Build an "A" Team

My advice, President Kerry, is that you assemble a political "A" team, install it in the West Wing, and fight like hell against the right over the next four years.

"We ought to have two real parties," President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told speechwriter and adviser Sam Rosenman in 1942, "one liberal and the other conservative." Now we have two parties. Less like the blue and the red than like the blue and the gray. You won the election by realizing this and defeating the GOP attack machine.

But being a successful candidate and being a successful president are two different things. Look at Jimmy Carter, or at Bill Clinton (first term). Excellent men, fine Democrats, smart campaigners, who, as president, had a lot of bad luck they didn't deserve. But politically, they mainly kept “B” teams around them after they'd won. (Carter did bring in some aces like Hendrik Hertzberg, but they weren't enough. And Clinton wised up around the time he got around to running for his second term. Yes, I actually have nice things to say about Dick Morris, but that's for another conversation.)

As a result of the Carter and Clinton “B” teams, we got Ronald Reagan and then Newt Gingrich. Lord knows what rough beast is, as we speak, slouching towards Bethlehem.

You have great advantages over your predecessors. You're in touch with Washington. You've already learned how vicious and unrelenting the other party is. But knowing that is not enough. You have to keep fighting as if you'd never won a thing.

Fighting hard means staying fast on your feet, not plowing straight ahead. You need a team that combines fearlessness, flexibility, and class, beyond anything you've known before. Few individuals have all of these qualities; that's why you have a team. But everyone should have two out of three of these qualities. (Idealism, smarts, and commitment to your basic values are assumed.)

Think about fdr's main man, Louis Howe. Not exactly classy, but superb in everything else, enough so to win over even Eleanor before he died (too young). FDR knew how to use Howe with others--Rosenman, Harry Hopkins, Harold Ickes, James Farley--by leaning this way and that, and look at all that he and they accomplished.

Stay away from backstabbers and narcissists, who can be very hard to identify. No Raymond Moleys. (Read Arthur Schlesinger Jr. on the New Deal.) Nor half the Clinton first-termers, who went on to greater glory (ha!) by leaving and then kicking Clinton in the groin. (This is the side of Morris to guard against. And he wasn't the worst!)

Avoid “policy experts.” They're either small bore or out for themselves, and they know much less about politics than they think they do. Let them talk to staff--or, if you must, use one or two as window dressing.

Make sure your communications office, from top to bottom, is ruthless (while law abiding) but not transparent (like Scott McClellan).

Don't assume you've already met all the members of your "A" team. Cronyism kills. While you've been preparing yourselves all these years over on Capitol Hill, there are others who know more than you or any of your current advisers do about the Oval Office. Look around.

Leave room for some poetry in the mix. It's wrongly gotten a bad name. Clinton never quite figured this out. FDR and JFK understood it instinctively.

Rosenman, Theodore Sorensen: Americans want to admire their leaders, and you're no movie actor despite your good looks. So do it with words from your “A” team. (Remember, Reagan had great scriptwriters, too, like whoever wrote the Berlin Wall speech … .)

If things go sour, don't be afraid to fire people. Andrew Jackson got smart when he sacked nearly his entire cabinet after his rocky first couple of years. Then he had a great follow- up with his “kitchen cabinet”--some of whom he knew barely,
if at all, when he was elected. George W. Bush didn't get smart, and that's a big reason why you're president.

But mainly, hire the best people, fighters who keep their heads. "Why not the best?" was Jimmy Carter's line. He never quite followed his own advice, at least not all the time.

You must. If you don't, none of the many excellent suggestions in this symposium will have a snowball's chance of coming true. Liberalism never gained a political majority on its good ideas alone. That takes intelligent, relentless execution--and constant awareness of how far the other side will go in order to stop you.

Sean Wilentz is Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University.