The Gatekeepers- Book Review
In mid-October I happened upon a press conference where John Kelly, White House Chief of Staff, made his first statements. He made quite an impression on me. Shortly thereafter I spotted The Gatekeepers-How The White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency on a relative’s coffee table. I borrowed the book.
Kelly soon after ran into a maelstrom of controversy. As an outsider looking in, I believe much of the trouble stems from the great political divide our country is currently facing. The Gatekeepers provides a history of the Chiefs of Staff from President Nixon forward. However, reading the book also gave me a sense that the current divide in our country is nothing new.
Chris Whipple, the author of The Gatekeepers, provides evidence of the importance of the non-elected, non-Congressionally approved White House Chief of Staff. He iterates his opinion a need by President Trump to have a strong honest broker as Chief in order to stave off disaster. Whipple’s historical accounting demonstrates how Chiefs can make or break a presidency.
The Gatekeepers is fascinating. The view of the White House from the inside provides a different perspective on the historical events of the last fifty years. But the account meshes with personal recollections.
Whipple treats each administration fairly. Strengths and weaknesses of the Gatekeepers and the Presidents are presented. The discussion centers on how the interaction of the principles weighed greatly on defining each presidency.
Most of the administrations started on shaky ground. Some Presidents attempted the spokes in the wheel approach where they themselves tried to act as a gatekeeper. Others gave little power to the Chief of Staff. In a few cases the Chief wielded too much power.
Students of history will find The Gatekeepers compelling. Whipple posits the success of a presidency depends more on the organization of the administration and less on the individual. The intellect does not always prevail. For example, historians perceive the Carter Administration as an ineffective one. Yet President Carter himself is considered to be one of the most intelligent presidents of the last fifty years.
The inside scoop Whipple provides helps the reader understand why some administrations are more successful than others. Each administration faces crisis. How those events are handled says much about the Chief of Staff. But the gatekeeper has just as important role in the interaction with Capitol Hill.
Understanding Washington D.C.
The individual serving as the Chief of Staff needs the political knowledge of how Washington D.C. works. Even though President Obama was an outsider, his first Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was not. The book gives much credit to some of the early successes of the Obama Administration to Emmanuel and his ability to both work with Congress and organize the White House.
Through the years, individuals serving as the gatekeeper without the understanding of how Washington politics worked did not fare well. But there was also a need for organization. The administrations without an organized White House were chaotic and ineffective. The key role of the Chief of Staff is the running of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Everyone wants time with the President. Many want to be the last voice heard before a decision is made. In some administrations that last voice was the Chief of Staff.
The Gatekeepers is a well written historical document explaining the importance of the Chief of Staff. Whipple clearly shows how administrations with strong gatekeepers have more success than those without. The take away is a message for the current administration.
Like many before, the Trump administration has already had turnover in this critical position. Reince Priebus lasted six months. John Kelly did impress in his first two months. The organization of the White House precipitated any public message. Kelly’s first press conference was well received. It is unfortunate that controversy soon followed.
This is a difficult time for the country. The divisions are great. Historical perspectives are beneficial. The Gatekeepers provides this perspective. This book is well worth the time spent reading. Consider reading it yourself or giving a copy to your favorite history buff.