Excerpts of H.R. Haldeman’s notes from a Nov. 17, 1972, meeting with President Richard Nixon. (Source: the Richard M. Nixon Library)

With confirmation hearings starting, much of Washington’s focus will be on President-elect Donald Trump’s top-level appointments. But take note of reports that James Mattis, nominated to be the defense secretary, is feuding with Trump Tower over other jobs in the Pentagon. That’s a clue to the fact that Cabinet offices represent just the tip of the executive branch iceberg.

Brookings senior fellow Elaine Kamarck has broken down the astonishing 4,115 posts that need to be filled by the president. Many are on part-time commissions and the like. But about 800 are executive-level positions, some requiring Senate confirmation and some not. (These figures are from the Partnership for Public Service.) 

These appointments are a potential — and valuable — presidential resource, given that 4 million people staff the bureaucracies Trump will soon inherit. As quoted in Thomas Weko’s book “The Politicizing Presidency,” John F. Kennedy’s personnel chief Larry O’Brien put it this way:

We approached this administration asking, ‘how do you get control over this massive bureaucracy — control in the sense that it is directed in its activities to the president’s interests?’

This may be particularly important to the new administration, many of whose Cabinet members have little governmental experience.

Finding the right people to fill the subcabinet jobs can be hard. Kennedy famously quipped, “I thought I knew everybody and it turned out I only knew a few politicians.” And the Trump counterpart to O’Brien — John DeStefano — was not named publicly until Wednesday, Jan. 4.

History suggests at least two issues he will need to quickly consider. One is the tradeoff between loyalty and competence. The other is related: Who chooses whom to hire? Will it be Trump (or his White House personnel office), or will the decisions be delegated to his Cabinet members?

It’s worth comparing the experiences of two previous Republican presidents on these fronts. Martin Anderson, in his book “Revolution,” tells the contrasting stories of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. (Anderson worked in both administrations.)

Anderson describes Nixon’s 1968-1969 transition as a “personnel disaster.” After an extended false start under someone poorly suited to the task, the “immense amount of prior planning and staff work” needed was simply not complete. Nixon, therefore, decided to let Cabinet members select their own subordinates. The upshot, Anderson argues, was that:

the departments were primarily staffed with people with an agenda different from that of the White House . . . [and] the Nixon administration never recovered.

Nixon soon reached the same conclusion. While his attempt to recalibrate was derailed by Watergate, his archives detail the lessons learned. By 1972, he was receiving regular reports on “Gaining Control of the Bureaucracy” from staffers dedicated to restocking his second term with Nixon loyalists.

Consider White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman’s handwritten notes from one of his many meetings with Nixon at Camp David just after the 1972 election. Haldeman transcribes Nixon’s main takeaway: “Have understanding with all appointees: . . . President will name second spots and other key slots.”

As you can see from the excerpt reproduced at the top of this post, some of Haldeman’s notes are laid out in a sort of free verse — proving you can govern in poetry after all, perhaps? They denote exactly which “key slots” were most key, as recommended by longtime Washingtonian Bryce Harlow.

Translated into a more prosaic format, out of Haldeman’s shorthand, the notes read:

Loyalty up is the most important thing. As we dismantle offices use the loyal people out thru agencies. Follow Harlow rule — control the key posts: press, legal, personnel, Congressional, Deputy.

And in case appointers — or appointees — missed the point:

[L]oyalty much more important than competence.

Finding the balance between those dimensions is a perpetually tricky one for presidents. Hiring on the basis of loyalty alone can undermine agency performance — and thus, presidential power, as Vanderbilt’s David Lewis has shown.

Yet loyalty is more effective when it means commitment to the president’s program, rather than personal fealty to the president as person and politician.

Reagan’s first personnel czar, Pendleton James, who also worked for Nixon, later observed in a Miller Center oral history that Nixon wanted the latter type of loyalty, Reagan the former:

I don’t think I knew what Nixon’s policy was. With Reagan we all knew what his policy was. You didn’t have to read a book. You knew what it was.

This made a key difference as the Reagan transition approached in 1980-1981 — since, as Anderson says, “the people around Reagan in 1980 were determined not to repeat Nixon’s mistake.” (Or Jimmy Carter’s, for that matter. Carter also had delegated hiring power in an effort to de-emphasize centralized White House authority in Watergate’s wake. Weko later interviewed rueful Carter aides who themselves also came to believe that “in order to countervail all that’s out there, you’ve got to build your own [staff] . . .”)

As scholars like George Mason’s James Pfiffner have documented, transition teams led by James were at work well before the 1980 election. With the credo “personnel is policy,” they wrote comprehensive job descriptions, prioritized positions – not unlike Harlow’s earlier list – and drew up exhaustive lists of potential candidates.

The criteria for those personnel could be reduced to a single famous index card devised by Reagan counselor (later attorney general) Ed Meese, as you can see below.

“Commitment” tops the list. As with Nixon, it is above “competence” — but on Reagan’s card, notably, “commitment” is to “philosophy, policies, objectives,” not his personal whims. “Integrity” is not far behind.

Index card guide to key attributes for incoming Reagan administration personnel in 1980-81. (Source: Annelise Anderson Papers, Hoover Institution, Stanford University)
Index card guide to key attributes for incoming Reagan administration personnel in 1980-1981. (Source: Annelise Anderson Papers, Box 27, “Basic Documents,” Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Used with permission.)

Anderson recounts that “all key subcabinet appointments were cleared by Reagan and/or his top personal aides,” vetted on the basis of the card’s characteristics. “They were treated as presidential appointments even when they were not.” As a result (if he does say so himself), “the transition personnel operation was superb, easily the best in the history of the United States.”

The Trump transition is probably not in the running for that title. Its slow start during the campaign itself — effectively re-starting the process under Vice President-elect Mike Pence after Election Day — seems closer to Nixon’s than to Reagan’s. So does Trump’s brand of personalized policymaking, which seems to transcend any discernible ideology.

But there is still time for the new administration to take a crash course in these lessons of presidential history. Loyalty will likely precede competence in most presidential hiring preferences. But controlling the bureaucracy requires that loyalty represent policy commitment — and combine with integrity and competence too. The result is less about poetry than pragmatism — and, as always, power.

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