Some advice for Reince Priebus: the most successful chiefs of staff have known not only how to take charge but also when to leave.

Author:O'Donnell, Michael
Position:The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency - Book review

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency

by Chris Whipple

Crown, 384 pp.

In 1981, the Atlantic Monthly published a devastating critique of supply-side economics called "The Education of David Stockman." The article was a major embarrassment for the Reagan administration: Stockman was the president's budget director, and had publicly undermined the theory and numbers behind Reagan's entire economic program. The cover of the magazine even featured a photograph of the wayward technocrat. Reagan's chief of staff, James A. Baker III, called Stockman into his White House office for a chat, and put an end to his freelancing:

My friend, I want you to listen up good. Your ass is in a sling. All of the rest of them want you shit-canned right now. Immediately. This afternoon. If it weren't for me, you'd he a goner already.... You're going to have lunch with the president. "The menu is humble pie. You're going to eat every last motherfucking spoonful of it. The scene is the classic depiction of a White House chief of staff: furious, profane, demanding of loyalty as he stands tall over every member of the executive branch save one. Hollywood loves such encounters. The most memorable portrayal of the chief of staff on the small screen, The West Wing, features scores of them, including in the show's second episode, when Leo McGarry dresses down a surly vice president. In House of Cards, Chief of Staff Doug Stamper need only remove his glasses and thrust out his magnificent chin to get results. Failing that, he chokes disobedient underlings half to death.

Baker clearly had to ring Stockman's bell. Yet as the Emmy Award-winning writer and producer Chris Whipple shows in The Gatekeepers, his illuminating history of the office of chief of staff, an effective chief mustn't overplay the drill sergeant card. Javelin catcher, the Abominable No Man, Undersecretary for Go Fuck Yourself--these colorful honorifics lampoon a quality that is essential in the right dose but ineffective when overdone.

And some have overdone it, relishing power and behaving imperially until they were brought down by their own troops. Baker's successor, Don Regan, hung up the phone on the wrong first lady and found himself out on his ear. George H. W. Bush's insufferable first chief of staff, John Sununu, boasted after screaming at a room of people that they would go back to their offices and marvel at how tough he was. His deputy disagreed: "They're going to go back to their offices and tell everyone, 'Sununu is a fucking asshole!'"

On the other hand, too little backbone creates its own problems. Bush's second chief of staff, Sam Skinner, was overwhelmed by his responsibilities in what he called "the worst job in the world." His boss soon found himself longing for Sununu's take-no-prisoners style, which for a time at least got results. More recently, Andrew Card struggled to corral the big personalities and broad portfolios of George W. Bush's cabinet. His inability to wrangle Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and especially Vice President Dick Cheney contributed to a rancorous atmosphere and catastrophic policy decisions like the...

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