Teams of Rivals

Some news events are exciting but unimportant from the perspective of politics and social change. They even have a name for such events: “pseudo-events.” The Super Bowl is a pseudo-event, as is a salacious sex scandal. The problem in writing a serious book about American politics is that, although pseudo-events lack social significance, they are often what average readers care about. Profundity bores most people, even readers of politics. They want to find out who’s up, who’s down, and how the great game of politics is played.

This is why Tevi Troy’s new book, Fight House, is so remarkable. Troy is a former Deputy Secretary for Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration, and therefore someone with first-hand knowledge of bureaucratic politics. He also has a doctorate in American Civilization, which gives him the analytical tools needed to spot trends. With his combined skills, he has crafted a truly enjoyable read that joins surprising, even titillating, political pseudo-events with serious analysis of how government works. Tracing the history of conflict inside White House staffs from FDR to Trump (with each administration getting its own chapter), he explains why some administrations succeed while others fail, with an eye toward advising future administrations on how they might conduct themselves.  

Managing Conflict

Like all political realists since Machiavelli, Troy recognizes that, for any White House administration, success is uncertain. Success in politics is, to a high degree, a matter of chance. What Troy wants to do, as Machiavelli did, is to give an administration a better than even chance of success—that is, to improve the odds. He examines three sources of conflict as the basis for doing so.

Ideology comes first, with opposing belief systems a major source of staff infighting. Usually, administrations with this problem devolve into two ideological camps, but sometimes it can be three, as, for example, in the current administration, where “globalists,” traditional Republicans, and populists (or Trump loyalists) battle it out.

Second comes “process,” or how the White House organizes its people. The inexorable expansion of White House staff that began under FDR continues to this day. Even Eisenhower, who preferred the old Cabinet model of governance, practically doubled the number of White House staff during his tenure. Still, organization varies.

An example is the position of chief of staff. Truman began the trend by hiring an “assistant to the president.” Eisenhower had the first official “chief of staff.” Later, presidents such as Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter used an alternative, spokes-on-the wheel system, with various government officials reporting directly to the president rather than to a chief gatekeeper. (Carter did install a chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, toward the end of his term.) The chief-of-staff model did not become firmly entrenched until George H.W. Bush, after it had worked so effectively for his predecessor. It remains the model to this day.

It seems that things quickly head south when a president tolerates ideological discord because he himself has no ideological rudder. 

Yet other procedural variations persist —for example, the degree to which presidents keep a tight rein on staff, with clear lines of authority and power concentrated in a few hands, as opposed to a looser, more freewheeling approach to governance. The Ford administration, notes Troy, was an extreme example of the latter, with officials taking liberties plucking memoranda out of Ford’s inbox, along with the occasional wildcat operation by speechwriters such as Robert Hartmann, who would purposely hold on to drafts of speeches until it was too late to change them. This led in one case to the disastrous Whip Inflation Now, or WIN, slogan that Hartmann slipped into a Ford speech at the last minute, and that became a national laughingstock. The Trump administration also sits on the “loose” side of the spectrum.

Third is a president’s willingness to tolerate infighting and turmoil. Some presidents, such as Eisenhower and Johnson, clamped down on infighting, while others, such as Carter and Clinton, allowed it. Trump has a high tolerance for infighting. “I like conflict,” he said, purportedly for its ability to allow dissenting views to be heard.

Troy provides a useful scorecard at the book’s end to help order his findings. Again, it is hard to draw conclusions about the best organizational method when so much in governance depends on chance. Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton had successful presidencies in the sense that each was elected to a second term. At the same time, each had the fortune to govern during good times. Eisenhower enjoyed post-war prosperity and a war (in Korea) that ended early in his first term. Reagan and Clinton presided over economic booms and years of relative peace. Whether these presidents owed their success to chance or to organization is hard to say. Still, correlating the tone and style of the various administrations with their relative degree of success allows for some conclusions.

Drawing on Troy’s findings, especially on the failed administrations of Carter, Ford, and George H.W. Bush (on domestic policy), it seems that things quickly head south when a president tolerates ideological discord because he himself has no ideological rudder. As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head. The lack of rudder gives way to ideological infighting among staff, which leads to severe disruptions in policymaking. In the Carter and Ford administrations, a high tolerance for infighting only made matters worse. Bush had a low tolerance, but the fact that he failed to move aggressively to tamp down conflict demonstrated, for all practical purposes, a moderate tolerance. It also suggests, in a more roundabout way, the rudderless quality at the top, for if Bush had possessed strong ideological convictions on domestic policy, he would have been more likely to enforce his low tolerance attitudes.

Staff infighting can be further parsed, as some forms are more destructive than others. Troy describes the infighting that arises when one of the parties has a special link to the president. In some cases, that party is family, as in the Kennedy administration, where JFK’s brother, Robert, fought constantly with Vice-President Johnson, or in the Reagan administration, where wife Nancy warred with Chief of Staff Don Regan. But while some of these fights were connected to policy, more often than not they involved protocol disagreements—for example, Nancy fighting with Regan over whether the president should give a press conference on the Iran-Contra scandal. Sometimes the two parties simply disliked one another intensely, and because one party was family, there was little a president could do—other than fire the other party.

More problematic are the fights over policy arising because the president lacks a clear agenda. The fights themselves are not the problem. For instance, presidential assistant Clark Clifford fought Secretary of State George Marshall, with President Truman present, over whether to recognize the newly created State of Israel. But Truman knew all along what he was going to do, which was to recognize Israel. He simply wanted to see both sides presented, at the very least to give the losing side the feeling that it had been given a chance to argue its case. No ideological vacuum existed at the top.

Problems arise when such fights take place amid a vacuum. Examples include the Brzezinski-Vance fight over foreign policy during the Carter years, the Darman-Pinkerton fight over tax policy in the first Bush administration, and the Rumsfeld-Powell fight over foreign policy and the Iraq war in the second. Even here, ideological differences among staff, although very important, are not necessarily decisive. Richard Darman was said to have no ideology at all (although lack of ideology itself is a kind of ideology), but instead merely a giant ego. (When speaking to him for the first time, one reportedly learned very quickly about his perfect score on the math portion of the SAT.) In any event, these fights, ideological or not, when taking place inside a rudderless White House, helped contribute to policy incoherence, bad decisions, and a failed presidency.

In the case of George W. Bush, although the president had strong ideological convictions on domestic policy—for example, his concept of “compassionate conservatism”—on foreign policy he seemed to defer to Rumsfeld and Cheney, which again proves the rule about the need for a presidential rudder. While the 2008 financial meltdown was not really Bush’s fault, as blame for the housing bubble must be shared with Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan’s low interest rate policy and President Clinton’s decision ten years earlier to force banks to make subprime mortgage loans, Bush did own the Iraq war debacle completely.

Academics and “Organization Men”

Other interesting side questions arise from Troy’s work. For example, who has the greater record of failure on a White House staff: intellectuals or the “organization men”? Intellectuals typically come from academia, where words often matter more than reality, and where people mostly supervise themselves. Organization men (and women) usually come from business, where reality looms large, and where people learn to supervise other people. I once attended a lecture by the late political scientist Amos Perlmutter, who argued for the general rule, “no professors in government,” given his sense that professors make bad policy decisions due to their lack of real-world experience and their inability to harness the talents and skills of others.

On one level, Troy’s anecdotes are pseudo-events. On another level, they are part and parcel of all regimes, essential to politics, and therefore something that any future civil servant must prepare for.

Yet no general rule on this matter emerges from Troy’s analysis. Some of the fights between White House staff were, in fact, cases of intellectuals warring against organization men, or, at the very least, people with less real-world experience warring against those with more. For example, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, the academic, fought against Secretary of State William Rogers, who, although a lawyer and not a businessperson, had real-world experience managing people as Eisenhower’s Attorney General. Yet was Kissinger, who emerged victorious in the rivalry, a success or failure? His opening to China proved wise; his policy of détente, on the other hand, proved unwise, as Reagan’s subsequent policy of aggressive engagement pushed the Soviet Union toward destruction. It’s hard to say if intellectuals are a source of trouble in administrations, as their records, like those of most government officials, are so mixed.

Organization men have no better track record. Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, who ran Ford Motor Company before entering public service, pushed the disastrous policy of greater involvement in Vietnam, although he did change his mind a few years later when facts on the ground changed, prompting Johnson to replace him with Clark Clifford, according to Troy.

This willingness to change tack, in contrast with an intellectual’s tendency toward rigid loyalty to ideology, may represent a point in the organization man’s favor. A college president once complained about the expense of running a science department, in contrast with running a math or philosophy department, but in such a way as to criticize the philosophers. He said, “All the math department needs is paper, pencils, and waste paper baskets, while the philosophy department doesn’t even need waste paper baskets.” The point being that philosophers (and intellectuals more generally) tend to fall in love with their ideas and rarely think them bad enough to go into the trash. Moreover, because real-world facts are too sparse in their environment to force a change in outlook, intellectuals acquire the habit of sticking too long to their cherished paradigms. This is fine in the university, but in government it can have ruinous effects.

A Warning Shot

Troy’s book should be required reading for any incoming administration. It should also be read by anyone aspiring to public service—at least as a warning shot across the bow. Some of the daily humiliations and machinations in government that Troy describes are outrageous. Kissinger once overworked his assistant Lawrence Eagleburger so much that Eagleburger fainted, but instead of expressing concern, Kissinger reportedly just stepped over Eagleburger’s body and asked again for the document he had been looking for. Then there are the nasty tricks that one staffer uses to bring down another, so that he or she might rise—for example, leaking tidbits to the press in language that purposely uses the diction of the other staffer, so that the other staffer gets blamed for the leak. Then there are the egos, such as the person who never forgives the other person for exiting Air Force One first. Who are these people? Why do they put up with this? More importantly, why would anyone want to work in such an environment?

On one level, all these ridiculous anecdotes are pseudo-events. On another level, they are part and parcel of all regimes, essential to politics, and therefore something that any future civil servant must prepare for. As such, they may not be pseudo-events after all. They are as enduring and relevant to the formulation of public policy as, say, economic interests. Troy, at least, has offered the ambitious, young go-getter, determined to make his or her name in government service, a valuable primer on what to expect.