Presidential historian: Infighting, backbiting hardly unique to Trump White House

'The White House staff has always been at war with each other, and also with the cabinet agencies,' says 'Fight House' author Tevi Troy.

Updated: July 6, 2020 - 7:02am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

As the 2020 campaign grinds on, the mainstream media often paint the Trump White House as hopelessly chaotic and unwieldy.

A recent book by scholar and former George W. Bush staffer Tevi Troy offers a timely reminder that it was ever thus: All White Houses have had their deep rivalries and fights — especially in the TV era.

Troy wasn't satisfied with the oft-reported notion that the Trump White House was an unprecedented chaotic mess, and so the presidential historian set out to compare Trump with prior administrations. Troy's research eventually led to him writing his third book, "Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump," published earlier this year.

"I wrote 'Fight House' in order to address this very question," Troy told Just the News in an interview. "I was listening to a talk by Peter Robinson, who is a Reagan White House speechwriter. And I remember he said something that really struck me. He said, 'Of course, there was fighting in the Reagan White House, we just didn't have Twitter, Tweeter or Twotter talking about it.'" 

While factionalism within White Houses has been a fact of political life since the nation's founding, Troy said it became particularly pronounced in the post-World War II era.

"I start with Truman, because Truman was the first president to begin with a White House staff," Troy said. "What I found in 'Fight House' is that the White House staff has always been at war with each other, and also with the cabinet agencies. It’s kind of endemic to the structure that we have in the White House. Some White Houses have a little more fights, some have a little less, but there's always been fighting. And my book 'Fight House' has great and delicious details of fights that have taken place in every single administration in the period I covered."

Troy said the Brownlow Commission, the committee created under the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, found that the president needed help and recommended the creation of the White House staff, urging specifically that the president should have aides with a "passion for anonymity."

"And now, obviously, that passion seems to have gone out the window," Troy said. "I actually identify it as coming in the Kennedy administration. Kennedy brought in celebrity aides for the first time. People like Arthur Schlesinger, who was a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, served in the White House. And there was a lot of attention about the fact that a well known guy like Arthur Schlesinger was serving in the White House, and he wasn't the only one."

While the media paints scathing, tell-all memoirs by former Trump White House aides like John Bolton and Omarosa Manigault as unprecedented bombshells, Troy maintains that these types of ego-driven escapades have been par for the course since former President John F. Kennedy.

"This whole notion of bringing in the celebrity aide, somebody who brings their fame with them, led to people with A) greater egos, B) more notoriety, C) more relationships with the press," Troy said. 

In writing "Fight House," Troy drew on his own White House experience. He served as a senior White House aide in the George W. Bush administration from March 2005 to July 2007 and Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services from August 2007 until January 2009.

"I think your readers will want to compare and make their own judgments about how each administration compares to one another," Troy told Just the News, arguing that infighting can actually yield a better result through a robust exchange of ideas. "And whether fighting is is a good thing or a bad thing, right? There are purposes to fighting, and sometimes infighting can have a beneficial effect in terms of sorting out challenging questions that an administration is facing."

Armed with a Ph.D. in American Civilization from the University of Texas at Austin, Troy also drew on his knowledge from writing two previous books "What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House" and "Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management From the Oval Office."

"I was really surprised to see that this stuff existed in every administration," he said. "I'm a presidential historian. I served in the White House. I've written three previous books about the presidency. I knew there was some fighting in the White House. I did not realize, A) how much fighting was in every single White House and B) how petty they could be in every single White House. I researched the book with my jaw constantly dropping, because there were so many great, delicious fights that really had awesome details ... And it was a hoot to write, and I think it will be a hoot to read.”


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