Why you should care
Because gaining access to the corridors of power often means first trailing down those corridors behind someone with power.
A couple of President Obama’s White House staffers have been in the news recently, but probably not for the reasons the White House would like. First it was Jofi Joseph from the National Security staff, who was busted in October for surreptitiously sending out anti-administration tweets. More recently, a former top aide told Time magazine that Obama’s “no drama culture” often keeps the president from getting the whole truth about problems such as the glitches present in the Healthcare.gov website before its ill-fated launch. With staff members like these, who needs a press corps, right?
Thomas Jefferson maintained one secretary and one messenger, both of whom he paid for personally.
Sizable White House entourages, however, are a relatively recent invention. Thomas Jefferson maintained one secretary and one messenger, both of whom he paid for personally. It took the U.S. Congress until 1857 to appropriate funding for the hiring of a single White House clerk. But, as with the expansion of other government bodies, we have FDR to thank for the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939, which laid the foundation for the modern White House staff.
Since FDR, U.S. presidents have employed staffs of different sorts and strengths. As Theodore Sorensen, former aide to JFK, once remarked, some presidents use the Executive Office “as a farm league, some use it as a source of experts and implementers and some use it as Elba.”
Far from being exiled to Elba, some former members of what might be called the Staff of the United States (SOTUS) have moved on to distinguished careers outside the White House — and no doubt some of the 20- and 30-somethings running around the place now will go on to great things too.
Here OZY’s list of former SOTUS All-Stars, broken down by party. Who do you think would win a head-to-head matchup between these two teams of pundits, judges, politicians and entertainers?
THE RED TEAM
1. Dick Cheney
The former Veep’s first stint in the White House was as a staff assistant to President Nixon and later he was chief of staff to President Ford. True to form, Cheney advised then-Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld in a 1975 memo that the administration should employ the Department of Justice to exact revenge upon New York Times reporter Sy Hersh for a story he wrote on classified Navy missions in Soviet waters.
2. John Roberts
The current Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court served as the associate counsel under Reagan and as the principal deputy solicitor general under the elder Bush. In a February 20, 1984, memo, Roberts rebuked three female GOP members of Congress pushing “equal pay for equal work” for women, comparing the notion to socialism: “I honestly find it troubling that three Republican representatives are so quick to embrace such a radical redistributive concept. Their slogan may as well be, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to her gender.’”
3. Peggy Noonan
The Wall Street Journal columnist worked as a speechwriter and special assistant to Reagan and the elder Bush. Noonan was responsible for several memorable Bush catchphrases, including “a kinder, gentler nation,” “a thousand points of light” and, most famously, “Read my lips: no new taxes”—a pledge whose reversal is the most cited reason for Bush’s defeat in the 1992 election. Don’t worry, Peggy, “Sometimes in life you just want to keep walking.”
4. Pat Buchanan
The syndicated columnist, cable news pundit and former presidential candidate worked as an adviser and speechwriter in the Nixon White House, coining the phrase “silent majority” and helping to attract millions of Democratic voters to Nixon. It was Buchanan who famously advised Nixon to burn the notorious White House tapes during Watergate.
5. Henry Hager
Mr. Jenna Bush once served as a White House aide under Karl Rove and helped his future father-in-law win re-election in 2004 before marrying his daughter in 2008. Hager now works as a principal at KKR, a private equity firm in New York, and is the proud father of George W. Bush’s first grandchild, Mila Hager, born in April.
THE BLUE TEAM
1. Chris Matthews
The host of Hardball on MSNBC was a former congressional staffer and a presidential speechwriter during the Carter administration. Long-rumored to be considering a run for Arlen Specter’s Senate seat in his home state of Pennsylvania, Matthews ultimately decided against it and renewed his contract with MSNBC about a month before Specter announced his switch to the Democratic Party.
2. Jack Valenti
The late Hollywood legend and longtime head of the Motion Picture Association of America got his start as a special assistant to LBJ. Valenti’s loyalty to President Johnson was so intense that someone once remarked, “If LBJ dropped the H-bomb, Valenti would call it an urban renewal project.”
3. George Stephanopoulos
The host of ABC’s This Week served as a senior advisor on policy and strategy and White House communications director during Bill Clinton’s first term. Unable to take the pressure and turmoil he experienced in the administration, Stephanopoulos resigned in 1996.
4. Wayna Wondwossen
Before she penned her Grammy-nominated single, “Loving You,” the singer worked as a speechwriter under President Clinton. Wayna admits that she did not find writing political speeches intellectually satisfying and prefers to write something “uplifting” that people would actually like to hear more than once.
5. James Fallows
When he took the job with Jimmy Carter at age 28, Fallows was the youngest chief speechwriter in American history. One of the country’s premier journalists, Fallows came to national attention after he left the administration and wrote a revelatory piece in the Atlantic entitled “The Passionless Presidency.” His interviews revealed, among other things, that Carter’s legendary micromanaging extended to White House tennis-court bookings — they had to be made personally with the president.