THE GATEKEEPERS: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency
Author. Chris Whipple Published by. Penguin Random House, New York, 2017, 365pp, US$28.
In December 2008, Rahm Emanuel, about to become President Obama's chief of staff, gathered together a grouping of living former chiefs of staff. Leon Panetta (a chief of staff for President Clinton) advised that the role was about telling the president what he did not want to hear; Donald Rumsfeld (President Ford) thought a chief of staff should immediately pick a successor; while Dick Cheney (also President Ford) simply noted 'at all costs, control your vice president'. Cheney, in fact, appears as an enigma in this volume, as his stint both as chief of staff and as vice president many years later is a study in contrasts.
Journalist Chris Whipple's book on the chiefs of staff, starting with the Nixon presidency and ending with Barack Obama's White House, has been met with wide acclaim. Whipple's argument is that every successful presidency needs a chief of staff that complements the president in some significant way. The idea of looking at 'the gatekeepers' probably has some wider relevance. A lot of commentary across politics, organisations and business tends to focus on the leader, whereas more realistic conceptions of leadership will look at the team. Furthermore, in real life the vast majority of people will answer to someone else--with very few exceptions--so what then is the role of the deputy, the advisor, the confidante, the consigliere and even the general employee? This book has a few insights to offer a wider view of leadership.
President Eisenhower, perhaps influenced by his army career, was the first to have a chief of staff. Other presidents followed, although President Carter initially tried to get by without one. James Fellows, a correspondent for The Atlantic and part of the Carter White House, reflects to Whipple on the lack of cohesion in that administration. According to this volume, President Carter would pore over minute details and read long, tedious documents. Carter did not believe he needed a gatekeeper, and as a consequence was unable to stage-manage the crises that continually emerged. Fellows contrasts this to Ronald Reagan: 'maybe that's the strength of presidents like Reagan--who don't think they're the smartest person around'.
A model chief of staff, at least in Whipple's account, was James Baker, who served as Reagan's chief of staff despite...