Who’s in Charge Here?
By Pam Munter
What goes on behind the scenes in the White House has become a hot topic, perhaps more than at any other time since Watergate. A new book by Chris Whipple offers an historical perspective on who possesses the power behind the throne. In The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency (Crown, 2017), Whipple describes the chief of staff as “the Rorschach of the presidency,” a reflection on the agenda, personality and M.O. of the president he serves. In an extensive and detailed work, he reviews the social and political climate in which each chief operated, providing a rich historical context.
The chief of staff is appointed by the president and serves at his pleasure, and, like the chief executive, has always been a man. The duties vary, but his most commanding role is his control over both the Oval Office information flow and access to the president. His leverage is dependent on the relationship he enjoys with the president as adviser and confidante, but it’s best if he brings political savvy to the table as well. He’s less familiar to the public than the more visible press secretary, but exerts a critical influence in the daily life of the administration.
The first official chief of staff was Sherman Adams in the Eisenhower administration. Both J.F.K. and L.B.J. tended to rely on their appointments secretaries to do the job. Without much ado, Whipple jumps to the meaty Nixon years and the reign of H.R. Haldeman (“the Lord High Executioner”). Haldeman was an architect of Nixon’s rise to power and both an indicted and imprisoned co-conspirator in the plan to exact revenge on his enemies. We have the famous Watergate tapes detailing their daily interactions, but Whipple reveals that the personal relationship between the two men was “intimate but strangely distant,” both loners comfortable with interpersonal isolation, capable of creating their own reality.
While the historical details can sometimes take the reader afield of the title, the personal details are riveting and capture the reader’s interest. In a bit of gossipy speculation, Whipple suggests the best-liked chief was likely Leon Panetta (serving three years under Bill Clinton), and the “pugnacious” John Sununu (serving almost two years under George H.W. Bush) the least popular, in part because of his “hair-trigger temperament.”
Because the chief is so close to his boss, the reasons for the selection can divulge much about the president, himself. Clinton opted for a series of inexperienced old friends, creating a climate more akin to a dorm room, because he wanted to run the White House himself. And in choosing Sununu, Bush found a ferocious bulldog to counter his “wimp” image. “Sununu was better at managing the boss than the staff, and Bush welcomed his whip-cracking efficiency as a gatekeeper.”
For Whipple, the least successful administrations featured a chief whose most salient qualification was as a trusted friend. An essential part of the job to be able to say “no” to the president, harder to do when there’s a personal relationship. As examples, he points to Jimmy Carter, who brought in his “Georgia Mafia,” each as unschooled in the nuances of D.C. politics as their boss, as well as Nixon and Clinton who made early missteps by naming friends.
The precarious position of chief of staff has little job security, the average tenure being 18 months. The record for longevity is held by Andrew Card in the George W. Bush administration who survived five years. He told Bush early on, “As long as I’m your chief of staff I can’t be your friend.” But according to Whipple, his main challenge was not merely the care and feeding of the president; it was managing the formidable Vice President Dick Cheney, who became the informal chief and some say, the de facto president.
Whipple weighs the shadowy role of the chief in the success and failures of their respective administrations. “Haldeman was sometimes blamed for Watergate,” due to the toxic cabal within the White House. Carter’s last chief, Jack Watson, couldn’t break through the near filial relationship between Carter, Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan or the dysfunction that was politically terminal. When later meeting Watson, the man who defeated Carter, Ronald Reagan, told him, “You know, Jack, my people tell me that if you’d been chief of staff from the beginning, I wouldn’t be here.” Whipple says chief of staff James Baker helped make Reagan the legend he has become within his party. However, when Baker inexplicably traded jobs with Don Regan, the latter’s battles with Nancy Reagan left a leadership vacuum. Whipple speculates, “The Iran-Contra affair would never have happened if they had granted Baker’s wish to become national security adviser. And it’s almost impossible to imagine the scandal taking place while Baker was chief.” Barack Obama had been advised to “leave your Chicago friends at home,” but still chose fiery colleague Rahm Emanuel as his first chief. Emanuel clashed with Obama insiders and left when the Chicago mayor’s slot became available. It took two more chiefs until Obama found the right one—Denis McDonough, who served through the second term. McDonough brought both proficiency and calmness and was integral in the promulgation of executive orders as a way around a partisan Congress. He was a vital part of Obama’s controversial decision to refrain from attacking Iraq when the use of chemical weapons crossed the “red line.” “The decision had been made by Obama, along with McDonough—one elected, the other appointed and unconfirmed—the latest in a long line of presidents and chiefs who made history together.”
In the epilogue, Whipple expresses sympathy for Reince Priebus, Donald Trump’s current chief of staff. Writing in late 2016, he thinks Trump will want to do the job himself, “his gut instincts unchecked, his decisions uninformed, his Twitter account unfiltered,” and will likely run through several chiefs.
The Gatekeepers is a dense but irresistible read for one interested in national politics and for those seeking a broader perspective on the current political instability. Whipple concludes, “The chief of staff may well represent the thin line between the president and disaster.”
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback, The Legendary and others.