The Gatekeepers | Chris Whipple

Summary of: The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency
By: Chris Whipple


In ‘The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,’ Chris Whipple offers an insightful look into the inner workings of the White House and the critical role that Chiefs of Staff play in shaping American history. Delving into the inner workings of multiple presidencies, from Nixon to Obama, Whipple chronicles the Chiefs’ struggles to maintain order and effectively implement policies. The book underscores the importance of the Chief of Staff’s role in managing access to the President, leading during times of crisis, and guiding administrations through political challenges. Be prepared to get a rare glimpse into the dynamics of the White House and the crucial position of the gatekeeper.

The Modern Presidency’s Architect

Richard Nixon’s successful use of a dedicated chief of staff to consolidate power and streamline administration proved vital for shaping the modern presidency.

Richard Nixon’s legacy as an American president is mixed. His reelection campaign ended in scandal, which consequently led to his resignation. However, Nixon shaped the modern presidency by using a dedicated chief of staff to widen his sphere of influence. By selecting H. R. Haldeman as his chief of staff, Nixon was able to make administration more efficient, organized, and focused.

In contrast to his predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson, who distrusted advisers with too much power, Nixon sought to centralize authority in his presidency. Haldeman helped Nixon to achieve this by putting a stop to the end-run process and organizing meetings. Haldeman acted as both gatekeeper and jailer, which meant controlling who saw the president and even influencing the ideas that reached Nixon.

However, Haldeman’s influence never outright carried the day with the president, as Nixon could still veer off script. For example, Nixon sought to illegally access documents that he thought were leaked to the media from the Brookings Institute. Haldeman managed to rein Nixon in partially on this occasion, but ultimately the chief of staff couldn’t control Nixon’s increasingly erratic behavior.

The Watergate scandal would prove to be Nixon’s downfall, as he was caught on his very own devices approving the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices. However, the groundwork had been laid for the modern presidency. Despite Nixon’s less-than-stellar legacy, his use of a chief of staff proved essential in streamlining administration and consolidating executive power.

Rumsfeld’s Rise to Power

After Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford assumed office as president, needing a strong chief of staff to avoid making past mistakes. Donald Rumsfeld was appointed, with conditions, and delegated many tasks to his deputy, Dick Cheney. Despite their efforts, Ford’s approval rating plummeted, causing Rumsfeld and Cheney to send a memo to the president expressing their doubts. The Halloween Massacre led to a staff reorganization, with Rumsfeld becoming defense secretary and Cheney the new chief of staff. In the end, Ford lost the presidency by 9,000 votes in Ohio and Hawaii.

Crisis after Crisis

The book recounts the challenges faced by President Carter and his team after his inauguration in 1977. The President was reluctant to appoint a chief of staff and instead preferred seeking advice from a group of talented individuals. However, with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the resulting US embassy hostage crisis, Carter found himself overwhelmed. The situation worsened, and Jordan, the supposed chief of staff, was unable to carry on his professional responsibilities due to personal scandal, leaving the President’s approval rating at an all-time low. In a last-minute attempt to turn things around, Carter finally appointed Watson as chief of staff just before the 1980 presidential election. Although Watson managed to bring some order to the White House, it was too little too late, and Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide.

Reagan’s Chief of Staffs

Reagan’s presidency was led by a team of three chief of staffs, each of which contributed to the administration in significant ways. James Baker, the first chief of staff, played a crucial role in the implementation of Reaganomics. He was successful in pushing through massive tax and spending cuts despite fierce opposition in Congress. However, the recession that ensued prompted him to convince Reagan to raise taxes, to which the president initially vehemently opposed. Baker’s political tact eventually convinced Reagan to row back, and the economy slowly recovered. Don Regan, who replaced Baker, suggested covertly selling weapons to Iran, which was under a trade embargo, causing the Iran Contra Scandal. He was replaced by Howard Baker, who convinced Reagan to apologize for the scandal, and then by Kenneth Duberstein, who advised Reagan on foreign policy matters and is credited with helping end the Cold War.

Presidential Transition Woes

George H. W. Bush’s difficulties with his Chief of Staff appointments resulted in facing problems at the time of his re-election.

George H. W. Bush was initially blessed with John Sununu as his Chief of Staff. Sununu’s confidence and Capitol Hill connections suited Bush’s early policy victories, but his arrogance cost him allies when issues arose. Sununu using military aircraft for personal trips worth $615,000 while Bush’s re-election intensified was revealed by the media and Sununu was forced to resign. Bush then appointed Samuel Skinner, who led the transportation department, but he had the opposite demeanor of Sununu, which made it difficult for him to lead the staff, and as the economy faltered, his leadership skills were inadequate. Bush’s hopes of a successful re-election were boosted when he brought James Baker, Reagan’s previous chief of staff, on board. However, Baker didn’t have sufficient time to change the course, and Clinton’s allure and the tanking economy all culminated in Bush being a one-term president.

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