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  • Empowering the White House: Governance under Nixon, Ford, and Carter
  • Robert J. Spitzer
Empowering the White House: Governance under Nixon, Ford, and Carter. By Karen M. Hult and Charles E. Walcott. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004; pp viii + 264. cloth $40.00; paper $19.95.

The great American lyricist Ira Gershwin was known as "the jeweler" because of his meticulous and painstaking craftsmanship in writing song lyrics. I think of Karen Hult and Charles Walcott as similar, scholarly jewelers who labor with a comparable meticulousness in their research and analysis of the organizational evolution of the White House. Their first and award-winning book on this subject, Governing the White House, traced its institutional evolution from Hoover to Johnson. This book offers a second installment, focusing on only three presidencies: the imperial Nixon and the anti-imperial Ford and Carter administrations. Consulting a vast array of primary and secondary sources, the authors provide an authoritative, balanced, and nuanced analysis of the presidential institution of the 1970s.

Two broad theoretical concerns frame this book's analysis: the application of organization theory to the study of the White House, and the extent to [End Page 534] which explanations of the presidency rest on institutional versus personal factors. Regarding the latter, the authors come down on the side of emphasizing structure over personality, although particular presidents obviously make decisions concerning structure and staff that shape political and policy outcomes. Drawing on their earlier study, Hult and Walcott identify four categories of structural and evolutionary change, including partisan learning, meaning the tendency of presidents to adopt staff structures like those of the last president of the same party to occupy the White House; environmental expectations, referencing organizational continuities that persist regardless of administration; organizational dynamics that explain White House Office (WHO) evolution, such as differentiation and inertia; and the preferences, objectives, and strategies of individual presidents. The first of these factors has received the most attention, with the Democratic organizational model, spokes of a wheel, arising from the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman eras, and the Republican hierarchical model coming from the Eisenhower years. Between the two, however, hierarchy, including a formally designated chief of staff, has proven to be instrumental to recent presidents regardless of party. In fact, the authors dub the strong chief of staff the "standard model," underscoring its indispensability to presidential governance. The last president to try a weak chief of staff, Clinton, abandoned it after 18 months, replacing a structurally weak Mack McLarty with a structurally strong Leon Panetta.

The book's chapters are organized thematically rather than in presidential chronology, which facilitates the book's analytic focus, but also underscores its one limitation, discussed below. The nine chapters cover the important elements of the WHO, including staff organization, public outreach, interest group outreach, the White House counsel, congressional relations, policy process structures, and speechwriting. An analysis of the presidency founded in organizational theory might sound like a less-than-enthralling waltz through an otherwise engaging subject, yet it proves to be not only interesting, but insightful. For example, the staff organization chapter's discussion of Nixon's chief of staff structure, headed by H. R. Haldeman, immediately draws the reader to the pathologies of the Nixon presidency and provides the appropriate lens through which to understand both the indispensability and dangers of this powerful office, as well as to the manner in which the Ford and Carter administrations struggled to balance repudiation of Nixonian excesses with effective staff structures. Yet in their diagnosis of the Nixon years, they conclude, oddly, that "the problem lay mainly with the decision makers, not the overall decision system" (31). The comparison to Ford is instructive, where access structures to the president were broadened and an atmosphere of openness was encouraged. Surely these organizational reforms could have stemmed at least some of the Nixon administration problems had they been meaningfully implemented. [End Page 535]

Again and again, Hult and Walcott demonstrate the pivotal importance of the Nixon White House, not only as it was the point to the Ford and Carter counterpoint, but also in setting the habits and practices of presidents to come. In public outreach, for example, polling...


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pp. 534-536
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