Respond to this Article May 2000

One Eye on the Exit

A guide to moving from the West Wing to the real world

By Nicholas Thompson

When you work in the White House, everyone returns your calls. You make decisions that are broadcast on the six o'clock news. You get there early in the morning; you leave late; you probably chain-drink cups of coffee. You bear the burden of breaking scandals, possible wars, and whether the President has the right make-up on. Your family and friends envy the glorious life they think you live because they've watched NBC's "The West Wing." It's a great job, but there's one problem: Most White House aides don't last very long.

From the chief of staff to the most obscure policy advisor, White House staffers show up with bubbling idealism, great expectations, and seemingly unlimited vigor. Then, usually within 18 months, they're out. Although a few stick around until a new president has been elected and the moving vans roll up, most others call it quits much sooner---after they lose a power struggle, burn out, or just decide they need some more time at home or money in the bank.

Those who came from law firms or academia usually glide right back to an enhanced version of whatever they left. Others face a grimmer task. Once you've been in the White House, that old job in the ad agency or in the house minority leader's office doesn't look so appealing. You've been in the center of the world for too long with too much influence. There are some good jobs available---Washington rain-makers, insightful pundits, non-profit chairmen---but it's not easy to get one and many former executive-branch aides stumble and end up simply outlining books that never get written and sinking into careers that never get kicking.

What can you do to make sure you succeed and don't drift into oblivion? You've got to figure out the elaborate courtship rituals practiced by ex-executive aides and their employers, learn the rules of the Washington reputation game, and dodge the many landmines scattered outside the White House gates. None of this is easy; but none of it is impossible. So read on and study the following ten Washington Monthly commandments for navigating the post-White House world. We can't guarantee that all readers will exit this great Washington mating game with a perfect partner; but we can guarantee that you won't end up forced to spend the next decade as a fading lobbyist arguing that refrigerator coolants really don't harm the ozone layer.

Commandment #1:Plan ahead while you're in.

If you've worked close to the president, you don't have the most directly employable skills. You've learned how to spin, you can probably rattle off the names of dozens of foreign leaders and the chairmen of assorted congressional subcommittees, and you can probably make great cocktail-party arguments for or against free trade (or both). These aren't useless talents; but they don't guarantee smooth sailing into another career. Remember, as former Bush speech writer Tony Snow says, "You're far more interesting when you're in the White House than when you're out."

How do you get around this? The best way is to plan your transition out in two steps. First, move to a related job in the government, a little further from the White House but where you can actually be in charge of something---a great boost for your resumé. Clinton Communications Director Mark Gearan first moved over to run the Peace Corps and then moved from that leadership position to the presidency of Hobart and William Smith colleges. James Baker made the transition internally: engineering a switch out of the job as Reagan's chief of staff to head the Treasury Department and, in due course, the Department of State.

If, however, you only have a chance to think one step ahead, find a specialty while you're in the White House---something that people on the outside care about. If you spend two years restructuring the internal presidential mail system, you're apt to spend the next two years expediting the invoice electronics at Wal-Mart. If, however, you work as the president's domestic policy advisor for communications, you'll be handed a sack of generous and exciting offers the minute you're out the door.

This lesson seems to have been at least partly learned by the Clinton crowd. On February 15th, the CEOs of high-flying technology companies like Yahoo!, Cisco, and AOL came to the White House to talk about Internet security. When the executives showed up, according to one presidential aide, "the room got a little bit crowded." Most of the chairs in the room had been assigned, but a few were left open and ambitious presidential staffers jockeyed around them. When the president came in, signaling that it was time to sit down, "it was like a game of musical chairs."

Commandment #2: Test The Waters.

If you're thinking about leaving soon, have someone trustworthy start to spread subtle rumors that you might be thinking of moving on. Perhaps your boss will get wind of it and promote you; perhaps your job description will suddenly change for the better. If no one responds to the rumors, or if your colleagues start dropping "help wanted" announcements at your desk and mentioning "a couple great places to work in Cleveland," you'll at least have a clear sign that it's time to hit the road.

The other advantage of spreading rumors is that you might get an offer from the outside. In fact, according to one senior presidential advisor, a common White House strategy is to "leak word that you're thinking of leaving and then wait and see if the calls come in." Most frequently, according to the advisor, the leaking goes through Al Kamen at The Washington Post---his "In the Loop" column "serves as a kind of village green for us."

The danger, of course, is that you'll alienate your friends and irritate colleagues who are thinking about leaving while stridently pretending that they're not. But history indicates that the consequences are more embarrassing than fatal. Doug Sosnik, a senior Clinton advisor, announced that he was leaving, stumbled, announced he was leaving, stumbled again, and didn't get out the door for three years. What happened to him? Although he ended up the butt of years worth of White House jokes, he was still promoted, given the most coveted office in the West Wing, and ultimately ended up in a good job with the National Basketball Association.

Commandment #3: Leave on a high note.

If possible, leave while your boss is still the center of attention and flying high. Exit then and your contacts on the inside will be valuable, you'll catch some of number one's glitter, and you'll be able to distance yourself if and when the commander in chief starts to slide. It's like the stock market. You want to buy low, sell high, and cash in before the inevitable crash comes.

But if fate denies you a high note, you can still parlay your departure into a press story that will give your next career a little bounce. An easy bet is leaking the news that you're hitting the road to Al Kamen. But if you aim higher, go for a feature profile in a major newspaper. White House spin-meisters, particularly Clinton's, seem to love calling reporters and smoothing their colleagues' transitions to the real world. Here's The Chicago Tribune gushing on about former domestic policy advisor Rahm Emanuel just after he left to take a job as an investment banker: "His rabid, Śround-the-clock work ethic once earned Emanuel the nickname he'll never shake, Rahmbo. But he cut short a reporter's 7:30 p.m. phone call last week because he wanted to share a quiet dinner with his wife. ...There would be something almost corny about seeing this Chicago-born son of an immigrant pediatrician and a social worker take his street smarts and non-Ivy League education and make it big. Not once, but twice. First in politics, and now in business. And he's not yet 40."

Commandment #4: If you can't get out at the right time, stick around.

If you can't leave on a high note and you can't sell while your stock is going up---maybe it's just too late in the term or maybe, as with Nixon, it's clear that Black Monday isn't going to be followed by Sunny Tuesday or any day---stick around until the end and help the departing president pack his bags and fold his socks. Loyalty has value and, in the last few months of an administration, promotions are dished out like Halloween candy. If you want to be chief of staff but you don't want to wend your way up the hierarchy, come on strong at the end. In the last nine months of an administration, a little diligence and loyalty may give you a shot. Lyndon Johnson appointed Jim Jones, a little-known 29-year-old as chief of staff in the dying days of his administration. Jones later turned his prominence into a career in Congress, a route followed by future Bush secretary of defense, Dick Cheney---an unknown but ambitious 34-year-old Congressional aide when Gerald Ford appointed him chief of staff. Beth Nolan is now President Clinton's White House counsel. Who is Beth Nolan? Just wait.

Commandment #5: Criticism should only be used if you've left on principle.

No one's ever entirely satisfied with his or her experience in the halls of power. Inevitably there are squabbles, jealousies, disagreements, and scores to settle down the road. Our advice for dealing with that? Forget it---or at least don't write a self-serving memoir. The jeremiads of White House aides flow tiredly together. The author is always on the side of the good, whispering the predictable and critical (if not always heeded) information directly into the president's ear, and few people really want to read another recounting that runs along the lines of: "As we sat in the White House war room and listened to President Johnson, one thought kept coming back to me: We'll never win this war in Southeast Asia. I later drafted a memo to the president detailing my reasoning but foolishly discarded it out of loyalty after I was chastised, during one of our daily coffee meetings in my spacious West Wing office, by the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and the chief of staff."

As a rule, therefore, you should only write a critical book if you've had the courage to leave on principle and put your own job on the line for your beliefs. If you haven't done that, if your disagreements weren't worth that sacrifice, you should probably keep quiet. If you don't, your account is likely to blend into the crowd and leap straight from the shelves of Kramer's Bookstore into the $1.99 remainder bins.

Commandment #6: Aim your criticism with care.

Admittedly, there is one major problem with commandment #5: No one ever leaves the White House on principle. The only exception in a generation was Jerry terHorst, who quit as President Ford's press secretary after his boss pardoned Richard Nixon. Thus, although we can hope for more gallant souls like terHorst, a more practical rule for aspiring authors is perhaps that anyone even thinking about writing a book and settling scores should approach the task with extreme caution---along the lines of defusing a grenade. It is possible to make money through a personalized and critical account, but beware: you can burn your friendships, your future support network, and quite possibly your own reputation. And, if that doesn't happen, it might well just be because few people read what you wrote.

After Reagan's budget director David Stockman wrote a book pillorying his former administration, The Washington Post asked him whether he had any friends left in Washington. "Yeah Š and I've heard from both of them." George Stephanopoulos has suffered a similar, if not as acute, fate---though he had the keen sense to line up a spot as a pundit before releasing his book. What's worse, White House memoirs often get scoured for potential self-inflicted wounds and those trying to throw stones often drop the largest ones on their own feet. When Press Secretary Larry Speakes published his memoir of the Reagan years, the only thing that plummeted faster than the book was the author. Speakes had infelicitously revealed that he had made up quotes for President Reagan and was soon fired from his job as press spokesman for Merrill Lynch when callers started demanding to know if he was making up quotes there too.

Commandment #7: Stay Humble.

When you're inside, you want the world to think you're competent; you want to be photographed near the president with a grim look on your face. You want to be described as "an influential and trusted confidant with street smarts." But remember, the president is in charge and everybody is supposed to be working for him. If you fill your balloon with too much air, someone will surely stick a pin in it.

Peggy Noonan, Bush's and Reagan's speech-writer, lost her patience with being in the background and began to let everyone know that she was responsible for the great presidential lines. Her colleagues turned their backs. John Sununu, Bush's Chief of Staff, suffered the same fate---he seemed to only understand the first half of the old saw that the chief of staff is "president without the credit"---and was unceremoniously fired.

Outside the White House, you face the same balancing act. You have to remember that you weren't the president and, now that you're out, you're the same person that you were before you went in. The latter point is particularly difficult since, after working at the center of the world for a while, you tend to spend a few extra minutes looking in the mirror each day and it's possible to confuse your position and prestige with yourself. You tend to forget that when Jim Smith is in the White House, Stephen Spielberg returns his calls because he's in the White House, not because he's Jim Smith.

If you don't believe that this self-importance disease can strike anyone, consider this letter sent by a former White House aide. The aide, an apparently humble chap when he came to the White House, penned it after deciding to leave Stanford's Graduate School of Business after one year to take a job with a company chaired by his former boss, Clinton's ex-chief of staff Erskine Bowles: "After a painful two weeks of consideration and consultation with mentors, family, and friends, I have decided to formally withdraw from Stanford Business School Š [I] leave knowing that I have given my all to the GSB community Š I am especially proud of the Tuesday Coffee Breaks I instigated in attempt to strengthen relations between the students and the faculty and administration. As a columnist for The Reporter, I have tried to touch the GSB community with wit and humor. As a student, I have earned high marks in most all of my classes and have been a vocal contributor Š I will miss all of you dearly. But, I am serious about returning. Thank you all for making me stronger."

Commandment #8: Don't flaunt your money.

White House officials don't make a ton of money: Top aides earn less than Yale Law School graduates just starting careers in New York firms. But if you resent this and you leave thinking about gold, tread carefully. If you slick back your hair and declare that you want to make millions in order to buy a block in Georgetown, old friends working in the trenches of public service will spurn you. You'll look like you've lost your core values or, worse, never had them at all. Leon Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff says: "Making lots of money means that, in one way or another, you have to sell a little bit of your soul."

This rule has been fairly well-learned in Washington and people who leave to scoop up the dough keep quiet. Folks who hop onto the money train, "want to spend more time with their families." If they do the devil's work for the tobacco industry, they're "trying to find the middle ground." If they defend the Burmese junta's right to enslave ethnic minorities, they "believe that everyone should have their day in court." Other aides try to hedge their bets by serving on public housing committees or announcing that they're only making money so that they can prepare for a run for public office.

This step is a little easier for Republicans than for Democrats because, as Alice Rivlin, Clinton's former budget director, said, "Republicans are a little more business-oriented." Paul Begala, Clinton's former advisor puts a slightly finer edge on it: "Republicans think they're better than you because they're rich and think they're rich because they're better than you."

Commandment #9: Don't flaunt your access.

Just as you shouldn't flaunt your money, you shouldn't make it look like you just stopped off at the executive mansion to build credentials and make contacts for future influence-peddling. Power is the lifeblood of Washington, it's tempting to advertise how influential you are, and it's quite possible to get away with a fair amount. Still, there is definitely a line that can be crossed, and the penalties for crossing it are harsh indeed. Yes, you can work to be profiled in the National Journal and you can persuade your confidantes to spread the word at downtown luncheon clubs that you golfed with the president on Saturday and changed his mind on welfare reform. But if you wear your access on your sleeve, your colleagues will call for the guillotine. Make the profession look bad and the penalty is the wrath of Mammon.

The poster boy of this phenomenon is Michael Deaver. Ronald Reagan's factotum, Deaver left the administration to start his own consulting organization in 1985. Millions of dollars started to pour in and the formerly down-to-earth guy was sucked into the world of access. Soon, he was captured posing leaning back in a limousine, talking into a cell phone with the Capitol dome in the background, for the cover of Time magazine and a story titled: "Influence Peddling in Washington."

He had crossed the line. Other Washington access-experts reacted with indignation, representatives on the Hill were disgusted: Deaver was the subject of countless rumors and, soon enough, investigations by the GAO, Congress, and the Justice Department. Within a few months, his business had fallen apart and he was eventually sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service.

Commandment #10: Remember Your fallbacks.

Enough people have suffered through post-White House-departure syndrome that there's a system designed to bail you out if you get stuck. If worse comes to worst---you leave at the wrong time, you don't have anything lined up and you aren't sure what you want to do---look for a parking place. Certain institutions seem designed specifically to offer gas, food, and lodging to ex-White House aides and are more than happy to house someone whose "professional experience" section of their resume ends in 1986. For Republicans, there's the Hoover Institution, the Richard Mellon Scaife magazine empire, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute where former Reagan officials John Bolton and Michael Ledeen now work. For Democrats, there's the Brookings Institution, The Council on Foreign Relations, or Harvard's Kennedy School. The latter recently became the temporary home of former Clinton communications director Donald Baer and chief speechwriter Michael Waldman, two senior aides to Clinton who ended up unsure about their next steps.

What if you can't even find a parking spot? It's not likely, but if you're completely stuck, your best bet is to just leave town and try something new. Donald Regan, Reagan's chief of staff, had his head put on the chopping block during Iran-Contra, failed in an attempt at a vindictive book and couldn't get back on track with a financial career. What did he decide to do then? Move to Williamsburg, Virginia and become a painter. It's not as intense as working to set the schedule of the most powerful man on earth, but there are many advantages and it's far preferable to sinking into the Washington has-been scene.

Like jumping out of an airplane, no matter how well you set up your parachute, you're going to hit the ground hard when you leave the White House. It's just too intense a transition for it to be any other way. Still, if you do it right, and you follow the ten Washington Monthly commandments, you should be able to land without breaking both legs.

Research assistance provided by

Elisabeth Frater and Linda Persson.

Nicholas Thompson is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email him by clicking here or read his other articles by clicking here

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