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`People policy'

By Thomas V. DiBacco / March 3, 1987



NO phenomenon is more puzzling in the contemporary United States than the manner in which White House management practice has evolved. In the old days, if a president made bad judgments or executed poor policies, he would bear the blame for these shortcomings, even though advisers might have led the president to such ends. George Washington was the first to bear the blame for ill-conceived actions, as reflected by the hostile reaction to his partisan Farewell Address - the speech largely crafted by Alexander Hamilton. Herbert Hoover was one of the last Presidents to accept responsibility for his unpopular policies. But Hoover would certainly take issue with the big-government alternative of his successor. With Franklin Roosevelt came an age of musical chairs. Advisers were changed frequently, according to the President's serpentine political objectives. With the Reagan administration the thesis evolved that the President could cut his political losses by dismissing chief of staff Donald Regan. If the news reports were correct, Mrs. Reagan appears to have been the leader of the (now successful) anti-Regan forces, lending a sui generis ingredient to modern political strategizing: namely, a first lady making key decisions for a sitting president who is still in apparent good health. Somehow buried in the recent Reagan-Donald Regan muddle are the real issues: Was the desire to fire Don Regan a scapegoat for the frustration that the President and his wife have over the Iran affair, the key to which most certainly belongs to Mr. Reagan in his foreign policy responsibilities? Has Mr. Reagan been an effective administrator in the White House? And would the better part of wisdom be for President Reagan to accept full and total blame for controversial policies that, like Harry Truman's proverbial buck, stopped with him?

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Unless these questions are answered in a straightforward manner, merely selecting a new White House chief of staff is unlikely to provide anything other than a cosmetic approach to the administration's real problem. Surely, too, a perceptive and responsible public servant would be hesitant to accept a position whose tenure is dependent, not on performance, but on prevailing political and familial moods - a situation that scarcely lends itself to a positive example of human resource development, that fancy-sounding word for a field that used to be called personnel, or, more informally, people policy.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.