Why the President Needs a Chief of Staff

3 minute read

In most White Houses, if not the current one, the chief of staff’s toughest job is to tell the commander in chief just how completely wrong he is when the situation requires.

That’s the premise of Chris Whipple’s new book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, which grew out of a 2013 Discovery Network documentary, and, fewer than 100 days into the Trump era, could not be more timely.

The book opens when the chief job first took shape, under Richard Nixon’s axman H.R. Haldeman, who organized the modern presidency but who rather dramatically failed his boss when Nixon went haywire. Since those days, the gig has grown more powerful, thanks to such men as James Baker and Leon Panetta, and never more so than when a president is in crisis.

Many of the chiefs who have been drummed out early tend to be old friends more than strong right arms. Some presidents have chewed through three or four chiefs inside of eight years in part because the job is so unforgiving. And once your clout is perceived as lost, notes Erskine Bowles, who did the job for a time under Bill Clinton, you are little more than an “overblown scheduler.”

There are valuable lessons in Gatekeepers for Trump’s chief, the embattled Reince Priebus. For example: Dealing with your own party is often harder than making friends across the aisle. So mix it up. “In campaigning, you try to demonize your opponents,” says Reagan chief Ken Duberstein. “In governing, you make love to your opponent. That’s how you put coalitions together.”

I’m not sure the chiefs “define every presidency,” as Whipple’s subtitle claims, but how well a chief of staff can compensate for the boss’s weaknesses can largely determine a president’s success. Along the way, Whipple talks to every living man (so far, it’s only been men) who has held the job since 1969 and gets his history right at every step.

As for the future, Whipple says, “The chief lesson of the book is that every modern presidents learns the hard way that you can’t govern effectively without an empowered chief of staff. Oblivious to history, Trump has no idea that’s the case. Until he figures it out, its going to be a continuing clown show.”

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