The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency
pub. 2017, Chris Whipple
True confession: I never paid that much attention to the chief of staff position within the White House until I started watching The West Wing, a show marked by its characters’ constant movement and work. In The Gatekeepers, Chris Whipple introduces readers to the office as created by Eisenhower and Nixon, and then reviews how subsequent chiefs have played a pivotal role in executive success or failure.
Whipple traces modern chiefs of staff to Eisenhower’s administration. Formerly commander of the Allied forces in Europe in World War 2, Eisenhower was no stranger to a complex, demanding job –and he imposed a little of the organization from the army onto the executive office, relying on a chief to vet requests and control access to his office. This proves throughout the book to be a critical role played by the chief, though it wasn’t until Nixon that a formal WH staff organization was created. An abundance of advisers only makes a wash of noise out of otherwise useful information, and distractions keep the executive from accomplishing much of anything. Whipple demonstrates how a good chief of staff can bring order to chaos — demonstrating to a new-to-town Bill Clinton, for instance, that his office was leaching productivity by wandering from topic to topic within the day, rather than focusing on anything at all. The chief also directs the flow of information by controlling access to the Oval Office: under an active chief, there might be an astonishingly short list of people permitted to access the office at will (a Cabinet officer or two), while others wait for appointments and the chief as chaperone.
Another vital role of the chief is as the advisory who will and must say to the most powerful man on the planet — “No.” Some people in DC are evidently aware of the bubble they live in, and aware that the White House can become host to its own private bubble only dimly aware of the reality abroad and in the world. (The insulating effects of the Oval Office were explored to great effect in The Twilight of the Presidency). A good chief of staff is aware of limits to how much is possible, and pushes back when needed, serving to check his bosses’s overreach. This doesn’t always happen, and some of the saddest and most expensive mistakes of modern American history happen because no one pushed back enough. Because the position of chief is so intense, they rarely last more than two years — so even an effective chief can quickly give way to one that’s not quite up to the task.
I found The Gatekeepers an utterly fascinating work, and one largely nonpartisan — though Whipple does seem protective of the Clintons, he doesn’t shy away from documenting the disorder that popped up there. It’s certainly an interesting lens to see presidencies through — viewing, for instance, Carter’s ineffectiveness as owing to the utter lack of a chief at all for much of his administration. Although the book doesn’t cover the current administration very much (nor can it, given the publication date), given the current executive’s willfulness and the highly irregular nature of his own staffing decisions, it is unlikely that a future version of this book would regard its chiefs a success stories.