If history is any guide, the President-elect will soon be making some key personnel decisions that will haunt him throughout his term. Serious error is all but inevitable, given the range and sheer number of the appointments (several hundred of the more than 3,000 to be made overall) he must make, and given the relatively short time—the two and a half months between his election and his inauguration—the President-elect will have to make them. Of the decisions made in those seventy-three days, one former Jimmy Carter aide remembers, “We won the election but lost the transition. We never recovered from the mistakes we committed then.” The transition, as the interregnum between Administrations is popularly known, can be a fateful time not only for the new President but for the country. For example, would the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations have become entangled in the coils of Vietnam if John F. Kennedy had disregarded his brother Robert’s advice and appointed Senator William Fulbright Secretary of State instead of Dean Rusk? Kennedy respected Fulbright; he knew him; he could communicate with him. Yet he chose as his chief foreign-policy adviser a man he did not know and with whom, it turned out, he could not communicate. Fulbright was an early and eloquent critic of the widening Vietnam involvement. Rusk was an architect and defender of that involvement. Would Fulbright have taken the same line as Secretary of State in 1962 and 1963 that he did as a senator in 1965 and 1966? Would his voice have been persuasive enough to counter the voices of the hawks in the Kennedy and Johnson Cabinets? Would he, in short, have made a difference that could have made THE difference? These questions serve to remind us of what’s at stake in presidential appointments and why it might be useful to review the nature and recent history of the appointment process.
Making appointments, of course, is not all a President-elect must do. He must also make basic organizational decisions about his own executive office and its relations with the departments and agencies. He and his subordinates must establish liaison with the outgoing Administration and with the permanent government. Although formal authority rests exclusively with the incumbent President, power rapidly begins to shift to the President-elect, and the permanent bureaucracy and foreign governments look to him for signals indicating his future direction. Public denials notwithstanding, past Presidents have begun to use domestic bureaucracies and conduct diplomacy well before they assumed office. For example, in the interregnum of 1932-1933, between the Hoover and Roosevelt Administrations, the Hoover Treasury Department helped to draw up what has since become famous as the Roosevelt “Bank Holiday” plan. A President-elect must also interpret his election mandate and decide which campaign promises to keep, which to suspend, and which to forget. He must, in short, develop an administrative and legislative program.
None of these tasks can be carried out, though, until a President-elect begins to make personnel decisions. From a pre-election perspective, winning is an all-consuming task, and making appointments looks easy. It is, however, “a minefield,” to quote Pendleton James, President Reagan’s first director of personnel—one that he “tiptoed through daily, and sometimes I stepped on one of the mines.” “A Goddamn nightmare” is how certain of Carter’s aides refer to personnel operations in that Administration. Harris Wofford, who was a member of Kennedy’s recruitment team, says that the transition was a terrible experience. When he looked at the offices filled with people looking for jobs, he says, he was reminded of the story in which Abraham Lincoln literally had to climb over office-seekers. “Every time I make an appointment,” President William Howard Taft lamented, “I create nine enemies and one ingrate.” Today the ratio has only increased.
In all walks of life people tend to hire people they know and Presidents are not immune from that tendency. All Presidents have, though, found it necessary to reach out beyond their circle of friends and acquaintances and appoint strangers to their Cabinets, independent agencies, and regulatory commissions, and even to the White House staff itself. As Kennedy explained to his aides soon after his election, “For the last four years I spent so much time getting to know people who could help me get elected President that I didn’t have any time to get to know people who could help me, after I was elected, to be a good President."
Among the avowed and obvious criteria that newly elected Presidents typically use in choosing personnel are substantive knowledge, managerial experience, personal loyalty, philosophical compatibility, team spirit, ability to withstand bureaucratic or special-interest pressure, creativity, and skills in press, public, and congressional relations. In addition, new Presidents, to one degree or another, want their appointees to reflect various parts of their constituency or of constituencies they hope to acquire—ethnic, religious, racial, regional, and so on. Because of his narrow mandate, Richard Nixon explained in his memoir, he knew that some of his choices for Cabinet posts “would have to serve, even if only symbolically, to unite the country, and 'bring us together.'” He was not very successful in this regard, however: several prominent Democrats and blacks including Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, Sargent Shriver, and Whitney Young, either turned him down or imposed unacceptable conditions.
Some appointments, even to the Cabinet, have been rewards for long-standing political loyalty. In the past, ambassadorships were sometimes payoffs for financial contributions to a President’s campaign. In Governor Michael S. Dukakis’s highly effective campaign apparatus, fundraising coordinators from Massachusetts have been given the honorary title of “ambassador.” Whether any of them become real ambassadors remains to be seen. Wholesale office-buying under Nixon caused Congress to limit the contributions that individuals could make to candidates. But the influence of money has proved as hard to expunge from politics as the lust for power and preferment.
Other appointments are extorted by members of Congress, particularly senators, whose power derives from the Senate’s constitutional role in confirmation and from its tradition of allowing members to place “holds” on candidates—a device used extensively by Senator Jesse Helms in recent years, but not one invented by him or used by him exclusively. New Administrations must decide when to resist such pressure and when to yield to it.
Yielding can sometimes be a serious mistake. Consider the 1952 case of Scott McLeod, a belligerent superpatriot sponsored by Joseph McCarthy and other right-wing senators, who was hired to head the newly established Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs in the State Department. With his staff of 350 investigators McLeod made a shambles of individual rights and wreaked havoc on professional morale in the State Department. He also leaked to his Senate allies unsubstantiated derogatory information about Charles Bohlen, Eisenhower’s nominee to be ambassador to the Soviet Union. After a nasty battle Bohlen was confirmed by the Senate, but had McLeod been loyal to the Administration, instead of to his Senate patrons, the struggle might have been avoided altogether.
Even though hordes of people will clamor for appointments in the next Administration, many highly qualified people who have already served in responsible jobs in government will not be among them. A survey by the National Academy of Public Administration in 1984 and 1985 of presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate showed that even though most of them looked back upon their service as a high point of their professional lives, many were not interested in making the requisite sacrifice again.
Although the compensation levels for top federal officials are far above what the average American makes or what Ralph Nader thinks they should be—Cabinet Secretaries now make $99,500, deputy secretaries $89,500, assistant secretaries and regulatory commissioners $77,500, and directors of major bureaus $72,500—they are not high by professional standards. New associates fresh out of law school are being paid more than $70,000 at top New York law firms and more than $60,000 at Washington firms; partners in such firms, I need hardly add, make several times as much. The 1984-1985 Commission on Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Salaries reported a 40 percent decline in the purchasing power of top federal salaries from 1969 to 1985, a decline that was only slightly checked by the raises approved by President Reagan in January, 1987, and whose results are listed above. In that same sixteen-year period corporate executives' real income rose 68 percent. But top federal salaries are low even when compared with salaries in the nonprofit sector. Police chiefs, foundation executives, hospital administrators, city managers, university presidents, school superintendents, and professors all can earn substantially more than many high federal officeholders.
Not only do top federal management positions pay badly but they also impose costs on those holding them—among them, the expense of living in, and moving to, Washington, the necessity of divesting oneself of assets posing conflict-of-interest problems, and the time-consuming, unpleasant necessity of completing financial-disclosure forms.
The rigors of the jobs themselves also deter some potential appointees. Three quarters of Carter and Reagan appointees reported working sixty or more hours a week, and nearly as many said that their jobs caused a significant or high level of stress in their personal lives. “I tell people that when I left the government I worked half as hard and got paid twice as much,” says the Secretary of Agriculture, Richard Lyng, who has done several stints in government.
Follow-up interviews in that National Academy survey revealed that although yesterday’s assistant secretaries aspire to be tomorrow’s deputy secretaries and yesterday’s deputy secretaries want to be tomorrow’s Secretaries, 92.7 percent of appointees had held only one Senate-confirmed appointment; only 6.5 percent had held two, 0.6 percent three, and 0.2 percent four. Senate-confirmed presidential appointees often come to their jobs after several years in nonconfirmed appointments, in either the same or a prior Administration. But having received one Senate-confirmed appointment, they rarely get another. Thus, the general rule among presidential appointees is “in and out and never in again."
This is a serious problem, because it will tend to deprive the President-elect of the services of experienced people, whose judgment can be invaluable. It also has a negative impact on senior career officials, who are demoralized by the poor quality, inexperience, and turnover of political appointees. In a 1987 General Accounting Office survey senior career executives who were leaving government most frequently cited dissatisfaction with top management or with political appointees as a reason for their departure.
Indeed, one of the great challenges that face the next President will be to attract exceptionally able, experienced people to appointive positions and then retain them long enough for them to be effective. Effectiveness usually takes longer than two years, which is the average length of service for a substantial recent group of presidential appointees (one third of them serve 1.5 years or less). Retention will require more than extracting a commitment from appointees at the outset, which Carter tried, unsuccessfully. It will take better pay, plus a greater sense of accomplishment and recognition for appointees.
It happens every four years: Presidents turn their campaign staffs into their transition staffs and then into their White House staffs. Sherman Adams, Theodore Sorensen, H. R. Haldeman, Hamilton Jordan, and Edwin Meese were all campaign aides who became transition aides and then White House aides. Other key members of the campaign go into departments and agencies, often maintaining a close relationship with the President. Newly elected Presidents also tend to bring a few relative newcomers and strangers onto their staffs. Kennedy hired McGeorge Bundy as his national-security assistant; Nixon hired Henry Kissinger in the same capacity and hired Daniel Patrick Moynihan as an urban-affairs adviser. In what was certainly his shrewdest staffing decision Ronald Reagan named James A. Baker III, a relative newcomer—rather than his long-time aide Meese—as chief of staff. Reportedly, Reagan was persuaded to hire Baker because he had considerable Washington savvy, something that Reagan and his California aides lacked. In contrast, Carter’s staff was top-heavy with fellow Georgians, who quickly won a reputation for provincialism which they were never able to shake.
Although there are many top-level appointments to be had, there are few offices in the West Wing of the White House, and the competition for them among a President-elect’s campaign staff can be shameless. “Never underestimate the value of proximity,” Moynihan once remarked. Few presidential staffers have done so. “People will kill to get an office in the West Wing,” Michael Deaver told the journalist Hedrick Smith. “You'll see people working in closets, tucked back in a corner, rather than taking a huge office with a fireplace in the EOB [Executive Office Building].” Often the competition for access has been resolved during the campaign, but sometimes it is settled only in the days after the election.
H. R. Haldeman, in the Nixon Administration, demonstrated his mastery of the concept of access during the interregnum, by outmaneuvering Rose Mary Woods. Woods had served as Nixon’s personal secretary since 1951. She continued to hold this title in the Nixon White House, but for the first time since Theodore Roosevelt built the West Wing, the President’s personal secretary was not stationed right outside his office door. Haldeman had heard that Ann Whitman, Eisenhower’s secretary, had provided an alternate route into the Oval Office, causing Sherman Adams difficulties. He resolved that there would be no such back channel on his watch.
“;Nixon had to break this Haldeman-first news to Rose personally, a task he hated,” William Safire, who was one of Nixon’s speechwriters, later wrote in a memoir,
“and she reacted with the grief-stricken fury one might have expected of a woman scorned. Rose and Nixon rode down in the Pierre Hotel elevator afterward and the President-elect spoke to her twice; she would not speak to him; Bryce Harlow, the only other person in that confined space, refers to it as ’the longest ride ever taken by a man who had recently been elected President of the United States.'...There was a purpose in Haldeman’s choice of Rose Woods as the first person with whom to do battle. If he could interpose himself between the President and Rose, he could do damn near anything."
Staff jobs in the White House may be among the most sought-after and among the most important in any Administration, but Presidents-elect often pay much more attention to choosing Cabinet members than they do to selecting their own staffs. Their lack of attention to staff selection results in part from inertia; having campaigned for months and even years with certain staff members at their sides, they simply carry forward with the same people on the day after election. The one time a President-elect broke from this pattern came in 1976, when, shortly after the election, Carter announced that Jack Watson, who had been running a transition-planning operation during the campaign, would be in charge of the transition. That, however, did not set well with Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s campaign manager, who soon overwhelmed Watson and scuttled his plans. Thus, following a short-lived deviation, Carter conformed to the rule.
Much attention is paid to a president’s cabinet selections, but his appointments to the sub-Cabinet and to agencies, bureaus, commissions, boards, and ambassadorships tend to draw less notice. However, these, too, are often vitally important positions, as such names from the Reagan Administration as Elliott Abrams, Everett Koop, John Lehman, Paul Nitze, Ann Burford, and Mark Fowler suggest. All appointments fall under a President’s authority, but how vigorously a President-elect exercises that authority has varied over time, as has the degree of his control over the appointment process itself.
Before naming Rusk Secretary of State, Kennedy had already named Adlai Stevenson ambassador to the United Nations and Governor G. Mennen Williams, of Michigan, assistant secretary for Africa. Subsequent to Rusk’s appointment, Kennedy chose the undersecretaries of state, Chester Bowles and George Ball. Kennedy and Bowles selected all but a few of Rusk’s subordinates, including ambassadors. In contrast, Robert McNamara agreed to become Secretary of Defense partly on the condition that he would be able to name his own subordinates, subject to Kennedy’s approval. Kennedy named most of Rusk’s subordinates and ended up less than satisfied with Rusk’s leadership, whereas McNamara selected most of his subordinates and Kennedy admired his leadership. The moral of this story, therefore, contradicts what had become conventional wisdom by 1980 and probably remains so today: that it is essential for a President to exercise his appointive authority fully over subordinate positions in the departments and agencies.
In part because of a poorly conceived and managed pre-election planning process, and in part because of his temporary infatuation with Cabinet government, in 1968 Nixon relinquished to his Cabinet the authority to appoint. “I just made a big mistake,” Nixon immediately remarked to an aide. In his memoir Nixon recounted how he then unsuccessfully tried to persuade Cabinet members to purge their departments of holdover Democrats. In fact Nixon had more trouble from independent-minded Republicans who served under him than from Democrats, simply because there were more of them. At the start of his second term Nixon demanded the resignations of all his appointees and moved to exercise an unprecedented degree of control over appointments. (Of course, the fanatical loyalty demanded by Nixon and his aides contributed directly to their downfall.)
Carter also came to Washington enamored of Cabinet government, and was highly critical of what had become Nixon’s imperial presidency, so he gave his Cabinet Secretaries the freedom to name their own subordinates, which all of them were happy to exercise. Soon they began to learn through leaks in newspapers, or in more direct ways, that Carter or his political aides were displeased with their choices. Both the liberal Joseph Califano and the more conservative Griffin Bell later wrote critically about White House displeasure with appointments they had been told were theirs alone to make. When Brock Adams hired his congressional staff members to help him run the Department of Transportation, it created tensions that helped account for Adams’s eventual firing. Like Nixon, Carter sought to recapture his lost appointive authority later in his Administration.
Because of lessons learned from the Nixon and Carter experiences, and also because of his strong ideology and commitment to change, Ronald Reagan instituted the most centralized and tightly controlled appointment process of any President new to the job. After Reagan asked someone to serve in his Cabinet, one of his aides would explain to the appointee that the sub-Cabinet appointments would be made by the President. Accordingly, a hundred people were working in the White House personnel office in early 1981. Depending on their own clout, determination, and skill, individual Cabinet members could, however, also exercise considerable influence over the process.
Under Reagan, centralized White House control of all presidential appointments—the sub-Cabinet, boards, commissions, ambassadorships, special assistantships, even judgeships that had historically been handled by the Justice Department—did undoubtedly bring more ardent conservatives into government than would otherwise have come. That did not necessarily lead to cohesiveness or to effective government, however. The poor quality of some Reagan political appointees did not escape the notice of other Reagan appointees or of highly respected Republicans who did not serve Reagan. “This Administration is full of turkeys who have undercut the quality of public service in their areas,” Elliot Richardson bluntly told an interviewer in 1985.
At the start of every administration there is tension between finding jobs for people and finding people for jobs—between placement and recruitment. Every new President has around him some aides whose mission it is to reward the faithful and others whose mission it is to seek out good people. Kennedy gave Sargent Shriver, his brother-in-law, the assignment of conducting a talent search, and Lawrence O'Brien, a campaign aide, the assignment of placing deserving Democrats in good jobs. But the momentum generated by political campaigns, with their emphasis on political loyalty, partisanship, and occasionally ideology, tends to skew things in favor of placement. Every President-elect has some Lyn Nofzigers around him. Nofziger, an aide to Reagan, told a reporter early in the Administration, “We have told members of the Cabinet we expected them to help us place people who are competent....As far as I'm concerned, anyone who supported Reagan is competent.” That criterion produced some notably loyal appointees who also happened to be either incompetent or ethically insensitive.
Because of the built-in bias in favor of placement, Presidents-elect are wise to lean in the direction of recruitment. Kennedy actually did so, which allowed Shriver’s talent scouts to fare well in their competition with O'Brien’s placement service. “We'll have no trouble competing with Sarge’s gang,” John Bailey, the soon-to-be chairman of the Democratic National Committee, declared one day, “if we can just get people who are as good as his people.” When Kennedy prepared to name C. Douglas Dillon as his Treasury Secretary, Kennedy’s liberal friends were appalled. Dillon was the incumbent undersecretary of state; worse, he had contributed to Nixon’s campaign. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., protested to Kennedy that there “was no precedent for giving a vital Cabinet post to a sub-Cabinet official of a defeated Administration, especially to an official who had contributed to Nixon’s campaign and might well have been Nixon’s nominee for the same job.” “Oh, I don’t care about those things, “ Kennedy replied. “All I want to know is, is he able? And will he go along with the program?"
The methods used by Presidents-elect to fill top appointments have varied, as has their degree of involvement in the process. Eisenhower chose his own White House staff but delegated much of the work of Cabinet selection to a two-man committee consisting of Herbert Brownell, Jr., who accepted the Attorney Generalship after declining to serve as Eisenhower’s chief of staff, and Lucius D. Clay, a retired general, lifetime friend, and colleague, who had become chairman of the Continental Can Company. Clay made Eisenhower promise him that he would not offer him a position in the Administration.
Kennedy was personally involved in choosing his department heads and perhaps several dozen sub-Cabinet, agency, and executive-branch officials. He rejected some leading prospects after interviewing them; one candidate bored him so much that he fell asleep. In filling the top jobs his most influential advisers were his brother Robert, his father, Joseph, his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, his personal staff, and certain older former high officials who were not interested in positions for themselves. In this last group were Clark Clifford, Dean Acheson, John McCloy, and, most influential, Robert Lovett. (A Republican who had served in high positions under Truman, Lovett declined, for reasons of health, Kennedy’s offer of any Cabinet seat Lovett might choose.)
In every Administration some top appointments come about easily and seem inevitable, right, and logical. John Foster Dulles’s appointment as Eisenhower’s Secretary of State was one of these, especially after Thomas Dewey removed himself from consideration. Other appointments come about more by circumstance, sometimes simply because the appointers are running out of time and energy and someone has to be named. A case in point is the selection by Kennedy of Dean Rusk to be Secretary of State. Indeed, the recent history of this most prestigious and visible presidential appointment is a bitter comedy on the theme of human misjudgment.
Kennedy, who fashioned himself after Franklin D. Roosevelt, wanted to make the major foreign-policy decisions in his Administration; he did not want them made by the Secretary of State or by the careerists at the State Department. Nonetheless, according to Lovett, he was aware that a President could create grave difficulties for his Secretary of State, and that it was not wise to operate the State Department out of his hat. In fact, Kennedy knew what he did not want more clearly than what he did want. He did not want a Cordell Hull, who had been largely ignored by Roosevelt; an Acheson, who had not been liked in Congress; or a Dulles, who he wrongly thought had cowed Eisenhower.
Nor did he want Adlai Stevenson, his party’s standard-bearer in 1952 and 1956. Although Stevenson retained a large following among Democrats and was the sentimental party choice for Secretary, he was not well liked by Kennedy or by those Kennedy consulted most closely about this position, including Lovett, Acheson, and Robert Kennedy. (Robert, who had traveled with Stevenson during the 1956 campaign, had started out as a fan, but became so disillusioned by Stevenson’s indecisiveness that he wound up voting for Eisenhower.) Because of Stevenson’s popularity among Democrats, Kennedy had to offer him something, however. Given a choice of three positions, including Attorney General, Stevenson chose the UN ambassadorship.
One by one, other candidates for Secretary of State were eliminated. McGeorge Bundy, the forty-one-year-old Harvard dean, was thought to lack the necessary experience. Chester Bowles had ample experience and, in contrast to Stevenson, had supported Kennedy early, but Kennedy regarded him as too soft to negotiate with the Soviets. David Bruce, an experienced diplomat who had been undersecretary to Acheson, though tough enough, did not seem idealistic enough.
Senator J. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was Kennedy’s first choice, because Kennedy knew him well, alone among the candidates, and was impressed by Fulbright’s intelligence, common sense, and wisdom. Also, Fulbright would have been a popular choice on Capitol Hill. Robert Kennedy, however, persuaded his brother that Fulbright, a signer of the Southern Manifesto against the Brown decision, would give Soviet propaganda a powerful boost in Africa and might force the Administration to take positions that it would otherwise not have taken.
Other potential nominees who in retrospect might have been good choices for Kennedy, such as Averell Harriman and George Kennan, were for one reason or another not given serious consideration. So it came down to Dean Rusk, who had influential support from Acheson, Lovett, and Robert Kennedy. (He also had influential detractors, especially Walter Lippmann, who told Kennedy that Rusk was a “profound conformist” who would “never deviate from what he considered the official view.")
Rusk was a Georgian by birth but an integrationist. A Rhodes scholar, he was a former college professor, Army officer, and State Department official who had served under George Marshall and Dean Acheson. He had been deeply involved in the Korean War, and he was to bring to the Vietnam War an understanding forged in that tragically inapplicable experience. In the 1950s he had been president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which had done extensive work in the developing world, where Kennedy hoped to see American influence expand. He had been a Stevenson supporter, which helped politically, and he had published an article in Foreign Affairs in 1960 titled “The President” that helped him with Kennedy even more. In the article he argued that the President must take the lead on foreign policy.
After Lovett made certain that Rusk would accept the job if it were offered, Kennedy met with Rusk. Afterward Rusk told Bowles, prophetically, “Kennedy and I could not communicate.” Rusk concluded, “If the idea of making me Secretary ever actually entered his mind, I am sure it is now dead.” The next day Kennedy asked him to take the job.
As things turned out, Rusk was a hardworking, articulate, and loyal Secretary who was well regarded in his department, on Capitol Hill, and among foreign diplomats, but who never fit well into the Kennedy scheme of things. Though he sought to be the President’s chief foreign-policy adviser, Rusk never really had Kennedy’s ear. There was a lack of rapport between them. Rusk, tellingly, was the only member of the Cabinet whom Kennedy did not call by his first name, and Rusk liked it that way. Rusk stayed out of policy debates within the Administration, so that if the President took someone else’s advice, it would not look like a defeat for him. Kennedy later mocked this reticence, by saying that when they were alone, Rusk would whisper that there were still too many people in the room.
As unsatisfactory, in certain ways, as White House-State Department relations were in the Kennedy Administration, they proved to be even worse, sometimes much worse, under the three newly elected Presidents who followed and their Secretaries of State.
William Rogers was evidently not Nixon’s first choice for Secretary of State; Nixon later told Kissinger that Robert Murphy, the veteran diplomat, had been but had turned him down. Reportedly, Thomas Dewey and William Scranton, the governor of Pennsylvania, were also sounded out, and were not interested. Rogers was an old personal friend and close political associate to whom Nixon had turned repeatedly for counsel, ever since the Alger Hiss days. He had served as Attorney General during Eisenhower’s second term Nixon had practiced law in New York after he lost the 1960 election, and Rogers, also a prominent New York attorney, had won some major clients coveted by Nixon; this made for a cloud over their relationship. Nonetheless, Nixon told Kissinger that he had come to consider Rogers the ideal man for the job. In his memoirs Kissinger recalled Nixon’s perverse reasoning.
“;Nixon considered Rogers’s unfamiliarity with the subject an asset because it guaranteed that policy direction would remain in the White House. At the same time, Nixon said, Rogers was one of the toughest, most cold-eyed, self-centered, and ambitious men he had ever met. As a negotiator he would give the Soviets fits. And ’the little boys in the State Department' had better be careful because Rogers would brook no nonsense. Few Secretaries of State can have been selected because of their President’s confidence in their ignorance of foreign policy."
“;The irony of Nixon’s decision to choose as Secretary of State someone with little substantive preparation,” Kissinger went on, “was that he thereby enhanced the influence of the two institutions he most distrusted—the Foreign Service and the press.” Rogers could “not psychologically bring himself to subordinate himself to Nixon, and that played right into Henry’s hands,” according to Elliot Richardson, who served as undersecretary to Rogers at the start of the Administration. “Rogers felt that in terms of character and judgment he was a better man and he could not subordinate himself, which an effective Secretary of State must do. It’s true that Rogers didn’t have any inclination to engage in the strategic-planning process—but he didn’t try.” According to Kissinger, Rogers could not face the proposition that Nixon might have appointed him in part because he expected to be able to dominate him. Rogers quickly became a spokesman rather than a policy adviser and formulator; Nixon did not make much use of him even as a negotiator.
Carter came to office with considerably less experience in foreign affairs than most new Presidents have, but he was interested and willing to learn. In the early 1970s he had been an enthusiastic member of the Trilateral Commission, which had been founded by David Rockefeller to promote cooperation among North America, Western Europe, and Japan. There Carter met Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who became his Secretary of State and national-security adviser, respectively. First on the campaign trail and then in the White House, Brzezinski served as Carter’s tutor. “I was an eager student, and took full advantage of what Brzezinski had to offer,” Carter guilelessly wrote in his memoir. “As a college professor and author, he was able to express complicated ideas simply. We got to know each other well."
Although Carter, Vance, and Brzezinski began with hopes of successful collaboration, these were soon dashed. Carter encouraged Brzezinski to come up with new ideas, which Brzezinski was ever wont to do. Although his job as national-security adviser was supposed to be that of an impartial broker of opinion, he viewed himself as a protagonist in debates and as a competitor for power, not as a molder of consensus. “Coordination is predominance,” Brzezinski asserted characteristically in his memoir of the Carter years.
“;And the key to asserting effective coordination was the right of direct access to the President, in writing, by telephone, or simply by walking into his office....I was determined to maintain an active and personal dialogue with the President on foreign policy issues because only then could I assert my own authority in a manner consistent with his views."
Vance believed in the State Department as an institution. He felt that Presidents and Secretaries of State had in recent years ignored the department, and that this had weakened not only the morale of the Foreign Service but also continuity in policy from one Administration to the next. A year into the Carter Administration, Vance and Brzezinski were sharply at odds for personal, bureaucratic, and ideological reasons.
The conflict led to muddle. Hodding Carter III, the State Department’s press spokesman under Vance, later commented that it had been widely quipped that the President “took speech drafts offered by the State Department and the National Security Council and simply pasted half of one to half of the other. The result was predictably all over the lot, offering the Soviet Union the mailed fist and the dove’s coo simultaneously.” In the early years of the Administration, Carter leaned more toward Vance’s approach. Later he leaned toward Brzezinski’s. In 1980 Vance resigned.
Ronald Reagan’s troubles with his first Secretary of State had little to do with conflicts of ideology and everything to do with conflicts of personality. Reportedly, many of Reagan’s old California friends in his “kitchen cabinet” advised him to choose Alexander Haig as his Secretary of State, instead of Caspar Weinberger, William Casey, or George Shultz, because they were impressed with Haig’s foreign-policy experience, hard-line reputation, and military background and bearing. A former aide to Henry Kissinger and the chief of staff and de facto President at the end of the Nixon Administration, Haig was an inveterate bureaucratic infighter with a Napoleonic ego and a quick temper.
Haig’s exasperation began before the Inauguration, when his grand scheme for becoming “vicar” of foreign policy was interred in Ed Meese’s voluminous briefcase. The Secretary of State’s problems were compounded by the ill-fated televised pronouncement that he made from the White House—"I am in control here"—after Reagan was shot. Martin Anderson, one of Reagan’s top aides, later wrote, “There was something about Haig. He seemed to ruffle the feelings of almost everyone, and almost everybody seemed to ruffle his feelings.” Following a year and a half of seriocomic episodes involving Haig and members of the White House staff, many of which received prominent play in the newspapers and on television, Reagan fired him.
The new President-Elect will, like his predecessors, have to move fast to fill hundreds of important positions that will fundamentally affect his ability to lead and the government’s ability to perform. He will make these personnel decisions under enormous pressure of time and without benefit of simple rules. A study of the past, however, suggests one broad lesson that the President should take to heart: When you are basking in the brilliance and sterling qualities of the people you have chosen, remember that your predecessors felt that way too.
This article available online at: