Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The White House as City Hall: A Tough Place to Organize

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The White House as City Hall: A Tough Place to Organize

Article excerpt

When you enter your West Wing office for the first time, you are going to know right off you are in a world different from any you have experienced. "When you walk into the White House at the beginning of an administration, it is empty," commented Bernard Nussbaum, counsel to President Clinton. "All of the files are gone. Even the secretaries are gone."(1) By the terms of the Presidential Records Act, your predecessor's records are sitting in a warehouse waiting the creation of a Clinton library. While you may or may not have furniture in your office, one object you assuredly will have is a ringing telephone. "I think my first day I got 300 phone calls from people asking specifically for me," related Jan Naylor Cope, who worked in the Office of Presidential Personnel.(2) A deputy to a senior adviser in the Clinton White House described the ringing phone when he walked into his boss's office:

   I entered and found that the office was empty and that all eight of his
   telephone lines were ringing. I didn't pick up the phone. And the reason
   for that was, once I said hello and identified myself, I didn't know how to
   help any person who was on the other end of the line. If it was a reporter
   asking me a question about the President's schedule, I didn't know the
   answer. If it was a White House staff person who I had never met, I
   wouldn't have been able to find their office. And so I stood, not
   particularly knowing what to do, with his telephone ringing off the

Bernard Nussbaum answered his phone, commenting on the business of the first day: "The minute you walk into the office, the phones are ringing. It's as if the ten biggest litigation cases in your life are going on simultaneously," he said. "I went to the office straight from the inauguration, and went to work right away, doing executive orders on that first day." No records, no furniture, no support staff, no information while at the same time you face a deluge of phone calls from people asking for answers to questions for which most likely you have no response. All of this makes for a first day that is an anomaly in the prior experience of most who go to work at the White House.

In addition to the lack of memory and the immediate demands for action greeting staff members, natural forces work against a smooth transition to power. First, a White House is organized around a president who may or may not come in with a sense of how important his staff will be to the success of his administration. Second, the White House is an artificial construct created all at once from a pool of people, many of whom do not know one another. Third, it is difficult to weave together the necessary elements of campaign people and old White House and Washington hands. Fourth, it takes every administration time to discover the knowledgeable people working within the White House and in the Office of Management and Budget. Fifth, mistakes made early make it difficult to catch up and get ahead. Sixth, too many people come into office tired and have difficulty responding to the rush of work in terms of its volume and variety. Seventh, emptying out offices in the White House and in the executive branch is a daunting task, most especially if the transition does not involve a change in party.

It Takes a President Time to Appreciate the Place of Staff

President Ford discussed his initial lack of appreciation for the margin of effectiveness staff buys for a president. "I started out in effect not having an effective Chief of Staff and it didn't work," said former president Gerald R. Ford.(4)

   So anybody who doesn't have one and tries to run the responsibilities of
   the White House I think is putting too big a burden on the President
   himself. You need a filter, a person that you have total confidence in who
   works so closely with you that in effect his is almost an alter ego. I just
   can't imagine a President not having an effective Chief of Staff. … 
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