Review — The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency

Brad Hubbard
3 min readOct 5, 2018

Chris Whipple’s 2017 book, ‘The Gatekeepers’, is a high level look at the modern era chiefs of staff. From H.R. Haldeman to Denis McDonough. There are plenty of critical moments for every president and the chief of staff is right there with them advising, regulating, and at times deterring the president. Whipple is able to do an overview of each administration from Nixon to Obama and it gives a good idea of what it takes to be a great chief of staff to the president.

Being chief of staff is arguably the hardest job in America. It’s 24/7/365 and when you succeed, you get none of the praise but when something fails, well you generally get all of the blame. It also goes by many names such as javelin catcher, lord high executioner, and son of a bitch just to name a few.

After reading Whipple’s book it’s clear to see why most people believe that James Baker was the best chiefs of staff. Baker was chief of staff for Ronald Reagan during his first term and briefly for George H.W. Bush at the end of his time in office. During his time as Reagan’s chief of staff, he put together a team around him called the ‘troika’ which were in essence the ‘pragmatists’ of Reagan’s first term. He was a Washington insider, well liked and kept the First Lady in the loop (always a good idea). It’s allude to that if Baker was chief of staff during Reagan’s second term or was given the job of running the National Security Council then Iran-Contra wouldn’t have happened at all.

Baker was and is the gold standard for the role. No one else has really come close but according to Whipple Leon Panetta and probably Rahm Emanuel would come in second and third place respectively.

Panetta is credited with bringing order to the Clinton administration and has a great view of what it takes to be chief of staff. Panetta once said that the chief of staff has to be the ‘son of a bitch that tells the president no.’

Emanuel was according to Whipple a solid opening choice by Barack Obama for the role. He had previously worked in the White House, new the Hill, was a Chicago guy but not part of the Obama Chicago ‘mafia’, and was a realist when it came to policy. Apparently a lot of the idealists who helped Obama win the 2008 election didn’t care for that as they were going to ‘change Washington’. But it was Emanuel who was able to get Obama’s agenda passed through congress, including the Affordable Health Care Act, before he ducked out and became mayor of Chicago. For the record, he wasn’t there when Obama Care was rolled out.

Whipple’s book is a good high level historical read especially when it comes to the Clinton administration and earlier. With the Bush and Obama administration it’s clear who he favors so take it with a grain of salt (he says that the ‘Grand Bargain’ was all the Republicans fault and Obama did nothing wrong which isn’t the full story from what I have read and seen). So for current and future chiefs of staff listen up, if you want to be a great chief of staff, be like James Baker. Someone who knows Washington, can push things through the Hill, will tell you when your wrong and focuses more on the ‘staff’ part of the title than the ‘chief’.

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