Tevi Troy, a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former White House aide, recounts the conflict-laden history of White House Chiefs of Staff.

The White House is a famously fractious place, with infighting taking place to varying degrees in every presidential administration. To combat it, presidents have a number of tools at their disposal, with the top one being the appointment of an effective chief of staff.

Unfortunately, as a number of presidents have learned to their chagrin, some chiefs of staff have-not seen their role as being in charge of controlling White House infighting but have instead contributed to it.

When Harry Truman was president, he had a primus inter pares assistant to the president named John Steelman; Steelman is considered by many the first chief of staff although he did not officially have that label. Truman was followed by Dwight Eisenhower, who had a military background, and started the practice of having a chief of staff, former New Hampshire governor Sherman Adams. Ike valued organisation, as he thought that ‘disorganisation can scarcely fail to result in inefficiency and can easily lead to disorder.’

Ike’s innovation of a chief of staff ended after his presidency, in part because Adams was forced to resign in the so-called ‘vicuna coat’ influence-peddling scandal. Neither John F. Kennedy nor Lyndon Johnson would have one. But Richard Nixon, who had served as Ike’s Vice President, brought back the position when he became president after winning the 1968 election. Nixon had an expansive view of the role. According to Nixon, the White House chief of staff’s office was aware of the president’s desires and was willing to enforce them. Larry Higby, a top aide to Nixon’s powerful chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, recalled the dictum that ‘policy was going to be decided in the White House.’ Given that clear marching order, the chief of staff’s office understood that it ‘was the job of the cabinet to execute. And there were mechanisms put in place to make sure that follow-up and execution did take place.’

Unfortunately for Nixon, his chief of staff also became embroiled in scandal and would serve eighteen months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. The imprisonment, as well as Haldeman’s imperious nature, would further tarnish the role of the chief of staff, with implications for the next two presidencies.

Gerald Ford, who took over for Nixon, was widely seen as too nice for the job, and needed someone tough to ride herd on his White House staff. The first aspirant was Al Haig, a four-star general who had already been serving as White House chief of staff under the departing Nixon. It did not work. Among other problems. Haig could not get along with Bob Hartmann, a hard-drinking former journalist who served as Ford’s speechwriter, political counselor, and vice-presidential chief of staff, who had the advantage of longstanding ties to Ford.

The Hartmann-Ford relationship did not sit well with Haig. Even before the transition, Haig, angered at Hartmann’s leaks to the press about him, grabbed a Hartmann aide by his collar and snarled, ‘If you have any influence over that fat Kraut, you tell him to knock it off or he’s going to be the first stretcher case coming out of the West Wing.’

The two men intensely disliked one another. As Richard Norton Smith said in an oral history interview with David Gergen, ‘One senses that Hartmann and Haig were put on the planet to piss each other off. We talked to Haig before he died, and the thing that got him red-faced with anger, thirty-five years later, was Hartmann.’

The situation with Haig and Hartmann sniping at each other was untenable. The two men were regularly leaking negative information about one another to the press. As Ford press secretary Ron Nessen, whom Hartmann had brought into the administration, recalled in his memoir, ‘Hartmann was ‘knifing’ White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig in anonymous conversations with reporters.’ Haig knew about it and even told Ford directly, ‘You’ve got to get this guy under control. Otherwise, I can’t serve you.’ He was right. Haig was gone on September 21, five weeks after Ford became president, and was quickly appointed as Supreme Allied Commander Europe in December.

With Haig gone, the White House needed a replacement who could try to make the Ford White House run. This role would fall to Donald Rumsfeld, who served in the House with Ford before becoming his White House ‘staff coordinator’—the aversion to Haldeman’s style as chief of staff extended even to the title. Rumsfeld was a talented bureaucratic operator. Yet, according to Nessen, infighting among staff members became even more complex and divisive, with Rumsfeld’s coterie, the Hartmann faction, and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s team engaging in a ‘daily struggle for influence.’ As for Nessen, he found that the feuds were so intense that neutrality was not a choice: ‘I tried to stay out of the never-ending staff feuds. But that was not possible.’

‘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.’

Given the need and desire for a chief of staff, the Meese critics needed to present an alternative to succeed. The only realistic choice was James Baker, who had served as campaign manager for George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president. While Baker was an obvious choice from a skills perspective, picking him had its challenges. According to Congressman David Stockman, who had helped the Reagan campaign debate preparation efforts, inner circle Reaganites saw Baker as ‘tainted goods,’ having served as campaign manager for two moderates, Gerald Ford and George Bush.

Despite this hurdle, Baker got the job. According to Baker, Meese, feeling slighted, took the news of Baker’s appointment badly: ‘Meese was down. Meese was very down.’ Spencer, who set matters in motion, went further, recalling that Meese ‘went ape sh*t’ over the move.

Reagan, astutely recognizing the blow to Meese’s ego, had even asked Baker to ‘Make it right with Ed.’ Baker being Baker, he had a multi-part plan for co-opting Meese. He planned to keep a low profile as chief of staff. As the Christian Science Monitor’s Louis Sweeney wrote in a puff piece on Baker shortly after his appointment, ‘You won’t see his Stetson showing over the rim of the hill too often.’

Baker also gave Meese clear areas of responsibility. While Baker got the chief of staff title, Meese became ‘Counselor to the President for Policy.’ Baker also granted Meese cabinet rank, which Meese considered vital. Under the terms of their arrangement, sketched out in a famous chart, Meese ran the policy councils and could take part in cabinet meetings, while Baker took control of legislation, press, and paperwork. Baker’s responsibilities encompassed ‘Coordination and supervision of White House Staff functions,’ ‘Hiring and firing authority over all elements of White House Staff,’ ‘Coordination and control of all in and out paper flow to the President and of presidential schedule and appointments,’ and the ability to ‘Preside over meetings of White House Staff.’ Overall, he told Meese, ‘You’ve got the policy; I’ll just make the trains run on time.’ The arrangement flattered Meese, but what it really did was leave Baker in charge.

In Reagan’s second term, Baker left to become Secretary of the Treasury. Replacing Baker as chief of staff was Donald Regan, who had served as Secretary of the Treasury in the first term. This job switch proved to have serious drawbacks. Regan, in contrast to Baker, was a feuder. He quickly got off on the wrong foot with Robert ‘Bud’ McFarlane, the national security adviser. On March 24, 1985, Soviet troops murdered a U.S. Army major in East Germany. McFarlane awakened Reagan to alert him, but without telling Regan. The new chief of staff yelled, ‘I’m in charge of running this place and I need to be kept informed.’ McFarlane acknowledged he was wrong, but also defended himself, replying, ‘You’re right you should’ve been informed, but I’m not gonna stand here and put up with abuse of this kind.’ Regan, a former Marine Corps officer and decidedly not a diplomat, escalated matters, saying, ‘Well, I’ll run the place the way I want and you’ll goddamn do it the way I say to do it.’

Regan later apologized to McFarlane, but relations between them never recovered. Even worse than butting heads with McFarlane was running afoul of first lady Nancy Reagan. Regan did not grasp what long-serving staffers called ‘the Sacramento rule: ‘A Happy Nancy means a happy governor.’ The worst violator of this rule would be Regan, whom Nancy described as liking the sound of ‘chief’—but not ‘of staff.’ He ended up being fired shortly after an argument in which he hung up on Nancy, something that Baker joked was ‘a hanging offense.’

Reagan successor George H. W. Bush would also have a feuding chief of staff – former New Hampshire governor John Sununu. Sununu had an infamous temper that, married to his territoriality, created serious problems. Before the administration even started, rumors circulated that Sununu did not want Bob Teeter as deputy chief of staff. Teeter, who, unlike Sununu, had long-standing ties to Bush, could potentially have served as a counterbalance to Sununu. But Sununu, the story went, objected to Teeter having direct Oval Office access to Bush and vetoed Teeter’s appointment. Without a check in the form of Teeter, Sununu managed the White House in his abrasive way, with serious consequences for the Bush White House.

When Bush eventually recognized that Sununu was unviable, he attempted to have Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner—who often clashed with Sununu—replace the cantankerous chief of staff. No one, including Bush, wanted to do the actual firing, and Bush had to enlist his son—future president George W. Bush—to talk to Sununu. Even then, according to some accounts, Sununu still would not leave and had to be told even more starkly that the time had come.

In Bill Clinton’s administration, the first chief of staff was Clinton’s childhood friend Thomas ‘Mack’ McLarty. A successful business executive, he was universally liked by those who knew him, but many Washington observers saw McLarty as not chief of staff material. Time called him ‘Mack the Nice’ and asked, ‘Is Thomas McLarty, Bill Clinton’s kindergarten classmate, just too nice a guy to be White House Chief of Staff?’

McLarty had wanted to bring on board Carter domestic policy adviser Stu Eizenstat, another old Washington hand, but Clintonites vetoed Eizenstat for a White House gig because of his previous work for Carter. Not being able to pick his own deputy contributed to McLarty’s ineffectiveness. Clinton himself acknowledged in his memoir that McLarty was ‘an unusual choice’ and ‘hardly a Washington insider.’ Furthermore, according to Clinton, ‘In the first months of our tenure, both he and I would suffer from some of our tone deafness about Washington’s political and press culture.’

As a result, the Clinton administration got off to a truly terrible start. Incidents like Hair Force One, in which Clinton allegedly held up traffic at Los Angeles International Airport while getting a $200 haircut, or Travelgate, in which the Clintons appeared vindictive in firing the career officials in the White House travel office—both of which happened in May of 1993— were certainly contributors to the problem. But there was a larger problem as well. The administration just did not seem to function correctly. Domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed described that initial period as ‘just chaotic. There wasn’t anybody in charge.’

Media consultant Frank Greer had a similar view. As Greer put it, Clinton’s ‘first White House staff, and the way they constantly went around Mack McLarty—it was destructive.’ As a result, ‘everybody was freelancing, everybody was promoting themselves, everybody was looking out for themselves.’ Myers recalled that things were so bad that ‘There was a piece in I believe the New York Times that basically said this would be a failed presidency. You know, ten days into Bill Clinton’s first term.’

When George W. Bush became president, he already had been a close observer of his father’s White House. As David Frum has noted, Bush’s work with his father in the 1988 campaign and during that administration meant that he was ‘the only president with functional experience of being a White House staffer.’ That experience had a powerful effect on Bush 43, as the Bush 41 White House had significant management challenges. So, when it came time to create his own White House, George W. intentionally selected a chief of staff with White House experience— Andy Card—who would not run roughshod and would consciously contrast himself with Sununu.

Unlike Sununu, Card was much more soft-spoken, collaborative, and plainly averse to foul language. He was also wary of alternative power centers in the White House, something that he had seen in Bush’s father’s White House. Deputy chief of staff Josh Bolten had also worked in the Bush 41 White House and had similar concerns. The two men worked together to make sure that there was a coherent and consistent process governing policy development and decisions. Process was everything, and woe betides the staffer who would commit the dreaded ‘process foul.’

Barack Obama went back to the profane approach with the famously foul-mouthed Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Emanuel faced problems in the form of Valerie Jarrett, close friend and senior adviser to Obama. Emanuel was rightly wary of her. She had a tendency to circumvent the process by bringing issues directly to Obama, outside the traditional staff process. There was also the problem of her unwavering enthusiasm for Obama’s ideas. As one senior aide noted, ‘It’s tough to have her around when you’re trying to tell the president, ‘Well, no, I think this is wrong.’ Because she’s always there saying, ‘Oh, yes, it’s fine.’

Emanuel could not compete with Jarrett. Even though he also knew Obama from Chicago, Jarrett’s relationship was longer and deeper. Emanuel could have all the tantrums he wanted, but Jarrett was closer to the president. Emanuel left in October of 2010. As the Weekly Standard’s Matthew Continetti joked, Emanuel’s struggles with Jarrett ‘led to Emanuel’s sudden discovery that he had always wanted to be mayor of Chicago.’

To replace Emanuel, Obama selected another Chicagoan, William Daley, from the famous Chicago political dynasty. Daley was a surprise choice, both to the staff and to himself. The White House staff saw him as a conservative outsider. National Security aide Ben Rhodes’s description of Daley is telling. According to Rhodes, Daley was ‘a bald, Chicago-accented centrist who’d recently been hired as chief of staff to make deals with Republicans.’

For his part, Daley had issues with the White House staff as well. According to the journalist Chuck Todd, Daley ‘had never met a group of people more disdainful of Congress than the White House staff he worked with.’ Daley also felt like an outsider among them, noting that ‘even though I knew Valerie and a few others, I wasn’t that close with any of the people.’ What made things worse was that the team he inherited was not his own, and he had little ability to make changes to the staff. As Daley complained, ‘the entire team was people who had been together from the very beginning, no doubt about it. That made it difficult, and all the slots were all filled. There was no full-scale sort of change beyond We’ll change the guy at the top— chief of staff role—and see if that makes a big difference.’

Although Daley faced difficulties with the staff, his biggest challenge was with Jarrett. The problems included minor inconveniences, like having to share a speechwriter with her, as well as more significant ones on policy. As an anonymous White House adviser told the New York Times about Daley’s predicament, ‘Valerie is effectively the chief of staff, and he knows, but he doesn’t know.’ Overall, Daley had even worse relations with Jarrett than Emanuel had, and could not even tolerate being in the same room as Jarrett.

After Emanuel and Daley left, Obama took a different approach to his chiefs of staff. Their replacements would have much less confrontational tacks towards the powerful Jarrett, including temporary placeholder Pete Rouse and former budget director Jack Lew. Denis McDonough, Obama’s final chief of staff, saw what had happened to his first term predecessors and was much more accommodating of Jarrett. He described Jarrett as an asset rather than a liability to being chief of staff, explaining that, ‘VJ makes my job easier, not harder. The fact that she’s close to the president and to the first lady. That coupled with the fact that she is a consummate professional.’ McDonough clearly saw the risks of antagonizing Jarrett, and instead tried to placate her, a strategy that seemed to work for him.

As for Donald Trump, he tried four different chiefs of staff, but none managed to eradicate infighting. The closest he came to getting things under control was his move to bring in Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly as chief of staff in July of 2017. This move reflected an instinctive, if temporary, interest in a more orderly process, at least until Kelly himself fell out of favor and eventually left at the end of 2018. Trump would have two more chiefs of staff, former Congressmen Mick Mulvaney and Mark Meadows. Neither tried to control the uncontrollable.

As this survey shows, chiefs of staff have a tremendous capacity to bring order to the chaotic White House environment. Yet they must be careful to avoid getting involved in the infighting themselves. If that happens, it can only exacerbate infighting, requiring the presidents themselves to intervene – if they are willing to do so.

Tevi Troy is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former White House aide. This is an exclusive excerpt from his latest book, Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump (2020).

Further Reading

Troy, Tevi, Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump (Regnery, 2020).

Troy, Tevi, and Lieberman, Joseph I., Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office (Lyons, 2016).

Troy, Tevi, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House (Regnery, 2013).