The White House chief of staff, a job that Sherman Adams pioneered under Dwight Eisenhower, became a permanent fixture of the institutional presidency when Jimmy Carter formalized Hamilton Jordan's position in 1978. Since its emergence in 1953, the position has undergone steady evolution, and expectations about its performance mostly have stabilized. At the same time, the job continues to adapt to the distinctive needs of presidents and presidencies and to the dynamics of U.S. governance.
Based on a larger project that seeks to describe and analyze the office of the White House chief of staff over the course of the modern U.S. presidency (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott forthcoming), we here explore how and why the unit has evolved and trace its importance to the conduct of the contemporary presidency. At the same time, we focus on the individuals who have performed this job. Although the office clearly is the hub of the institutional presidency and presidents shape it in specific ways, the people who become chief of staff bring their own talents, interests, and limitations to the position. Chiefs have differed considerably in temperament, their relationships with the president, and the circumstances under which they served. Part of our task has been to tease out whether, how, and why it matters who happens to be chief of staff. In doing so, we take what Jacobs and King (2010, 793) call a "structured agency approach," situating chiefs of staff within "existing ... structures of organizational combat, institutions, and policy."
We begin by briefly describing the evidentiary bases for the analysis, followed by the evolution of the position and the office. Then we examine the roles and activities of chiefs of staff, highlighting those who have served presidencies from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama. Although space constraints necessitate that we deal in conclusions and illustrations, they flow from extensive research (by the authors and others) and numerous data sources. (1) Many reflect the observations of past chiefs of staff and other White House aides (in interviews with the authors, with scholars at the Miller Center, and from the White House Transition Project). Additional information comes from presidential papers, government documents, memoirs, and media reports.
Evolution of the Position and Office of Chief of Staff
The advent of White House staffing with multiple professionals roughly coincides with most scholars' understanding of the advent of the modern presidency. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century presidents got along with only one paid professional staffer until Herbert Hoover introduced a four-man top staff in 1929 (Walcott and Hult 1995). (2) Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) had a similar staff until empowered by Congress to add several "administrative assistants" in the late 1930s. Presidents could manage such small staffs (including ushers, gardeners, and messengers, never numbering more than 50) informally, a task at which FDR, in particular, excelled. (3)
The White House Office did not increase notably in size until World War II, when it served as a fulcrum for the hastily created units charged with managing the war and the economy during that period. After the war ended, the remnants of these, located in the Office of War Mobilization and Reconstruction, were inloaded into the White House, under the direction of Truman presidential aide John Steelman. Although Steelman's tasks mostly involved administration, he was not fully a chief of staff: he never had authority over the policy staff, headed first by Clark Clifford, then by Charles Murphy. Although the White House had grown significantly, the president still directed its operations.
Position of Chief of Staff: From Partisan Learning to Stable Expectations
Dwight Eisenhower, with his military background and related emphasis on organization and staffing, initiated the changes in executive management that ultimately laid the foundations for the contemporary White House staff. Accustomed to having a chief of staff, he appointed Sherman Adams, former New Hampshire governor and campaign manager, to the position upon becoming president. (4) Adams oversaw the diverse operations in Eisenhower's carefully organized White House, making the trains run on time though sometimes terrifying the passengers and crew. The first formal chief of staff designed the template for White House staff leadership, finally passing the mantle to General Wilton Persons in October 1958, a gentler but no less effective manager (Walcott and Hult 1995). (5) Together, the two defined the job of chief of staff: managing White House decision processes, advising the president, protecting presidential interests, and representing the administration to, for example, Congress and the media.
This innovation was short lived, however, because Eisenhower's Democratic successors did not use such a formalized, hierarchical system (Walcott and Hult 2005). Instead, John Kennedy, reflecting Truman's experience and the advice of Truman veterans like Clark Clifford and Richard Neustadt, returned to a spokes of the wheel arrangement, with the president at the center of operations and no single aide designated as the sole administrative leader (Johnson 1974). Lyndon Johnson continued this system, even though he understood that it no longer was appropriate to the complex demands presidents confronted. He constantly tinkered with White House arrangements and designated specific staffers (e.g., Walter Jenkins, Horace Busby) as lead administrators. Nonetheless, the size and complexity of White House operations appeared to overload such an ad hoc system built around a former Senate leader (Walcott and Hult 1995).
In many ways, Richard Nixon initiated the first modern White House staff organization, although it built upon his experience as Eisenhower's vice president. Nixon's primary contribution was to graft public outreach activities (such as polling, interest group liaison, and local media relations) onto the more policy and legislation-oriented White House tasks he inherited. Such additions intensified the need for stronger management: the White House became the site where the streams of policy and politics came together and had to be integrated. Nixon's first chief of staff, H. R. (Bob) Haldeman, much like Sherman Adams, came to typify both the "president's S.O.B." style of staff leadership and, too often, the Nixon administration's capacity for excess (Hult and Walcott 2004, 19).
Yet the power of partisan learning (Hult and Walcott 2004; Walcott and Hult 1995, 2005) remained strong. Democrats viewed Republican operations as being misguided--hierarchical, militaristic, corporate, and vulnerable to corruption. Jimmy Carter tried for more than two years to govern without a chief of staff, leaning on a committee of aides for White House management as he sought to integrate policy and politics. It did not work well (e.g., Burke 2000). Finally, Carter appointed a chief of staff, with generally positive results. To a large extent, the partisan debate had been resolved. The size and complexity of modern White House operations, combined with mounting demands, relentless problems, and diverse needs, made more informal and freewheeling White House arrangements virtually impossible.
The next Republican president, Ronald Reagan, improvised on the chief of staff structure, naming a troika of senior aides. The trio included a strong and capable chief of staff, James A. Baker III, who headed a fractious but by most accounts effective White House staff (e.g., Cannon 2000). In the second term, Donald Regan, evidently seeking to operate similarly to H. R. Haldeman, failed both to keep track of the trains (most notably, Iran-contra) and to please the president and first lady (Cohen 2002; Cohen and Krause 2000). Never had two chiefs and approaches to staff organization contrasted so sharply in a single presidential administration, highlighting the importance of the job of chief of staff. Reagan's final chiefs were Howard Baker, following Regan's firing, and Kenneth Duberstein, largely a caretaker (Cohen and Walcott 2012).
The next presidency reinforced the lessons that many drew from the second-term Reagan experience. Under George H. W. Bush, Chief of Staff John Sununu, despite his strength and considerable competence, overreached; his replacement, Samuel Skinner, failed in part because he had too little authority (Cohen 1997; Fitzwater 1995, 175-79). (6) Although few doubted the need for a chief of staff, the formulas for success in the job remained elusive.
At the same time, residual Democratic resistance to strong chiefs of staff persisted. Bill Clinton's first chief, Thomas "Mack" McLarty, had a more circumscribed job than most of his predecessors. Most considered him a weak chief of a staff in a system that pivoted more around the president (Cohen et al. 2008). Probably not coincidentally, the early Clinton White House staff was undisciplined and sometimes "chaotic" in its decision processes (Panetta in Takiff 2010, 207; see also Birnbaum 1996). By the middle of the second year, Leon Panetta replaced McLarty; the new chief introduced the hierarchical structuring and control that had come to be associated with the standard model of contemporary White House organization (Walcott and Hult 2005).
The administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama mostly have followed this stabilizing model, albeit with clear contextual differences. Bush's two chiefs of staff, Andrew Card and Joshua Bolten, differed in temperament and in their relationships with the president. Each coped distinctively with a demanding White House environment that included a dominant vice president and other strong-minded advisors (Cohen et al. 2008).
Meanwhile, Rahm Emanuel, Obama's first chief of staff, was selected largely because of his partisan ties and experience in Congress (Cohen 2009; Suskind 2011). Emanuel's successor...