A History of Ego and Infighting in the White House
Much news reporting in the time that Donald Trump has been president seems to spring from a fundamental belief that everything about his time in office is unprecedented, especially staff infighting. A portion of this can be attributed to modern low-paying journalist gigs attracting mostly kids who are writing about events they don’t remember or understand. Although cheapness outweighs experience in most newsroom hires today, also at play is Trump’s unique ability to inspire in the journalist class a suspension of belief and knowledge of how Washington works—or doesn’t.
In this climate, presidential historian Tevi Troy’s latest book, Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump, is an essential resource for anyone who wants to know more about how previous White House staffs, notorious for attracting outsized egos, have functioned.
With the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939 by Congress, the shift from presidential reliance on cabinet secretaries to in-house staff merely expanded the range from which political rivalries could spring. As Troy notes early, studying past administrations “can help future presidents and other leaders understand how to prevent what James Madison called in The Federalist No. 10 the ‘disease’ of faction.’” It can also help serve as a useful tool for alleviating the chronic historical agnosticism of many journalists responsible for the high levels of public distrust of their industry. It doesn’t hurt that Fight House is enormously entertaining and accessible for casual reading.
As an amusing exercise, try a quick quiz. About whose White House does Troy write the following?
- Has “some of the bitterest rivalries in the White House staff era, and the dysfunctionalities behind those rivalries usually reflected the personality of the suspicious” president.
- Features “competing memoirs; sniping over position titles; reveling in small victories like getting one’s words in a speech; getting praise from the president for doing a job better than one’s rival; or being in a position considerably more significant than someone long more famous and successful.”
- Is “a paranoid, defensive place, where staffers would be wary of bucking the president with contrary advice.”
- Is known for “a toxic White House staff that he ultimately could not control.”
- Had the shortest-tenured communications director in history.
- Sent a family member to fire his chief of staff.
The answers are 1. Nixon 2. Kennedy 3. Johnson 4. Ford 5. Reagan 6. H.W. Bush.
Readers can be forgiven if they picked “Trump” as the answer to any of these. As it turns out, political rivalries and executive dysfunction are nothing new. In fact, the relatively low drama and fewer staff tensions of the Bush 43 and Obama White Houses present more of an historical anomaly than what we’ve experienced under Trump.
To be fair, Trump does seem to have more of an appetite for the dramatic, perhaps the product of his previous iterations as a New York tabloid darling, reality show host, and businessman whose main brand was himself. His administration unforgettably began with the lie that the inauguration the day before drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period — both in person and around the globe,” as then-press secretary Sean Spicer asserted. The briefing left those who had been at the inauguration (and others before it), like myself, with the quandary of resolving the question of whom to believe, Spicer or our own eyes.
Yet that press conference was sandwiched by media missteps in which biased misinterpretations of routine and predictable actions, from the White House website being archived to political appointees being told their terms were up, were reported as apocalyptic signs of an out-of-control administration. Inaccurate media coverage of this president has been so prevalent that it should perhaps be the topic of Troy’s next book. We need Tevi’s intellectual acuity and objectivity to tackle that controversial topic.
In Fight House, Troy acts as a factual but judicious guide to some of the most acrimonious rivalries in modern presidential history. Among disparate episodes across more than half a century, he explains that ideology, process, and presidential tolerance of infighting and turmoil have been the three main causes of cabinet officer and staff antipathies. He analyzes executive branch enmities against this rubric and brings the reader along to a better and much-welcomed understanding of how these contentious relationships at times have led to policies other than what the president intended or the nation deserved.
For example, White House staff rivalries led directly to President H.W. Bush’s famous (then infamous) no-new-taxes pledge as well as the breaking of it. Speechwriter Peggy Noonan fought for the line to stay in Bush’s 1988 GOP convention speech despite the director of the Office of Management and Budget Richard Darman’s attempts to remove it.
Noonan later recalled that unnamed Bush aides tried to remove her signature line ‘on the grounds, I believe, that lips are organs [and] there is no history of presidential candidates making personal-organ references in acceptance speeches.’ In the end, the image guru Roger Ailes resolved the issue, declaring, ‘Boys, here’s your sound bite.’ He was right. The line was Bush’s most memorable line of the campaign and helped get Bush elected. (Violating the promise also helped Bush lose in 1992.)
Darman, who, as Troy notes, was known for touting his perfect math SAT score (whereas Chief of Staff John Sununu regularly advertised his high IQ score), was ultimately successful in undoing the tax pledge at the 1990 Budget Summit.
In his chapter on George W. Bush’s White House, Troy was careful to note that he had been a member of it, as was I in a junior position. Here, the reader benefits from the rare experience of an historian’s first-hand account of personalities and “process fouls.” He shares that he was concerned upon accepting a job on the Domestic Policy Council that he would have to watch his back, as a former Clinton aide warned him. But the advice turned out to be unnecessary, as “the disagreements, animosity, and rivalries that characterized earlier administrations did not show up in the same way”—at least on the domestic policy side. The national security team, he explains, was more similar to past administrations with its tensions among Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Council Advisor Condoleeza Rice.
In my time as a member of the speechwriting team, I saw tensions on the domestic policy side come out in drafts as staff wrangled over how a policy was going to be depicted, whether it would stay in a speech, or even if it was going to come into existence because the speechwriter thought it was a good idea and the president agreed (this latter scenario was much rarer than in the Reagan administration). One of Karl Rove’s preferred tactics was to be the last member of senior staff to review a speech in the staffing process so that he could see everyone else’s edits (and insert his own) on the version that went in for the president’s review. But these disagreements and maneuvers were nothing compared to the public battles Troy details from other administrations.
Everyone who works in a White House does so under the guise of serving the president, yet is also supremely aware that the high stakes environment can forge or destroy a career. As Fight House shows, staff and cabinet skirmishes are an inevitable part of every White House. Perhaps the only thing that’s really changed is the ability of the press to amplify the inevitable tensions that can erupt into policy or process fights, and aides’ subsequent chances to exploit that for personal gain. That’s why it’s crucial for players in the Fourth Estate to consider historical context a main ingredient for all their offerings. For this purpose, they should have Tevi Troy on speed dial, for he’s the master chef.
Anneke E. Green is senior director at the White House Writers Group. She served in President George W. Bush’s speechwriting office. Twitter: @AnnekeEGreen