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Executive Order
By Richard Mertens
Photograph by Dan Dry

President Eisenhower’s staff fit into a single room. Today the Executive Office of the President numbers in the thousands. As the workforce has grown, says Bradley Patterson, a longtime West Wing staffer and an expert on the White House’s inner workings, the presidency has become more powerful.

photo: Bradley Patterson

On November 2, 1972, Bradley H. Patterson Jr. faced one of his severest tests in a long career of government service. Militants affiliated with the American Indian Movement (AIM) had occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building on Constitution Avenue and demanded to speak to the president. Instead Richard Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, John Erlichman, sent Patterson, AB’42, AM’43, then a White House aide working in American Indian affairs. That evening Patterson and a colleague met with AIM leaders in a conference room at the Interior Department, just across the street from the BIA.

The meeting was tense. The militants were young and angry. “You know, Mr. Patterson,” they began, “we’re going to die tonight.” Back at the BIA the protesters were stacking typewriters at the top of stairwells to block the police from entering. They had containers of gasoline at the ready.

“We were very apprehensive,” Patterson recalls. “If we didn’t handle this right, we would have a big problem on our hands.”

Their tactic was to listen. They listened for hours as the protesters held forth, making denunciations, uttering threats—“spilling their guts,” Patterson says. The opportunity to speak seemed to calm tempers—even after those in the room learned that police in riot gear had surrounded the BIA. Patterson and his colleague yielded nothing of substance, but they promised the AIM leaders that the government would consider their demands, including the establishment of a commission to review past treaties and a restoration of treaty-making authority between the government and American Indian tribes, which had ended in 1871. That night some government officials argued that the police should storm the BIA.

Patterson, who had worked on American Indian issues for three difficult years, urged restraint. Eventually Nixon ordered the police to back off. The occupation ended peacefully a week later when the government set up a task force to study the militants’ demands and agreed to pay their bus fare home.

The occupation of the BIA was the central drama in a trilogy of crises that affected American Indian affairs during Patterson’s four years in the Nixon White House. The first was the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island, an abandoned federal prison site in San Francisco Bay; the third was the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation. All ended peacefully. For Patterson, who played a leading role in the government’s response, these events stand out as high points in a public-service career going from the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration through the Gerald R. Ford White House. They also illustrate what Patterson terms a profound shift in United States government since the Second World War: the movement of policy making and execution away from the traditional executive-branch departments—Interior, State, Labor, and the others—to the White House and the president’s staff. It was Patterson and his boss, Leonard Garment, who coordinated the government’s response to the three American Indian crises of the Nixon years, not officials of the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The shift is part of an ongoing centralization of executive power that has weakened the departments and strengthened the presidency. It has given birth to a new kind of public administration that, Patterson believes, can respond better to the complexity of the modern world—and to such crises as the 1972 BIA occupation. Patterson, who entered the government as a State Department translator in 1945, has been a participant in much of this change, and a witness to it all.

FOR PATTERSON THE WORD “BUREAUCRAT” is not a term of abuse. When politicians scorn “bureaucrats in Washington,” as Ronald Reagan often did, he bristles. “That’s just unfair,” he says. “These are men and women who serve their country, serve their nation, some of them at great sacrifice, at modest pay, and sometimes for their whole lives. To give them that kind of pejorative appellation bothers me a lot. I’m proud of public service and the men and women in public service. Obviously it has its bad eggs and rotten apples, but very few. I think it’s just a word to cover up a dislike of what the government is doing.”

An expert on the modern White House, Patterson has written two books that explain, in encyclopedic detail, what the executive-branch staff does today and how it got those responsibilities. He focuses less on the personalities and policies of any particular president than on the machinery of the institution itself. But he is more than a scholar. He is a kind of apostle for government service. Occasional scandal—this after all is a man who witnessed firsthand the rise and fall of Richard Nixon—has left his zeal for public service undiminished. A touchstone for him is John F. Kennedy’s famous challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Patterson, for his part, thrived in government service. Today, at 83, he looks 20 years younger. He is spry, energetic, and built like a wrestler, short with a barrel chest. His white hair is ample and swept back. He and his wife Shirley, SB’43, who retired as chief of the National Park Service’s recreation planning branch, live in a leafy neighborhood in Bethesda, Maryland, and attend a local Unitarian church. A wall in Patterson’s study, in a front room of the house, features signed photographs of the presidents he has worked for, along with some he hasn’t, such as William J. Clinton and George W. Bush. Together with the photographs hangs a framed collection of doodles he preserved from cabinet documents during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, including sketches by Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, and Nixon.

Born in 1921, Patterson grew up with the New Deal. He started college the year Hitler invaded Poland, studying philosophy at Chicago and receiving a master’s degree from the Committee on Social Thought. After teaching German for two years at Cranbrook School for Boys in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, he learned that the State Department was looking for translators in Germany. He never got to Germany; instead he stayed in Washington and translated documents, including minutes of Hitler’s meetings with Franco and others. He rose to a position in the State Department’s executive secretariat and finally made it to Europe when he accompanied Dean Acheson and the rest of American diplomatic delegation to Paris for negotiations at the end of the Berlin blockade. Then the Democrats lost the White House.

Patterson watched the Eisenhower inaugural parade feeling lonely and disheartened. “Acheson and Truman were swept out, McCarthy was at his peak, and the State Department was said to be full of communists,” he says. “As a State Department civil servant, I felt pretty bad.”

But his luck turned. An advisor to President Eisenhower asked Patterson to help create a cabinet secretariat in the White House. Placing secretariats at the top of important offices was an idea that had been slowly winding its way through the government. A staff of professionals who do not make policy but try to ensure that a big office runs in an orderly way, a secretariat circulates memos, drafts meeting agendas, takes minutes, records action, and then follows up. It makes sure that people in the loop stay there. The State and Defense departments both had secretariats, but Truman had rejected the idea, Patterson says, because it seemed “too British.” Eisenhower, however, embraced the plan—he had enjoyed a secretariat’s services as Supreme Commander in Europe—and Patterson joined his staff as assistant cabinet secretary. He prepared agendas for cabinet meetings, took minutes in shorthand, and wrote summaries. The job gave him not only an insider’s view but also a small part in shaping the modern White House.

“We were making public-administration history,” he says. “We were very proud of it. We were making the system work the way the president wanted, effectively, behind the scenes. It was a system that was pioneering, and it worked.”

Patterson stayed in the White House until Kennedy took office in 1961. In those days brimming with idealism, Patterson joined the most idealistic of Kennedy’s initiatives: the Peace Corps. He worked for two years as executive secretary under Sargent Shriver, but found the job too grueling for family life and moved to the Treasury Department as its national security affairs adviser. Under Lyndon Johnson he served as executive director of two advisory groups, one on the Selective Service and the other on economic opportunity.

In 1969 he returned to the White House as an assistant to Leonard Garment, a Nixon administration official in charge of civil rights. Nixon sympathized with American Indians, and with Garment and Patterson’s help his administration transformed American Indian affairs. It settled Alaskan native claims, promoted self-determination, and defused crises without resorting to force, even though conservatives faulted the administration for negotiating with lawbreakers.

“We were blamed for knuckling under to violence by the Indians, for not standing up to the Indian activists,” Patterson says. “These activists were way out on the extreme, in the American Indian Movement. But we talked with them, we met them, we negotiated with them. We got them out of the BIA building peacefully, we got them out of Wounded Knee peacefully, we got them out of Alcatraz peacefully. The press and judges spoke of this and how we did it right. We made friends with all these people. We didn’t make enemies.”

An ebb in Patterson’s service came in 1974, when Ford grumbled that he couldn’t run the country and his wife’s office at the same time. So the president appointed Patterson as assistant to First Lady Betty Ford, a job he held briefly before finishing out the Ford administration working in the White House personnel office and, near the end, on American Indian programs once again. He spent the next 11 years at the Brookings Institution. Organizing conferences that taught business executives and other outsiders how Washington worked, he served as Virgil among the bureaucrats.

WHEN PATTERSON SAT DOWN to write The Ring of Power: The White House Staff and its Expanding Role in Government (Basic Books, 1988), his first attempt to explain the staff, he had in mind a different kind of White House book. For one thing, he resolved to avoid the word “I” and all that went with it. He had read a whole corpus of gossipy books by former White House officials.

Much of the literature was of “the kiss-and-tell variety—people who had been there, very senior people, talking about who slept with whom, who cut whose throat, and who was up and who was down—that kind of book,” he says. “I was determined not to do that. But equally, I was impressed with the fact that very few people knew much about the White House, how it was structured, how it was organized, what the different offices were and how they came to be, how they worked together.”

He hoped to correct some misconceptions. Presidents want people to think their staff is small. “A president likes to say, ‘I rely on my cabinet,’” Patterson says. But, he argues, presidents do so less and less. By his count, the White House staff numbers about 6,000, including cooks and ushers, security personnel, secret service, military officers, the people who fly and maintain Air Force One, and most important, a growing number of staffers who make and execute government policy. Another misconception, Patterson says, has been introduced by vainglorious former aides: “George Stephanopoulos or Henry Kissinger want you to think, ‘I did everything—me and the president, but mostly me.’”

In fact, running a White House is the work of many hands. Patterson interviewed more than 150 people for his first book. Twelve years later he did more interviews and expanded the book, calling it The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond (Brookings Institution Press, 2000). Researching these books didn’t alter his central views of the White House, but it yielded a multitude of examples and a detailed chronicle of changes in its makeup. Patterson succeeded in banishing the first person, although he smuggled himself back into the books as “the author” in sections concerning the Nixon and Eisenhower administrations.

The White House staff, Patterson makes plain, is a modern creation not foreseen by the founders. It grew largely out of World War II and the president’s need to exert greater control over national security and economic policy. Eisenhower was the first president to hire a chief of staff, and the position has become indispensable to a smooth-running White House. After the Bay of Pigs incident, President Kennedy established the Situation Room to assume greater executive-branch oversight over national security. Today a president in the “Sit Room” can exert unprecedented control over military decisions. In the air war against Serbia five years ago, for example, bombing targets were vetted in the White House instead of the Pentagon. Sophisticated technology, including satellites and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, gives the president not only instant communication with the battlefield but also effective command over it, Patterson notes: “He can say, ‘Wait a minute, general. I don’t want you to do that.’”

Over the years the White House staff has mushroomed like the Beltway suburbs. Many offices and hundreds of personnel have been added; few have been taken way. The modern White House includes, among others, a communications office, an office to handle intergovernmental relations, and an advance office to plan presidential travel. Eisenhower had six press aides; today’s communications office employs more than 50 people. The National Security Council has grown to more than 200 employees.

And woe to presidential candidates who promise, as Clinton did, to cut the presidential bureaucracy. They can’t. The modern White House staff, although recent in origin, is firmly cemented in place, Patterson says. The best an incumbent can hope to do is to add or subtract one of a few small offices used to emphasize an administration’s special priorities, he says. For example, George W. Bush added an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, while during the 2004 campaign Senator John Kerry promised to hire special assistants charged with securing nuclear material around the world.

The White House’s increased power to create and carry out federal policy is due in part, Patterson suggests, to sheer necessity. Increasingly, it seems, the nation’s problems overlap traditional department boundaries. American Indian issues, for example, are handled not only by the Interior Department, but also the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Commerce. The General Services Administration controlled Alcatraz Island when the AIM took it over in 1969. “The nature of our society, the nature of the world, the nature of these different issues, is such now that they’re all intertangled,” Patterson says.

“Maybe they never were separate, but we just didn’t recognize it. Maybe they were never separate, but they didn’t have that crisis urgency that many issues have today. Indian affairs was certainly a pretty sleepy area of government for a long, long time. Nobody paid any attention. We mistreated the Indians for a century or more. All of a sudden we were interested in Indians. Issues slop over departmental bounds, and the only solution is to bring the matter inside the White House.”

On the whole, he says, the changes have been good. They not only have made the executive branch better able to coordinate issues that overlap departmental boundaries, but also have put power in the hands of the people who are closest to the president and know his mind best. The evolutions have been essential, Patterson and others argue, for governing effectively in a pluralistic and demanding society. In a sense the White House staff has grown to meet the public’s increasing expectations for government.

“Congress has wanted the president to do more, and has provided the resources to do more,” says Martha Joynt Kumar, a political-science professor at Towson University and an expert on the White House staff. “The public has wanted the president to do more. If the president is going to be the initiator in domestic policy, and is going to be responsible for the economy, he needs to have the staff there.”

One consequence of the shift has been the death of an old-fashioned idea of government in which separate executive departments managed their own affairs under the president’s loose supervision. Through his staff the president today exercises strict control over federal decision-making. “The departments are still there,” Patterson says. “And their loyalties and jurisdictions are still asserted. But they’re meaningless.”

Cabinet meetings, in which the heads of federal departments met weekly with the president to discuss the important issues of the day face-to-face, are a relic of the past. “The cabinet hardly ever meets anymore now,” he says. “Only occasionally, mostly for show-and-tell and picture taking, to bring the press in.” The last important cabinet meeting, he says, took place in the Clinton administration, when officials gathered to debate welfare reform.
Another consequence is that, despite appearances, the president is almost always in charge, Patterson says. He strongly doubts that Reagan was ignorant of the Iran-Contra scandal, as he and his aides insisted. “Presidents will try to give a misleading impression that they delegate these things to their cabinet,” he notes. “In crisis management you say, ‘My secretary of state’s in charge,’ or, ‘My military’s in charge,’ or, ‘I let my generals do this.’ Even Bush says this now. That’s all nuts.”

The new White House is not without its perils. It can become chaotic when powerful egos on the staff battle for influence. A tough chief of staff is essential. Assertive aides can alienate cabinet officers, as Kissinger did Secretary of State William Rogers during the Nixon years.

How does Patterson judge recent White House staffs? Eisenhower’s staff was small—it could meet in a single room—and worked well together, he says. Kennedy put together an excellent staff, but the Bay of Pigs fiasco exposed lapses in the oversight of national security. Nixon’s staff was riven by tension and personal rivalries, but it was well run at the top. Carter’s was poorly organized at first, and when the president finally hired a chief of staff, he chose the wrong man. Patterson admires George W. Bush’s staff, if not his policies. It is filled with old hands who know how to run a White House. In fact, Patterson suggests, Bush’s obsession with secrecy, together with his doctrine of preventative war, have pushed presidential power to its limits.

Another risk is simply hubris. History furnishes many examples of how the perquisites and power of the White House intoxicate well-meaning officials. “A lot of people have difficulty being wary of that kind of thing,” Patterson says. “It feels so good.”

THIS SUMMER AND FALL, as the longest presidential campaign in American history neared its end, Patterson followed events as avidly as anyone who had spent his whole adult life in Washington’s overheated political atmosphere. One issue that most people didn’t worry about, but Patterson did, was the possibility of a transition. Was anyone on either candidate’s team really thinking about it? If it happened, would it be done well, as under Reagan? Or badly, as under Clinton? Even if Bush were reelected, he noted, there would almost certainly be shuffling within the administration. “I just hope whoever comes in,” he said, “it will be people who are familiar with the pressure and compromises and separations of power and jurisdictional concerns which affect Washington particularly.”

He was especially distressed by the campaign’s acrimonious tone: “The partisanship in this town is extremely bitter right now.” While not immune to feelings of partisanship, he guards his own political views carefully and considers himself an independent.

“He’s a classic civil servant, in the English sense,” says Stephen Hess, a retired senior fellow at Brookings and a friend who first worked with Patterson in the Eisenhower administration. “This is a person who has operated with a passion for anonymity, dedicated to making government work efficiently, smoothly, and honorably for those who are elected, making sure they have the best staffing. These are the unsung heroes. He’s as good as they come. When I was a very young man on the White House staff I thought there were a fairly substantial number of people like this. I tend to think there are fewer and fewer.”

In Patterson’s books the virtues of public service form a powerful subtext. He describes the White House staff in great detail, but he also defends and pays homage to it. “The essence of White House service,” he writes near the end of White House Staff, “is not the notorious dishonor of a few, but the quiet honor of thousands.” The books may be found on White House shelves, and they have proved useful to journalists covering the president, says Towson’s Kumar. “They’re important,” she says. “They are written from the viewpoint of someone who was in the White House and has an appreciation for what information is needed.”

It is safe to say that no one appreciates better the information that is needed to run a White House. Yet he also quietly celebrates the core values he has believed in and aspired to. These values are, in a sense, his true subject.

“I never forgot, and still do not forget, what a privilege it was as a young career person, a career bureaucrat, to be invited to serve in the White House, and to serve there for 14 years,” he says. “When you look back and ask what did you do with your life—and at my age you tend to do that—it still fills me with a tremendous sense of satisfaction and pride.”

Richard Mertens is a freelance writer and a doctoral student in the Committee on Social Thought.


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