A History Of Rivals In The White House

Aug 6, 2017
Originally published on August 6, 2017 1:33 pm
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

President Trump has left on a working vacation, but his new chief of staff still has a lot on his plate. It's now John Kelly's job to impose discipline. The retired four-star general has to contend with leaks, competing factions and personal rivalries that have run rampant since Inauguration Day. But how unique is all this White House drama?

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GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's the kind of question we referred to professor Ron. You know him as NPR's senior editor and correspondent on the Washington desk, Ron Elving.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: There have been palace intrigues for at least as long as there have been palaces. But for our purposes, let's just go back as far as George Washington. He had some exceptionally talented people vying for his favor and attention. And he could barely contain their competing ambitions. His first cabinet was not only an All-Star team. It was an all-Founding-Fathers team, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton.

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ELVING: They had different ideas - radically different ideas - about the nature of the federal government itself and different ideas about who should be in charge after Washington retired.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) The election of 1800.

ELVING: Jefferson and Adams ran against each other in a bitter presidential campaign.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) I don't like Adams.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character, singing) Well, he's going to lose. That's just defeatist.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) And Jefferson...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) In love with France.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character, singing) Yeah, he's so elitist.

ELVING: And Hamilton's conflicts are the stuff of legend. Hamilton wrote a 54-page letter excoriating Adams, accusing him of extreme egoism, distempered jealousy, vanity without bounds, ungovernable indiscretion and ungovernable temper. And Hamilton could be equally unsparing about Jefferson, calling him a man of profound ambition and violent passions with a viewpoint that was unsound and dangerous.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Hamilton, rapping) Thomas, that was a real nice declaration. Welcome to the real present. We're running a real nation. Would you like to join us or stay mellow, doing whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello?

ELVING: Abraham Lincoln's cabinet was also rife with competition. The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin brought that period to life in her bestseller "Team Of Rivals," which became source material for Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln."

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DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Abraham Lincoln) There is one Ethan Allen story that I'm very partial to.

BRUCE MCGILL: (As Edwin Stanton) No. You're going to tell a story. I don't believe that I can bear to listen to another one of your stories right now.

ELVING: In the book and in the movie, Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton are among the cabinet members holding the president in contempt as the war begins. But over the next four years, they contend with each other and with other cabinet members and come to appreciate Lincoln's unique abilities.

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DAY-LEWIS: (As Abraham Lincoln) Fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

ELVING: In more recent years, we have seen presidents' immediate staff, particularly the chief of staff, take a leading role in White House drama. Think back to the Nixon White House, for example. His powerful chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, governed access to the Oval Office and ruled the White House with cold precision.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: H.R. Bob Haldeman was more than just the president's SOB. He was Richard Nixon's stout right arm, his protector, his chief of staff.

ELVING: But as the Watergate scandal spread from the campaign operation to the White House itself, Haldeman was unable to control the competing interests of all the president's men. He and his ally John Ehrlichman were forced out in April 1973.

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RICHARD NIXON: In one of the most difficult decisions of my presidency, I accepted the resignations of two of my closest associates in the White House, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman - two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know.

ELVING: Then Army General Alexander Haig took over as chief of staff. Over the next year, as multiple investigations consumed Nixon himself, Haig became, in many respects, the de facto president. He tried to do it again, in a sense, in 1981.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: When shots were fired at President Reagan. Here you see the president coming out now.

ELVING: He was President Ronald Reagan's first secretary of state at the time. And he was present in the White House the day Reagan was shot.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The assault on the president - who's in charge?

ELVING: With Reagan on a hospital operating table and the vice president far from Washington, Haig assumed he was next in line.

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ALEXANDER HAIG: As of now, I am in control here in the White House, pending return of the vice president. And I'm in close touch with him.

ELVING: Haig was mistaken, as it turns out a change to the Constitution years earlier had made the speaker of the House the next in line to the Oval Office. Haig would resign as secretary of state the following year.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It came like a bolt out of the blue, even though he has had many well-publicized differences with different members of the Reagan administration.

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HAIG: Under these circumstances, I feel it necessary to request that you accept my resignation.

ELVING: Which brings us back to President Trump, who has had an unusually tumultuous time in the White House with numerous firings, departures at the most visible level of his staff. And he is dealing with a new reality, the ever-present scrutiny of 24/7 cable TV coverage and social media. In the past, White House intrigues rarely came to light in real time. And we can only imagine how Alexander Hamilton might've used Twitter. Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.