The position of the White House Chief of Staff has been in the news lately, and it's always interesting to look at what the historical context of different positions in government has been. There are quite a few good presidential bios, but the Chief of Staff position gets overlooked.
Chris Wipple, a Peabody-winning journalist, aims to fill this gap through his book Gatekeepers. My only background on this book was that I know that shadow powers are important (thanks to this amazing post by Ben Casnocha, former Chief of Staff to LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman). I also knew that Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor of Chicago, was former CoS to Obama. The fact that I didn't have a lot of background was good because it was one of those books that I learned a lot from.
Wipple goes through every President starting with Richard Nixon to explore "how the White House Chiefs of Staff define every Presidency". I've distilled the lessons from the book that are relevant not just for Presidents, but also for any executive who wants to hire a "Gatekeeper" like an assistant or secretary. It is also a manual for those Gatekeepers on how to best do their job.
Speak truth to power: You need to call the President out on when you think they are doing something wrong. Apart from the President's wife, the Chief of Staff is the only person with the ability to pull the President aside and tell them that things are not working.
The CoS during the Nixon administration was H.R. Haldeman. He had protected Nixon from his own worst impulse many times before Watergate and ultimately, it was his inability to say no to Nixon that kicked off the series of decisions that led to Watergate. When Gerald Ford became President and was running for office but was not performing well in the long televised debates, his first CoS Donald Rumsfeld told him that "You're a lousy fucking candidate!" which ultimately led to a series of 30-60 seconds videos that packaged Ford in something more marketable.
James Baker, CoS to Reagan and George 41 and considered by many to be the standard against which other Chiefs of Staff are measured, said that "You do not serve your president well if you are just a yes man. You have to be willing to speak truth to power."
Don't end-run yourself: The term end-running was coined by Haldeman. It refers to the temptation for senior staffers to push their own agendas through the President. In one of his first memos, Haldeman noted "Don't become a source of end-running yourself, or we'll miss you at the White House."
Post WWII, the Executive Branch has taken over a lot of powers previously delegated to Congress. This means that it is more dangerous to leverage the President towards your own ends. This is a recipe for disaster – you can't be seen to have your own agenda.
Complement your weaknesses: The presidents that had capable Chiefs looked for people who filled in their own gaps.
When Obama first came to the White House, he knew he would need someone who was a Washington insider because he was not one. So he choose Rahm Emanuel who was famous for being a hard-ass when it came to coaxing Congress.
Jimmy Carter thought that he could do everything and chose Hamilton Jordan (his campaign manager) as his Chief of Staff. Even though Carter did do some good work, his forward-looking policies often didn't see the light of day because Jordan was inept at managing the different levers of power in Washington necessary to pass legislation through Congress.
Unlike Carter, Reagan knew that he wasn't very good at policy. Being a former actor, he asked his Chief of Staff James Baker to "direct the play" and he would take care of the optics. He knew what he didn't know.
Carter was probably more cerebral and "smarter" than Reagan, but Reagan surrounded himself with smart people which filled in any gaps he had. This discrepancy led Reagans' biographer Lou Cannon to note that in this understanding of what he didn't know, "he was the opposite Jimmy Carter, who knew far more and understood far less."
Leave "your people" behind: One of the mistakes that Carter made by appointing Hamilton Jordan as his Chief of Staff in the presence of better alternatives was falling into the trap of bringing the people who won you the election to govern with you. It is difficult to say goodbye to the people who helped you win the most powerful position in the world, but it is often necessary. Campaigning and governing require very different skillsets.
Most Presidents after Carter have not made this mistake, but the tension become the "President's people" and more seasoned candidates for the role is ever present. One of the first lose-lose scenarios that the President has to face is this conflict between their people and the Washington operators that they need to succeed.
Beware the spokes on the wheel: Dick Cheney had a successful, if short-lived, term as Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford. When giving advice to the incoming Chief of Staff Hamilton, he left a note that said "Beware the spokes of the wheel."
The spokes of the wheel model was conceived by Gerald Ford who said that everyone should have access to the President so that he can incorporate dissenting opinions into his policies. This was a disastrous idea. There was just too much cognitive load on the President.
So Cheney "modified" the system, which really meant that he got rid of it. Access to the President was controlled by the Chief of Staff. They would decide who the President needed to see.
Often in the name of democratization of access, we are too eager to filter out opinions that are self-serving and mostly propaganda. There is a fine line to be tread here, but I would say that it's better to more conservative here.
The book is a great read and you get an insight into how powerful this non-elected, non-confirmed position is. I highly recommend picking up a copy.