At the White House, Duty Without Dignity

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

By Reed Galen

Working at the White House is an incredible honor, privilege and adventure. I worked for President George W. Bush from 2002–2003 and my time there is still a source of pride and fond memories. There is an excitement and awe that comes along with knowing that every morning you go to work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Any White House vet who says that look tourists gave them when they stepped out through the wrought-iron gate onto Pennsylvania Avenue didn’t give them a little thrill, is lying. The vast majority of the staff there do not work in the West Wing. Most of them might only see the Oval Office once or twice, and will only have a singular personal moment with the president: when they get their departure photo. I was extremely lucky — I traveled the country and the globe on behalf of the President.

Much of the work is hard, tedious and goes largely unnoticed. Attempting perfection in your given role is expected, even if not attainable. The average staffer may be buried in a cubbyhole on the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, propelled forward each day only by the fuel of knowing they’re working for someone they truly believe in, someone that largely embodies a hopeful and positive vision for the United States. The president is (usually) the physical embodiment of that vision.

Being able to work in the White House is often as much about being in the right place at the right time as anything else. If I had not been a senior at the University of Texas at Austin when then-Governor George Bush won re-election in 1998 and subsequently ran for president, I’d likely still be living (happily!) in the Texas capital. But for me, and hundreds like me, and the hundreds who have worked for other previous presidents — Reagan, HW Bush, Clinton and Obama, the opportunity to work on their national campaign was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and not to be missed. Nearly all presidential efforts lose — only one helps their candidate ascend the West Front of the Capitol on a chilly January morning.

The campaign is an essential component of building a cohesive and competent White House. The staff, from the Chief of Staff down to the assistant in the Travel Office, have the shared experience of working for someone they truly believe in; the shared highs and lows attendant in any campaign — or for so many Bushies — events like the Florida Recount bound many of us forever with shared memories. The president within the White House is also able to count on this group: they have been part of the universe for weeks, months and often years. Being President of the United States is a singular experience in American life, maybe in the world, which would be immeasurably more difficult without a coterie they trust and on whose confidence they can count.

Given President Trump won his campaign with five people and his airplane, he doesn’t have a group of long-time aides other than his family and his security guard, three of whom now occupy senior roles at the White House. Much of the White House staff is drawn from the Republican National Committee, many of whom expected Trump to lose as much as the rest of us. They were with him during last year’s General Election because that was their job — not because Donald J. Trump was their preferred candidate.

For the President and the staff alike, the work is difficult enough without having to constantly look over your shoulder to make sure someone isn’t out to get you. Rivalry, disagreement and jockeying are natural to any high-powered and high-stress environment. In the Trump White House, they’re an endemic, daily part of life. Sitting around the table at a senior staff meeting, looking around at your counterparts and knowing that you can have little or no confidence in their trust in and/or loyalty to you and the quixotic cause-of-the-day must be beyond dispiriting. Steve Bannon’s response to a reporter yesterday about the change in press secretary, “Sean got fatter,” is an absolutely unacceptable thing for an Assistant to the President to say about anyone on the record, not least about a fellow staffer. Spicer would be well within his rights to ask Bannon to go 12 rounds on the South Lawn.

Reading the news out of Washington, we see President Trump’s most senior aides spend as much time knifing one another as they do going about their duties. In a Trump organization, the chaos and backbiting are unwritten job descriptions. The president likes his staff to be at odds with one another, he says, because it keeps them on their toes and thinking. As we’ve seen, though, President Trump suffers from a near-debilitating desire to make sure everyone around him knows he’s the boss. Take it from a White House veteran: There’s never any question as to who the President is.

President Trump’s lack of confidence, trust and loyalty has a real, practical affect on how his White House and by extension, how his government operates. Whether it be the continuing Russia investigation, the lack of transparency with the media, the morning tweet storms that set the tone for Washington’s day or his inability to focus on major policy prescriptions, the president does a disservice to the country. He’s not managing anything and his unwillingness to let others do their jobs ensures no one else is either.

If we took a survey today, many Trump voters would likely say that the issues I’ve mentioned above are inside baseball, don’t matter and don’t effect their opinion of the president. There is a ring of truth to that. Washington loves nothing more than to wrap itself inside the Beltway and fight silly, petty battles that advance no agendas other than the next shock-jock fundraising email. The sclerosis at the top of the US government has real-world implications. Millions of Americans don’t know what their healthcare will look like next year. Businesses, large and small, unsure of where Washington is headed on taxes, may hold back on expansion until they have a clearer picture. The situation in Syria appears to escalating from chaotic to dangerous by the day. To the person in Marietta, Ohio those things mean real money and having a job, or not having one to go to everyday; or knowing a mom, dad, son or daughter are increasingly in harm’s way.

Going to work at this White House everyday must be an adrenaline-fueled, fear-filled, fever dream. What will happen today? What will President Trump tweet about? What family member or favorite will you have to contend with in the course of just trying to get your job done. Working for the President of the United States is an unbelievable honor. That doesn’t mean you should have to check your dignity at West Exec to do it.

Copyright, 2017. Jedburghs, LLC.

If you would like this column delivered to your inbox, sign up here.

Follow us on Facebook.