Review: The Gatekeepers

the gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, Chris Whipple. New York: Crown, 2017.

Summary: A study of the White House Chiefs of Staff, from the Nixon through Obama administrations, and how critical the effective execution of this role is to an effective presidency.

During the final weeks of the Bush (43) administration, an unprecedented meeting took place in the office of Josh Bolten, Bush’s last Chief of Staff. Eleven of the thirteen living former Chiefs showed up (absent were James Baker and Erskine Bowles). People like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Leon Panetta, Howard Baker, and Andy Card came together with incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel to share the benefit of their experience.

Chris Whipple uses the narrative of this meeting as a starting point of a study of the critical role the Chief of Staff plays that marks a Presidency as effective or not, as able to skirt dangerous pitfalls, or tumble into them. His description and quotes of Leon Panetta from this meeting captures the critical essence of the book’s thesis:

“Leon Panetta was probably the most popular person in the room. The son of Italian immigrants, jovial and outgoing, he was equally at home on his walnut farm in Monterey, California, and in the corridors of the West Wing. But as Bill Clinton’s second chief–replacing McLarty–Panetta had wielded an iron fist inside a velvet glove. When he arrived, Clinton’s presidency was on the ropes, his ambitious agenda threatened by fights over gays in the military, the Whitewater scandal, and other distractions.  The damage was self-inflicted, caused by Clinton’s indiscipline and sloppy staff work. Panetta stepped in and brought discipline and focus to the White House–enabling Clinton to regain his traction and go on to win a second term. Now it was Panetta’s turn to tutor Obama’s incoming chief: ‘Always, always be straight and honest with the president of the United States,’ he said. ‘Always tell him what he may not want to hear–because frankly, a lot of people in the White House will always tell the President what he wants to hear’ ” (p. 7).

Whipple paints a portrait of effective chiefs as those who combine candor, focus, organizational discipline, the confidence of their president, emotional intelligence, and a tireless work ethic. Too friendly with the president, and they often end up shielding him from essential truths that can bring down a presidency. Too indisciplined or administratively unskilled, and they squander the opportunities of leadership. Too harsh, and they alienate the people who they need to work with to enact a president’s vision. Most of all, they are skillful gatekeepers, making sure those who need to see the president do, while protecting the president’s energies and focus and time to think, and from powerful individuals who would unduly influence a president outside established executive branch processes.

The study begins with H.R. Haldeman, who in fact shaped the staff system that every effective chief has practiced. It was lapses in Haldeman’s discipline, allowing Erhlichman and the plumbers free reign, as well as his unwillingness to tell Nixon the hard truth about Watergate at the start, that brought down his presidency. Strong staff leadership by Rumsfeld and Cheney enabled Ford to nearly defeat Jimmy Carter, despite the tarnish of Watergate and the Nixon pardon. Carter’s decision to be his own chief of staff for the first years of his presidency, and the influence of Jordan and Powell that reinforced the indiscipline that resulted weakened his presidency. Only bringing in Jack Watson, the disciplined yet sociable ex-Marine, established some order, but too little, too late. James Baker was probably key to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, as well as recovery momentum in the later Bush (41) presidency. Baker brought all the skills discussed to provide a president inexperienced internationally with the counsel needed to shrewdly confront the Soviet threat. Later, Ken Duberstein was the chief who encouraged Reagan to retain the most famous words (against State Department advice) for which Reagan is remembered when he said at the Brandenburg Gate, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Mack McLarty was Clinton’s first chief, and as a close friend of Clinton, presided over chaos, that was only reversed when he was replaced by Panetta. In the Bush (43) presidency, the likable Andy Card was no match for Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney. It was obvious that Bush didn’t place the same confidence in him as in Cheney, which Whipple connects to the failures of in the decision to invade Iraq, over the reservations of Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose reputation was tarnished as victory gave way to chaos and a prolonged and costly occupation. Again, after Rahm Emmanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago, Bill Daly illustrated the pitfalls of a weak chief, in contrast to Denis McDonough, who helped Obama keep his political promises through executive order when faced with a recalcitrant Congress.

The book also underscores how critical it is that presidents choose strong chiefs they trust with the requisite skills and qualities of character. Whipple observes that this may be especially important with Donald Trump, as an outsider with limited political experience. It is an interesting question whether Reince Priebus enjoys the president’s confidence and is able to exercise the gate-keeping and organizational disciplines necessary to an effective presidency. If Whipple is right, it seems to me that one of the most important lessons President Trump can learn is getting the right person in this position and then being willing to listen to that person.

Before reading Whipple’s account, I thought of the Chief of Staff as just another member of the President’s inner circle, but I hadn’t reckoned with the importance of this position in the modern presidency where economic policy vies with natural disasters, human tragedies, and international drama on a daily basis. To execute vision, to maintain focus when faced with dozens of possible priorities, to keep “teams of rivals” in harness rather than going rogue, to be both the needed sounding board, and the honest voice are critical ingredients in helping presidents be effective. It also takes a rare blend of leadership and humility. As one of the chiefs remarked, the danger of the office is to emphasize the “chief” part (as Donald Regan did), rather than the “of staff” part. Whipple’s book helps us appreciate this rare blend, and the figures who have served us well, or less well, in this role.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.