Frequent Falls For Top Aides in the White House

President Eisenhower enjoys a laugh with Sherman Adams.

President Eisenhower enjoys a laugh with his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, before setting out for a round of golf in 1955. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Bettmann/Corbis
President Bush and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove

President Bush and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove leave the White House for a day trip to North Carolina, July 15, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

Half a century ago there was a joke among some Washington insiders that began with a reference to President Eisenhower and his vice president: "Wouldn't it be terrible if Eisenhower died and Nixon became president?" Then the punch line: "Yeah, but what if Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became president?"

Like Karl Rove, the top strategist for President Bush, Adams was once considered so essential to the man in the Oval Office that people could not imagine the White House functioning without him.

A former congressman and two-term governor of New Hampshire, Adams became Eisenhower's chief of staff in January 1953. As governor, Adams had helped Eisenhower to a pivotal victory in New Hampshire's presidential primary in 1952, and as chief of staff he swiftly made himself indispensable.

An able administrator, Adams also handled a lot of the inside political work Ike did not care to do himself. As the war hero president became known for playing golf (and surviving a heart attack), Adams assumed more and more authority.

But Adams came crashing to earth in Ike's second term. He was found to have accepted gifts (famously including a vicuna coat) from a business friend who needed help with federal regulators. Even as the scandal was reaching its crescendo, Eisenhower was pleading for forbearance for his man. His explanation was pithy: "I need him," the president said.

No one doubted that need, but in the end it was not enough to save Adams, who resigned in 1958 and lived out his life in relative obscurity.

Falls from grace at this altitude did not begin with Adams, of course, nor did they end with him. The longer a president serves, the likelier it becomes that a prominent member of his inner circle will fall hard.

President Lyndon Johnson functioned as his own political strategist and fixer. But he still took a hit when his brilliant operative, Bobby Baker, got caught up in indictable forms of influence peddling and went to a federal prison for 16 months.

President Richard M. Nixon's imperious chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman resigned and eventually went to jail because of the Watergate cover-up in the 1970s (along with Nixon's chief domestic adviser and many others).

President Jimmy Carter was embarrassed by the indiscretions of his campaign guru and chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, who was also accused of using cocaine. An independent investigation did not produce an indictment, but Jordan's troubles contributed to Carter's disarray and his re-election defeat in 1980.

President Ronald Reagan had four chiefs of staff, the second of whom, Donald Regan, was a former Wall Street mogul and Treasury secretary. Regan's ego became a major irritant and a source of friction with First Lady Nancy Reagan, and in 1987 an independent report on the Iran-contra affair (in which arms were sold to Iran and the proceeds given to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua) forced Regan to resign.

President George H. W. Bush, in a striking reprise of Eisenhower, laid claim to his nomination in New Hampshire and later brought its governor, John Sununu, down to D.C. to be his chief of staff. Sununu had a high-handed style that alienated much of Capitol Hill (not to mention the news media), but it was his use of official limousines and aircraft for personal trips that finished him off in the fall of 1991.

The man who conveyed the news to Sununu that the president needed him gone was the president's son, George W. Bush. Like others close to the 41st president, the future 43rd president feared that Sununu's troubles would become the president's own. He also knew that the senior Bush would be loath to ask his major-domo to step down.

Time and again, top aides have attracted controversy, usually by indulging themselves or by performing political operations clearly beneath the dignity of their employers. And whether these top aides wind up in legal trouble or not, the public attention to their machinations becomes a major distraction. It makes them far less effective in both the seen and unseen facets of their jobs.

So it was when President Bush stepped into the East Room of the White House this week with the prime minister of India. Everyone watching the event knew what the first question to the president would be about.

Did the president still intend to fire anyone in his administration who was involved in leaking information about a CIA official? The president said he still intended to fire anyone who had "committed a crime."

Everyone in the room knew that Rove, the man the president has called the architect of his presidential victories, was the subject at hand. The White House has long denied that anyone there was involved in disclosing the official's link to the CIA. Now it recedes behind a legal definition of criminal disclosure.

From deep in the recesses of the building, you could almost hear an echo of Ike, saying: "I need him."

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