Ken Duberstein, the first Jewish White House chief of staff in history, has died at 77. He served the Reagan administration ably and well, and went on to have a long private-sector career serving as a wise man of Washington.
A Brooklyn native, Duberstein went to Franklin & Marshall before moving to Washington, D.C., where he interned for New York Republican senator Jacob Javits and earned a Master'sdegree from American University. He wrote his thesis on ethnic voting patterns in his native Brooklyn.
Duberstein served in the Department of Labor during the Ford administration, but got his big breaks in the Reagan administration. He started out as the White House aide responsible for relations with the House of Representatives. It was a tough job. While Reagan had a Republican Senate majority to work with, the Democrats controlled the House, requiring long hours and hard negotiations to advance the Reagan agenda. Once, when Reagan heard that Duberstein had spent his birthday engaged in budget negotiations, after also skipping his honeymoon for work, he wrote Duberstein a note saying, "First no honeymoon. Now no birthday celebration. I'm sure your Mom told you there'd be days like that."
Things were somewhat less partisan then, as the Reagan administration, with Duberstein's able assistance, was able to secure enough votes of conservative Democrats — and liberal Republicans — on some key issues to make things interesting. He played a key role in Reagan wins on tax cuts and the budget.
Duberstein was expected to maintain good relations with all ofthe various factions in a rapidly shifting environment. Jim Baker, White House chief of staff and himself a consummate staffer, said of Duberstein, "The guy is good," and marveled that Duberstein "just doesn't have enemies."
Humor and a good nature helped. The New York Times' Steven Weisman described Duberstein as "a rumpled, chain-smoking workaholic built like a football player and known for his wisecracks." He appreciated a good witticism from wherever it came. When a Democratic aide came up with the nickname "Beverly Hills budget" for Reagan's budget proposal, Duberstein complimented the aide for his cleverness, even as the jibe made Duberstein's job more difficult.
Duberstein did such a good job with the House that he was promoted to become Reagan's top legislative affairs aide, responsible for all of Reagan's congressional relations. He was 38.
He then left the Reagan administration, but his time in government was not finished. In Reagan's second term, the administration was rocked by the Iran-Contra scandal, and Reagan needed a steady hand to right the ship. Senator Howard Baker came in to serve as chief of staff, and he brought in Duberstein as his deputy. As Deputy Deuberdog — Baker's nickname for him — he took on whatever tasks Baker needed done, and was then promoted to chief of staff when Baker left.
As chief of staff, Duberstein developed a very strong working relationship with Colin Powell, then national-security adviser. Duberstein later recalled that he and Powell "ran the U.S. government for two years. A black who was raised on the streets of the South Bronx and a Brooklyn Jew were in these positions for the most conservative Republican president of the 20th century." He and Powell remained close long after the administration ended.
Following the end of the Reagan administration, Duberstein had a quintessential post–White House chief of staff existence. He served on boards, set up his own consulting group, served on panels, gave journalists good quotes, and of course served as a consultant to The West Wing. He was always happy to be in the mix on things and generously gave advice to politicos of all ages. As one wag told me after Duberstein came for a visit to the Bush White House, "he was chief of staff for twenty months, and dined out on it for 20 years." The actual months were shorter -- 17 -- and the years longer, but Duberstein, with his good sense of humor, would have appreciated the crack.
Politics these days is filled with angry people who fail to acknowledge the humanity or the sincerity of those on the other side of things. Cancel culture is typical of that kind of perspective, and the opposite of what Duberstein stood for. He was in politics to get things done, and to have fun along the way. As he once said, "I grew up in Brooklyn, and I think I've always enjoyed working with people. 'I also like to deal directly with problems and to say, 'Hey, let's cut through the small talk and let's go.' I've always thought that was kind of fun." Politics today could use some more Ken Dubersteins. R.I.P.