A Historian’s Perspective on White House Rivalries, From Truman to Trump


Today’s podcast features an interview that first appeared on our sister podcast “The Right Side of History.” Co-hosts Jarrett Stepman and Fred Lucas speak with presidential historian Tevi Troy about his most recent book “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House From Truman to Trump.”

Troy describes how rivalries and conflict on the president’s staff and Cabinet often have been instrumental in success or failure during an administration. The historian also addresses President Woodrow Wilson’s mismanagement of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1917.

We also cover these stories:

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  • A federal appeals court rules 12-3 in favor of North Carolina’s plan to allow ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3 and arrive before Nov. 12. 
  • The maker of the pain medication OxyContin says it will plead guilty to federal charges as part of a settlement that includes over $8 billion in fines. 

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Jarrett Stepman: Tevi Troy is a presidential historian, a former White House aide. He is author of the recently published book “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House From Truman to Trump.” Thank you so much for joining us on “The Right Side of History.”

Tevi Troy: Hey, thanks. I really appreciate it. It’s great to be here. And I always like talking history.

Stepman: Absolutely. And obviously this book is incredibly pertinent to the times. So many stories coming out of the Trump White House, as many others. But I think one thing that you really hit on in this book, obviously, covering the presidencies from [Harry] Truman to today is how common it is to have conflict in the executive branch.

I think back to even the presidency of George Washington, where you had battles between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two secretaries who wanted to shape that White House.

But you talk a lot about in your book about how different personalities and different people in different administrations have really shaped the presidency in a way. Can you talk about that and its history?

Troy: Oh yeah, absolutely the case. And look, Hamilton/Jefferson fights are the subject of a famous musical that some people have heard of recently. In my book, “Fight House,” though, I talk really about the era of the White House staff. Hamilton and Jefferson were fighting all the time, but they were actually Cabinet secretaries.

Today you have this situation, and it really dates back to late [Franklin] Roosevelt, but Truman’s the first president to enter with a White House staff, where you have these White House staffers who are next to the president. There usually [are] political advisers, but you also have these Cabinet secretaries.

And the Cabinet secretaries think that they should be the lead person on, let’s say, foreign policy. Whereas, the person next to the president has the president’s ear on foreign policy. That leads to natural tension and something that was a recurring issue in “Fight House,” natural tension between the national security adviser and the secretary of state.

Of course, “Fight House” isn’t just limited to those tensions. It’s not just about foreign policy, but that is emblematic of the kinds of tensions you find.

It actually does have an impact on policy, is one of the things I’ve found throughout my research. So “Fight House” really is illuminating in that it has a lot of exciting and sometimes sordid tales of people going after each other, but it also has a real impact on the shape of our nation and the direction of policy.

Stepman: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s interesting that there has been, I think, such a growth in the power of the White House staff. Can you explain how that transition took place? You mentioned the Franklin Roosevelt administration and where that real pivot point is, can you explain how that’s worked as far as the executive branch?

Troy: Yeah, it’s a great question because what happened under Roosevelt is government is expanding. It’s getting bigger and bigger.

It’s dealing with domestic crises like the Great Depression, then it was on a few years from dealing with World War II, but it was clear America was going to be getting more and more involved in international affairs, and they set up this commission called the Brownlow Commission.

And the determination of this Brownlow Commission was a famous four-word conclusion, “The president needs help.” And those four words led to the creation of the White House staff.

Now, originally these White House staffers who were supposed to be people, and here’s another quote, “with a passion for anonymity.”

Now that’s clearly gone away because we hear all too much White House staff, and they have their own Twitter accounts these days, and they often leave to go on TV shows and stuff like that, but the idea was that they were supposed to be anonymous people giving their best advice to the president.

That has developed over time into the White House staff that we know today, it’s called the Executive Office of the President, and you’ve got a Press Secretary’s Office, and you’ve got a Domestic Policy Council, and the National Security Council. All those things did not exist in 1930, but now in 2020, we have all those things and each one of them has their own little bureaucracies.

When I worked in the White House for George W. Bush, I headed the Domestic Policy Council, and in doing so there was a staff of 20-plus people who were just doing those domestic policy issues.

So these staffs are getting bigger and bigger and sometimes they overlap with others. So, the National Economic Council has a whole bunch of health care issues. The Domestic Policy Council has a whole bunch of issues. Sometimes they overlap with one another and it leads to elbowing and pushing and the kind of infighting in the White House that I detail in “Fight House.”

Fred Lucas: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the brinkmanship among White House Staffers and just this contrast in what we talked about earlier, with the Cabinet versus White House staffers.

Historically we’ve seen cases where Henry Kissinger, before he was secretary of state, he was really running the country’s foreign policy as national security adviser. Later, with the Obama administration, everybody would say Valerie Jarrett was the real chief of staff.

And I wonder if you could just talk about how people sort of assumed roles and took positions that weren’t necessarily theirs.

Troy: Yeah. Well, look, this dates back way before even the Kissinger fights with William Rogers, who was the secretary of state under [President Richard] Nixon, who was kind of disempowered by Kissinger’s machinations.

But in the Truman administration there’s a big fight over whether to recognize the state of Israel. Kind of surprising today, given Israel is a very close and excellent ally, but at the time it wasn’t clear that the U.S. would recognize Israel.

And the secretary of state, George Marshall, who was a hero of World War II, is opposed to recognizing Israel, and Truman has a political aid in the White House, a guy named Clark Clifford, who wasn’t famous then, but would become famous later.

Clifford makes the case in front of Marshall and in front of Truman to recognize Israel. Marshall is irate that he loses this argument and he never again speaks to Clifford or utters his name for the rest of his life. How’s that for holding a grudge?

So these fights go back for a long time. And in fact, when Clifford even is presented in front of Truman to make the argument, Marshall looks down his nose at Clifford and even says, “What’s Clifford doing here?” Suggesting that a domestic policy or a political aid shouldn’t have anything to do with this kind of important historical world geopolitical issue.

But Truman backs up Clifford and says, “Well, general, he’s here because I asked him to be here.” And that really sums it up. That one sentence, “He’s here because I asked them to be here.” The reason Kissinger was close to Nixon and was able to push Rogers aside is because Nixon asked him to be here.

The reason … [Zbigniew] Brzezinski, the national security adviser, was constantly fighting with Cyrus Vance and got the better of him in most arguments is because [President Jimmy] Carter wanted him there.

That is really the key of what’s going on in the White House. If the president wants you, then you have a level of power and authority that is given by virtue of your closeness to the president, and that gives you an advantage over some of your rivals.

Lucas: Which president do you think handled the kind of bickering between the staffers? I mean, it sort of kind of played a fatherly role of, “Knock it off, kids,” and kept things in control.

Troy: Yeah. So, I’ll briefly talk about two presidencies. I’ll be bipartisan here and talk about one Democratic, one Republican presidency.

In the Reagan administration, [President Ronald] Reagan did have a bit of a, “OK. You fellows work it out,” approach. And there was fighting between Ed Meese, who was the counselor to the president, and Jim Baker, who was the chief of staff, and Mike Deaver, who was the deputy chief of staff.

Those three were the troika, and they actually were so scared that one of them would have a chance to talk to the president without the other two present that they were kind of joined at the hip, and they would always go to any meeting where the president was together.

And in fact, after Reagan was shot, the three of them come together to visit him in the hospital, and Reagan says something like, “Gee, fellas, I didn’t know we were going to have a staff meeting.”

So there is some tension there between them, but I think Reagan knew what he was doing. He specifically told Baker when he made him chief of staff, instead of Meese, he said, “Make it right with Ed.”

And Reagan, as we all know, got great results for the American people. So some of that creative tension for the different factions in the White House I think worked to the president’s advantage.

In the Clinton administration I think Bill Clinton also had some successes here. Early on his White House was a bit of a mess. There was a lot of inexperienced, very young aides who didn’t really know what they were doing and they really tacked to the left.

And Clinton, as you guys know, was a moderate DLC, Democratic Leadership [Council], a president who really was trying to take the Democratic Party to a more central place.

His staff got a little out of control on the liberal stuff. Clinton is defeated soundly in that 1994 congressional election when Republicans take over the House and Senate for the first time in 1954, and Clinton recognizes that he has to tack back to the center.

He brings in a secret adviser, code-named Charlie, it was really Dick Morris, who we know from his TV thing. And Dick Morris is secretly advising Clinton about how to move back to the center.

Other White House aides who were more liberal, like George Stephanopoulos and Harold Ickes, they can’t stand this. They’re really angry and who this guy is. They finally find out who he is. They of course leak it to the press, and there’s constant fighting between Ickes and Stephanopoulos against Morris.

However, in Stephanopoulos’ memoir, which is actually an excellent memoir, one of the best White House memoirs written, he acknowledges that even though he hated Morris, Clinton got better results out of his staff as a result of having brought in Morrison. That led to that creative tension and allowed Clinton to triangulate and move back to the center.

Stepman: Speaking of triangulating, I think one of the more certainly interesting conflicts of the White House is between John F. Kennedy and his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, two men who seemingly did not like each other very much.

And of course you have the dynamic where Kennedy’s brother, Robert Kennedy, was actually serving as attorney general at the time, and then it transitioned to the Johnson White House when Kennedy was assassinated.

Could you talk about the dynamic between Johnson and Kennedy and how that shaped both their presidencies and the relation, of course, to Robert Kennedy?

Troy: Yeah. This is a fascinating one because Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson pretty much hated each other from the minute they met.

They met in the United States Senate when Kennedy, RFK, was a staffer and Lyndon Johnson was the Senate majority leader. So Johnson was a much bigger deal, higher status.

Kennedy kind of refuses to shake Johnson’s hand for a long time. And Johnson hovers over him until Kennedy finally, reluctantly shakes the hand, and that kind of power move early on set the tone for their relationship.

They disliked each other throughout, and as Robert F. Kennedy and John Kennedy’s father said, “Bobby’s my boy. When he hates you, you stay hated.” And Lyndon Johnson did stay hated. And to Johnson’s chagrin, he becomes vice president in the Kennedy administration, but really doesn’t have much power or authority.

And RFK, Robert F. Kennedy, is the closest adviser to Kennedy as attorney general. He’s obviously also his brother, and he is constantly stepping on Johnson and humiliating Johnson and pushing Johnson aside. But that all changes in a flash, in a flash of a gunshot in November 1963.

Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, is assassinated in Dallas tragically and suddenly Lyndon Johnson is president and he’s no longer kind of subordinate to Robert F. Kennedy, but he’s Kennedy’s boss, and Johnson is now the superior, and the power dynamic completely shifts in a way that’s very uncomfortable for Robert F. Kennedy.

It’s kind of a lesson to all of us, when you’re higher up on the ladder than somebody, you never know if they could climb the ladder higher than you, so be careful how you treat them.

So Johnson and Robert Kennedy don’t get along from Minute One. In Johnson’s first Cabinet meeting, Kennedy comes in late. Johnson’s convinced that it was to stand up Johnson and make it look bad, and they have a shouting argument in the Oval Office and they don’t talk again for two months.

Now, I know, coronavirus, there’s plenty of people you don’t talk to for two months, but not when you’re the sitting attorney general in a presidential administration. That’s kind of rare to have a Cabinet secretary that senior not talking to a president for two months.

So that is an uncomfortable situation for Robert Kennedy. He eventually leaves the administration, becomes senator from New York. I know they’re from Massachusetts, but he carpet bags to New York. And Johnson is obsessed with Kennedy throughout the Vietnam War.

Kennedy is kind of going left and becoming more dovish on the war, but Johnson feels like, … firstly, he’s afraid that if he moves left, then Kennedy will go outflank him on the right and be more hawkish. But if he stays to the right, then Kennedy’s hitting him on the left.

And Johnson just can’t get over this Kennedy criticism. It actually paralyzes him when they were looking for answers in the Vietnam War.

Kennedy then jumps into the race in ’68. Johnson pulls out of the race. Kennedy’s obviously assassinated, but that ugly dynamic really helped shape the 1968 race and also U.S. policy in the Vietnam War.

Lucas: You talk a little bit in the book about Jimmy Carter’s pettiness and how that contributed to him being a one-term president in terms of kind of, I guess, keeping the staff together. Could you talk a little bit more about that as well?

Troy: Yeah. Look, Jimmy Carter was a micromanager, and one of his Cabinet secretaries kind of made a joke that he was probably the highest paid assistant secretary of policy in the entire administration because he really got involved in the weeds of legislation and regulatory language in a way that I just don’t think is appropriate or proper for a president, or effective. A president has to be able to step above everything and be able to delegate.

Carter famously managed who would get to go on the White House tennis courts, which is kind of an absurd level of micromanaging. And he also, at least in the early days, is unable to get himself to appoint a chief of staff.

There’s a guy named Jack Watson, who is the head of the transition under Carter. He is a natural to be chief of staff, but because some of the Carter campaign aides don’t like him, they don’t allow him to be chief of staff.

They’re kind of aimless in the early days. They don’t have a chief of staff and they don’t even know how to set up meetings.

And one early Carter aid even said after they were kind of meandering and couldn’t figure out whether to have meetings or not, said, “If only the KGB,”… the Russian intelligence, the Soviet intelligence service, “could see us now, I know they’d be shocked at how ineffectual the internal workings of the Carter government were.”

So Carter eventually makes one of his political aides, Hamilton Jordan, chief of staff. But Jordan, by his own admission, was not someone who was suited to be chief of staff. It’s not until the last year of the Carter administration that they finally go around and make Jack Watson the chief of staff.

And Watson is, by all accounts, a good chief of staff. So good that when Carter loses the election to Reagan at the transition Reagan meets Watson and says, “You’re the guy that everybody tells me if you’d been chief of staff earlier on I wouldn’t be in this position right now,” meaning Reagan would not have won election if they’d gone with Watson early on.

Stepman: So is all this conflict in the White House, and there’s clearly been a lot of it over the last half-century, is this necessarily a bad thing?

It seems like to a certain extent, it has actually in some ways benefited presidents to have some of these conflicts and has energized some of these presidencies, at the same time bringing down a few others. Is it necessarily a bad thing, or is it something that a good president can control and manage?

Troy: Yeah. I think it’s that latter, that it’s something a good president can control and manage.

I think the key lesson of “Fight House,” the key lesson of my book is that there’s always going to be some level of conflict in the White House. There are some levers I identify that presidents could use to manage that conflict and minimize it if they so choose or exacerbate it if they want. They have to know what they’re doing in doing so, but there are ways to control it.

And I would say, it’s a continuum, right? If you have no conflict at all. And this is sort of like the Lyndon Johnson administration on Vietnam. Johnson wouldn’t allow any disagreements on the subject, then you get groupthink and bad policies.

In fact, in the Johnson administration, there was a collection of aides who were skeptical of the Johnson policy on Vietnam, but they were so scared to even discuss it they had a meeting, a group that they called the non-group because they were afraid that Johnson would find out about it, and they had secret meetings lest Johnson know that people are discussing an alternative approach in Vietnam.

So, that way a little bit leads to paralysis.

At the same time, if you have so much squabbling that the members of the team don’t trust each other, and they can’t say anything in private meetings for fear that it will show up on the front pages of New York Times, Politico, Washington Post, etc., then you can’t have open and honest deliberation among your team, and you’re going to get leaking and infighting and backbiting, and that doesn’t work either. That’s another form of paralysis.

So a good president knows how to manage some conflict to get creative juices flowing, so different people are giving different perspectives, but at the end of the day, make a decision that everybody feels they had their say on. Not necessarily that they got to choose the direction, but they all had a chance to participate in the process.

And if you can do that, then you’re going to have a creative team that leads to good policy solutions. And that’s kind of like what you had under Reagan.

Lucas: Something else on the book is about sort of the myth of “no-drama Obama.” I wonder if you could get into that a little bit more.

Troy: [President Barack] Obama definitely had this idea that he was going to be different from previous Democratic administrations and Democratic campaigns that were notoriously beset by infighting.

There’s a famous story in the 2004 Kerry campaign that Howard Wolfson joins the Kerry campaign on a Monday and he sees all this backbiting and infighting and people at each other’s throats, and he goes out to lunch on a Wednesday and never comes back.

So Democrats were known for a lot of nasty infighting, and Obama was determined to be different. He put out this concept of no-drama Obama, and it helped that it rhymes with his name.

They had a couple of rules. There was the, … I don’t want to use a bad word, but the “no a-holes” rule or “don’t mess with the structure” rule. These rules were imposed in the campaign.

It actually worked pretty well in the campaign because one of their leading campaign staffers, Dan Pfeiffer, said that there was only one unauthorized leak from the Obama campaign senior staff the entire campaign, and they quickly identified who that person was and they rectified the situation. That’s pretty amazing not to get unauthorized leaks from a campaign, shows real discipline.

When Obama comes into the White House, suddenly it’s a slightly different situation because [in] campaign everything’s theoretical, in presidency things are actual, people actually get certain jobs and fight for himself who talked about all those great rules that they had to keep control.

Pfeiffer is unhappy that he gets passed over for communications director, and he seems to undermine the person who is chosen above him, who didn’t even work on the campaign.

It reminds me of famous James Carville, who’s a Democratic campaign expert and a former Clinton campaign strategist. He says that, “A campaign is about screwing your enemies. A transition is about screwing your friends.”

So once you get to the real nuts and bolts of governing, the Obama administration did have some tension there. They were very good at not letting people know about the tension during the time, and that’s why I wrote “Fight House” after the Obama administration, so I had much more insight into what actually happened.

People were a little more open and honest after the administration, but during the administration they were kind of all on board with this no-drama Obama line. And you really couldn’t get much insight into the real nature of the infighting that was happening at the time.

Stepman: To change the pace just slightly, because I had to ask this, this is really something that’s been the news. There was a recent piece in USA Today about President Woodrow Wilson and his dealing with the Spanish flu.

You’ve written about this a little bit in the past, especially given, of course, talking today about coronavirus and President [Donald] Trump’s response and the different, of course, presidential candidates … saying that they have different views and there’s a disaster right now.

Can you talk a little bit about Woodrow Wilson and his response to the Spanish flu, given how much is pertinent to today?

Troy: Absolutely. Woodrow Wilson’s response to the Spanish flu I would argue was the worst disaster response in presidential history, and I do say that in my previous book, “Shall We Wake the President?”, looking at presidents and disasters.

Wilson really did nothing about the flu. At one point he was told by his doctor, not even a White House staffer necessarily, but his doctor, that the troop transports that were taking U.S. military personnel to Europe to fight in World War I, they were spreading the disease among the people on those ships and a lot of those people were dying. Then they were also spreading it among the people of Europe. He was told to look into the troop transports and maybe stop doing them.

The guy who was effectively the chief of staff of the Army at the time sat in a meeting in the White House and he strenuously objected to this, even though World War I was only a month away from being finished. He said, “We have to keep sending those troop transports.”

And the bottom line is that 116,000 U.S. military personnel died in World War I, and 43,000 of them died from that Spanish flu. So Wilson really didn’t do anything about that.

He also didn’t do much in terms of informing the American people about what was going on. He had the Committee on Public Information led by a guy named George Creel, which was basically a censorship arm.

This Committee on Public Information tried to suppress information going out about the flu, so the people didn’t really know the nature of what was going on and take steps to address it.

There were some scientific efforts that were shown to be effective. So for example, the city of St. Louis imposed social distancing, and the city of Philadelphia did not, and St. Louis had a death rate five times lower than that of Philadelphia.

Maybe if Wilson had used his platform to share information across the country about some of the challenges that were out there we wouldn’t have had a situation where over 600,000 Americans died from that flu.

And the flu was so severe and it hit a lot of young people, somewhat in contrast to coronavirus today, and the average age of the U.S. citizen, so the average age of the U.S. population, decreased by a decade as a result of that horrible Spanish flu. So Wilson really did not cover himself in glory, and it’s not a proud moment in our history.

Stepman: Amazing. Well, again, this is Tevi Troy, who is a presidential historian and author of the recently released book “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House From Truman to Trump.” Thank you so much for joining us on “The Right Side of History.” We really appreciate it.

Troy: Thank you. And I hope your listeners go out there and buy “Fight House.” You won’t be disappointed.

Stepman: Thank you so much.





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