I admire people who do things I couldn’t do. I don’t admire people who do things I wouldn’t do. In some cases, depending on what the “things” are, I have contempt for such people.
Cabinet members and high level White House staffers do things I couldn’t do. In most cases, that’s one reason why they get as far as they do.
Unfortunately, some cabinet members and high level White House staffers do things most of us wouldn’t do, and they do them to each other. Thus, every post-World War II administration has been plagued by infighting.
That infighting is the subject of Tevi Troy’s superb new book, Fight House. The book is full of gossip, which makes it fun to read. But Tevi also ties the gossip to the way each administration played out, including its policies.
Tevi identifies the three key ingredients that can contribute to, and determine the extent of, infighting in an administration. They are ideological discord, a flawed White House process, and the president’s tolerance for infighting.
But it’s the clashes themselves, especially those involving titans, that make Tevi’s book so enjoyable. Here are some of the major ones he describes:
Truman administration: George Marshall vs. Clark Clifford
Eisenhower administration: John Foster Dulles vs. Harold Stassen.
Kennedy administration: Lyndon Johnson vs. Robert Kennedy
Johnson administration: Robert McNamara vs. George Ball
Nixon administration: Henry Kissinger vs. William Rogers
Ford administration: Robert Hartmann vs. Alexander Haig and Donald Rumsfeld
Carter administration: Cyrus Vance vs. Zbigniew Brzezinski
Reagan administration: Michael Deaver vs. Haig and Ed Meese
Bush 41 administration: Richard Darman vs. nearly everyone
Clinton administration: Dick Morris vs. Harold Ickes
Bush 43 administration: Rumsfeld vs. Colin Powell and Richard Armitage
Obama administration: Valerie Jarrett vs. Rahm Emmanuel
Few of these combatants come off looking good. For my money, Robert Kennedy and Henry Kissinger come off worst, with Zbigniew Brzezinski a little bit behind Kissinger (as he was in several other respects, too). Robert Hartmann and Michael Deaver strike me as the worst of the non-titans.
Who comes off well? I think Clark Clifford does, both as a young staffer under Truman and as Secretary of Defense under Johnson. George Ball, who dissented from Johnson’s Vietnam policy, also deserves credit.
So do Ed Meese and Donald Rumsfeld for refusing to use leaks as a means of gaining an advantage over their rivals. Unfortunately, their forbearance proved to be a disadvantage.
Nearly all of the presidents Tevi covers could have have handled the infighting in their administrations better. However, only Lyndon Johnson comes off looking evil.
Tevi does not devote a chapter to the Trump administration, though he does discuss it in his concluding chapter. I hope that one day Tevi will update his book with a chapter about infighting in the Trump White House. Make that several chapters.
In fact, my only regret about Fight House is that it doesn’t cover more administrations. I was sad when the book ended.
But it’s not Tevi’s fault that he didn’t write a longer book. There has always been infighting within administrations (think of the clash during George Washington’s administration between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton). However, the level of infighting Tevi describes is a function of the rise of the White House staff, a fairly recent development.
Tevi might have included a chapter on FDR. However, going back any further would have been unwise. So would writing the history of infighting under Trump at the stage his presidency was at when Tevi wrote the book.
Here’s hoping for a sequel.
STEVE adds: Tevi will be a guest soon on our podcast to talk about the book. Stay tuned for updates.