Collaboration is the key to appointments, Bush talent scout says

Clay Johnson, President Bush's chief talent scout, sat down in his West Wing office with National Journal recently to discuss the process and challenges of staffing the new administration. Johnson's role is a reprise of the one he played when Bush was governor of Texas. Here are excerpts from that interview.

NJ: What was the President's charge to you when he asked you to head up the personnel process?

Johnson: It was the same charge [as] in Texas, which was to find the best people.... Do this in conjunction with the Cabinet Secretary, if it involves a Cabinet department. Get a definition of the target we're looking for, and then go find, with the Cabinet Secretary, that person that's going to best hit that target--that the Cabinet Secretary and the Office of Presidential Personnel will both gladly recommend to the President--and somebody who is politically acceptable. The political acceptability is the last step, as opposed to the first step. And that's the charge, and that's what we do.

NJ: You've said that the first thing you do when interviewing people is to talk to them about their life, their family, and who they are. Why are these important?

Johnson: You want people that are going to be good team players, that have a history of working effectively with other people. You've known people ... that are really fabulous people, but unless they're in charge, they're not very good at working collaboratively with other people. They like assembling their own team, and if they're the assistant secretary or deputy secretary, whatever, they're not going to be able to do that. So, people have got to be comfortable in their role.

NJ: Your background is business. And you've said you're a bring-order-to-chaos kind of guy. What's surprised you about this process?

Johnson: Very little ... because the President's expectations are very similar to what the governor's expectations were.... Some people are very comfortable delegating [job-candidate selection] to us. "Bring me your recommended candidate, and I'll confirm." And some people want to be very involved in the process, and they want to have a lot of say in who the finalists are, and they'll interview more candidates, as opposed to [just] the finalist. They're fussier.... They all have different ways of thinking about it, and you've got to understand what those proclivities are, what those biases or approaches are, and honor them.... One person might be very much of a hands-on manager, and so they wouldn't be as much in need of management types. Whereas another Cabinet Secretary might be more of a policy person, a big-picture person, and they would be looking for people to ... make sure the railroads run on time.

NJ: What do you do if you send up a name and a Cabinet Secretary says no?

Johnson: You go look for another name.... The idea is to develop a trust where there's little pride of authorship, but a real interest in the end result.... The whole process can go very fast if you don't want to try to do that. If the White House says to the Cabinet department, as Jimmy Carter did, "You pick `em, we'll just process the paperwork," it can go very fast. Or, conversely, if the White House says, "We'll pick `em," ... it can be very fast that way.... The best way is a collaborative process.... This collaboration, it takes longer. It's a little messier process.

NJ: Do you have any indication of how the change in partisan control in the Senate will affect processing presidential nominations?

Johnson: No. I'm hopeful that it won't change it.... The Senate is going to really linger over a handful of people because the positions ... [are] really, really important or really, really controversial. But I think that was going to happen, whether it was 50-50 or 49-51.

NJ: In filling out the sub-Cabinet level, does the President ever say, "Hey, Clay, I want X for this job," or "Clay, can we find X a job?"

Johnson: Well, sometimes the latter. But he has never said, "I really want So-and-so for assistant secretary." What he will say in some cases is, "We ought to take a real hard look at So-and-so." It's rarely for a particular job. It's in the transportation world or the commerce world. And we do.

NJ: How often does somebody say, "I don't want to come to Washington," and what reasons do they give?

Johnson: Mostly it's personal. Mostly it's: "I've got kids. And they're juniors in high school. I don't want to move." Or, "My kid's going to be going to college," or "I've done Washington, and I really love what I'm doing now." We've had a few cases ... maybe 10 or so, where a person really wanted to come ... and then they called back and said, "You know, I sat down with my wife and really focused on this, and I'm changing my mind." We've not encountered anybody that says: "I'm just not cut out for Washington. I don't want to get involved. It's too mean."

NJ: Nobody has said, "Clay, I just can't deal with the confirmation process, this is too much for me, the forms, my finances are too complicated here"?

Johnson: Nobody has said that the process of getting cleared ... is too burdensome. Now, some people have said: "What I have to divest myself of, the stock options I have to walk away from, the salary I have to give up, the outside income I have to give up, is too much. I can't afford to come to Washington." There are too many forms to fill out, but that's not been a reason not to come up here. I suspect when some people have said, "I'm really not interested" ... [it] might be that they really don't want to go through an FBI background check.

NJ: A President comes into office, usually very popular in the honeymoon period, and yet he doesn't have much of his government in place. Do you think that's a problem?

Johnson: Yeah.

NJ: How big a problem?

Johnson: I think the Cabinet Secretaries could put this administration's imprint on the Cabinet departments faster if they had their team in place. I don't believe that our nation, that there's a national security risk or a bond market risk ... because everybody focuses on that and makes sure there are good acting people in place there, in those critical positions. But it's ... a missed opportunity. You don't staff an administration in weeks, but a good goal ought to be that the entire Cabinet and sub-Cabinet should be in place, say, by the August recess. We ought to try to get it done in six months.... If the Senate is inclined to be kind of crisp in taking these up, 60-some-odd percent of the sub-Cabinet could be confirmed and, therefore, ready to get to work by the time they recess [in August]. And that's faster than anybody's done it before, but it's still only two-thirds.... I think there are fewer positions that need to be Senate-confirmed. I think there are background checks that don't need to be as extensive for certain areas. The paperwork ... can be streamlined. Some of the conflict-of-interest stuff can be looked at more intelligently.

NJ: Outside of her own staff, does Mrs. Bush play a role?

Johnson: She's asked to be considered and consulted on humanities and arts matters, education matters.... Things that she's been involved with in the past, or intends to be involved in....

NJ: Would you change anything in the transition process?

Johnson: I'd make it a full 70 days long.

NJ: How big a handicap was that?

Johnson: Well, we got almost everything accomplished that we wanted to get accomplished. But it was just ... traumatizing, the pace of it.... We had hoped to have the Cabinet in place and all announced by the middle of December. It really didn't happen until the first of the year.... We wanted to have the senior White House staff identified by about mid-December, and the key to that was having the chief of staff ... identified on day one. That was accomplished. The President had asked Andy to do this before the election....

NJ: So you were talking to the President about that issue in the fall?

Johnson: I said, "You need to think through who your chief-of-staff options are, and, ideally, you need to be assured that the person's going to do it ... before the election." He said, "God, I don't wanna." I said: "You really need to do this. On day one, this is the most important thing that has to happen, and this person needs to be in place."

NJ: Was the President kind of overwhelmed by that?

Johnson: Well, he's running the campaign, and they don't want to jinx it.

NJ: What would you like to see changed in the confirmation process?

Johnson: One of the suggestions that's been made is that there be fewer presidential appointments. We're not for that [at] all ... I would suggest that fewer ... need to be confirmed by the Senate. Why does the legislative affairs person have to be confirmed by the Senate?

NJ: Is that process going to change, now that you have a Democratic committee chairman?

Johnson: I don't know. I don't have any prior experience to refer to.

NJ: Well, you had Democratic chairmen of committees in the Texas Senate.

Johnson: It was always under their advice and consent. And they asked good questions, but they never held people up to accomplish other goals. They never put a hold on somebody to use that as a leverage device to get us to be more open to some new piece of legislation, and that's done here [in the U.S. Senate] all the time.

NJ: How big a problem is that?

Johnson: Most of our delays on confirmations were coming from Republicans, not Democrats.

NJ: What does that tell you?

Johnson: It just says that it's not necessarily a partisan deal. It's an opportunity to give members of the Senate leverage over whatever they want to have leverage over.... There are going to be a handful of positions that will be the focus of a lot of attention, but that was going to be the case no matter who was in charge. I think there's probably going to be more debate over judges, but I'm hopeful that everybody is committed to getting the executive branch staffed. And maybe that's naive, but I'm hopeful.

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