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Transition admission.

A former Bush administration insider explains why a lot of fancy-titled jobs in the White House aren't as important as they sound

At about this time four years ago, I thought I was one of the most popular people in Washington. My job: organizing the staffing of the White House for a new administration. It's not as grand as it sounds. After all, only about 300 people technically work directly for the president, meaning that the White House transition was only a small part of the overall transition. But the 300 jobs that Andy Card and I were responsible for were unquestionably among the most prized in town. And with good reason: The White House staff is the hub of the president's machinery; their actions (or lack thereof) vitally shape the nation's image of the president and the success of his policies.

With the benefit of hindsight, I'll be the first to admit that in assembling the White House team we made some mistakes--not in whom we chose, but in how we organized the staff. But in some ways, that's to be expected; the White House does not come with an owner's manual. There is no mission statement and no crisp, "Welcome to the White House, this is how to make it work for you." This bodes especially ill for the Clinton White House transition team: After all, four years ago, we were involved in a friendly takeover; that is, the administration before us had every reason to caution us about the mistakes they had made.

But that doesn't mean Clinton's White House transition team can't avoid the same pitfalls we fell into. The Clinton people are not suffering from a lack of advice, but take it from someone who's been there: As the transition continues over the next few weeks and months, seemingly minor organizational mistakes made now will balloon into major obstacles to implementing policy down the road. A smartly organized and staffed White House is as important to meeting your mission as the ideas themselves. And what does that mean for the White House transition team? First, they should step back, reflect on what they want to accomplish and then build their staff from there. Second, they need to understand the unique roles of the White House staff.

It was soon after the 1988 election that John Sununu, the newly-named chief of staff for President-elect Bush, put Card and me to work overseeing the White House transition. Because Bush, James Baker, and Sununu were preoccupied with selecting the Cabinet, determining who would run the National Security Council, and who would write the inaugural address, they left us to work out the transition details. We were to assign mid- and low-level staff to their posts, based, of course, on the gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) guidance of people like Sununu, Atwater, Darman, and Baker. We also were to decide on White House goodies, such as who got offices in the West Wing, as opposed to the Siberia of the Old Executive Office Building, and who got to attend the 7:30 a.m. senior staff meeting in the Roosevelt Room.

Though both Card and I had worked for years as mid-level staffers in the Reagan White House, we were essentially clueless, especially when it came to the first order of business: resumes. Set up in our small suite, we innocently requested all the resumes of people who expressed an interest in working at the White House. We even arranged a clever routing system. It took about 72 hours for that charade to end. By then, we were mired in 12,000 CVs. I felt like I was trying to take a sip of water from a fire hydrant. There was barely enough time and staff to shovel the resumes into huge crates and ship them off to a storage bin, officially known as Central Resume Management (where I presume they remain to this day), let alone read them. Which leads me to offer some friendly advice to Democratic job seekers: There are lots of ways people get jobs in the White House, but one of them isn't by sending in your resume.

How did people get in? Lee At-water, for example, might stop by our office, pull up a chair, hand me four resumes and say, "I want these people to get jobs. Call me back later today and let me know where they will be working." They were usually people who had been in the Republican community or had played a role in the campaign. Remember, the process doesn't get people jobs, people get people jobs.

Although Bush didn't worry inordinately about us and our little transition mission, every so often he would call up and say something like: "I've asked Rose Zamaria to come up and help us out." We'd say, "Yes sir, sounds great to us," and then hang up and say "Rose Who? What's she supposed to do?" It turned out that Rose Zamaria had been Bush's personal secretary when he was a congressman in the sixties and she ultimately proved to be a very competent director of administration for the White House. But at the time, we had to guess whether she would work for us, or we for her. But even with Rose's help, what got lost in the crush of events during that two-and-a-half month transition period was any sort of vision about what was the best way to organize and staff the White House to carry out the president's mission. We never took the time to ask ourselves, "What do we want the White House to do and what people do we need to do it?" We simply took the Reagan organizational chart, erased the old names, and wrote in new ones.

If we had taken the time to reflect on our mission, we would certainly have done things differently. We might have realized, for example, the messy staffing relationship between the White House and the Office of Management of the Budget (OMB). We failed to see that an associate director of the OMB has infinitely more power than most members of the White House staff, yet we never integrated such staffers into the daily grind of the White House, where they would have had greater access to key meetings and top White House decision makers.

Reflecting on what you want to accomplish also means being patient. We thought that the faster we filled out the White House staff chart, the sooner the Bush administration would be moving full steam ahead. We couldn't have been more wrong. The White House, like most federal agencies, has a staff and budget cap, one which we hit after a few weeks. That came back to haunt us about six months later when it became clear who had real ability and who didn't. Only then did we realize that, having hit our limit, we could not allocate any more resources to the talented. Clinton's transition team would be wise to fill no more than two thirds of the slots, and then wait. It may seem foolish now when they're rearing to go, but come July, they'll be grateful they did.

All the president's toadies

Picking the fight people is one matter; understanding what these people should be trying to accomplish is quite another. The latter, however, is just as essential to staffing the White House. A good policy person, for example, might be inept at selling his ideas to Congress or interest groups. Thus, even though you want him around and perhaps owe him a huge favor for months of campaign work, he'd be wasted in most White House jobs. If Clinton's team is going to have any hope of making its ideas stick, it'll need the right kinds of people in the right places. The first step in that direction is understanding what those places are.

The mission of the White House is to create, promote, and defend the president's policies. At any given time, every senior person in the White House is working on one of the following activities: 1) dealing with Congress; 2) dealing with the departments and agencies; 3) dealing with the press; 4) dealing with state governments, special interest groups, and partisan political matters; 5) dealing with each other; 6) dealing with the national security, foreign policy and intelligence communities; 7) preparing remarks for the president and; 8) overseeing the creation of the federal budget.

Unfortunately, new White House staffers will soon discover that only the last three categories (foreign affairs, speeches, and the budget) present any opportunity for real power--that is, the capacity to commit the president and the administration to substantive policy positions. Most people in the White House, even those with high visibility jobs, don't have any real power. (Don't be fooled by the hifalutin' titles. The deputy assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs, for example, will spend most of his hours returning phone calls from state and local officials who either want routine information or are trying to get someone a job.

Regardless of the new plans and priorities that Clinton brings to Washington, the staff roles in the White House will have to be a lot like those under Bush. Reagan, or for that matter, Carter and Johnson.

If you are going to work in the White House as a "commissioned officer to the president," you have a fight to feel proud. However, your job will fall into one of four categories:


Titans have real power and are the president's most trusted advisors. They can commit the administration to substantive policy positions and commit government resources to projects and initiatives. They can speak for the president without his prior approval on a wide range of issues. Most final decisions are made only after consulting with them, and instructions to the rest of the White House and administration flow from the president through this group. When I was in the White House, the Titans were Sununu, Darman, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. Only the president can pick the Titans who, in turn, will probably pick most of the rest of the staff.

Most notable about the Titans is that there are only a few of them and they work to keep it that way. That's the point. If you struggle to become a Titan, you will fail. I saw many mid-level staffers try--some by going over their bosses' heads to send a memo to, or get face time with, the president. They were, without exception, smothered by the Titans.


Caseworkers and Spin Doctors are senior staff members who have sizable turf or portfolios that involve them in various issues and provide significant visibility inside the Beltway. While they often have important-sounding titles like deputy assistant to the president for policy development, they have no real power. They cannot commit the administration to substantive policy positions on their own and their responsibilities are narrower than that of Titans. From time to time, Caseworkers and Spin Doctors work directly with the president, but day-in and day-out, they work for the Titans.

For the most part, the jobs are challenging, but being a Caseworker or Spin Doctor will also entail a great deal of whining about being underutilized. Ask one how he's doing and you're sure to hear about how he's not getting enough time with the president or Titans, that the issues he handles should be more of a priority, or that if the people up the line only understood his issue better the president would be better off.

Caseworkers, such as those who work in congressional or intergovernmental affairs, work with other government agencies, branches of the federal government, or elected officials across the country. A typical caseworker (there are about two dozen of them) might be a special assistant to the president for legislative affairs, perhaps a 10-year veteran of the Hill, about 40 years old, and will spend a great deal of time tracking policy development in the agencies and legislation on the Hill. Caseworkers will also be stuck with handling routine requests from Congress, the Cabinet, and state and local officials, for meetings, jobs, political favors, information, trinkets, and White House tours.

What they do not do is determine presidential support for legislation, nor do they have a hand in setting an agency's budget. These remain the domain of the president and Titans.

Spin Doctors deal with the media and special interest groups. They spend their time dispensing the company line. The White House press office states the official line directly to the media everyday, most notably in the morning briefing. But there will also be a shop in charge of out-of-town and specialty media. A third level of the spin operation is the Office of Public Liaison (OPL), made up of about two dozen or so staffers who have the thankless job of dealing with virtually every imaginable constituency --from AIDS victims to hunters--trying to convince them that theft concerns are being heard and that the administration is on their side.

Titans evaluate the performance of Caseworkers and Spin Doctors in part by how successful they are at limiting the number of appeals from interest group leaders, Cabinet members, and members of Congress. In other words, if a Caseworker or Spin Doctor keeps such people out of the Titan's hair, it must mean things are going smoothly. Caseworkers and Spin Doctors are also evaluated by Titans on how effectively they disguise their true desire: to be thought of as Titans. Clinton White House staff members may have a hard time accepting this. In fact, some Caseworkers and Spin Doctors can serve in the White House for years and never accept that they are not Titans, nor that many assistant secretaries in the various federal agencies have more impact on policy than they do.


A Clerk is a multipurpose staff person who works directly for a Titan, Caseworker, or Spin Doctor. Each of the dozen or so Clerks does not have any discretionary authority or specific portfolio aside from the assignments delegated by the boss. Instead, Clerks control their boss' in-boxes and out-boxes, keep them on time, relay routine information and intelligence, and attempt to follow up on their boss' commitments and responsibilities. In short, Clerks are to Titans what the chief of staff is to the president. As the executive assistant to the chief of staff, most of my responsibilities were in the clerk category.

A typical Clerk is in his or her late twenties or early thirties, is often a generalist, and is likely to have either known his boss from before his appointment or may have worked on the campaign. (Clerks are people who often aspire to become Titans, and occasionally they become Caseworkers or Spin Doctors, but usually they remain Clerks.) Because they spend a great deal of time with their boss, they are able to serve as a sounding board for other senior staff members. They often speak for their boss or at least can provide best-guess analysis on how their boss will react in certain situations. At times, they might be required to meet with people who the Titan has no time--or desire--to see. If you're on the other end of such a meeting (that is, getting scheduled to meet with a Clerk instead of his boss) take it as a bad sign. Perhaps their most important function, however, is to inform other staff members when it is best to approach the Titan and when best to keep away.

Influence piddling

In some ways, the roles of the White House Clintonites will be very similar to their Republican ancestors. Titans will always be few in number. The Titan Wall is high, virtually impregnable, and is manned by ever-vigilant Titans. Fate, as much as ability or maneuvering, will make Titans. If staff members don't understand this, a lot of talented Democrats who should enjoy the opportunity they have been given will instead be quietly seething, desperately seeking to be-or at least be perceived as--something they are not. (The good news to remember, however, is that no matter what you are in Washington, a Spin Doctor, Caseworker, or even a Clerk is a hero back home.)

But some things about the White House can and should change. If the Democrats are smart, and serious about the endeavor they are about to set out on, it behooves them to make the link between their mission and their management of the White House.

Ed Rogers, former executive assistant to White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, is a Washington attorney. Illustrations by Bill Holbrook.
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Title Annotation:staffing the White House
Author:Rogers, Ed
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Executive sweet.
Next Article:How Washington really works.

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