‘I tried to stay out of the never-ending staff feuds. But that was not possible.’ – Ron Nessun
Given the challenges of his predecessors, it is not surprising that Ford’s successor Jimmy Carter wanted to avoid having a chief of staff. In the wake of Ford’s recent experiences with Haldeman, Haig, Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney – who took the job when Rumsfeld became Defense Secretary – Carter was leery of even having a chief of staff. The anti–chief of staff animus was so great that one Carter administration official joked that ‘the only thing I know about Dick Cheney is that he has a nice wife.’
If the decision not to appoint a chief of staff was based on a reaction to earlier administrations, the wrong lesson was taken from the wrong administration. Carter clearly did not like what he saw from the Haldeman model in the Nixon administration, but the constant infighting of the Ford administration should have proved instructive as well. Even with a chief of staff in place, Ford’s spokes-on-the-wheel system, in which multiple aides reported directly to the president, led to endless strife and constant turf battles. Cheney’s welcome note warning to Carter strategist Hamilton Jordan, ‘beware the spokes of the wheel,’ was an apt one, and advice Cheney had given Carter transition director Jack Watson as well. It was also, adviser Stuart Eizenstat recalled, ‘one piece of advice from Cheney we would have done well to follow.’
Carter’s decision to forgo a chief of staff would have immediate implications. As Watson saw, the anti–chief of staff rhetoric ‘might have sounded pretty good in the campaign for the presidency, but it just doesn’t work after the inauguration.’ Watson was adamant on the point, concluding that ‘it is an absolute necessity to have a chief of staff.’
For the Carter White House, not having a chief of staff meant that no one on the staff was in charge. On the very first day of the Carter administration, the staff had no idea who should run meetings. Carter lawyer Robert Lipshutz, the group elder, tried to assert himself, saying, ‘I guess because I’m the oldest one here, I’ll call this meeting to order.’ It did not work. While indeed older, he did not have the respect of the staff and was mostly ignored. Instead, Frank Moore, a Georgian, asked Jordan, ‘Ham, what do we do now?’ He got no answer. After another staffer asked, ‘Should we have a staff meeting every day?’ Jordan finally said, ‘We’ll have a meeting when there’s something to meet about.’ After they meandered on for a while, aide Mark Siegel wondered, ‘My God, what would the KGB think if they could see us now?’ Carter had not wanted a chief, and now that his administration was in place, he did not have one, with all of the implications that decision brought.
Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan also faced challenges in selecting a chief of staff. Reagan, however, did not object to the title itself. Reagan’s challenge was that he was not sure who should have the role. Ed Meese, who had held senior roles with both Reagan’s gubernatorial staff and his campaign staff, was seen by himself and the outside world as the presumptive candidate to serve as Reagan’s chief of staff. Some of his fellow Reagan insiders, however, did not see the disorganized Meese as the right person to serve in the top management job in the White House. Leading the charge against Meese were long-standing Reagan aides Michael Deaver and Stu Spencer. Spencer was particularly adamant on the point, telling Reagan a week before the election, ‘Ed cannot be chief of staff. He’s not organized.’