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Book Examines 17 'Gatekeepers' Into The White House's Inner Workings


When a new president takes office, we're all very mindful of who'll be the next secretary of state who'll be the secretary of defense or attorney general. But the personnel choice that's often more influential is one that requires no Senate confirmation. It's often someone we barely heard of, but it's the person who stands between the president and a multitude of appointees, special interests, job seekers, political opponents, old friends. You name it. It's the White House chief of staff, the subject of Chris Whipple's new book, "The Gatekeepers."

We're joined now by Mr. Whipple, who's in New York. Welcome to the program.

CHRIS WHIPPLE: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And also by a man who was chief of staff to two presidents, not to mention secretary of state and secretary of the Treasury, James Baker, who joins us from Houston. Secretary Baker, welcome to the program.

JAMES BAKER: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let me ask you first, Chris Whipple. You interviewed all 17 former White House chiefs of staff, and you quote Nixon's chief of staff, Bob Haldeman as saying, "our job is not to do the work of government" - defer to Cabinet departments, he meant. But then you write, in practice, almost all the governing - actual governing, real decisions did take place in the West Wing. Is that typical of things ever since?

WHIPPLE: You know, it's absolutely true, and it's been true since the days of Haldeman and Nixon. You know, the irony here is that Haldeman became the poster boy for Watergate, the worst scandal in history. And yet most of the - his successors would tell you that he wrote the template for the modern empowered White House chief of staff.

He ran a tight ship. He executed Nixon's agenda, and he did it pretty well until he was of course done in by Watergate and his inability to speak truth to power, which of course is another major responsibility. But since the days of Haldeman, power really does reside in the White House.

SIEGEL: James Baker, you were Ronald Reagan's chief of staff and then his treasury secretary. And you were George H.W. Bush's chief of staff but also his secretary of state. Do you think you had more influence when you were running one of the big agencies or when you were the gatekeeper to the Oval Office?

BAKER: Well, it depends on which of my presidents you're talking about. I was of course personally closer to George Bush because we'd been friends for 40 years. I had run all of his presidential campaigns, so nobody was going to ever get between me and my president. And when I went out as secretary of state and said something, they knew I was talking for the president of the United States, and nobody questioned it.

With Ronald Reagan, it was a little different. I was the outsider. I had run two campaigns against Reagan before he asked me to be his chief of staff. But he invested me with great authority and great responsibility and gave me great loyalty. I've said oftentimes that being white house chief of staff is perhaps the second most powerful job in Washington, D.C. I think that's true. But so much depends upon your relationship with your present.

SIEGEL: Chris Whipple, you mentioned speaking truth to power. That means telling the most powerful person in the country no sometimes. Who were some effective naysayers, and who were some who couldn't say no loud enough or often enough?

WHIPPLE: Well, you know, interestingly, both Jim Baker and Leon Panetta will tell you that that is the single most important thing - telling the president what he didn't want to hear. Ronald Reagan was hell bent on going to Capitol Hill and tackling Social Security reform as his very first major initiative.

Jim Baker, the insider - Ronald Reagan was smart enough to know he needed an insider. Baker told him that's the third rail of American politics. You touch it, you get electrocuted. As a result, Reagan changed course, and he pursued the economy with laser-like focus and pursued tax reform instead.

SIEGEL: There was also a question of whether members of the Cabinet, Secretary Baker, would be given polygraph tests to see if they were leaking. You were confronted with that problem.

BAKER: Well, yeah, that was a rather aberrant event. We had a National Security Council meeting one time from which emanated a rather destructive leak. And the president went along with the recommendation of his national security adviser to require the people at the meeting to take lie detector tests.

Well, when I learned of it, I walked in the Oval Office, and he was - President Reagan was having lunch with Vice President Bush and Secretary of State George Shultz. And I said, Mr. President, here's what's happened, and here's why this doesn't work. And as soon as I outlined what had happened, George Shultz said, well, Mr. President, if you want me to take a lie detector test, I'll take it, but it will be the last thing I do as your secretary of state. So the president recognized that this was a terrible error, and he reversed it. So I think it's very true that speaking truth to power is one of the principle requirements if you're going to be an effective chief of staff.

SIEGEL: Well, from the wisdom, Chris Whipple, that you've come by by interviewing all of the living former White House chiefs of staff and, Jim Baker, from what you gleaned from being a White House chief of staff, what advice would you give Reince Priebus, the current White House chief of staff, and, for that matter, President Trump about how to make that relationship work? Chris, let's start with you.

WHIPPLE: Well, you know, I would say so far that if you oppose everything Trump stands for, this is the White House staff for you. Priebus has made rookie mistakes galore. No competent chief of staff would allow executive orders to go out without being vetted by the departments that are involved.

The chief can't seem to fill critical jobs in the White House. The daily message is a muddle. And of course it's a challenge with the president because ultimately the president has to empower a chief of staff, and it's not clear that he has.

BAKER: I got to tell you. I thought that Reince Priebus did an extraordinarily fine job as chairman of the Republican National Committee presiding over a primary - a really (laughter) goat-rope-type primary with 17 candidates, and he handled himself extraordinarily well. I still think that he has great potential to be a very good White House chief of staff, but as you said, Chris, he has to be empowered by his president.

And there are any number of people in this White House who have broad and rather undefined responsibilities that cut across both domestic and foreign policy. It's very difficult under those circumstances to have a coordinated, single, focused message, and that's something that's very important to the success of an administration.

SIEGEL: How tough a job is it, by the way? How much does it take out of you?

BAKER: I've said it's the toughest job in government, and I believe that. And when Ronald Reagan asked me to take the job, I said, Mr. President, this job is best done I think in two-year increments. He said, fine, we'll do it for two years. When I left in 1985, I'd been there for four years, three weeks and two days or something like that. But anyway, I'd been there longer than any other prior White House chief of staff who hadn't gone to jail...

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

BAKER: ...Because you lose - you use up your political chips in a hurry. You take all the javelins that are intended for the old man.


BAKER: And it's a very, very tough job.

SIEGEL: And Chris...

WHIPPLE: It's extraordinarily tough. I mean what does it tell you that the average tenure is a little less than two years? Dick Cheney attributes his first heart attack to the experience. Bill Daley came down with shingles a month after he left. It's extraordinarily tough, and it was tough on Jim Baker, too.

SIEGEL: Well, Chris Whipple, author of "The Gatekeepers: How The White House Chiefs Of Staff Define Every Presidency," thank you very much for talking with us today.

WHIPPLE: Thank you, my pleasure.

SIEGEL: And James Baker, we're going to hear more from you tomorrow about what your current activities are and also the state of Republican environmentalism. Thanks for talking with us today.

BAKER: You're sure welcome. Thank you, Robert.