West Wing: It’s proximity not perks that matter
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON ” Some of the most coveted office space on the planet doesn’t necessarily come with a picture window, a decent TV ” or even much room to work.
It’s in the West Wing of the White House, where proximity to power trumps square footage, postcard views and modern amenities.
Senior adviser David Axelrod has a to-die-for office next to Barack Obama’s personal study, perfect terrain for a presidential pop-in.
But Axelrod’s domain is akin to the modest space that a branch manager at a bank might get, and his window looks out at a concrete barrier and some utility units.
No matter. Location speaks volumes when it comes to White House office politics, and ever was it so.
Commentator Patrick Buchanan, who served as Ronald Reagan’s communications director, remembers turning down a spacious office on the second floor of the West Wing in favor of what he called a first-floor “broom closet” down the corridor from the Oval Office. His aides scrounged up an old window from a construction site and hung it on the wall.
“It was a great office. Dutch would come down the hall and visit me,” Buchanan recalled last week, using Reagan’s nickname.
He still has the window in his garage.
Location may be particularly pertinent in this administration, since Obama is known to roam the halls to chat up aides rather than summoning them for an audience in the Oval Office, one indication of the more casual atmosphere taking hold in the White House.
The seating chart for Obama’s West Wing is guided in part by tradition.
Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and national security adviser James L. Jones have the large corner offices on the first floor typically reserved for those positions. Vice President Joe Biden occupies the first-floor suite that also served his predecessor, Dick Cheney. And counsel Gregory Craig gets the corner office one floor above Emanuel that typically goes to the president’s top lawyer.
Other office assignments may offer clues into the president’s governing style. For example, Obama’s communications director and her deputy ” Ellen Moran and Dan Pfeiffer ” have been moved from a restricted section of the West Wing’s second floor into first-floor office space that is accessible to reporters.
White House aides still are settling in ” there are plenty of empty nails on the walls and boxes yet to be unpacked ” and adjusting to the cramped quarters and outdated technology. Speechwriter Jon Favreau, for one, is still angling to get a couch and a better TV in his small basement office.
Like Kremlinologists looking for telling signs from the inner sanctum, those outside the White House study the West Wing floor plan to get hints about who carries the most influence.
Former Clinton aide Bill Galston, who had a claustrophobic, windowless office on the West Wing’s second floor during the Clinton years, said there is a yawning divide between those who get space in the West Wing and the majority of staff members who work across West Executive Drive in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
“It’s sort of like a switch with two positions: Either you’re in the White House or you’re not,” Galston said.
And within the West Wing, Buchanan said, “the first floor of the White House is to the second floor as Park Avenue is to the Bowery.”
Karl Rove, an adviser to former President George W. Bush, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Obama is cramming far more people into the West Wing than Bush ever did, and he predicts that may contribute to a “more centralized and possibly incoherent policy process.” He also said Obama’s political director, Patrick Gaspard, was the first political director to score a West Wing office, a symbol of the administration’s obsession with politics. But that assertion was incorrect.
Doug Sosnik, for example, had the political director’s job and a West Wing office during the Clinton administration.
Sosnik said people make too much of who sits where in the White House, adding that a staff member’s relationship with White House decision-makers trumps real estate in the end.
“A person’s relationship is more important than office location, and that’s completely underappreciated and valued by people trying to figure who’s got what kind of juice in an administration,” Sosnik said.