Books

‘The Gatekeepers’ details the second-most-powerful job in government

Author and producer Chris Whipple
Author and producer Chris Whipple Getty Images

Many parents dream of their child becoming president. No one fantasizes about the kid being the White House chief of staff.

According to Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” it’s the most demanding, least understood job in Washington.

Whipple, a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning producer for CBS’s “60 Minutes” and ABC’s “Primetime,” interviewed all 17 living former chiefs for the book.

The result is a treasure trove of stories about “the second-most-powerful job in government.”

The White House chief’s specific duties change from president to president, and from day to day. “He is the president’s heat shield, javelin catcher, consigliore and battlefield commander,” Whipple says.

As for the 24/7 pressure-cooker nature of the job, Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton’s second chief, sizes it up: “In an average day you would deal with Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the budget, taxation, the environment — then you’d have lunch!”

The author’s goal is to give readers greater understanding about the people who help their presidents run the government and shape the world. “It was time the public knew more about what they did,” he says.

Some of the book’s highlights:

H.R. Haldeman, widely credited with creating the model for the modern White House chief, was also widely blamed for causing Watergate. “Haldeman’s failure to speak hard truths to Nixon allowed the scandal to take root,” Whipple writes. He ultimately went to prison for perjury.

Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s irascible vice president, was known for his humility and wry humor back when he was Gerald Ford’s chief. “He was beloved on Capitol Hill and among the press corps,” Whipple says. “Many of his fellow chiefs still wonder: What happened to Cheney?”

And then there’s Donald Regan. Ronald Reagan’s first chief was ineffective in a number of respects, but he got his pink slip for an unpardonable sin. “He hung up on the first lady,” James Baker tells Whipple. “That’s not just a firing offense. That may be a HANGING offense!”

The Gatekeepers

  • By Chris Whipple
  • Crown, $28
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