When Stuart E. Eizenstat walked into the White House with newly elected President Jimmy Carter in 1977, he found it denuded: no secretaries, no files, no civil servants and no institutional memory of what had gone before.
"No corporate CEO would tolerate it," he said. "Issues tend to be repetitive," and no business executive would want every one of his top-level managers to be green and all records to be awaiting cataloguing for the next presidential library.
In a discussion of presidential transition issues conducted yesterday by The Center for Excellence in Government, Eizenstat called for a White House secretariat.
His proposed secretariat would include perhaps 10 longtime civil servants who would have responsibility for an archival record system, who would be part of the loop of memos to the president and who would lay out precedents before a president made major decisions.
The last two presidents, Eizenstat noted, had to deal with Iran and they made similar mistakes. "Issues are very much alike from one president to the next."
According to Eizenstat, who worked in the White House as Carter's domestic policy adviser, it took a leap of faith to accept the idea. It began, Eizenstat said, as he talked to the secretary to then-British prime minister James Callaghan and found he had held the same post under Edward Heath.
Callaghan's secretary said that his job was to keep the current prime minister away from the political and policy land mines other prime ministers had already stepped on, Eizenstat said.
Although Eizenstat remains strongly committed to his idea, it has failed to catch on at Capitol Hill, which would have to approve it. But the secretariat is only one management improvement that could be usefully handed to the incoming president, he said.
The nonprofit center is writing a "Prune Book" -- descriptions of the government's top 130 jobs and the qualifications necessary to hold them -- and "we hope that this will have an influence on who is appointed," said center Chairman William A. Morrill.
The name is a takeoff on the "Plum Book" -- the list of top political jobs available at the beginning of each administration. "A prune is a plum with experience," said John H. Trattner, author of the forthcoming volume.
In an effort to draw attention to the importance of governing, the center, one of many organizations hoping to play a role in framing how the next presidential transition is conducted, expects to put a list of questions to the 1988 candidates in the coming months.
Eizenstat said he thought it significant that none of the presidential candidates is running anti-Washington, antigovernment campaigns. "If it were politically popular, at least a couple of them would be doing it," he said.
Yesterday's discussion participants agreed that candidates' management qualifications are tough to judge in advance. Eizenstat said that Herbert Hoover went to the presidency with a strong business and management record, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency was characterized by overlapping responsibilities and duplicative assignments, yet Roosevelt is judged as by far the more successful president.
"We are not electing a chief manager," said Eizenstat, "we're electing a leader who will choose competent people, reward them for good performance, and use the bureaucracy as an important corporate resource."
"Obviously, it is difficult to motivate and cheerlead when you're cutting back," said Alan K. (Scotty) Campbell, former director of the Office of Personnel Management, "but the business world is going through that very same thing, and they spend a lot of time thinking about motivating those who stay to work very hard and and maintain the system.
"The signals have to come out of the White House."