Good chief of staff is a must-haveLast Tuesday, five former White House chiefs of staff gathered at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C. The attendees included Joshua Bolten for George W. Bush, John H. Sununu for George H. W. Bush, Kenneth Duberstein for Ronald Reagan, Jack Watson for Jimmy Carter and James Robert Jones for Lyndon B. Johnson.
They got together for the four-hour Discovery Channel documentary program, “The Presidents’ Gatekeepers.” The Discovery Channel interviewed all 20 living White House chiefs of staff to explore the decision-making processes and untold stories about the presidents they served.
At the program-launching event, they discussed the role of the White House chief staff for different administrations. Citing former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Sununu said that a good president is willing to make a hard decision while a bad one always avoids making a decision. Though he didn’t name names, his opinion was seen as criticism of President Barack Obama, who handed over the decision for military action against Syria to Congress.
Lately, the role and position of the chief of staff is being studied in U.S. politics. A good chief of staff is a must for a good president. All great leaders have been supported by great aides. As the joke goes, former President Bill Clinton used to complain that his assistants kept his schedule too tight, so the chief of staff added some free time for the president. Soon, the scandal with White House Intern Monica Lewinsky broke out.
Always pressured to make decisions, the president finds consolation from the chief of staff. Former President Gerald Ford said he couldn’t imagine being president without a chief of staff, as he plays the role of filtering ideas when making a decision. When President Obama made up his mind to have Congress decide on military action against Syria, he called Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and took a walk with him around the Rose Garden. That’s why McDonough became a target of American media’s attacks.
However, serving as the chief of staff is not easy, as he has to play the roles of CEO, manager and therapist. It must be tiring and stressful. James Baker, who is considered to be the best chief of staff, confessed that he was foolish to serve twice.
What makes a good chief of staff? Georgetown University’s professor Stephen Wayne says five qualities are required: Be knowledgeable of Congress; say “no” to the president; be wary of the weaknesses of the president; keep a low profile; and be a good and honest mediator.
Korean politics is in turmoil. Coincidentally, a new chief of staff has been appointed. I’d like to add one more quality on professor Wayne’s list: The chief of staff shouldn’t be a target.
*The author is the JoongAng Ilbo Washington bureau chief.
By PARK SUNG-HEE