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Conflict Central

Tevi Troy explores the long history of White House rivalries. October 16, 2020
Politics and law

Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump, by Tevi Troy (Regnery Publishing, 320 pp., $29.99)

The Trump era has deepened our historical amnesia. Every day, it seems, yields another “unprecedented” development in the White House. Tevi Troy pushes back against this impression in Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump. A presidential historian, Troy has produced a timely book in a tumultuous year. As he reminds us, though the Trump presidency “is indeed replete with wild energy and rivalries, it is hard to say from the perspective of the past seventy-five years that any of the current rivalries are worse or more intense” than they were in past administrations.

Troy begins in the 1930s, when the Brownlow Committee on Administrative Management, established by Franklin D. Roosevelt, reached a consequential conclusion: “The president needs help.” Before the New Deal era, which hastened the federal government’s growth, presidents turned to cabinet secretaries for policy development. This changed in 1939, when a congressional act created the Executive Office of the President to improve government efficiency. As Troy notes, “the Brownlow Committee had set in motion a decades-long expansion, leading to the current White House operation of more than 1,600 people and the creation of the modern White House staff.”

Fight House illustrates how White House staff can contribute to presidential destiny or dysfunction. According to Troy, three factors—ideological discord, administrative process, and presidential tolerance for conflict—lead to staff infighting. “Knowing the history behind White House infighting,” he writes, “can help leaders in politics, business, or sports understand better the role of conflict and its larger benefits to an organization, but also its capacity to sink the best of leaders.”

The first factor—ideology—can unify an administration or cause the “disease of faction.” In the Reagan administration, the public and the press clearly understood Reagan’s ideological positions. This clarity, though, didn’t extinguish contention among staffers. James Baker, for example, “was effectively a persona non grata” to Reagan’s conservative staffers “for ideological and personal reasons.”

After all, Baker—a non-ideological pragmatist—was named Reagan’s chief of staff after managing George H. W. Bush’s rival campaign in the 1980 Republican primary. Baker’s deputy chief of staff, Mike Deaver, was similarly non-ideological. Nevertheless, Troy concludes that “Reagan’s ideology served as a successful management tool.” His “well-defined conservatism meant that even aides who had no contact with Reagan had a keen sense of what he wanted and where he wanted the administration to go.”

Meanwhile, in Bill Clinton’s calamitous first term, ideological tensions prevailed. After Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, Clinton turned to Dick Morris, a center-right political consultant, who advised the president to “triangulate,” or move right on policy issues to gain popularity. When staffers eventually learned about this secretive relationship, they viewed Morris’s influence as a “betrayal of the liberal values they thought they had run on.” As Troy notes, “Morris highlighted ideological disagreements, bringing in a more conservative perspective, one disliked by the liberal White House.” This dynamic, in turn, “wreaked havoc on the White House process.”

It’s this second factor—process—that can disrupt decision-making, lead to score-settling, or even unravel a presidency. Process in Jimmy Carter’s White House exemplified the costs of a loose structure. Wanting to distinguish himself from the secretive, paranoid Watergate era, Carter refused to appoint a chief of staff. “With no chief, the detail-oriented Carter became more and more involved in both substantive and trivial matters, highly unusual for a president,” writes Troy.

On Carter’s first day as president, the staff didn’t even know who was charged with running meetings. During that first year, Carter’s micromanagement led to administrative paralysis. In a famous story in The Atlantic, James Fallows, a former Carter speechwriter, recounted how Carter “would pore over budget tables to check the arithmetic, and . . . personally review all requests to use the White House tennis court.” This managerial style, Troy concludes, “created a poor first impression—something that could never be undone—overburdened the president, and took his focus away from loftier presidential duties, and also created pathways for staff mischief.”

Decades later, under George W. Bush’s administration, the White House stressed discipline, management principles, and cohesion. But this process didn’t mean smooth sailing. A Bush administration alum, Troy revisits the first-term rivalry between then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. As he notes, their “lack of trust made for an inferior process.” The dysfunction worsened during the Iraq war, when “State and Defense should have cooperated on rebuilding . . . with Defense supplying security and State building a civil society and effective governance structures.” Instead, the war proved catastrophic.

Today, Bush enjoys something of a rehabilitation, though his policies fueled America’s political realignment, beginning with the Republicans losing Congress in 2006 and leading, ultimately, to Trump’s presidency. In Fight House, Trump exemplifies Troy’s third factor—presidential tolerance for infighting. “I like conflict,” as Trump told reporters in a 2018 news conference.

Trump’s unyielding penchant for conflict could result in the first one-term presidency since George H. W. Bush. Perhaps nobody understands the costs more than former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, now recovering from Covid-19. As head of Trump’s transition team, Christie developed plans—mapped out in 30 binders—for the administration. But as Christie recounted in his 2019 memoir, opponents—including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—tossed the plans in a Trump Tower dumpster. As a Politico analysis recently observed, “It is now the exception in key staff and Cabinet posts to have people whose experience would be commensurate with that of people who have typically held jobs in previous administrations of both parties.”

Disorder in a presidential administration, as Fight House shows, isn’t new. Troy reminds us that American history precedes the Trump presidency. Through sober analysis and engaging personality studies, he offers insights into what makes a White House succeed or fail.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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