Lyndon Johnson ruled his staff with a blazing personality and Texas-size loyalty oaths. He demanded that all his aides have, as he put it, “a passion for anonymity.” He was the story, not them. It’s an aphorism that applies just as much to being a political staffer today. But in our highly charged insider media world, when a political staffer starts becoming “the story,” then trouble’s usually not far behind.
For LBJ, it was a matter of credit. He wanted it all, from the biggest to the smallest. By contrast, the Senator Mike Duffy/Nigel Wright story will struggle to be an orphan; no one wants credit for this.
To the best of my knowledge, it’s unique in Ottawa annals to have a prime minister’s chief of staff insert himself so personally, as opposed to politically, to resolve a political problem. Indeed, it’s inexplicable, which means just that: It defies explanation. A political staffer, the highest in the land, has now become the story.
Prime ministerial chiefs of staff have a role like no other. Personality and circumstances shape their tenure, for sure; but the essentials remain.
First, they serve at and for the pleasure of the prime minister, being his arm, advocate and adviser on any and all matters. They don’t have to invoke the name of the prime minister when they call; they are the prime minister. If the Privy Council Office is the “department of the prime minister,” the Prime Minister’s Office, led by the chief of staff, is the prime minister.
Second, they’re the linchpin between the two essential components of our political system: elected ministers and appointed public servants. The often differing goals and views of each need to be mobilized, assuaged and, ultimately, reconciled.
Third, they’re the switchboard between the party and the government, connecting political circuits across the country to and from the apparatus of government. Staying in tune with supporters is the lifeblood of any PMO.
Finally, they’re the political co-ordinating arm of all other political staff in all other offices. They set the tone and the direction for what others do and how they do it. Part Tony Robbins and part Darth Vader, you might say.
The closeness of a chief of staff to the PM is never assured, but it’s a given. The system demands it. But prime ministers are bombarded with information every day; the most important commodity in any PMO is the PM’s time. What the chief of staff knows may not always make it to the PM’s desk, nor should it.
So where to draw the line between the personal and the political? The Senate expenses scandal certainly qualifies as political. What appears to have been a personal action by Mr. Wright, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, taken without the knowledge – we are told – of the Prime Minister, has morphed into a political action of significant and, as yet, unfinished consequences. In protecting the PM and his government, both are left more exposed, not less.
Part of the reason is the PMO’s action itself in response to the breaking story. The first press statement started with the words “The government believes …” Since when do personal actions receive the imprimatur of the government of Canada? Those words have cast the mantle of responsibility wider than just one person making it look like a government-sanctioned enterprise. Shared anonymity and collective responsibility are becoming the story. A scandal across the street in the Senate has now been brought into the PMO.
LBJ had another saying about politics: “While you’re saving your face, you’re losing your ass.”
David McLaughlin was chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney.