January 2024
The Closer: Ken Duberstein as Ronald Reagan’s last White House Chief of Staff
David B. Cohen
10 min read
David B. Cohen examines the real – indeed, historic – impact of an individual chief of staff.
‘In the months ahead I’ll be helped by a new Chief of Staff, Kenneth Duberstein. It won’t be a big change for Ken. He’s moving from his old office, where he’s worked as the number two man on my staff and as Howard’s partner since early last year, to the one next door. And that’s good, because we won’t have time just to settle in.’ - President Ronald Reagan, Radio Address to the Nation, 2 July 1988

Cauterising the bleeding

The shadow of Iran-Contra News of the Iran-Contra Affair broke in November 1986 and it was the most serious challenge that the Reagan White House would face in its two terms. A once-popular president, Ronald Reagan would see his approval rating plummet sixteen points in just over a month to 47 percent in early December. Rumours swirled about possible impeachment proceedings. The White House had become an ‘every man for himself’ operation under Chief of Staff Donald Regan after he and James Baker swapped positions at the beginning of Reagan’s second term—Regan became chief of staff and Baker became Secretary of the Treasury. Iran-Contra exposed a White House organisation that needed to be rebuilt, beginning with replacement of the chief of staff himself, and his retainers. An aggrieved Regan felt mistreated and did not go quietly as his troubles with First Lady Nancy Reagan were well-documented and played out publicly in real time. After President Reagan was finally convinced to make a change, Regan departed the White House quietly on Friday, 27 February 1987. Regan’s tenure is criticised by most observers and many with whom he worked, including Ken Duberstein who would become an integral part of the effort to clean up Regan’s mess: ‘Don Regan was an unfortunate choice for chief of staff….[H]e forgot that as White House chief of staff he was still staff, not chief. The President was elected; he was not. Regan made the mistake of trying to do too much for Reagan and did not recognise that Reagan was not the retired chairman of the board. He was chairman of the board and CEO, and it was his presidency.’ In comes the cleanup crew On the same day that Regan quit, President Reagan announced that Former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker would be the new chief of staff. When Baker officially began as chief and appraised the situation, he soon realised that the White House staff was dysfunctional and in disarray. Regan had been feared by his staff who were viewed by many colleagues as minions of a chief attempting to be prime minister. Baker understood that he had to rapidly transform the process and personnel in the White House. He also knew that he had to calm the nerves of those on Capitol Hill. One of the keys to Baker’s new system was bringing in Ken Duberstein as deputy chief of staff. Duberstein was an experienced Reagan hand who had previously headed the Office of Legislative Affairs in the first term and enjoyed a good personal relationship with the Reagans. Duberstein was initially reluctant as his wife was pregnant and he was making a lucrative living in the private sector after having spent most of his adult years as a public servant in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations. Duberstein would often say in many post-White House interviews that: ‘You do a White House once it’s an honour; you do it a second time, you’re a glutton for punishment’. But Baker smartly arranged for Duberstein to go to the White House and meet with the President. Duberstein describes the scene this way: ‘I walked into the Oval Office and President Reagan got up from behind his desk, walked over and greeted me and said: “Howard’s told me all of the reasons why you can’t come back. I just want you to know one thing, Nancy and I want you to come home for the last two years of the administration”. And I obviously said “yes.” And it was clearly the best professional decision of my life.’ Baker also installed longtime aide Tom Griscom as communications director and A.B. Culvahouse as White House counsel and point person on Iran-Contra. Together, they would form a more collegial team dedicated to turning around Reagan’s fortunes and erasing the image of a detached president serving out his final days in isolation. Restructuring the White House machinery Unlike Don Regan, Howard Baker was comfortable delegating authority, and the experienced Duberstein was trusted to manage the day-to-day affairs of the White House while Baker focused on the big picture and grand questions. According to Duberstein: ‘Howard Baker conceived of this partnership where he and I would be co-equals and I would run things on a day-to-day basis’. Duberstein also often travelled with Reagan (such as to Helsinki, Finland for arms control talks) as many successor deputy chiefs would do, and had access to all high-level meetings in the Oval Office. Duberstein recalled that: ‘Howard and I met with the President every day. One of us had always attended every meeting that the President had’. White House correspondent Lou Cannon describes the working relationship of Baker and Duberstein: ‘Duberstein is the 43-year-old deputy chief of staff and hands-on manager in the collegial team assembled by White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. to rescue Reagan in his time of trouble. Baker, the former Senate majority leader, formed a lasting appreciation of Duberstein when he was director of congressional relations in the administration’s glory days. Baker affectionately calls him “Deputy Duberdog” and relies on him to keep the White House functioning. “Ken is action central, the ranch foreman,” says White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. ‘He’s kind of the driver who forces the actions and gets things done.’ Though the Office of the Chief of Staff was downsized under Baker and Duberstein, with a maximum of three commissioned staffers (special assistant or higher rank) in the office, from this point forward, every White House has had at least one deputy chief of staff.

The Baker-Duberstein duo in action

Reengaging Reagan and reimagining the Reagan agenda
When he arrived on the scene, Howard Baker observed a president he characterised as ‘down…[and] despondent but not depressed’. The cure for Reagan’s malady: get Reagan reengaged and involved with the public and his staff. Duberstein recalled they made Reagan much more accessible within the White House:

‘Lyn Nofziger…who knew Reagan from the very beginning, told me when I came back to the White House, that what I needed to do was open the doors to the Oval Office, that Don Regan had fundamentally shut the door and he became the sole funnel. And if I could open the door and have people meet with Reagan, he did much better understanding the nuances and seeing the differences, if we put people in front of him and, not argue it out, but make their own points. It is something that I did, and you could see Reagan really become engaged. And he did all the reading, he always did his homework, but he understood the issues far more fervently if you, in fact, had people discussing in front of him.’
Baker and Duberstein also ramped up Reagan’s public schedule with a ‘significant speaking program and public events’ for the President. They increased the number of appearances outside the Beltway—both to get Reagan involved and to escape the gaze of a White House press corps obsessed with Iran-Contra. Washington Post reporters Lou Cannon and David Hoffman observed at the time that:
‘President Reagan has embarked on an intensive campaign, publicly and privately, to demonstrate that he has changed his management approach as a result of the Tower commission’s critical report on the Iran-contra affair, White House officials say. In the six weeks since Howard H. Baker Jr. became his chief of staff, Reagan has been more visibly involved in the activities of his administration than at any other time during his second term. “It’s been good for him,” Baker said in an interview… “He appears to me to be happy, and he seems to be enthusiastic, and I think that is accounted for in part by the fact that he is more active now and more directly in contact.” The visible signs of Reagan's new approach are that he attends more meetings, hears divergent views and more freely answers policy questions.’
Howard Baker recounted that he had three goals in mind for the waning days of the Reagan presidency: survive Iran-Contra if possible and if it’s deserved; obtain an arms agreement with the Soviet Union; and elect a Republican president in 1988. Ken Duberstein recalled a slightly more ambitious agenda: ‘continue to rebuild the economy, win on a bunch of issues on Capitol Hill, make progress with the then-Soviet Union, [and culminating in]…the re-election of a Republican president’.
To help achieve these goals, Baker and Duberstein refocused the strategy and tactics of the administration by assuming a more conciliatory approach to the Democratic-controlled Congress in domestic affairs and focusing on deficit-reduction. They also realised they needed to put Iran-Contra behind them. According to Duberstein, he and Baker convinced Reagan to take public responsibility for Iran-Contra—one of the keys to Reagan rebuilding his credibility with the American public:
‘We convinced Reagan. We thought it was in his best interest to give another speech to the American people that included a mea culpa. Getting a president to do a mea culpa is worse than ten root canals, but Reagan gave one. And the American people who always liked and respected Reagan, said “well, maybe he did screw up a little bit, but we understand that”. And they’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.’
In that first week with Baker and Duberstein at the helm, Reagan addressed the topic of Iran-Contra head-on in a prime-time nationally televised address in which he said: ‘I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities…There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake’. Reaction to the speech on the Hill was positive and Reagan’s approval rating would steadily recover from that point.
Baker’s and Duberstein’s relations with Congress would allow the administration to move quickly and confidently on groundbreaking arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. Over the next several months, the Reagan administration would negotiate and complete an historic agreement with the Soviet Union, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. On December 8, 1987, Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in the East Room of the White House, a treaty that represented the first time the United States and Soviet Union had agreed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. On 27 May 1988 the INF Treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate, 93–5, eliminating all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5500 km. The ratification documents were brought by Reagan to Moscow in May of 1988 as the leaders engaged in their fourth arms control summit. Though no other major breakthroughs between the U.S. and USSR were accomplished there, as a public relations event it was an enormous success.
It is also during this period when Reagan would enjoy one of his most iconic moments as president. On 12 June 1987, President Reagan was scheduled to give an address in West Berlin at the base of the Brandenburg Gate, the massive door at the Berlin Wall separating East and West Berlin and a focal point of the Cold War. In Reagan’s speech, to the surprise of many, Reagan implored the leader of the Soviet Union to remove the Berlin Wall that was constructed in 1961:
‘There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalisation: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ This moment, however, almost did not happen save for the actions of Ken Duberstein. Many of Reagan’s closest advisers, including Baker initially, thought the ‘tear down this wall’ language should be removed from the speech. The US State Department was also adamant about deleting the section. Ken Duberstein did not agree. He recalled:
‘In my responsibilities as deputy, I reviewed all speeches. And we were in Italy and it came to my desk, and with the State Department objection, I read the speech and I thought it was a pretty damn good speech and a good paragraph. I gave it to the President with the understanding that the State Department objected. And he asked me what I thought. And I said: “I think it’s a hell of a speech, but you are president, you get to decide”. And he read the speech and told me some hours later “Let’s leave it in”.’


This period in the Reagan White House was not without challenges and missteps. Perhaps the most visible misstep was that of the failed nominations of Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg to replace the retiring Lewis Powell, a moderate swing vote on the Supreme Court. Baker and Duberstein knew that Bork, a brilliant jurist and a champion to conservatives, but a pariah to liberals, would be a tough sell in the Democratically controlled Senate. But Reagan wanted Bork. This was one instance where Reagan did not listen to his staff. Howard Baker explained that:
‘We had made an evaluation of the prospects for the nomination in the Senate. That was part of the briefing of the President. But the President had high confidence that he could move anything…. He took account of the fact that there were big storm warnings about Bork ahead of time but it was very Reagan-like to say, “I want to do it anyway”, and he did.’
After Bork was rejected by the Senate in a 58–42 vote, Reagan’s choice for a replacement was Douglas Ginsburg, a federal appeals court judge and former deputy assistant attorney general, and law professor. Attorney General Ed Meese wanted Ginsburg; Baker pressed for Anthony Kennedy, an appeals court judge who would eventually take the seat on the high court. Reagan agreed with Meese. Among other problems, Ginsburg’s habit of smoking marijuana with his law students killed his nomination which lasted only a week and caused considerable embarrassment for the administration. In the rush to replace Bork, Ginsburg had not been vetted adequately.
The Bork failure heightened tensions from the conservative faction of the Republican Party that did not want to see Howard Baker or Ken Duberstein in the Chief of Staff’s Office. Reagan had anticipated he would take heat from conservatives for picking Baker as chief, but chose him anyway. The day he telephoned Baker to ask him to be chief of staff, Reagan wrote in his diary: ‘I’d probably take some bumps from our right wingers but I can handle that’.
Howard Baker survived the wrath of conservatives and exited the White House on his own terms. Having felt his work in restoring the Reagan legacy had largely been accomplished, Baker left his post on 30 June 1988. Both his wife Joy and stepmother were ill—during his time as chief of staff, Baker often returned to Tennessee to help care for Joy. It was time to go home and stay home.

The deputy takes over: Duberstein as chief

Passing the Baton
For the final half-year of the Reagan presidency, Howard Baker handed the reigns to Ken Duberstein, his deputy chief of staff and hand-picked successor, who had served a sixteen-month apprenticeship. Since Duberstein was already deputy chief of staff as well as having served a stint in the first Reagan term heading the Congressional Liaison Office, he was well versed in the functioning of the White House and the duties of the chief of staff. And when Baker left town frequently for Tennessee, Duberstein ran the White House in his absence and functioned as a virtual co-chief of staff. Duberstein already knew the players and playing fields and as deputy was in charge of the administrative side of the job, thus ensuring a smooth transition.
Duberstein is credited with building on the successes of the Howard Baker era and bringing the Reagan ship into port without incident. A chief of staff with a much-lower profile than his successor, Duberstein commanded great respect in the White House for his knowledge and his years in the Beltway as a lobbyist and public servant.
Duberstein already had a personal relationship with the President and an ally in Nancy Reagan which helped him greatly. When Baker tapped Duberstein to be his deputy, ‘Duberstein accepted the responsibility of dealing with Nancy Reagan, who was once more openly welcomed as a political adviser’. Over time, Duberstein developed an even stronger relationship and trust of the First Lady which aided him when he took over as chief of staff. Journalist Bill McAllister wrote that: ‘[O]ne of Duberstein’s strengths is “the Nancy factor”. More than any other aide since former deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver, officials say, Duberstein has won the trust of First Lady Nancy Reagan. “He’s a bridge between the East and West Wings”.’ Duberstein himself spoke about how his relationship with the Reagans helped him in his job:
‘I had the personal relationship with the President, and frankly also with Nancy, who was incredibly good, not dealing in policy, but dealing in personnel. No, I didn’t do the Don Regan mistake, I never hung up on her. But Nancy had a great antenna for those people who she thought were on her husband’s agenda and those who had their own agenda, and she was willing to share that with me because she knew if she shared with me, I could help make her husband even more effective….Both of them knew the only reason I…came back to the White House is because they asked me to come home for the last two years. My only agenda was the President’s.’
One of Duberstein’s first acts was to find a replacement for himself as deputy chief of staff who would do for Duberstein, what Duberstein did for Baker. M.B. Oglesby, Duberstein’s former deputy and successor from the Office of Legislative Affairs, was tapped on 5 July 1988, and together they formed a tight-knit team like Baker and Duberstein once had. Oglesby assumed all the power and responsibility Duberstein had had in his role as deputy chief of staff. Oglesby described the goals of the last six months of the Reagan presidency that he and Duberstein would oversee:
‘Duberstein was very active in that as we tried to develop, if you will, a very practical, laid out, step-by-step way to do a number of things. Number one: to get the President’s approval ratings up. Number two: to have a plan, which we did have, post-election to…message as he was leaving the presidency and to try and leave some marks that he wanted to leave going into the end of the year. He obviously was very concerned about the election; he wanted George Bush to win.’ Solidifying Reagan’s legacy

Job one of the Duberstein-Oglesby duo was to solidify Reagan’s place in history and continue to build on the upward trajectory of Reagan’s popularity since the second term nadir of the Iran-Contra days. One way they achieved this was by focusing on high-profile ‘presidential’ events, particularly involving foreign policy. Though no other historic treaties would be signed by Reagan, one last grand summit between Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev would occur, resulting in a historic photo-op on 7 December 1988. The summit was an important event acknowledging the wholesale change in the relationship between the United States and Soviet Union during Reagan’s tenure, one in which the Cold War was rapidly thawing. The summit also included President-elect George Bush and symbolised the transition to new leadership in the White House.
The backdrop for the summit was the historic Governors Island which sits in the middle of New York Harbor only about 800 yards from Manhattan. Chief of staff Duberstein, a Brooklyn native and New York City enthusiast, took personal charge of the events that would transpire. Duberstein recalled:
‘The last official meeting between Regan and Gorbachev after the Summit meetings at the conclusion of the IMF treaty, etc., took place on Governors Island in New York Harbor…. They had a luncheon at Governors Island, there’s a famous picture of Reagan, Gorbachev, and Bush—we brought President-Elect Bush along—with the Statue of Liberty in the background. It was the one time they let me play advance man…. Because I grew up in Brooklyn, I knew the shot that I wanted.’
Another high-profile event Duberstein is given credit for—albeit one of less import—is arranging for President Reagan to throw out the first pitch at a major league baseball game and broadcast an inning in the booth on WGN with legendary Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Carey. Shortly after graduating from college, Reagan was employed as a sports announcer for WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa, and among other things, would recreate Chicago Cubs baseball games for listeners in nearly real-time reading from Teletype. For twenty-five minutes on 30 September 1988, Reagan shared the booth with Carey and helped call a game between the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. The event was a smash success—just the kind of thing to help secure Reagan’s legacy and endear him to the public.

Partnering with the Bush campaign

Partnering with the Bush campaign

Perhaps Duberstein’s largest contribution to Reagan’s last year was the effort he made to help Reagan’s Vice President, George H.W. Bush, get elected. Duberstein and Oglesby liaised and coordinated with the Bush campaign. White House activities and appearances by Reagan were managed with the campaign and even cabinet appointments were made with Bush in mind. According to David Hoffman of The Washington Post:
‘Since Duberstein became Reagan’s chief of staff…legislation and appointments have been favouring Bush’s campaign. Included were Reagan’s decision to sign the plant-closing bill, denying Democrats a favoured economic issue, and Reagan's veto of the defense authorization bill in a confrontation with Congress over the Strategic Defense Initiative. Likewise, within four weeks, Reagan made three Cabinet nominations with Bush in mind: [Richard] Thornburgh [as Attorney General], Lauro F. Cavazos at the Department of Education and Nicholas F. Brady at the Treasury Department.’
During this period, Reagan also campaigned extensively for George Bush, travelling over 25,000 miles to sixteen states in a coordinated effort to help the Vice President succeed him. Duberstein himself credits a last-minute campaign trip to Southern California that helped drive Republican turnout in that region and aided Bush in carrying the state by just over three points. Duberstein’s efforts paid off, helping Bush win the 1988 presidential election and thus extending the Reagan-Bush era for another term.


Ken Duberstein came back to the White House at a crossroads in the Reagan presidency and it was unclear in which direction the last two years would go. Duberstein acknowledged that when he returned, Reagan ‘wasn’t simply a lame duck, he was a dead duck’.
When chief of staff Donald Regan resigned in February 1987, Reagan’s popularity with the public was in freefall and talk of impeachment and invoking the 25th Amendment abounded. But the team of Howard Baker, as chief of staff, and Ken Duberstein, as deputy chief of staff, were able to quickly right the ship. When Duberstein took the helm with six months left in Reagan’s term, he was able to guide that ship safely into port and help restore Reagan’s legacy.
Public opinion data tracks this turnaround as Reagan’s approval surged during the last two years of his presidency. Shortly after Regan’s resignation, Reagan’s popularity (as measured by Gallup) hovered at forty-three percent. When Duberstein assumed the chief of staff job, Reagan’s approval was at fifty-one percent, and shortly before Reagan left office, his approval was up to sixty-three percent, a twenty-point increase during Duberstein’s second act in the Reagan White House.
Ken Duberstein sums up his tenure succinctly as both deputy chief of staff and chief of staff:

‘I think I helped President Reagan rebuild his presidency from the dark days of Iran-Contra, along with an unbelievable team. I helped President Reagan be able to say at the end that he started out to change the country and we wound up changing the world. And the fact that he gave me the opportunity to help him do that is truly the American dream’.
Author Bio
David B. Cohen
Professor of Political Science at University of Akron
David B. Cohen is professor of political science and director of the applied politics program at The University of Akron. He earned a B.A. in political science and international relations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an M.A. in political science at the University of Tennessee, and a Ph.D. in political science at the University of South Carolina. Professor Cohen teaches courses and conducts research on the American presidency, Congress, and homeland security. He has studied White House staffing and organization for over two decades and is currently co-authoring a manuscript to be published by the University Press of Kansas titled The President's Chief of Staff: Evolution of a White House Institution.
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