Since Richard Nixon’s Presidency, no Commander in Chief has succeeded without an effective Chief of Staff. The failures and shortcomings that highlighted both the Ford and Carter Administrations seemed to leave one thing clear; a modern president can not efficiently govern his or her nation, without delegating some important but mundane tasks to a loyal adviser, someone who isn’t afraid to say what the president doesn’t want to hear. The resulting appointee is someone who, for all intents and purposes, acts as a low profile co-president.
A Chief of Staff needs to be loyal to their president. Nixon’s first Chief, H.R. Haldeman, spent 18 months in prison after being indicted for perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice, all in his effort to protect the president from the repercussions of the Watergate Scandal. Nixon’s reliance on Haldeman as his chief led to the creation of a “spokes of the wheel” staff system, where White House staffers reported to the chief, and the chief reported to the president, a system which the White House still operates under today. Haldeman utilized that hierarchy to orchestrate dozens of key diplomatic events, including Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China. The White House under Haldeman was a well-oiled machine, and it made Nixon an incredibly effective president until he was taken down by the aforementioned scandal.
The subsequent president, Gerald Ford, didn’t place much faith in the hierarchy installed by Nixon and Haldeman. While he eventually gave in to the demands of Chiefs of Staff Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, allowing them to delegate presidential duties as they saw fit, the shakeup came too late to save his presidency. He lost the White House in 1976 to Jimmy Carter, who made good on a campaign promise not to appoint a Chief of Staff, and for the first two and a half years he suffered for that decision. Carter refused to delegate any of his presidential duties, to the point that he was personally reading and annotating every briefing he was given, even signing off on requests to use the White House Tennis Court. With his administration bogged down by an ego-fueled bureaucratic nightmare, Carter chose to appoint political adviser Ham Jordan as his Chief of Staff. But Jordan’s failure to take the job seriously, highlighted by a series of PR mishaps (most notably an incident in which he reportedly “stared at the breasts of the Egyptian ambassador’s wife at a Washington reception and remarked, ‘I have always wanted to see the pyramids'”), contributed to Carter’s downfall.
The bottom line is, all signs compel the observer to accept the conclusion that a modern president can not be effective without an excellent chief of staff. Like I’ve pointed out before, Mr. Trump has an excellent track record of breaking these types of presidential precedents, but let’s examine for a moment the man who the president appointed six months ago to the position of Chief of Staff.
Reinhold “Reince” Priebus. Lawyer, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and now the holder of an office that should make him the second most influential man in America. But despite some controversies that made headlines a few weeks into the Trump Presidency, Priebus hasn’t been making much news. Nearly all stories covering him in the past several months have been speculative, pointing out that he’s maintaining a presence in the RNC, pondering whether or not he feels secure in his position, but even that speculation is dying down at this point. Priebus lacks qualities found in previous successful chiefs, he had no long-lasting loyalty to Trump until his election, and there is no intimate friendship to be seen. Priebus has certainly not been one of the more remarkable members of the Trump Administration. Then again, if the job of the Chief of Staff is to influence policy, but not to be seen, to act as the “man behind the curtain” so to speak, is this just a sign the Priebus is doing the job right? Maybe. Maybe not. These sorts of things are usually only revealed to the general public through high-profile scandals, or eventually by the chief themselves, in memoirs published well after their administration is out of power.
The average tenure of a White House Chief is about 18 months, more due to the stress of the job than anything else, so it’s possible Priebus will be relevant on the national stage again sometime in the next year. If he is to be replaced, then by whom? Roger Stone? Steve Bannon? Until then, one has to wonder: in what direction is Reince Priebus, the man in the office adjacent to Donald Trump, steering the United States, if he is at all?