White House deputy press secretary T.J. Ducklo recently resigned, barely a month into his new job. Ducklo had berated a Politico reporter who had questioned the status of Ducklo's personal relationship with another reporter.
Ducklo's brief tenure was certainly unusual but not without precedent in White House history. Given the high stakes involved, it's not surprising that internal jockeying and outside lobbying have occasionally scuttled prominent appointments shortly after those appointments took place. And since personnel is policy, such changes can mean a sharp U-turn in direction with ripple effects often seen fully only in hindsight.
One such brief hiring took place in the Reagan administration, while the Iran-Contra scandal was upending the administration. On Feb. 15, 1987, the White House announced a new communications director, John Koehler, who had an impressive record at the Associated Press and the United States Information Agency. Unfortunately, Koehler had something else on his record emerge that was troubling and needed explaining: He participated in a Nazi youth group as a 10-year-old in his native Germany. Koehler was gone in six days, but he wasn't the only casualty of the incident. On Feb. 21, White House chief of staff Don Regan said that Koehler's name had come "directly from the East Wing."
"East Wing" in White House parlance meant first lady Nancy Reagan, who had been feuding with Regan for months. They had frequent phone arguments over the handling of Iran-Contra, which put the chief of staff on thin ice. So when Regan used the Koehler incident to undercut the first lady, it was the last straw. President Ronald Reagan's diary entry the next day read, "That does it. Nancy had never met Koehler and had nothing to do with his appointment." Regan was gone within the week.
Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, had his own staff missteps that took some untangling. Bush chose New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu as his chief of staff. Sununu had been indispensable in helping Bush win the crucial 1988 New Hampshire primary. But, in truth, Sununu was not that close to Bush. To leaven the choice, Bush designated Bob Teeter to be deputy chief of staff. Teeter was close to both Bush and Bush's secretary of state choice (and best friend) Jim Baker.
Sununu objected to the idea that Teeter would be directing Oval Office access to Bush and vetoed Teeter's appointment. It proved costly, as the abrasive Sununu was left without any kind of check on his behavior. He would eventually have to be fired by the president's son, George W. Bush, but not before he brought considerable chaos and confusion to the administration. The younger Bush saw the negative impact, and the experience would later influence how he built his own White House staff.
Another aborted deputy chief of staff appointment took place in the Clinton administration. Bill Clinton was elected after 12 years of GOP control over the White House, so the Clinton campaign had a dearth of talent with White House experience. His chief of staff pick, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, was a childhood friend of Clinton and a successful business executive. McLarty was universally liked by those who knew him. However, he lacked White House experience.
To address the experience issue, McLarty wanted to bring on board Carter domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat, an old Washington hand. But Eizenstat was vetoed by what David Gergen characterized as "the Clinton high command" because of his previous work for Carter. Not being able to pick his own deputy contributed to McLarty's ineffectiveness. Eventually, the White House would bring in Gergen, a former White House aide in three Republican administrations, to serve as communications director. Some old Clinton campaign hands did not take this well, and the Republican Gergen feuded with the more liberal Clinton aides throughout his tenure.
Sometimes, White House staff selections upset internal expectations. After Barack Obama's 2008 election, campaign communications aide Dan Pfeiffer expected to get the job of White House director of communications. During the transition, Pfeiffer was approving press releases and noted the announcement of a new White House communications director, the very job he wanted and expected. He was unhappy both with the decision and the way he found out about it: "Not only did I not get it, but this was the professional equivalent of being broken up with via a Post-it note."
The new White House communications director was Ellen Moran. Pfeiffer would serve as her deputy. Not only had Moran not been on the campaign, but she had supported Hillary Clinton over Obama in the primaries. This did not sit well with Pfeiffer, who confessed that he "went into a blind rage." In response, Pfeiffer recalled that he "sent several tirades masquerading as emails to the people well above me on the food chain." Moran lasted only a few months — having a frustrated deputy likely did not help — at which point Pfeiffer was again passed over, this time for Anita Dunn. Dunn also did not last long, and Pfeiffer eventually got the job he wanted before the first year was out.
The Trump administration, famous for its revolving door, had one particularly notable short tenure. Anthony Scaramucci briefly served as White House communications director before launching a profanity-laced tirade at reporter Ryan Lizza, then with the New Yorker. Lizza detailed the entire conversation, and White House chief of staff John Kelly fired Scaramucci. His less-than-two-week tenure led to the creation of a new eponymous unit of time: the 11-day "Scaramucci."
Ducklo's quick departure is potentially revealing in a number of ways about the still-new Biden White House. Ducklo undoubtedly threatened Politico's Tara Palmeri, saying, "I will destroy you," and used coarse language to boot. Still, it is not unusual in the annals of White House history to see White House officials blasting reporters. Lyndon Johnson even used to call network executives and berate them about evening news segments on Vietnam. More recently, Obama White House staffers were both threatening and heavy-handed with reporters, and Obama press aide Eric Schultz once "cussed" at CBS's Sharyl Attkisson because of her reporting on the "Fast and Furious" scandal.
Joe Biden proclaimed his standard early on: "If you're ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you, I will fire you on the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts." If he's actually going to enforce that, it could presage other firings, or lead to a very different style of relationship between the White House and the press than we have seen before. Furthermore, if Biden is to apply his strict standard for behavior to interactions between staff, the history of internal White House infighting suggests that there may be other brief tenures to follow as well. If so, such actions could have an outsize impact on the administration's personnel and hence its direction.
White House staff selections, and who actually gets those jobs when all is said and done, have real implications for the direction of policy, the trajectory of careers, and, ultimately, the nation. Only in the context of history do the full consequences become clear and we remember how important personnel decisions are to shaping the future.