Despite all his grand statements about an unprecedented talent search, it was no surprise that Jimmy Carter, in his first few appointments, ignored America’s vast residue of talent and its equally vast residue of hyperactive fortune-seekers and chose Jody Powell,, then Thomas Lance, then Cyrus Vance. The first two showed that the best way to get a good job in the federal government is to have the new President know you or your work intimately, through being a long-time employee or a long-time advisor. Unless familiarity has bred contempt, there is no better way of getting the President’s favorable notice.
Most of us, however, aren’t holding those kinds of cards so getting a job in the new administration takes some considerable positive effort. For most people it requires careful maneuvering according to a time-honored set of rules, which begin with the assumption that if the new administration doesn’t know you through personal experience, it had better get to know you through pure appearances. This is the Cyrus Vance route: you’re accepted because you look so good.
Rule 1: Attend as many conferences and conventions as possible over the years.
When the transition staff starts calling around the country for suggestions about new appointees, you want your name to be mentioned often, and the way to ensure that is to meet important people in your field. All conventions—even the Teamsters and the American Legion—have this effect, but for aspiring federal officeholders, the Urban League or the Trilateral Commission or something of that ilk are the best way to make connections. Attending a prestigious conference on economic policy at Dartmouth last February may have put you in an even better position than the Carter worker who was, earnestly ringing icy doorbells a few miles away at the same time. In fact, conference and convention attending as a means of getting one’s name mentioned for all kinds of jobs, public and private, has become so endemic that one can legitimately wonder who is attending to the routine business if everyone in an official position is at Aspen.
Rule 2: Attend to your Who’s Who listing.
When your old conference and convention friends mention you to the transition office’s talent scouts—your name will “just keep popping up,” as they’ll put it—the scouts will have to write up a profile of you to pass on up the chain of command. Profile-writing is no fun, especially since the writers have their own jobs to hunt, so it’s best to make it easy for them. Ideally you should be complete and up-to-date in Who’s Who, the first place they’ll look, with your qualifications apparent and your range of contacts impressive.
Similarly, it helps to publish articles in the right places, since they’ll get your name and views known in the right circles and can provide handy reference material for profile-compilers. Everybody remembers that in the spring of 1960 Dean Rusk had a piece in Foreign Affairs called “The President,” which advocated a strong foreign policy-making role for the chief executive—just what John Kennedy had in mind.
Rule 3: Have a good fault.
Since the talent scouts have to appear, at least to their superiors, to be subjecting you to vigorous scrutiny, they’ll be sure to say to your friends something like, “You’ve told me what’s good about him; now, what are his faults?” Your faults should obviously in no way interfere with your getting the job you want, so you should coach your friends in advance to say that you’re someone who either “works too hard for his own good” or “doesn’t know how good he really is.” This latter fault is particularly good because it will make you seem ideal to an incoming Cabinet member who knows he isn’t any good and so needs an assistant who is good but who thinks an assistantship is what he deserves.
Rule 4: If you aren’t in Who’s Who and aren’t known by people who are, work in the campaign early on and make sure your contribution is appreciated.
American politics, presidential campaigns included, operate on the principle of benevolent feudalism: help a powerful figure and he’ll take care of you. Thus after election day, following a brief panicked moment of uncertainty, a place was made on the transition staff for virtually everybody who had worked in the Carter campaign, regardless of his competence or whether there was anything for him to do.
Still, working in transition itself is only a foot in the door. It is heady, to be sure—coming to work every day one steps around a crowd of office-seekers that somehow has materialized out of thin air, as if to set the atmosphere. But even the noblest work can be rewarded only if it is noticed, so it’s important that your selfless devotion to Jimmy Carter be visible and appreciated.
Whoever notices and appreciates you will become your patron, and since this is a feudal system, patrons control everything. The loftiest of patrons are the aides in Carter’s inner circle—Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, Stuart Eizenstat. They can dispense dozens of jobs directly, and dozens more indirectly through a second tier of sub-patrons—Tim Kraft is an example—to whom it is also good to be attached. Without a patron, it’s entirely possible to be forgotten.
Powerful as patronage is, people imagine it to be more so. Virtually everybody who works for Carter found in November that a lot of old friends were calling just to get back in touch, to see how things were going, to see if a lunch could be arranged. Even spouses of people who worked for Carter were besieged. Matthew Coffey, who runs the transition office’s Talent Inventory Program, says he and his wife started crossing off their Christmas card list every old friend who called after election day to renew the acquaintance, and after a few weeks there wasn’t much of a Christmas card list left.
Rule 5: If you didn’t get on board in time, have a friend who did.
If you spent the first half of 1976 laboring tirelessly for Mo Udall, things are a little bleak now. But the situation would be brighter if you had kept open your ties to Leonard Woodcock, who came out for Carter early; he can get you seriously considered solely on his recommendation. The same goes for non-political friends who are likely to get Cabinet appointments and have patronage power of their own, or politicians with clout, like the senator on whose legislative support the new administration is counting.
Rule 6: If you don’t have a friend who got on board in time, have an enemy who did.
Having a powerful political enemy in your hometown who is close to Carter may seem like the kiss of death, but actually it can save a flagging candidacy: if your enemy wants to get rid of you as a local rival, what better way than to find you something absorbing in Washington? This rule deserves to be named after Bella Abzug, who appears to be its leading practitioner this year: Mayor Beame of New York, a respectably early Carter supporter, seems to be eager to get her appointed to something that will keep her out of local politics for a while.
Rule 7: Follow the Redskins.
Since job-hunting is an insecure process, and since everybody’s always more insecure than he ought to be anyway, you’ll spend a lot of time worrying about how to make sure your patron still remembers you. You don’t want to be too obvious, come right out and ask for a job, because it might lead to a flat no—so you have to find subtler ways of staying in touch.
It’s good in this regard to develop a set of mutual interests with your patron, so that when he passes you in the hallway you can say, “Hey, Hamilton, how about those Redskins?” The general need for such safe, contact-establishing small talk no doubt accounts for much of the popularity of professional football in Washington. The State Department desk officer who Henry Kissinger walks past every day can’t very well get the Secretary’s attention by mentioning an interesting report on world food problems, but banter about quarterbacks might bring on that winning Kissinger smile.
Rule 8: Hint that you expect to be named Secretary of Defense.
For everyone, of course, there comes a time when small talk must pass and serious job entreaties are made. When this moment comes, if the job dispensers feel they owe you a favor, it’s best to imply to them that you’re expecting something very big. This will throw them into a state of worry and confusion—we just can’t give him that, they’ll think—so that when you come back a few days later and ask for an AID directorship in Costa Rica, they’ll heave a sigh of relief and speed the appointment right through.
Rule 9: Hint that you expect to get $40,000 a year.
Salary strategy works like job strategy: if you make it clear that in return for your efforts you expect a top-grade salary, you’re more likely to get one. However, this can backfire. If you’ve created too strong an impression that it’s $40,000 or nothing, you may well get nothing. So it’s important also to make clear that you’re sufficiently imbued with love of country to take something at $30,000, just so when the $40,000 jobs run out you aren’t crossed off the lists.
Rule 10: If you’re young and have a lot of chips to cash in, ask for something on the White House staff.
Nobody in his twenties or thirties, no matter how good, can get a Cabinet-level job—he’s just too young. But a position of equal or even greater power in the White House inspires no such age barriers. The classic example is Bill Moyers, who in his early thirties was really the number-two man in the United States government as Lyndon Johnson’s principal assistant. When Moyers tried to get Johnson to name him Undersecretary of State, Johnson refused, partly because of Moyers’ age—a man that young couldn’t, after all, be the titular number-two in a government department.
Rule 11: If you’re young and have some chips, but not enough to get on the White House staff, ask to be a special assistant to a Cabinet member or an agency director.
Inside agencies and departments, the same rule against youth applies to jobs with imposing titles. But the special assistant to the director often has more access to the boss, and hence more power, than any division chief, and if he is artful and his boss thick enough, he can end up running the whole show.
Rule 12: If you’re not young, stay away from the White House.
The real inner circles of the government are always full of people who work 16-hour days and sneer at those who don’t. Older people should stick to the old, slow-paced agencies, where everybody but the janitors has left by 4:45 every afternoon. Commerce, Agriculture, and Interior are the safest bets.
Rule 13: If you don’t want to work at all, there are pleasant places for you.
You may have a lot of outside interests to keep up on, or may want to avoid the ignominy of a lower-echelon, real-work job while your friends are amassing real power. In that case, perhaps the best thing is to look in the plumbook (the list of appointive job openings) for something obscure and soft—Executive Director of the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, maybe—and concentrate on other things. Campaign speechwriters, usually less than enamored of the idea of continuing to write speeches in the new administration, often follow this route. Under Kennedy, John Bartlow Martin became ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and William Attwood ambassador to Guinea; and Joseph Kraft started his column only after an assignment to Tunisia fell through.
Rule 14: Once you’re sure you have an in, try to look like an outsider.
Here the general truths of federal job-seeking run up against the particular approach of Jimmy Carter. Once one could be an insider, and that was all one needed; now, one has to be an insider who looks a little outside, a politicker who seems to be serenely awaiting the call, an experienced hand who can appear to be new blood. When the list of the official transition staff of 132 people was published in the papers, virtually everybody had some sort of valuable past experience, but only eleven listed themselves as being from Washington, that not being quite right this year (and seven of those eleven were women, who have automatic outsider credentials.) Even a Washington mainstay like lawyer Simon Lazarus showed up on the transition list as a Cincinnati attorney.
For those not involved in transition, the best way to keep outsider credentials in good order is to keep the campaign for appointive office discreet, to appear innocent of cunning or influence-peddling. While publishing, for instance, is a key part of the campaign strategy, it has to be done subtly and early, giving way to reticence later on. The New York Times op-ed page, one of the prime conduits of visibility, was flooded with policy statements during most of 1976, but after election day the flow suddenly dried up.
Another reason outsider credentials help non-political types is that they make the political types look good. The former campaign workers who fill the transition office spend their time calling around the country to find possible candidates for jobs, and then writing short profiles of those candidates. If a transition worker wants to advance his own fortunes, he tries to discover people who, while eminently qualified, are not particularly well known—this proves his own talent-hunting acumen.
Rule 15: Keep up on internal power struggles.
Merely having a patron is of course not enough, since patrons can rise and fall—sure-thing appointments evaporate and key aides fall from grace. Like purge-fearing Russians, former Carter campaign workers are deeply affected by sudden, seemingly inexplicable shifts in the favor of their superiors. It is important to keep track of who is in and who is out.
No one, for instance, was sitting prettier in early November than a top assistant to Jack Watson, who, after all, was supposed to be directing the transition. But Watson had upset the seigniorial balance by allocating only four transition jobs to Jordan and two to Powell and trying to make Eizenstat some sort of assistant. The other patrons accordingly ganged up on Watson and divided the spoils more equitably among themselves, and Watson’s power and patronage were severely reduced.
Watson’s staff had no way of knowing that this was going on, and had to rely for their information on press reports, which treated Watson with a unanimous turnabout worthy of Peking wall posters. In early November he was Carter’s fair-haired boy, but within a few weeks reporters were sniggering at his useless briefing books. The staff could only go along with what it read, so in-house banter shifted from we-had-to-do-it sympathy for poor deposed Jordan to sober reassessment of Watson’s rapidly vanishing merits.
The internal struggles can be subtler and lower-level. The official transition list says Dr. Peter Bourne was the head of the Carter Washington office, but woe unto him who didn’t know that Bourne was out and that Joseph Duffey, listed as associate issues director, was really head of the Washington office. And, because of the strange resolution of the Watson purge, Watson got to keep his budget and title but not his power, while Jordan’s role in the transition vastly increased. Many paid Watson underlings were out while unpaid Jordan underlings were in. For a while there were actually two transition teams working on staffing for some departments—one official, paid, unimportant Watson team and one unofficial, unpaid, very important Jordan team.
Since it’s impossible to have any effect on a patron’s fortunes, the best policy besides vigilance is to have more than one patron and to be ready to jump ship at any time. Putting all your eggs in one basket could leave you in a position embarrassingly similar to that of the crowds outside the doors: one man who worked a year for Powell and was cut loose in November was reduced to hanging around the transition office, hoping somebody else would remember him and take him in.
But the patron system has its benign side too, and if it can lead to precipitous falls it can bring about quick rises as well. For people who worked in the campaign, it’s a familiar experience to pick up the paper and see some once-minor functionary who came aboard in September described in a headline like KEY CARTER AIDE HEADS STUDY GROUP. One member of the transition staff says it’s like living in a World War II movie—whole platoons wiped out, battlefield commissions granted, people either cracking or shining under the strain.
Rule 16: If you have to, become obvious.
As the hour of hiring draws near and things look less than certain, direct—though discreet—action can be taken. One approach is to pass your name around to people you’re certain the transition office will call, to make sure you’ll be mentioned. Here again conference attendance is a blessing, since you can write, say, a member of Carter’s team of economic advisors reminding him of your pleasant discussions in the past and saying, frankly, that you’d be willing to go into the government if the call came. Letters can be followed by phone calls; and the closer the acquaintance, the more direct the entreaty can be.
Even handing in a resume, although obvious, can help, especially if it is’ written in a way that implies special skills and unusual experiences (this can be tricky, though; one wants to hint at one’s early opposition to the Vietnam war, but not so strongly that someone along the line who was still a supporter of the war in 1972 would want to veto you).
However, letters and resumes can be filed and phone calls finessed, so if all else fails, the rules allow you to just show up in Washington, impossible to ignore. You set up shop in a hotel room and call whoever is granting the job you want, saying something like, “I just happen to be in town for a couple of days, and I wonder if I could drop by and say hello.” James Lynn, President Ford’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, used this gambit with great success in 1968, when he arrived at the Hotel Pierre in New York and announced to the transition staff, which was headquartered there, that he was ready to serve. Showing up works best in conjunction with a powerful figure who can call transition headquarters himself and announce that you’re in town for a couple of days and that he’d like to bring you by. In person, you become much harder to brush off.
Rule 17: No matter how down you may get, you’re never out.
Things can get pretty bleak if the job-hunting process is botched, but even then, if your talents are at all familiar to the new administration, all is not lost. Someone who made an egregious tactical error somewhere along the line, like Jack Watson, will be rehabilitated eventually—after the first round of sure-thing appointments, those doing the appointing are forced to deal with unknown quantities, and anyone known can then make a comeback. Even someone with hardly any chips at all can, with patience, find his way in, because as the administration wears on it becomes harder and harder to lure people aboard. Anybody whose desire to enter the government fails to burn lower with time can find a respectable place at the end of an administration, a place that, in fact, has a higher prestige-to-work ratio than its early-on equivalent. Perhaps the loser who waits around for something like that is better off anyway, having saved himself a lot of hustle.