The key aide who ensures a US President’s success or failure (Book Review)

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Title: The Gatekeepers; Author: Chris Whipple; Publisher: Crown/Penguin Random House LLC; Pages: 384; Price: Rs 799

The floundering that marks the Donald Trump presidency so far may be due to his ignoring a crucial — and tested — tenet of US Presidential politics since the last half century: Appointing an efficient “gatekeeper” in the White House, letting him work unhindered and supporting him fully when needed.

The US President may well be the world’s most powerful man but he cannot do all he has to do, or wants to do, by himself and his effectiveness — and consequently, success or failure — depends on the calibre of this close and indispensable aide.

Good ones among them nearly ensured “Accidental President” Gerald Ford’s return to the Oval Office, enabled the “Reagan Revolution”, helped Bill Clinton secure a second term and aided Barack Obama’s efforts to avert another Depression. Remiss ones saw their presidents trapped in scandals like Watergate or the Iran-Contra deal and the morass of the Iraq invasion.

But the full story of the President’s Chiefs of Staff has never been told — until now.

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The Chief of Staff, says journalist and producer Chris Whipple in this first in-depth look at their role, functioning and performance, has become the second-most powerful job in the US government, despite being unelected, unconfirmed and serving at the President’s whim. For they are his closest advisers with full access to him — while controlling others’ access — and the ones he primarily depends on to fulfill his agenda.

In this account spanning presidents from Richard Nixon to Obama, he extensively interviews 17 living post-holders, two former Presidents and other stakeholders to show how this vital but demanding job defines presidencies.

Citing historian Richard Norton Smith, who contended that “every President reveals himself by the presidential portraits he hangs in the Roosevelt Room, and by the person he picks as his chief of staff”, Whipple profiles this select “band of battle-scarred brothers” (as well as why no women figures among them).

Stressing their mutual respect despite their differing political affiliations, he begins, in fact, with a meeting of all his predecessors called by George W. Bush’s final Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten to advise Emmanuel Rahm, who would serve Obama in this key role.

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Bolten, he notes, had expected about half a dozen of his 13 predecessors to attend but 11 did and were most helpful — despite the incongruity of the advice from one who had reached the highest political post among them — Vice President Dick Cheney.

Whipple lets his interlocutors take prominence, from giving their take of the major events they were involved in, to defining the job.

Among the most telling definitions offered is by Carter’s belated chief of staff, Jack Watson, who says the “pretty simple” rules include “knowing your President, and being loyal to him in the broadest sense. Wanting him to be a great President — and therefore telling him when you don’t think he is. Being tough enough to make decisions and to take a lot of criticism for them…”

In the account, we also get an incisive and revealing look at the dynamics of the last eight US Presidencies.

Whipple deems Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman, as the model for a modern chief of staff despite Watergate, though expressing his bewilderment why he failed to contain the crisis despite success in heading off some of his President’s earlier wild ideas, while James Baker, the first for Ronald Reagan, sets the gold standard.

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As he goes on to show what lay behind subsequent Presidents’ successes and failures, he also underscores the limits of Chiefs of Staff’s influence and effectiveness.

And alongside, there are many interesting bits, including why Cheney and Rumsfeld were earlier popular, how much of a micromanager Carter was, what key political chore George H.W. Bush entrusted his son (George W.), why Bill Clinton’s aides yelled at him, and which First Ladies were powers in their own right and more.

But while it deals with the White House — and is invaluable for this only — the work is also a seminal examination of the exercise and limits of power in democracies and the key lesson that all good leaders need at least one critically outspoken — and empowered — aide around them.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])



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