Former White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray reflects on his experience of advising a U.S. president on Law360. The complete article is available here.

C. Boyden Gray

There are three fundamental lessons I learned serving for 12 years in the White House — the need to recognize the paramount importance of media relations, delegation and White House legislative drafting. There were obviously many other lessons learned, but most of them resolve to those three.

Media Relations

When I worked at the White House, it seemed that virtually the entire day — from the morning staff meeting until the evening news — was spent trying to shape the news. Today, with truly 24/7, minute-by-minute news exposure, the time devoted to news management has surely dramatically increased from that already unreasonable level.

What this means is that less and less time is spent actually doing any real long-term planning. In Eisenhower’s White House, he relieved theNational Security Council of responsibility for day-to-day foreign policy operations monitoring so that it could keep its eye on long-term strategic planning (which, of course, any day’s emerging events could affect). Administrations since then have similarly grappled with planning versus operations, with the former almost always taking a back seat in the face of unforeseen crises. No advance planning can ever fully predict what actually emerges (especially with respect to armed conflict). But senior White House officials must be engaged in long-term planning if truly dangerous risks are to be managed.

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As a lawyer from private practice, learning to delegate was the most difficult trait or practice to adopt. By delegation I mean learning how to hand off tasks to assistants trained to navigate federal agencies and extract mission-critical information. This might seem unnecessarily cumbersome. But it is simply not possible to cut out the agencies by staffing up at the White House and the Old Executive Office Building. The trouble here is that such staffs become management challenges in their own right rather than efficient conduits for information. And, given the press rules discussed above, their sheer size would inevitably result in harmful freelancing.

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Legislative Drafting

It seems that the past three decades have witnessed a drift away from White House bill drafting. As agencies now routinely interact directly with the Hill, the White House is cut out and cannot stay abreast of legislative details. And as agencies draft without centralized White House input, they tend to push the Hill to the broadest possible delegations of authority, ensuring maximum bureaucratic control over policy execution. The Congress has certain incentives to make broad delegations, namely, the creation of multiple fundraising opportunities arising out of constituents’ need for help in clarifying open-ended regulatory delegations. The White House is incentivized to avoid these opportunities.

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