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The Gatekeepers

How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency

By Chris Whipple
15-minute read
Audio available
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple

The Gatekeepers (2017) challenges the standard view of the US government. To most people, the United States is embodied by its president. After all, it’s he who appears on all the TV screens. But the mechanics of the executive branch means there’s a key figure who’s too easily forgotten: the chief of staff. It’s his responsibility to control who or what reaches the president. Chris Whipple traces the history of the best – and the worst – of these gatekeepers.

  • Political junkies
  • Students of history or public policy
  • Anyone interested in how the White House works behind the scenes

Chris Whipple is a Peabody- and Emmy-award-winning author, documentarian and journalist. He recently wrote and produced Showtime’s The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs.

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The Gatekeepers

How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency

By Chris Whipple
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple
Synopsis

The Gatekeepers (2017) challenges the standard view of the US government. To most people, the United States is embodied by its president. After all, it’s he who appears on all the TV screens. But the mechanics of the executive branch means there’s a key figure who’s too easily forgotten: the chief of staff. It’s his responsibility to control who or what reaches the president. Chris Whipple traces the history of the best – and the worst – of these gatekeepers.

Key idea 1 of 9

The role of chief of staff took its current form during Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Richard Nixon’s reputation isn’t great these days, but he shaped the modern presidency through his use of a dedicated chief of staff.

Nixon’s Democratic predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson – usually known as LBJ – hated the idea of concentrating power in one chief adviser. Instead, LBJ got personally embroiled in all the organizational aspects of the presidency. He opened letters and even arranged appointments with members of the cabinet himself. In doing this, he’d overstretched himself, and Nixon was determined not to make the same mistakes.

Nixon, therefore, turned to H. R. Haldeman to act as chief of staff. The role had existed before, but Haldeman shaped its modern form. Haldeman used his powers to organize procedures for White House staff.

For starters, he put a stop to the process of end running – gaining access to the president through lesser members of the administration. Those wanting to meet the president now had to go through the chief of staff first. This would keep the president focused on his main policy aims. Haldeman’s command over the administration meant he was the first person Nixon spoke to each morning and the last person each night.

It was also Haldeman’s responsibility to keep Nixon on the straight and narrow.

He wasn’t always successful though. The tape recorders that Nixon had installed to document Oval Office conversations provided evidence that Nixon wanted to illegally break into the Brookings Institute. He suspected that documents leaked to the media from the State Department were stored there.

On that occasion, Haldeman managed to restrain Nixon from authorizing the raid, but he couldn’t always keep his increasingly neurotic president in check.

The paranoia surrounding the White House led to the Watergate scandal, which involved forced entry and the planting of surveillance devices at the Democratic National Committee offices. Ironically, Nixon was caught on his own devices approving the payment for those who had broken in. His downfall soon followed.

Even though Haldeman wasn’t ultimately successful, the paradigm for the White House’s organizational staff system had been set.

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