(Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first Chief of Staff)
At a time when the oval office is occupied by a man who seems to know no bounds of decency when it comes to race, hounds people who disagree with him on twitter, and vilifies individuals who he views as disloyal or refuse to do his bidding like former FBI head James Comey or Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, it is refreshing to read Chris Whipple’s new book THE GATEKEEPERS: HOW THE WHITE HOUSE CHIEFS OF STAFF DEFINE EVERY PRESIDENCY. Recently President Trump fired his Chief of Staff, Reince Pribus, a man who had little influence over the President. Since Trump is enamored with generals, he finally convinced John Kelley, a former Marine general to become his new Chief of Staff. Kelly made it clear his role was not to reign in the President, but to bring order and efficiency to the West Wing. It is clear that Kelly does not totally subscribe to the historical role of the Chief of Staff as defined by Leon Panetta, who successfully rescued Bill Clinton’s presidency who states that, “you have to be the person who says no. You’ve got to be the son of a bitch who basically tells somebody what the president can’t tell him.” If you had hoped that Kelly would influence or temper Trump’s tweets and actions all you have to do is evaluate the President’s reaction to events in Charlottesville, his rally in Phoenix, his reaction to the ongoing Russia investigation, and his pardon of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio of Maricopa, AZ.
(Reince Pribus and John Kelly, President Trump’s Chiefs of Staff)
Whipple does the American people a service by describing and evaluating the men who have served as Chiefs of Staff dating back to the presidency of Richard Nixon. In each case we see individuals battle to keep the Chief Executive on message, fully briefed on issues, and to project themselves as presidential unlike the dysfunctional situation that currently plagues the White House. The key for the Chief of Staff is to instill discipline and focus on the West Wing as Leon Panetta was able to do to get Clinton reelected in 1996. The most important task for the Chief of Staff is to always tell the President what he may not want to hear. Whipple is correct that the role of the Chief of Staff is to translate the president’s agenda into reality. “When the government works, it is usually because the chief understands the fabric of power, threading the needle where policy and politics converge.” For example, without James Baker who stood between the press, Congress, and internal factions, Reagan’s presidency would have been a failure. Further, without Leon Panetta to bring discipline and order to the White House Clinton would have been a one term president; without Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy had to deal with the Bay of Pigs; Lyndon Johnson did not have a strong Chief of Staff and he was swallowed by Vietnam. As President Eisenhower told Richard Nixon, “every president has to have its own son of a bitch.”
(President George H.W. Bush and John Sununu his Chief of Staff)
One of the most surprising points that Whipple makes is that the most advanced model of organizational structure at the White House was developed by H.R. Haldeman – the problem is that he did not follow his own ideas resulting in Watergate. For later Chiefs of Staff eventually they would fall back to Haldeman’s structure. Other surprising points include the career of Dick Cheney who was a sensational organizer during his tenure as Chief of Staff under President Ford, and almost got Ford reelected in 1976, but when he became Vice President under George W. Bush his entire world view had changed as he morphed into the defacto chief. Many have conjectured why, and point to 9/11’s impact as being responsible.
The chief that one should not model was Hamilton Jordan who served under Jimmy Carter. Jordan was not interested in the nitty gritty of policy and found basic White House protocol incomprehensible. Jordan exacerbated his situation by his continual offending of Congressional leadership. What made matters worse for Jordan was when Carter was elected the new president believed he was “the smartest person in the room” and acted as his own chief and the net result was the seeming failure of the Carter presidency despite his energy policy, the Camp David Accords, arms control, and the Panama Canal Treaty. The opposite of Carter was Ronald Reagan who didn’t think he was the smartest person in the room, and knew how to delegate and have a strong Chief of Staff. Apart from Iran-Contra, Reagan’s presidency is seen as a success as Baker made Reagan understand the political process of the presidency would be closely linked to his acceptance in Washington, something Carter never bought into, and navigating between the ideologues and pragmatists that served the president.
(James and Howard Baker, two of Ronald Reagan’s Chiefs of Staff)
The strength of Whipple’s book is how he reviews the highs and lows of each administration by focusing on the actions of the diverse Chiefs of Staff who organized the West Wing and made it run efficiently. By doing so Whipple explains the strategies and actions taken and judges whether their approach to governance was effective or not. In the process the history of each administration is dealt with, and at times Whipple uncovers “nuggets” that have not been covered effectively by other authors. A case in point is the reputation of Leon Panetta and by turning the Clinton administration around he proved you didn’t have to be “a bully or an attack dog to be an effective Chief of Staff. You just have to be very smart. You have to know when to be tough, and also when to let the reigns be a little looser.” The Clinton administration also produced Erskine Bowles and John Podesta who demanded that Clinton treat them as peers despite their friendships and were able to be honest and upfront with him which led to a balanced budget, the States Children’s health Insurance Plan and the survival of the Lewinsky Affair.
Andrew Card who would have the longest tenure as a chief saw James Baker as a role model, but 9/11 would produce a new “Dick Cheney.” Whipple explores why this occurred conjecturing with CBS’ Bob Schieffer that it could have been his heart condition that was responsible. Whipple reviews the debate and actions that led to the ill-fated invasion of Iraq. He does not really add anything new to the discussion, but what emerges is a marginalized Card who could not navigate between Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, and the Vice President. One of the most controversial chiefs was Rahm Emanuel who served under President Obama. Whipple does an excellent job explaining the different factions within the Obama administration and Emanuel’s role particularly guiding legislation through Congress as he was able to overcome the scars left over from the Clinton administration in gaining the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Once Emanuel is replaced, Whipple is dead on in explaining why Emanuel’s replacement William Daley was a failure in his short stint at the White House, and how Dennis McDonough was able to counter Obama’s “Chicago crowd” as like Emanuel he was a strong communicator, something that Daley was not.
(Andrew Card informing President George W. Bush about 9/11)
In a sense by reviewing each Chief of Staff’s tenure Whipple has created a handbook for President Trump’s Chief of Staff. He does so by presenting a theoretical approach to the position, but also the realities that each man faced. The political pragmatism that is needed to be successful emerges under the auspices of Baker, Emanuel, Panetta, and others, a characteristic that seems to be missing in the current White House. Whipple writes with the journalistic flair one would expect from a multiple Peabody and Emmy award winner and in the current environment there are many people in power who should consult it. If the Trump presidency eventually is unsuccessful in reaching its goals, Whipple has already explained why.