Thirteen: February 1989
Two days after the cathedral service and the second day of the Bush administration, I was asked to report to the White House. At 8:30 in the morning on Tuesday, January 24, 1989, I’d received a call from Bob Davis, whom I did not know, and was instructed be at the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB) by noon. After checking in with White House security, I was to proceed to the office of Scott Bush.
Davis told me that Scott, for whom I had worked at transition headquarters, was going to head the personnel office of Schedule C Appointments — he was the President’s nephew, and he was the lone relative of Bush to follow him into the administration. At first, there was some question as to whether or not Scott’s being a member of his uncle’s administration violated rules against nepotism, but it was found that he could stay, first on staff in presidential personnel and later in a position at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Bush’s eldest son, George W., had been the only one of the five Bush children who had worked at the campaign headquarters (as well as at transition), but he had returned to Texas after the inauguration.
Not a soul was in sight when I drove up Pennsylvania Avenue. The city was unusually quiet, and none of the normal commotion so much a part of downtown Washington was evident. It is wonderful to drive block upon city block without a long backup of cars at the stoplights. Everyone was taking one last deep breath before the wheels of the new administration started turning.
Emerging fortress-like, with its nine hundred freestanding exterior columns of pink and tan marble, the OEOB was hard to miss. I parked in a garage on Pennsylvania Avenue, crossed the street, and walked up the unusually wide flight of steps to the front entrance of the building. Sitting adjacent to the White House, the OEOB housed the offices of the vice president as well as a majority of the White House staff, including presidential personnel. Referred to as the White House Annex in years past, and one hundred years old, it remained one of the most handsome and ornately designed structures in Washington.
Staff members housed in the OEOB most often considered themselves to work “in the White House.” Although they were not lodged in the actual building, they were a part of the White House workforce and included in the White House Phone Directory. Seldom was the distinction made between those working in the West Wing (or East Wing) and those working in the OEOB… except among members of the West Wing, who did not consider them part of the “real” White House. Still, most senior aides to the President (and the office of the vice president) were not housed next to the Oval Office; they were in the OEOB. To the West Wingers, there was a distinct difference between the staff on the east side of West Executive Drive and those on the west side.
As I arrived at the front door of the OEOB — on the west side of Exec Drive — a few lackadaisical-looking security guards at the main entrance waved me through with hardly a glance. Once inside the building, I took my time to look at the striking curved staircases, the four-foot granite walls, the eighteen-foot-high ceilings, and some of the two miles of white-marble corridors. As I walked down the spacious and immaculate hallways, I could hear my footsteps resounding off the marble and tile interior; the polished mahogany doors did not give a clue that it was an office complex.
On this one day only, I had access to all the nooks and crannies of the building, which until two days earlier had been in the hands of Reagan’s outgoing staff. In twenty-four hours’ time, word would hit the streets that the OEOB housed presidential personnel, and the heavy black metal doors at the entranceway would be closed to intruders. Starting on Wednesday, the police guards would tighten their security procedures: metal detectors would be back in operation, and incoming staff would need the appropriate badges and clearances to enter and depart. Visitors would have to be cleared in, and the guards would need to be notified in advance of their arrival.
On the first floor, not too far from the main entrance, I found room no. 139, Scott’s office; he met me and welcomed me back to his team, explaining that I would share an office just down the hall with several others on his staff, most of whom were arriving the same time as I. After being introduced, my coworkers immediately informed me that being first in the building had its privileges. We could secure furniture from the five hundred–some vacant offices for our own use, taking advantage of the “first come, first served” policy.
Collecting furniture, however, is not my most vivid memory; the devastation of the offices in which we found the furniture is what I will never forget. Behind each handsome ten-foot door was a room looking as if a bomb had gone off in it. In the turnover of one administration to the next, some disarray was to be expected, but there was nothing civil about the Reagan team’s departure. Their debris gave the appearance of an angry and bitter out-going staff. These former tenants had ravaged their offices, and what remained was a shameful display of personal disregard, not only for the furniture and objects themselves, but also for the Office of the President.
Desk drawers were thrown open, revealing handfuls of broken pencils, damaged pens, and torn index cards. Reams of paper in opened packages were scattered everywhere, as were briefing papers and old magazines. Trash baskets were filled with crumpled paper. Dozens of Coca-Cola bottles and half-empty Dunkin’ Donuts boxes were lying on top of the desks, bookcases, and tables. Walls were full of large, gaping holes where nails had been carelessly torn from the plaster. The hardwood floors, many previously shiny parquet, were dusty and scratched, and telephones were out of order.
From the wreckage, I salvaged a few of the many remaining eight-by-ten color pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Reagan… standing by a pond, sitting on a fence, and riding horseback. I feel sure that Ronald Reagan — who left the presidency with a 90 percent approval rating from his own party, and whose public decorum always seemed dictated by a touch of class — had no idea how his staff had left their offices upon his departure.
The only offices we found locked on our first-day tour were those in the presidential personnel suite. Obviously, the Reagan appointees who had occupied them had not planned to go anywhere other than back to their offices. They had left and taken the office keys with them. As a group, White House personnel are responsible for submitting the paperwork on all new appointments and all old resignations. With that authority, these appointees had resigned from their positions and then reappointed themselves — before Bush was inaugurated.
Resignations, effective January 20, had quickly turned into appointments on January 26! A scheme implemented while Fuller was heading the transition team, and while Baker was senior advisor to Bush. Reagan was still president while this self-directed rehiring took place. It would prove to be the crux of many problems that lay ahead for the Bush administration.
In the fall of 1988, Bush had assured those of us at the transition headquarters that there would be a decisive personnel change in his administration, promising that it would not be a Reagan III. While I was still at the Republican National Committee (on November 6, the day before Election Day), I read a USA Today article by Jessica Lee, “Bush Says He’ll Appoint New Faces,” stating just this:
Now, sitting in the near-empty OEOB on the fourth day of the administration, I questioned if what Bush said were true.
Months ago, (Charles G.) Chase Untermeyer had been assigned the job of finding individuals to fill Bush’s political positions. Having assumed one of the key appointments on Bush’s team — heading the office of personnel during the campaign and transition — Untermeyer, as expected, had been selected the new director of the Office of Presidential Personnel. A critical position. He had replaced Reagan’s top personnel man, Robert Tuttle.
Untermeyer’s history with President Bush went back to his college days in Houston, Texas; while he was still in college in the mid-1960s, he had spent two summers as an intern for then-Congressman Bush. After graduating from Harvard in 1968, Untermeyer was commissioned an officer in the Naval ROTC program, leading him to serve on a destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf during the Vietnam War. Back at home in the early 1970s, he found a job as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, and in 1978 and 1979, he worked on a George Bush autobiography, one that was never completed. Untermeyer was a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1977 to 1981 and, in 1982, was called by Bush to be his executive assistant in the Vice President’s office.
Shortly after arriving in Washington in March 1983, Untermeyer left Vice President Bush and assumed a Reagan appointment at the department of Defense as deputy assistant secretary of manpower and reserve affairs, responsible for recruiting and training Navy and Marine personnel. Promoted in May 1984 to assistant secretary of that same organization, he stayed at the Pentagon until April 1988, when he left his appointment and, once again, joined forces with Bush. This time, his plan included the staffing of appointments in a predicted-to-be Bush administration.
Untermeyer had set up an office at the RNC, where I recalled seeing him briefly during the fall of 1988. I knew his assistant, Helen Mobley, from early campaign days. It was well known that the personnel chief kept mostly to himself. Unlike Fred Malek, who was a hands-on manager, Untermeyer remained removed from the troops and was seldom seen in the hallways of the RNC. Now, in January 1989, with his office in the West Wing, I seldom saw him in the hallways of the OEOB.
Holding such a central position in the new White House, Untermeyer oversaw a directive of many offices and staffs. Comprehending the organizational structure of the office of presidential personnel, with its different levels and job titles, could be intimidating even to those, like me, who worked in the organization. And to understand the personnel directorships (and associated authority that came with those positions), I share this clarification.
Except for Cabinet positions and ambassadorships — staffed solely by Untermeyer — all political appointments were managed by Untermeyer’s deputy, (Roscoe B.) Ross Starek. Untermeyer may have had the prestigious title, but Starek had the authority. A key member of the former Reagan White House crowd, Starek had been the number-one deputy in presidential personnel under Bob Tuttle. Remaining in that same slot under Untermeyer, Starek had retained his old office space, one of the largest, just down the hall from mine. His staff of associate directors (called ADs) was responsible for filling the several thousand White House/agency positions.
Each AD handled appointments specific to a number of government departments. For instance, there was an AD for “finance,” one for “social services,” another for “trade,” and so forth. The AD in charge of filling slots for “National Security” obviously represented all the departments falling under the national security umbrella (State, Defense, CIA, and the National Security Council). There were eight ADs.
On a daily basis, the ADs were kept informed about who was and was not being considered for a possible appointment to one of the fourteen agencies or many more committees and boards. By handling all the paperwork and necessary approvals, Starek and his ADs could easily make or break a candidate’s chance to get a position. Receiving an appointment in an agency without Starek’s stamp of approval was almost impossible. And although the ADs could not always assign a candidate to a specific agency, they could keep him out. This is what gave them their power. They could stall a potential appointment whenever they wanted. Under the leadership of Starek, the ADs appointed as many individuals as possible from the Reagan 1980–1988 team to positions in the Bush administration.
From personal experience — before going to the White House — I knew something about Starek and the associate directors. While at 1825 Connecticut Avenue, at the urging of a transition staffer, I was approached about becoming a candidate for an assistant AD job. On December 30, while at the transition offices, I was interviewed, on site, for the position of assistant to Martha Goodwin, who handled several domestic agencies. Almost immediately after the interview, I was informed by someone on her staff that no one from the Bush team would be assigned to presidential personnel during the first year of the administration. All the Reagan ADs were going to keep their positions “to help smooth things over.” I was told to reapply for the position the following year.
Because the Reagan ADs kept their jobs for all four years of the Bush presidency, I never had an opportunity to reapply. Had I been chosen for the slot, Goodwin would have remained for one year, and then I would have replaced her. As it was, Martha Goodwin kept her job, as did all the others in her office, for the entire time Bush was President. Reagan personnel ran the northwest corner of the White House. For four years. Without missing a beat from one administration to the next, the Reagan personnel staff continued to pass out their business cards that read simply, “Special Assistant to the President.”
By the end of January 1989, the full personnel staff numbered close to seventy-five. Some were “detailed” to the West Wing with Untermeyer, but most resided in the OEOB under the direction of Starek. Because those of us in Scott Bush’s office were considered “temporary,” we were not part of the Starek team. Nevertheless, we were on Untermeyer’s roster, and for the time we worked there, we were officially part of presidential personnel, but more of a parallel team to Starek’s.
Scott Bush, like Ross Starek, reported directly to Untermeyer; this gave Scott instant influence. And because we worked unilaterally — not under Starek — we were viewed as a threat. The Reaganites kept their distance from us, yet because we worked within feet of each other (and saw one another from time to time), the friction was played out in dead silence. No one spoke to anyone else on the “other” team. This experience working in the OEOB, although uncomfortable, would, later on, clarify many of the bizarre administration happenings. There was a distinct “We” and “Them,” rooting for two opposing teams. It was Reagan versus Bush.
On the fourth day of the Bush administration, Untermeyer called a staff meeting in the Indian Treaty Room, the most ornate room in the OEOB and where presidential news conferences were sometimes held. He gave a pep talk, much like one he had given us before we departed the transition headquarters, saying, “This is going to be a great administration, and we are lucky to be a part of it.” The thirty-some individuals who attended Untermeyer’s meeting on January 26 received a roster of “who’s who” in presidential personnel. After quickly surveying the list, I noticed that a couple of names were from the transition team, but not one name was from the Bush campaign or even the Republican Committee. Despite my having been in the system for eighteen months and now working in the hub of the new presidency, I did not know anyone other than Scott Bush. He (who had no campaign experience) and I were the only ones in presidential personnel from the transition personnel office.
In Scott’s group with me were six political rookies, including a thirty-five-year-old homemaker, a 78-year-old department of Defense retiree, and Bob Davis, the son of a Congressman and the person who had requested me to report to the OEOB. My peers were personable and hardworking individuals. I liked all of them, yet I never understood how, without any national campaign experience, they were chosen. Unlike my personnel teammates, who came together from unrelated backgrounds, the ADs under Untermeyer’s command knew each other from earlier times. Starek held the authority. During transition days, Fuller had guaranteed him — and his squad — untold power for as long as he wanted it.
After the meeting in the Indian Treaty Room, Untermeyer never gathered the troops together again, at least not in the next few months, and I would not see him until eight months later at a two-day orientation for new appointees. That September 27 meeting would be held back in the OEOB, and Untermeyer would again comment on the responsibility appointees were assuming in their new positions, pointing out that egos should be kept “in check” and that one should never do anything that would “embarrass the President.”
I had the feeling Untermeyer was not that happy in his job. Not in January 1989, nor the following September, nor ever during his four-year term. Maybe the awesome responsibility of finding three thousand qualified nominees from among hundreds of thousands of clamoring candidates had something to do with his less than enthusiastic demeanor. I assume that he would have preferred to stay in the job he’d had at the Pentagon.
Finding jobs for nominees was a difficult task, especially in view of executive job structure. In 1989, the federal civilian workforce numbered just below three million. The three thousand presidential appointments included a wide range of jobs: Senate-confirmed Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions, Senior Executive Service positions, and Schedule C positions (personal and confidential assistants). At his pleasure, the President also appointed several thousand to advisory boards, commissions, and special councils, as well as hundreds of federal judges.
Learning the government job structure helped me not only execute my job in presidential personnel, but appreciate the complexity of a well-defined political hierarchy. Grasping the intricacies of the various job levels was daunting, but for me, necessary, especially when understanding the correlation (or lack thereof) between job positions and political power. Cabinet posts were at the top. The Executive level, with five grades, followed. The Senior Executive level (SES) had six grades and included titles such as under secretary (highest), assistant secretary, and deputy assistant secretary. Lastly, the Schedule C level had eighteen grades (eighteen being the highest).
Of the political appointments in the Bush administration, the vast majority were low-level jobs. Two thousand were Schedule C slots, seven hundred were Senior Executive slots, and two to three hundred were reserved for the Executive ranks. The higher-ranking positions at the SES and Executive-level, as well as Cabinet positions, required Senate confirmation. With far less authority and no confirmation requirement, the Schedule C slots made up 66 percent — or two thirds — of the appointments.
Untermeyer did not bother with these; he focused his attention on finding nominees for the weighty Cabinet and ambassadorship posts. More significantly, Starek kept his eye on the other two thousand nine hundred and fifty positions. Added to that huge number was Starek’s previous experience in the Reagan White House; the combination of the two gave him influence far beyond that of Untermeyer.
Starek’s ADs carried out their work from spacious, well-furnished offices. They had staffs of assistants, plenty of administrative backup, and computer access. In comparison, we in Scott Bush’s office proceeded without any of these “perks.” During the first few weeks in February, while the ADs concentrated on filling the SES and higher positions, we worked on staffing the Schedule C slots. However, our mission came with a caveat: we were given an undefined amount of time in which we could fill the positions. According to the OEOB grapevine, Scott’s office would be closed by April 1.
Given the small window of opportunity — two months — to process as many candidates as we could, the eight of us worked nonstop day and night. We worked ten-hour days every day except Sunday, and our only break was when we took turns to run to the OEOB cafeteria for a hamburger and a bag of potato chips.
Adding to the stress, we learned by accident that thousands of résumés had arrived at the White House before we had assumed our positions. From November ’88 to January ’89, the Reagan personnel staff had put them in boxes and left them unprocessed. None had been forwarded to us at transition.
Still, something worse.
None of our résumés (with attached recommendations) that I had helped to process at transition headquarters had been transferred to the White House. The computer transfer — the merging of résumé data that was so vital — had never taken place!
All the untold
hours of work over the three-month transition period, whereby thousands
of applicants were politically screened and tagged, had been for naught.
According to the Reagan ADs’ records, the data was
The Reaganites sabotaged our efforts in order to protect their own.
Even in February 1989, located three doors down from data entry, we were denied access to the White House computers… they were “off limits.” The essential office — computer management — had kept, and would continue to keep, us at bay. The only data inputted was from the Reagan associate directors, who, without the computer staff, would never have been able to proceed the way they did.
We took calls from people all over the country. We were besieged with phone calls. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, job seekers called, and our six phone lines never stopped ringing. Most of those calling wanted to know if their résumés had been received, and, more importantly, if they would soon get their appointments. We never let them know how slim their chances were or how overloaded the system was. The April 1 cutoff was always in the back of our minds.
As at transition — and without access to computers — our work in Scott’s group was accomplished by hand. What made it so difficult was the daily avalanche of mail that filled our offices, spaces the size of closets. With thousands of résumés stacked everywhere, we painstakingly divided them alphabetically and then filed them into large steel filing cabinets.
Once an applicant was selected to be a nominee, we marked his or her file according to a number system, giving each a three-number priority code. The first number indicated “quality” of the candidate, the second indicated “political job rating,” and the third indicated “priority.” In the case of 1-5-1, “1” would specify “outstanding,” “5” would specify “GS-14,” and “1” would specify “must hire.”
If the nominee was tagged “must hire,” we assigned him or her to the agency we thought he or she would be most qualified to work in. For example, someone who had experience in a state park might be sent to the department of Interior. The background checks were just as extensive as they had been at transition. By telephone, we checked on the individuals’ political campaign experience, education (a college degree was mandatory), present job, area of expertise, and voting record — before recommending them for appointments.
Not until mid-February did the agencies finally start to communicate with us and request appointee candidates. Our list of Schedule C candidates (with their completed files) was hand-carried to the White House liaison office in the receiving government agency, and once a candidate’s file left our office, it was no longer our responsibility to track it. We had to focus our attention on the hundreds of individuals still pursuing positions; as soon as fifty names were sent to the White House liaison, another two thousand were waiting for us to process. Out of those, maybe another fifty would be lucky enough to reach the agency level. And only a percentage of the fifty would actually find jobs.
Those appointees who received a blessing from the White House and got their names (résumés) in departments during February or March were given what was referred to as a 120-day temporary assignment. They were not assigned to a specific job. The nominees had approximately four months inside the department to find one for themselves. And because there were more names submitted to the agencies (Transportation, Labor, Interior, Education, and so on) than there were available positions, many never did find an appointment and were lost in what we called the “wasteland.” There were more of these individuals than had been anticipated.
I would soon realize why so few slots were opening for our candidates. Reagan appointees had already filled them. White House ADs were reassigning Reagan appointees from their present agencies to other agencies across town (e.g., from Interior to Education), thus severely minimizing the available positions for new Bush-credentialed appointees. The system became jammed in every direction. Not only was Starek filling the higher-level positions (deputy assistant secretary, assistant secretary, and under secretary), he was shuffling old appointees at the lower levels into new Schedule C jobs. He was filling our slots as well as his own!
From the time I first entered the OEOB, I had sensed that something was terribly amiss, and I reflected on the notes I had written in my personal diary:
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