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The Office of the President of the United States is just that — an office. And someone has to manage the office and the people around it. That manager is the White House Chief of Staff.
Fewer than thirty men (yes, they’ve all been men) have ever held this job, and most of them are still alive. They told their stories to journalist Chris Whipple for a new book called The Gatekeepers about what it takes to lead the office that leads the world.
- Chris Whipple Documentary filmmaker and journalist; author of the new book, "The Gatekeepers: How the White House chiefs of staff define every presidency."
On The Short Tenure Of Many Chiefs Of Staff
It’s absolutely unrelenting and unforgiving and around-the-clock. Erskine Bowles said that in an average morning, you deal with Northern Ireland, Bosnia, the budget, military spending and then you’d have lunch. Then on Friday, everybody would say ‘Hey, only two more working days until the weekend!’ Bill Daley came down with shingles a month after from stress. Cheney blames the stress of the job for his first heart attack — it’s indescribably grueling. Burnout factor is huge.
Controlling The Message
One of the most important things is controlling the message. The current White House has a daily message that is just out of control, muddled and unpredictable. One of the chief things Erskine Bowles use to do for Bill Clinton was to make sure that if you had the Labor Secretary Bob Rice saying one thing in Kansas City and you had Robert Rubin from the Council of Economic Advisors saying something in another city, that they were on the same page. That’s a critical thing — you have to manage your message every day as well as control the flow of information to the president.
The Lack Of Diversity Among Chiefs Of Staff
I think you have to look at the presidents, whom they’ve served. It’ll happen, there will be a female White House Chief of Staff. There will be, I’m sure, more diverse Chiefs of Staff someday. Under Obama, there was one contender: Nancy-Ann DeParle who was very influential and Obama trusted her and liked her. I’m told she just didn’t have the political chops, she didn’t know the Hill well enough to have the job. There hasn’t been much diversity among campaign managers for presidents — it’ll change someday.
The Social Skills Needed
It’s probably more difficult than it ever was in this day and age. These are not the good ‘ol days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill getting together over whiskey and achieving bipartisan compromises — it’s been a long time, things are much uglier now. It’s still a critical part of the job. Rahm Emanuel knew the hill, had lots of relationships, he was at the congressional gym every morning — not because he liked to go a mile and a half out of his way, but because he needed to take people’s temperature, he needed to build coalitions. That’s a critical part of the job because power may reside in the White House, and it has for a long time, but it’s still critical to get stuff done, get legislation passed.
I think it’s important they have a good working relationship, it’s very hard however for the White House Chief of Staff to be the president’s best friend. It’s really difficult for a White House Chief to tell the president what he doesn’t want to hear, for example. I think that when Bill Clinton spent almost all of his time picking his cabinet and gave very little thought to his White House staff until the last minute, he wound up choosing an old friend named Mac McLarty, whom he’d known since his school days. Mac, really smart, very capable guy but it’s very difficult for an old friend to try and discipline somebody like Bill Clinton. A year and a half in, with their agenda pretty much stalled, Leon Panetta took over — he came in as White House Chief of Staff with Erskine Bowles and they really whipped the White House into shape. Leon being a stern disciplinarian, they really turned the Clinton administration around.
On Reince Priebus
I think we are watching a White House that is the most dysfunctional in modern history. Part of that problem is that Priebus has made rookie mistakes. For example, you’d never send an executive order—if you know what you’re doing as chief— you’d never send an executive order on immigration out into the world without vetting it with the departments that are in charge of enforcing it. The message every day is completely muddled. That is the responsibility of the Chief of Staff to make sure that’s not happening. There’s a larger problem here which is that governing is tough, governing is really difficult. You can not do it when you have eight or nine senior advisers all coming and going from the Oval Office without a gatekeeper, without someone who’s in charge, without a real chain of command that people have to go through. That’s what I think we are seeing here, it’s not clear that anybody is in charge. Every modern president has learned, as this president has not yet, that you cannot govern effectively without an empowered Chief of Staff who is among equals in the White House.
An excerpt from 'The Gatekeepers' by Chris Whipple
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.
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