In the past week or so, Washington, D.C. has gone agog with rumors about Gen. John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff, and whether he might be on the way out.
That makes this as good a time as any to read — or re-read— Chris Whipple’s book, “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.”
Featuring interviews with all 17 still-living chiefs of staff and two ex-presidents, plus other Washington notables (and a 205-book bibliography), it is a surprisingly lively read. It’s all history you may know or remember — but as seen from the stage, not the audience.
As the job is described by James A. Baker, who was chief for two presidents (Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush): “You can very well make the argument that the White House chief of staff is the second most powerful job in government.”
But it might also be the very worst job in the world.
“In an average day,” said Erskine Bowles (Bill Clinton), “you would deal with things like Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the budget, taxation, the environment — and then you’d have lunch. And people would always joke, ‘Thank God it’s Friday, only two more workdays till Monday.’”
Dick Cheney, who in the 1970s was chief of staff for Gerald Ford, blames the job for his first heart attack; Obama’s Bill Daley is sure his case of shingles was caused by the stress.
And yet, few men anywhere have turned it down. As Rahm Emanuel (Barack Obama) put it, “When the president asks you to do something, you have two answers, which are yes or yes sir.”
Whether Democrat or Republican, the chiefs of staff are remarkably consistent about what the job requires.
The main criterion for being chief of staff is realizing why you’re there: the president needs someone to be his “S.O.B.,” and that someone is you. You are not there to be liked; you are there to make it easier for the president to do his job.
One key rule for success is that absolutely everyone on the staff must report to you. No exceptions!
Leon Panetta recalled this advice, from a book he was handed before taking over as Bill Clinton’s second chief. The book was by H.R. Haldeman, of all people — Nixon’s infamous (but also effective) chief of staff; and it included this story:
“Nixon told his staff, ‘From now on, Haldeman is the Lord High Executioner. Don’t you come whining to me when he tells you to do something. He will do it because I asked him to and you’re to carry it out.’”
Haldeman warned his staff against doing “end runs” around him to the president: “Do not permit anyone to end-run you or any of the rest of us. Don’t become a source of end-running yourself, or we’ll miss you at the White House.”
There are other rules, too. As crystallized by Kenneth Duberstein, who worked for Ronald Reagan, “Always remember that when you open your mouth, it is not you but the president who is speaking.”
Or, as Erskine Bowles put it: “The power of the chief of staff is derived. … If you’ve lost the confidence of a president, people smell it, feel it, know it within seconds — and you become an overblown scheduler.”
Of course, the chief of staff must be respected by all as an honest broker, conveying all sides of an argument to the president.
And the most important person to be honest with is the boss.
As Dick Cheney says, “Somebody’s got to be the go-to guy who can go into the Oval Office and deliver a very tough message to the president.”
I don’t suppose that General Kelly has trouble delivering tough messages. But he might face other trials.
For example, there’s a point President Truman made, upon learning that General Eisenhower would succeed him: “Poor Ike! He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that! And nothing will happen. It won’t be a bit like the Army. ”
That’s probably as difficult for ex-military chiefs of staff as it is for presidents.
And I hope General Kelly takes note of some advice from Andrew Card (George W. Bush): “I broke the job down into the care and feeding of the president; policy formulation; and marketing and selling. … You have to make sure that the president is never hungry, angry, lonely or tired.”
General Kelly — or whoever comes after him — certainly has his work cut out for him. One thing I recommend he do is read this book.