In June 2015, Humanities Texas held a three-and-a-half day teacher professional development institute at the LBJ Presidential Library titled "American Presidents and the Nation, 1970–2000." Chase Untermeyer, Humanities Texas board member, spoke on June 9 about the West Wing of the White House. His talk, which drew on his own experiences working in the West Wing during both the Reagan and Bush presidencies, provided an insightful and entertaining look into the heart of the White House.
It was a tremendous honor and opportunity to work in the West Wing of the White House for a total of four and a half years, under two administrations. It was the culmination of years and years of dreaming and scheming to reach that level of American government.
Starting in my college years, I'd been a student of American government. I'd taken a course from a man who almost symbolizes the study of the presidency, Richard Neustadt, whose Presidential Power is a text for all of us. And it was my great pleasure, many years later, to invite Professor Neustadt to lunch at the White House Mess. What was even more astonishing was to hear him say I was the first of his former students actually to become a White House staffer. I thought the entire class was filled with people who were going to infest the West Wing at one point or another.
Because of always wanting to be part of things in Washington, I was thrilled when the vice president-elect of the United States, George H. W. Bush, on a cold, rainy December night in 1980, asked me to become his executive assistant, with an office in the West Wing. At the time, I was a state legislator. If I accepted his invitation, it would mean the end of whatever political career I might have here in Texas. So I tortured over this decision for about two-tenths of a second before accepting his offer and heading off to the West Wing of the White House.
Mine was such a tiny office that a desk had to be built small enough to fit it. If anybody came into the office to look at a picture or a book, I had to leave to let the person in. It was that small. But as they say in real estate: location, location, location. My office was on the main floor of the West Wing, a fifteen-second walk from the Oval Office. The chief of staff was on one side, the national security advisor was on the other, and of course, in between was the vice president.
My books on the Reagan and first Bush administrations are taken from a personal journal that I've kept since the age of nine. I extracted entries from those volumes that show what it was like to be in the two administrations—first, working for the vice president; then receiving an appointment from President Reagan as an assistant secretary of the Navy; and then returning to the White House when father Bush became president to be his personnel director. I do not contend that my books are major history. At best, they recreate the atmosphere, or capture a personality or a quotation that give coloration to the period.
Because I was in the White House—where I met my wife, by the way—people have often asked, "How much was it like the old TV series The West Wing?" Well, I confess that I never once saw an episode of The West Wing. From what I understand, it shows people yelling at each other and colliding in the halls, playing out immense dramas—as you would expect on TV. The West Wing that I knew was a much more hushed sort of place.
In fact, the atmosphere of the West Wing is—well, I can only compare it to a very cushy, high-end funeral parlor. There are thick carpets; there are lots of flowers everywhere; there are beautiful oil paintings on the wall; and there's very fine, tasteful furniture. The telephones don't ring; they chime. Everything is at a very low level of tension. Now, great international and national issues do get thrashed out there and people get mad at each other, but they don't collide, at least not physically. Another thing to know about the West Wing is that it is a very small place. It's got three floors, but the footprint it occupies isn't very much bigger than a house in a prosperous suburb.
The picture you have in your mind of the White House is the one that appears every night on the TV news. This is called the North Front, and if you stand in front of it and look to your immediate right—that is, to the west—you'll find the West Wing. There's also an East Wing, which was added during World War II, containing the first lady's office and the military office. But it is the West Wing that is the power center, the American equivalent of Number Ten Downing Street, the Kremlin, Los Pinos in Mexico City, or the Blue House in South Korea.
The main floor of the White House is known as the State Floor, where, as the name suggests, important state functions occur. If you've ever taken the public tour of the White House, you have been on that floor and gone through the East Room, the Green Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room, and the State Dining Room.
The next two levels up are known as the Family Quarters. It is the actual residence of the presidents, and you go there only if you are invited by the president or first lady. Barbara Bush let it be known that in the entire eight-year Reagan Administration, Nancy Reagan not once invited her or Vice President Bush to the Family Quarters. Now, that may seem shocking, but the fact is that the Family Quarters was the Reagans' home. They were known to be very intensely private people in their private lives, so it perhaps is not too surprising that the Bushes were never invited. After all, we humbler folk may not invite everybody we know into our homes, either. But, by contrast, the Bushes invited people into the Family Quarters all the time, as they had done throughout their entire married lives in the many homes they occupied in America and China.
The second floor of the Family Quarters, just above the Red Room and the Green Room, has a very broad central hall. On one side is the Lincoln Bedroom, and on the other side are the Queen's Bedroom and the Family Dining Room. Winston Churchill always stayed in the Queen's Bedroom when he visited Franklin Roosevelt during World War II.
What's really noteworthy is that, up until the early twentieth century, the second floor was also where the president’s offices were located. There are wonderful drawings of the scene during the nineteenth century with that broad central hall completely filled with men smoking, using the spittoons, and talking loudly with each other while they waited for their chance to see the president.
In those days, there wasn't much of a White House staff. In fact, Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War with a personal staff of two—John Hay and John Nicolay. These two young men not only constituted the entire White House staff, they actually lived in the White House, sharing a bed in one of those rooms off the central hall. Hay and Nicolay would get the cards of the congressmen, lobbyists, contractors, and everyone else who came up the steps of the White House, and then they would decide who would actually get to see President Lincoln. What is even more amazing is that all this commotion was taking place right outside the bedrooms of the president's family. If a child or a first lady was ill, they just had to sit or lie there and endure the constant roar outside their room for hour after hour.
Also amazing is that this dismal circumstance existed for a full one hundred years before a president finally did something about it. He was that man of action, Theodore Roosevelt, who almost immediately upon becoming president in 1901 contacted the leading architectural firm of the day—McKim, Mead, and White of New York—and asked them to design an office wing for the White House. The architects studied the historic White House and copied many of its features in an extension, a west wing.
Not too many years thereafter, McKim, Mead, and White created an Oval Office for the president. The oval shape was inspired by the rooms that form the bowed South Front of the White House. These are the Blue Room on the State Floor, the Yellow Oval Room in the Family Quarters, and the Diplomatic Reception Room on the ground floor. The old joke was that the Oval Office got its unique shape because President William Howard Taft, who weighed over three hundred pounds, lay on the ground and the architects inscribed an oval around him.
For many decades, the West Wing of the White House looked like any ordinary government office building. There are photographs of the West Wing taken during Dwight Eisenhower's administration showing it with linoleum flooring and plain walls with few pictures. I'm not sure if it was the Kennedy administration, or later, the Nixon administration, that deserves the credit, but today the West Wing is a far more elegant looking place than it was in those days.
Another change concerned the presidential swimming pool that was in a connector between the main White House and the West Wing. It was used most famously by John F. Kennedy, who liked to go skinny-dipping there—not usually alone, I might add. During the Nixon administration, this space became the press room. Until that time, the press just hung around the West Wing lobby, where they could spot and intercept every distinguished visitor coming to see the president. So, in an effort to create a bit more decorum and calm within the West Wing, the pool was covered over and the press moved into that space. It's often joked that because the pool is still underneath, presidents can pull a lever and drop unfriendly reporters into a shark tank. That is not the case, unfortunately.
The importance of the West Wing as the focal point of American government was demonstrated not by a president but by a vice president. Until Lyndon Johnson became vice president in 1961, the only office a vice president had was in the Capitol, reflecting his constitutional role as president of the Senate. LBJ insisted on being closer to the center of things, but he was not given an office in the West Wing. Instead, he was lodged in the Old Executive Office Building, that immense Victorian pile across a parking lot from the West Wing. Originally it housed the State, War, and Navy departments, but today it contains the bulk of the White House staff. Given the small size of the West Wing, only the most senior members of the president's staff can have their offices within those hallowed precincts.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter approached then-Senator Walter Mondale about becoming his running mate on the Democratic ticket. Mondale said he would do so only on certain conditions. Concerned about being marginalized the way almost all vice presidents had been in our history, he insisted on getting the same documents and intelligence that went to the president; on being able to attend any meeting in the Oval Office; and on a once-weekly private luncheon with the president. Today, we think of all this as very routine and almost obvious, but it was quite revolutionary in its time.
The most significant thing Mondale wanted from Carter if they were elected was an office in the West Wing. He knew the old Washington wisdom that "where you sit is where you stand," and he felt that if his office was in the Old Executive Office Building he might as well be in Baltimore as for the amount of impact and influence he would have on the Carter Administration. In fact, Mondale even called the vice presidential suite "Baltimore," and for the four years of his tenure as VP he operated only out of the West Wing.
Mondale’s successor, George H. W. Bush, took a more practical view. He rather liked the vice presidential suite in the Old Executive Office Building, which was where secretaries of the Navy had their offices in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and he restored the main office to its original high Victorian splendor. Bush recognized that while, yes, "location, location, location," is important, it isn't where you have your office that counts. What counts is the vice president’s personal relationship with the president. If it is good, a vice president can literally be in Baltimore and have his impact upon national government. And if it’s bad, it won't matter if his desk is right inside the Oval Office; he will be ignored.
Let me now talk about who else is in the West Wing with the president and the vice president. They are, of course, the senior White House staff. Typically, in the opening years of an administration, they are people who were with the president in his prior life, when he was governor or senator. They were deeply involved in the presidential campaign and came almost without pause from winning the election to running the government. As a result, the senior White House staff at the beginning of an administration tends to be very well known.
Jimmy Carter brought his so-called "Georgia Mafia," making Hamilton Jordan his chief of staff. Ronald Reagan brought Ed Meese and Mike Deaver, who had been with him in California for many years. George Bush brought his former press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, as well as his vice-presidential counsel, Boyden Gray. He also brought me, someone he had known in Texas politics as far back as the 1960s. Bill Clinton brought—well, he brought Hillary—the most consequential of all of the people advising him. George W. Bush brought Karen Hughes and Margaret Spellings from the governor's office in Austin. And Barack Obama brought Valerie Jarrett from Chicago, and she remains his closest advisor.
Over time, especially if a president is reelected, people like these begin to leave for various reasons. They leave to take high-level positions in the government, as did Condoleezza Rice, who went from being national security advisor to secretary of state. They leave to go into lobbying, as did Michael Deaver. Or they leave to run for public office, as did Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's first chief of staff, who was elected mayor of Chicago. They are usually succeeded by their former deputies, and maybe over the length of a two-term administration, those people also leave and are succeeded by others. So, it's not untypical for a president, toward the end of a second term, to look around a room and ask himself, "Who are these guys?” They may look familiar, but they weren't part of the team brought from Sacramento or Little Rock or wherever.
There have been some very famous White House staffers, but the one who set the standard forever in terms of power, influence, and access to the president was Harry Hopkins. He was a social worker who ran relief programs in the state of New York when Franklin Roosevelt was governor. Impressed with Hopkins’ work habits, FDR brought him to Washington. Hopkins was very efficient, self-sacrificing—being in awful health all his life—and totally loyal to the president and his programs.
Hopkins was so much a part of the White House scene that he became "the man who came to dinner." He had many a meal with the Roosevelts, but on one particular evening, Eleanor Roosevelt took pity on him because of his health and put him up for the night in a White House bedroom. Hopkins would live there for the next three and a half years.
Because he so ruthlessly carried out the president's programs, Hopkins became an object of scorn and attack by the Republican opposition. Robert Sherwood, who was a presidential speechwriter and wrote a book called Roosevelt and Hopkins, describes the visit to the Oval Office in 1941 by Wendell Willkie, who had been Roosevelt's Republican opponent in the presidential election the previous year. Because he had put up a good fight, Roosevelt admired Willkie and used him on some foreign missions.
During their get-acquainted meeting in the Oval Office, Willkie boldly asked FDR, "Why do you keep Hopkins so close to you? You surely must realize that people distrust him, and they resent his influence." Roosevelt replied, "I can understand that you wonder why I need that half-man around me,"—the "half-man" an allusion to Hopkins's physical frailty—"but someday, you may well be sitting here, where I am now, as president of the United States. And when you are, you'll be looking at that door over there and knowing that practically everybody who walks through it wants something out of you. You'll learn what a lonely job this is, and you'll discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins, who asks for nothing except to serve you."
Someone once wrote that the ideal White House staffer should have "a passion for anonymity." I'm sorry to say that in more recent years and in administrations of both parties, White House staffers have resisted anonymity. They are always thinking of a glorious and richly-rewarded future when they are on TV, when they publish best-selling books, when they are stars on the lecture circuit, and when they are snapped up by big law firms or lobbying shops.
The celebrity staffer may have become a fixture during the time of John F. Kennedy. David Halberstam, in his classic book The Best and the Brightest, told a wonderful story. He said that Lyndon Johnson was so impressed by John F. Kennedy’s staff that he rushed back to tell his mentor, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, how brilliant each of them was. Now, I've always doubted that LBJ could possibly be impressed by all those pantywaists from Harvard. But the story continues with Sam Rayburn saying, "Well, Lyndon, you may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I'd feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once." By this, Rayburn indicated a preference for people who had real life experience and who had not just been a professor or a dean at an Ivy League school.
There are different types of White House staffers. My former colleague, Andy Card, who was deputy chief of staff to the first President Bush and chief of staff to the second, talked about the White House staff being responsible for "the care and feeding of the president." And that is true of a large number of people, those who deal with the press, with speechwriting, with the motor pool, with the helicopters and the airplanes, and with tens of thousands of phone calls and pieces of mail.
There are others in the White House staff much more involved with the exercise of the president's core constitutional powers. These include the national security advisor and the director of presidential personnel, my old job. Another very critical person in any administration is the White House counsel, the in-house lawyer whose main job is to protect presidential power vis-à-vis the Congress and the courts.
In addition are the White House staffers who are much more involved in the governing process, such as the domestic policy advisor, the economic policy advisor, and the congressional liaison, who labors to get the president's programs, budgets, and nominations approved by Congress.
There is a very interesting position called secretary to the cabinet, or the secretary of cabinet affairs. This person, with a small staff, is in constant touch with Cabinet secretaries and the heads of independent agencies, usually because there's been a bad story in the morning's Washington Post or New York Times that caused embarrassment to the administration. When this happens, the secretary to the cabinet must call up that appointee to find out what's going on, to get out the complete story, to ream them out, and to tell them to shape up.
All these highly important functions illustrate a key point made by journalist Joel Achenbach in an article he wrote in the Washington Post in 1992: "The White House is above all a political operation. It does not literally run the government. It merely uses the political power vested in the executive branch to influence the government." We may imagine the president and the very important people working for him as master puppeteers, pulling strings all over the federal government. But as a practical matter, that is not the case. The most a White House can do is set the policy, the tone, and the communications narrative, so that everybody in the administration, one hopes, works together and does what the president wants.
The day-to-day business of governing—of deciding when the national parks open and close, how much subsidy will be paid for a particular agricultural commodity, and whether to recognize a foreign government that's just seized power in a coup—is done by cabinet secretaries and agency heads. They are appointed by the president to use their own discretion and staffs to make decisions like these and so much more. From time to time, as I indicated, they can get in trouble with the White House for straying off-message or off-policy. But it would be impossible for even a super-gigantic White House staff actually to run the government. The most the White House can do is to decide the overarching policy, set the message, run the politics, and perform certain chores like get a Supreme Court justice confirmed by the Senate.
I shall stop with a favorite story about the White House. Anyone who has ever worked in there has a complete repertoire of stories that they tell the rest of their lives, either to enchant or bore people at dinner parties. My favorite story does not concern me. In fact, I'm not even sure it really happened, but it says so much about the White House and Washington that I'm going to tell it anyway.
It supposedly took place during the Ford Administration, when a junior Foreign Service officer was assigned by the State Department to the National Security Council staff. This particular fellow had a friend over at State whom he invited to join him for lunch in the White House Mess. Now, dining in the Mess is a highly desirable thing in the world of Washington, and the young Foreign Service officer could not resist telling his colleagues where he was going to have lunch.
Off he went to the White House, and as he waited for his friend in the basement of the West Wing, there was a bustle. Down the short corridor came President Ford, surrounded by aides and Secret Service agents. The young man stood and said, "Good afternoon, Mr. President." President Ford looked at him, smiled, said "Good afternoon," and continued on.
A moment or two later, the National Security Council staffer greeted his friend, who told him he had just seen President Ford. The staffer said, "Well, you know, if the president's not here, then we can go upstairs after lunch and see the Oval Office." They had their meal, after which they went upstairs to the Oval Office, where a velvet rope was drawn across the door. They looked in at the desk and the paintings; it was a very special moment.
The Foreign Service officer returned to the State Department, where of course his colleagues were seething with curiosity (and not a little jealousy) about what he had done. The young man acted quite nonchalantly, saying "Oh, well, it was very good. The food was excellent. I really recommend the White House Mess."
His office mates' questioning continued:
"Well, did you see the president?"
"Yes, I saw the president."
"Really? How long were you with him?"
The Foreign Service officer thought for a moment, and then said, "Well, I’m not sure, but from the time he said 'Good afternoon' till I left the Oval Office, I'd say it was about an hour and a half."
Chase Untermeyer grew up in Houston, Texas. He graduated from Harvard College with honors in 1968, after which he served as an officer in the Navy until 1970. After successive careers in journalism and politics, culminating in two terms in the Texas House of Representatives, Untermeyer was invited to Washington, DC, to work for newly elected Vice President George H. W. Bush. He would hold several posts during the Reagan and Bush administrations, including as executive assistant to Vice President Bush, as assistant secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, and as director of presidential personnel under President George H. W. Bush. He also served as U.S. ambassador to Qatar under President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2007. From the daily journals he kept, he has authored two books on his time in Washington, Inside Reagan's Navy: The Pentagon Journals and When Things Went Right: The Dawn of the Reagan-Bush Administration.