When a cabinet's chumminess wears off

"The exalted treatment afforded any president, the public expectations that he can and should solve the nation's problems, along with deference from fellow politicians and policy makers, all help create an atmosphere of unreality in the White House." So begins a percipient paragraph by political scientist William E. Mullen in "Presidential Powere and Politics" (1976). Now we have a new President-elect and the problems of executive management begin again. Ronald Reagan says he wants to restore "cabinet government" in Washington and we shall see. Jimmy Carter said the same thing four years ago. It didn't work.

"The members of the cabinet are a president's natural enemies," said crusty Charles G. Dawes, who served Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover.

Franklin Roosevelt wrote, "The Treasury is so large and far-flung and ingrained in its practices that I find it almost impossible to get the action and the results I want even with Henry [Morgenthau] there. But the Treasury is not to be compared with the State Department."

Now the Treasury is twice the size of Roosevelt's day and it is probably twice as hard for a president to work his will. When Pakistan and India went to war over Bangladesh, Richard Nixon grew furious when he and Henry Kissinger were unable to get the machinery of government to "tilt" toward Pakistan. By the time he accomplished it the war was over.

The tug-of-war between presidents' cabinets and presidents' staffs is so recent and hidden that most people don't understand it.

Voters often have a simplistic notion of the presidency anyway. Presidents are a lot less powerful than myth makes them out, at least on domestic matters. Foreign affairs is another matter. The modern built-in rivalry between cabinet and staff illustrates the point.

Presidents tend to be isolated in their awesome eminence and their White House staffs are their eyes and ears. As White House counsel Ted Sorensen observed, "These people are chosen for their ability to serve the president's needs and to talk the president's language." John Kennedy brought to the White House the "Irish mafia." When Lyndon Johnson succeeded him he told everyone to stay on, but the Kennedy staff dropped out one by one; the Oval Office heard Western and not Eastern accents. Personal loyalty is required by the very intimacy of the system. Richard Nixon had John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman; the Nixon staff in turn was replaced under Gerald Ford in four months. Under Jimmy Carter we are all familiar with the close-knit Georgia crowd. It will be unusual if Ronald Reagan does not follow the pattern in part anyway. Bill Moyers, an aide to Lyndon Johnson, once said:

"Any president has to have around him some people who are unquestioningly loyal -- that their very loyalty is a source of strength to them."

The cabinet is a different kettle of fish.

Cabinet members are picked, to begin with, for geographical and occupational diversity and for various social, economic, and political reasons. There's somebody from the East, somebody from the West. The heads of the commerce and labor departments represent different clientele. There are committees up in Congress who are tied in with individual cabinet departments and have proprietary interests. To be effective a cabinet member has to keep ties fresh and supple. The new cabinet member finds permanent civil servants in each department who know the traditions. A president picks a prominent figure to head a cabinet spot and for a while the contact with the White House is close and chummy. But then the president and his staff note subtle changes: The cabinet member is aware of his new environment -- he is "going native." He speaks for the department (as, indeed, he is supposed to do). Perhaps he has political ambitions. He appears before congressional committees to testify. The White House staff, by contrast, is less conspicuous, it is neither subject to congressional confirmation nor questioning.

"Cabinet government" in the parliamentary sense may be impossible under the American separation of powers. Incoming presidents always seem to yearn for it. Both Messrs. Carter and Walter Mondale regularly advocated "question hours" in Congress for cabinet members. Nothing came of it.

Staff and cabinet are not the same thing at all. I always remember that supreme moment in Watergate when Gen. Alexander Haig, Mr. Nixon's chief-of-staff , told Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Here was the quintessential staff talking to cabinet. "This is an order from your Commander-in-Chief," said the grim general. Richardson was committed to the independence of Cox, however, and resigned.

Such differences are rarely confrontational but illustrate the cleavage in roles in the presidential hierarchy.

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