THE GATEKEEPERS: HOW THE WHITE HOUSE CHIEFS OF STAFF DEFINE EVERY PRESIDENCY
By Chris Whipple
Crown, $28, 365 pages
Like so many things, it all began with Richard Nixon.
Chris Whipple, a documentary filmmaker and award-winning TV producer, is a talented journalist who has interviewed all 17 living chiefs of staff as well as numerous people who served with them. His prose is clear, crisp and often evocative, and for the most part his observations ring true as he tracks the development of the office.
Before Nixon, presidents used friends and family as close advisers. President Eisenhower, under whom Richard Nixon studied, depended on the irascible but dedicated Sherman Adams to function much like an Army chief of staff, making sure the right people had access and the president’s orders were carried out.
John Kennedy, who would later call on his brother Bobby for help, had established no effective chain of command, and thus found himself listening to too many people, among them his Ivy League best-and-brightest advisers, advancing various half-baked plans of action that led to such disasters as the Bay of Pigs invasion — to say nothing of sending military advisers to South Vietnam, thereby setting off the steadily escalating process that would eventually drive his successor, Lyndon Johnson, from office. (Many believe that LBJ’s greatest mistake was not to shed those Kennedy advisers immediately and appoint his own strong chief of staff.)
But it was Richard Nixon, in part from lessons learned as Eisenhower’s vice president as well as from the failed presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson, who established the official chief of staff position. As Mr. Whipple writes, he intended to staff his Cabinet with “strong, idiosyncratic personalities,” but also wanted someone “to keep them in line, to ensure that his agenda would be executed.”
That someone would be H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. As Haldeman recalled, “Eisenhower had told Nixon that every president has to have his own ‘SOB.’ Nixon had looked over everyone in his entourage and decided that [I] was a pluperfect SOB.”
Many in the Nixon White House feared Haldeman, and many others resented him. Under the system set up by Haldeman and his fellow Christian Scientist, John Ehrlichman (the popular name for the system was “the Berlin Wall”), Haldeman not only tried to limit the access of old friend and advisers, but at times even family members. The purpose of the system was to provide the president with time and space to reflect and study; but the result was isolation, broken largely by the presence of acquiescent yes men.
Then, in 1971, “Nixon had posed to Haldeman a seemingly mundane question: How could they preserve the president’s conversations for posterity?” Haldeman first suggested a manual recorder, such as LBJ had used. But after experiments, Nixon, notoriously lacking in manual dexterity, couldn’t use it. So Haldeman finally had a voice-activated system installed, which meant that every word ever spoken in the Oval Office would be recorded.
Nevertheless, it was the system that the president thought he wanted, the system that worked so well he seemed to forget about it, and the system that ultimately destroyed his presidency.
When Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the tapes to Watergate committee investigators, there was still time to destroy them before they became evidence, as Pat Buchanan, Fred Buzhardt and numerous others urged the president to do. But as Mr. Whipple points out, Nixon refused, in part because he was urged to preserve them by his chief of staff.
“It’s a goddam difficult job in the best of circumstances,” as James Baker, the best of Ronald Reagan’s chiefs of staff, put it. “Four years and two weeks was longer than anybody else had held that job and not gone to jail!”
Some think that jail might have been an appropriate subject for discussion during the first Clinton administration. But Leon Panetta and his deputy Erskine Bowles pulled things together, insuring the president’s re-election.
Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, who very nearly helped Gerald Ford win re-election over Jimmy Carter, would again play key roles in the administration of George W. Bush, whose long-serving chief of staff, Andrew Card, may have been too much of a gentleman to fit the job summarized by President Eisenhower as the president’s SOB.
In an epilogue, Mr. Whipple deals only superficially with Donald Trump. And whether Reince Priebus is an adequate SOB — or whether President Trump needs one — remains, at this point, an open question.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).
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