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Protégé Power

The wonderful world of special assistants

David Hume Kennerly/Getty
Aides surround Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, on January 15, 1999.

The magazine was an insider’s publication, but it never quite accepted that place in the Washington scene. Bantering at a cocktail party, after all, hardly represented the state of detachment that Herbert Croly had championed. The magazine has excelled at examining D.C. with anthropological bemusement, poking fun at the nakedly ambitious and ramming a skewer into the hypocrisies that run rampant here.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

Even if you’ve never heard of such a thing as a special assistant, you probably have seen one or two of them. When a cabinet secretary or some other great man of government is shown on the evening news testifying before a congressional committee, you usually can see an earnest-looking and well-turned-out young man or woman positioned behind and slightly to the right of him, who whispers in his ear or passes a note every now and then. That’s his special assistant. When, on the front page of your newspaper, you see a picture of an American official being shown around a factory in some foreign land and, again behind and slightly to the right strides a purposeful young person, that also is the special assistant. When photographers are allowed into Cabinet meetings at the White House, the pictures show the secretaries of the departments arrayed around a table and an outer ring of special assistants sitting against the walls of the room.

A special assistant is generally someone between the ages of 25 and 35, intelligent and impeccably credentialed, whose job it is to work closely by the side of an important person—usually in government, and if not in government usually in Washington. The special assistant works a few short steps from the office of what he calls “the principal,” or even, if he’s as lucky as Alfred Kahn’s special assistant, in the very same room. He usually sees the great man all day; inspects all incoming papers; writes speeches and testimony; relays information to and from the bureaucracy and the White House; and accompanies the great man on trips. The special assistant may get to be the architect of an earth-shattering new policy. He may also get to pick up the great man’s suit at the cleaner’s. He may do both in the course of the same long day. The special assistant need not be called a special assistant, and not everyone with the title of special assistant is really a special assistant. The real article is not a member of the civil service, does not have any single specific area of responsibility, and does not command a large staff of his own. His power and prestige, which can be considerable, come solely from proximity and access to, and influence upon, the boss. A real special assistantship is not a permanent job, but just a brief stop of a year or two along the route of a successful career.

What may not be obvious from the foregoing description, and the reason Washington special assistant jobs are particularly noteworthy, is that these jobs are terribly sought after. People will beg, wheedle, scheme for years to get them. And the people who do this aren’t just anyone: They’re Rhodes Scholars, law review editors, Supreme Court clerks, the best young people around by the standards of the meritocracy. “If you asked me to name the twelve brightest young people in Washington,” says one ardent special assistant–watcher, “about eight of them would be special assistants, handpicked personal aides to a high official. They are sort of an elite corps. You look at their résumé and it boggles your mind.” Special assistantdom appeals not just to natural-born sycophants, but to the most promising young people in America. This says something about those people and the paths our society sets before them. Their great ambition is fulfilled by being second banana, and without doing anything under their own name they can rise, yea, unto the point where they have their own special assistants.

Like private clubs and men’s bikini underwear, special assistantdom is exhaustively discussed and deeply understood by those who are already in on it, and invisible to the rest of the world. A special assistant’s most embarrassing moments often come on trips out of Washington, where people don’t understand how important he is. Once James Thomson, now curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard but earlier in life a special assistant to Chester Bowles, then-undersecretary of state, accompanied Bowles to a political dinner somewhere in the Midwest. The master of ceremonies gave Bowles a florid introduction, and then said he would also like to introduce a very bright and able young man, Jim Thomson, who was Mr. Bowles’s secretary. Thomson, mortified, whispered to the MC, “assistant, assistant.” “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” the man said. “Jim is Mr. Bowles’s assistant secretary.”

Generally, it’s those familiar with the ways of the Eastern establishment who know about special assistants. Bert Lance, for example, was the only member of President Carter’s cabinet who didn’t hire a special assistant. At the opposite extreme Joseph Califano (himself once special assistant to Cyrus Vance when Vance was secretary of the Army) immediately hired one executive assistant (Ben Heineman, of Harvard, Oxford, Yale Law School, and the United States Supreme Court, the possessor of the best résumé in America) and a slew of special assistants.

Fortunately for ambitious young people, most new government officials aren’t Bert Lance. Martin Kaplan, formerly special assistant to Ernest L. Boyer, the commissioner of education (and now a special assistant to Vice President Mondale) remembers getting a call from Boyer just after Boyer was appointed to the Carter administration. The two had met at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies and had written a book together. “He told me everyone in Washington seemed to have a someone,” Kaplan says, “and would I be his someone?” Both men were much-fellowshipped and well-credentialed, and, proving that similar backgrounds make the best matches, they worked fruitfully together.

Other pairings haven’t worked out as well. Consider the sad case of a young man we’ll call John. Because he’s currently looking for a new special assistantship, he made me sign an affidavit pledging to keep him anonymous. Despite a stellar college record, a prestigious fellowship, and high-powered performance at a top law school, John, like most Americans, spent his early years in blissful ignorance of the existence of special assistants. Then, during his summer stint at a Washington law firm, a young lawyer took John aside and had a man-to-man talk about the logical next step. John decided that after law school he would become a special assistant. So he went to an assistant secretary of a cabinet department and asked to be his special assistant. What’s that? said the assistant secretary, who, speit should be said, went to a state school and is the kind of man who has a Who’s Who listing but an extremely brief one. John explained, and the assistant secretary decided to give it a whirl.

The problem was that the assistant secretary, while intelligent and capable, didn’t know how to have a special assistant. He wanted to see all memos addressed to him rather than letting John screen them first. John was spared both the highs and the lows of the job, and put to work rewriting speeches and testimony. In short, it was an ordinary staff job, not a special assistantship. John says frankly, “I’d be willing to carry my boss’s briefcase next time, if he’d also let me represent him at high-level meetings.”

Those who feel that this great nation was built by rugged pioneers and self-reliant farmers and independent businessmen may bridle a bit at the idea that its fate will soon be in the hands of people who have special assistanted their way to the top. But in fact, a mentor-and-protégé system of upward mobility is an American tradition. In Horatio Alger’s novels, the poor boy made good not just by luck and pluck, but also through the friendship of a kindly capitalist father figure. Tom Sawyer had something of the special assistant in him, and was obviously going places; Huck Finn didn’t, and wasn’t.

The nineteenth-century equivalent of the special assistant was the stenographer, who in those days was usually a man who intended to rise above his original rank. John Hay, later secretary of state, got his start in politics as secretary to Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt had a male secretary, George Cortelyou, who was a lawyer but had come to Washington as “stenographer to President Cleveland.” But in the 1920s and 1930s, as the telephone and the typewriter increased the clerical requirements of great men, the traditional secretary’s job split in two: the modern “secretary,” a dead-end typing, filing and phoning job for women; and the “assistant,” an upwardly mobile hero-worshiping and policymaking job for men. In recent years special assistantships have opened up to women, too, and good secretaries have become harder than ever to find.

Probably the earliest prototype of the modern-day Washington special assistant was the Supreme Court clerk. This job had all the essential elements: great man (Supreme Court justice) handpicks promising young man (an editor of one of the Ivy League law reviews) who works closely by his side for a limited period (one or two years) in order to learn about life at the top and get a wonderful credential. Like all special assistants, Supreme Court clerks generally aspire to hold the principal’s job some day, though on the current Court there are only two former clerks, William Rehnquist and Byron White.

Now the institution has spread to the point where virtually everyone in government at the deputy assistant secretary level or above has at least one special assistant. So do some prominent businessmen, particularly those with some Washington experience, like Robert V. Roosa of Brown Brothers Harriman and George Ball of Lehman Brothers Kuhn Loeb. When Michael Blumenthal, a man of Washington, was chairman of the Bendix Corporation, he had a special assistant assistant; but when Blumenthal left for the Treasury, his successor tried having a special assistant for a while and then dispensed with it. Eminent men of the press in Washington also sometimes have special assistants. James Reston hired his first in the 1950s after Felix Frankfurter told him over lunch one day how great it was to have one. Now David Broder and Hugh Sidey have them too. Supreme Court justices used to have one clerk each; now some have as many as four.

So far as all these great men are concerned, having a special assistant is appealing because it’s lonely at the top. The bureaucracy is huge and uncontrollable. The political appointees with line authority become brainwashed by the civil servants under them and turn into special pleaders for their programs. Memos and phone calls stream in. Small fires break out. It’s impossible to keep up on every detail and every interest group. The special assistant, as the only official in the department who is totally loyal to the boss, can help with these problems; he can be counted on to tell the truth and to carry out orders without putting any of his own spin on the ball. From the special assistant’s point of view, the job is a chance to see policy being made and to have at least some influence at a level far above that to which a person in his late 20s ordinarily could aspire.

That constitutes the practical case for special assistantdom. But it’s only part of the reason why the institution’s so widespread. These are practical disadvantages too. Special assistants are usually hated by the rest of the people in the department, who regard them as scheming and officious young punks shielding the boss from the truth. When Philip Heymann became head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, he commissioned an efficiency study that recommended the abolition of special assistantships for this reason. But Heymann immediately hired five special assistants. This suggests that there are powerful psychological forces sustaining the institution as well.

For the boss, a special assistant is a status symbol. It impresses others that one has a bright young lawyer half a step behind and slightly to the right at all times. Perhaps more important, it impresses the boss himself. He can think, by God, I must be pretty good if I can have a Supreme Court clerk at my beck and call. He can pride himself on helping along someone promising, in addition to promoting his own career. He can feel in touch with the younger generation, sharp and critical as it can be. He can tell himself, this fine upstanding special assistant of mine kind of reminds me of myself when I was young.

As for the special assistant, his ardor for the job is a triumph over its many drawbacks. Even the most enthusiastic special assistant will admit that the excitement of the work comes at the price of some degree of sycophancy. There are those moments on trips out of town of having to check the principal’s bags and whisper in his ear that it’s time to move on to the next appointment. There are the bosses (William O. Douglas being a well-known example) who can turn the most pop-eyed admirers into sullen rebels in a year’s time. There are the stories of people who stayed in special-assistanttype jobs for too long and, somewhere along the way, got a reputation for being, well, very sound but not really the kind of person you’d consider for a job requiring leadership.

Special assistants nevertheless enthusiastically assist because it’s the natural outgrowth of their experience in life to date. By and large, they believe in large institutions and great men—after all, large institutions and great men have smiled on them so far. Through the years, these young people have developed an odd combination of the self-assertion necessary to get a special assistantship and the self-effacement necessary to excel in one. Most of the special assistants I talked to gave their bosses boffo reviews: “a real pleasure . . . unassuming . . . humor . . . great strength” (Terry Adamson on Griffin Bell); “a great man” (John Kester on Harold Brown); “a master craftsman . . . an ace . . . brilliant . . . the best guy around” (Jim Brooke on James Reston).

More than that, special assistants have often built their lives around accumulating extremely impressive credentials, rather than doing any particular thing well. This opens up wonderful opportunities, of course, but at the same time en- traps people. Someone who has been a Rhodes Scholar, a law review editor, and a Supreme Court clerk very likely has little interest in the one activity he has been specifically trained for, the practice of law. So once he has run the gauntlet through a clerkship, he often wants to put off joining a firm and settling in, but to do so in a way that will keep his credentials sterling and not close off any options. So a special assistantship is, for him, a wonderful opportunity—he learns a lot, he adds luster to his résumé he commits no more than a couple of years of his life, he makes valuable contacts, and he can continue to agonize over the choice between law and journalism, teaching and business, government service and investment banking.

Thus in Washington there is a sizable population of some of the most talented people in the country, who spend many of their most productive years in a series of one- or two-year billets in prestigious mirgovernment jobs. To really accomplish anything—and these are people who are genuinely capable of accomplishment— would take longer than that. But to stay more than two years would mean closing off options, getting all the possible résumé value from one job and passing up the opportunity for the further résumé value that would come from taking another one. The culture these people live in specifically guarantees that they won’t accomplish all that they could.

In most places, somebody who switched jobs every two years would be suspected of having a drinking problem. But in Washington, if a promising young person doesn’t switch jobs every two years, his friends become concerned and potential employers get suspicious. They begin to think what a shame it is that he hasn’t lived up to early expectations. They wonder: has he become one of those fellows who hides a bottle in his desk drawer?