Ev­ery pres­i­dent must have ‘his own SOB’

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By John R. Coyne Jr. John R. Coyne Jr., a for­mer White House speech­writer, is co-au­thor of “Strictly Right: William F. Buck­ley Jr. and the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive Move­ment” (Wi­ley).

THE GATE­KEEP­ERS: HOW THE WHITE HOUSE CHIEFS OF STAFF DE­FINE EV­ERY PRES­I­DENCY By Chris Whip­ple Crown, $28, 365 pages

Like so many things, it all be­gan with Richard Nixon. Chris Whip­ple, a doc­u­men­tary film­maker and award-winning TV pro­ducer, is a tal­ented jour­nal­ist who has in­ter­viewed all 17 liv­ing chiefs of staff as well as nu­mer­ous peo­ple who served with them. His prose is clear, crisp and of­ten evoca­tive, and for the most part his ob­ser­va­tions ring true as he tracks the devel­op­ment of the of­fice.

Be­fore Nixon, pres­i­dents used friends and fam­ily as close ad­vis­ers. Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower, un­der whom Richard Nixon stud­ied, de­pended on the iras­ci­ble but ded­i­cated Sher­man Adams to func­tion much like an Army chief of staff, mak­ing sure the right peo­ple had ac­cess and the pres­i­dent’s or­ders were car­ried out.

John Kennedy, who would later call on his brother Bobby for help, had es­tab­lished no ef­fec­tive chain of com­mand, and thus found him­self lis­ten­ing to too many peo­ple, among them his Ivy League best-and-bright­est ad­vis­ers, ad­vanc­ing var­i­ous half-baked plans of ac­tion that led to such disasters as the Bay of Pigs in­va­sion — to say noth­ing of send­ing mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers to South Vietnam, thereby set­ting off the steadily es­ca­lat­ing process that would even­tu­ally drive his suc­ces­sor, Lyn­don John­son, from of­fice. (Many be­lieve that LBJ’s great­est mis­take was not to shed those Kennedy ad­vis­ers im­me­di­ately and ap­point his own strong chief of staff.)

But it was Richard Nixon, in part from lessons learned as Eisen­hower’s vice pres­i­dent as well as from the failed pres­i­den­cies of Kennedy and John­son, who es­tab­lished the of­fi­cial chief of staff po­si­tion. As Mr. Whip­ple writes, he in­tended to staff his Cabi­net with “strong, idio­syn­cratic per­son­al­i­ties,” but also wanted some­one “to keep them in line, to ensure that his agenda would be ex­e­cuted.”

That some­one would be H.R. “Bob” Halde­man. As Halde­man re­called, “Eisen­hower had told Nixon that ev­ery pres­i­dent has to have his own ‘SOB.’ Nixon had looked over every­one in his en­tourage and de­cided that [I] was a plu­per­fect SOB.”

Many in the Nixon White House feared Halde­man, and many oth­ers re­sented him. Un­der the sys­tem set up by Halde­man and his fel­low Chris­tian Sci­en­tist, John Ehrlich­man (the pop­u­lar name for the sys­tem was “the Berlin Wall”), Halde­man not only tried to limit the ac­cess of old friend and ad­vis­ers, but at times even fam­ily mem­bers. The pur­pose of the sys­tem was to pro­vide the pres­i­dent with time and space to re­flect and study; but the re­sult was iso­la­tion, bro­ken largely by the pres­ence of ac­qui­es­cent yes men.

Then, in 1971, “Nixon had posed to Halde­man a seem­ingly mundane ques­tion: How could they pre­serve the pres­i­dent’s con­ver­sa­tions for pos­ter­ity?” Halde­man first sug­gested a man­ual recorder, such as LBJ had used. But af­ter ex­per­i­ments, Nixon, no­to­ri­ously lack­ing in man­ual dex­ter­ity, couldn’t use it. So Halde­man fi­nally had a voice-ac­ti­vated sys­tem in­stalled, which meant that ev­ery word ever spo­ken in the Oval Of­fice would be recorded.

Nev­er­the­less, it was the sys­tem that the pres­i­dent thought he wanted, the sys­tem that worked so well he seemed to for­get about it, and the sys­tem that ul­ti­mately de­stroyed his pres­i­dency.

When Alexan­der But­ter­field re­vealed the ex­is­tence of the tapes to Water­gate com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­ga­tors, there was still time to de­stroy them be­fore they be­came ev­i­dence, as Pat Buchanan, Fred Buzhardt and nu­mer­ous oth­ers urged the pres­i­dent to do. But as Mr. Whip­ple points out, Nixon re­fused, in part be­cause he was urged to pre­serve them by his chief of staff.

“It’s a god­dam dif­fi­cult job in the best of cir­cum­stances,” as James Baker, the best of Ron­ald Rea­gan’s chiefs of staff, put it. “Four years and two weeks was longer than any­body else had held that job and not gone to jail!”

Some think that jail might have been an ap­pro­pri­ate sub­ject for dis­cus­sion dur­ing the first Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion. But Leon Panetta and his deputy Ersk­ine Bowles pulled things to­gether, in­sur­ing the pres­i­dent’s re-elec­tion.

Dick Cheney and Don Rums­feld, who very nearly helped Ger­ald Ford win re-elec­tion over Jimmy Carter, would again play key roles in the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Ge­orge W. Bush, whose long-serv­ing chief of staff, An­drew Card, may have been too much of a gen­tle­man to fit the job sum­ma­rized by Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower as the pres­i­dent’s SOB.

In an epi­logue, Mr. Whip­ple deals only su­per­fi­cially with Don­ald Trump. And whether Reince Priebus is an ad­e­quate SOB — or whether Pres­i­dent Trump needs one — remains, at this point, an open ques­tion.

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