The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kenneth M. Duberstein, President Reagan’s final chief of staff, dies at 77

Kenneth M. Duberstein meets with President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office in 1988. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)
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Kenneth M. Duberstein, a consummate political insider who won the respect of policymakers and power brokers on both sides of the aisle and reached the peak of his influence during the Reagan administration, serving as the president’s final chief of staff, died March 2 at a hospital in Washington. He was 77.

The cause was complications from end-stage heart disease, said his wife, Jacquelyn Fain Duberstein.

Mr. Duberstein — affectionately called “Duberdog” by friends including the late Gen. Colin L. Powell — spent decades at or near the center of political power in Washington. He served two stints in the White House that bookended the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who credited him with helping to carry the administration over the “home stretch.”

Mr. Duberstein first joined the Reagan White House in 1981 as deputy assistant for legislative affairs. Soon promoted to the post of chief White House congressional liaison, he played a central role in pushing Reagan’s economic agenda, including substantial tax cuts, through the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

Mr. Duberstein left the White House in 1983 to join the lobbying firm of Timmons & Co. But in 1987, with the administration mired in controversy over the Iran-contra affair, Mr. Duberstein was recalled as deputy chief of staff under Howard H. Baker Jr. (Baker, a Tennessee Republican, had been Senate majority leader when Mr. Duberstein was Reagan’s congressional liaison.)

When Baker stepped down in 1988 as chief of staff, Mr. Duberstein succeeded him in that role, managing the White House through Reagan’s final months in office.

“He was a star at the beginning of the administration, and a star at the end,” David Gergen, a presidential adviser who served during Reagan’s first term as White House communications director, said in an interview. “Twice President Reagan leaned on him heavily for advice, counsel and execution, and I think that made him especially valuable.”

Within the White House, a reporter for The Washington Post wrote in 1988, Mr. Duberstein was regarded as the “key detail man, the behind-the-scene choreographer whose actions were increasingly vital for a president renowned as a generalist.”

On Capitol Hill, he had the respect of conservative GOP members aligned with Reagan as well as more moderate ones who knew the Brooklyn-born Mr. Duberstein as a Republican in the mold of former vice president Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York.

Democrats, for their part, appreciated his attentiveness to them, particularly in his role as congressional liaison. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), then House majority leader and later House speaker, told The Post in 1987 that Mr. Duberstein was “extremely competent, knowledgeable and pragmatic in his approach to government.”

In his latter tenure at the White House, Mr. Duberstein was credited with working alongside officials including Powell, then national security adviser, to reestablish credibility that the administration had lost amid the Iran-contra affair, an illegal operation in which the proceeds of arms sales to Iran were diverted to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua.

“The two worked in tandem and they had extraordinary authority as the Reagan administration was expiring and older men moved on,” journalist Bob Woodward wrote in an account published in The Post in 1995, referring to Mr. Duberstein and Powell.

Noting Mr. Duberstein’s astute understanding of “human dynamics,” Gergen recalled that as chief of staff, he made a daily phone call to first lady Nancy Reagan, who had resented what she regarded as the imperious conduct of an earlier chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, who was ultimately forced from office.

“We opened the doors of the West Wing to fresh voices,” Mr. Duberstein wrote years later in the New York Times, recalling his efforts with colleagues to stop infighting and refocus the administration’s efforts.

“Cabinet meetings are traditionally dog-and-pony shows,” he wrote. “So we decided to forget the big table and give each cabinet member 15 minutes a week to present his concerns to the president one-on-one.”

Mr. Duberstein himself had the ear of the president in June 1987, when Reagan traveled to West Berlin, where he was to address a crowd with the backdrop of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall. The speech that he gave there became one of the most famous presidential addresses in history, but its key line — “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” — was in question until hours before Reagan delivered it.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz argued that the line was “too tough” on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and might have the effect of alienating him, Mr. Duberstein recalled. When Reagan asked Mr. Duberstein’s opinion, Mr. Duberstein told him that he thought the line should stay.

“But I told him, ‘You’re President, so you get to decide,' ” Mr. Duberstein recalled. “He got that wonderful, knowing smile on his face, and he said, ‘Let’s leave it in.' ”

Mr. Duberstein was proud of his role in the subsequent summit between Reagan and Gorbachev that helped produce the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which according to the Arms Control Association “marked the first time the superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals, eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons, and employ extensive on-site inspections for verification.”

After appearing amid Iran-contra to be “not just a lame duck but a dead duck,” Mr. Duberstein noted, Reagan ended his presidency “at 68 percent job approval.”

Kenneth Marc Duberstein was born in Brooklyn on April 21, 1944. His father, who had trained as a lawyer, worked in the financial offices of the Boy Scouts. His mother was a teacher.

Mr. Duberstein, who became an Eagle Scout, had his first direct experience of politics when he handed out leaflets for Republican candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower during the 1952 presidential election.

He studied government at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1965, and at American University, where he received a master’s degree the following year.

Mr. Duberstein’s first job in politics was as an intern in the office of Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.). During the Nixon administration, he worked in the General Services Administration as director of congressional and intergovernmental affairs. Under President Gerald Ford, he was deputy undersecretary of labor.

In the final months of the Reagan administration, Mr. Duberstein helped lead the successful White House effort to elect Vice President George H.W. Bush as president. With Bush in office, Mr. Duberstein helped coordinate the contentious Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Mr. Duberstein formed a blue-chip lobbying firm, the Duberstein Group, with clients including General Motors, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and Dow Chemical. He served on the board of directors of companies including Boeing, on the advisory committee of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, on the board of trustees of the Kennedy Center and as chairman of the ethics committee of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Mr. Duberstein’s marriages to Marjorie Parman and Sydney Greenberg ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Jacquelyn Fain Duberstein, of Washington; a daughter from his first marriage, Jennifer Duberstein, of New York City; three children from his second marriage, Jeffrey Duberstein, of Falls Church, Va., Andrew Duberstein, of New York City, and Samantha Duberstein, of Leesburg, Va.; a sister; and three grandchildren.

In the more than three decades since Reagan left office, Mr. Duberstein became an elder statesman among former White House chiefs of staff, perennially called on for his advice when one administration gave way to the next.

Interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in 1992, shortly before Bill Clinton entered the White House, Mr. Duberstein recalled with emotion the final hours of Reagan’s tenure, standing instead of sitting with the president and Powell in the Oval Office because there were not enough chairs in the emptied out room. They all had tears in their eyes.