The Celebrification of the White House Staff

Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff says serving as the president’s right-hand man isn’t the job it used to be.

In this photo provided by the White House, President Ronald Reagan meets with outgoing Chief of Staff Howard Baker, left, and incoming Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein, right, in the Oval Office, June 14, 1988.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Sept. 16, 2013, 1:02 p.m.

We’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed to the celebri­fic­a­tion of the White House staff. We read about their birth­days in Play­book, their mar­riages in The New York Times and even what shoes they wear in — wait for it — The Wash­ing­ton Post.

But Ken Duber­stein, formerly chief of staff to Ron­ald Re­agan, says work­ing in the White House was once a much more be­hind-the-scenes kind of job. Par­tic­u­larly for the White House chief of staff.

“The job has grown,” he said, “not ne­ces­sar­ily in stature, be­cause all your power is de­riv­at­ive and it’s in­side, but in the sense of the pub­lic pro­file. Back in my day, the White House chief of staff had a pas­sion for an­onym­ity.”

His com­ments to Na­tion­al Journ­al came shortly after cur­rent White House Chief of Staff Denis Mc­Donough took to the air­waves to make the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s case for a Syr­ia strike, ap­pear­ing on five ma­jor Sunday-morn­ing talk shows in ad­vance of Pres­id­ent Barack Obama’s prime-time ad­dress last Tues­day. Mc­Donough served as a fig­ure­head for Obama, mak­ing the case that the U.S. needs to help en­force the in­ter­na­tion­al pro­hib­i­tion against chem­ic­al weapons by tak­ing ac­tion against Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad.

That kind of blanket me­dia ap­pear­ance con­trasts with how a chief of staff would act in Duber­stein’s day. “You were work­ing there on be­half of the pres­id­ent,” he said. “You didn’t have 10 people or 15 people on your staff. It was you and the staff co­ordin­at­or. Now it has be­come an in­sti­tu­tion.”

Duber­stein was speak­ing to Na­tion­al Journ­al from the red car­pet screen­ing of The Pres­id­ents’ Gate­keep­ers, the newly re­leased doc­u­ment­ary based on in­ter­views with all 20 of the liv­ing White House chiefs of staff.

Al­though the doc­u­ment­ary, which premiered Wed­nes­day on the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel, nev­er settles on a single nar­rat­ive about how the role of White House staff has evolved, at­tendees at last week’s premiere had some ideas of their own.

Reg­gie Love, the 31-year-old former per­son­al aide to Pres­id­ent Obama, told Na­tion­al Journ­al the only change in White House staff he’d no­ticed had more to do with something else: “The only thing I no­ticed that was very dif­fer­ent was that I was the only Afric­an-Amer­ic­an.”

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