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How White House Rivalries Shaped History

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A president’s ideas matter, but without the right people in place to make them a reality, they will never be more than wishful thinking. Competent management requires both vision and execution. As Tevi Troy explains in his new book, Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump, a White House lacking one of these will experience chaos. One lacking both is destined to fail utterly.

Troy, an historian and the author of two previous books on presidential history, begins his tale with the beginning of the modern White House staff structure in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The rise of the first truly massive administrative state in America led Roosevelt and his people to reimagine the way the chain of command should work in the executive branch.

Once, the cabinet was the true decision-making body, confirmed by the Senate, advising the president on policy choices, and largely running their departments as they saw fit. The cabinet was composed of some of the most eminent leaders in the president’s party, forming both his brain trust and his cadre of managers.

At the same time, there had always been unofficial advisors who had the president’s ear. From Andrew Jackson’s so-called “Kitchen Cabinet” to Harry Truman’s poker buddies, to Donald Trump’s children and son-in-law, presidents have sought advice from outside the cabinet structure, usually to the annoyance of the party regulars who were thereby sidestepped. Under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though, the unofficial was made official, and the power shift from the cabinet to the White House staff began in earnest.

Chain of Command

With the power went the rivalries, and no White House has been free of the squabbles that are inevitable when powerful people fight for influence. Troy describes the tumult of Truman and Eisenhower administrations as this new hierarchy began to take shape and cabinet secretaries were effectively sidelined, especially those in the newer, less policy-driven departments. In their place rose a series of advisors, led typically by the White House chief of staff.

Whether to have a chief of staff is a major conflict in itself in the early part of the period Troy studies. What seems unremarkable today was once a contentious decision. The question of centralizing the chain of command in the White House staff changed with the political winds. Richard Nixon promised a return to the cabinet system and away from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ constantly feuding non-cabinet power centers. Instead, he centralized power even further in the hands of the national security advisor and the chief of staff.

Nixon’s administration exploded into chaos with Watergate and resignation, and Gerald Ford’s makeshift changes failed to solve the problem. Jimmy Carter was elected largely as a backlash against Nixon and he constructed his White House staff the same way, initially refusing to even name a chief of staff.

When he did, it did not solve the problems he had created, which were the product of diffuse leadership, rival clans of insiders and outsiders, and presidential pride. As Troy explains, “Carter had no lack of ego and he wanted to be the one in charge of the White House.” That level of micromanagement was a significant factor in his administration’s ineffectiveness.

In Ronald Reagan, we find the most successful administration of the modern period, largely due to that president’s combination of those two essential factors: clear vision and quality staff. Reagan had a distinct conservative ideology that set him apart from his immediate predecessors. The results of that would change the world, revitalizing the American economy and ending the Cold War by defeating the Soviet Union.

But Reagan’s true-blue conservatism also affected his staff, necessitating unity of purpose and limiting the grounds for disagreement more than previous administrations had. The president allowed power struggles to go on among his subordinates, but that he would not be swayed to abandon a deeply held position just because one faction of advisors gained a temporary advantage.

In choosing his staff, Reagan was also more far-sighted than his predecessors. Like Carter, he came to D.C. as an outsider, but unlike him he filled those potential cracks before they weakened his administration’s foundation. The work began even before his 1980 electoral victory. In choosing George H.W. Bush as his running mate, Reagan not only unified the Republican Party, but also unified the two candidates’ campaign staffs. The changes went all the way to the top, with Bush’s campaign manager, James Baker, taking over the general election campaign.

Baker was the ultimate insider, but after the election, Reagan found in him the perfect candidate for chief of staff to the outsider administration. Conflicts were inevitable, but Baker’s less ideological nature helped here, allowing him to cede policy control to longer-tenured Reagan staffer Ed Meese, for whom a new position was created: counselor to the president for policy.

Baker, meanwhile, held the chief of staff title and controlled the coordination of White House functions and communications. Along with Michael Deaver, a longtime Reagan aide who became deputy chief of staff, they formed a troika, successfully managing Reagan’s first term.

Troy notes the odd elements of this group’s success. They did not all get along or even trust each other, often refusing to allow one another to meet with the president one-on-one. But their distrust for each other was outpaced by their distrust of everyone else, so they worked together to keep control of the staff in their three sets of hands. That unity, strange though it was, made for a tight ship and let the White House staff effectively implement Reagan’s conservative policy goals.

Internal Wars

Later administrations show us what happens when staff rivalries are allowed to fester. Troy calls Bill Clinton’s presidency “semi-controlled chaos,” and it is not hard to see why. Clinton’s center-left ideology was not a firm belief with him, but a reaction to Democrats having lost three straight elections as full-throated liberals. Clinton affected moderation and a pro-business mien, but whether he actually believed any of it is a matter of conjecture.

As such, despite hiring some quality staffers, the first term was one of chaos and infighting between rival power centers, including the first lady. Ironically, Clinton’s White House was only truly unified once the impeachment efforts against him began, giving the Democrats all a common enemy on which to focus their fire.

One can see similar echoes in the present administration. In some areas, a rigorous ideology is applied and good people are hired to carry it out. The best example of this is the selection of judicial nominees, an effort led by Leonard Leo, then of the Federalist Society. That approach, backed by President Trump with his customary vigor, has been an unmistakable success, seating two Supreme Court justices and 51 appeals court judges, all of whom conservatives can appreciate.

In other areas, a lack of ideological focus allows staff rivalries to undermine presidential policy. Foreign policy differences within an administration are nothing new, as Troy notes, but the soap opera around John Bolton and others in the Trump White House has had the effect of obscuring true foreign policy successes, like the Soleimani drone strike and the nascent peace deal in Afghanistan.

The press is always eager to jump on chaos, real or perceived. This is doubly true when the president is a Republican and none of the mainstream press are auditioning for jobs in the administration. But that is no excuse for allowing it to persist, only the acknowledgment of a force of nature in the D.C. ecosystem. Troy writes correctly that infighting has been a part of every administration since George Washington’s, but quotes Bush speechwriter Bill McGurn for the crucial caveat: “All White Houses have internal wars. Most White Houses keep them internal.”

Citizens have only so much mental energy to expend in a given news cycle, and if the press is able to easily focus on open staff wars, anything else the administration plans will be drowned out by the noise. In this book, readers can learn the lessons of past presidential mistakes. Current and future presidents could do likewise.