Rahm Emanuel was so cold he could see his breath as he crossed the White House parking lot and entered the West Wing lobby. It was December 5, 2008, an unusually frigid morning in Washington, D.C. But it wasn’t the weather that sent a chill through Emanuel; it was the unbelievably daunting challenge that lay ahead.
In just six weeks Emanuel would become White House chief of staff to Barack Obama, the forty-fourth president of the United States. But for more than a month, he had watched in astonishment as the world they were about to inherit was turned upside down. The U.S. economy was teetering on the edge of another Great Depression. Credit — the lifeblood of the world economy — was frozen. The entire auto industry was on the brink of collapse. Two bloody wars were mired in stalemate. There was more than a little truth, Emanuel thought, to the headline in The Onion: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.” The stiletto-tongued infighter, former senior adviser to Bill Clinton, and congressman from Illinois felt apprehensive. “I brought my pillow and my blankie,” he would later joke, looking back at that dark morning when the fate of the new administration seemed to hang in the balance. The truth was, Rahm Emanuel was scared.
The unannounced gathering at the White House that morning looked like a Cold War-era national security crisis. Black sedans and SUVs rolled up; men in dark suits clambered into the Executive Mansion. Emanuel thought about the elite fraternity that was assembling here: Donald Rumsfeld. Dick Cheney. Leon Panetta. Howard Baker Jr. Jack Watson. Ken Duberstein. John Sununu. Sam Skinner. Mack McLarty. John Podesta. Andrew Card. Joshua Bolten. They were among Washington’s most powerful figures of the last half century: secretaries of defense, OMB directors, governor, CIA director, majority leader, and vice president. But they had one thing above all in common. It was a special bond, a shared trial by fire that transcended their political differences: Every one of them had served as White House chief of staff.
As they gathered in the office they had all once occupied — now home to Joshua Bolten, George W. Bush’s current chief — they mingled and swapped stories. It had been Bolten’s idea to bring all the former White House chiefs together after the election, to give his successor advice on how to do the job. Bolten guessed that of the thirteen other living chiefs, maybe a half dozen would actually show up. But to his amazement, only Reagan’s James Baker and Clinton’s Erskine Bowles were no-shows.
“It really was an amazing day,” recalls John Podesta, Clinton’s final chief, “because it was quite a collection of individuals: from Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to me and Rahm. The span of ideology and politics, the span of history was all very present. And we all got the chance to give Rahm one piece of advice.” Clinton’s gregarious former chief Leon Panetta, about to be tapped as Obama’s CIA director, was in his element: “All of them were my close friends,” he recalls. “And to have them together in that room to wish Rahm Emanuel the best in his entry into that rogues’ gallery of chiefs of staff — that was a very special moment.”
The ghosts of presidencies past hovered around them. “It’s a space where you feel the presence of history,” Bolten would recall. “They were all transported back to their time in office.”
Dick Cheney, once the thirty-four-year-old chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, pointed to the spot on the floor where Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan, immobilized by a bad back, used to lie supine during meetings, declaiming on monetary and fiscal policy. A fire crackled in the corner fireplace below a magnificent oil portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Finally, Bolten called the gathering to order and herded his distinguished guests around a long table.
At opposite ends sat two men whose political fortunes had been linked for a generation: Cheney, who would be vice president for six more weeks; and Rumsfeld, who had resigned under fire as defense secretary. It was Rumsfeld who had taken Cheney under his wing as a young political science grad student in the Nixon White House — and then summoned him to serve as his deputy when he became Gerald Ford’s chief of staff. Together they had helped Ford cobble together his “accidental presidency” after the trauma of Watergate; they had also watched helplessly as South Vietnam was overrun by Communist forces, bringing a bloody and ignominious end to the longest war in U.S. history. Thirty years later, during the Iraq War, Cheney, the protégé, would be called upon by George W. Bush to tell his mentor to step down as defense secretary. As the prime architects of another divisive conflict that was ending badly, Cheney and Rumsfeld had come full circle.
Cheney was impressed by the morning’s gathering. “This was unique in that you had all or nearly all of the living former chiefs of staff in the room at the same time,” he recalls. And the irony of giving advice to Barack Obama’s top adviser was not lost on him: “Obama had spent the better part of his campaign trashing us from one end of the country to the other. But he’s our president. By that stage he’d won the election. And when you’re all sitting around the table and getting ready to say, ‘Here are the keys to the men’s room,’ you really do want to take advantage of the opportunity to say, ‘Look, here’s a couple of things that you really need to keep in mind.’ ”
Presidential transitions are awkward, and Cheney had been through his share. “There’s always a certain amount of hubris involved for the new crowd coming in: ‘Well, if you guys are so smart, why did we beat you?’ And so it can get a little tense at times, but you’ve got to overcome those things, because there aren’t very many people who’ve run the White House. And there are valuable lessons to be learned. You really do want to try to equip the new guy with whatever wisdom you’ve acquired during the course of your time in office.”
It was a moment of bipartisanship that would seem almost inconceivable today, a throwback to a bygone era of civility. “There was a sense in that room,” says Podesta, “among Republicans and Democrats, that the country needed people to get together and find some leadership.” Even the notoriously partisan Emanuel gave his Republican counterparts the benefit of the doubt. “I think they knew how difficult this moment in time was historically,” he recalls. “I think everyone was wishing the administration well.” He did something few had ever seen him do before: He pulled out a pen and started to take notes.
Reprinted from “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.” Copyright © 2017 by Christopher C. Whipple. Published by Crown Publishing Group, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.