Monday, May 21, 2012

Ford Restructures the White House - Twice

Upon becoming president in 1974, Gerald Ford knew that it would be important to make some changes, both substantively and symbolically. In substance, because part of Nixon's downfall grew out of his subordinates and out of the power structure of the White House staff. Symbolically, because President Ford needed to be visibly different than Nixon. Ford reviewed the previous organizational charts which had shaped the White House in previous presidencies. Historian Barry Werth writes:

Ford knew what he had to have to take over the presidency and it wasn't a Haldeman or Adams, tireless, abrasive guardians who had caused his predecessors so much trouble. Sherman Adams, the bantam former timber executive and New Hampshire governor who could reach decisions and "move papers" faster than anyone in Washington, and who got priestly satisfaction from slaving like a dragon to serve his country, was a force of nature ruling over the operations of the Eisenhower White House - a virtual "co-president" until, after admitting to taking gifts from shady New England businessmen, he was attacked by conservative Republicans and dropped by Eisenhower, who sent Nixon to tell Adams the president would welcome his resignation. Bob Haldeman, who famously said that he was "Nixon's SOB," looked and acted like a marine drill sergeant. Time called him "spikey and glaring ... the 'zero-defects man'" and like nearly everyone in Washington, Ford regarded the former California ad executive as an overcompensating outsider with a fetish for order.

Ford saw the dangers in having one individual, a chief of staff, working that closely with the president. This person could filter who did, and who did not, get to visit or influence the president. This person could end up wielding unintended amounts of power. Ford wanted a different system for his White House.

Ford wanted to see as many people as possible, hear a lot of opinions, he told Haig.

As an antidote to Nixon's imperial presidency, Ford wanted an open door. But he perhaps underestimated the volume of people, paper, and information that would come his way. Alexander Haig, who had been Nixon's chief of staff, and who had effectively carried out many presidential duties as Nixon became increasingly paralyzed by the Watergate scandal, understood that Ford would soon be buried under an avalanche of work if he did not have some type of executive assistant.

Haig - "with some amusement," he recalled - replied that he'd be happy to usher in as many visitors as Ford wanted. He thought Ford's opposition to a strong chief of staff "seemed to be more important to him than his own needs."

Haig's future was uncertain at this point. Having been chief of staff under Nixon, he remained at the White House initially to help with the transition. Ford wanted either no chief of staff at all, or who wanted one with a very limited role.

Seated at the Wilson desk, already buried under paperwork, Ford announced that he would be his own chief of staff, with a half dozen or so coequal advisors each meeting with him at different times during the day to report to him on separate areas of authority. He likened this office model to the spokes on a wheel. He would meet with Marsh to direct legislative affairs, Hartmann to talk about communications, Seidman to discuss the economy, and Kissinger for foreign policy. Haig's area of competence would be administering the White House.

John Marsh was a former Virginia Congressman who would later be Secretary of the Army. Robert Hartmann was a speechwriter and White House Counsellor. Lewis William Seidman was Ford's economic advisor. Henry Kissinger was the Secretary of State.

Haig rejected the spokes-on-the-wheel system as clueless, naive. "Only a supreme optimist," he wrote, "could have believed that such an arrangement would work in a town in which ambition is mother's milk and every symbol of power from job title to parking space is the subject of fierce intrigue." He also thought Ford's resistance to a powerful chief of staff concerned Hartmann, who'd commandeered the small anteroom to the Oval Office where Rosemary Woods, Nixon's faithful secretary, had been stationed until the day before. Ford depended too heavily on Hartmann, owed him too much, and was too loyal to get rid of him, yet no strong chief of staff could tolerate having him bivouacked next to the president, popping his head in whenever he wanted.

Whether or not one embraces Haig's skepticism about Hartmann, it was telling that at this early date - Saturday, August 10 - Hartmann had already occupied a key office space in the White House. In any case, Haig would soon depart, declining Ford's offer to be chief of staff, because Haig would only take the job if it had clear and significant authority. Ford was still bent on essentially being his own chief of staff, and the office would exist to help the president with those duties, rather than to do those duties for him. Haig stayed on for the transition, and was officially re-assigned from chief of staff to NATO commander around Wednesday, September 4. He would be replaced by Donald Rumsfeld, who was also skeptical of Ford's organizational vision. Barry Werth writes:

A half hour after Haig left the Oval Office, Ford met alone with Rumsfeld, back briefly from Brussels, to tell him that Haig would be leaving. Ford needed Rumsfeld to smooth Haig's appointment with the NATO countries, but his real interest was in having him replace Haig in the West Wing, not as omnipotent chief of staff but as someone to coordinate White House operations and organize Ford's schedule. Rumsfeld, who could see that the sniping and disarray had only worsened in the two weeks since he'd left, bluntly resisted. "I didn't want to do it," he said later. "I'd just left Washington. I'd been here ten years. I was disappointed that the recommendations of the transition team weren't followed. The administration was having trouble just staying current. I knew what a meat grinder it was. I knew it was programmed to fail."

Like Haig, Rumsfeld saw Ford entering a swamp of office politics, as well as simply more work than one man could do. Rumsfeld writes:

Ford did want to distance himself from what was seen as the imperial presidency of Richard Nixon, but instead of changing personnel, he attempted to change the White House's management structure. Ford attributed the misjudgments in Watergate to having everything filtered to the President through his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. My view was different. I believed the problems that plagued Nixon's administration were not caused by how decisions were made but by the decisions themselves. The chief of staff system was reasonably efficient and had been developed in the Eisenhower administration, which did not come to the same unfortunate end as Nixon's. To change the perception of an insular White House and a rigid "Berlin Wall," Ford settled on what he called the "spokes-of-the-wheel" approach. To this day, I shudder at the phrase. The idea was that a large number of his staff and cabinet - the spokes - would report directly to him - the hub - instead of having a chief of staff coordinate the process.

Rumsfeld was in the White House to see and experience the inevitable logjam which Haig had predicted.

However laudable the intent, the spokes-of-the-wheel approach was an unworkable way of managing the modern White House. Ford enjoyed interaction and give-and-take with a wide and varied group of people, and that was helpful, but this organization approach essentially allowed any senior staff or cabinet official to walk into the Oval Office at any time to discuss any subject. Many would end up leaving such a meeting with what they sincerely believed to be presidential authorization but without the necessary coordination with other White House staff or cabinet members who had responsibilities in the matters discussed with the President. An open door policy could work for a member of Congress, or even for a vice president whose staff is small, but a president has too many demands on his time to listen to every staff member's suggestions, wade through every disagreement, and then ensure that the relevant personnel are involved, or at least informed.

One casualty of the White House reorganization was the first attempt at economic policy. Inflation was becoming a serious problem - though not yet as bad as it would be under the Carter administration - and Ford knew that he had to take action. Under the slogan "Whip Inflation Now," a series of voluntary initiatives was assembled, and label pins and buttons with the "W.I.N." motif distributed to the public. President Ford gave a major national speech on the plan. Sadly, the effort went nowhere. Rumsfeld recalls:

The response to the speech was not what Ford hoped. Wearing a pin to defeat inflation became a national punch line. Ford was disappointed by the negative reaction to his speech both in Congress and in the country. I felt sorry for him, but it was a self-inflicted wound and still another sign that the spokes-of-the-wheel approach the President had selected at the outset was not working.

President Ford realized that change was in order. Rather than cling stubbornly to his original idea, he was willing to see that there could be a better solution.

The President now conceded that his spoke-of-the-wheel approach was not working and would not work. The Hartmann faction was unfriendly with the Haig faction, and others in the White House seemed caught in between. Only a few weeks after informing the country that Nixon's White House chief of staff, Al Haig, would stay on indefinitely, Ford would have to do something he never liked to do - change his mind.

One of the reasons behind Ford's move to abandon the chief of staff system was to distance himself from Nixon's image. If Ford were to move toward a chief of staff system, he'd have to do it in a way which still signaled that he was different than Nixon. Rumsfeld writes:

The President said that while he could not be seen as abandoning outright his very public decision to reject the Nixon-Haldeman staffing system in favor of his spokes-of-the-wheel approach, he agreed that he would move toward a proper staff system gradually. His solution was, at the outset, to call whoever replaced Haig the "chief coordinator." I was not impressed with that idea, because it would signal to others in the White House that the new chief of staff was not actually in charge of the staff. But I understood Ford's reasoning.

Rumsfeld became chief of staff - even if the actual job title was varied - and began nudging Ford's system back toward the Eisenhower model. Rumsfeld's assistant chief of staff was Dick Cheney, who recalls that

one obstacle to bringing order to the White House in the early months was President Ford's preferred model of White House organization, a design he described as the "spokes of the wheel" model, which was based on the way he had structured his congressional and committee staffs. The ideas was to have eight or nine senior advisors each reporting directly to him, without any one having authority over the rest. It was a collegial style of doing business that had served him sell for twenty-five years on the Hill as a representative from Michigan, and he assumed it would work in the White House. There was also a widespread belief that Watergate had been caused in part by Bob Haldeman's domination of the White House staff, and Ford saw "spokes of the wheel" as a healthy break from the past. The problem was that it soon became clear it didn't work. It took a while, but the president finally agreed that he needed someone on the staff who could wield real authority, a conclusion that all his successors have ratified.

The wisdom of Eisenhower's system became clear. This organizational pattern, with a chief of staff, was the best way to run the White House. According to historian Barry Werth, this organizational structure had a history prior to the White House:

Eisenhower had employed it as supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II and first brought it to the White House in 1953. Having a single, dominant aide used to acting in the president's name enabled Ike to play golf in the afternoon, and Nixon, his marginalized, oft-maligned vice president, had admired its effectiveness. ("Nixon was world errand boy," Chief of Staff Sherman Adams explained. "I worked in the kitchen.")

Although Ike may have excelled at delegation, the chief of staff system could also work for a more "hands-on" president like Ford. President Ford found that he could reshape his organizational chart away from "the spokes of the wheel" and toward the chief of staff model without having to distance himself from important daily White House operations. Dick Cheney took over as chief of staff when Rumsfeld left that post to be Ford's Secretary of Defense. Cheney writes:

In the last days of the Ford administration, among the gifts given me by my staff was a bicycle wheel with all the spokes destroyed except one, and it came with a plaque: "The 'spokes of the wheel,' a rare form of management artistry as devised by Gerald Ford and modified by Dick Cheney." When the Carter people came in, I passed it along to my successor, Hamilton Jordan.

During Ford's short but crucial presidency, the question of how best to organize the White House was explored thoroughly, and the definitive answer was found - no president since, of either party, has tampered with the system.