What Now? Your Congressional Relations Chief

November 21, 2008

No job on your staff will have as large a pool of talented people to choose from. Draw a circle with a ten-mile radius from the White House, and you will capture dozens—if not hundreds—of members of your party who have vast experience as former members of Congress or as current or former congressional staffers. Most will take a substantial cut in pay to become your chief lobbyist. Why? Because the job is important, it is fun for the right kind of person, it is highly visible in their world of political advocacy—and it is only deferred income anyway.

Consider an earlier presidential transition aided by a man whose career had included managing congressional relations for two presidents: Bryce N. Harlow, who in November 1968 was working at New York City’s Hotel Pierre, headquarters for President-elect Nixon:

“I’m there in this room, phones ringing, jumping off the wall. Suddenly over runs a secretary, “Mr. Harlow, President Johnson’s calling.” I cut off who I was talking to and I said, “Yes, Mr. President . . . yuppity yup, yes, sir. . . .” And over runs the secretary. I put my hand over the receiver. “President Eisenhower is calling.” “Tell him I’m talking to the President and I’ll call him right back, or if he prefers, we’ll put him on hold.” Believe me, we put President Eisenhower on hold. Now I’ve got the President [on the line], got the former President waiting. In runs [Nixon aide] Larry Higby, and he says, ‘’Mr. Harlow, Mr. Harlow,” very imperiously, “The President-elect wants you in his office immediately.”

The story of a man whose counsel was demanded simultaneously by a former president, the current president, and the future president may suggest an extraordinary ego. But Harlow was a small, unassuming man who spoke almost in whispers and gladly let others take credit.

His résumé: after graduating from the University of Oklahoma, Harlow went to Washington and became an assistant to his member of Congress. He rose to chief clerk of the House Armed Services Committee and was the Pentagon’s liaison officer to Congress during World War II. He was the chief lobbyist for Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon and, between these periods of White House service, directed the governmental relations office of Proctor & Gamble. In other words, Harlow was a man who had worked long and hard to take the measure of government.
What made Harlow such an effective bridge between the executive and legislative branches was his skill as a negotiator. As the go-between, he had an uncanny knack for discerning what was most crucial to each player. He knew when a legislator could afford to give in and when the legislator would have to stand firm. He understood the trick was to make sure, if possible, that everyone would be able to claim some victory. Moreover, he was eminently practical: his job was to solve problems for the president—not to turn legislative proposals into moral imperatives.

In seeking a Harlow type—and they’re still around—you should make sure that they report each side accurately to the other, that they do not promise what they cannot deliver, that they do not make cutting comments in drawing rooms for recirculation in gossip columns and blogs, and that they do not call opponents’ motives into question.