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Ford to Carter: Brookings and the 1976-77 Presidential Transition

Following the release of his book Organizing the Presidency in 1976, Stephen Hess got a call from his secretary that Governor Carter was on the phone. He responded, “What Governor Carter? I don’t know any Governor Carter.”

It was of course the President-elect, Jimmy Carter, seeking advice across the political aisle. Hess, who first came to Brookings in 1972, had served in the White House under both Eisenhower and Nixon, and was an advisor to President Ford. He had also helped the Ford administration with a White House orientation program for senior political appointees, and Carter knew his advice would be valuable in assembling his new administration.

##1##Hess, who wrote a series of memos to Carter on organizing his administration, was not the only Brookings expert tapped to assist Carter in forming his new government. In fact, several Brookings scholars went to senior positions in the administration. Henry Aaron went to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which has since been become the Department of Health and Human Services, with Education later becoming its own cabinet-level agency. And to advise one economic and fiscal policy, Brookings’s Charles Schultze and Barry Bosworth joined the Council on Economic Advisors

Meanwhile, Hess started his recommendations by advising Carter to cut 77 White House staff positions immediately. The previous administrations, Nixon and Ford, were two of the largest in history, and Hess had written in his book that “the size of the White House staff reflects the failed concept of a managerial presidency.”

One reason for the swollen staffs was that the office of legal counsel for the White House grew substantially during the troubled Nixon presidency, and was not adequately drawn down under Ford. Hess further recommended eliminating the Office of Public Liaison, which had been established in the Nixon White House to accommodate “special pleadings” from minority groups and special interests. Hess believed that role could be carried out by appointees to federal departments and agencies outside the White House.

The Brookings scholar also advised Carter to quickly appoint a chief of staff, writing that the President “…should not be his own chief of staff. Otherwise he will find that he is spending considerable time on servicing his staff, rather than the other way around.” While Carter initially did not follow this advice and decided not to have a chief of staff, he eventually appointed Hamilton Jordan to the position in 1979.

Stephen Hess’ Organizing the Presidency demonstrated the Brookings tradition of providing nonpartisan policy and managerial advice to the White House, a tradition Brookings is carrying out in 2008 with its presidential transition project and series of memos to the President-elect.

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