Chris Whipple is a good author whose latest book, his third, is also the first deep-diving contemporary history about Joe Biden’s administration. It’s called The Fight of His Life and it’s terrific.
Whipple started as a journalist so his prose is spare and he doesn’t waste any space, never gets wordy, plus it’s been an eventful couple years by the standards of any administration, so there’s some real drama, intrigue, momentum. I read it in two days.
The reason I didn’t review it anywhere except to say a few nice things on the podcast at the time of its release is because what I most liked about it is something that I think is personal to both me, as a reader, and Whipple, as a writer/journalist/historian. Namely a mutual fascination with workaholics.
His first book, The Gatekeepers, is about White House chiefs of staff. We hear about the chiefs of staff in the news because they’re often giving statements on behalf (or in defense) of an administration.
Probably one in ten of us can name the current chief of staff.
Or the previous one.
And part of what Whipple explores is that, in a single administration, at any given time, there’s usually a previous, current, and future chief of staff. In other words: the job is relentless. A woodchipper. Almost nobody lasts more than a year. I think he points out that the average 20th century president has like 2.8 chiefs of staff–and the job is only getting harder.
The fact that they can only barely keep that ship afloat, and never really shephard it all the way home, is part of my point here about Chris Whipple’s major theme…
His next book The Spy Masters is about the people who work in US intelligence, the CIA in particular, and here, too, we get portraits of individual people who are trying to tilt the boat of world affairs, just a few degrees off its current course, toward a more-favorable destination. Guys who, if they were granted an extra two hours in each day, they would work those two hours–and still probably come up short of everything they were supposed to get done.
The way I put it to myself after so much journaling was like this:
Chris Whipple writes about workaholics; people who know, when they sign on for a job, that they will not finish it; rather, the job will finish them.
Other people have written about workaholics too but what makes Whipple’s assessments so distinctive is that he writes about them with sympathy. Writes about Rahm Emmanuel’s 20-hour workday not with staggered undertones (“and then he went to ANOTHER meeting”) but instead he writes with a natural ability to emphasize, in a breezy prose style, the enormity of what is at stake, and thus to depict the workaholic’s 20-hour workday not as a self-destructive feat of focus and willpower, but as a kind of tragedy: what we see are characters basically opening their veins into the demands of their job, people more committed to their jobs than we the reader are maybe commited to anything in our lives, but, since Whipple has done such a great job of sketching the interconnectedness and complexity of the crises to which these workers are summoned, we the reader know that it won’t work. That the day might be saved, but the hero will be worn ragged by the task. Their veins emptied to sketch only a halfway map toward resolution.
A resolution that, when/if it’s achieved, will create a dozen crises of greater caliber for the next generation.
(I got a morbid notion while reading Max Hastings’s wonderful Abyss alongside Robert Caro’s Passage of Power just last year–both books depicting John F. Kennedy’s masterful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis–that Kennedy’s head exploding on live TV seems almost like a metaphor. Like this is what it feels like to achieve something so great as the prevention of nuclear holocaust. That this is what the presidency, a naturally Whipplesian job-subject, takes out of you.)
Whipple’s only written three books, so it might be a stretch to say that this is some deep-seeded thing about him. But I’ve gotten so engrossed in all three of these books and they’ve all triggered this very rare and very personal feeling of engagement with the material that only happens (I never realize it until after the book’s over) when I’m reading what feels like a portrait of my own current situation.
So cheers to Chris Whipple.
I’d say I hope he’s got a new book on the way but I don’t suppose he can help it.
(Also my favorite comedian is Norm MacDonald and here’s one of my favorite Norm jokes.)