Joe Biden's science adviser, Eric Lander, has resigned. That news would not be making big waves if not for two things: Lander is a well-known biologist in a White House that says it stands for science, and Lander is leaving because he was a difficult boss. In his letter of resignation, Lander said that he "sought to push" himself and his colleagues by "challenging and criticizing." According to the science office's former general counsel, Rachel Wallace, some of Lander's colleagues, particularly women, were "left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated."
Lander isn't the first difficult boss in White House history. Working for the president attracts Type A personalities and puts them into a pressure cooker environment. Almost every day, White House staff face high stress, long hours, and intense media scrutiny. And always looming in the background is the potential that your decisions and actions will end up in the history books. As a result, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the most famous White House aides in history have been less than kind to their staffs.
In Henry Kissinger's first nine months as national security adviser in the Nixon White House, he was such an abusive boss that he drove away one-third of the staff. One of Kissinger's primary victims was his assistant, Lawrence Eagleburger. At one point, according to Al Haig, Kissinger screamed at Eagleburger to get him a document. Eagleburger "stood up, turned deathly pale, swayed, and then crashed to the floor unconscious." Eagleburger's collapse didn't faze Kissinger. Instead, "Kissinger stepped over his prostrate body and shouted, 'Where is the paper?'"
Eagleburger soldiered on. He did not resign, file a complaint, or even leak his tale of woe. He remained in government in a variety of foreign policy jobs throughout most of his career, eventually attaining the position of secretary of state in the George H.W. Bush administration. Kissinger, for his part, also became secretary of state, in the Nixon administration, in addition to retaining his responsibilities as national security adviser — the only person ever to hold both roles at once. If his behavior toward Eagleburger was disqualifying, Nixon's chief of staff at the time did not veto the appointment, even though he clearly knew about it. Al Haig, the source for the Eagleburger story, was chief of staff when Kissinger was elevated.
When John Sununu was chief of staff to George H.W. Bush, he not only regularly yelled at his staff, he reveled in his tough-guy reputation. He believed that "if people don't like you — and love your boss — then you've done your job." On one occasion, Sununu reamed his staff in the most profane ways, then boasted to deputy chief of staff Andy Card that the staff would be impressed and think, "That Sununu is a tough son of a bitch." Card, a religious man not given to profanity, disagreed, saying, "No, they're not. They're going to go back to their offices and tell everyone, 'That Sununu is a f***ing asshole!'" Charlie Kolb, a domestic policy aide in the Bush White House, wrote later that Sununu had a "penchant for belittling those who disagreed with him." As a result, Kolb recalled, "People kept their mouths shut to avoid being yelled at." While Sununu eventually wore out his welcome in the Bush White House, he lasted for almost three years, which is a long time for a chief of staff.
Republicans do not have a monopoly on screaming bosses. Far from it. Rahm Emanuel was a legendary screamer, particularly when he served as chief of staff in the Obama White House. In what was perhaps Rahm's worst comment, he told a nervous aide to "take your f***ing tampon out of your mouth and tell me what you have to say.'" According to Jonathan Alter's The Promise, Emanuel would dismissively call some subordinates "princess." While Alter notes that some aides "loved it," at the same time, "others were repelled." At staff meetings, Emanuel would say, "Let's go! I don't want to wait. I've got s*** to do." This kind of behavior reminded aides of Ari Gold, the agent on Entourage, reportedly based on Rahm's real-life brother Ari, who regularly abused his assistant, Lloyd. According to one frustrated staffer, "He treats us all like we're Lloyd."
The icy cool Barack Obama was aware of Emanuel's reputation and did not seem to have much of a problem with it. He even joked about Emanuel's profane ways, saying that a childhood accident that cut off part of Emanuel's middle finger rendered him practically mute. Another time, Obama joked that Mother's Day "is a tough holiday for Rahm Emanuel because he's not used to saying the word 'day' after 'mother.'"
Less well known than Emanuel is Midge Costanza, Jimmy Carter's head of the Office of Public Liaison. But she attained a good degree of fame at the time, the subject of major profiles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time. But among her staff, Costanza was known to be pretty rough. During the administration, an anonymous aide told the New York Times that "she's brutal with staff. She pops off." Costanza's special assistant Joyce Starr reported in an exit interview that Costanza "was given to screaming, shouting, paper strewn all over the office, immense disorganization. She was extremely disorganized. Name-calling — she would call someone to her office when she was aggravated and chewed them out, bitterly." She served for 20 months in the Carter administration, eventually leaving over friction with Carter's staff, not her own. She moved to California and would later work for California Democrats such as Sen. Barbara Boxer and Gov. Gray Davis.
As these stories suggest, having a rough boss in the White House is not exactly unusual. In my own eight years in the George W. Bush administration, I certainly saw my share of screaming bosses, and even worked for one for a time.
All of this raises an interesting question: What exactly did Lander do to force his resignation? The specifics remain unclear. Politico's Alex Thompson, who broke the Lander story, reported that Lander "frequently bullied, cut off and dismissed subordinates." Thompson added that "several shared specific accusations that he belittled and demeaned women subordinates in particular."
Not good, to be sure, but are these actions worse than other screaming bosses of years past? Assuming that Lander never made an aide faint and then stepped over his prostrate body, this suggests that Lander's sins were bad in a relative, not absolute, sense. Current workplace standards have changed, perhaps making behavior that was once tolerable now unacceptable.
Lander appears to have fallen short of the so-called "Biden Standard." Early in his administration, Biden said, "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." Lander's hard-charging ways clearly went beyond what Biden described.
The brilliant scientist will be just fine without the White House job. He was the richest person in the Biden Cabinet, with a $45 million net worth. Nevertheless, some matters remain unclear. Internal reports of Lander's behavior emerged over two months ago, yet he only resigned after Politico reported the accusations. Lander had also rankled colleagues by going rogue on certain negotiations with members of Congress. And if the Biden Standard is a real thing, then what will it mean for others who show "disrespect" or "talk down to someone"? The answer to that question will reveal whether Lander's resignation is now the new normal or a circumstance unique to him.
We live in an age of tremendous personal sensitivity. For good or for ill, the standard that forced Lander's resignation would have prevented many colorful characters from serving our country in days gone by. The Lander episode suggests, but does not prove, that such an era may be coming to a close. But it's also not completely over. Just ask Rahm Emanuel. The brusque former chief of staff is currently President Biden's chief diplomat to the Land of the Rising Sun.