Last summer, during the Republican convention in Miami, a brief item appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s “Washington Wire” column headed “Who’s Up?” which said a lot about both the Nixon Administration and how the press reports on it. “The White House staff is up,” the item revealed. The evidence: “Members attending the Republican convention ate in the Doral Hotel’s elegant main dining room, at party expense. Cabinet officers were relegated to the downstairs coffee shop, had to pay their own bills.” What are commonly referred to as “Washington observers”—those sifters of tea leaves and traders in gossip who interpret the government to each other and to a presumably breathless public—know their signals and symbols. The Wall Street Journal item signified how it was within the Nixon Administration, and furthermore how it would be, and how, in fact, it would have been no matter who had been in power.

The President’s recent “reorganization” of the government continued a trend toward gathering power within the White House that has accompanied the growth of government itself. When the President announced from Camp David, his Maryland retreat, in November that “we are going to put greater responsibility on individual Cabinet members for various functions that previously had been that of the White House staff,” experienced and skeptical (which may be a redundancy) reporters were presented with a difficult dilemma. It is one which confronts them frequently when an official announces something which they believe in their bones to be untrue. If a President announces that the world is flat, it is their job to report that “the President announced today that the world is flat,” and not, in print, to call him a liar. It is even indelicate to suggest, in the course of their stories, that there is another view of the matter. This is left largely to the columnists and to the “analysis” stories, which may or may not catch up with the official announcement, and may or may not be believed. Many Washington journalists have come to understand that their word is not held to be much more sacred than that of politicians.


When Robert Finch, in a press conference just before his departure from the Administration in December, confirmed that all was not well between the White House and the Cabinet, the transcript was collected eagerly by White House reporters. “I think that is one of the biggest stories you will have to cover,” Finch said, “how that tension between the White House staff and the Cabinet works.” He tried to mitigate this bit of candor by saying that the tensions between the White House and the Congress and the story of the tensions between the White House and State Houses, and the story of revenue sharing, would be interesting, too. But Finch had spilled the beans, and this was something the reporters could report.

President Nixon is not the first President to accrue power in the White House and to take some pains to deny it. The purposes of the exercise, it seems, are to throw journalists and congressmen off the scent, to betray no unseemly penchant for power, and to convey the impression of frugality with public funds. While previous Presidents had their powerful and famous White House assistants, it remained for Lyndon Johnson, as was his wont, to multiply the effect. Yet the precise size of the White House staff was one of the mysteries of the Johnson Administration. Through a nice piece of legerdemain, several White House aides were “on loan” from other agencies, and their salaries were charged elsewhere.

When President Nixon took office four years ago, it may be recalled, he displayed his new Cabinet officers on television, and described them as men of “extra dimension.” His assistants told reporters that “there will be no Califano here,” referring to Joseph Califano, Mr. Johnson’s powerful assistant for domestic affairs. This was, among other things, part of a concerted effort to establish that Mr. Nixon was going to be very different from Mr. Johnson. Much was made of the facts that the lights were on again at the White House, and that the three television sets had been removed from the President’s Oval Office.

The inevitable accretion of power in the White House stems in part from the fact that there is really no other way to run the government. The more the government does, the more there must be a central body to coordinate its workings. The major issues of the day—such as the economy, race, cities, foreign policy, balance of payments—are not divisible into neat parcels to be distributed among the various Cabinet departments. An issue of trade relations can involve the Departments of Treasury, State, and Commerce, and the White House offices dealing with domestic and international economics and trade negotiations. A domestic issue of any consequence can involve the Departments of Justice, of Housing and Urban Development, of Transportation, of Health, Education and Welfare, and perhaps even Interior or Agriculture or what remains of the Office of Economic Opportunity (the poverty program). The White House and its executive arm, the Office of Management and Budget, must bring them together. Whatever rare efforts have been made by agencies to coordinate among themselves have been resisted by the OMB. The power to coordinate is power indeed.

Moreover, the budget itself is power. In the course of drawing up the budget, the President and his staff make crucial decisions about the arrangement of priorities, policy, and authority. The failure of the Congress to examine or shape the budget coherently also supplies a vacuum into which the executive and its budget makers have moved. Therefore, the Budget Bureau, which was a Wilsonian reform proposal finally adopted in 1921, has grown in importance in tandem with the White House which it serves. As the Johnson Administration piled up the programs and responsibilities, one weary Cabinet officer surveyed the scene and concluded that “Califano and Schultze [Charles Schultze, then director of the Budget Bureau] are holding the whole rickety business together.”

The Nixon Administration, its protestations notwithstanding, had little alternative but to go along with the trend. Mr. Nixon moved his budget director from the Executive Office Building into the White House West Wing—a move which “Washington observers” knew to be significant. Subsequently it was said that the budget office would also “manage” the programs. It was understood in Washington that the terminological move from “coordinate” to “manage” was meaningful. Two axioms applied: the more powerful the Budget Bureau is, the weaker are the Cabinet agencies; the more proximity the budget officials have to the White House, the more politicized their decisions become.

There is also the factor of human nature. People who seek the presidency, and people who help them attain it, do not tend to be uninterested in power. White House assistants, moreover, have the unparalleled advantage of access to the king’s ear. As George Ball once put it, “Nothing propinques like propinquity.” As inevitable as the sunrise and traffic jams are the stories out of Washington of the complaints of congressmen and Cabinet officers about the inaccessibility of the President and the arrogance of his assistants who block their path to the Oval Office. Only the names of the offenders change: Sherman Adams, Kenneth O’Donnell, Marvin Watson, and Joseph Califano have been succeeded by Robert Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Presidents need such people. In the constant struggle for power in Washington, those who inhabit the White House hold the cards.

The chasm

The way in which the executive branch is managed, and its internal distribution of power, are also determined by the personal characteristics of the people at the center. The traditional rationales for regular Cabinet meetings no longer exist. Another reason why the Cabinet hardly ever meets anymore is that the President does not like meetings. His distaste for confrontations tends to place Cabinet officers with persistent disagreements out of sight and favor, and any President prefers some personalities to others. In the Nixon Administration’s first term, the only Cabinet officers who gained any real access and power were John Mitchell, John Connally, George Shultz, and Melvin Laird.

Cabinet officers in any administration may have difficulty straddling the great divide that can exist between the President at whose pleasure they serve and the bureaucracy over which they preside. Robert Finch, who began at HEW, fell into the chasm; from time to time his successor, Elliot Richardson, teetered on the brink. This problem is exacerbated in the Nixon Administration, especially on domestic issues. At first there was a theory prevalent in Washington that the Nixon Administration was not interested in governing. In retrospect, it is more accurate to say that the people in the new Administration were less familiar with government than were their predecessors and had, inevitably, a different set of assumptions about its purposes. The exercise of power by the Nixon White House grew in direct proportion to its familiarity with the terrain. But whereas the Johnson White House was likely to intervene in the bureaucratic processes to propel a program along, the Nixon White House was likely to intervene to slow it down. Any White House will interfere with the bureaucracy on behalf of its political allies, but the allies will differ from administration to administration.

Yet the Nixon White House does have a kind of them-versus-us view of the bureaucracy, based in part on misapprehension of the nature of the federal bureaucracy. The prevailing characteristic of that bureaucracy is not so much (as many in the Nixon White House believe) that it is populated largely by Democrats but rather that its members tend to believe in what they do. The dispenser of vocational education grants believes in vocational education; the civil rights enforcer believes in enforcing civil rights; the administrators of the highway program believe in building highways; the procurer of aircraft carriers is convinced of the importance of procuring more aircraft carriers. The experienced Washington bureaucrat cultivates his allies in Congress and the interest groups, and understands the techniques of survival. What to the White House appears to be subversion of its goals is, to the bureaucrat, protection of a worthy activity.

Every White House has had problems with the bureaucracy; the Nixon Administration, strapped for money, skeptical of federal programs, has many. The Nixon men therefore tend to suspect the bureaucracy, to shut it out of policy considerations, and to try to fill it with Republicans. (The latter effort is a matter of some controversy in Washington. There are many reports that people entering the bureaucracy at levels where, by law, their politics are supposed to be irrelevant are asked about their party affiliation. There were reports of this sort of questioning during the Johnson Administration, too. Republicans perhaps have to try harder because Republicans, by definition, are less attracted to government. Whatever the case, their suspicions about the large number of Democrats in the bureaucracy are not without basis, given the many years of Democratic control of it.)


The exigencies of coherent governing, plus the White House penchant for seclusion and suspicion, shaped the recent rearrangements. They also added to Washington terminology. The job description that signifies power was raised a notch. It no longer suffices to be a Cabinet officer, or even a White House assistant; one must be a “czar.” This term does not show up in official announcements, of course, but everyone knows who the “czars” are: George Shultz, John Ehrlichman, Henry Kissinger, and Roy Ash, the new director of the Office of Management and Budget. (“Czars,” by the way, do not have to be confirmed by Congress. Shultz needed confirmation to become Secretary of the Treasury, but by presidential fiat his economic policy domain now extends far beyond that.) These are the people with whom the President will deal on policy matters; they will bring him the information and transmit his decisions to the rest of the government. Cabinet officers will have to be content with operating within this framework.

There was a very large question as to how consequential were all of the changes of personnel and organization announced during the transition from Nixon I to Nixon II. Even though the “Washington observers” knew this, the changes inevitably became the stuff of headlines, speculation, and talk. In spite of the fact that the policies of Nixon II already were pretty clear— or perhaps because of the fact that the policies were known and there was therefore little else to talk about—the new appointments filled many column inches and hours of conversation.

For example, when Elliot Richardson was transferred from the Secretary’s chair at HEW to that at Defense, Washington observers considered a number of possibilities. The appointment might be viewed in the context of the relationship between Richardson and Henry Kissinger, which, when Richardson was Undersecretary of State at the beginning of the Nixon Administration, had been good. But that raised the question of whether that was good or bad for Richardson, in light of the rumor then making the rounds that Kissinger’s standing with the President might not be as high as it once was. This was based on speculation, aired in a syndicated column by Tom Braden, that in his dealings with the North Vietnamese, Kissinger had exceeded his presidential charter. (Thus, according to this theory, he had announced that peace was “at hand” when it was not, since he had reached terms which were agreeable to neither Messrs. Thieu nor Nixon.) Richardson was chosen over Kenneth Rush, the Deputy Defense Secretary, one theory went, because Henry (all self-respecting Washington observers, whether or not they have ever met the man, refer to Kissinger as “Henry”) had a low opinion of Rush. This, of course, assumed that Kissinger was in good standing. But then what did it mean when Rush was subsequently named Deputy Secretary of State? Was Rush being shunted aside (Kissinger is up) or being positioned to succeed William Rogers (Kissinger is down)? Was Richardson being sent to Defense to slash its budget or to provide a liberal camouflage for its continued growth?

The columnists play an important part in the process of deciding these things. Those “Washington observers” read the columnists with a sharp eye out for tales officials are telling and for who is doing what to whom. James Reston, for example, wrote a column in early December entitled “And What Now About Henry?” (Reston, of course, does know Kissinger, and anyone worth talking to in Washington knew that the column was based upon a conversation with him.) Reston said that despite the reappointment of Rogers (Kissinger is up), Kissinger’s future was unsettled in his own mind. Reston had some hard news. Kissinger was troubled, the column said, by the wide extent of his influence, and by being shielded by executive privilege from questioning by the Congress. Until the column appeared, Kissinger’s anguish over these matters had not been a subject of much speculation.


Guidance on the Richardson question was provided in columns by the writing team of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. From them it was learned that Richardson’s deputy at Defense, William Clements, a Texas conservative, had been selected not by Richardson but by the White House. This was a crucial signal, for Washington observers know that leaders who cannot choose their deputies are without power. The message to the civilian and military bureaucracy was that the new Secretary could be circumvented, and the Pentagon bureaucracy cannot be outdone at circumvention. A week later, the “defense community” was reported by the columnists to be in “a frenzy.” It seemed that Richardson might exercise the option of choosing his own assistant secretaries, and was considering two young men who had opposed the war and certain defense spending. Washington observers knew that someone in the “defense community,” where the columnists are known to have good sources, was trying to sandbag the appointments and hog-tie Richardson.

It was, as the columnists said, “a classical Washington power struggle”—the sort of thing Washington observers love to read about over breakfast and talk about over lunch and dinner.

Although many in Washington had forgotten that the Department of Commerce existed, the removal of Peter Peterson as its Secretary became an important subject. It was known—such things become known—that Peterson had not asked to leave. The question, therefore, was why Peterson’s career in the Nixon Administration had been derailed. Was it a move by the White House to curb the drive for the 1976 presidential nomination by Charles Percy, Peterson’s former employer at Bell & Howell, and not exactly a White House favorite? While this was considered possible, other factors were given more weight. Peterson’s style was too flamboyant; he spent too much time cultivating (successfully) the press; he turned up too often in Georgetown (for which read: homes of liberal journalists). It is perilous to negotiate the long passage from the White House to the Washington community of fashionable liberal journalists and politicians. One must tell the journalists and politicians just enough to interest and amuse them without arousing, back at the office, suspicions of disloyalty. Kissinger and presidential speechwriter William Safire, relying on their brains and disarming wit, succeeded. For others, the attempt proved fatal.

There may even have been policy considerations surrounding Peterson’s demise. Had he, an advocate of liberal trade policies, run afoul of the protectionist-minded businessmen who are the Commerce Department’s clientele? (While some Cabinet officers get in trouble for representing their Department’s clientele too well, others can fall from grace for pleasing them insufficiently. Such was said to have been the fate of James Hodgson, who was removed as Secretary of Labor and replaced by Peter Brennan, a leader of a construction trade union and symbol of the Administration’s hopes for a new Republican coalition. When Ronald Ziegler, the President’s press secretary, announced that John Volpe would be named Ambassador to Italy, he pointed out that Volpe “started at the bottom of the construction trades as a hod carrier.”)

The manner in which the announcements about personnel changes were made also told much about the capital during the period of transition from the first Nixon Administration to the second. The Cabinet appointments, once the subject of a television spectacular, were left to Ziegler. Neither the President nor the appointees were present. The communications between Ziegler and the press corps sank deeper and deeper into the trivia (the age, ninety-six, of a Pennsylvania state senator who was meeting with the President) and tired jokes (Kissinger’s women) that have come to characterize these exchanges. Reporters who tired of waiting outside the formidable sets of fences at Camp David for Ziegler’s news gathered in the White House press room, where the briefings were piped in over a loudspeaker. The scene was surreal. Reporters took notes and taperecorded the disembodied voices. Perhaps in reaction to being at this still further remove from the realities of government, the reporters made wisecracks back to the loudspeaker. One day, the following exchange between the press secretary to the President of the United States and a member of the free press, guardians of democracy, came over the loudspeaker in the White House press room:

Q. The last time the President was up here he was reported to be seen strolling around in a pair of flared purple trousers. I wonder if you are prepared to confirm that he has such a pair.

A. Well, he wears sports clothes up here from time to time. I think “flared” is a little exaggerated. Some of his slacks don’t have cuffs on them [laughter], I mean he’s a regular guy. He wears sports clothes [laughter].

Q. Does he have a purple pair?

A. I don’t know if he has a purple pair. He has other colors. He has blue, maroon, and other colors. . . .