Three questions about the White House chiefs of staff for author Chris Whipple

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Chris Whipple. - DAVID HUME KENNERLY
  • DAVID HUME KENNERLY
  • Chris Whipple.

For Chris Whipple's new book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, the author and filmmaker interviewed all 17 living former chiefs of staff, plus two presidents and an untold number of aides and former colleagues. The result is a lively narrative history of the presidential staff member who can make or break a presidency, often from behind the scenes.

He presents the book at Garden District Book Shop at 6 p.m. May 12. In advance of his appearance, he spoke briefly with Gambit about the prospects for current, beleaguered White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and what it takes to be successful in the role, which often is held by the one person who must say "no" to the president.

Gambit: How are things going for Reince Priebus? If you believe what you read, he seems to be having some trouble in his new position.

Whipple: Every president learns, often the hard way, that you cannot govern effectively without a White House chief of staff who can execute your agenda. ... Our current president seems not to have learned anything so far about that. ... [Trump] apparently thinks he can run the country the way he ran a family real estate firm in Manhattan. It doesn't work.

Reince Priebus was effective at the Republican National Committee prior to taking this job, but he had no White House experience, he had no experience on Capitol Hill, and it's pretty clear he doesn't speak for the president.

There have been rookie mistakes galore. No competent White House chief of staff would ever let an executive order go out into the world without being vetted by the departments that are executing it.

At the end of the day, there's very little Priebus, or anyone else, can do for Donald Trump. Trump makes the decision to *empower* a chief that executes his agenda. So until he does that, he's not going to be able to govern.

G: What's the defining trait of a successful chief of staff? Did you find something in common among the people you interviewed?


W: There is one very underrated, invaluable trait. It's temperament — being comfortable in your own skin.

The two outstanding chiefs of staff, in my mind, were James A. Baker III under [Ronald] Reagan and Leon Panetta under Bill Clinton. ... There have been other really good ones, including, believe it or not, Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney [as chiefs of staff to Gerald Ford].

Those guys were comfortable in their own skin. They'd been around the block. They weren't afraid to walk into the Oval Office, close the door behind them and say, "Mr. President, you cannot go down this road." ... They could speak truth to power, to use that cliche.

G: Historically, can you talk about some mistakes made by chiefs past?

W: If I were asked what the biggest mistake made by a chief of staff was, I would say [it was made by] Donald Regan, who succeeded James Baker III.

Baker was exhausted. He wanted to get out [of his position] after four years. [So] he swapped jobs with Donald Regan, the treasury secretary. 

And Regan was imperious, he was arrogant, he was oblivious to stuff that was happening right under his nose, including what turned out to be the Iran-Contra scandal, which rose up from the White House basement on his watch.

It never would have happened on James Baker’s watch, in my opinion. That’s how critical the job can be.

From Watergate to Iran-Contra to the rollout of Obamacare to the botched executive order on immigration, the White House chief of staff makes the difference between success and disaster. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

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