The ‘No’ Men

By David M. Alpern
Chris Whipple David Hume Kennerly

“The Gatekeepers”
Chris Whipple
Crown, $28

If there’s a new book on politics that should be read at the Trump White House — but probably won’t be — it’s this one, “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” by the veteran TV journalist and producer Chris Whipple.

Because the most dramatic exception yet to the thesis of Mr. Whipple’s new book may well be the Trump White House — former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in particular. After all, what point to a gatekeeper who controls the flow of memos, reports, and briefing books to a president who evidently prefers Fox News to paper, even if kept to a page or two to suit his widely reported short attention span?

What point to a gatekeeper who controls the outflow of presidential speeches, remarks, and official statements when the president insists on defining his policy preferences and himself in predawn blasts on Twitter, or long talks with The Times?

What point to a gatekeeper limiting access of special interests and special pleaders to a chief executive who mixes regularly with the wealthy and powerful at his pricey weekend retreats? And who’s accessible 24/7 to warring counselors and kin, some involved in ousting Mr. Priebus himself for Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a retired general with limited experience in the entrails of D.C. and G.O.P. politicking or policy?

Still, starting with interviews he did for a 2013 cable TV series, Mr. Whipple has provided an engaging, informative close-up of 17 men closest to the presidents they served, detailing the extraordinary power — and pressure — they experienced, and the tense times of their service: Watergate, Iran-Contra, 9/11, Iraq, financial meltdown, global terror, health-care battles, Syria, North Korea.

But the book also contains ample evidence that its thesis is a bit overstated.

The presidents here, often as not, seem to define themselves precisely by the chiefs they choose, who by their relative competence and confidence (or overconfidence) then become key to whether the man in the Oval Office becomes the presi­dent he wants to be. “Every president reveals himself by the presidential portraits he hangs [and] the person he picks as his chief of staff,” the historian Richard Norton Smith has said.

Mr. Whipple begins with Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, brush-cut H.R. Haldeman, previously the manager of two losing Nixon campaigns, but who says he was the “pluperfect SOB” the new president wanted (at the suggestion of his own former boss, Dwight Eisenhower).

And Haldeman did become notorious for saying no, even at times to the president himself when he thought it necessary, though at other times, Mr. Whipple reminds us, H.R. simply ignored R.N. orders he thought unwise.

Of course when it came to Watergate, at least the cover-up, Haldeman went along and went to jail following Nixon’s unprecedented resignation, thanks to the White House tapes. (Mr. Whipple suggests a rationale for the taping grew from J. Edgar Hoover’s lying to Nixon that Lyndon Johnson ordered a “bug” on his plane.)

Unmentioned is the oft-denied but enduring notion that Haldeman’s successor as chief of staff, Gen. Alexander Haig, saw Nixon so unstable under the shadow of impeachment that he proposed the military obey no Oval Office order Haig hadn’t co-signed. (Generals Mattis and McMaster, please note.)

Haig remained chief briefly under fill-in President Gerald Ford, but his high-handed ways infuriated Ford loyalists. And their freewheeling access to the Oval Office (“spokes of the wheel,” Ford called it) produced chaos — followed by Ford’s asking the former Nixon aide Don Rumsfeld (“a ruthless little bastard,” Nixon called him) to become chief of staff.

Rumsfeld brought with him a frighteningly fast-paced work atmosphere, flurries of memos and barked orders, and a young protégé named Dick Cheney, then thought of as whip-smart and a genial practical joker.

But there was a limit to what that Dynamic Duo could do to redeem Ford’s reputation and re-electability, especially after the president redefined himself again — and them — with a surprise “Halloween massacre” that, among other shakeups, made Rumsfeld defense secretary and Cheney chief of staff.

And Ford was still dogged by a faltering economy, his pardon of Nixon (in the public interest, he felt), a tumble on the wet steps of Air Force One (mocked mercilessly by the media), and a disastrous TV debate against Jimmy Carter, the onetime nuclear sub commander, peanut farmer, and Democratic governor of Georgia: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”

Carter won and then defined himself as outsider in chief by not selecting any formal chief of staff — the J.F.K. and L.B.J. model, Mr. Whipple notes. “He’d been manager of [his own] campaign, why wouldn’t he be manager of the White House staff too,” explains the author James Fallows, then a Carter speechwriter.

Worse yet, first among equals of Carter’s campaign carry-overs, and thus de facto chief of staff, was his savvy political strategist Hamilton Jordan, 31. A brash former frat boy at the University of Georgia, Jordan was previously executive secretary to Carter as governor, but with none of his boss’s polish and little love for the Washington ways he’d shaped the campaign against, or the “nitty-gritty” of getting policy developed and enacted.

Tieless in chinos and boots, “Ham” often hid out in other aides’ offices to avoid decisions waiting to be made, shunned the press, and made headlines with after-hours escapades — “a sort of personal thumb-your-nose style,” another staffer called it.

None of that kept Carter from making Jordan the manager of his re-election campaign and replacing him with a man many thought should have been chief of staff from the start. The Atlanta lawyer Jack Watson, “charming and focused,” had gotten to know Washington as director of the Carter transition, later head of intergovernmental affairs.

“But a functioning White House, however belated, could not change the harsh reality: inflation, unemployment, sky-high interest rates,” Mr. Whipple concedes, not to mention the lingering Iran hostage crisis. “I don’t think an officially designated chief of staff would have changed anything,” Jimmy Carter himself insisted.

Another Southern outsider who defined himself by his choice of chief of staff, at least initially, was Bill Clinton, drafting his kindergarten classmate Thomas F. (Mack) McLarty, with a fortune made in trucking and gas but no Washington experience.

“Mack the Nice” typified and enabled Clinton’s loyal “Arkansas Mafia,” whose members and other ambitious aides came and went through the Oval Office “like a White House version of the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers film ‘A Night at the Opera,’ ” Mr. Whipple writes.

Eventually, with his agenda paralyzed and Hillary furious (not least over failure of her health reform plan), the Clintons decided to sack Mack and bring in Leon Panetta, a Nixon administration veteran, later a nine-term Democratic congressman from California, then serving as director of Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget.

Panetta learned to deal with Clinton’s famous predawn calls, his reluctance to stop revisiting decisions already made, and his wife’s penchant for playing chief of staff herself “if she felt he wasn’t being well served,” Panetta says.

But Panetta had set a two-year limit on being chief of staff “to protect [his] humanity,” and was replaced by his former deputy, the entrepreneur-banker Erskine Bowles, previously head of the Small Business Administration, later a part-time Clinton debate coach.

Generally successful in keeping the president focused on his top priorities (“You can’t do a thousand things,” he lectured Clinton), Bowles also led “marathon negotiations” with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to get both the first balanced federal budget since 1969 and a Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) that invested $27 billion in care for poor kids, he recalls telling Clinton. “You could have lit the room up with the smile on his face.”

Far less joyful is Bowles about the successful strategy he devised to handle the Monica Lewinsky scandal — creating a separate staff to deal solely with the president’s sexual indiscretions, led by his deputy, John Podesta, calling himself “Secretary of Shit.”

So far from defining the president was Bowles, indeed, and so disappointed by Bill’s behavior, that it literally made him ill. “I don’t want to know a f*cking thing about it,” he said at one point. At another: “I think I’m going to throw up.” And, finally, he left.

Podesta became Clinton’s fourth and final chief — with “a fine mind, a tough hide, a dry wit . . . a better hearts player” than Bowles, Clinton has written. Together they reached the decision for massive bombing to pacify the Balkans, and for using executive orders to sidestep Congress — “a strategy Podesta championed and would later help perfect as an adviser to Barack Obama,” Mr. Whipple notes.

Clearly the gold standard for White House chiefs of staff was James Baker under both Ronald Reagan and Baker’s longtime Texas pal George H.W. Bush (after two bad picks by Bush: his friend John Sununu, the brilliant but intolerably arrogant, self-serving governor who helped him win in New Hampshire, and his polar opposite, Samuel Skinner, a Chicago businessman serving well as transportation secretary but soon admittedly “overwhelmed” in a tight election year).

Baker was first chosen because Reagan, although also an outsider — an actor from Hollywood no less — was persuaded that he still needed a director, and a guide in the ways of Washington and national politics.

Baker had served as finance chairman of the Republican Party, undersecretary of commerce in the Ford administration, then ran campaigns against Reagan for Ford and George H.W. Bush. In all of which he had impressed key men around Reagan (and, importantly, his wife, Nancy) with his organization, cool efficiency, smooth manners, dress, and charm, Mr. Whipple writes.

Of course conservatives who celebrated Reagan’s win as their own coming to power were outraged by the selection of a pragmatist instead of their ideological favorite, Ed Meese, a Reagan confidant. But Baker cannily proposed that Meese become “counselor to the president” with cabinet rank to preside over cabinet meetings, take charge of policy, and supervise domestic and national security councils. Baker would control access to Reagan, the flow of paper, speeches, and staff.

“It worked for the Gipper, it worked for the country . . . and I was still in position to run everything,” says Baker, who recruited a strong staff, set up a Legislative Strategy Group to decide what was doable (“a key to my success”), and charmed the press while waging continuous rear-guard action against conservative “true believers.”

Baker’s mastery was evident in tense times that followed: the potentially mortal shooting of Reagan, making deals with Democrats for a tax cut, killing a plan to polygraph top officials in search of a leaker, and eventually persuading Reagan that it was necessary to raise taxes when a stubborn recession stalled economic growth.

But all that, plus feeling scapegoated over one instance of bad debate prep in the 1984 re-election campaign, made Baker want out. And the president, with surprising indifference, let him switch jobs with Treasury Secretary Donald Regan — a disaster for all concerned (and perhaps an early sign of Reagan’s developing dementia).

Regan’s outsized ego ultimately put the new chief of staff at odds with Nancy — and out of a job. And it left Baker out of touch with backstage birthing of the Iran-Contra embarrassment — illegal arms sales to Tehran to help free American hostages in Lebanon and illegally fund mercenaries fighting Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista regime. “Iran-Contra never would have happened on James Baker’s watch,” says Dick Cheney.

Not so many years later, ironically, it was Cheney as V.P. and his old mentor Rumsfeld as defense secretary, again, who clearly out-muscled President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, Andy Card, and his doubts about the Iraq War for which Dick, Rummy, and others had been paving the way even before 9/11.

And so it goes. Barack Obama went through four chiefs in his eight years as he fought increasingly effective G.O.P. opposition, announced from the very first, to save a staggering economy, pass the Affordable Care Act (followed by horrendous staff work on the healthcare.gov rollout, but now more popular than ever), and develop a variety of effective (but by definition reversible) executive orders to advance his agenda.

For all the former chiefs interviewed for this book, it seems, the job was more demanding than they ever imagined, but one they would not have missed. If in the end they emerge more as servants than shapers of their presidents, we can still appreciate their extraordinary efforts and accomplishments — as well as the personal, political, and historical forces at play when they fell short.


Chris Whipple, who summers on Shelter Island, will speak about his new book at the Quogue Library on Aug. 6 at 5 p.m. and will be at Authors Night in East Hampton on Aug. 12.

David M. Alpern lives in Sag Harbor, worked more than 50 years as a reporter, writer, editor, and broadcaster for U.P.I. and Newsweek, and now hosts a weekly podcast for World Policy Journal.

 

Gerald Ford getting a trim in the White House barbershop along with a briefing from Donald Rumsfeld, his chief of staff. David Hume Kennerly, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library
James Baker, the gold standard among chiefs of staff. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library