Big Tent Ideas

Fight House: How Conflict Creates Presidential Progress

Photos by Crush Rush, Andrea Izzotti, Drop of Light/Shutterstock; Edits by Grae Stafford/DCNF

James P. Pinkerton Former Fox News Contributor
Font Size:

Tevi Troy’s new book, “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump,” examines the feuds —some over important issues, some over petty issues, some ultimately constructive, others decidedly destructive — at the pinnacle of American governance over the last seven decades.

Troy himself is an interesting figure: Holding a PhD and having authored four books, he has, at the same time, worked in high positions in government, including in the Bush 43 White House. As a result, he can tell historical stories from both a professorial and an experiential perspective. (Full disclosure: This author is quoted extensively in the book’s chapter on the presidency of George H.W. Bush, mostly from a 2009 oral history for the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.)

Meanwhile, those thirsting for a gossipy take on West Wings over the last 70 years will not be disappointed. We learn for example, that in John F. Kennedy’s White House, first brother Robert F. Kennedy, then the attorney general, harbored an inordinate dislike for the vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson. As Troy writes, Bobby Kennedy dubbed him “Rufus Cornpone,” and his wife Ethel derided him as “Huckleberry Capone.”

Why all this hostility to LBJ? He was, after all, the powerful senator who John Kennedy had chosen to be his running mate in the 1960 election, and he had undoubtedly helped JFK win Texas, and thereby the presidency. Troy suggests that the reason for Bobby’s hostility was simple snobbery: the jowly and rumpled LBJ simply did not meet RFK’s sleek and well-coiffed standards.

Yet the White House took a fateful turn on Nov. 22, 1963, when JFK was assassinated. Johnson now was president, and the Kennedy team, including Bobby, were soon out the door.

Yet as Troy records, the RFK vs. LBJ rivalry did not stop there — and the biggest single issue was the Vietnam War.

President Johnson feared that if he were too dovish on Vietnam, Kennedy would attack him from a hawkish standpoint: “There would be Robert Kennedy out in front leading the fight against me, telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam. … That I was a coward. … Oh, I could see it coming, all right.”

So Johnson resolved to escalate the Vietnam War. In so doing, he lost his perspective – and also his presidency. Indeed, as Troy notes, LBJ’s determination to avoid the strife he had experienced in the Kennedy administration led him to run Vietnam policy with a congenial group of advisers. The problem was that this team succumbed to the syndrome known as “groupthink”; that is, the evidence notwithstanding, Johnson and company thought the war was going well. In such a situation, Troy adds, some dissent, even rivalry, would have been beneficial.

The author concludes, “Johnson’s obsession with Bobby and the whole Kennedy clan contributed to his sense that he was trapped on the Vietnam issue. In this very real sense, America’s most unpopular war was shaped by one of American politics’ bitterest rivalries.”

Yet at other times, White House conflict has served a positive purpose. For instance, in the Truman administration, a ferocious bureaucratic battle was waged between George Marshall, the secretary of state, and Clark Clifford, Truman’s top political adviser. The flashpoint was whether or not the U.S. should recognize, diplomatically, the embattled state of Israel when it declared its independence from Britain. The Israeli independence plan was well-telegraphed, and so Marshall and Clifford squared off in advance; Marshall was against recognition, reflecting the State Department’s institutional view that to do so would inflame the Arabs.

Meanwhile, Clifford favored Israel’s recognition. It was, he said, the right thing to do — and besides, recognizing the Jewish state would help Truman politically in the 1948 presidential election. Clifford’s argument carried the day with the president, and so the U.S. recognized Israel just hours after it declared its independence on May 14, 1948; indeed, the American decision was a major turning point in Israel’s fight for survival.

Marshall was furious. As Clifford later recalled, “Not only did he never speak to me again after that meeting, but, according to his official biographer, he never again mentioned my name.” And for his part, Clifford wasn’t much of a fan of Marshall.

Yet the most credit should accrue to Truman, who made the right call on Israel — the buck did, of course, stop with him — and he continued to rely on both Marshall and Clifford for advice, even as he recognized that they loathed each other. And yes: Truman was elected to a second term in 1948. In fact, his pro-Israel policy has been ratified by every president since.

Yet other presidents were less successful in managing internal division. For instance, Bush 41 was well-meaning, but he struggled to articulate a domestic-policy vision, surrounding himself with top aides, John Sununu and Richard Darman, who were just as visionless — and were mean-spirited to boot.

As a result, the attempt of this author — then a mid-level White House staffer — to articulate a Jack Kemp-ish “New Paradigm” of domestic policy was met with a combination of passive incomprehension and active ridicule. Bush 41, we might recall, was a one-term president.

Interestingly, the man who defeated Bush in 1992, Bill Clinton, proved to be far more sympathetic to new ideas; his White House co-opted much of the New Paradigm, renaming it “Reinventing Government.” Still, by any name, optimistic domestic reform always smells sweet — and in 1996, Clinton, in contrast to Bush four years before, was re-elected.

Troy concludes his survey with a look at the uncompleted presidency of Donald Trump. As he observes, this has truly been a Fight House — although, actually, it’s been a three-way rumble, featuring “globalist Democrats, conservative Republicans, and Bannonite populists.”

It’s too soon, of course, to write the verdict on Trump. And yet Troy’s book is definitive on this much: You can have an effective presidency with feuds, but you can’t have renewal — and maybe even re-election — without new ideas.

Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump was written by Tevi Troy and published by Regnery History.

James P. Pinkerton, a former White House domestic policy aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has been a Fox News contributor since 1996.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation. Content created by the DCNF is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a large audience. For licensing opportunities of our original content, please contact