denying aides a chance to walk into the Oval Office, handling calls from congressional leadership that aren’t deemed worthy of going straight to the president. But there’s a way to do it without being a complete jerk. John Sununu, George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff and a former New Hampshire governor, was famous for belittling staff, being manifestly arrogant, and widely disliked. When it emerged that he had commandeered planes for his own travel and had even gone to stamp-collecting meetings in a White House car, everyone was eager to dime him out. Obama’s first chief, Rahm Emanuel, may be famous for his profanity, but he wasn’t considered cruel.
  3. Understand the President’s Weaknesses. A chief of staff needs to game out what the president needs. Jimmy Carter had a tendency for micromanagement that led to him personally attending to the White House tennis court schedule — possibly the iconic moment of his crippled presidency. His chiefs, Jack Watson and Hamilton Jordan, didn’t tame this tendency in their boss. As a former legislator, Gerald Ford was used to meeting one-on-one with legislators and staff but Chiefs of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, for whatever their later faults, understood that Ford had to be managed, lest he overcommit.
  4. Be a White House Veteran. It’s not enough just to be a Washington veteran. The best chiefs of staff have been White House — or at least Executive Office — veterans, too: James Baker, Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles, Andy Card, Jack Lew. The White House is its own unique beast and time in the executive branch is different than time spent in, say, the House. This is important to understand, because the peculiar rituals of each office — the staff secretary and the National Security Council, the public liaison and the Domestic Policy Council — all have their own niches. Knowing them helps.
  5. Meet the Press, but Don’t Be Too Out Front. The best chiefs of staff have been good press manipulators, willing to talk to reporters but without taking the high-profile, Sunday morning role. Baker was probably the master of this, as were Lew, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. Being too out there can only diminish the president you’re serving. Sununu was too far out there as well. Sherman Adams, the first chief of staff under Dwight Eisenhower, was all-controlling until he was undone by accepting a vicuna coat as a gift. The joke circulating in D.C. at the time went like this: One Democrat says, "Wouldn't it be terrible if Eisenhower died and Nixon became president?" The other replied "Wouldn't it be terrible if Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became president!"
  6. Fit the Moment. The White House is always busy, even when the president is in the last year of his second term. But it’s important to have a chief of staff who fits the moment. Rahm Emanuel made sense for the first kinetic years of the Obama administration where a member of the Democratic House Leadership was a wise choice to work with the Hill. But burning like a Roman candle made less sense after the Republicans took over the House. During Ronald Reagan’s second term, Howard Baker was the perfect choice after the Iran-Contra affair and the mess of Donald Regan. He was known as impeccably honest from the Watergate hearings and as the calm and trusted Republican leader in the Senate, which helped quiet Washington. Insiders like Ken Duberstein (Reagan) and John Podesta (Clinton) made sense as calm end-of-term managers, as did George W. Bush’s Josh Bolten.

Which brings you back to Leo McGarry. The backstory had him as a successful businessman and former Labor secretary and, yes, the president’s best friend. But he wasn’t a White House vet. And while John Podesta praised his lavish performance, Podesta said McGarry's not mean enough. That’s probably right.

You can find interesting academic literature about the White House chief of staff here and here.

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