Part 2 – The Gatekeepers
Gerald Ford and Donald Rumsfeld
FORD came into the presidency at the nadir of American global prestige. The US was losing the Vietnam war and Nixon resigned rather than be impeached due to the “Watergate Scandal”. An “accidental president,” Ford retained Nixon’s appointees. Gen. Al Haig, Nixon’s chief of staff who replaced Haldeman, continued in that capacity. This was a disaster in the making as Haig “acted as though he was president, and Ford his understudy”. Ford’s style of management added to this cauldron of complexity as he would govern with a mix of the old Nixon cabinet and some senior aides reporting to him directly—the spokes of the wheel—with him at the center. This free-for-all proved to be disastrous as cabinet members came in and out of the Oval Office with senior aides claiming access time.
It was not long before this configuration collapsed and the whole Oval Office along with it, when Ford, nine months into his presidency, pardoned the former President Nixon “for all offenses against the United States”. His popularity went on a freefall. His office was in disarray. Haig, the holdover, was ineffective as COS. Ford needed his own chief of staff.
Enter the “ruthless little bastard”. This was the description by Nixon of Donald ‘Rummy’ Rumsfeld, Ford’s handpicked COS and erstwhile Ford transition point man. Rummy was one of the more experienced and accomplished bureaucrats in the GOP (Republican Party) firmament. He was “known for his organizational skill and his ‘suffer-no-fools discipline’”(Whipple). He was a Washington insider and understood well the workings of the White House. His appreciation of his job was simple and succinct: “…governing without a chief is the quickest way (for the president) to lose credibility…once credibility (is lost), you can’t govern, so there has to be order, and…I would consider it my job to see that there was order” (Whipple).
The new COS moved in and begun cutting the heads of Ford’s old campaign staff who had sinecures at the White House. Haig was exiled with a new assignment away from Washington as NATO Supreme Commander based in Brussels. Two holdovers from Nixon’s cabinet with great reputation and even greater egos, Kissinger, Secretary of State and Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, were the only cabinet members permitted to see Ford alone.
Rummy with his deputy, Richard ‘Dick’ Cheney ran the Oval Office with discipline but it was not enough to arrest the slide of Ford’s popularity brought about by the Nixon pardon. He lost the presidency to Gov. Jimmy Carter, the “peanut farmer” from Georgia.
Jimmy Carter and Hamilton Jordan
The 39th President, Jimmy Carter, came into the White House as the “new kid” on the block. The obvious choice for his COS was Jack Watson, a Washington D.C. insider who could “reach out to the doyennes of Georgetown and mandarins of Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill”(Whipple). But in the struggle between the presidential transition team headed by Watson and Carter’s campaign staff, all from Georgia, the latter won, with the “primus inter pares” Hamilton Jordan, becoming Carter’s first COS. The architect of Carter’s winning strategy, he was brilliant in catapulting Carter from the “peanut-farmer governor” to the Oval Office. But he was way over his head as COS. He and his team took over the Oval Office “in profound ignorance of their jobs”. His personal life was tattered by scandal (the ‘amaretto and cream’ incident where he spits this drink at a young woman in a bar). The Oval Office was run like a campaign HQ allowing advisers and cabinet members equal access to Carter. The end for Jordan as COS came a few months after the infamous siege on the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, where 66 hostages were seized and kept for 444 days – up to the time Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, in the election of 1980.
The Philippine context
Malacañang does not have the classic American concept of chief of staff (COS). The closest to the office could perhaps be the Executive Secretary, the highest-ranking official in the Office of the President.
Both Philippine ES and American COS claim pre-eminence in the hierarchy of their respective executive offices. This is based on a political reality: access to the president. It imbues the person who occupies the office with a fragment of that imperium exclusive only to the presidency.
In our political life, especially in the highest echelons of governance, power is the main currency; and the president has copious amounts of it to dispense, but frugally. The ES/COS must see to it that it is done so.
This is why in the Philippines the Executive Secretary is known as the “little president”. By definition, his mandate is “to directly assist the President in the management of affairs of the government as well as to direct the operations of the Executive Office”. But the reality on the ground seems to be different. Titles and mandates are of little consequence to the Deegong.
From the beginning of his term, the President has apparently been acting as his own chief of staff with his Special Assistant to the President (SAP) Christopher ‘Bong’ Go, ever constantly at his beck and call, seldom leaving his side. If as the saying goes, “access to the presidency is power itself,” Bong Go could be the most powerful bureaucrat in government. But, with the propensity of the populist president to be accessible to all, and Go’s own admission that he receives from 500 to 1,000 texts daily and numerous calls, he could be the most harassed bureaucrat in government. We doubt that the SAP has the time or the inclination to pre-process policies that need DU30’s attention—a prime duty of a COS.
An internal mechanism may have been arrived at that includes the ES, ‘Bingbong’ Medialdea as the chiefpraetorian that guards the portals to the presidency.
The Deegong has been described as an alpha male, a superb local politician, trustful only of old friends, classmates and a coterie of bureaucrats in the uniformed services. He tends to dominate and intimidate. This is the nature of the beast, and perhaps these are the alter egos he is comfortable with in running this government. Or perhaps, the models described by Whipple in his book may not work in the Philippine context. The Deegong may not need to hire his own bastard. He already is one!
But this government could collapse given that the greater burden of responsibilities lie almost solely on the shoulder of this “73-year old millennial” passionately driven to offer the coming generations of Filipinos a shot at a better future by being the chief architect of a systemic and structural change.
And with all his magnificent faults and scarce virtues, this is the type of leader that this country needs today. His 80 percent approval rating is his constituents’ imprimatur.
(Next week: Part 3 – “One hell of a chief of staff”: Ronald Reagan and James Baker III; lessons from the gatekeepers that are universally applicable)