This sun-filled, seaside marvel of a city is no scenic director's choice for a ghost-story setting. But something has happened here that is both fascinating and eerie. Last weekend, eight of the men who ran the White House between Harry Truman's departure and Ronald Reagan's arrival came to talk with each other and the world about how it should be done.
The proceedings of the conference sponsored by the University of California-San Diego were taped and will be edited for public television, so you will have a chance to see for yourself what a few of us were privileged to witness in person.
Unless I miss my guess, it is going to be marked as an important moment in the emergence of both a standard doctrine of presidential management and of a class of professionals -- rather like the senior British civil service -- who are proficient in training others in its arts.
At the urging of Gerald L. Warren, the San Diego Union newspaper editor and former Nixon White House press aide, the university invited top officials of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter White Houses to share their experiences. No such conclave had ever been assembled, for an obvious reason: the substantial risk that old rivalries might cause it to explode on contact. Remember, some had succeeded each other under less than auspicious circumstances for themselves or their presidents -- after an election defeat, an assassination or a forced resignation. Some had run campaigns against each other.
They were, in any case, an odd lot: two professional military men, Eisenhower's staff secretary, Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, and Nixon's chief of staff, Gen. Alexander Haig; a former congressman, Ford's chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld; three former congressional staffers, Kennedy's speechwriter and special counsel, Theodore C. Sorensen, Johnson's counterpart, Harry C. McPherson Jr., and Ford's final staff chief, Richard Cheney; and two men who were newcomers to Washington when they became chief of staff, Nixon's H. R. (Bob) Haldeman and Carter's Jack H. Watson Jr.
The eerie thing was the spontaneous camaraderie that developed among these men. Except for Haig, whose inner tensions or unfulfilled ambitions never permit him to relax, these old warriors almost instantly fell into a mood of nostalgia more appropriate to a summer-camp reunion.
It turns out there is a kinship among those who have worked close to the Oval Office, a kinship that party, presidency, age and political philosophy do not diminish. What UC-SD professor Samuel Popkin, one of the symposium organizers, called the "extraordinary chemistry" and feeling of "professional pleasure" among the eight participants was palpable almost from the moment they sat down. It embraced even Haldeman, making one of his first public appearances since he resigned 12 years ago and later went to jail in the Watergate cover-up.
Equally striking was the degree of consensus two days of talks produced about how the work of the modern presidency should be organized. After saying at the outset that each White House staff must be tailored to the needs and style of a particular president, it turned out that they really agreed among themselves that some ways will work better than others, no matter who is sitting at the president's desk.
What they endorsed was essentially the strong chief-of-staff system now being operated by Donald Regan -- though many doubts were expressed publicly and privately about the publicity and prominence Regan seems to draw to himself.
Rumsfeld and Watson gave eloquent anecdotal evidence of what the latter called "the fatal mistake" their presidents made in allowing several aides equal access. Cheney gave a hilarious description of the perils of presidential decision-making based on scribbled notes on the backs of cocktail napkins. Even Sorensen, whose boss had rejected the model of the smooth-running Eisenhower chief-of-staff system, said that the Kennedy brothers came to appreciate the value of systematic staff work.
Harvard's Richard Neustadt, who had counseled Democratic presidents from Kennedy to Carter to keep open multiple channels of advice, said at the end of the symposium that he was now convinced that "even at the irreducible minimum scale, the White House staff needs an administrative head." He also raised the question, "Can't you guys teach anything to your successors?"
The answer is clearly yes -- if the arrogance of the 1988 election winner and his staff does not prevent them, as it did so many others, from listening and learning.
There is an opportunity for the members of the "club" formed here to help institutionalize the management of the White House. They are well-equipped to do it, for they understand both the importance, and the limits, of their role.
On the limits, Watson said, "I'm often asked if being White House chief of staff is more like being a quarterback, or a goalie, or a cheerleader. The image in my mind is more like a javelin catcher."
And Rumsfeld reminded that at times each president will ignore the procedures set by his staff and overrule its advice. He will be right to do so. "It's no accident," he said, "that he's president -- and you're not."