Who Will Be President Biden's Stu Spencer?

By Mark Shields

December 5, 2020 4 min read

The first reviews are in on President-elect Joe Biden's choices for Cabinet and White House positions. And they are overwhelmingly positive: "seasoned," "experienced," "qualified professionals," "capable and sensible."

But I wonder if Biden ever had a chat with the late Bryce Harlow, who first worked for Gen. George C. Marshall in dealing with Congress during the World War II years, when Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were president. Chief executives Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford each sought Harlow's advice and were both wise and well served when they listened to it.

Harlow once explained to me the most neglected personnel need for every American president: making sure she or he is open to "candid criticism and blunt counsel. The problem is the office itself. I cannot count how many powerful committee chairmen or captains of industry or college presidents told me, 'If I could only have five minutes alone with the president, I could show him the error of his ways and straighten out what he's doing wrong.' Then, when the chairman or the CEO is ushered into the Oval Office, without exception, the fiercest critic turns into an uncritical cheerleader mumbling, 'Our prayers are with you, Mr. President, you're doing a great job.'"

President Gerald R. Ford was the admirable exception to that pattern. An emotionally secure man, Jerry Ford had put his presidency in political jeopardy by pardoning his very prosecutable predecessor, the resigned Richard M. Nixon. Trailing Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter by up to 33% in national polls, Ford met with his political brain trust, where he was told by his respected pollster Bob Teeter that his surveys discovered that, when Ford had campaigned personally in the primaries against his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, Ford's national numbers actually declined.

It fell to Ford's peerless campaign strategist, Stu Spencer, to deliver the brutally candid judgment of the president's most trusted political advisers to Ford: "Mr. President, you are a very good president. But as a campaigner, you are no (expletive deleted) good."

As two people who were in the small meeting told me, President Ford, who, as Republican House leader, had campaigned across the nation speaking for hundreds of GOP congressional candidates, first scowled and then smiled. He trusted Spencer and the others in that room. Thus was born the Rose Garden strategy, where Ford, by being president full time, would rebound to within an eyelash of pulling off the greatest comeback in US history.

Does Joe Biden see the need for advisers as candid and fearless as Stu Spencer around him? Let us hope that, unlike his predecessor, who needed, even demanded, fawning tributes to himself from his subordinates and secretaries, Joe Biden has instead the emotional security of President Gerald Ford and will insist on securing his own Stu Spencer.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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