The Toughest Job in Washington | Wall Street Journal | 4.14.2017

‘Personnel is policy” goes an enduring White House cliché, and of no staffer is that claim more true than the president’s chief of staff. As Chris Whipple argues in “The Gatekeepers,” a group portrait of White House chiefs from Richard Nixon’s tenure to Barack Obama’s , the chief of staff has been the key to the success of every modern presidency—or a big reason for its failure. The tale Mr. Whipple tells is a good and important one, if slightly incomplete.

The position was an innovation of Dwight Eisenhower, who created it upon entering office in 1953 and appointed former New Hampshire Gov. Sherman Adams to the post. But it was H.R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s aide, who, three presidencies later, developed the modern White House staffing system and thereby gave an enduring place to the chief of staff in American government.

Haldeman invented both the modern presidential campaign and the modern White House. He designed the television-heavy strategy of the 1968 Nixon campaign, the model for virtually all major American campaigns since (until Donald Trump broke the mold in 2016). His impact on the operations of the presidency was equally profound.

In 1968, he described his concept for the new White House management system: “Nothing goes to the president that is not completely staffed out first, for accuracy and form, for lateral coordination [among departments and agencies], checked for related material, reviewed by competent staff.”

The intent of the system was to ensure that every person and every piece of paper that reached the chief executive was worthy of his attention and, in turn, that the executive branch pursued the president’s policies. For the next two generations, the Haldeman system helped one White House after another attain a level of professional excellence in staff work and efficiency in organization that met the growing responsibilities of government and the demands of global leadership.

But the system was not infallible, even during Haldeman’s own tenure. At a meeting of former chiefs of staff convened in 1986, Haldeman responded to a question about Watergate by saying that “the system was not followed.” If it had been, he said, he and his staff “would have resolved that matter satisfactorily, probably unfortunately for some people. . . . It wasn’t done, and that was what led to the ultimate crisis.”

Mr. Whipple notes that Haldeman wouldn’t confront the president and demand that he stop the cover-up. And he dismissed the seriousness of the break-in, believing that J. Edgar Hoover had bugged the 1968 Nixon campaign on behalf of Lyndon Johnson without protest from the press or Congress.

Still, Mr. Whipple accepts the failure of the system as the primary explanation for Watergate, a plausible view. Indeed, his tale of successive presidencies becomes the same truth displayed over and over again: When chiefs of staff are strong and work the Haldeman system well, presidencies thrive; when chiefs are weak or fumbling—or, alternatively, overbearing—presidencies run into trouble.

The early days of the Ford presidency, for example, were chaotic. Gerald Ford’s unstaffed decision to pardon Richard Nixon in September 1974 had sent the president’s approval ratings into “free fall.” (Down to 49%; those were the days!) The chief of staff—Nixon holdover Gen. Alexander Haig—showed himself to be “scheming and mercurial,” Mr. Whipple says. Staff work was sloppy, speech drafts inane. Ford soon replaced Haig with Donald Rumsfeld, a former congressman and NATO ambassador. When Mr. Rumsfeld became defense secretary in November 1975, his protégé Dick Cheney stepped in. Between them, they steadied the ship. Ford almost prevailed in the 1976 election.

Jimmy Carter acted as his own chief of staff for the first two years of his presidency, with disastrous results. This was the period in which he famously oversaw the schedule for the White House tennis court. Then he made Hamilton Jordan his chief—which may have been worse. Jordan, an assistant from Mr. Carter’s days in Georgia’s governor’s mansion, devoted his tenure to drinking, womanizing and insulting members of Congress. Too late, Mr. Carter turned to Jack Watson, a former Marine and Harvard Law graduate. Mr. Watson would prove to be a first-class choice, bringing order, focus and follow-through to White House operations. At a reception before his inauguration in 1981, Ronald Reagan told the outgoing chief: “You know, Jack, my people tell me that if you’d been chief of staff from the beginning, I wouldn’t be here.”

“One hell of a chief of staff” is what adviser Stuart Spencer called Ronald Reagan’s gatekeeper, James A. Baker III. To Mr. Whipple, Mr. Baker sets the standard by which to measure all other presidential gatekeepers. Mr. Baker had been George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager during the 1980 primaries and had impressed Reagan in the fall of the year, when Mr. Bush joined Reagan on the ticket. With Edwin Meese and Michael Deaver, the other members of the so-called Troika, Mr. Baker controlled loose cannons like Secretary of State Haig; delivered bad news to the president when necessary; and through savvy negotiation and the shrewd working of the media helped put the Reagan program through Congress.

If Mr. Baker was the best chief of staff, his successor, Don Regan, was among the worst, as Mr. Whipple sees it. Regan had been CEO of a Wall Street financial house and never fully understood that he was not CEO of the United States. He did not discard the Haldeman staffing system but neither did he use it well, often stifling communication within the staff and blocking staff access to the president when he should have been facilitating it. The result was one mishap after another, culminating with the Iran-Contra Affair. Ultimately the president had had enough. Howard Baker and then Kenneth Duberstein replaced Regan, restored the Haldeman system and helped the administration finish on a triumphant note.

And so Mr. Whipple’s story continues. Among effective custodians of the staff system are Bill Clinton’s Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles and John Podesta (who initiated the now-familiar expansive use of executive powers to circumvent a hostile Congress). George W. Bush’s Josh Bolten and Barack Obama’s Rahm Emanuel earn praise as well. While aggressive and profane, Mr. Emanuel respected the diversity of views within the staff. “There was quote-unquote the true believers versus the pragmatists,” Mr. Whipple quotes Mr. Emanuel saying. “You’re supposed to have that. . . . That’s how you get kind of the intellectual energy and the political energy to get things done.” On the ineffective side of the ledger are, among others, George H.W. Bush’s John Sununu (who respected few views other than his own) and Mr. Obama’s Bill Daley (who failed to win the respect of the president or the staff).

Mr. Whipple’s argument is persuasive and his survey surprisingly interesting, given the bureaucratic nature of the job he is examining. Still, there is more to be said about the broad governing styles that shape modern presidencies. In the three decades from the New Deal to the end of the Eisenhower administration, two models emerged, a Democratic one based on Franklin Roosevelt’s practices and a Republican one based on Ike’s.

The Democrats’ model was the looser of the two, with more people having access to the president. FDR was famous for using broad access to his advantage. He played his cabinet secretaries and senior officials off against one another, allowing responsibilities to overlap so that when departments clashed, decisions were kicked over to him, keeping him in control. Democrats came to disdain Eisenhower’s orderliness, which seemed to them to isolate the president and stifle creative discourse.

There is some justice to this criticism, but the Democrats’ style of management had a flaw: It was hard to sustain. Without Roosevelt and his combination of charm, wiliness and instinctive feel for how agencies and departments interacted, the broad-access model became an open door to the lack of accountability that plagues the federal establishment today.

The GOP style, for its part, has led one chief of staff after another to leave office under a cloud or worse. Yes, the system has fostered an efficient use of the president’s time. But it has also meant that powerful people in Washington eventually see the chief of staff as the man who said “no” to their favorite policy. More broadly, the chief of staff, by acting as a gatekeeper, may appear to be usurping the president’s prerogatives. So much power (real or imagined) can seem too much for an appointed official, producing its own kind of break in the chain of accountability.

The singular success of James Baker was not due solely to his remarkable administrative and political skills. In organizing the White House, Reagan melded the FDR and Eisenhower styles. There were the orderliness and professional standards of the Haldeman system. But if Mr. Baker blocked a determined supplicant, there were Roosevelt-like routes to the president that he could not control: Messrs. Meese and Deaver primarily but also, at various times, National Security Adviser William Clark, CIA Director William Casey and Sen. Paul Laxalt. It is evident from Mr. Whipple’s volume that Reagan’s structured tension was hard on the members of the Troika. But it kept the president in charge.

But this quibble does not diminish the value of Mr. Whipple’s entertaining and engaging study. It is a fair guess that the norm for incoming chief executives has been passively to accept the Haldeman organization chart, not recognizing all that goes into making the system work.

Mr. Judge is managing director of the White House Writers Group and chairman of the Pacific Research Institute.

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