“What if Adams should die and Eisenhower becomes president of the United States?” went a popular wisecrack among political insiders in the mid-1950s. The reference was to Sherman Adams, a stern, no-nonsense former governor and congressman from New Hampshire whom Ike appointed as White House chief of staff. The first individual ever to hold the title, Adams was the administration’s “abominable ‘no’ man.” Every decision flowed through him. Every scrap of paper that the president saw had first to be placed on his desk.
Many top-ranking officials despised the heavy-handed chief of staff, but Eisenhower—who fashioned the job (as well as the title) after the military system, where chiefs of staff wielded considerable command authority—routinely dismissed such misgivings. “I need him,” he would say.
With Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s elevation to the top White House staff position, observers wonder whether the new chief—a retired marine general who hails from the same military tradition that Ike sought to emulate in the West Wing—can impose some control on Donald Trump’s factious and circuslike executive office. Will he be able to roll back the influence of the president’s motley band of loyalists? Or will he find himself no more effective than his hapless predecessor?
Given the peculiar and often unsettling ways of Trump, however, the better question to ask might not be whether Kelly can imitate Sherman Adams, but whether he’ll be compelled to step in and fill the same controlling function as Al Haig, another general who served as chief of staff to an increasingly unstable, angry, alienated and beleaguered president.
From George Washington through Franklin Pierce, Americans presidents relied principally on their cabinet members to plan and execute government strategy; there was no such position as chief of staff, as there was effectively no White House staff to oversee. Instead, they used personal funds to employ private secretaries. In 1857 Congress made the position of presidential secretary an official job and appropriated government money to cover the salary and expenses of the incumbent officeholder.
Many secretaries played important roles both during and after their tenure in the executive branch. Washington’s first secretary, Tobias Lear, later served as an American envoy during the first and second Barbary wars. He was succeeded by William Jackson, former secretary to the Constitutional Convention and combat veteran of the Revolutionary War. Meriwether Lewis, who earned fame as an explorer, was private secretary to Thomas Jefferson, as was William Burwell, who held the post until his election to Congress in 1806. Edward Coles, secretary to James Madison, went on to serve as governor of Illinois, while Nicholas Trist followed his stint under Andrew Jackson with a controversial diplomatic career.
Some presidential secretaries played consultative roles and managed congressional and political affairs for the White House; others were little more than clerks. John Nicolay, who, along with his more famous friend, John Hay, held the position under Abraham Lincoln, was in many ways an early precursor to the Sherman Adams style of management. He was Lincoln’s enforcer—“the bull-dog in the anteroom”—often “very disagreeable and uncivil,” who bristled at the “impatient demands of the gathering, growing crowd of applicants which obstructs passage, hall and ante-room.”
In later years, the role of presidential secretary would grow exponentially in power and influence, as men like George Cortelyou (William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt), William Loeb (Theodore Roosevelt), Joseph Tumulty (Woodrow Wilson) and Louis Howe (Franklin Roosevelt) assumed the prerogatives and responsibilities of a modern-day chief of staff. This trend accelerated in 1939, when Congress passed the Reorganization Act of 1939, which authorized the appointment of six presidential assistants and the establishment of the Executive Office of the President (EOP), thus vastly expanding the presidential staff. By the time that Eisenhower left office, the White House staff numbered 250 political, policy and clerical workers, in addition to 1,350 members of the EOP, which then included the Bureau of Budget, National Security Council, Council of Economic Advisers and Office of Emergency Planning.
The reorganization of 1939 vastly expanded the purview of the president’s top aide. Sherman Adams was influential not only because he was skilled in the use of power. More fundamentally, he had more power to wield than his earlier predecessors. (Of course, power is one thing. Judgement is another. He ultimately resigned in disgrace in 1958 after accepting gifts—including luxury hotel rooms and a vicuna coat—from a New England textile manufacturer on whose behalf he interceded with the Federal Trade Commission.)
The role was new and didn’t immediately stick. John Kennedy governed without a chief of staff. So did Lyndon Johnson, despite the widespread recognition that there was always a top staff man who ranked as first among equals: Walter Jenkins through the fall of 1964, and later, Bill Moyers. It was Richard Nixon who reintroduced the role and lent it lasting authority and gravitas—and it was under Nixon that the country most needed a steady hand at the helm.
Bob Haldeman, who served as Nixon’s chief of staff until his dismissal in 1973, described his boss as the “weirdest man ever to live in the White House.” A painfully shy individual, Nixon often avoided the Oval Office, preferring to work out of a private study in the Old Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House. There, in a room that Henry Kissinger described as dark and spartan, he spent hours each day jotting down notes on his “silent yellow pad”—the “closest friend” he had, according to Leonard Garment, Nixon’s former law partner and White House aide.
Nixon routinely bypassed his cabinet officers in reaching most major decisions, preferring to concentrate executive authority in the West Wing. John Ehrlichman was given domain over domestic policy, Henry Kissinger coordinated foreign policy and Haldeman served as gatekeeper and referee.
Haldeman perceived that the president was a man at war with himself. In his memoirs, he argued that Nixon needed “to be protected from himself,” and from his countless “vindictive orders,” many of them unethical, some of them patently illegal. He “rarely spared the rod or the knife in his speeches and, to put it mildly … wasn’t averse to using all possible means to try to defeat his opponents.” He “went too far at times,” appealed to people’s base fears and resentments, and divided and conquered the electorate with little compunction or regret.
Unfortunately, Haldeman—a forbidding, crew-cut man who inspired at least as much respect and fear as Sherman Adams—chose to feed Nixon’s worst instincts. When presidential aide Charles Colson suggested recruiting rank-and-file teamsters to rough up antiwar protesters, Nixon beamed. “They’ve got guys who’ll go in and knock their heads off,” he offered with excitement. Haldeman agreed, adding, “Murderers. Guys that really, you know, that’s what they really do … they’re gonna beat the shit out of some of these people.
Little wonder that Haldeman, who helped design and execute the Watergate cover-up, became the first and only presidential chief of staff to date to serve time in prison.
The job then fell to Al Haig, an active-duty, four-star Army general who, by the estimation of Attorney General William Saxbe, was the real “president toward the end. He held that office together.” Kissinger would go a step further. “By sheer willpower, dedication and self-discipline,” he maintained, Haig—who served as chief of staff in 1973 and 1974—“held the government together.”
It’s easy to forget how dangerously unstable Nixon grew in the final months of his presidency. He drank heavily, slept little and struck many aides as increasingly divorced from reality. In his last days in the White House, he wandered the halls aimlessly, talking to the portraits of former presidents that hung on the walls. He beckoned Kissinger to join him for an unsettling, private moment in the Lincoln Bedroom. “Henry,” he pleaded, “you are not a very orthodox Jew, and I am not an orthodox Quaker, but we need to pray.” Kissinger would rather have not, but when the president dropped to his knees, he had little choice but to follow. When the president seemed finished with his prayers, Kissinger began slowly to rise to his feet. But Nixon remained low to the ground, sobbing and pounding his fists against the bedroom carpet, crying “What have I done? What has happened?” Kissinger crawled over to his grief-stricken leader, embraced him in his arms and helped him to his feet. Several interminable moments passed before Nixon regained his composure. Kissinger scurried back to his office to relate the encounter to his alarmed staff.
To be sure, Haig was no good angel. When he learned of their existence, he urged the president to destroy secret Oval Office tapes; in effect, he tried to obstruct justice in the Watergate affair. It was he who ordered acting Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. And Haig fiercely defended the president on Capitol Hill until nearly the end. He was, in many respects, a hardline aider and abettor of Nixon’s worst tendencies.
But when he perceived that president’s position was untenable, he acted with probity. He instructed White House physicians to deny the president’s request for pills and tranquilizers. He first raised the issue of resignation with Nixon, then prodded him toward acceptance of that outcome, and instructed Vice President Gerald Ford to prepare himself for a quick succession. Haig would later stand accused of brokering a deal by which Nixon resigned in exchange for a full presidential pardon. He and Ford denied that charge until their dying days.
Leon Jaworski, who became special prosecutor after Cox’s dismissal, regarded Haig as the “37½” president. In many regards, this was true—and that fact should send a chill through the spine of any right-thinking person. Though he undoubtedly did great service to the nation in Nixon’s final days, Al Haig was an active-duty Army officer—unelected and unaccountable.
His high opinion of his own abilities and judgment would once again be on full display in the hours following Ronald Reagan’s near-assassination in 1981, when Haig, then serving as secretary of state, caused general panic by informing the American public that he was “in charge.” In fact, three other people, including Vice President George H.W. Bush—who was very much alive—stood before him in the order of succession.
Kelly may yet prove the one person capable of managing Trump, a man who even many conservatives regard as unhinged from reality, dangerously isolated inside the bubble of his own mind, erratic and besieged. Perhaps it will take another general to steer the country through another presidential crisis.
But if Kelly is ultimately forced to step in and play the role of America’s 45½ president, we will have arrived at a dangerous intersection. We’re lucky that things worked out the first time. History doesn’t always repeat itself.