Author, journalist, and documentary filmmaker Chris Whipple returned to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library on June 6, 2017 to present a lecture on his recently published book “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency”. He also spoke June 24, 2017 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
Whipple is a multiple Peabody and Emmy-Award winning producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Primetime, and chief executive officer of CCWHIP Productions. Most recently, he was the executive producer and writer of Showtime’s “The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs”.
Whipple noted that “The Gatekeepers” is the first in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the White House Chiefs of Staff. In researching the book, Whipple collected research and extensive interviews with all seventeen living White House Chiefs of Staff and two former Presidents. Whipple had previously worked on the Discovery Channel’s documentary series “The President’s Gatekeepers” which also focused on White House Chiefs of Staff.
Whipple opined that the White House Chief of Staff role “can make the difference between success and disaster for every Presidency” even though it does not receive Senate confirmation or much public scrutiny like other Presidential appointments such as Cabinet Secretary, Supreme Court Justice and Ambassador. Whipple shared the opinions of former White House Chiefs of Staff James Baker and Dick Cheney that the job is the second most powerful position in the United States government.
Whipple noted that President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, created the template for the modern White House Chief of Staff role. Whipple shared a video clip from “The President’s Gatekeepers” showing interviews from several White House Chiefs of Staff describing a typical day in the job, from President Gerald R. Ford’s first Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld through President Barack Obama’s second Chief of Staff William Daley.
Whipple listed several key functions for the White House Chief of Staff role such as: being the President’s closest confidant; gatekeeper controlling access to the Oval Office; creating time and space for the President to think; honest broker to tee up information for the President’s decisions; keeper of daily message to make sure the staff is on the same page; and reliable figure to execute the agenda to thread the needle between policy and politics.
Reading from his book, Whipple provided an example of how the White House Chief of Staff must provide direct, candid advice to the President even when it is contrary to what they want to hear. As an example, Whipple provided an exchange between White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and President Ford around a birthday party for former House Majority Tip O’Neill, which at the time was hosted by a Korean lobbyist under criminal investigation. Whipple indicated Rumsfeld, sensing trouble with the host, told President Ford that he would not be able to go. Whipple noted that President Ford insisted on attending the birthday party of his friend and former colleague, to which Rumsfeld responded by saying, “Fine, you are going to walk. There won’t be a limousine for you. There won’t be any security people for you. You are going to be embarrassed and gonna have to get there on your own.” Whipple said President Ford later declined the invitation and the lobbyist in question was in fact later indicted on several counts.
Whipple shared one of his favorite stories from the book, which was between Chief of Staff Dick Cheney and President Ford, where the President wanted to pursue a “Truman style” whistle stop campaign and Cheney thought it was a bad idea. Whipple said that rather than giving his opinion directly to President Ford, Cheney brought in President Ford’s close friend Stuart Spencer to deliver the ‘unvarnished truth’. Whipple recalled that how Spencer told President Ford he shouldn’t pursue a whistle-stop speaking tour because “he was a lousy candidate” to which the President simply replied, “Oh, okay.”
Whipple stressed the importance of how “an outsider President needs a consummate insider to get things done on Capitol Hill.” Whipple indicated that President Ford tried to manage the White House without a Chief of Staff through what he referred to as the ‘hub and spoke model’. President Ford eventually deemed the model ineffective, which led to the hiring of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Despite warnings from their predecessors of the failures of “hub and spoke” model, Whipple said that Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton learned from the same mistakes that eventually lead to the hiring of White House Chiefs of Staff Hamilton Jordan and Leon Panetta.