Transfer of Power: Everything You Didn’t Know About Presidential Transitions with Dr. Terry Sullivan Executive Director of the White House Transition Project
In this episode of On Record PR, Caitlan McCafferty goes on record with Dr. Terry Sullivan, co-founder and executive director of the White House Transition Project, to discuss the history of Presidential transitions and the crucial events leading up to inauguration day.
More About Dr. Sullivan
Dr. Sullivan is a recently retired professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research continues to focus on Presidential leadership and tradecraft as well as the Presidential appointments process. His books on this subject include Nerve Center: Lessons on Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff. His most recent academic article focuses on why Senate reforms to curb minority obstruction have consistently failed. It is entitled, “The ‘Nuclear Option’ has Fizzled… Again. Here’s Why and What to Do About It.” In 2015, he was selected as the Professor of the Year in the University System by the North Carolina Board of Governors.
Dr. Sullivan is also the co-founder and currently Executive Director of the White House Transition Project, a non-partisan consortium of university researchers who, since 1997, have lent assistance to all the Presidential campaigns and to all the outgoing and incoming Presidential administrations so that they can successfully traverse the peaceful transition of power quickly and without troubling incident stand up for the American national government. President George W. Bush has called WHTP’s assistance “…a great help both to our 2001 transition in and then to our 2009 transition out.”
Caitlan McCafferty: I’m looking forward to speaking with you about the process of transitioning the country to a new administration and your organization’s role during this critical transition of power. However, considering what happened on January 6, at the Capitol, I would like to begin the interview with a discussion about those events.
This episode was recorded on Friday, January 8, 2021, just two days following rioters breaching the Capitol Building.
Dr. Sullivan, could you put the events of January 6, into historical context and discuss how this compares to other transitions throughout our country’s history?
There’s little historical context for what happened on Wednesday where the President of the United States conveyed to members of the audience, including Proud Boys and other Neo-Nazi groups, widely distributed plans for attacking the Capitol. They were approved by the President, his son,, and his lawyer all of whom encouraged them to “go forth and do battle,” which is what Rudy Giuliani called it, and “go after the members of Congress,” and “fight,” which is what the President encouraged them to do. All of those were incitements for these people who had been planning this for months. The contingency plan was at least as far as the department of justice has been able to determine the plan was if the Vice-President was simply just carrying out his constitutional duties to count the votes from the States. The Proud Boys would attack the Capitol and try to do something to disrupt. That’s what insurrectionists and terrorists do; they don’t have a massive plan. They create opportunities for gaining an advantage, and they do that through violence.
Caitlan McCafferty: I’m also a student of history. Before I went into communications, I studied history at American University in Washington, D.C., so I called that city home for a few years. The events of Wednesday were shocking. And as you said, it is unprecedented to see when we are watching a transition of power. .
Dr. Sullivan: I think the last time this happened was during the tenure of George Washington, the first President, who had to lead the militias of what we would now call the National Guards of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to put down people who had decided that they didn’t like paying taxes to the national government and were organizing an armed insurgency to take over the government so that they could run things as they saw fit. President Washington led these militias to put an end to it.
Caitlan McCafferty: There was a lot of discussion with the opposition to the vote of 1876, which I think is interesting, but a very different set of circumstances – with confederate electors, et cetera. We can put some articles in the show notes to give our listeners some background on that. Let’s zoom out and talk more about your role and the role of the White House Transition Project.
- Presidential Election of 1876: A Resource Guide, Library of Congress
- The Ugliest, Most Contentious Presidential Election Ever, Smithsonian Magazine
- Rutherford B. Hayes: Campaigns and Elections, The Campaign and Election of 1876, UVA Miller Center
What is the mission of your organization?
The White House Transition Project is a group of scholars and some non-profit centers that sometimes support our activities. We’ve been partners with the James Baker Center at Rice University. Sometimes we have partners; and sometimes we don’t. We’ve always partnered with the National Archives and Record Administration and the Presidential library system, which maintain a lot of the data that we develop, including a comprehensive variety of interviews with people who have worked in the White House about how they do their jobs.
What we provide are scholars who are interested in the presidency. We interview former White House staff about how they did their jobs and how their offices were organized but providing all the institutional memory that is not available to an incoming administration. We’ve been doing that for a little more than 25 years. Now, we help all the Presidential campaigns that seek out our help.
We’ve supported the outgoing administrations and the incoming administrations, particularly in the last three transitions, from George W. to Obama, Obama to Trump.
What are your goals as the executive director?
I wear two hats as the Executive Director.
I’m one of the primary researchers on what the President does all day because the presidency is very different from any other organization. It’s massively larger, quantum times larger than any other private organization. It’s incredibly complex and carries out responsibilities that no other actor in the American federal system carries out. One critical aspect of all of that is what is it that the President does? Being President is a job that no one has experienced doing before they start, even a Vice President and somebody with as much experience as a Joe Biden doesn’t really feel the burdens in the same way that a President does.
Nobody but those who have been president themselves knows the answer to “What is it that the President does?”. And nobody knows what the rhythms of their work are.
We are developing a vast and extensive database on what the President does minute by minute, and currently, it goes back to Eisenhower. We can say, here’s what you should expect. Here’s how crises were handled. As far as the President’s concerned, here are the different organizational structures that the White House has instituted around the President. And here are the effects of those choices.
What is it the President does all day? Who does he see all day? What are the choices he makes that affect those two things?
On the other hand, the executive director’s other primary job is to raise money, which unfortunately, the pandemic has pretty much shut down. I also maintain our website along with some others. We have a partner called biblio.org, a public-private consortium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I was a faculty member for 30 years. They maintain our data and our website. We also have volunteer staff that help us keep that website going, which has been quite a challenge because of the Russians.
What are some of the key milestones and timing of a typical Presidential transition?
Transition Planning Group
The most important milestone is setting up a transition planning group inside the campaign, as early as when the candidate announces.
George W. Bush, for example, ran one of the best transitions under very challenging circumstances, started planning for what they were going to be doing and how they were going to do it when they won about six weeks before he announced he was running for office. That’s a very good standard. They need to plan. The first milestone is setting up a transition coordinator, somebody to figure out what it is they don’t know, and how to get the information they do need. And most of that is about appointments and organizing the President-elect and their staff. So essentially, what is it the President does all day and how best can we magnify as a voice and utilize his or her time to the best advantage? It’s critical for that person be a part of the campaign. Somebody who reports to the campaign director daily typically, but does not have any campaign responsibilities. The reason for that is planning for a transition is much larger than anybody imagined. One of the things that often gets said to us when we first start meeting with these people is something akin to what was said to us when we first met with George W. Bush’s people, and that was:
We’re sending the best player on our AAA ball club up to the major league team. Texas is the second largest state in the union. And the governor is the best ball player on this AAA ball club, if you know, baseball. And a proper response to that was the difference between being a major league hitter and a AAA ball club hitter is the difference between a 92 mile an hour fastball and a 98 mile an hour fastball.
But if you look at the differences between what the governor of Texas does and setting up the government and what the President of the United States must do to stand up the American national executive, it’s the difference between hitting a 92 mile an hour, fast ball and hitting a fast ball that goes 1200 miles an hour. Or twice the speed of sound.
It’s not at all what they think it is.
As soon as they figure out that this not something they’re prepared for, that’s when they actually start being effective in transition planning. Then about six months out from the election day, the federal executive by statute has to begin cooperating with the Presidential campaigns, organizing information to provide their campaigns. And typically that cranks up around June 1st into some serious considerations. So that’s the second or third milestone by that point.
Right after the last national party convention, there’s a presumptive candidate in each national party, All the major campaigns can submit an unlimited number of names to the FBI to begin preliminary background checks of the NIC and various other databases. These are people whose campaigns have identified as people who are going to play a role in the transition and or people they expect to need national security clearances. The FBI begins processing these people, looking into their backgrounds. One big problem in all transition planning is let’s say, you’re the head of a major national corporation. And you spent the last 30 years of your life living inside the bounds, but when you were 18 as George W. Bush said, “when I was young and reckless, I was young and restless.” And even though you have lived your life inside the boundaries ever since, that life experience of maybe you were arrested for drunk driving, or were a cocaine user or whatever, the realities of national affairs are that it’s okay for business people to have that kind of background, but it’s not okay for people in national affairs.
It has to do with the legitimate concerns of vulnerabilities to compromise by foreign actors. It’s often the case that that businessman will think that his 30 years living inside the lines has made up for his two years in the state penitentiary as a juvenile. But the reality is that unless he tells the campaign or the President-elect’s staff about that, he is preempting the opportunity for the President of the President-elect to decide what’s important and what’s not right. That makes sense. And it’s often the case that these people don’t make that information available. And so that’s one of the things they have the President or candidate’s team and the President-elect, have to learn that the realities of national affairs are that these people can’t be allowed to make this decision for the President by withholding that information.
I think that’s hard for the candidates to learn, because it’s one of the things that, you know, they may have have already encountered with in their relationship with this person. They may have known this person for 20 years, and he may be a strong supporter. He’s got legitimate credentials for a lot of things, but the reality is, if he doesn’t make that information available, it will surely be found out. This information will always come out. The FBI is good at finding this information. So that’s one of the big milestones candidates must get over is discovering who the totality of their friends are. And then of course, there’s the election day itself and what’s called “ascertainment,” which we now have learned about because that frees up resources of the federal government to assist the President-elect and staff. For example, there is access to some levels of national security infrastructure and office space to help the President-elect gather the people he needs to gather together.
There’s another milestone. There are four tabletop exercises that the CIA developed that are required by statute, beginning in August. It consists of 26 potential scenarios of various kinds of crises. Four are selected at random and the administration outgoing and the administration incoming walk through those tabletop exercises. The first one takes place in August and involves just Senior Executive Service. These are senior civil servants who walk through what is essentially the decapitation of the American government. With nothing left, but the Senior Executive Service, how do they carry out such a scenario? The last one takes place tomorrow and will be a double top exercise about three to four hours long of a crisis in which the current President’s people stand behind and walk through the scenario. And then there’s a debriefing afterwards. This is particularly important because during the Obama inauguration, there was a threat on the inauguration and actual attempt by somebody to invade the inauguration. And they profited by having that exercise.
Caitlan McCafferty: I’m reading a promised land and I got to that point in the book. I learned a little bit about that recently.
How has the pandemic impacted the transition, if at all?
We’ve all learned a lot. Who knew how to do a Zoom meeting six months ago? Politicians are people, people. The people around politicians, the campaign staff, are “people” people, and they’re very engaged in personal interaction. They like to shake hands and hug shoulders. They’ve had to learn a lot, as we all have, about how to conduct business within social distancing protocols. All the original statutorily based transition support has been focused on that. A big part of the General Services Administration and transition planning is to set up an office building for the transition, and that kind of structure, offices, resources, et cetera, is made available to the national campaigns after the convention. So in a situation in which George W. Bush, his transition out was dictated by the 21st amendment.
His term was up, so there were two national campaigns, and they both had an office building provided to them by the GSA in which they could meet and have offices. Big open rooms with lots of cubicles and precisely what you don’t want in a pandemic. However, I don’t think the pandemic affected the campaigns because we’ve all learned how to do what we’re doing right now. I don’t think it’s really had much of an effect except now that there’s a newly elected President, a big part of that transition time period involves having a secure national security infrastructure for communications –doing away with their cell phones and getting them word clearance and new cell phones but also securing their computers from attack. That’s all made a lot easier if they’re all in one place inside the Washington federal infrastructure.
Obviously, newly elected President Biden’s team has done an outstanding job of planning. They were working on this early on as they should have been, when he was still President-elect. We track transitions and how good they are at getting people in position. We have our website, which some call the “transition patient monitor,” which identifies several positions. By comparison, President-elect Biden, is depending on the group cabinet, senior staff, et cetera; he’s ahead of all his predecessors or the average predecessor pace. And in addition to naming, say, for example, his attorney general as he did recently,, he has named four or five deep in the department of justice and that’s unprecedented.
And that reflects the fact that they know who they want in these positions. In Trump’s administration, he named his attorney general, but it took him another six or seven weeks to name a deputy attorney general. Biden did all of them at once. He’s done that in all his state defense, and that’s quite an accomplishment. Right now, he’s got a hundred White House staff people identified. And I don’t remember how many, but it’s a substantial number of the cabinet and cabinet agencies identified many levels down, and that’s unprecedented. I think it’s a reflection that he and some of the people around him knew what he was going to do. . And they’d been preparing for this for quite a long time.
What are the key positions that a new President-elect will need to appoint early in the transition?
White House Staff
First and foremost, White House staff.
Getting the President’s staff early and getting them used to working at the pace of the presidency early is a critical thing.
The biggest difference between being President of the United States and Senator from any state or CEO of the world’s largest multinational corporation is the pace, scrutiny and demands placed on a President. I’ll give you a good example:
Typically, every morning, the President of the United States receives a national security briefing from the director of national intelligence and the CIA director that happens about eight o’clock in the morning.
That briefing started long before the eight o’clock hour. It likely began at three or four in the morning when the deputy national security advisor – a proven, combat-ready military officer – rises for the day. He likely jogs 10 miles before he does anything and has to be on a secure line in his office at 6:40 a.m. for a briefing with 26 security agencies.
He then briefs the national security advisor, who orchestrates the morning meeting and needs to know what is being said to the President.
This is just one meeting, one operation. Domestic operations, press operations, and a whole range of people who must meet with the President have to be on the job hours before him and stay until he’s left for the residence.
If you’re like Lyndon Johnson and you don’t go home, you don’t go back to the residence until 10 P.M. These guys who were up at four in the morning, don’t go home, don’t get to bed until one o’clock in the morning. They’re living on three or four hours of sleep every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
On that sleep, they’re carrying some of the most crushing responsibilities that anybody could bear. It is no wonder they only last 18 months.
Caitlan McCafferty: It puts into context why we see staff change all the time. It’s difficult. And difficult doesn’t explain it.
One of the things we always ask in our interviews is when did they knew it was time to leave., There were two answers.
One is usually you don’t know it’s time to go until it’s too late. It should have happened three months earlier.
Another common answer is time with family. For example, we will hear, “Sunday nights were my one night to read to my four-year-old. As I’m walking out of the room, he says, ‘goodnight, daddy, I’ll see you next Sunday.’”
This is because he gets up at four in the morning and doesn’t come to bed until two o’clock in the morning.
These people sacrifice so much to make it possible for the President to do his job and for our government to continue running efficiently and effectively.
It’s not just national security, which everybody recognizes is an important thing. We’ve learned in the pandemic that there’s an enormous number of things that government does. If it doesn’t do them well, we all suffer. Things like national health, education, transportation, and distribution, all land on the President’s desk.
Primary Cabinet Officers
There are four primary responsibilities of the President and they’re stated in the constitution, article two. They are: national security, taking care that laws are executed faithfully, managing the executive branch, and carrying out the diplomacy of the United States. Those are four primary duties carried out by critical cabinet officers, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the attorney general, and the director of the office of management and budget.
Those are the four primary people the President needs to identify and get nominated. Then, there’s a raft of others.
The largest employer in the United States is Walmart. Its total revenues are something like $20 billion. At least five agencies in the national government are run by cabinet officers that are more than twice the size of Walmart in budget and number of personnel. And those are all responsibilities the President must carry out as well. There are other people that need to be identified, like the secretary of agriculture because that’s a huge operation and it’s in every county, literally in every county of the country.
Caitlan McCafferty: We were talking about timing. There was a lot of talk in the media about delays in November and into December.
Beyond what happened on Wednesday, what other factors make this transition unique?
The unwillingness of the sitting President, to recognize that he lost, fair and square. And because he refused to recognize that for obvious reasons, that froze in place much of the federal executive leadership. And while that didn’t really hamstring much of the planning that went on for then President-elect Biden people were aware of the problems they were going to be facing. President Trump had changed the leadership of most of the executive agencies. For example, right after the election, he put in a bunch of his cronies in the Department of Defense, none of whom were qualified to occupy the jobs they have.. That’s why they weren’t sent to the Senate to be approved. And those guys have refused to carry out the transition. Much of the national security apparatus faces challenges that the Biden people still don’t know about. And we’re now learning that the Capitol was overrun by these insurrectionists and terrorists primarily because the secretary of defense refused to authorize the Maryland and Virginia National Guards to come to the aid of the U.S. Capitol Police when the President refused to activate the D.C. National Guard. Now there are injured police officers in hospitals, and there’s at least one murdered police officer who is directly his responsibility because the Capitol Police is not a police force designed to withstand this kind of an orchestrated attack.
How much does partisan polarization tribalism reduce the likelihood of a successful transition?
Appointments is an excellent area to think about since that’s where it’s mostly shown up. One of the things that we do is study and track appointments. I’m part of a group of scholars that analyzes the appointment process. How successful nominations are et cetera, and what affects that success. We know polarization plays a part but plays that role by default. There are lots of things to counteract that. We demonstrate through our modeling that counteracts the effects of polarization. I I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but there’s something called “the nuclear option.” It is a parliamentary maneuver in the Senate to do away with procedural impediments to carrying out the confirmation process. S Since 2013, there’ve been five uses of the nuclear option doing away with the filibuster and post filibuster, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Every one of them has slowed the process that it was designed to speed up because polarization is not the only thing that affects appointments. Adequately done, appointments can be easily carried through. We’re kind of hopeful that President Biden because he has so much experience in the Senate, will be supported by those other variables and forces that overcome partisanship. That’s our hope. Partisanship plays a role when leadership is not effective or is incompetent. Essentially, the big force that counteracts partisanship is a competent leadership in the legislative process because appointments are just part of the Senate’s legislative process. When leaders in the Senate aren’t good at what they are supposed to do, the appointments process suffers.
Given that only a certain number of jobs are politically appointed, and career officials staff the majority, how does the new administration manage that and account for policy differences?
Every cabinet officer steps into a job he or she has never had before, and during the transition process, we assist with the process for the White House. The same thing is going on in every one of the 12 agencies in the executive branch. The same process is going on in many of the other regulatory agencies of the federal government that are managed by those appointed by the President, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Reserve. All these agencies and the cabinet represent people walking into jobs for which they have no experience. Everybody’s going through these transitions, and it’s one of the remarkable things about the American government. We’re all doing this crazy thing together at the same time, across the federal executive. So, the role of the Senior Executive Service is important.
And one of the things we don’t credit enough is the incredible competence of the Senior Executive Service in all of its facets. The American government has the luxury of having some of the most competent people in the world, working for it, often working for it because they choose to be involved in national affairs rather than making money in private enterprise. Of course, that’s not always the case. There are all kinds of things, but I think in general, a Betsy DeVos, who has no respect for the national government learns when she became Secretary of Education, is there was incredible competence among the Senior Executive Service that she didn’t think was possible. And that’s true across the board. President Nixon famously complained about was how many of his cabinet officers went native.
That is, they took over the responsibilities for the Department of Agriculture and discovered that instead of coming in to wreck the department, became advocates. They learned from these incredibly competent people that the job of the Department of Agriculture does is critical to the American economy. It was handled by people of extraordinary capacity and they suddenly become advocates for the agency that they’re supposed to rule over or whatever President Nixon thought they should be doing. And it was immensely irritating to him because these guys became advocates for the agencies and policies of those agencies that President Nixon didn’t believe were the right things to be doing. All Presidents find out they know less about what the government should be doing than they thought they did. Having a good deal of humility is an essential quality for every President. And a hard thing to come by among politicians — humility.
What are the key lessons a new team can learn from their predecessors and your organization?
How their office works, how its operations are carried out. A good example is the President’s staff often come into a White House thinking they’re going to consolidate all of a White House’s communications operations under a single person. And that makes sense if you’re running a campaign, you need to one message – one voice. Half the people in a White House are involved in communications. You put all those responsibilities and all that pressure under one person.
Once a reporter asked a deputy White House press secretary, “What’s the difference between being a press secretary for the President of the United States and holding the job as the press secretary for the Speaker of the House of Representatives?” which is the second most powerful person in the American government.
The reply: “When I worked for the Speaker of the House, people listen to me in paragraphs. I could say things, I could change my mind. I could revise my comments. The reporters would allow me to do that. When I’m deputy press secretary for the President of United States, people listen to me by syllable and every word, every utterance I make goes around the world at the speed of light.”
The White House is a zero-mistake zone. There are no little mistakes made in the White House, and therefore, no White House can afford to make any mistakes. It’s an organization of thousands of people. There are going to be mistakes made all the time. It’s an enormous pressure. When the White House organized all its communications under one person, that person suffered acute stress disorder. He was President Ford’s press secretary.
It’s an immense amount of responsibility. One of the things that we know about how Presidents succeed in legislation is “…they speak with many voices. But one sound…” Presidents need the executive branch’s immense capacity, for many voices that contain a single message.. And it’s hard to coordinate that many voices. You can’t put that kind of pressure on one person. The job is too big for one person. So the press secretary and the director of communications are essential jobs in White Houses.
However, an important thing that we know about Presidents and something we can project about President Trump is the belief that White Houses have to be engaged in communications all the time. Since the Eisenhower administration, Presidents spend very little of their day making speeches, talking to the press, and practicing speeches, writing speeches, doing anything that has to do with communications. Communications with the public are one of the lesser responsibilities for Presidents. Not for their White Houses, certainly. So, when a President spends as much time communicating directly with the public as President Trump does, he’s not doing his job.
Caitlan McCafferty: Right, and it’s a stark contrast to what we’ve seen in the past.
Once the transition to President-elect Biden is completed, what will the White House Transition Project focus on?
Work with Staff
Once the President is discussed, we continue to work with staff and those who have encountered us and learned that our resources are valuable. Sometimes we are asked by those staff members to do studies. At one point when George W. Bush was President, he held the belief that meetings in the Oval Office took longer than meetings in the Roosevelt Room, which is just across the hall. And the reason was he was particularly irritated by it was because people would come into the Oval Office for a meeting, and the President would already be there, and he’d have to sit through them, getting ready, coming in and sitting down and getting their stuff out. And it was often the case that people who are coming into the Oval Office, typically, this is one of the very few times they will ever be in the presence of a sitting President.
Studying the President’s Work
One of the things we know, for example, from studying what the President does all day, is that Presidents see hundreds of people every day and doesn’t see anybody in particular. Indeed, the case of people who see the President as often as three- or four times a week is less than a handful. There really aren’t people who see the President all the time. The President lives in a couple of different worlds. These people coming into an Oval Office Presidential meeting, it may be the only time in their whole lives it happens. They end up nervous, and they want to do good. They say inane things—what could be called “nice tie” comments. People would come in and compliment him on his clothing. If you know anything about the President, you know he doesn’t pick out his clothes. There are literally four or five members of the Army Master Sergeants, whose job it is to pick out the President’s clothes and help him get dressed every day. These people come in and they compliment the President as if he had picked out the tie he was wearing. And he didn’t. And that made President Bush irritated. He felt like they were wasting his time talking about these things. And when he went to the Roosevelt Room, everybody was already there. He walks in, sits down and they start business because they’ve already gone through all the standard meeting prep. He got the idea that maybe the Oval Office was not a good idea, which is a terrible idea because the Oval Office is the best home for the same reason.
People are awed to be there. We were asked by the White House Chief of Staff if we could look at our data and see if meetings went longer in the Oval Office than they did in the Roosevelt Room.
That’s one of the things we’ll work on and research.
Once we demonstrate that we’re valuable to these people, mostly during the campaign, they turn to us for questions that they don’t have answers to, like operational things.
We spend a lot of time after the transition, providing metrics for the press to understand competitors’ claims in the process. For example, the Senate is taking too long to confer. Or, they are obstructing the President’s nominations.
Are they or aren’t there? Typically, they aren’t. It just takes a long time to get people through the process.
We answer questions like that based on our constantly ongoing research.
What books or movies would you recommend if listeners want to learn more about the history of the White House or Presidential transitions?
That’s hard. One thing that’s true is that people always show up better in their memoirs than they showed up in real life.
If you look at the memoirs of the primary actors in the administration, like Lyndon Johnson, none of them have favored the war in Vietnam. Apparently, only President Johnson was committed to the war because the rest of these guys can tell you the minute when they decided the war was a bad idea. They always look better in their memoirs.
There was an associate or somebody that Seth Meyers knew who appeared on The Tonight Show with him. He was a former speechwriter for President Obama, and Seth Meyers asked him what it was like now that he is no longer a speech writer for the President. What was it like coming back to reality and the guy said, “Oh, you know, I had to deal with spending every day, working with the President and now I don’t. I have to get used to that.” Well, the reality is there’s no such thing as a speechwriter who spends every day working with the President. Nobody spends every day working with the President. Only a handful of people see the President as much as three or four times a week, let alone every day. You can’t count on these people to talk about what the President is like or what the President’s work is like because they don’t see it.
So they all write memoirs about their time in the White House. Great portions of it are fiction because they don’t really know what the President does all day. Nobody does. Even the most senior people of the White House don’t interact with the President all that much, it’s a reality. What I tell people is the West Wing TV show is not a bad example. The thing that President Bartlett says more often than anything else is, “What’s next?” That’s what it’s like to be a President. Presidents see hundreds of people every day, and nobody in particular. They do dozens of things every day to carry out their responsibilities. But nothing in particular. Here’s something your people will find interesting: there is a daily White House message.
What’s today’s message? What’s the message for the day? Presidential press secretaries and directors of communications are continually fighting with the President over disciplining the White House to have a single daily message. The reality is that’s not what the President’s day is like. There’s no such thing as a single thing, even in a national security crisis, Presidents do so many things every day. Iraq attacks Kuwait. The President is awakened at two in the morning (We know this from looking at the logs) to be told that the Iraqis attacked Kuwait, which is an ally of the United States, and is essentially an attack on the U.S. He goes back to sleep. The image we collectively have is George H.W. Bush coming out the next day saying: “This shall not stand. We’re going to, throw the Iraqis back.” That statement actually happened three days later.
However, what the President did the next morning is he got up and went on a three-day tour of the Western States campaigning for Republican members of congress. He didn’t deal with the Iraqi crisis. The President didn’t say “this shall not stand” the morning after the crisis I mean, if you look at the video, he’s outside the White House on the South grounds, he’s just come back from Andrews Air Force Base. After spending three days campaigning for Republicans, and he gets off Marine One. While walking back to the White House he says, “This shall not stand.” Even in a national security crisis, the President has many more responsibilities that take his attention. He’s got more to do than just simply deal with this crisis.
And if you think about it, all national security crises are created by somebody else. The object of a crisis is to undermine the policies of the American government. If Presidents turned around and focused entirely on this one situation, they’re doing exactly what their opponents who first caused the emergency want them to do. When Hezbollah blew up the Marine barracks in Lebanon, for the President to spend every minute of his day trying to deal with that crisis is exactly what Hezbollah wants. They want the President to engage them because that elevates them in the world on the world stage, which is exactly why they blew up the barracks to begin with. Crises are a complex problem for Presidents because they have these responsibilities, and part of those responsibilities are not to allow the crisis to take over.
I’ve watched The West Wing TV show with my friends. The constant pace of is too much for them. They’re always saying “I can’t watch because it’s too fast.” And I always say, “This is the White House in slow motion.”.
Presidents work at a pace and under such scrutiny – it’s nenormous pressure that is 10 times what you see on TV.
Here’s another thing about the West Wing. It is probably one of the brightest office buildings because it was built in the 1800s. The West Wing has these huge windows, making it an incredibly bright office building. Also, there’s none of this dramatic walking from one dark area to another like you see on TV and nobody walks the halls. They don’t have time to leave their desks. Their job is too demanding to get up and walk around. Most of the West Wing drama takes place while people are walking around in the halls. In reality, they’re all stuck in these little cubicles.
Their offices are incredibly tiny. I mean, the chief economic advisor for the President has got an office like a postage stamp. If somebody comes into an office, everybody has to stand up. You can open the door, then you must move a chair to swing the door open, and then the person comes in and you close the door, and then you move the chair back because they’re that small. Proximity in the White House is everything. The closer your office is to the President, the more likely you will see him or her. And our reality is, Presidents see hundreds of people every day, and nobody in particular.
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