Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Personal Aside: Let it Be Said Here First: Emanuel Worst Choice for Chief of Staff.

As one who knew Rahm Emanuel well in what his future biographers may describe as his “early formative years,” let me register a firm dissent from the chorus of favorable opinion greeting his appointment as chief of staff in the Obama administration. The rousing approval has now grown as conventional wisdom and has taken on the character of a cliché…certifiable now that even Carol Marin—whose opinions are always second-hand-- has climbed aboard. Yes Obama is a good choice because he is a realist, not an idealist. There evidently was a feeling in the supine, pro-Obama media, that with all his filmy, gauzy rhetoric, Obama would hire a dreamer in the post who would look at the most beatific of cases and run the operation into the ground: something like what happened in the Carter administration.

No, assuredly, Rahm Emanuel is neither idealist nor dreamer. But he carries inside him all the qualifications to be a real screw-up—because he is known for applying an iron fist…flying into rages…throwing around the “f” word four times in every sentence…in being vindictive and argumentative and not to suffer fools gladly. You must remember that the best chiefs of staff were not of this mien: the best being Jim Baker under Reagan, another being former Senator Howard Baker in the latter days of the Reagan term. The worst were the tough, adamant guys very much like Emanuel. Dwight Eisenhower placed as his chief of staff a resolute, “no-man,” former New Hampshire Governor Sherman Adams. Adams was a laconic but very-very cold and blunt New Englander.

He insisted on being called “Governor Adams.” Because he was curt and abrupt he damaged Ike’s relationships with the Congress greatly. A minor breach of etiquette, trivial enough now in retrospect, interrupted Adams’ service: the acceptance of a vicuna rug from an industrialist in New Hampshire, Bernard Goldfine. Everyone wondered how Ike who liked to compartmentalize the White House would get along without a gate-keeper. Answer: He did just fine. He hired Gen. Jerry Persons who had a sweet temperament. In fact, Ike got along, much better than when Adams was there. Adams also arrogated unto himself the aura that perhaps he was the power behind the throne.

Of course the worst chief of staff was H. R. (Bob) Haldeman, Nixon’s lackey who did what he was told, was very obedient and did not serve as a brake whatsoever on the rages of his boss. Another bull-of-the-woods was Haldeman’s seeming co-chief, John Ehrlichman. I had experience with both and can testify they did a great disservice to the president—and ultimately the presidency.

Not all chiefs of staff who share some…not all…of Emanuel’s temperament were disasters. One who was decidedly not very good but then no disaster either was the man we used to call “Mr. Warmth,” Sam Skinner, who for a time was the gatekeeper for George H. W. Bush. Don Rumsfeld who was Jerry Ford’s first chief of staff was tough and cold. He got rid of Henry Kissinger in the White House and had him concentrate on State…and also succeeded in convincing Ford to dump Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. But Rumsfeld was not a conspicuous success as chief of staff and shortly after he moved to secretary of defense. Dick Cheney was an excellent chief of staff because at that time he had a passion for anonymity, which is what the job entails. To say that Rahm does not have a passion for anonymity is obvious.

The best chiefs of staff are those who have a sweet disposition, try to be gentle, apply the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove: definitely not Rahm Emanuel’s style.

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