The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple

I read The Gatekeepers, a book about White House chiefs of staff, like the grad student and extremely minor Washington insider that I used to be: acknowledgments first, then scan the bibliography, then a look at the notes, then the main text. In this case, I also read the last chapter, which is about the first year of Donald Fucking Trump’s administration, before any others. It will not surprise you that Trump and his enablers are screwing up the chief of staff role in pretty much all of the known ways, although they do not (yet) seem to have invented any new ways.

The last American president to function reasonably well without a designated chief of staff was Lyndon Johnson, whose tenure in the White House ended nearly 50 years ago. Organizing the executive office of the president around certain set functions with a chief of the staff is a system that evolved from practices that Eisenhower brought in, drawing on his experience as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Second World War. After nearly half a century of practice, the White House staff system has become an enduring function of American government and a crucial one for giving it direction. Whipple’s book, which draws on a documentary film he made on the same subject, describes how the role has evolved over time, and how each chief has shaped the presidency in which he (and they have all been he, to date) has served.

As Whipple lays it out, the role of chief of staff is a solved problem. A new president, who has probably campaigned on bringing change to Washington, needs a chief who knows the capital’s ways; this will cause rifts with the people from the campaign, and probably with the people who worked closely with the president at lower levels of government. The president’s most valuable asset is his or her time (because everyone only has twenty-four hours each day, and even Bill Clinton couldn’t work all of them), and the chief of staff must be able to enable the president to maximize that irreplaceable asset. That includes organizing the schedule around the kind of down time that each president needs. Obama was not at his best when he missed out on his regular family time; Nixon needed time alone in his study; Clinton needed time to talk to people and to schmooze.

The chief has to be able to tell the president uncomfortable truths; as a prerequisite the chief must be experienced and astute enough to see them, and to know how and when to communicate them to the president. The chief has to know enough of the president’s incoming communications to be able to prevent people from doing an end-run and getting the president to sign off on something the chief was not previously aware of. Administrations will get blindsided enough by events; the extent that a chief of staff can prevent an administration from blindsiding itself is another measure of success in the role. Chiefs of staff also have to recognize that presidents will have their own sources of information, and that some people — long-time friends, family, spouses most of all — will always have independent access to the president. A good chief of staff will cultivate positive relationships with those people, and they will all work in concert to make the presidency successful. The chief of staff delivers bad news to other people when the president does not want to, or can’t be seen to; chiefs have played important roles in liaison with the Congress, with Cabinet departments, with other parts of government; they have balanced campaign concerns with governance concerns. They have to be honest brokers in choosing among policies and courses of action; if they are too closely identified with one faction or another within an administration, people will work to oust them. They have to execute all of these responsibilities without thinking they are more important than the president, while many factions are competing for the president’s favor, and while people are actively pushing their own agendas and careers. It’s a very tall order but not, at this point, a mysterious one.

Whipple quotes H.R. Haldeman (who went to prison for some of his deeds as Nixon’s chief of staff) on planning a presidential administration: “The executive branch of the United States is the largest corporation in the world … It has the most awesome responsibilities of any corporation in the world, the largest budget of any corporation in the world, and the largest number of employees. Yet the entire senior management structure and team have to be formed in a period of seventy-five days.” (p. 17) Haldeman again, on how things are supposed to work: “Nothing goes to the president that is not completely staffed out first, for accuracy and form, for lateral coordination, checked for related material, reviewed by competent staff concerned with that area—and all that is essential for Presidential attention.” (p. 23) The president does not receive half-baked ideas or personal hobbyhorses; the president receives proposals that have been vetted and checked, so that either all of the necessary stakeholders are on board or sources of opposition are known. Thou shalt not allow the president to be blindsided is one of a chief of staff’s greater commandments.

One of the common failure modes is a president who has decided to be his own chief of staff. It’s a natural inclination. Everyone who has gotten elected president in the modern era has an extremely strong ego and sense of the things that he can personally accomplish. They may also have experienced state government with strong cabinet departments, or they may wish to have a cabinet-style government at the federal level. Before the modern system with a chief of staff came into favor, JFK and LBJ each tried working with numerous senior aides who had direct access to the president. JFK was hoodwinked into the Bay of Pigs invasion; LBJ was just worn out by the end of his tenure. Rejecting Nixon’s model that had been set up to avoid the failures of his predecessors, Ford saw himself at the center of the spokes of a wheel. Carter wanted to draw directly on the talents of the people he was bringing into public service. Neither started with a chief of staff; neither did well until he appointed an effective one. Clinton initially wanted a more cabinet-driven approach to governing. Everything ran late, and key initiatives stalled.

Whipple’s goals with the book “were to frame modern presidential history through the eyes of the chiefs of staff and to make their stories as intimate and granular as I could.” (p. 362) Thanks to his film project, and to a previous one titled The Spymasters, he had access at the very highest levels. He interviewed Carter and the first Bush, four secretaries of state, and practically all of the living chiefs of staff. The Gatekeepers is up close and personal, sometimes very personal, with a good balance between in-the-moment description and reflection from later years. Each president from Nixon forward receives one chapter, except for Reagan, who receives two because Whipple follows consensus in taking James Baker as the very model of a modern chief of staff.

Ford and Carter had both initially rejected Nixon’s model of running the White House. Reagan profited, in his turn, by rejecting what his predecessors had done. Whipple quotes Lou Cannon, a Reagan biographer: “He did not know one missile system from another and could not explain the simplest procedures of the federal government, but he understood that the political process of his presidency would be closely linked to his acceptance in Washington. In this he was the opposite of Jimmy Carter, who knew far more and understood far less.” (p. 108) The conservatives who had swept Reagan into office and saw his elevation “as the triumph of an ideological revolution” (p. 108) were livid at the choice of a Washington pragmatist. Nor did they take it lying down. End-runs, alternate channels and more were parts of factional in-fighting throughout Reagan’s tenure.

“To the true believers, every Reagan compromise was a capitulation. ‘I had to deal with Meese, and he would not want to make the kind of compromises that were necessary to get something enacted into law,’ says Baker. ‘And that was debilitating.'” (p. 113) Baker didn’t hold all of the levers, and he didn’t always win. “[B]oy, you talk about somebody who tried to appeal to the dark side of the old man, that was Bill [Clark, who would become national security adviser], and he was extraordinarily difficult. Reagan liked him, so when you had him teaming up with Meese and Casey and Weinberger and Kirkpatrick, that was fairly formidable opposition.” (p. 113)

If The Gatekeepers has a flaw, it’s a tendency toward being agnostic about how respective administrations define success. The companion problem is occasionally letting his interview subjects get in their talking points without considering their larger accuracy. For example, Whipple lets Cheney talk about “enhanced interrogation” without noting that it involved things the United States has historically defined as torture. He allows the people who served under George W. Bush to soft-pedal their responsibility for shifting foreign policy priorities away from al Qaeda in early 2001. They came in after eight years out of power thinking everything was still state-to-state, downplayed non-state threats, and went about ginning up confrontation with China. Richard Clarke’s book Against All Enemies is a good guide to the results; one of Clarke’s deputies is a friend from my DC days. Nor does Whipple consider why some presidents attracted officials who were, in descriptions of Alexander Haig that he writes or quotes, “off his rocker,” “utterly absurd,” and “mad.” (pp. 112–18) Likewise Ollie North, an “overzealous cowboy” who, with James Baker as chief of staff, “would never have been allowed to roam free.” (pp. 141–15) It would have been worth a paragraph or two exploring why some presidents attract kooks — the closest Whipple gets is a brief discussion on astrology’s influence over Nancy Reagan — and others do not.

Whipple also credulously repeats the notion that Reagan’s “tear down the Wall” line in Berlin was crucial to the collapse of Communism. He quotes Reagan chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein: “But standing there you had a sense that the wall was going to come down…” (p. 157) I can’t speak to whatever Duberstein felt on that day, but when I crossed over to East Berlin in the summer of 1989, when Hungary had already opened its borders, and less than half a year before the Berlin Wall was in fact opened, there was no sense that its demise was imminent. Everyone was surprised by the fall of the Wall, not least the East German leadership itself. Duberstein is reading later good fortune backward into events. (See The Collapse by Mary Elise Sarotte for more of the record and what I think about historical accidents waiting to happen.)

In The Gatekeepers, though, the anecdote is a good example of the president’s preferences overriding the departmental bureaucracies. Whipple also uses it to show how the wheels turn, and the differences between what they say and what they mean.

[Duberstein] continues: “The next day I get a call from [Secretary of State] George Schultz, telling me that he wanted me to convey to the president that he shared the department’s objection to that paragraph in the speech. And ‘would I please tell the president?'” Duberstein pauses and smiles. “And I knew at that moment that the speech was okay with George Schultz. Why? Because if he had really objected, he would have asked me for ten minutes of the president’s time to argue his case in person. (p. 156)

Whipple is not terribly far from the corridors of power himself. He was a Yale undergraduate who studied under Bill Clinton’s future Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who was then a teaching assistant. Connections like that get him some good stories and insights, like this quick summary of a time at Yale Law. “In the classes they shared, Reich raised his hand a lot and often had the right answer; Hillary raised hers all the time and always had the right answer; Clarence Thomas never raised his hand; and Bill rarely showed up.” (p. 187)

Having described the likeliest paths to success, Whipple shows in his final chapter how the Trump people ignored every piece of advice from their predecessors, Republicans and Democrats alike.

The tumultuous, inept start of the Trump presidency—with the flagrant lying about crowd sizes—confirmed the chiefs’ worst fears. “It told me that Reince [Priebus] wasn’t in control,” observed [Jack] Watson [a Carter chief of staff]. “It told me Reince had no power to say to the president, ‘Mr. President, we can’t do that! We are going to get killed if we do that.” George W. Bush’s Andrew Card [who holds the record for longest-serving chief of staff] watched with a sinking feeling: “I said to myself, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing. They have no process. And they don’t have discipline. You must taste your words before you spit them out!'” [Leon] Panetta thought the Trump presidency’s first forty-eight hours spoke volumes. “When the staff is spending half of its time defending lies the president makes,” Clinton’s ex-chief told me, “and digging that hole even deeper, then you know that it’s a prescription not just for chaos but for a failed presidency.” (p. 299)

How does Trump go about making decisions? “He and he alone is the universe and galaxy of his decision-making process,” one aide had told me. “For me, Trump was just so independent in how he decides things,” said Priebus. He struggled to explain the president’s decision-making process to me. “I can’t, you’ll never appreciate, you’ll never understand it. He’s independent, he’s smart, and he’s accomplished everything pretty much on his own. Sometimes he will let a long process play out, and other times he’ll just decide it then and there.” (pp. 307–08)

In other words, there is no process. As Whipple lays it out, White House chief of staff is a solved problem. But his last chapter shows that there are people who will insist on finding out whether a square wheel might work. Some will even be incensed when it doesn’t.

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