I have to fess up to being a neophyte when it comes to politics and political history. I’d be pretty hard pressed to tell you much about the goings on in Washington any farther back than ten years, given that I was barely out of school then and had little interest or predilection for the field. Yet, now in my early thirties, I cannot seem to get enough presidential history, in the form of literature. film, and documentary. Perhaps I’m playing catch-up in the hopes of finally “winning” a political argument with my mother! (No chance! Love you, mom!) Chris Whipple’s new book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency is a comprehensive account of each presidential administration, from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama, detailing each president’s picks for the esteemed position and how that choice came to determine the effectiveness of the president’s term.
As admitted above, I know very little about the goings on in the White House, so I was surprised to read that the average length of time for a chief of staff to serve a president is eighteen moths, due to the high pressure and intensity of the commitment. He (or she, someday) is the only individual with direct access to the president and so has the nearly impossible task of prioritizing the president’s responsibilities and goals, keeping out individuals with interests of their own, and ultimately keeping the White House and administration functioning smoothly and effectively. I had no idea that most of our recent leaders had three to four chiefs during their time in office, each making the position their own and steering the ship in their own fashion.
Organized chronologically, with a chapter for each president and his chief(s) of staff, Whipple’s book provides photos of the many personalities detailed, excerpts from speeches, memos, and newspaper articles, as well as unique perspectives gleaned from interviews he personally conducted with some of Washington’s retired elite. From the oval office, to prison, to foreign wars, many of the chiefs of staff detailed have gone to great lengths to protect their administration from ruin, even at the cost of their health and freedom. Others have had an agenda of their own, pulling presidential strings like puppet-masters or neglecting the inherent duties of their post, resulting in disastrous consequences for their leader and administration.
Whipple’s book draws comparisons between our current administration and that of Richard Nixon, another Washington outsider who felt many were conspiring against him and vowed to make those in question pay. One can only hope that, with history so clearly laid out before us, it would not be so bold as to repeat itself. I found this to be a great informative read and highly recommend it to history buffs and fellow noobs alike!