Sure, Gen. Michael Flynn’s 24-day stint as National Security Council advisor was remarkably short. The shortest on record, in fact. But he’s not the first top White House official to call it quits quickly. And on the opposite end, a few officials hung around for year after year. Here’s the long and the short of White House advisor history:
The second-shortest term was four months.
Prior to Flynn’s historically brief tenure, the previous record holder for shortest stint among the 25 national security advisors was William Harding Jackson, a lawyer and investment banker-turned special advisor and intelligence expert. He served just 129 days in the Eisenhower administration, before a shakeup of the national security staff at the start of Ike’s second term saw him on the outside looking in. On the flip side was Henry Kissinger, who greatly expanded the role of NSC advisor (and made history as the first person to serve in both that position and as U.S. secretary of state) during the 2,478 days he spent on the job under Presidents Nixon and Ford. That’s 100 times as long as Flynn, in case you are wondering.
Nearly a quarter of all national security advisors in U.S. history served under Reagan.
After Jimmy Carter briefly elevated the NSC advisor to cabinet level in 1977, Ronald Reagan demoted it again. The position proved particularly problematic for Reagan, who churned through six advisors in his eight-year presidency, including Robert “Bud” McFarlane and John Poindexter (both of whom were later implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal)
Illness and (moodiness) doomed some U.S. cabinet members.
There’s a tie for the shortest-serving U.S. cabinet members. The first, Thomas M.T. McKennan, represented Pennsylvania in Congress before leaving the House in 1843, vowing never to return to government. The popular (but mercurial) legislator was pressed into service again seven years later, when Millard Fillmore nominated him as the nation’s second secretary of the interior. McKennan regretted taking the gig almost immediately, and quit after just 11 days.
Elihu Washburne, a congressman from Maine who was an early supporter of the nascent Republican party and a political ally of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, was nominated as secretary of state by Grant in 1869. Washburne had always intended for his cabinet stay to be brief (Grant had promised to name him the U.S. minister to France), but it was cut even shorter than intended when Washburne fell ill, also resigning 11 days in.
In all, 13 cabinet members have served for less than 100 days.
And another 75 (out of a little more than 500) left their posts within a year. On average, cabinet members serve approximately 1,118 days (a little over three years) between their confirmation and resignation, according to a 2014 study by the Washington Post. And going back to the Reagan era, there have been only seven cabinet members who have served for the full eight years of their president’s administration, including four of Bill Clinton’s cabinet picks (his secretaries of education, interior and health and human services, as well as Attorney General Janet Reno).
One cabinet member reigns supreme.
Impressive as an eight-year stint may seem, no cabinet member in history has come close to the achievement of James Wilson. The Scottish-born Wilson was a former U.S. congressman from Iowa who had also taught agriculture at what is now Iowa State University. There he championed the work of a young George Washington Carver. Nominated by William McKinley in 1897 as his secretary of agriculture, Wilson would remain in the position for 16 consecutive years, throughout the terms of Republican Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Wilson radically reimagined the department’s work, using scientific-based data to improve everything from weather forecasting and soil type mapping to the development of home economics programs. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Food and Drug Act of 1906, which established a federal standard for food safety and inspections. Wilson left government in March 1913, following the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson—after serving for more than 5,800 days.