The success or failure of a presidency largely depends on whether or not the president is able to deliver on the agenda he or she sets upon taking office. Are they able to get things done? Can they focus and prioritize their goals so they don’t waste time on something that isn’t achievable or realistic (or try to do too much)? Can they maintain their public image as well as key relationships with Washington insiders? And can they do all that while running a functional office that will help them do the most important job they will ever take on?
It’s not an easy job, and many seemingly qualified people have had lackluster presidencies. Chris Whipple, documentarian and journalist, makes a case that many presidencies fail because of a lack of organization within the White House itself. He posits that the Chief of Staff is perhaps the most singular and important role any president can fill once elected, because this little-understood position often pulls all the strings behind the scenes. They manage the president’s schedule and staff–often acting as a gatekeeper so that the president can maintain focus among the constant noise and needs surrounding the Oval Office.
The Gatekeepers is a fascinating history of how modern presidency works. The behind-the-scenes glimpses into each presidency from Richard Nixon to today are informed and, as Whipple believes any good Chief of Staff should be, sometimes brutally honest. Whipple has a palpable admiration–or at least an abiding interest in–many of the people populating his story. Unfortunately, he definitely plays favorites. The segments on George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in particular feel so rushed and inconsequential that they might as well not be there at all.
Whipple is particularly enamored of using Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney as a framing device: they enter as Gerald Ford’s Chiefs of Staff and ultimately return to The White House as Defense Secretary and Vice President, respectively, for George W. Bush. Part of the reason Whipple loves their narrative so much is that the first president they served was bogged down in the end of Vietnam–an unpopular war that helped crush his legacy. Decades later, Rumsfeld and Cheney pushed their president into another unpopular war. In this, Whipple sees a Shakespearean thread to weave his book on. But Rumsfeld and Cheney don’t work as bookends because they are neither the first nor the last Chiefs of Staff discussed in the book. It makes it feel like Whipple is only just getting to the point (or just figuring out what his point really is) when they show up, and it makes the Obama presidency and his Chiefs of Staff feel like an afterthought that shouldn’t be there. The Shakespearean narrative Whipple is so enamored with is also a rabbit-hole that has nothing to do with his central theme: that the Chief of Staff shapes the presidency. He nearly forgets to discuss George W. Bush’s Chief of Staff at all except to say that he was inconsequential. He tries to draw parallels since Rumsfeld and Cheney are former Chiefs of Staff, but mostly he doesn’t seem to notice that his entire premise has gone out the window.
Whipple’s case for the Chief of Staff being essential to an administration’s success is always somewhat dubious, but it really began to fall apart during the Reagan years. For the first part of Reagan’s presidency he had one of the most celebrated Chiefs of Staff ever: James Baker. After Baker left, Whipple argues that Reagan’s administration became fractured and fell into the Iran-Contra scandal, which nearly led to his impeachment. Whipple essentially blames Reagan’s Chief of Staff for allowing Iran-Contra to happen, positing that Baker or a similarly strong Chief would not have allowed it to happen. Except Whipple also uses H.R. Haldeman as a prime example of what a strong Chief can be capable of, and Watergate happened on Haldeman’s watch. Indeed, Haldeman ended up doing jail time for helping cover up Watergate once he realized it had happened on his watch.
Whipple’s argument attempts to remove agency from the presidents, and you can’t do that. After all, a strong Chief of Staff couldn’t save Nixon from himself–Haldeman was famous for trying to prevent “end runs” on Nixon by strictly managing who had access to him. But it didn’t work. Nixon found a way to let people in. Similarly, Whipple blames a lot of Carter’s failures as a president on his initial refusal to select a Chief of Staff. But having a Chief of Staff didn’t seem to help George H.W. Bush from falling into some similar troubles a decade later when he also became a single term president. And can we really say that a stronger Chief of Staff would have prevented Cheney and Rumsfeld from engineering the Iraq War? After all, Colin Powell, George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, was powerless to stop them. W.’s own father couldn’t advise him against it.
I’ve complained a lot about Whipple’s central thesis, which probably makes it sound as though I didn’t like this book. That’s not actually true. As much as I found it’s central premise to be flawed, I greatly enjoyed reading this. The Gatekeepers is both a quick read and an engaging one. Whipple has an eye for detail and maintains expert control of his narrative. There’s a natural flow from one administration to the next that only a gifted storyteller can achieve. The favoritism does cause pacing problems, though. Since he can’t muster much interest in the administrations of George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton it feels as though the center of the book does not hold. Again, those sections might as well not be there. Whipple also seems confounded by the administration of Barack Obama, which is too recent to have much benefit of “hindsight,” if you will. History has shown us how every other presidency has turned out but Obama’s legacy is still being written, which seems to make Whipple hesitate about how to approach him.
At the end of the day, The Gatekeepers is best taken as an intimate history of the presidency from 1968 through about 2013. As that, it excels. Its focus on parts of the presidency that usually remain in the shadows feel revelatory–even in administrations like Nixon’s or Reagan’s, which have been covered pretty extensively by now. To get insight into how people come together and shape a presidency is fascinating, and Whipple tells the tale well.