Part 1 – The Gatekeepers
WHILE browsing at Barnes & Noble along Union Square in New York last July, I came across several books that I brought home with me to fill my summer days. One was by Chris Whipple, a documentary filmmaker, a journalist and a multi-awarded producer at CBS’ “60 Minutes”. The book, The Gatekeepers, a non-fiction political work describing nine American presidencies from Richard Nixon’s to Barack Obama’s. But the interesting part is that the focus is on their chiefs of staff (COS), from Nixon’s H.R. Haldeman to Obama’s first COS Rahm Emmanuel to his fourth, Denis McDonough. Due to space limitations, article, I will describe only the first presidency, that of Richard Nixon and two or three in subsequent articles. Students of Philippine presidential politics—and I count myself among the enthusiastic ones—can perhaps extract some analogous practices on the workings of the American executive office that we can improve on.
The subtitle of the book is “How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency”. This is of course just one facet of the American presidency, or any presidency for that matter. The Philippine presidency can be more complicated and multi-dimensional than what could be circumscribed through the workings of the chiefs of staffs. On the other hand, the president, through his/her choice or non-choice of a COS could also define this particular office; and in so doing, also characterizes and demarcates the presidency. With that, the relationship is a symbiotic one.
I may be tempted from time to time to compare the Philippine experience with that of America, but I must confess I don’t have enough intimate knowledge of the current administration to validate Whipple’s thesis.
The birth of the modern American COS, “a gatekeeper” was during the time of President Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower. A former New Hampshire governor and a friend, Sherman Adams, was the first COS and, according to Whipple, “[wielded]as much power as his boss”. Fiercely loyal, selfless and protective of his principal, he was in the mold of what Eisenhower had been used to: army chiefs of staff. These were the professional subalterns that contributed in no in small ways to the triumph of Eisenhower’s armies in Europe during WW2.
Nixon and Haldeman
Whipple’s study really started in depth with Richard Nixon who lost to John F. Kennedy. Nixon came into office learning from Ike the need for a strong COS and the failure of his presidential adversary. Kennedy decided he would be his own gatekeeper and allowed several senior aides to have access to him, the “spokes of the wheel”; until ill-advised by the same into sending mercenaries into Castro’s Cuba, into what was now known as the “Bay of Pigs” fiasco.
This was an experience Nixon tried to avoid; and thus, the entrance of H.R.’Bob’ Haldeman, Nixon’s “Lord High Commissioner,” his COS. Nixon was a flawed man and a paranoid out to exact revenge on his political enemies; among others, his predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson, the Kennedys and the press. The Democrats started the Vietnam war and LBJ was driven from office a broken man. Nixon wanted to end the war – at all costs.
As Nixon’s COS Haldeman understood very well that “the president’s time is his most valuable asset” and he devised a staff system that became a template for subsequent administrations. He defined the job of those that serve the President in the executive office as one that is “not to do the work of government, but to get the work out to where it belongs – out to the departments. Nothing goes to the president that is not completely staffed out first…” He did not permit someone to meet with the president privately with an agenda without going through the COS. The president’s time is best used to make decision himself and not to preside over the decision-making process of the staff. The quality of a good COS and his immediate deputies and staff is the farming of what are major considerations to the president. Minor ones are the staff to decide upon.
But this almost total control of the COS of the executive office could not prevent minor functionaries from acting on their own that led to the break-in of the Democratic National Committee, the infamous “Watergate scandal” that sank the Nixon presidency. There was no clear proof that Nixon and Haldeman approved the original break-in; but they both were deep in the cover-up of the crime.
Whipple writes that“…faced with this ultimate crisis, Haldeman failed to execute his own model of White House governance. Haldeman, the COS, was at the center of it”. Rumsfeld, the COS of President Ford later declared: “I don’t doubt for a minute that Haldeman executed the president’s desires well – maybe too well…I don’t think Haldeman ever said ’No, you’re wrong’. He was dutiful.”
Looking back, it was hubris that proved to be the dagger through the heart of the Nixon Presidency. The chief of staff needed to be anchored in a modicum of ethics and moral behavior. That could be his ultimate guarantee to protect the office of the presidency. He did not possess these.
The Philippine context
The Deegong’s presidency so far has been defined positively by its supporters, adherents and fanatics mostly in the alternative social media. But the negativity oozes out from the conservative traditional mass media. Confronted by this unorthodox outsider, they are conflicted and oftentimes outright hostile. The fallout from this cynicism, mostly self-inflicted, could have been averted if the persona of the PRRD were not exposed so often to public scrutiny. The talking heads of the administration are no match to counter and deflect the attacks of the well-funded and long entrenched apparatus of the oligarchy and the old political order. The bureaucracy’s concerted efforts are not visible and therefore ineffective. This could be attributable to the President himself. His pronouncements which have the force of official policies are not well pre-processed, which lay himself bare to contradictions from his own cabinet and subalterns. The President is a singularly driven man, an alpha male who tends to dominate. From a political management viewpoint, deadlier is the perception that the presidency is in a disarray.
The Deegong is an excellent parochial politician suddenly thrust into the rarified air of national prominence and global politics. His mistake perhaps is in surrounding himself with similarly situated advisers—outsiders, naïve to the arcana of national politics, perforce elevating them to their level of incompetence. Thankfully many of them have grown in stature and some jettisoned by the PRRD himself. After 15 months of what is perceived to be an experimentation, trial and error and learning process of a journey from the periphery to the center, it’s time for a drastic overhaul and an upgrade.
He needs an alter ego that must shape his executive office to hew as close as possible to his persona, enabling the office to push for his agenda but must fulfill too the need for a visible presidency, a critical ingredient for good governance. He needs a good chief of staff, his heat shield, or in more pedestrian language, “his ruthless little bastard”.
Next week: Part 2 – ‘
A ruthless little bastard’