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When Presidents Split With Staff

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Steve Bannon will no longer be running Breitbart. That departure follows on the heels of his removal as senior adviser to President Trump last year. Their breakup became exceptionally ugly in recent days, although it's not unprecedented. So let's ask Cokie about past presidential splits with staffers, like the one between President Eisenhower and his chief of staff, Sherman Adams. Adams was accused of accepting favors from regulators in 1958. Ike initially defended him.

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DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: I admire his abilities. I respect him because of his personal and official integrity. I need him.

INSKEEP: And then Eisenhower made him resign. Cokie Roberts answers your questions about how the government works.

Hi there, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: So there's one example of a relationship that turned sour. What's another?

ROBERTS: Oh, there are lots. But probably the most famous was Nixon firing his close aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman during the Watergate scandal. Nixon hoped he could save himself by jettisoning various aides all along the way. He praised Haldeman and Ehrlichman as fine public servants as he announced their, quote, unquote, "resignations." Of course, they both went to jail, and Nixon didn't save himself.

INSKEEP: Oh, but you make sure to say fine public servants on the way out the door.

ROBERTS: Right.

INSKEEP: I am also thinking of an occasion from when I was a kid. Ronald Reagan had a chief of staff with a rather similar name.

ROBERTS: Don Regan. And I was not a kid. I was here covering it.

INSKEEP: (Laughing) I wasn't going to mention, but go ahead.

ROBERTS: And Don Regan was famously fired by Nancy Reagan. And she just wanted him out of there big-time, had screaming arguments with him on the phone. And then he was horrified to discover that his replacement, Howard Baker, had been named - Regan discovered that by reading the newspaper. So he was summarily dismissed by the first lady, who thought he was not protecting her husband well enough. But Regan got back. He wrote a book where he just went after Nancy Reagan - his book called "For The Record."

INSKEEP: Oh, well, I'm glad you mentioned the book because, of course, there was a book involved here - not Steve Bannon's book, but he was quoted extensively in this book making disparaging remarks about various people. And we have a question from Sarah Eggers, who asks...

SARAH EGGERS: When did the trend of tell-all books start? And was there ever a time that that was considered gauche and the aides wouldn't do that?

ROBERTS: What a lovely thought, that there was a time when things were considered gauche, right? I mean, that's passed. But the first time - in modern history, anyway - that you had a former staffer going after his president while the president was still in office was James Fallows after - who was Jimmy Carter's former speechwriter - going after him in The Atlantic magazine. And that at the time was considered somewhat gauche. But then the floodgates opened, and the Reagans had book after book written about them, including by their own children, while they were in the White House. Now, of course, Mrs. Reagan got back with writing "My Turn."

But the first tell-all was probably in the Lincoln administration when the very impressive, formerly enslaved Elizabeth Keckley, who was the dressmaker to the Washington stars of the mid-19th century, wrote a book called "Behind The Scenes," which recounted intimate conversations between the Lincolns, and among the Lincolns and herself, and Mary Lincoln's letters. Now, that didn't end well for Mrs. Keckley. She had to go out of business because people were afraid she'd write tell-all books about them.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about a lot of these memoirs. They certainly are entertaining. They make news. But they tend to focus on personality conflicts, less so than policy. In fact, that's a critique of this latest Michael Wolff book. Do we actually learn very much from these tell-all books?

ROBERTS: Well, they're titillating and interesting to read, and we probably do learn a lot of personal things about the presidents. But in the end, Steve, since you and I are both in this business, I'm happy to say it's the historians who have the last word. And they rely heavily on the president's own words and the words of the people who were making the policy.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks, as always.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org, by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.