The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency

By Chris Whipple

Crown Publishing Group

I’m not sure if it’s fair to query Chris Wipple’s choice of title when he has produced such an enjoyable book. But does “gatekeeper” quite capture the importance of White House Chief of Staff? I’m not so sure.

After all, as the book amply illustrates, “the fate of every presidency arguably hinges on this little-understood position”. Surely, this means that “gatekeeper” is just one element of the role? Strategist, negotiator, communicator, manager – the list is endless. Presidents dare not get the appointment wrong, though as Whittle highlights, they all too frequently do.

The book – a chronicle of 23 chiefs of staffs who served the previous eight presidents – begins with a look at Howard ‘Bob’ Haldeman, President Nixon’s “son of a bitch”, who ended up in prison for his role in Watergate but pretty much created the role as is known today. Indeed, his laser-like focus on organisation and discipline was picked up by most of his successors. Each chief of staff receives their own chapter and it is through their experiences – both good and bad – that Whipple charts the course of modern American political history.

Whipple is a journalist and television producer and this book (his first) flows directly from his 2013 documentary, “The Presidents’ Gatekeepers” for which he interviewed each of the 17 surviving chiefs of staff, as well as two former presidents and many other leading figures from the Beltway. Whipple peppers the narrative with their quotes and insights, which is particularly entertaining when they run contrary to each other. There remains much antagonism between some of the leading players of George W. Bush’s presidency, for example, particularly on the vexed subject of Iraq.

One of those, Dick Cheney, is of particular interest. Not many will be aware that as a 34-year-old he served as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, performing so well that he very nearly helped Ford rescue his presidency and defeat Jimmy Carter in 1976. Another who continues to win praise from friends and foes alike was James Baker, who was in post for the duration of Ronald Reagan’s first term. For Baker, it is crucial to focus not on the “chief” but the “staff” of their job title. Someone who neglected to heed this lesson was his immediate successor, Donald Regan, a former chairman of Merril Lynch, who committed the cardinal sin of hanging up on Nancy Reagan. Upon hearing of this, Baker remarked: “That’s not just a firing offense. That may be a hanging offense.”

Whipple has produced a remarkably easy read. The chapters flow nicely and, as befits a television producer, he understands how to tell and pace a story. Although there may be few – if any – major revelations, this is a book which will no doubt be hoovered up by many a political junkie in both DC and beyond.

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