On Tuesday night, Chris Whipple — an acclaimed filmmaker of pictures such as The Spymasters, author and Emmy Award-winning producer — presented the importance of the White House Chief of Staff, a role he describes as the second most powerful job in government, to a crowd of approximately 200 at the Gerald R. Ford Library.
Central to his discussion was his 2017 book “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” which includes conversations with all 17 living chiefs of staff and two former presidents. He also referenced and showed clips from his 2013 documentary “The Presidents’ Gatekeepers,” which similarly features chiefs discussing the past nine presidential administrations, approximately 50 years of office.
The Chief of Staff is sometimes referred to as the “gatekeeper” — the individual who decides who can enter the Oval Office, communicates often with the president and works as a secretary of sorts. His tasks include advising the president and negotiating with Congress, among others; the role is seen as the highest-ranked position in the White House.
Whipple explained, the job of White House Chief of Staff as it exists today was created by H. R. Haldeman — a chief of staff under then-President Richard Nixon, who served 18 months in prison for conspiracy in the Watergate scandal.
“Haldeman is a fascinating character because, on the one hand, he failed to speak truth to Richard Nixon for the Watergate cover infamously, and yet ultimate successors will tell you he created a template for the modern, empowered White House Chief of Staff,” he said.
Whipple said every president learns, often the hard way, he cannot govern effectively without empowering a White House Chief of Staff to execute his agenda and tell him what he doesn’t want to hear. He explained that today, President Donald J. Trump does not seem to be aware of this fact.
“Modern history is littered with the wreckage of presidencies that did not understand that,” he said. “It’s a lesson that our current president, oblivious to history, either has not learned or has chosen to ignore.”
From the Watergate scandal to the Iran-Contra scandal to the Monica Lewinski scandal, the Chief of Staff makes the difference between success and disaster, he explained. He elaborated that though the Nixon White House neared disaster, it could have been worse if it were not for Haldeman who often “talked Nixon off the ledge” — strongly advising the president against acts that seemed inappropriate.
He then read a passage from his book aloud that described former President Gerald Ford as always seeing the best in people, while it was up to his Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld, to suspect the worst. In one story, Rumsfeld forbid Ford from attending the birthday party of his friend House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill when he heard it was hosted by a lobbyist from Korea who was under investigation. When Ford insisted he attend, Rumsfeld said he would have to walk there as Rumsfeld would not be accompanying him. Ford sent his regrets. Said lobbyist was later indicted
Whipple compared such action to events transpiring currently in the White House. He noted Trump met with James Comey, the former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to caution him of investigating the alleged involvement by the state of Russia in the 2016 presidential election. Trump went on to fire Comey.
He asked the audience if they could imagine such a meeting happening under the watch of a historically successful Chief of Staff such as Jim Baker under former President Ronald Reagan or Leon Panetta under former President Bill Clinton.
“This is just the latest and most dramatic example of a president who has no one who will tell him what he doesn’t want to hear,” he said.
Kate Murray, the Special Events Coordinator at the library, said Whipple came on the library’s radar as a bestselling author. David Hume Kennerly, former Chief Official White House Photographer under President Gerald R. Ford, who worked with Whipple on the documentary, recommended to her that he be invited.
Recognizing the large turnout, Murray explained Whipple’s work is something all attendees can understand as politics evolves, especially since everybody has heard the name of a Chief of Staff, so it would be interesting to them to hear the stories behind the respective names.
“Our audience tends to be different ages, and everybody can sort of relate to a specific Chief of Staff — and there, of course, are many during a presidential term,” she said.
Claire Dahl, a retired history teacher from Pioneer High School, was among the attendees. She said she used to bring her Advanced Placement classes to the Ford Library so students could do research for their term papers.
“I don’t think there’s anyone that’s not interested in the presidency today, or the disfunction in the office,” she said. “I think everyone is starting to wonder why in the world responsible people around President Trump aren’t doing a better job controlling him. Whether it’s his agenda or his tweeting or his comments — disrespectful, highly uneducated comments that he’s making about the world. I’m shocked that there are not members of Congress, his cabinet, somebody who is not getting to him.”
In response to Whipple’s address, Dahl said she was concerned it will take too long for Trump to realize he needs more suitable advising while in office.
“I’m a little afraid that he mentioned sometimes it might take one and a half, two and a half years until the president reaches the bottom, before he realizes he has to have a Chief of Staff who is going to look him in the eyeballs and say ‘You are wrong,’ ” she said. “I worry about the fact that he said maybe President Trump doesn’t want an adult in the room, and it never will come. A lot can happen in four years, so it scares me for this country, for all of us, for the presidency itself.”