In the summer of 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established a commission to refresh and reorganize the newly expanding executive branch of government. Headed by a veteran public administrator named Louis Brownlow, the innocent-sounding Committee on Administrative Management was designed to reduce political tensions and increase efficiency by improving “our governmental machinery to meet new conditions and to make us ready for the problems just ahead.”
This was a classic FDR maneuver. Roosevelt didn’t care too much about efficiency, but he did understand power—and power concentrated, preferably by statute, in his deft, capable hands. He also understood that the practical consequence of the New Deal was a seismic shift in the balance of power in Washington. Simply put, he needed at his disposal a new administrative structure to help make the presidency first among the equal branches of government. The Brownlow Committee was eager to oblige.
“The president needs help,” it famously declared in the following year. And among its innumerable recommendations was the appointment of “not more than six administrative assistants [who would] remain in the background, issue no orders, make no decisions [and] emit no public statements.” All six, it was explained, would be possessed of “high competence” and “a passion for anonymity.”
Two years later, Congress took Brownlow’s advice and passed the Reorganization Act of 1939, creating the Executive Office of the President, with a resident bureaucracy, and moving the Bureau of the Budget from the Treasury to the White House. Just in time for World War II, the modern American presidency was born.
Roosevelt’s first six administrative assistants were men of high competence, all right, but their passion for anonymity was variable. Eighty years later, it seems laughable to reflect that, almost within living memory, the mammoth, omnipresent, all-powerful White House staff we now know and read about was once conceived as an able, self-effacing secretariat quietly coordinating federal policies and initiatives with cabinet departments. Of course, what Brownlow couldn’t know, but Roosevelt may have guessed, was that the Reorganization Act was no more exempt from the law of unintended consequences than any other reform—and successful beyond even FDR’s imagining.
The steady growth of the federal government has been accompanied by a matching concentration of power in the Executive Office of the President and an equally steady decline in the influence of departments and agencies. For the first century-and-a-half of the republic, executive power and policy were divided among presidents and their cabinets; since then, cabinet government has vanished, and practical power has resided almost exclusively in the White House. This is not necessarily the world the Founders intended, but it’s the world we inhabit.
Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump is Tevi Troy’s latest addition to the literature of presidential government. Entertaining, well-informed, and altogether sobering, Fight House serves a dual purpose: to explain the gradual but inexorable process that has transformed the White House in our time, and to remind us that the humans who work on the premises tend to behave in recognizably human ways. Troy also performs an essential function of history, reminding us that the present—even the present incumbent in the White House—is reflected in the past and is different not so much in substance as degree. The bitter battles, ruptured tenures, turf wars, and colorful personality disputes have happened before.
Consider my own very brief and inglorious service as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance. On the occasions when I attended meetings of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, the first order of business usually had little to do with foreign policy but was, instead, an urgent discussion of how to deal with the latest depredations by the enemy—in this case, the enemy being not the Soviet Union but Vance’s bitter rival, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. From his seventh-floor aerie in Foggy Bottom, Vance may have been closer to Carter’s instincts in diplomacy but, across town at the White House, Brzezinski was conveniently next door to the president.
The National Security Council had been established by Harry Truman at the dawn of the Cold War to improve coordination between and among the armed forces and the national-security establishment. That was the idea—and for the first decade or two, the NSC’s power and purview were comparatively limited. But its gathering influence, burgeoning staff, and strategic location within the White House ultimately made it the Department of State in fact if not name.
By 1969, when Henry Kissinger was installed as Richard Nixon’s national-security adviser, the state of affairs that frustrated Vance was irreversible: Foreign policy may have been executed by State but was created in the NSC. The old skirmishes that had once ranged cabinet secretaries against one another—over money, legislation, personnel, or policy—were now fought between factions or individuals within the White House. And as Fight House reveals in abundant detail, the working definition of “high competence” has evolved while the “passion for anonymity” is effectively obsolete. Most readers, after all, would be hard-pressed to name Truman’s ranking White House aide (Clark Clifford) or Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first NSC director (Robert Cutler). Both were men of high ability who enjoyed the confidence of their boss. But whatever power they exercised was almost entirely at the direction and discretion of the president.
This is nicely illustrated by Troy’s description of the rancorous debate within the Truman administration over recognition of Israel. Truman’s principal diplomatic mandarins were alternately wary and dubious, notably Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who fretted about our strategic position in the region, the outcome of any Arab–Israeli conflict, and, of course, access to oil. Truman wanted to recognize Israel but revered Marshall above all other public figures. His solution was to allow Clifford to coordinate the debate within the administration and win the argument, thereby achieving his aim without alienating Marshall, who reserved his wrath for Clifford.
In retrospect, this state of affairs seems almost quaint. In 1948, Clifford’s role was of minimal interest to the press and largely unknown to the public, while Marshall’s stature remained intact. Two decades later, these respective positions were reversed: Kissinger’s dominance over Nixon-administration foreign policy was both real and perceived, along with his serial humiliation of Secretary of State William Rogers. In 1973, Kissinger succeeded Rogers while retaining his NSC berth, a bureaucratic achievement never duplicated since. But the relative imbalance of power survives.
In one sense, there’s an element of logic at play in the realm that the Brownlow Commission created. Ours is not a parliamentary system, and appointments to the great departments of state are made (apart from selected Senate confirmation) outside any parliamentary process. The president is prime minister as well as head of state; but since neither he nor his cabinet are members of Congress, executive power is fiercely concentrated in the White House. The Founders’ cherished system of checks and balances is strongest when the rival branches are divided politically.
In either case, however, the modern Executive Office of the President more closely resembles a court than any bureaucracy. Presidents surround themselves with assistants distinguished either by fierce competence or intense loyalty, occasionally both, and their influence varies depending on the habits and personality of the president.
Eisenhower was a watchful and exacting manager, shaped by his irresistible rise within the Army and high command. When, for example, he appointed Harold Stassen as a Special Assistant for Disarmament in the White House, with cabinet rank, this set off an acrimonious, two-year struggle between Stassen and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who jealously guarded his prerogatives. In the end, Dulles prevailed and Stassen departed; but in his indirect way, Ike used Stassen as a counterweight to Dulles when it suited his purposes.
By contrast, Ronald Reagan was temperamentally detached from such hand-to-hand combat, trusting his subordinates to “work things out.” On the whole this worked well enough for Reagan, whose subordinates included such dexterous figures as Chief of Staff James Baker. But when it did not, it brought him very close to the edge of impeachment (Iran-Contra) and yielded the comic-opera White House conflict between Baker’s imperious successor, Donald Regan, and the president’s wife.
Which brings us to the sobering lesson of Fight House. Given the stakes involved, and the superpower status of the United States, conflict and controversy are inevitable in any presidency. Moreover, the supremacy of the executive branch ensures that any strategic White House berth becomes an invaluable credential in life. Factions are inevitable, and policy is hammered out in conflict and debate.
Yet while competence is rewarded, anonymity is not—and one striking feature of Troy’s chronicle is the extent to which the loyalty of staffers is not always to their patrons but to themselves. The West Wing is transformed into a glamorous kingdom of warring principalities, the purpose of which may be no higher calling than power for the sake of power itself. In the end, the success or failure of a presidency depends on the skill and perception of the president, who wields (in Troy’s summary) “quite a bit of power in controlling the level of internal disputes” but who must always be mindful of “its capacity to sink the best of leaders.”
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