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‘The Gatekeepers’ review: Chris Whipple on the evolution and importance of White House chiefs of staff

President Ronald Reagan and his chief of staff

President Ronald Reagan and his chief of staff James Baker, the gold standard of chiefs of staff, according to writer Chris Whipple. Credit: The LIFE Images Collection / Getty / Dirck Halstead

THE GATEKEEPERS: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, by Chris Whipple. Crown, 384 pp., $28.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, in a classroom in Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush sat observing a group of second-graders. Before he had entered the room, his staff told him a small airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Now a man came in, leaned down, and whispered to Bush, “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

The man was Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff. That the chief of staff would be the person who imparted to the president such history-changing news underscores the importance that staff position has come to hold in the modern American presidency. Neither elected nor confirmed, the chief is hired and fired by the president at his pleasure. Established in 1946, the position has become so vital that no modern presidency has functioned well without one.

Veteran journalist and television producer Chris Whipple (“60 Minutes,” “Primetime”) has written “The Gatekeepers,” a chronicle from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama of the White House chiefs of staff — “the story of men who define the presidencies they serve.” Carefully researched and eminently readable, “The Gatekeepers,” which grew out of Whipple’s 2013 documentary “The Presidents’ Gatekeepers,” provides a fresh view of the modern presidencies. Whipple cuts to the heart of what, or more to the point who, makes a presidency succeed or fail.

Take Nixon. Neither John F. Kennedy nor Lyndon B. Johnson had a chief of staff. Nixon wanted to be different. His choice was H.R. Haldeman, a California-bred ad executive and self-described “pluperfect SOB.” Haldeman was tough, but not with Nixon. His devotion prevented him from demanding that Nixon stop condoning illegal behavior carried out on his behalf. Nor did Haldeman insist Nixon tell the truth about the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Instead Haldeman himself lied to the Senate about Nixon’s involvement and went to prison for it. “If I had to do it over,” Haldeman later said, “I would do so differently.”

To Whipple, Gerald Ford, who assumed office after Nixon resigned, could not have been better served by his chief — former Nixon aide Donald Rumsfeld, whose deputy was a young Dick Cheney. Under Rumsfeld and Cheney’s guidance (Bob Schieffer would call Cheney “the best staff man I ever dealt with”), Ford nearly survived his unpopular pardon of Nixon and the badly managed end of the Vietnam War. His loss to Jimmy Carter saw the closest margin in the Electoral College since 1916.

Disgusted by Nixon’s “imperial presidency,” Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, chose not to hire a chief of staff. As a result, Whipple notes, Carter “signed off on everything from typos in memos to requests to play on the White House tennis court.” By the time Carter brought in Hamilton Jordan (a hard-drinking former University of Georgia frat boy who resented the Washington establishment) and then Jack Watson, it was too late. A domestic gasoline shortage and the Iranian hostage crisis had destroyed his presidency.

Whipple argues that George W. Bush was also poorly served by his chief, since affable Andy Card proved no match for Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — together again in the White House. That Cheney received the Presidential Daily Brief each morning before Bush indicates his level of control over the White House. So when Cheney and Rumsfeld made their move to invade Iraq in 2003, Card was out of his league. The failed war in Iraq would come to define Bush’s legacy.

Without question, the most admired chief of staff was hired by Ronald Reagan in 1980 — James A. Baker III, the smooth-as-silk Texas lawyer who was George H.W. Bush’s close friend and tennis doubles partner. Even-tempered and politically savvy, Baker became, Whipple believes, the gold standard of chiefs of staff without whom “there would have been no Reagan Revolution.” That worked against Donald Regan, the former Merrill Lynch chairman who replaced Baker for Reagan’s second term. Brash and publicity-hungry, Regan lasted until, in a heated exchange on the telephone with Nancy Reagan, he hung up on the first lady. “That’s not just a firing offense,” Baker said. “That may be a hanging offense.”

The verdict is out on the Trump administration, so Reince Priebus is not considered here. In all, Whipple discusses 23 chiefs of staff who served the previous eight presidents. To Whipple, a president’s fate is determined not only by outside events but by the person he chooses to help him manage those events. Or as historian Richard Norton Smith says: “Every president reveals himself by the presidential portraits he hangs in the Roosevelt Room, and by the person he picks as his chief of staff.”

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