Published in 1532, Nicolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince” describes with brutal honesty how the “actions of great men” led to the acquisition and preservation of political power. Nearly 500 years later, Tevi Troy’s “Fight House” is a worthy successor to “The Prince,” covering “some of the juiciest, nastiest, and most consequential internecine administration struggles in modern American history.”
Troy, a recognized presidential historian and former senior White House official, suggests a framework for examining White House rivalries. Administrations characterized by ideological splits, little respect for process and presidential tolerance of infighting are, Troy concludes, most likely to experience inner strife. Troy devotes much of his book to explaining why.
But what makes “Fight House” stand out, and makes it delightfully fun to read, is the treasure trove of too-outrageous-to-be-believed (but true) historical anecdotes.
White House rivalries can become vicious and personal. Richard Nixon once remarked of his national security advisor Henry Kissinger’s rivalry with his Secretary of State, William Rogers, “Goddamn it … he’s [Kissinger] psychopathic about trying to screw Rogers.”
Rivalries know no partisan boundaries. Troy devotes considerable attention to the bitter (and entertaining) rivalry between Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy. As Joe Kennedy said of his son, “When Bobby hates you, you stay hated.”
Issues of ego, career, turf and control are central to most White House rivalries. Administration officials have several tried-and-true tactics at their disposal.
White House officials have been known to belittle, embarrass and instill a fear of humiliation in their rivals and subordinates. Richard Darman, President George H. W. Bush’s OMB director, employed these tactics so often — and with such zeal — that being on the receiving end of this treatment was known as being “Darmanized.”
Larry Speakes, President Reagan’s spokesman, and David Gergen, the White House communications director, reportedly had it in for each other. To draw unflattering attention to Gergen’s six-foot-four frame, Speakes would have a press assistant “set and tighten the adjustable White House podium to its lowest height before Gergen would speak.” Speakes himself wrote, “Gergen would go in and tower over it like Ichabod Crane. He was never able to figure out why the podium struck him well below the waist.”
More recently, when Dick Morris — who was, by all indications, universally despised by President Clinton’s other aides — managed to position a protégé in the Clinton White House, “hazing activities against [him] … included denying him a desk, giving him false information about meeting times and locations, and laughing at his resulting tardiness.”
White House aides and senior administration officials sometimes use their positions to put people in their place.
One particularly pungent example involved Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Harold Stassen, a former governor and special assistant to President Eisenhower. As they were attending a foreign policy gathering, Dulles had his security detail swipe Stassen’s assigned car. Troy writes, “In a not-so-subtle example of Washington territoriality, he then offered Stassen a ride in what was supposed to be his own car.”
Years later, Henry Kissinger — never one to refrain from throwing his weight around — expanded the size of his West Wing office by arranging for the removal of a private bathroom from the neighboring office. Bryce Harlow, the occupant of that office, felt he had the last laugh, however. As he put it, “In a way, I’m glad to know the place I used to sh*t will be Henry’s office.”
According to Troy, Jim Baker and Mike Deaver, two of the most senior White House aides in Reagan’s first-term, both abhorred Secretary of State Al Haig. They tried to drive him out of the administration by making him miserable. Troy writes, “On one presidential trip to London, Deaver not only made sure that Haig did not ride with the president on Marine One but also made sure that the chopper Haig was on was noisy and uncomfortable. In response to this distance from the president, Haig asked, ‘What am I, a leper?’”
More recently, when Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff, found himself increasingly at odds with senior advisor (and Obama family friend) Valerie Jarrett, he sought to get Jarrett out of the way by having her appointed to Obama’s vacated Senate seat. Michelle Obama thwarted the plan, which Troy writes “led to Emanuel’s sudden discovery that he had always wanted to be the mayor of Chicago.”
Control of Information
White House rivalries are often fought with the ultimate resource: information. One standard practice is sharing information only when absolutely necessary and holding internal draft documents and speeches until it is effectively too late for others to rewrite or even edit them.
A related practice is to engage in misdirection and subterfuge. Troy, yet again, cites Henry Kissinger’s exploits. “To keep the secrecy of China discussions,” Troy writes, “Kissinger faked an illness on a trip to Pakistan.” Kissinger then slipped into China and quietly arranged President Nixon’s historic trip and the opening of China without Secretary of State William Rogers’ knowledge. Kissinger even instructed his National Security Council staff to prepare three different sets of briefing books: “for those actually going to China; for those not going to China but who were aware of the trip; and for those not going and not knowing.”
Of several tactics addressed in Fight House, none receives more attention than leaking. Leaking is the intentional and unauthorized release of information to make oneself look good, to make an opponent look bad, or to advance or block a particular policy.
Leaking has bedeviled presidents, occasionally leading to drastic attempts to prevent its occurrence. Long before Donald Trump sought to build his wall, President Lyndon Johnson threatened to build a wall between the West Wing and the Old Executive Office Building next door to separate White House staff and reporters.
“Leaking,” Troy concludes, “is part of governing.” To abstain from leaking is to unilaterally disarm. Conversely, clever people accept that and use leaking to their advantage.
During the Ford administration, for example, Al Haig — then White House chief of staff — and Robert Hartmann, a veteran Ford aide, routinely leaked damning information on each other. As Richard Reeves wrote in New York Magazine, “Ford could read Haig-inspired columns about Hartmann’s administrative incompetence and slipping status in the Oval Office and Hartmann-inspired columns about Haig’s subversion of presidential directives.”
Belittling, throwing ones’ weight around, and stage-managing information are only a few of the tactics addressed in Fight House. Troy may not have set out to update “The Prince” for modern America, but that’s what he has done.
As Troy writes, “The White House has always been a fight house.” Now there’s a book — “Fight House” — that gives those rivalries the attention they deserve.
James Carter served roughly seven years in George W. Bush’s administration, including two years in the White House as associate director of the National Economic Council.