Bush wanted to avoid his father’s mistakes. First as governor, and then as president, he decided to avoid the hierarchical chief-of-staff model. Instead, he created a system that gave key aides easy access, without having to go through an all-powerful chief of staff. His Texas policy adviser, Vance McMahan, recalled Bush saying:
I want a flat structure where my key senior staff members report directly to me. I don’t want opinions filtered through one individual.
The chief of staff was in charge of process—making sure that what had to get done in fact got done on time. But the staff chief was not a “first among equals.” For Bush 43, the most important link would be his relationship with each adviser, not their connections with each other or to a central gatekeeper.
It was this approach in Texas that “gave the senior staff members a great deal of access to the governor,” McMahan further explained. “It also gave them a chance to build relationships. The information didn’t get filtered.”
This model also put a huge burden on the man at the top. He had to ruthlessly manage his time to avoid being swamped by the competing demands of staffers. He had to balance the competing perspectives he received. He had to make all the key decisions himself and couldn’t off-load key decisions to others. He had to focus on key strategies and maintain balance in his own thinking so that decisions didn’t simply reflect the views of the last aide he consulted. (This was a charge often leveled at Bill Clinton.)
Believing that this approach had worked well for him in Austin, Bush brought it with him to Washington. He created a team with the chief of staff as manager of process. Key staff members could see him without an appointment—and without having to go through anyone else. Bush was determined to make himself the center of the action, and to force his aides to deal directly with him instead of battling with each other. For a president whose style was so intimate, who so greatly valued his personal ties with his aides, it was a structure that fit.
Other presidents, notably Jimmy Carter, had tried similar approaches. Carter likewise valued personal relationships, and he was determined not to have anyone serve as Oval Office gatekeeper. For Carter, however, the structure quickly broke down. Staff members squabbled, often publicly, about their policy differences, and they elbowed for access. Carter found himself drawn into detailed decisions that had no business being on his desk, including, most famously, schedules for the White House tennis court. For Carter, a nuclear engineer with a keen eye to the most intricate details, the spokes-of-the-wheel structure proved a very poor match. It didn’t take long for the model to dissolve into a more traditional hierarchical chief-of-staff model, with Hamilton Jordan in the key position.
According to White House personnel chief Clay Johnson, Bush “did not want someone to be chief of staff who was overterritorial, or was a control freak, or felt like they had to control the content or the recommendations that flowed to the president.” Instead, his emphasis was on a staff chief “who was more a facilitator, an orchestrator, and a tie breaker.”
The conventional wisdom among analysts is that the hub-and-spoke model is deceptively attractive to new presidents. It offers the promise of congeniality, but it sows the seeds of internal civil war. Most presidencies drift to a strong chief of staff, if for no other reason than to manage the unceasing flow of paper and people into the Oval Office. Bush resisted that drift. His structure encountered fewer bumps in the road, both during the transition and in his first years in office, than any recent president.
The reason is Bush himself. He has served as his own chief of staff on matters of substance because of his notable self-discipline—and because he hires strong and effective managers to work for him. Journalists tripped over themselves in calling his foreign policy advisers a national security “dream team.” With the exception of his first team of economic advisers, who were compelled to resign after the midterm elections, analysts called his cabinet one of the strongest on record. When asked by reporters to describe what his personnel choices said about his management style, Bush replied:
I hope the American people realize that a good executive is one that understands how to recruit people and how to delegate, how to align authority and responsibility, how to hold people accountable for results, and how to build a team of people.