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A Political History of Backstabbing

A Political History of Backstabbing

Trump’s White House has been notably leaky, its staff dishing to journalists with reckless abandon. This practice, however, has a storied past reaching back to Herodotus.

Rebecca Burgess

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

Insults and revenge are the handmaidens of political power. Courtiers have used them for centuries to eliminate their enemies and secure their own positions close to the throne.

Herodotus is not the first lens that comes to mind when reading Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump. But barely two chapters into Tevi Troy’s latest book, deep in the rivalry between Kennedy Administration principals Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and Attorney General Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, there is a nod in the direction of some Herodotean rules for politicos ancient and modern. Among the most famous rules is this: “Do not humiliate people, because they will thereafter subsist on dreams of revenge.” It’s a rule with a distinguished history and a distinguished legacy, stretching from Cain to Jimmy Hoffa.

Modern democracy has more or less eliminated beheading as a tool of political rivalry; in compensation, it seems to have whetted the popular appetite for salacious tales about life among the powerful. It’s hardly remarkable, given the demand and the ease of satisfying it, that growing numbers of staffers who serve the President of the United States seem only too happy to publicize their contributions to the fractiousness of national politics.

In 1937 the American President’s Committee on Administrative Management, the Brownlow Committee, declared, “The president needs help.” Seldom has a request been answered so abundantly. In 1939 the Reorganization Act established the Executive Office of the President (EOP). Expanding government programs, global politics, modern political campaigns, and the 24-hour news cycle have accelerated its growth. Where presidents used to rely on Cabinet officials and agencies to formulate and execute policy, in the 20th century the White House rapidly built up its own staff to carry out the president’s policy agenda and serve as a counterweight to the civil-service-heavy bureaucracies in the executive branch agencies.

White House operations currently include more than 1,600 people. The first truth Troy wants his readers to grasp is that these staff numbers reflect the expansion of presidential power. The second truth, no less important, is that “proximity to the President [i]s of no small value:” This access can trump other, more obvious power disparities among White House aides and congressionally constituted Cabinet officials.

Troy’s third truth is that ever since the first days of the EOP, there has been friction between the White House policy staff and the policy shops in the agencies run by Cabinet officials, who are, after all, the formal and original policy advisors to the president.

A former White House staffer himself, Troy pinpoints this historical and institutional rivalry as one of the wellsprings of infighting within modern presidential administrations.

Layered on top of it are numerous other sources of friction: big egos and big personalities; differing ideologies; ideological commitments versus political maneuverings; the decision-making and policy process itself; the president’s own staff management theory and style; the president’s family and personal friends versus the policy professionals.

In Fight House, Troy tells the story of these multiple sources of staff infighting. In doing so, he normalizes today’s Trump Administration staff by describing the staff rivalries of previous administrations — most substantively, the clashes between the National Security Council and the State Department. The red-hot rivalries between Henry Kissinger and William Rogers in the Nixon Administration, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance in the Carter years, and the (somewhat cooler) tensions between Harold Stassen and John Foster Dulles in the Eisenhower White House or within George W. Bush’s national security team, make for engaging, dramatic reading. Troy does the job well, without sensationalizing the real-world actors or their volatile emotions. It’s an achievement.

These tensions occur with notable frequency in the foreign policy and national security fields. True, similar tensions can affect EOP staffers and domestic Cabinet agencies – see White House chief of staff John Sununu versus OMB head Richard Darman during the George H.W. Bush presidency – but they somehow never seem as rancorous, loud, and significant as those on the foreign and defense policy side. Writing of the George W. Bush administration, Troy tells us why:

Issues in the national security realm are often binary. There is no real compromise between “invade Iraq” and “don’t invade Iraq.” Furthermore, national security issues are viewed as, and often are, existential ones, hardening positions and making compromise more difficult.

Truman was the first President to operate with the benefit of the modern EOP. He had no blueprints for its organization, but he did know that a well-defined process would be crucial to the effectiveness of his presidency. Eisenhower agreed, echoing the Brownlow Committee’s advice that presidential staffers should have a “passion for anonymity.” Truman refused even to appoint an official chief of staff, preferring that EOP staffers think of themselves and act as a team of equals. A staffer’s outsized personality in such a system would only invite discord.

Truman knowingly invited that discord when he broke his own rule by appointing Clark Clifford as his special counsel. Clifford waged, and won, an epic battle with Secretary of State George Marshall over U.S. recognition of the State of Israel. (After it was over, Marshall refused to utter Clifford’s name). That, however, was the exception. Truman preferred forced cordiality to open conflict.

Other presidents have also sought to keep the expression of staff rivalry at a minimum. It wasn’t just “no drama Obama:” Before him, Lyndon Johnson’s “tolerance for infighting”—one of the dimensions Troy uses to classify administrations—was so low as to be practically nonexistent.

Johnson’s intolerance of internal conflict extended beyond infighting to dissenting views. The results for Johnson’s Vietnam policy were disastrous. In the tightly controlled “Tuesday Group” of six foreign policy advisers with whom Johnson conferred about Vietnam, even Cabinet secretaries were kept from voicing concerns based on domestic considerations. Johnson bullied his senior staff, which, in turn, bullied subordinate staff Dissidents, who Troy says, “were derided, ganged-up on, or even dismissed.”

These unfortunates would have their revenge, however: They wrote memoirs, in which they freely gave vent to their frustration and previously suppressed criticisms of President Johnson and his policies.

Troy draws two lessons from this example. First, “Presidential tolerance for abusive or backstabbing behavior creates an environment in which such behavior flourishes.” Second, in the White House, with policy wins and losses, personal legacies, and lucrative post-White House careers on the line, bad blood tends not to dissipate over time. Staff rivalries graduate to the printed pages of newspapers and eventually, to now-former staffers’ books.

Related to staff bullying is the question of process, the system established by a particular administration for information flow and policy-making. Process, Troy points out, determines how information is presented in advance of decisions. Process determines who attends key meetings, what information is considered, and what the timeline is.

In turn, the health of the process is closely related to leaks. The Johnson Administration, like the Nixon Administration after it, wanted to prevent leaks—hence, Johnson’s “semi police-state tactics” against his own staff. Johnson staffers who felt shut out of the policy process kept historical “scores”—which they settled later, on their own terms.

President Nixon’s obsession with ending leaks from within his administration guaranteed, ironically, his loss of the presidency itself. The “plumbers,”’ created to plug leaks, “morphed into a political hit squad” that, among other things, broke into the Watergate Hotel, where the Democratic National Committee had its offices. The rest, as they say, is (un)presidential history.

Leaking and counter-leaking, Troy concludes, “will never end. . . . The trick is to learn how to live with leaking and use it to your advantage.” The State Department is notorious for leaking information originating in the White House, especially when “State considers White House policies to be infringing on State prerogatives.” As long as the tensions between the EOP and the Cabinet agencies remain entrenched, the State Department is unlikely to abandon this tool.

The mass media have created their own powerful incentives for leakers. Leaking can make you a press darling. It can result in flattering profiles, then book deals. Used deviously, it can permanently settle scores, erasing a rival’s hope of a post-White House career. The leak is nearly always a power move as well, because of how it can shape media coverage of executive actions and limit future policy choices. And it can be extraordinarily personal and petty, with no regard for the personal costs to the target.

Over the decades, staffers have perfected the magic of the leak: Well before the Trump Administration, leakers had figured out how to camouflage their own loose lips by using the vocabulary or diction of others. In the Reagan and Bush Administrations, they would use polysyllabic words and crutch phrases to throw suspicion for a leak onto Richard Darman or to Donald Regan, Treasury Secretary and White House chief of staff. “Not only has White House infighting been a relative constant;” Troy says: “The tactics themselves are time-tested.”

Leaking doesn’t always reflect White House staff dissension. It can be a way to circumvent or manipulate the process or get information past the president’s gatekeepers when they’ve formed too tight a phalanx around him. The leak can thus have a constructive effect on the quality of policy.

In Herodotus’ Histories, the old Artabanus gambles with his life to tell his nephew, the despotic Persian King Xerxes, “Unless opposing views are heard, it is impossible to pick and choose between various plans and decide which one is best.” The leak’s virtue is its ability to force a policy debate before a president puts his name to a policy conclusion that becomes law and defines his legacy.

Xerxes’s Uncle Artabanus uses this moment to introduce his dissenting view about the Persian invasion of Greece. Xerxes believes he must invade Greece because otherwise he will have nothing grand to display.

Xerxes has gathered his best advisors, but they flatter him, telling him that the Greeks are “ignorant and incompetent.” Do they believe their own assessment? It’s impossible to say, because they are understandably cowed by the threat of their own death. The monarch’s policy team is unwilling to express any view other than his own -- except, that is, for Artabanus. He’s taken stock of the Greek military capacity and the strategic requirements of an ambitious transcontinental Persian campaign and foresees an uncertain but likely disastrous outcome for Xerxes and Persia.

Xerxes doesn’t want to hear the dissenting voice. He invades Greece. But Artabanus’s instincts prove to be correct.

To an extent, a democratic regime answers the Xerxes-Artabanus problem. Democracy multiplies the number of voices that count in governing a country. And it creates mechanisms, including electoral ones, by which those who make consequential decisions can be held accountable for those decisions. Democracy thus formally diminishes the consequences of disagreeing with the chief executive of one’s nation. The American Constitution accomplishes this task by separating, then overlapping spheres of responsibility and mandating Congress, especially the Senate, to give advice about presidential choices. Critically, it also establishes a government by the rule of law rather than arbitrary will. But what happens when the Constitution is silent or opaque about whether or not, and how, a president must listen to contradictory voices from his own staff within the Executive Office of the President?

Troy’s argument in Fight House is that it is both impossible and undesirable to quash all staff dissension or rivalry. But finding the balance is elusive. Nonetheless, the president still umpires the schoolyard meanness of the various rivalries, principally by signaling his own level of toleration of this meanness.

Alarmists may take cold comfort in Troy’s many tales of such staff pettiness—from the nicknaming (the Kennedy set calling Vice President Johnson and his wife “Uncle Cornpone and his Little Pork Chop”) to the cruel tricks (Press Secretary Larry Speakes making sure that the adjustable White House podium was set to the lowest height whenever the six-foot-four Reagan White House communications director David Gergen was slated to speak)—because they prove, in this view, that no president is actually imperial enough to be able to control the personalities and actions of even his own aides.

The sheer number of these tales does give rise, though, to questions. Are the stakes lower in a democracy, so that democratic officials gauge their own importance by their personal rivalries because constitutionally mandated limited government prevents them from engaging in grand politics? Or is it that the stakes are so high in American democracy that the middle school tactics and jockeying serve as a pressure gauge, confining rivalries to the personal realm and, thus, keeping the nation safe from the scourge of court parties and feudal civil warmongering among factions?

These questions may reveal more about the questioner than about the nature of American politics. On first reading, Fight House does nothing to mitigate Outside-the-Beltway prejudices about The Swamp. But perhaps these revelations are a healthy corrective to celebrity hero-worship of politicians, presidential or otherwise. Fight House is a timely reminder that politics is after all a human craft, carried out by elected and unelected human beings ranging from great to grotesque.

Like the candle and the moth, the practice of statesmanship attracts the most ambitious and talented men and women because it is a gauge of ability and power. These people will naturally be jealous of their respective roles in directing their parts of the policy puzzle. They want to matter because the task matters.

The timeline of the modern presidency from Truman to Trump coincides with America’s rise to superpower status and a colossal footprint on the global stage. Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the early 19th century that the U.S. president has “almost royal prerogatives,” though Tocqueville thought the president at the time “has no occasion to make use” of such powers. Tocqueville would probably not be surprised by the later ascendency of the presidency, because “it is principally in relations with foreigners that the executive power of a nation finds occasion to deploy its skill and force;” and world events in the 20th century seemed to invite such deployment on the global stage. Less remarked-on is the story of how the president could step into that role thanks in part to the Brownlow Committee and the expanded Executive Office of the President.

From the outset, America’s statesmen and scholars have been aware of the unique challenge of trying to democratize executive power. The glory of the American constitutional presidency is its ability to bend such historically deadly power to the ends of the rule of law rather than the arbitrariness of personalities. But, as Harvey Mansfield has pointed out, no matter how well cloaked and constrained by democratic apparel, the wild DNA of executive power still beats fiercely in the heart of America’s second governing branch. As Troy illustrates in Fight House, the same DNA now beats by extension in the staff who serve the President.

Rebecca Burgess is a writer in Washington, DC. She’s the managing editor and associate scholar at the forthcoming Classics in Strategy and Diplomacy Project, and a 2021 FDD National Security Fellow.

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