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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

How These Chicagoans Handled the “Worst [Expletive] Job in Washington”

Rahm was a “schoolyard bully.” Bill Daley says he was “stabbed in the back.” Documentarian Chris Whipple talks to 17 Chiefs of Staff about their time in the White House.

Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley did back-to-back stints as Obama's Chief of Staff  Photos: (left) John J. Kim and Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

White House Chief of Staff: It’s often called the toughest job in politics. Some say it’s even tougher than being president.

Five Chicagoans, most famously Rahm Emanuel, have held it. Rahm stuck with it for 20 months—the average tenure is 18—before he returned to Chicago to run for mayor. He handed the job off to Bill Daley, who kept it for a year before being, in effect, fired.

For The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, documentary filmmaker Chris Whipple, who created a 2013 film on the same topic, interviewed 17 former COS—including all the Chicagoans named above. Whipple quotes James Baker, veteran of two rounds of COS service for two presidents (Reagan and H.W. Bush), who routinely called men appointed to the position to say, “Congratulations, you’ve got the worst fucking job in Washington.”

Rahm Emanuel: the “schoolyard bully”

In Reno, Nevada, in October 2008, when his victory the next month was almost a certainty, Obama convened a meeting to seek advice on who to name to the COS job. Attendees were David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, David Plouffe, Bill Daley, John Podesta, Erskine Bowles, and, by speakerphone, Leon Panetta. Bowles, a Bill Clinton COS, offered advice that rankled Obama buddies Axelrod and Jarrett: “Leave your Chicago friends at home. They will only cause you grief.” Obama asked Panetta and Bowles if either would consider “another tour of duty.” They wouldn’t. Obama seemed to favor Pete Rouse, who had been his senate COS, but, Rouse, shy and modest, didn’t want the attention that came with the job. Axelrod pushed for Rahm and would later also push for Bill Daley.

Two months later, in December 2008, after Obama was elected, Whipple describes another meeting—this one convened by George W. Bush’s COS, Josh Bolten. He assembled COSs from past administrations to give the new guy, Rahm Emanuel, advice. “You’ve got to slow down, and listen,” John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s last COS, told him. “You’ve got to resist the temptation to always have the answer.”

Obama and Rahm were not close friends. The rookie president-elect wanted Rahm, Whipple writes, because, “faced with a global financial crisis—with credit frozen, banks failing, and the auto industry on the verge of collapse—Obama needed someone who could pass legislation on Capitol Hill. Fast.”

Whipple credits Rahm with helping to “stav[e] off another Great Depression, sav[e] the auto industry, and [pass] his landmark [healthcare law].”

Rahm described the job as offering “no moments of peace” and complained to Whipple about phone calls interrupting dinner, bedtime reading to his children, his son’s Bar Mitzvah, and his sleep—with 3 a.m. phone calls.

Yet, when Whipple asks if he’d do it again, he replies, “Absolutely.”

In Whipple’s portrayal, Rahm is nonstop high intensity and sometimes remarkably crude and rude. “When one young aide stammered while giving an answer, Rahm snapped, ‘Take your fucking tampon out of your mouth and tell me what you have to say.’” But, writes Whipple, “like a schoolyard bully, Emanuel would retreat when his targets pushed back.”

By October 2010, after Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley had announced his retirement and Rahm had decided to return to Chicago to run for that job, Rahm’s “high-wattage act was wearing thin, wearing people out. When Emanuel made it clear that he was serious about leaving, Obama did not offer much resistance.”

A year later, five months into his first term as mayor, Rahm told Whipple that the problems he faces as Chicago mayor—off-the-chart murder counts, shootings, and the pension mess from hell—pale by comparison to the problems he faced as White House COS. “The rewards [as COS] are few…You get all the blame and never any of the credit,” he said.

Bill Daley: “Eaten alive by the Chicago crowd”

Then came Bill Daley, commerce secretary in Clinton’s second term, chairman of Al Gore’s losing 2000 campaign and recount, and brother of Richard M. Daley. He was “a bad fit from the start” as a COS, writes Whipple. He kept his door shut; he had little rapport with Obama’s young staffers. One senior staffer told Whipple that Daley “looked at all of the young Obama people like we were part of the problem.” Some staffers found Rahm, with his LBJ-like strong-arm tactics, to be “old school.” Daley was much worse, Whipple writes. While Obama liked to talk about policy details, Daley liked to talk “politics or Chicago sports.” In meetings, according to an unnamed “senior adviser,” Obama would grow impatient when Daley spoke and was eager to say, “OK, next.”

Daley was not allowed to appoint his own deputies. According to an unnamed senior aide, “He got eaten alive by the Chicago crowd.” (It should be noted that much of the negative comments about Daley came from unnamed sources.)

One named source, Erskine Bowles, an old friend of Daley’s, tells Whipple that “Obama had the Chicago Mafia. And Daley wasn’t part of that little clique. And that little clique that is in every White House—if you try to mess with their relationships, they will spit your ass out.”

In an interview Daley gave in late October 2011 to Roger Simon, a former columnist for both the Sun-Times and the Tribune, Daley balked at the unfavorable comparisons to Rahm: “I don’t think Rahm was as beloved [as people now say.]” He also told Simon that he planned to serve as COS until after the November 2012 election.

Wishful thinking on Daley’s part.

“The key to success as COS is being empowered by the president,” Bowles told Whipple. “When people saw that Bill Daley wasn’t empowered, he was dead.” A month later, Daley was humiliated by an announcement that Pete Rouse would share some of his responsibilities. Leon Panetta, then serving as Obama’s secretary of defense, called Daley and told him, “The President just cut your legs out from under you.”

In January 2012, Daley handed Obama his resignation letter, which the president accepted.

Of his time as COS, Daley tells Whipple, “In Chicago, if someone’s going to stab you, they’ll stab you in the stomach; in Washington, it’s always in the back.”

The other three Chicago guys

Donald Rumsfeld

North Shore/New Trier-bred Don Rumsfeld had been a congressman representing Chicago suburbs, was appointed director of the office of economic opportunity and later ambassador to NATO by Richard Nixon. Nixon must have considered Rumsfeld exceptionally competent because, on a personal level, he couldn’t stand him. He called Rumsfeld “a ruthless little bastard”; the slur was captured on Nixon’s Oval Office taping system.

In September 1974, shortly after Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, Rumsfeld reluctantly accepted Ford’s plea to leave the NATO job in Brussels and return to Washington to become his COS—but only after Ford promised to offer him the next open cabinet seat. “All throttle, no brake,” Whipple describes him. Rumsfeld wanted to be President and didn’t see COS as a resume line that would help him get there.

Soon he became Ford’s secretary of defense; later, he had the same position under George W. Bush. He warned Rahm that COS was the toughest job of all: “It was like climbing into the cockpit of a crippled plane in flight and trying to land it safely.”

Sam Skinner

Another Chicagoan, Sam Skinner, succeeded the widely reviled John Sununu as George H.W. Bush’s COS: “If Sununu dominated any room he walked into, Skinner became invisible,” Whipple writes. George H.W. Bush told Whipple that Skinner was “a very able fellow,” but noted in his diary that “I miss Sununu and his brilliance.”

H. W. Bush, worried about reelection in 1992, desperately wanted his secretary of state, James Baker, to take the COS job. Baker, who had been Ronald Reagan’s COS and his treasury secretary, felt he had no choice and “teared up” after giving the chief diplomat’s job to his deputy.

John Podesta

John Podesta, who grew up in Chicago, was Bill Clinton’s final COS. He started out as the deputy to Erskine Bowles. Then, on January 21, 1998, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Bowles was disgusted: “I don’t want to know a fucking thing about it. Don’t tell me about it.” (Whipple writes that “Bowles was so nauseated by the affair it literally made him ill. At one meeting he blurted out, ‘I think I’m going to throw up.’ He fled from the room and never returned.”)

Bowles put Podesta, who called himself the “Secretary of Shit,” in charge of the scandal that threatened to end in President Clinton’s impeachment and conviction. (Clinton ultimately was impeached but not convicted.) Bowles left the White House in the fall of 1998 and persuaded Clinton to name Podesta as COS.

Obama brought Podesta back into the White House in 2014 to help him use executive orders to pursue “climate change reform.” Hillary Clinton later persuaded Podesta to chair her 2016 campaign.

Who will hold the worst job in Washington next?

If Trump fires COS Reince Priebus, the invisible man in this new administration, as he likely will—both Clinton and Obama each had four COSs—my bet for Priebus’s replacement would be Trump’s director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs president.

I don’t see a woman on the radar, although another Goldman Sachs executive, Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy and close to the president’s daughter Ivanka, seems to be a favorite. If she gets the job, she’ll make history as the first woman ever to be appointed COS to a president.

Whipple quotes former cabinet secretary Robert Reich explaining why no woman has ever held the COS job: “Women are always considered to be bitches when they’re tough and strong; men are considered to be powerful and heroic.”

After Bill Daley flopped, Obama was reportedly considering Nancy-Ann DeParle, a former Rhodes scholar, to be COS—she eventually became Obama’s director of the White House office of health reform. Another guy, his office of management and budget director Jack Lew, became Daley’s successor.

If I were Ivanka Trump, I’d read The Gatekeepers, highlight the most salient parts, and read them aloud to the man whom Whipple describes as “the least qualified person ever elected to the presidency.” She’ll need to read to him Whipple’s words of warning—“the fate of every presidency arguably hinges on the little-understood position”—given that Donald Trump has admitted that he doesn’t read much; rather, he says, he “looks at” books.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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