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Part 3 – The Gatekeepers


Ronald Reagan and James Baker 3rd


VIEWED as one of the great post-war American Presidents, Ronald Reagan realigned US policies toward conservatism. His presidency saw the decline of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. It also saw the stint of the longest serving White House Chief of Staff (COS), James Baker 3rd. Theirs is the exemplar of a working relationship between a president and the primary alter ego. This is the last archetypical US president/chief of staff team (including those in the Part 1 and 2 of this series) that I will draw lessons from that could be applied in local presidential governance. (Most of these are extracted from Whipple’s book, and quotations are therefore attributed to the him.)


One important element in selecting the COS is his knowledge of how the center of power, Washington D.C., works. Baker was an ‘insider’ who had had extensive experience in the White House and Capitol Hill (US Senate and Congress), having been a bureaucrat, served in sub-cabinet and cabinet posts in various Republican administrations, and worked as a topnotch lawyer in the capital. Shunned by Reagan’s campaign staff from California, mostly “outsiders” from the Washington scene, Baker co-opted them by forming a ‘troika’ (with Edward Meese and Mike Deaver) serving the Oval Office, with him as the ‘first among equals’. The other members of the troika supervised the formulation of domestic policies, National Security Council and cabinet meetings while Baker had the handle on paperwork, speechwriting and WH staff. More importantly, he controlled information to and from the president and the execution of policies.


The Philippine context


As the COS position is non-existent in Malacañang,the Executive Secretary (ES) could be the primary gatekeeper. But there are similarities with US practices that are applicable to the local scene. For one, the COS/ES needs to be the dispenser of the president’s time, the most valuable asset in presidential governance. This works only if PRRD empowers his alter ego to assume that function. With the Deegong’s strong and rough personalityand degree of volatility, the COS/ES could find himself in constant stress-filled situations that could test their fragile bond of trust.


The problems confronting the Deegong could have been averted if his alter egos were the “face of the issues” responding to the public as first line of defense. The needless exposure of DU30 to political heat, even of his own making, had to be endured by the cabinet member concerned. The COS/ES responsibility is to distribute to the respective cabinet members their specific roles as political heat shields or lightning rods;deflecting from DU30 whatever fallout occurs. The COS/ES is the “bastonero,” one who enforces these sordid assignments.


“As an efficient conductor of political heat, these honorable secretaries must prevent damage or serious erosion to the political capital of the presidency.”(Lorenzana, The Manila Times, January 26, 2017)


A case in point is a critical one played by the spokesman of the presidentwho strives almost daily to scrub DU30’s rough edges with his own outer sheen; modulating presidential language in palatable bite sizes served to the public. But by doing so SecretaryAbella continues to expend his own meager political capital and credibility, absorbing heat directed at the president.He becomes the “face of the issue”and could be magnificently consumed by it.


In retrospect, the fallout from the “war on drugs” could have been managed by the justice system and police structure of the state. But the president overlaid by his ‘strongman persona’ couldn’t tame his mischievous side, giving in to the temptation of such pronouncements as “fattening the fish” with the carcasses of the drug lords and addicts. What many suspected to be campaign bluster crept into the deadly political conversation, one that transformed the concept and treatment of human rights with international complications. What could have been a legitimate war against “narco-politics” instead became a transgression against human dignity.


These concerns are attributable to the structural defects of the Office of the President on one hand, and PRRD himself, a singularly overwhelming presence, on the other. The COS/ES, if streamlined well could have alleviated the former; but the latter is exclusively the president’s to moderate.Under these circumstances, you need a COS/ES who can communicate matters to the president, whether he likes to hear them or not. He has to be “willing to speak the truth to power”.


The persona of the Deegong has been extensively discussed and analyzed. What has surfaced are the two aspects of the man and the president; two faces of the same coin. In private he is amiable and oftentimes soft-spoken, the proverbial “humble man carrying a big stick”. In our rare encounters, he was the fine “gentleman of the old school,” knowledgeable on a plethora of subjects. But the conversation always ends up with his bête noire, the drug menace, a recurring theme of his public pronouncements that borders on being monotonous, losing its effective message. But on center stage, an altogether different persona emerges, triggered perhaps by an adoring audience but constantly falling forthe baiting of a confrontational press. Clearly, he needs to read his speeches, curtail his media appearances to a minimum, and use more of his alter egos to carry the burden of the public face of governance.


As discussed in the previous articles, proximity and access to the presidency are paramount concerns for the COS/ES. He traffics who gets to see the president. The COS/ES has to be brutal in scheduling decisions and must enforce the same with discipline and order.


Tapestry of policy


Most problems in government are interconnected, none solely within the jurisdiction of one department.


Presidential decisions more often than not have implications that may involve the justice system, congressional liaisons and budget considerations, etc. The COS/ES’ job is to connect them, weaving disparate viewpoints into one whole tapestry of policy.


The spokesman and cabinet members must have priority access but as to the latter, the COS/ES and his staff must decide who adds value to a presidential face time, and the flow of papers need to be staffed out. (During Ramos’ time, we had his famous CSW, complete staff work).


It is in dealing with the cabinet members, a motley high-power group with their own fiefdoms and legitimate agenda to protect, when tensions arise. They can’t be permitted to unduly burden the president. Thus, the COS/ES and his staff must resolve disputes before they reach the president; be an “honest broker” and not inject his own personal agenda; and all must understand that the COS/ES office is where policy and politics converge.


After 15 months, PRRD has already paid his campaign debts with sinecures distributed around. “Historically, the people who got most presidents in trouble are their old pals from home.”(Whipple) It is high time DU30 changes gears and enhances his coterie of “true believers” with pragmatic political technocrats, to precipitate creative tension producing the kind of intellectual and political energy to get things done. And this should be personified by a new class of presidential operatives under the trusted COS/ES. As Whipple wrote in his book, quoting James Fallows: “…maybe that’s the strength of presidents like Ronald Reagan – who don’t think they’re the smartest person around”.


The most successful leaders“are those that are secure enough to surround themselves with extremely strong-willed, talented people”.
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