Chris Whipple has covered the news across most of the world, written for Newsweek, Life, and produced for 60 Minutes. He’s also a documentary filmmaker, whose work includes “Spymasters: The CIA In the Crosshairs,” in which he interviewed all living CIA Directors. But his latest project addresses what he calls “the second most important job in government”: the President’s Chief of Staff. His book, “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency” was released April 4, and he will be in Houston April 19 at Rice University’s Baker Institute. This interview was published in the Houston Chronicle on April 16.
Mike Yawn: Tell us about your education and your background in the film industry.
Chris Whipple: I was at Yale at the same time as Bill and Hillary Clinton were at Yale Law School. One of my teaching assistants was their classmate Robert Reich, who was brilliant. I learned a lot from him then, and 45 years later, he gave me a crash course on Bill Clinton’s Chiefs of Staff. After college, I worked for Richard Holbrooke, who was the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine; I also worked at Newsweek and Life; and then I was a producer for 60 Minutes and ABC News before going out on my own to make documentaries. This book grew out of a documentary I did for Discovery with filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet in 2013, in which we interviewed all 20 Chiefs of Staff who were then alive.
Mike Yawn: As you say, you’ve worked as a print journalist and doing documentaries. What’s the different between cinematic and written narratives?
Chris Whipple: They are different media, but alike in the sense that an interview is an interview. You have to persuade people to be candid, introspective, and to share information. You construct documentaries around your subject. The Gatekeepers book is rich with interviews, and I try to tell the chiefs’ story through the prism of their job. I hope their voice comes through loud and clear and, if it does, that may be a function of my documentary approach.
Mike Yawn: Am I correct that this book includes interviews with all living presidential Chiefs of Staff?
Chris Whipple: Yes. Some may argue that Jim Jones and Marvin Watson, both of whom worked for LBJ, should be included, but they didn’t have that title; nor did they have quite the same responsibilities.
Mike Yawn: What is a chief of staff’s role?
Chris Whipple: He is many things. He’s the president’s closest confidante, the one the president relies on to turn his agenda into reality. He’s a liaison to Congress; the guy who tells the president what he doesn’t want to hear. He should be the president’s honest broker, the person who ensures that every department are heard fairly, every side of the issue presented. And as Andrew Card once said, “You make sure the President is never hungry, angry, or lonely.”
Mike Yawn: In the book you identify Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, as the first true modern Chief.
Chris Whipple: That’s correct. He was empowered to run the White House, controlled the information flow to the president, and was responsible for executing his agenda. That started with Haldeman.
Mike Yawn: Following Haldeman, Ford and Carter were uneasy about putting that much trust in a Chief of Staff. Carter even attempted to run the presidency without a true Chief of Staff. Does everyone now accept that position as crucial to presidential success?
Chris Whipple: I think it’s less settled than ever. Right now, you have Bannon, Priebus, and other senior advisors fighting for the attention of the President, and that can lead to disaster. We’ve seen it before.
Mike Yawn: I’d like to give you some names and have you tell me a brief sentence about them.
Chris Whipple: Okay.
Mike Yawn: Rahm Emmanuel
Chris Whipple: Force of nature, exactly the guy President Obama needed at the beginning.
Chris Whipple: The gold standard, the guy who knew from day one how to be chief of staff.
Mike Yawn: Dick Cheney
Chris Whipple: As chief of staff, he was the antithesis to the Darth Vader character he became as VP.
Mike Yawn: Andrew Card
Chris Whipple: Maybe the most humble and dedicate White House chief ever, who lacked the authority to run the White House as an honest broker.
Mike Yawn: Leon Panetta
Chris Whipple: Along with James Baker, the quintessential chief of staff.
Mike Yawn: Mack McLarty
Chris Whipple: He was so popular he was known as ‘Mack the Nice’—but McLarty was a stranger to Capitol Hill and its bare-knuckled wars, and unable to discipline his best friend Bill Clinton.
Mike Yawn: Don Rumsfeld
Chris Whipple: All throttle, no brake. And no nonsense.
Mike Yawn: Don Regan was not known for his success in the position. Did he confuse being chief of staff with being president?
Chris Whipple: Well, as Nancy Reagan said, “his favorite word in the title was ‘chief,’ not ‘staff.’” People who are principals (as in executives) in previous jobs tend not to succeed as a chief of staff, because they don’t understand the staff part of the job.
Mike Yawn: Describe the importance of a chief knowing the president’s strengths and weaknesses.
Chris Whipple: No president can have all the attributes necessary to succeed. It’s the chief’s job to complement the president’s attributes with his own attributes and other staff members’ attributes.
Mike Yawn: How many hours should the chief of staff expect to work?
Chris Whipple: 24/7 and then some. You are never off duty. Dick Cheney believed that the stress caused his first heart attack. Bill Daley came down with shingles. The job isn’t for the faint of heart.
Mike Yawn is Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.