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Chris Whipple Discuss “The Gatekeepers”–The President’s Chief of Staff

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.Chris Whipple, The Gatekeeper, Mike Yawn Interview, Houston Chronicle, Books

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.

Mike Yawn: James BakerChris Whipple, The Gatekeeper, Mike Yawn Interview, Houston Chronicle, Books

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.

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More than Inkblots: Damion Searls’ “Inkblots” tells story of Hermann Rorschach

Article published in Houston Chronicle on February 19, 2017.

Almost 100 years after its creation, the Rorschach test remains a widely-used scientific tool in psychology and serves as a cultural catchall in the popular imagination.  Author and translator Damion Searls explores this legacy—and the life of its creator—in his latest book: “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing,” which goes on sale February 21, 2017.

Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP CenterMY: Could you describe the role that art played in Rorschach developing the test for which he is famous?

DS: Rorschach’s father was a drawing teacher, and he himself was an amateur artist, making drawings in his diaries, building and painting toys for his children, and an avid photographer. He was a visual person.  Freud was a word person: the talking cure, “Freudian slips” of the tongue, and so on.  But we’re not all word people.  Freud thought the most revealing thing was what we say or don’t say; Rorschach thought that seeing goes deeper than talking.

MY: Rorschach began his career at about the same time abstract art emerged.  Was there a connection between abstract art and Rorschach and his inkblots?

DS: Rorschach wasn’t an artist in that sense, but he was aware of modern trends and mentioned them in his work.  The main link is the new idea that art expresses something inside the artist (this is why Jackson Pollock, for example, is called an “Abstract Expressionist”).  Modern abstract art tried to give visual form to something ineffable inside, and the Rorschach test used visual images to gain access to that ineffable inner self.

MY: Even people familiar with Rorschach’s test may not know that the same ten blots that Rorschach developed 100 years ago are still being used.Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP Center

DS: Most people think that each psychologist uses their own blots.  In fact, Hermann made ten unique images, and he put them in a specific order to choreograph the test-taking experience.  Those ten are still used today.  The blots are visually interesting, and that’s a big part of what inspired me.  Most smears look like nothing, but Rorschach’s blots really could be two waiters holding pots and bowing to each other or what have you.  They can be perceived differently, but there is a structure to them.  I could go on for hours about what makes them so rich.  Psychology aside, they’re probably the ten most analyzed paintings of the 20th century.

 

MY: In terms of usage, the high point of the tests was in the 1940s and 1950s.  What factors prompted this degree of ubiquity?

DS: The test became popular in the U.S., starting in the late 30s—after Rorschach died—when American culture was very interested in personality.  How could personality be measured in an objective way?  Here was a test that claimed to give access to that.  When WWII erupted, the field of clinical psychology took off and the Rorschach test was the center of the field.  It remained central through the 1960s, when reactions against expertise authority of all kinds brought down both Freud and the Rorschach test… but the test was reinvented in the 1970s as a numerical, objective test, and survives to this day.

MY: Professionals disagree over the validity of the test, and some researchers suggest that the Rorschach test has become a Rorschach test of its own.

DS: Professionals disagree, but much of the criticisms are out of date.  There has been a lot of research on it, and science has validated the current Rorschach test.  What people are rightly skeptical about is the pop-culture version, where the test is a magic mind reader.  The real Rorschach test doesn’t do that.  The Rorschach test is not a Rorschach test.  The cliché is that there are no wrong answers, anything means what you want it to mean.  But the real Rorschach test isn’t like that.  The blots have objective visual qualities; the test has a specific history and use. The facts matter, not just our opinions about them.

MY: Rorschach died at an early age, and not much is known about him.  For people who haven’t read the book, what would you like them to know?

DS: The people who have read the book so far are struck by the same thing I am: that Hermann Rorschach was a really solid, good person. You like spending time reading about him. He was modest, kind, hard-working (and incredibly handsome); a responsible scientist, truly anti-sexist and supportive of women; and a good and sympathetic doctor, loved by his patients and colleagues. He overcame a humble background and the early death of both his parents to create a lasting psychological test, cultural touchstone, and visionary synthesis of art and science. It’s a good story.

 

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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