Perhaps I’ve been wrong about H.R. Haldeman all these years. Maybe Richard Nixon’s chief of staff was not the quintessential villain I’ve thought he was.
In a new book that describes every chief of staff for presidents from Nixon through Obama, Haldeman, the former California advertising executive, is described as a bulwark against some of Nixon’s most outrageous and illegal demands against political enemies.
In “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” journalist and documentary filmmaker Chris Whipple titles his Haldeman chapter “The Lord High Executioner” for Haldeman’s iron-fisted control over the Nixon White House.
“Haldeman often acted as a brake on presidential orders he considered unwise or even illegal,” Whipple writes, as when Nixon tried to get Haldeman to find out how many Democrats led the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — and also how many were Jews.
Or, interviewed in 1986, Haldeman recalled that Nixon “unequivocally and immediately” demanded on two occasions that Haldeman subject all State Department employees to lie detector tests because Nixon was furious about leaks over negotiations to end the Vietnam War. Haldeman refused.
Gee, a president reacting hysterically to leaks? Sound familiar?
In person, as I wrote years ago, Haldeman looked the consummate villain. As a graduate student queuing to attend the Watergate trial, I saw Haldeman walk past me in a courthouse corridor, the familiar brush haircut, dark suit and American flag lapel pin giving him a military bearing. He wore a tight grin and nodded to us even as someone hissed as he passed.
You might guess where I am going here. With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel and, well, Joe DiMaggio, I ask: Where have you gone H.R. Haldeman? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Whipple, you see, writes chronologically about presidencies and chiefs of staff, interviewing all 17 chiefs and two presidents and exploring the memoirs of chiefs who have died.
None, not even the abject failures among them, approach the fecklessness and futility of Donald Trump’s chief, Wisconsin’s own Reince Priebus, former chair of the Republican National Committee and, earlier, the Republican Party of Wisconsin. (With Gov. Scott Walker and House Speaker Paul Ryan, he is one of three big Wisconsin names on the national GOP stage.)
Leon Panetta, a chief of staff to Bill Clinton who Whipple describes as especially effective, had this to say about the chief of staff job: “You have to be the person that says no. You’ve got to be the son of a bitch that tells somebody what the president can’t tell him.”
And, Panetta told the author, you have to be able to tell the president when he’s wrong. That willingness to speak truth to power was something Whipple’s most-admired chief — James Baker, serving Ronald Reagan — also possessed, according to the author.
By coincidence, I was reading Whipple’s book the day Trump bizarrely summoned his cabinet so each could verbally genuflect before the boss and the television cameras.
It was the kind of meeting one can imagine leader Kim Jong Un convening in North Korea, perhaps with the threat of execution for anyone whose praise failed to satisfy the dictator.
Trump’s top appointees were all too willing to effusively flatter the weirdly beaming president, but Priebus outdid them all.
“On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people,” Priebus said. “And we’re continuing to work very hard every day to accomplish those goals.”
Even in a room of sycophants, Priebus distinguished himself. And remember, this was a guy who last year as GOP party chairman frequently blasted Trump, including over the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump talks about groping women.
After the cabinet meeting was this Washington Post headline: “Reince Priebus might have praised President Trump a little too effusively — and now the Internet is poking fun.”
To ridicule Trump and Priebus, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer responded by posting a video with his staff fawning over Schumer, one parroting the “blessing” reference. And Twitter went wild, with one tweet awarding Priebus the distinction of “#suckup of the year.”
In fairness, Priebus is in over his head and serves a president who is unprecedented in demanding total loyalty, returning none, and, well, lying as a serial tactic.
As far back as March, the knives were out for Priebus, which is the precise phrase Politico used in the headline of a story in which inside sources describe “a micromanager who sprints from one West Wing meeting to another, inserting himself into conversations big and small and leaving many staffers with the impression that he’s trying to block their access to Trump. … And they expressed alarm at what they say are directionless morning staff meetings Priebus oversees that could otherwise be used to rigorously set the day’s agenda and counterbalance the president’s own unpredictability.”
That was way back in March. There have been lots of new controversies since.
A Politico story last week said Trump has given Priebus until July 4 to fix White House staff problems or be fired. In that story is this paragraph: “Days after his return from his first foreign trip late last month, Trump berated Priebus in the Oval Office in front of (two others) for the dysfunction in the White House, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversation.”
Yes, serving Trump sure sounds like a “blessing.”
In Whipple’s book, there are some less-than-stellar chiefs. Haldeman did go to jail and Hamilton Jordan’s inexperience and disorganized style helped undermine Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The imperiousness of Donald Regan, a former Wall Street executive, diminished Reagan, and the unbridled arrogance of John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor, hurt George H.W. Bush.
But no chief described in Whipple’s 300 pages approached the weakness of Priebus.
Interviewed in January, Whipple predicted Priebus might rival Regan as the least effective chief in modern history. Um, I’m thinking the outcome to that rivalry has been determined.
In the end, I’m torn. In theory, I support dysfunction in the White House given its despicable policy goals but have every confidence — fear maybe — that Trump is capable of picking someone worse than Priebus.
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