Written Sep 3, 2018
Who can tell me what a chief of staff does?
Most of us could take an educated guess I’m sure, but after reading Chris Wipple’s The Gatekeepers, I learned a lot about the power and influence a chief holds. Wipple’s book gracefully describes the tenures of everyone from H. R Haldeman to Reince Priebus and opens the door to the lives and experiences that these men faced while serving their presidents.
Appointed directly by the residing president, chiefs of staff have involvement in everything from the presidents’ speeches, his/her scheduled meetings, and act as a daily advisor on most of the issues the president makes decisions on. The chief of staff must have a superior ability to organize and prioritize the president’s time so that they can use their best efforts on the issues that hold the biggest importance.
Most importantly – the chief of staff has to be bold enough to be the “no” guy. They are the source of reason that a president can turn to when they are unsure of what to do in any given situation, the guiding spirit in tough times. Imagine the boldness required to tell a president “Yea no fam, that is an awful idea and you should consider these consequences.”
They are basically the Mike Ross to our country’s elected Harvey Specter.
Except, although I love Harvey, I don’t know about making him president so let’s not go there.
Below are a few of my favorite tidbits from each of them and some of the monumental changes that shaped their tenures within their respective administrations.
H.R Haldeman –Chief of Staff to Richard Nixon
Haldeman was brutally loyal and his lying and cover-up of Nixon’s actions led to his eventual incarceration after the Watergate scandal. Haldeman never figured out a way to control his president; he was too weak to stop him when he needed to be, and more than willing to help him when he wanted something done.
Unfortunately for Haldeman, we all know how that presidency ended.
Donald Rumsfield- Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford
Don Rumsfield, Dick Cheney – does that combo sound familiar? YUP! Who knew their relationship started wayyy prior to the George W. presidency? Not I said the bee.
The Cheney/Rumsfield duo helped Ford create a presidency that tempered the storms it faced, and came incredibly close to re-election despite the dismal retreat in Southeast Asia.
It also gave birth to a tenant followed by almost all presidents to follow: “beware the spokes of the wheel.” In order to lead a successful and organized White House, the president had to have a chief that acted as his linebacker – defending him from the hundreds of people that want to put their priorities at the top of the presidents to do list.
Hamilton Jordan – Chief of Staff to Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter made two mistakes very early on in his presidency that deeply weakened him. He began his presidency by having, as Cheney and Rumsfield so adamantly opposed, a multiple chief approach. When he finally decided to choose one sole chief, he chose the wrong man.
A buddy from his campaign trail, Ham Jordan created tensions and disorganization for Carter’s administration despite being him being an incredibly bright president. Although the Carter White House saw success with the Panama Canal and energy policies, his too little too late decision of appointing Jack Watson as chief during the last months of his term weren’t enough to win him re-election.
James Baker III – Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan
Baker was my favorite to read about because well – he is a smart, loyal, Texan. No shame.
His time with Reagan was very personally burdensome. Surrounded by Ronald’s loyal team of Californian’s – he was not welcomed by most of the staff. That still did not deter him from completing the task at hand.
He made the record for longest serving chief and set a precedent for how the role should be executed for generations to come.
Don Regan and Ken Duberstein – Second term Chiefs of Staff to Ronald Reagan
While Baker had just set forth the best example of what to do in this role – Regan took it upon himself to do the COMPLETE opposite. His mishandling of information and self-absorbed decision making before, during, and after the Iran-Contra scandal made him extremely disliked within the Reagan administration.
Regan failed to understand the crucial responsibility of a successful chief; he had to be selfless in the pursuit of achieving not his own, but his presidents’ agenda.
Towards the end of Reagan’s second term, Ken Duberstein was appointed as chief eventually helping Reagan’s administration reach the pinnacle address to the Soviet Union where he stated the famous line “tear down this wall!”
John Sununu and James Baker III – Chiefs of Staff to George H. W. Bush
Sununu, rough around the edges and with a no tolerance for nonsense approach, worked incredibly well with the diplomatic Bush. Together they brought about changes such as the Clean Air and Civil Right Acts and despite their reluctance towards it, were wise enough to let up Bush’s promise of not raising taxes in an effort to control spending. Unfortunately, as so often happens to people in positions of power, Sununu led to his own demise and the Bush administration ended its tenure with Jim Baker back in the Chief of Staff driver’s seat.
Bush and Baker, longtime friends, completed their invasion of Iraq to obliterate Hussain’s army and together saw the end of the Soviet Union.
Thomas McLarty and Leon Panetta – Chiefs of Staff to Bill Clinton
Despite having chosen Thomas McLarty as chief, Clinton’s early days proved to be chaotic. A longtime friend of Clinton’s, McLarty found it difficult to manage the president and eventually resigned his position to Leon Panetta.
Panetta immediately asked for the President’s (and First Lady’s) trust, clearance to make changes as needed, and freedom to tell him exactly when he thought he was wrong. Committed to his goals, Panetta stayed in his role for two years leading the way for Clinton’s last chief, Erskine Bowles, to take the position.
Plagued by scandal, Bowles time as chief was short but his help to the Clinton administration during the impeachment trials was critical and even more so, his appointment of John Podesta as his deputy opened the door of opportunity for John to become Clinton’s final chief. Podesta and Clinton brought in many initiatives using the presidents’ Executive Order powers- a method that continued in popularity thru today.
Andrew Card – Chief of Staff to George W. Bush
George W. Bush’s presidency led way to some of the most critical changes in our foreign policy, surveillance measures, and overall security. Despite Andrew Card’s attempt to start his role on the correct intention of having full honestly and acting as a singular chief to the president, Cheney’s interference and butting in on any and every foreign policy issue led to disaster.
Card was unable to control the clash of ego’s within the Bush administration and the chaos resulted in mass casualties and gross mishandling of the war in Iraq.
Joshua Bolten, Bush’s second chief, saw the end of the Bush administration. Despite their best attempt to fare the 2008 economic crisis as smoothly as possible, the Bush legacy will forever be tainted with the history of why and how the turmoil in Iraq was started.
Rahm Emmanuel, Denis McDonough – Chiefs of Staff to Barack Obama
Rahm Emmanuel, the kind bully who would after 2 years leave Obama to become Chicago’s mayor, worked diligently in helping the president pass Obamacare. A grueling, all democratic win, the Affordable Care Act continues intact.
Denis McDonough became the 4th and final chief in the Obama administration. Despite his mistake of not ensuring the healthcare.gov website would work flawlessly upon the Affordable Care Act’s launch, he did eventually recover from this mistake and was crucial in helping the president use Executive Orders to fulfill the Iran Nuclear Deal and Cuba among other resolutions since bipartisan votes became fictitious by the end of the Obama White House.
Reince Priebus- Chief of Staff to Donald Trump
As if it was an omen of things to come, the briefs the Obama administration left behind for the Trump team to review were all left untouched. Preibus, forced to be an equal to Steve Bannon, was afraid to leave Trump alone from the very early days of his election.
Despite his willingness to submit to embarrassment, Preibus ended up being ousted from his role, which is currently still occupied by John Kelly.
Throughout the book, the importance of having integrity and authority in the role of Chief of Staff are glaring. Only time will tell how John Kelly’s tenure in the position will fare, especially with a president that is so determined to do things in whatever way he sees fit.
I’d highly recommend reading thru this amazing recount of the lives of these men as it so vividly describes another snippet of how each role within the White House is so important and how, if we aren’t careful, malignant forces can persuade our Commander in Chief
Wipple, Chris. (2017) The Gatekeepers. New York. Broadway Books.
Cover design by Christopher Brand
Cover Photographs: (top) David Hume Kennerly/Hulton Archive/Getty Images;
(center) Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library; (bottom) The White House/Handout/Getty Images