Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: The Pressures of White House Work Life: "Naked in a Glass House". (Features)

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: The Pressures of White House Work Life: "Naked in a Glass House". (Features)

Article excerpt

"When they come to the White House there's no forty-hour week and they shouldn't expect it," said President Gerald Ford. (1) "It has to be almost a twenty-four-hour-a-day job for both the President and the staff." The White House is a place where the workload is heavy, the hours are long, the pressures are great, and the benefits are manyfold. As hard as people say the work is, few would trade the time they spent working in the White House; nor is there a shortage of people wanting to work there. Donald Rumsfeld, chief of staff under President Ford, expressed the view of many that service involved dual aspects. He related his experience:

   In the White House you are very much at the center of things. There is an
   amazing flow of information. It is stimulating, because there's so much
   pressure. In my case, it was working with just a truly wonderful human
   being; a fine, decent, honorable, good person. (2)

At the same time, though, the work in a White House is staff work. You are not the principal player; the president is. That is a situation difficult for some staff members to get used to. Rumsfeld continued,

   The disadvantage for me was that I had run large organizations and then I
   found myself back as an assistant. And I knew, as anyone in that job ought
   to know, that no one really cares what you think. What they really want to
   know when they ask you a question is what the President thinks. Therefore
   you constantly have to answer, respond and behave in a way that reflects
   what you believe to be the President's thinking and the President's best
   interest.

Responding as the president would mean staff members have to behave in a way that puts him in the foreground and themselves in a relief position. Rumsfeld observed,

   That causes a change in how you handle yourself. You're not as natural.
   You're not as responsive. You're not as open, because you're trying to do
   it in a way that serves him and his presidency. That is a very different
   kind of a job than running something yourself. So it has those pluses and
   those minuses.

The Allure of the White House

The pressures of White House work life relate to the volume and variety of the assignments, the heavy commitment of hours and days, the generous amount of criticism directed toward the president and individual White House staff members, and the narrow margin of error allowed to those working for the president. Although less numerous than the pressures, the benefits are an important component of White House work life. They revolve around the importance of the decisions made in a White House, the interesting people and situations one confronts when working in a White House, the increased likelihood of having an interesting and lucrative career after leaving the White House, and having a part in history as it is made.

"Interesting People, Interesting Situations"

Working in a White House has clear rewards, most especially because it is interesting and important work. Abner Mikva, counsel to President Clinton, said,

   It's exciting. You're at the point of some very important decisions.
   Whether you're making them or not, you're involved in the decisional
   process. You're dealing with interesting people, interesting situations.
   There just was not a single boring moment that I had. (3)

For those who live life close to the edge, the White House holds a strong appeal. Alonzo McDonald, who headed the McKinsey Company before he came to the White House to establish a management system for the Carter administration, found the pressure to his liking.

   The benefits are: one of the most extreme lifetime challenges that one can
   ever have. For those of us who have always walked along the edge, whether
   in business or whatever, it's: How close can you walk to the edge without
   falling off? It's not everybody's cup of tea. … 
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