The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, by Chris Whipple

Nine stars

Chris Whipple offers a stunning look behind the curtain and into the depths of the West Wing, wherein resides some of the most powerful unelected figures in the American political machine. At the pinnacle of this group is a man (for there has yet to be a woman in the role) who wears the moniker Chief of Staff (CoS). Charged with keeping the various factions at bay and protecting the President of the United States (POTUS), the CoS serves primarily as a gatekeeper, but also as the one whose job it is to fall on any political grenade and take the brunt of any blowback for decisions made in the Oval Office. Whipple explores the role of Chief of Staff, loosely formed under Eisenhower, and how it became an essential part of every West Wing since Nixon rose to power in 1968. No POTUS has been without one (save for the early years of Jimmy Carter, who thought he could do it alone), sometimes acting as a sounding board and at other times that sober second thought to prevent disaster. Whipple explores each of the CoS who filled the role, beginning with H.R. Haldeman, who guided a cutthroat Nixon away from early disaster, only to find himself stained with Watergate, which led to the downfall of his boss. Members who served in the role of Chief would make a name for themselves, returning decades later to serve even more important roles, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who guided the brief Ford presidency along some shaky tracks. Others, like James A. Baker III, would serve under Reagan, but return to guide future presidents with key political advice (read: Bush 41 and 43). Even the likes of Obama’s picks to fill the role would not find themselves rooted for long, especially Rahm Emanuel, who was the first of four men to guide the troops under the last POTUS. As Whipple argues throughout, the role is not for the feint of heart or those who have a strong personal friendship with POTUS, but rather requires a backbone and the ability to say no to the Leader of the Free World, especially at the most inopportune moments. Whipple does a masterful job a recounting some of the behind-the-scenes moments and gives foundation to major events each POTUS faced, showing how the CoS played a role in events, even when they may not have wanted to step forward. Of greatest interest, looking ahead, Whipple uses his findings to forecast the need for a strong person (or persons) to serve as CoS to the 45th POTUS, prone to march to the beat of his own Twitter characters. Political junkies will love this book, which is not bogged down in too much minutiae, though it is a sobering look for anyone with an inkling of political interest.

I approached this book as a lesser dose of politics in these deeply divisive days in America. While not an American myself, I have a keen interest in political history south of the Canadian border, something that Whipple offers here. Whipple uses key events and clashes between POTUS and CoS to illustrate that there were many times when decisions did not flow as smoothly as they might have appeared in front of the camera. There are also numerous mentions of Chiefs having to rein in their bosses, who were hellbent on making stupid mistakes, placing ego before pragmatism. With a narrative that entertains as well as educates, Whipple draws on first-hand interviews as well as documented evidence to provide the reader with as thorough a look behind the doors of power, save when doing so might violate national security. The reader can sit back and see the progression of the role of Chief of Staff, though there were times when Chiefs refused to learn from their predecessors, citing political or ideological reasons. While the role is surely political, Whipple argues that it is more a shepherd herding sheep, no matter their political stripe. And, wherever possible, protecting the man in the Oval Office from political shrapnel.

Kudos, Mr. Whipple, for such a wonderful piece. I can only hope that I find more of you work in the coming years, as it was informative but not preachy. Well worth the time invested.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: