I was in New York in September and had dinner with my former colleague Ellen and we were of course chatting about American politics. She recommended to me The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple and I finally got around to reading it in February. I love a good political biography (see my various blogs on politics), and wanted to see what this take on various presidencies I have followed was like.
I started at the beginning, with the chapters on Nixon and Gerald Ford’s chiefs of staff, but it felt like it was going to take me a long time to get me to the era of American politics I have lived through as an adult, so I then skipped ahead to the chapter on Clinton and galloped on through George W Bush, Obama and Trump. I had intended to stop there, but by this point I was sucked into how different chiefs of staff were from each other in style and tone, and was fascinated by the extent to which, as the subtitle suggests, they can make or break a Presidency. So I then went back and filled in the gap of Jimmy Carter, Reagan and George H W Bush. It was the first time I have been able to bring myself to read about the Trump Presidency in book format – having avoided the various exposes from inside his White House as I have more than enough detail already from the press and the wonderful twice-weekly Pod Save America podcast.
The most effective chiefs of staff in this era are not always ones that match my own politics. They are defined by fundamentally knowing and never forgetting that it is the President and not them who is in charge, by staying firmly in the background, by knowing how to delegate, by understanding that they are in charge of making the operation work, by being ruthless in ensuring the President spends his time on the most important things, and by being willing to speak truth to power when no-one else will.
Seeing these crucial but less well known political characters in operation is fascinating, as is being behind the scenes at great moments of history, from the fall of the Berlin wall, to 9-11, and the financial crash of 2008. Anyone who enjoys following politics and knowing the inside story will enjoy this book.