Originally published in Washingtonian October 2019
I’ve been in DC since, let’s see . . . since Abraham Lincoln was President! I came to help with Senator Eugene McCarthy’s Foreign Relations Committee mail for a six-week stint, but I ended up in his Senate office and stayed four years. I remember that his personal secretary, who looked like she had been on the job 102 years, took one look at me and said, ‘Can she type or take shorthand?’ McCarthy replied, ‘We don’t ask the impossible of anyone around here.’ I thought, This guy has got a great sense of humor.
When I left the Hill in 1968, I became the researcher for the Washington Post editorial page. After two fabulous years at the paper, I got a book contract to investigate the beauty-spa industry. Since I weighed three pounds less than a horse, I signed fast and saddled up to visit every fat farm in the country. I got myself down to pony size, and the book probably sold 14 copies—all to my mother.
Then I backed into writing biographies, beginning with Jackie Oh! I love the genre, but writing an unauthorized biography brings its challenges. The subjects I’ve chosen are extremely powerful public figures who’ve had a vast impact on our lives and are fully invested in their images. Consequently, the blowback can be considerable.
I remember when my Nancy Reagan book came out in 1991, my late husband, John, who was courting me at the time, took me to Bice, then a real hot spot in DC. As we walked in, a man stood up and started yelling, ‘Booooo! Get that bitch out of here! Boo! Boo!’ John turned around to see who the guy was yelling at. I knew and looked straight ahead, praying not to cry. The man kept yelling, everyone turned to look, and then a woman on the other side of the restaurant started yelling, ‘No, no—she’s brave!’ The two of them went at each other, and the restaurant suddenly looked like tennis at Wimbledon, turning from one side to the other. The maître d’ brought us to a table, and John buried himself in the wine list. Then a guy from the middle of the room threw his napkin on the floor and headed for our table. I thought for sure we were goners. He spread out his arms and embraced me: ‘Kitty, you don’t know me, but I’m going to stand here until this stops.’ It was Tony Coehlo, the majority whip in the House of Representatives. I introduced him to John, who said, ‘Congressman, you go in the will.’ John told me later he was going to propose over dinner but was so flummoxed by what happened, he put it off for 24 hours.
My Bush-family book drew fire from the White House, the Republican National Committee, and the GOP leader in the House of Representatives. I framed all the cartoons and hung them where they belong—in the loo. My favorite is the bubble-headed blonde in Chanel shoes parachuting into Saddam Hussein’s bunker, scattering the armed guards, who yell, ‘Run for your lives! It’s Kitty Kelley!’
I don’t write about just anybody. I only choose huge figures who have manufactured a public image. I’m fascinated to find out what they’re really like. I’m not doing another great big bio simply because, at this moment in time, I don’t want to know what anyone out there is really like. Certainly not Trump. Melania? Oh, definitely not.
I’ve already done seven New York Times bestsellers. I can’t say that I loved doing them, but I sure loved finishing them.
by Kitty Kelley
Political junkies will cartwheel into line to grab copies of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple. They might not be as mesmerized as they were with The Making of the President by Theodore H. White or What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, but they’ll have in hand a bible on presidential sons-of-bitches. (That’s how H.R. Haldeman defined the position before he had to resign and go to prison as one of 48 people who served time for serving Richard M. Nixon, the Watergate president.)
The White House chief of staff is considered the most powerful unelected person in Washington, DC, because he — there’s never been a she — controls access to the leader of the free world. As the president’s main adviser and closest confidante, the chief of staff determines the administration’s legislative agenda and communicates with Congress and the Cabinet. He is the spear-catcher who protects the president from all incoming flak.
“The White House chief of staff has more power than the Vice President,” said Dick Cheney, who should know. At 34, he served as chief of staff to Gerald Ford (1975-1977). By the time he turned 70, Cheney was vice president to George W. Bush and knew how to mow down both chiefs of staff Andrew Card (2001-2006) and Joshua Bolten (2006-2009). In fact, Cheney, known by some as “Darth Vader,” controlled foreign policy in the Bush years and seemed to assume as much power as “the decider” himself.
“Every president reveals himself by the presidential portraits he hangs in the Roosevelt Room,” said the historian Richard Norton Smith, “and by the person he picks as his chief of staff” (pp. 10-11).
By that definition, Whipple could’ve produced an intriguing analysis of Ronald Reagan, who chose the smooth-talking Texan James Baker III as his first chief of staff (1981-1985), followed by the bull-headed Donald Regan, who compared his job to the man in the circus, sweeping up elephant droppings.
Unmentioned by Whipple was John Roy Steelman, the first and longest-serving chief of staff (1946-1953), described in his New York Times obituary as a “onetime hobo from Arkansas.” Truman’s chief of staff was as basic as the man he served. Eschewing his powerful title, Steelman preferred to be called “the president’s chief chore boy.” His biggest chore was his role in ending a 52-day strike by steelworkers, one of the most damaging stoppages in U.S. history.
The Gatekeepers promises to offer “shrewd analysis and never-before-reported details,” but there appears to be little of either in the book. Perhaps Whipple was too grateful for his access to cast a critical eye and dig beneath the glossy surface.
All those interviewed protected their presidents from incriminating revelations, but each agreed being White House chief of staff was the toughest job he ever tackled. (The pressure is so great that few last beyond 18-24 months.) Yet despite the brutal demands, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff (2009-2010), said: “I guarantee you every one of the chiefs would say, ‘I’d do it again,’ if asked.”
The major take-away from Whipple’s book is not unlike Cardinal Cushing’s advice to John F. Kennedy when he first ran for office in Massachusetts: “A little more Irish…a little less Harvard.”
The most successful sons-of-bitches are a little more staff…a little less chief. In fact, certain chiefs — Gov. Sherman Adams (Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1958), Gov. John Sununu (George Herbert Walker Bush, 1985-1987), and the aforementioned Merrill Lynch CEO Don Regan (1985-1987) — harmed their presidents by their inability to shed their arrogant prerogatives of self-entitlement. All had previously held chief-executive positions, but each was fired from his role as White House chief of staff.
Usually an author writes a book and hopes to sell television rights after publication, but Whipple, an award-winning producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Prime Time, did it the other way around. He provided the interviews for the four-hour documentary The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, which aired on the Discovery Channel in 2013. The New York Times judged the production a “tepid film…awe-struck and dull.” Whipple made the interviews he did with the 17 chiefs of staff alive at the time as the basis of The Gatekeepers, his first book.
For a writer, Whipple’s text hardly inspires, but his chapter notes pique interest. Many of those cited (again, mostly men) hiss and spit at each other like cats being hosed. Ed Meese III dumps on Jim Baker III for leaking to the press. Donald Rumsfeld, chief of staff to President Ford, disses the White House speechwriter Robert Hartmann as an alcoholic, and says Ford’s vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, “wasn’t qualified to be vice president of anything.”
Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1994-1997, confides the president wanted to fire George Stephanopoulos, which was seconded by Erskine Bowles, Clinton’s chief of staff from 1997-1998: “Of course, George was cut out by the President.” Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft slam Dick Cheney, who, in turn, stomps on the claim of CIA director George Tenet about bringing the danger of al Qaeda to White House attention. “I do not recall George coming in with his hair on fire…”
The most intriguing chapter note cites an interview with Stuart Spencer, the Republican political consultant closest to Ronald Reagan, who speculates about how the president might have unwittingly approved the Iran-Contra operation to secretly sell arms to Iran and funnel the money to support the Contras in Nicaragua:
I can see those three guys [Robert MacFarlane, National Security Advisor; Oliver North, Deputy Director of the National Security Council; and William J. Casey, CIA director, who was called “Mumbles” because, according to Spencer, “you couldn’t understand him, he couldn’t talk”]. They knew that Reagan was in favor of the contras; he was really upset about the American hostages; and they said, ‘We’ll take advantage of that.’ And they sent Mumbles over to tell him about it. And Reagan didn’t have his hearing aid on! I believe all this could have happened. (p. 319)
Stuart Spencer was extraordinarily close to the Reagans for years. He ran Reagan’s successful campaigns for governor of California in 1966 and 1970, as well as his campaigns for president in 1980 and 1984. He counseled both Ronald and Nancy Reagan throughout their eight years in Washington, and was one of the few people invited to accompany them on their return flight to California upon leaving the White House in 1985. So, his speculation about Iran-Contra deserves more scrutiny, especially because the first lady was terrified the matter would lead to her husband’s impeachment.
Did Whipple ask Spencer whether he discussed Iran-Contra with either Reagan? If he didn’t, why not? How did the subject of Iran-Contra come up in his interviews with Spencer? Did Spencer advise the Reagans about Iran-Contra? What was his recollection of how they coped with the matter personally? Did Spencer share his theory with the first lady or anyone else?
Note to Whipple: a little more time with Stu Spencer…a little less time with the chiefs.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
See Kitty Kelley’s “Gore Vidal’s Final Feud” in the November 2015 Washingtonian magazine for an account of the consternation caused by Vidal’s final disposition of his wealth and property: “Given his penchant for dissent Vidal–who died in 2012–would be smacking his lips to know that, between his death and this fall, there has been a bitter fight over his will pitting distant relatives against one another.”
Update 11/9/15: The article has been posted at the Washingtonian website here.
Photo: Gore Vidal with Burr Steers, son of Vidal’s half-sister Nina Auchincloss Straight.
Kitty Kelley appeared on C-Span2’s Book-TV “In Depth” program on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, answering questions from host Peter Slen and from viewers for three hours. The show may be viewed online here.
by Kitty Kelley
Gay marriage has jumped out of the closet on to the front page. Everyone from the President of the U.S. to retired four star general Colin Powell is embracing the issue, now supported by most Americans. Still, a few people like former First Lady Laura Bush appear to be conflicted. This week Mrs. Bush, who publicly supported gay marriage, now objects to appearing in an ad that carries her words of support.
Presidents often disappoint, but first ladies rarely do. I became a student (and secret admirer) of first ladies after writing biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1978), Nancy Reagan (1991) and Barbara and Laura Bush (2004). Through years of research and reporting I’ve watched these unelected women enhance the presidencies of their spouses through deed and demeanor. They all seem to do it with style and grace and as a result they usually become even more popular than their beleaguered husbands (Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama).
These warrior goddesses stand stalwart in the face of their husbands’ scandals (Pat Nixon and Watergate; Nancy Reagan and Iran Contra; Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky). They protect their young (Jacqueline Kennedy); they beautify their environment (Lady Bird Johnson) and they do good for others, even after leaving the White House. (The Betty Ford Clinic provides treatment for alcoholism; the Barbara Bush Foundation raises money for literacy; Rosalynn Carter travels the world for the Carter Center to promote mental health, and at the age of 91 Nancy Reagan still campaigns for expanded stem cell research.)
As first ladies these women stay above the political fray, avoid divisive muck, and glide like swans across ponds of public good will. Most write commercially successful memoirs of their days in the White House, where they became beatified, and as the wives of former presidents they continue burnishing their husbands’ legacies as well as their own.
For the most part first ladies seldom falter, which is why it was disappointing to read about the wife of a self-described “compassionate conservative” former president fumble on an issue of equal rights.
A group known as Respect for Marriage Coalition had launched a $1 million multi-media campaign last week that featured President Obama, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Mrs. Bush in their own words expressing support for the marriage rights of all committed couples. The group had taken what Laura Bush had said on the subject to Larry King on television: “When couples are committed to each other and love each other, then they ought to have, I think, the same sort of rights that everyone has.”
The former first lady’s words had reassured many who recalled with dismay her husband’s hard line on homosexuality. As Governor of Texas, George W. Bush said he supported the state’s law against sodomy “as a symbolic gesture of traditional values.” He opposed hate crimes legislation that would have protected gays. He also opposed gay adoption and gay marriage, and as President he proposed a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex unions.
Granted, Laura Bush did not oppose her husband until after he had left the White House and would not have to pay the consequence of her words, but that seems to be in the tradition of Bush wives. Barbara Bush also waited until her husband, an ardent foe of abortion for twelve years, was no longer president before she declared publicly that abortion should be a “personal choice” and that she was pro-choice.
A year after Laura Bush’s 2010 interview on CNN, her daughter, Barbara Bush, taped a video for the Human Rights Campaign, now a sponsor of the Marriage Coalition. To date the former first lady’s daughter has not withdrawn her support for gay rights, but when Mrs. Bush saw her support in the Coalition’s television ad last week she immediately directed her spokeswoman to contact the media to say that the former first lady “did not approve of her inclusion in this advertisement nor is she associated with the group that made the ad in any way.”
The Coalition, comprised of 80 civil rights, family, health, labor, business, student, LGBT and women’s organizations, withdrew the ad in deference to Mrs. Bush and issued a statement, explaining they had used public comments from American leaders of both political parties who had expressed their support for civil marriage. “We appreciate Mrs. Bush’s previous comments but are sorry she didn’t want to be included in an ad.”
One can only wonder why the former first lady chose to backtrack on an issue that is supported by most Americans, who believe that marrying the person you love is a fundamental freedom and Constitutional right for everyone, including gays and lesbians. Polls show that a majority of the country believes that continuing to deny gays and lesbians the freedom to marry constitutes discrimination, and those who personally oppose marriage equality accept that it is likely to become a reality within the next decade. Even Congress has jumped on board. Bills were introduced in the Senate and the House this month to change the definition of “spouse” in the U.S. Code so that same-sex married service members can get equal benefits.
Surely Laura Bush, a former librarian, who as First Lady frequently posed for photographs reading to children, knows the folk tale of Chicken Little, who believes the sky is falling when an acorn drops on her head. Terrified, she decides she must tell the King and on her journey to the castle she meets a goose, a hen and a turkey– Goosey Lucy, Henny Penny and Turkey Lurkey. Within moments they are cornered by a fox–Foxy Loxy–who threatens to eat them. In the happily-ever-after version only Goosey Lucy escapes. The morale, we are told, is not to be a chicken but to have the courage to stand up–a quality found in most first ladies.
Cross-posted from Huffington Post
Five years ago I sat down with Matt Lauer on NBC’s The Today Show for a three-part interview. Go here to MSNBC to revisit the entire interview (there’s video too). Among the exchanges, here is one of my favorites:
Lauer: “What about the timing of this book? You’ve been working on it for four years.”
Kelley: “I have.”
Lauer: “Why release it 50 days before what is a hotly contested, incredibly divided election?”
Kelley: “Why not?”
Lauer: “Well, I’m asking why?”
Kelley: “I mean, why not? It’s relevant.”
Lauer: “Do you want people to read this and do you want it to influence their choices as they go to the polls on November 2nd?”
Kelley: “Matt, I want them to read this book. It’s an important book. There are relevant themes here. Is it going to change an election? No. I wrote a book about Frank Sinatra; I still love his singing.”
Lauer: “He’s an entertainer.”
Kelley: “I wrote a book about the British royal family. The queen still sits.”
Lauer: “Nobody goes to the polls to vote for them.”
Kelley: “I wrote a book about the Kennedy family. There’s no more revered family…”
Lauer: “They weren’t in office at the time.”
Kelley: “…in the country. No, they weren’t in office.”
Lauer: “Ronald Reagan was out of office when you wrote about him.”
It should be an entertaining April.