The Last Time a General Propped Up a President

tags: Trump, John Kelly, Al Haig

Joshua Zeitz, a Politico Magazine contributing editor, has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University and is the author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. He is currently writing a book on the making of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.

“What if Adams should die and Eisenhower becomes president of the United States?” went a popular wisecrack among political insiders in the mid-1950s. The reference was to Sherman Adams, a stern, no-nonsense former governor and congressman from New Hampshire whom Ike appointed as White House chief of staff. The first individual ever to hold the title, Adams was the administration’s “abominable ‘no’ man.” Every decision flowed through him. Every scrap of paper that the president saw had first to be placed on his desk.

Many top-ranking officials despised the heavy-handed chief of staff, but Eisenhower—who fashioned the job (as well as the title) after the military system, where chiefs of staff wielded considerable command authority—routinely dismissed such misgivings. “I need him,” he would say.

With Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s elevation to the top White House staff position, observers wonder whether the new chief—a retired marine general who hails from the same military tradition that Ike sought to emulate in the West Wing—can impose some control on Donald Trump’s factious and circuslike executive office. Will he be able to roll back the influence of the president’s motley band of loyalists? Or will he find himself no more effective than his hapless predecessor?

Given the peculiar and often unsettling ways of Trump, however, the better question to ask might not be whether Kelly can imitate Sherman Adams, but whether he’ll be compelled to step in and fill the same controlling function as Al Haig, another general who served as chief of staff to an increasingly unstable, angry, alienated and beleaguered president.

From George Washington through Franklin Pierce, Americans presidents relied principally on their cabinet members to plan and execute government strategy; there was no such position as chief of staff, as there was effectively no White House staff to oversee. Instead, they used personal funds to employ private secretaries. In 1857 Congress made the position of presidential secretary an official job and appropriated government money to cover the salary and expenses of the incumbent officeholder. ...

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