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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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Local Football Coaches Discuss Favorite Sports Films

With football season underway, Professor Mike Yawn spoke with some current and former football coaches in Huntsville to uncover their favorite films about the nation’s pigskin pastime. Shane Martin, Gordon Brown, and Willie Fritz identified football films that mixed comedy, drama, and inspiration, while Ron Randleman called an audible, and discussed the basketball film “Hoosiers.”

Coach Shane Martin Interview

Coach Shane Martin grew up in Texas and Louisiana, but came to SHSU for his college degree. He is, as he says, “a proud Bearkat.” He’s been coaching and teaching full-time for 20 years and has spent twelve years with Huntsville Independent School District. He is now the head coach for the Huntsville Hornet football team.

Mike Yawn: Coach Martin, what is your favorite football-related film?
Shane Martin: “Brian’s Song” (1972). I watched it as a kid, and it made me a Chicago Bears fan. The film is realistic, about football and life. It’s an inspirational story of Brian Piccolo’s fight with cancer, which took his life.

Brian's Song

Brian’s Song

MY: Even without diseases such as cancer football careers are short and are a fraught with the risk of injury. Is that something you worry about with your players?
SM: I have a 16-year old who has had ACL surgery twice. Injuries can happen to anyone, whether on the field or crossing the street. With football, you’re taking your chances, but with anything you do, there’s the possibility of something going wrong.

MY: The movie was based on a book by Gale Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams), whose brilliant career was ended by a knee blowout.
SM: Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo were both running backs who came in as Bears’ rookies at the same time. Sayers was coping with his knee injury at the same time Piccolo was fighting cancer, and these challenges offer lessons. We tell people to live each day as though it were their last, and that’s true for some people, not just athletes. I encourage my players to give it their all, not just on the football field, but also in the classroom.

MY: The film has interesting actors: James Caan as Piccolo; Jack Warden played George Halas; and Dick Butkus and some of the Bears played themselves.
SM: Yes, Butkus played himself, and he and a lot of those other old players were some tough old goats, just like Halas.

MY: Any other films related to football that you have enjoyed?
SM: A lot of coaches will say, “Remember the Titans.” Again, you’re taking the game of football and addressing the larger society, segregation and the like. I used this film when teaching my health classes, to teach my students to deal with peer pressure, hatred, and racism. I think there are life lessons in a lot of the football games that we play or coach.

Remember the Titans

Remember the Titans

MY: You’re teaching life lessons and football. What larger lessons do sports teach?
SM: Young people, like all of us, need to better understand dedication is a big part of what it takes to be successful at something that requires skills. Football is now becoming more and more of a year-round sport. The relationships you build and cultivate through dedication, should be there throughout life. I had the model of my defensive coordinator at Yoakum High School, Jimmy Yeager, who meant a lot to me. He was a coach and a father figure to me. Role models as well as life experiences teach young people right from wrong, so that they take more away from football than a won-loss record.

Coach Gordon Brown Interview

Gordon Brown came to SHSU in 1948, played football for three years, and graduated in 1951. He went on to coach at Conroe, Katy, Deer Park, and [he whispers this] Stephen F. Austin, before moving into administration at Conroe and Katy. Despite his many roles in many schools, he says, “My heart is always with SHSU.”

Mike Yawn: Coach Brown, what’s your favorite film about football?
Gordon Brown: There are a lot of them, but I’d say “The Blind Side” is my favorite.

MY: That’s an interesting film. Of course, most people know Sandra Bullock was in it, but the director, John Lee Hancock, also directed “The Rookie,” another real-life sports story. Also, “The Blind Side” was based on a book by Michael Lewis, who also wrote “Moneyball.” So the movie has a lot of sports and film connections.
GB: Absolutely right, and while I like the sports, I also relate to this movie because of the way I grew up. We were happy, but the work was hard. For the most part, we worked in the fields, although later I got a job paying 50 cents an hour at a filling station. My plan was to go to Baylor, but Coach Kenny Wilson from SHSU came into my filling station and said, “Can you help me find Gordon Brown?” I told him that was me, and he said, “We’ve been watching you play football, and we want you to come to SHSU. We’ll give you room, board, tuition, and $7 a month laundry.”

I said, “Where do I sign?”

That’s why I relate to the character in “The Blind Side.” I didn’t have the magnitude of problems Michael Oher [the main character in “The Blind Side”], but there were enough similarities to get my vote.

The Blind Side

The Blind Side

MY: Tell us specific things you liked about the movie?
GB: The country has many youth like Oher who can be productive and happy if given opportunities. We have other youth who have a different set of problems. They may be affluent but undisciplined, and when someone comes in and shows an interest in them, it gives them hope, even when they haven’t been the citizen they may have liked to have been.

Michael Oher

Michael Oher

I have a background as a coach and a school administrator. I know many children might not have the resources, encouragement, and love to guide them and help them develop realistic dreams. But those who teach them to reach upward are models for these students.

So the movie “The Blind Side” helps me better understand what encouragement and opportunity can do for students. It should help all of us be responsible to see that the environment is such that all students can be successful. This is a timely film, a reminder that we are in this together, and we need to work together to help others and to make a contribution to our country.

Coach Willie Fritz

Coach Willie Fritz graduated from Pittsburg State University before embarking on a coaching career that took him to Sam Houston State University, Blinn College, University of Central Missouri, and back to SHSU, where he has led the Bearkats to two straight National Championship games.

Mike Yawn: What’s your favorite football film?
Willie Fritz: I’ve got a few of them. My favorite is the original “The Longest Yard,” with Burt Reynolds…

MY: …and Eddie Albert…
WF: Albert was the Warden. The film combines comedy and drama, with a bad-guy kind of a hero.

The Longest Yard (Burt Reynolds)

The Longest Yard (Burt Reynolds)

MY: What are some of your other favorite films about football?
WF: For comedy, the one I like is “The Best of Times,” with Kurt Russell and Robin Williams. It’s hilarious. The main character, played by Robin Williams, dropped a touchdown pass in the 1972 championship game, and he’s never gotten over it. He keeps reliving the game, and he finally convinces the town to replay the game. The QB is played by Kurt Russell, whose character probably has the greatest football name of all time: Reno Hightower. It’s a very funny movie.

Best_of_Times

The Best of Times (Robin Williams & Kurt Russell)

The other movie I’ll mention is “The Little Giants.” I have three children of my own with whom I watched the movie. They’re grown now, but we still repeat lines from that movie.

The Little Giants

The Little Giants

MY: Anything inspirational from the football world?
WF: “The Junction Boys.” A good friend of mine was the QB on whom one of the characters was based. In the movie, his name is Skeet Keeler, but in real life his name is Elwood Kettler. He and I coached together here at SHSU back in the early 1990s. He lives in Trinity. I enjoyed it, I think, because I had a special connection with that movie.

MY: That’s about Bear Bryant’s coaching days when he was at Texas A&M?
WF: Yes, Paul “Bear” Bryant took the boys out to Junction, Texas for pre-season camp. I heard so many stories from Kettler, and the film shows how these guys fought through harsh conditions. The ones who survived were highly successful in their careers, and they ended up going undefeated a year or two later.

The Junction Boys

The Junction Boys

MY: What is it about football that is useful to all your players, irrespective of whether they play professionally or go in another direction?
WF: I think you learn more in the sport of football than in any other sport. Football is not easy. Putting full equipment on when it is 100 degrees, lining up and running into somebody across from you is tough work. Structure and teamwork are required. Eleven people have to be on the same page. You learn sacrifice, helping your buddy, determination, and toughness.

MY: Speaking of toughness, this is the toughest question. What’s your prediction for the Bearkats this year?
WF: Our goal is to win the National Championship. We are practicing every day to do that.

Coach Ron Randleman

Coach Ron Randleman began his coaching career in Iowa in 1965, coaching football, basketball and track. He coached for forty years, including more than two decades at SHSU, where he was Conference Coach of the Year four times and remains the winningest coach in SHSU history.

Mike Yawn: We’ve heard a lot about football films. Would you like to tell us what your favorite sports film is, football or otherwise?
Ron Randleman: I would have to say “Hoosiers.”

Hoosiers

Hoosiers

MY: That’s from 1986, starring Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper. What is it about that film that you enjoy so much?
RR: Many things. I like the setting. I’m originally from Iowa. I started out coaching and recruiting in Iowa, going to hundreds of schools in the area. I also like Gene Hackman, and he was very good in the movie. Finally, I had many friends who played basketball in Indiana, and I know that basketball is to Indianans what football is to Texans.
I played basketball in high school, and my first two years in coaching, I coached both football and basketball. Back then, everyone played in the tournament, and it was just one class. In the 1950s, the school Roland had about 50 people, and they played Davenport Central, which had about 4,000. It was one of the smallest schools in Iowa against one of the biggest, but Roland had a player named Gary Thompson, who went on to be an All-American at Iowa State. Roland won that game, something that occasionally happened in the one-class system. And that’s sort of the story line of “Hoosiers.”
Those were some of the things that caught my interest in this film.

MY: “Hoosiers” is about redemption, the idea that there is a champion in everyone. I know that’s about basketball, but you must have seen that as a football coach.
RR: So often in athletics people come through in crucial situations. It’s not necessarily the star. It can be anybody who has a big moment. Team events are special for that reason. Every person who is on the team is an important part of the process, and you never know when someone is going to have an opportunity to step up and do something significant. It’s one of the great things about team sports.

Pep Talk

MY: You’ve had a lot of success with team sports, and for the past five or six years, you’ve been teaching at SHSU. Will you still be teaching?
RR: No, not this year. Right now, I’m going to be a fan and enjoy the success that Willie and his guys will have this fall.

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