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The Gatekeepers

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As I was reading Chris Whipple’s book, The Gatekeepers, I couldn’t help but notice how much access he had to the group of 17 White House Chiefs of Staff since Nixon’s H.R. Haldeman. Then I learned that the book was the byproduct of a documentary series on Discovery. That explains a lot about the number of interviews Whipple was given by this large group of political insiders. However, it should only serve to make you more interested in reading the book, not less. 

We spend so much time in history class discussing the accomplishments of various Presidents. But unless you’re a political wonk, you may not know much about the Chief of Staff, who’s essentially the Chief Operating Officer of the White House. The President is the visionary, and the Chief is the guy who takes the vision and translates it to action. And as we know from experience during the last eight-plus years, creating results from those actions isn’t easy or quick. 

I think that’s what struck me the most from Whipple’s research and interviews. Being Chief of Staff is a massive amount of work. It’s truly 24/7/365. So much so that most Chiefs are only in that position for two years. The Chief needs to be political, and have connections all over Washington. It’s how things get accomplished. But some Presidents have chosen people from their home territory as their Chief. Whipple explains the pitfalls of such a choice. 

The other thing Whipple makes clear is the relationship that Presidents have with their Chiefs. The Chief is the guy who’s willing to tell the President when something is a bad idea. Again, the interviewees shared the good, the bad, and the ugly. Reading the book felt like I had a side chair alongside the Oval Office’s iconic Resolute desk. 

Whipple’s writing style is conversational and smooth. He takes one long chapter for each administration, starting with the transition period where one administration plans to replace the last. He finds just the right balance between details and overview, never getting lost in the minutiae. Somehow Whipple remains focused on the Chief’s perspective, which was unique and enlightening for me. 

After reading The Gatekeepers, my appreciation for Chiefs of Staff (especially those holding the position for more than two years) has grown exponentially. This unelected and unconfirmed (by the Senate) position is held by men with tremendous power and responsibility. They are wranglers, negotiators, power brokers, and insomniacs. I highly recommend this captivating view into the corridors of the West Wing.

Thanks to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for the opportunity to read the digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.
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Thanks to Crown Publishing and Netgalley for an e-ARC of this book. 

An excellent review of the work of the chiefs of staff and their presidents from Nixon through Obama. I have a huge interest in government and the inner workings of the white house and have read quite a lot and I, nonetheless, learned many things I did not know and was reminded of more that I had forgotten. This is a fascinating study of what it takes to be a good chief of staff and an insider look at the successes and failures in this office. I gather from the author's acknowledgements that this is the book of a tv documentary. Knowing this makes me admire the book even more since my experience with books of tv shows and movies has not been pleasant.

This was, for me, an auspicious time to read this book. It put the goings on in the current administration in more of an historical perspective. Dreadful things happened in other administrations and we all survived. It made me feel that if we can step back and look dispassionately at the current administration, it may not seem so frightening. At least one can hope.
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What a fascinating lens to view presidential history through. Couldn't put it down.
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The media obsessively scrutinizes the records of key presidential appointees, including cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court judges, and ambassadors. These positions require Senate confirmation because we deem them so important that we do not trust them to the president alone. Yet, ironically, the appointment most critical to the success of the presidency, the chief of staff, requires no Senate confirmation and often receives little public scrutiny. In "The Gatekeepers," Chris Whipple looks at the history of modern chiefs of staff and shows why they really do determine the success of the president's agenda.

Whipple covers ever chief of staff for every president going back to H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's first chief. Ironically, despite his ultimate fate, Haldeman's tightly controlled process proved to be the model that later successful chiefs would emulate. All of the successful chiefs emphasize the importance of process, having a clear procedure for making decisions in the White House and clear lines of authority. The chief effectively limits access to the president, making sure he is not overrun by people seeking his personal intervention. Some presidents, such as Jimmy Carter, initially viewed the Haldeman model as reminiscent of Nixon's "imperial" excesses, yet all presidents eventually adopted that model.

Whipple also shows the delicate balance between the "chief" and "staff" parts of the job. The chief manages the White House staff, yet ultimately serves the president. The chief of staff position creates considerable opportunity to manipulate the president and pushing an agenda. Some chiefs, like H.W. Bush's John Sununu, let their egos get the better of them and demanded privileges typically associated with the president or other principals. Yet, such chiefs ultimately fail and undermine the president. As Reagan's first chief Jim Baker observes, the emphasis is on "staff," not "chief."

Whipple claims that chiefs of staff are often responsible for the success or failure of a presidency. It's a bold claim, one that he backs up. The chief is responsible for managing the president agenda, making sure that he can do the job to which he was elected. Jimmy Carter famously found himself micromanaging the White House because he refused to empower his chief. Just as important, the chief is responsible for bringing problems to the president's attention. One of the reasons Reagan's National Security staff became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal was that Don Regan didn't effectively keep tabs on what the NSC staff were doing. 

I expected this book to be interesting, but I also found it to be surprisingly funny. Whipple's anecdotes often had me laughing out loud. Whipple depicts the chiefs of staff as people with all their foibles and flaws, and some of these men were quite lively personalities. For example, Dick Cheney's advice to Rahm Emanuel: don't let the vice president run roughshod over you (as Cheney did to Bush's first chief, Andrew Card).

Speaking of Cheney, I also enjoyed seeing major political figures in a completely different light. Many of the chiefs of staff have gone on to other important political roles. Cheney obviously became Bush's Vice President, Rumsfeld became Defense Secretary, John Podesta chaired Hillary's campaign, Rahm Emanuel is now mayor of Chicago, etc. Some of these individuals underwent considerable changes over time. As Ford's chief, Dick Cheney was seen as affable and funny (yes, that Cheney!). 

Overall, this is an excellent book for history buffs. Whipple's writing makes "The Gatekeepers" a fun and effortless read. Even as a longtime student of history, I learned quite a bit from this book. Highly recommended.
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THE GATEKEEPERS by Chris Whipple is a fascinating read, especially in light of the current talk about roles in The White House. Whipple, a journalist, documentarian, and award-winning producer at CBS's 60 Minutes, explains that "this book is the story of men who define the presidencies they serve." In nine chapters, each devoted to a pairing like H. R. Haldeman and Richard Nixon through Hamilton Jordan and Jimmy Carter to Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama, Whipple describes key relationships and decision making patterns for White House Chiefs of Staff. He notes that the average tenure is "little more than 18 months." It makes one wonder if Reince Priebus will last even that long, especially since his deputy, Karen Walsh, left in less than 100 days. 

In a starred review, Booklist calls THE GATEKEEPERS "page-turning catnip for political junkies." Most definitely.  And this text, as one would expect from Whipple, is extremely well-researched and documented.  Roughly twenty percent of THE GATEKEEPERS is devoted to a bibliography and extensive notes. Look carefully at the cover - the top photo shows Donald Rumsfeld, a New Trier graduate, advising Gerald Ford. Our Social Studies teachers plus AP Government/Poli Sci and US History students will certainly be intrigued by Whipple's analysis and commentary.
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I loved this book and its inside look into one of the most powerful (and most difficult) positions in the world, the White House Chief of Staff. Chris Whipple is an excellent journalist and in his hands, this book reads like a fascinating documentary. He interviews all 17 living Chiefs of Staff and throughout the book, I found myself turning to my husband and saying, "Did you know...? and "Listen to this..." This is probably one of the first books that I've ever read aloud parts to him because it was so fascinating and full of newsworthy information (and some juicy tidbits) that was simply new to me. If you enjoy reading about American politics and Presidents (or if you just enjoy watching the West Wing), you'll definitely want to read this well-written book. I predict that The Gatekeepers will win some literary honors for non-fiction in 2017 and will definitely be included on the "best of" year-end lists. 

Many thanks to Crown Publishing and NetGalley for allowing me to read an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Very good book on the inside workings of the Chief of Staff at the White House. The reading was light and informative. This is a job in the White House that many may not think about and this book provided good insight on the job, the good, bad and indifferent. It was very interesting to read how the former Chiefs of Staff all gathered to give advise to Rahm Emanuel. I also liked the way the author gave a glimpse into the chapters with the Table of Contents. This book held my attention and I am glad I was able to read it. Thanks to NetGalley, the author and the publisher for the ARC of this book in return from my honest review. Very good read!!!!
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The Gatekeepers was a brilliant idea to write a book focused on a position not mentioned in the Constitution, but crucial for the modern day Presidency:  The Chief Of Staff.  Chris Whipple is a good writer.  Unfortunately, the work fails due to his own political biases and lack of research into sources that weren't completely self-serving.

The opening chapter provides cause for concern in how Whipple uses various pejoratives to critically describe Republican Administrations, while using glowing terms to describe Democrat Administrations.  It doesn't get better.

The chapter on the Nixon years is weakened by his reliance on John Dean and treating him as an unimpeachable source.  Disgraced felon John Dean portrays himself as an innocent lamb.  Whipple didn't bother to include Dean's role in the bungled Watergate attempt at wiretapping the Democrat National Committee offices.  Maybe he should have bothered to read "White House Call Girl" by Phil Stanford.

The chapter on Ronald Reagan and his successes as President was downright patronizing.   It, too, relies far too heavily upon James Baker's self-serving interviews that show him to be the key to any success the Reagan Presidency had.  This is a habit with books that use James Baker as a source, such as H.W. Brands' recent Reagan biography.  Whipple would have been better served to read works that rely upon writings in Ronald Reagan's own hand and historical documents from the Reagan Presidential Library.  Authors like Craig Shirley, Stephen Hayward, Paul Kengor, and Martin Anderson would have been more reliable sources than James Baker's self-serving recollections that attempt to relegate Ronald Reagan to be a bit player in his own Presidency.  

The book does contain a couple of elements that are newsworthy.  Whipple writes that in a 2012 interview for this book, Reagan's former Vice President George H.W. Bush said that Ronald Reagan was too scripted, which Bush considered "unseemly" and "beneath the dignity of the office".  Any historical comparison between the success of Ronald Reagan's White House years and the failed one-term Presidency of George H.W. Bush will not be kind to Mr. Bush.

Whipple also reveals that in the George W. Bush administration, the job Donald Rumsfeld really wanted was Director of the CIA.

The book fails to see a connection between Reagan's tax cuts and the explosive growth of the Reagan years, then fails again to associate George H.W. Bush's tax hikes with the recession that made him a one-termer.  It gives Bush and his foreign policy team credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it was Reagan's policies that should be given proper credit.  He should look up George H.W. Bush's "Chicken Kiev" speech to see that his goal was to PRESERVE the Soviet Union, not defeat it as Reagan wanted to.

Whipple's leftism also leads him to assert that George W. Bush's claim Iraq tried to acquire yellowcake uranium was "debunked by the CIA".  While that was a popular left-wing talking point, Great Britain's Butler Commission confirmed the claim about yellowcake.  He also overlooks the fact that the Bush Administration shipped 550 METRIC TONS of yellowcake uranium found in Iraq to a Canadian processing facility in 2008.  Whoops...

I must admit, the most entertaining part of the book was the author's description about his interviews with James Baker and Colin Powell over the Iraq War.  James Baker, self-serving as always, tried to claim he told Colin Powell to "fall on his sword" and threaten to resign as Secretary of State over the war decision.  Powell, like Baker, is renowned for being one of the biggest leakers in D.C. to curry favorable press coverage for himself.  Powell vehemently disagrees with Baker's characterization of their conversation and exclaims, "I'm tired of this shit!"  

And the Obama chapter would leave you to think that his Presidency was so perfect, with the failed website rollout of ObamaCare being his only failure.  The nation's repudiation of his policies through the shellacking of the Democrat Party on all levels throughout the Obama years goes unmentioned.

One of the key lessons of the book is that the Chief Of Staff should be a gatekeeper to protect the President from meeting with people who have an agenda of their own.  Chris Whipple should have taken this advice when using sources like John Dean and James Baker who used the opportunity to settle old scores with former colleagues who are no longer here to defend themselves.

What was a brilliant idea for a book on the role of the White House Chief Of Staff sadly turned into a rewriting of history based in the author's leftist political bias and a reliance on sources trying to puff up their own role in history.
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