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'The West Wing' test

Aug 3, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

The old TV show provided a notable model for White House chiefs of staff

"The West Wing" was a popular, critically acclaimed, very smart and acutely observant television show that aired for six years around the turn of the new century.

In one episode, the President of United States is preparing for his State of the Union address. As is customary, all the members of the president's cabinet attend the annual address, except for one. That cabinet official, part of the constitutionally guaranteed line of succession to the presidency should disaster strike, stays away from the Capitol during the speech, so that should the unthinkable happen to the president, vice president, the top leaders of Congress and the cabinet, all of whom are gathered for the speech, then there will be a constitutional successor to the president who is safe at another location. (There's a new, unrelated TV drama based on this occurrence.)

In this particular "West Wing" episode, the "designated survivor" has a brief conversation with the president before the speech. The president has some advice for the potential long-shot successor in case the poor guy wakes the next morning and realizes he is the new president.

"Do you have a best friend?" the president asks. The cabinet official says he does.

"Is he smarter than you?" the president continues. The cabinet official nods

"Would you trust him with your life?" says the president. "Yes," says the cabinet member, "I would."

"Then that's your Chief of Staff," concludes the president with a smile.

For the first six months of his administration, the new president had a chief of staff, Reince Priebus,who met none of those qualifications. He was a political operative who certainly was not Donald Trump's friend, whose intelligence was mocked by Trump at every turn, and who sometimes gave the impression that, if faced with saving the president's life, he might have to think it over.

Last week, Priebus was dumped unceremoniously as White House Chief of Staff. It happened, apparently, on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base during a driving rainstorm. Priebus's agonizing tenure as what was supposed to be the president's right-hand man was over.

Now comes John Kelly, a stern-faced, granite-jawed, retired Marine general who had been running the Department of Homeland Security. He took over Monday as Trump's chief.

Does Kelly meet "The West Wing" test? Better than Priebus did. Kelly certainly is not Trump's best friend. They had never met prior to the election, and they barely know each other. Is he smarter than the president? Trump has at least complimented Kelly's intelligence. Would Trump trust Kelly with his life? From the looks, behavior and reputation of this guy, just about anyone probably would.

Kelly started out with a conspicuous success. He got rid of Anthony Scaramucci, who, in one of the most bizarre presidential staff appointments in modern memory, had been named by Donald Trump to be the director of White House communications just 11 days earlier.

The swaggering New York financier (funny but Trump excoriated Hillary Clinton for her supposed connections to Goldman Sachs during the campaign, but now he has a half-dozen past Goldman Sachs employees in his administration) made a relatively good impression in his first encounters with the White House press corps, but things went downhill in a hurry.

It hit bottom when the man known as "the Mooch" unleashed a profane, insulting, demeaning attack on a couple of other White House staff members - on the record, to a reporter. The shocking episode turned out to be too much even for the Trump administration, which is really saying something.

So, in his first morning on the job as new White House Chief of Staff, Kelly fired the Mooch. That's exactly what should've happened. Even in an administration which takes some kind of weird pride in brazen behavior, this went too far.

Good for Kelly for axing Scaramucci, and good for Trump in permitting it. It's a start. The new chief of staff's job might evolve into something more normal in time, but for now, in the roiling realm of the Trump White House, John Kelly has one job: Grab the reins and hold on for dear life.

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