One of the wisest men I ever knew in Washington was the late James H. Rowe Jr. He came out of Montana, went to Harvard Law School and was recruited by Felix Frankfurter for a job on FDR's White House staff. In later years, he became a counselor to Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and other Democrats of that generation.
His law office was a block from The Post. When we would bump into each other, he would conduct street-corner seminars on politics and government for my benefit.
One day he gave me a riddle. "Broder, if when I go to my reward, St. Peter were to say to me, 'James, you have lived a good life, and your reward is that I'm going to give you one amendment to the Constitution of the United States,' do you know what my amendment would be?"
"I have no idea."
"It would be very simple," he said. "No senator of the United States shall be eligible for the office of president."
This was a surprise, coming from a man who had been a great friend of Johnson, Humphrey and others who had sought or served in the White House.
"The reason," Rowe said, "is that senators don't know how to run anything. Their staffs have to tell them what to do. They walk around with little slips of paper in their pocket saying, 'Call so-and-so,' or 'Remember to talk to so-and-so.' "
John Kennedy was the last man to go straight from the Senate to the Oval Office, but this year, both presumptive nominees, John McCain and Barack Obama, are Senate products.
That's why I'm recommending for their reading a book just published by another old friend, Bradley H. Patterson, who has made a specialty of examining the workings of the White House and probably knows as much as anyone about how to organize the presidency.
For 14 years, Patterson was on the White House staff under Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford. In 1988 and 2000, he published books that were drawn from his interviews and analyses of the presidents from Truman through Clinton. Patterson's new Brookings Institution volume, "To Serve the President: Continuity and Innovation in the White House Staff," brings the story up to date by focusing on the operations of the current White House under our first president to hold an MBA.
One of the things Patterson teaches is that George Bush has been a more creative manager than is generally recognized. He has added three significant offices to the White House structure the Homeland Security Council, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and the USA Freedom Corps. Patterson's judgment is that these "add-ons will most probably be long-lasting," no matter who succeeds Bush.
He also credits Bush with improving the physical facilities of the White House in ways that will benefit the next presidents. The Situation Room goes back to 1962, but Patterson reports that it was increasingly inadequate until Bush decided at the start of his second term to bring it up to date.
Now it is a suite of 13 rooms equipped with the latest telecommunications facilities and securely isolated from the rest of the White House. It was brought in "ahead of schedule and under budget."
Bush also ordered an upgrading of the White House briefing room and has launched a much overdue modernization of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door. Not surprisingly, the vast expansion in the White House use of the Internet has come during his terms.
The obvious question is: If the presidency has been so well managed, how come so many things have gone awry? The choice of people and policies is a lot more crucial than tables of organization. That will be true for Obama or McCain in his time as well.
But Patterson says there are lessons to be learned. One of the most important is to understand that "Cabinet government" is a myth. The big issues and the tough choices inevitably come to the White House, so it behooves a new president to spend more time and thought on his White House staff than on his Cabinet exactly the opposite of what Bill Clinton did.
Another is to resist the temptation to economize by reducing the size of the White House staff, as Clinton claimed to do. "The issue," Patterson says, "is not how large is the White House staff, but how it is organized, and how professionally it conducts itself."