Source Material: The White House Interview Program: Objectives, Resources, Releases

Article excerpt

"The White House is not simply a spoil of victory," observed Harrison Wellford, a former White House official and specialist on presidential transitions,(1) "it's the nerve center of the greatest government in the world and we ought to at least give it the same respect that you do when you take over a second-rate corporation." Currently a lawyer who specializes in mergers, Wellford noted,

   When I compare White House transitions and the lack of systems and
   discipline and preparation that goes into that to what we do when we are
   taking over a company, it is night and day and, yet, the stakes are so
   infinitely smaller with the companies than with the White House.

The same observation is made by others who have worked in the White House and devoted time and energy to transitions. "You would never start up a company the way people start a White House," observed Roy Neel, who was chief of staff for Vice President Gore and later served President Clinton as deputy chief of staff.(2)

Neel and Thomas (Mack) McLarty, Clinton's chief of staff, were the only senior White House staff who received appointments early in the Clinton transition. With these two exceptions, the Clinton White House publicly announced its senior staff on January 14, 1993, less than a week before the inauguration. They had little time to acclimate to their new roles and to discover the dimensions of their posts. When they arrived, they faced a situation in which they had no institutional memory of decisions previously reached, organizational structures selected, or policies adopted. They possessed no outline of their responsibilities or a manual to show how the place had worked in preceding admini-strations. In effect, the new team came in blind, landing on a wing and a prayer.

Some aspects of this lack of orderly transition are comical. Michael Jackson, who served as cabinet secretary in the Bush White House, described the process as "scavenging," for resources and even for furniture:

   The first day what they did is, they pulled out a lot of the furniture from
   the offices and into the halls where there were piles of credenzas, desks,
   wing chairs. The people who were smart and knew the drill got there early
   and went and just took stuff.(3)

Other aspects are not so comical. They often translate into lost opportunities. "The early months are so important," observed David Gergen, a senior official in four White Houses. "Because that's when you have the most authority, but that's when you also have the least capacity for making the right decisions."(4) An ineffective start then leaves a wide gap between the promise of a new administration fresh from its electoral successes and its practice in its first few months. And, like the Clinton administration, the new team suffers for those missed opportunities.

A Collective Effort of Presidency Scholars

Smoothing the path to power and avoiding those missed opportunities, the White House Interview Program will provide incoming staff with substantive information about their offices. That information includes descriptions of organizational and operational details of seven essential White House offices. The seven offices include Chief of Staff, Staff Secretary, Press Office, Office of Communications, Office of the Counsel to the President, Office of Presidential Personnel, and Office of Management and Administration. Each of these seven offices plays an important role in successfully starting a White House. The chief of staff has become the focus for creating and then managing the White House decision-making process and ensuring smooth operations. The Staff Secretary manages the flow of paper and information coming from the White House staff. The Office of Counsel to the President formulates the ethics regulation and, working with the Office of Presidential Personnel, vets the names of administration appointees. It falls to the Office of Presidential Personnel to staff up the administration by creating a process for the consideration of nominees, to gather information on available posts, and to search for appropriate candidates for the positions. …

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