The time: Early 1987. The place: The White House.
Swirling around like a political typhoon was what was quaintly known as “The Iran-Contra Affair.” (Democrats always replaced the word “affair” with the word “scandal.”) The essence: a confounding plot to get around a congressional ban on funding the anti-Communist Nicaraguan “Contras” by using profits from secret missile sales to Iran, the deal designed to get various American hostages released.
The story had emerged in November of 1986 after the congressional elections were over — elections in which the GOP lost control of the Senate, putting both House and Senate in Democratic Party hands. There were the demands for a congressional investigation and a special prosecutor. And, of course, there were cries of impeaching President Reagan.
Inside the White House, where I was ensconced as an Associate Director for Political Affairs, it was no secret that Mrs. Reagan wanted the Chief of Staff — Don Regan — fired. Mr. Regan was a very smart guy. An up-by-the-bootstraps Massachusetts Irishman who had crowned a Wall Street career as chairman of Merrill Lynch. Reagan had made him Secretary of the Treasury, a job he was eminently qualified for and in which he did well. Then? Then trouble.
By post-election 1984, White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III was understandably ready to move on. He had been COS for all of Reagan’s successful first term. The job is a killer and Baker had grown both tired of it and ambitious for a Cabinet slot. There was a move to replace him with my then-boss, ex-Reagan Transportation and then-Warner-Amex (the predecessor of Time Warner) CEO Drew Lewis. Lewis was led to believe the deal was well on its way to being done. And then?
And then it was unexpectedly announced — by the President in a sudden appearance in the White House press briefing room — that Baker and Don Regan were switching jobs. Baker would get his Cabinet post as Secretary of the Treasury, Regan would get what he surprisingly desired — the power to run the White House as the President’s right hand. I sat in on a phone call between Lewis and Baker in which Drew Lewis, amazed, said that he thought this was a good deal for Baker but he wasn’t sure it was such a good deal for the President. By which, of course, he meant that Don Regan, Wall Street whiz and Treasury whiz that he was, was decidedly not the right choice for Chief of Staff. As a White House colleague of mine quietly observed, Don Regan would develop political skills — a chief of staff must as a job requirement — “when pigs fly.”
The pigs never flew. He began almost immediately by violating James Baker’s astute wisdom about the job:
You can focus on the “chief,” or you can focus on the “of staff.” Those who have focused on the “of staff” have done pretty well.
Mr. Regan focused on the “chief” part of the title. He developed a seriously bad relationship with Ronald Reagan’s Protector-in-Chief — Nancy Reagan. He acquired Secret Service protection — a never-been-done for a previous chief of staff. At formal White House events his presence was announced with pomp just shy of the President himself (“Ladies and gentlemen, the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States, the Honorable Donald T. Reagan.”) He never shied away from discussing his role with the press, emphasizing his power. At one point he compared himself to a guy who followed the circus to sweep up after the elephants.
When Iran-Contra burst, the push was on to get him out, with Mrs. Reagan making this her mission. Finally, the President acceded as it became clear a fresh start was needed. The end came — badly. In his office Mr. Regan learned of his firing and replacement by former Tennessee Senator and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker — from CNN. Furious, he dictated a one-line letter of resignation and had an aide walk it down the hall to the President. The latter called Regan immediately to apologize for the leak. Regan said tersely that it was too late. Angrily, he walked out of the White House, never to return much less speak to Ronald Reagan again and recording his story in a bitter memoir entitled For the Record.
In other words? In other words, the General John Kelly switch from Reince Priebus as Trump White House Chief of Staff can’t hold a candle to the mess of the Don Regan episode in the Reagan White House. Reince Priebus has departed with class, emphatic in his support of the President. General Kelly, like Senator Baker, enters with a great reputation. Added to this is that Kelly is a general — and history shows that military men serving as White House Chief of Staff do a great service in bringing discipline and order to an institution that has, at all times, an underlay of the chaos wrought by events and competing strong personalities.
Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman used the services of Admiral William Leahy in the role. Following a 1958 scandal swamping his own chief of staff — former New Hampshire Governor Sherman Adams. Adams had accepted a vicuna coat and an oriental rug from a Boston textile manufacturer who was being investigated by the government for various trade violations. As happened with Reagan and Regan, there was tons of bad publicity and Adams had to go. Eisenhower — who himself had once served General Douglas MacArthur as a chief of staff — selected retired Army Major General Wilton Persons to replace Adams. All went smoothly for the remainder of Ike’s second term.
Years later, as Watergate began swamping the Nixon White House and Nixon had to fire his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, the COS job went to General Alexander Haig. Haig was charged with an almost impossible task of guiding the White House as the case against Nixon mounted and finally forced his resignation. Yet Haig performed magnificently in the role.
Based on these performances and most of all on General Kelly’s own performance as both military leader and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, it is no wonder President Trump is enthusiastic about Kelly.
As is always the case, the White House center of gravity is always the same — that being the President of the United States, the man who was elected to sit in the presidential chair. But presidents need help — and someone in that chief of staff role who can make the trains run on time.
Clearly, General Kelly is exactly the right choice for the job.