LISTEN LIVE: Loading...

Advertisement

 

'The fight of his life': Journalist Chris Whipple's inside look at the Biden White House

47:33
Download
Play
President Biden waves as he disembarks Air Force One at JFK International Airport in New York City on September 20, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
President Biden waves as he disembarks Air Force One at JFK International Airport in New York City on September 20, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Sign up for the On Point newsletter here

In a new book, journalist Chis Whipple is bullish on Biden.

"Joe Biden has been underestimated time after time after time in his career and certainly during his presidency," Chris Whipple says.

Among Biden’s priorities? Nothing less than saving American democracy – and offering an antidote to Trump.

But Biden has also had challenges. Mocked as old and addled by the right, he was responsible for a disastrous retreat from Afghanistan.

Today, On Point: Chris Whipple on the Biden presidency.

Guests

Chris Whipple, journalist and documentary filmmaker. Author of a new book about the Biden White House, "The Fight of His Life." (@ccwhip)

Show Transcript

ANTHONY BROOKS: In the days before Joe Biden took the oath of office to become the 46th president of the United States, he and his staff were unsure when or if his inauguration would even take place. Donald Trump had summoned a mob to attack the Capitol and continued to push false claims about a stolen election and a plan to upend democracy and stay in office. During those first weeks of 2021, Biden and his team weren't certain the threat was over. But on Wednesday, January 20th, two years ago last Friday, Joe Biden placed his hand on a bible and took the oath of office.

On that day, the threat to democracy was among Biden's greatest challenges. So was a global pandemic and an economy in crisis. Then came a botched retreat from Afghanistan, Putin's attack on Ukraine, and a surprisingly solid record of legislative victories. Journalist, author and documentary filmmaker Christopher Whipple take stock of it all in his new book, The Fight of his Life.

It's a midterm report card on Biden's first two years in office with insights from behind the scenes in the Biden White House. And Chris Whipple joins us today from New York. Welcome to On Point. Great to have you, Chris.

CHRIS WHIPPLE: Great to be with you.

BROOKS: Yeah, Thanks for joining us and thanks for this book. And I wanted to start, you recount a moment just ten months into his presidency when Joe Biden is talking to other national leaders at a U.N. conference, and someone asks him how it's going. And Biden responds with an old joke, which I love. So a guy jumps off a hundred story building as he passes the 50th floor. Someone says, How's it going? And Biden says, So far, so good. So is that pretty much your assessment? So far, so good. We'll leave aside whether or not he's plummeting toward the ground and in some kind of fatal collision there, But is that pretty much your assessment? So far, so good.

WHIPPLE: Yeah, so far so good is not bad. I mean, I really see my book and the Biden presidency as a kind of political thriller in three acts. And the first act, of course, was an unbelievably fraught transition, the most dangerous. And as it turned out, bloodiest since the Civil War. And I have a lot of untold stories about that. The second act is the first year of the Biden presidency, which was largely dominated by the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan, which triggered a long decline in Biden's approval rating.

And the third act began with Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine and Joe Biden rising to meet that moment. He was uniquely qualified to do that. It's certainly been his finest hour, in my view. It was followed by a lot of legislative successes and, of course, a performance in the midterms that defied all the predictions. So, you know, it's a political thriller with no ending yet. But you could say so far, so good.

So far so good. I want to ask you about a couple of things. A lot of those themes that you just mentioned, you spend a lot of time talking to Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, and he sent you an email right after the 2020 midterms when it became clear that Democrats were likely to hold the Senate, lose many far fewer seats in the House than predicted. And Ron Klain said to you or wrote to you, maybe we don't suck as much as people thought.

WHIPPLE: Yeah, it was a moment, kind of like a Joe Biden moment, a moment of authenticity, right? It's true. They defied the odds. They proved all the prognosticators wrong. And a lot of it was due to Ron Klain's strategic genius. Frankly, I mean, this was a case where Joe Biden wanted to go everywhere and talk about everything and the walk up to the midterms. He was proud of his record, his legislative record and all the rest. Ron Klain sat him down and said, Mr. President, you really need to go to the places where you can do the most good, number one. And number two, you need to focus on women's reproductive rights and the threat of the MAGA movement to democracy. Well, Joe Biden followed that script, and the rest is history with that dramatic defying of the odds in the midterms.

BROOKS: I want to ask you about the midterms, because it's true the Democrats did much better than expected. Some would argue that's because the Republicans did so poorly. They ran a bunch of terrible candidates from Herschel Walker to Mehmet Oz to Kari Lake. So given that, was this really a decisive win for Biden and the Democrats? Or a loss for a bunch of crazies, sort of self-inflicted wound? Okay, go ahead.

WHIPPLE: Yeah, it was it was certainly both. I mean, yes, this was a Star Wars bar, a cast of characters, you know, that the Republicans ran in the midterms. But having said that, you know, really this was the best performance by a new president in 60 years in the midterms. And it had a lot a lot to do with their focus. They weren't distracted ... when they were mocked ... for not talking about inflation, they stuck to what they thought was the winning message. And that prevailed.

BROOKS: Chris, in reading your book, it really does drive home that a case can be made that Biden has a pretty good record for these first two years. I mean, as you point out, he led the country or continues to lead the country out of this terrible pandemic, responded pretty ably to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So far at least passed a number of major spending bills, you know, even with the thinnest majorities in Congress. We'll talk about that. He's added jobs. Unemployment rate is low, and yet there does seem to be a bit of a contradiction here. Because despite this strong record, his approval numbers remain low, even with lots of Democrats. What explains that in your view?

WHIPPLE: So just by the way, just for a little context here, I got an email from Ron Klain a couple of days ago that said that at this point in in the presidency, Ronald Reagan's approval rating was at 37%. Joe Biden's latest among adults was 44%. So a little perspective on that. And of course, Klain knows all this stuff by heart. He also can tell you, you know, as he did tell the president during that very long summer of 2021, he can tell you what every president's approval rating is when gas prices are at $3.40 or $3.75 or four bucks anyway.

It's you know, look, the approval rating, there's no question about it. I think my book is a no holds barred, clear eyed look at Biden's failures as well as his successes. And that decline in his popularity really was triggered by the bungled exit from Afghanistan. And I go into great detail on that. Behind closed doors. It was very dramatic. Biden felt disappointed by the intelligence, was disappointed, puts it mildly. And as I say, we can certainly talk about that first year. It was rough.

BROOKS: So, Chris Whipple, what was the sort of source of the fiasco in your view? I mean, things didn't go well. It was disordered. On the other hand, it was one of the biggest airlifts in American military history. But it didn't go well, especially in those early days.

WHIPPLE: It was really what I call a whole of government failure. Everybody did almost everything wrong. And it began with the intelligence. Tony Blinken told me, the secretary of state told me in no uncertain terms that everything they did was based on a fatally flawed intelligence assessment, that the Afghan government and armed forces would last for 18 months. This was news when I said that to Bill Burns, the CIA director, when I sat down with him in his office over at Langley, and we talked about this and he said, Now, look, we were clear eyed about the fragility of the Afghan government and armed forces.

And we said that if you took away two legs of the stool, namely the U.S. military and American contractors, that was a recipe for a really fast crumbling of the Afghan government. Mark Milley, He gave me yet another version of the intelligence. He said, that's the former the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He told me that the prediction was that the government would last until Thanksgiving.

I think at the end of the day, the real problem was that they thought they had more time than they did to execute the withdrawal. And they tried to do it with a cap of 700 troops on the ground at the time. It wasn't enough to do it safely. Biden had to bring them all back. And of course, it became a real fiasco.

BROOKS: I want to move on to another issue, and we alluded to that in the introduction, and that is Biden's sort of effort to stand up to this assault on democracy. And this is in the wake of the January 6th attack on the Capitol and Trump's scheme to stay in power. ... Chris Whipple, we're coming up on a break. So we've only got about 20 seconds here, but just start us off and we'll pick this up after the break. I mean, you write that for Biden, the assault on January on the Capitol, on January 6th was personal. It was visceral.

WHIPPLE: It was. And, you know, Joe Biden tried to do two things that were contradictory. Unify the nation, but also call out Trumpism. That speech was an example of Biden deciding that it was finally time to call out the staying power of Trumpism.

BROOKS: You say Biden's presidency would be judged in part by whether he could hold back the angry authoritarian forces that Trump had unleashed. Those forces were gaining strength not only at home, but abroad. So that's a huge challenge for Biden. And you talked about how he responds to it viscerally based on that. I mean, based on that challenge, how do you think he's doing?

WHIPPLE: Well, it's a huge thing. One of the things that the Biden presidency will be judged on, you know, a real defining test. He saw those dark authoritarian forces emerge in Charlottesville. That was the trigger for running for president. He I believe that he talks about it all the time. And, of course, when Putin invaded Ukraine, I Biden saw the same dark authoritarian forces that march on the world stage. So this is a big deal. And, you know, it's the one thing that surprised Joe Biden more than anything else in his presidency was the staying power of Trumpism. He thought it would be in the rearview mirror after a while.

He was he couldn't believe how persistent it was. And so I think that that surprised him in the January 6th, when he on January 6th, when he watched this happen, he was I write about this in the book. He was working. He was in Wilmington at his house, working on a speech about small businesses with Bruce Reed, who is now deputy White House chief of staff. The TV was on, but it was on mute. He looked up and Bruce Reed said to him, we're going to need a different speech. But it really drives Joe Biden. And I think it's a big factor in why he's running for reelection. And I believe he's running almost without a doubt, because the fate of democracy, he feels, is still on the ballot in 2024, especially if Trump is the nominee.

BROOKS: Well, you mentioned that he's going to run. And I want to get right to sort of one of the issues that comes up all the time and that has to do with his age. There are a lot of people that feel that running at age 82. So if he wins, he'd be 86 at the end of a second term that that's just too old and that Joe Biden is showing signs of that age. I'm wondering if you put that question to him directly. I mean, I know and I don't want to just for listeners, correct me if I'm wrong, Chris, you didn't actually do a sit down interview with him, but you got a lot from him via email for this book, right?

WHIPPLE: That's correct. He agreed to answer my written questions with written answers of his own. And I had to be really selective, obviously, about which questions to ask. There was a limit to them, and I had a feeling I knew what he was going to say about age. Scott Pelley asked him. So I didn't ask him directly. Scott Pelley asked him on 60 Minutes. And he said, and if he was too old and Biden said, Watch me. That's basically his answer. ... So, Bruce Reed, I mentioned before, he's now the deputy White House chief of staff, told me a story about going to Europe with Biden. They had all been on this exhausting trip, four summits in a row, and they drag themselves back on Air Force One for the six-hour redeye flight back to Washington, D.C., all of them collapsing and trying to get some sleep except for the boss.

Who walked into the cabin with the senior advisors, sat down and started telling stories and told them all the way back to Washington, D.C., as they pried their eyelids open, listening politely. So, you know, they say he's got plenty of energy. I like the way Jack Watson, Jimmy Carter's former chief of staff, frames this. Jack is 82 years old now. He was an excellent chief of staff to Jimmy Carter. He said, look, aging is a very individual thing. How many Supreme Court justices from John Marshall to Felix Frankfurter to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, were firing on every cylinder well into their eighties. Picasso had his most productive period before he died at 91. This is a very individual thing. So let the voters decide.

BROOKS: It's interesting. It's so individual. You know, I was struck this week, a number of us were talking about this and the On Point staff, Prime Minister of New New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, in her forties talking about just no gas left in the tank. So it does make you wonder about someone who, you know, feels like he's got the gas in the tank to go the distance at that age.

WHIPPLE: It does. And you know, there was there's a fascinating story I tell in the book about previously unreported where Ron Klain met by Zoom with 19 former White House chiefs of staff before before he started the job. They'd come together to give him advice. One of them was Jim Jones, who was LBJ's final White House chief of staff.

BROOKS: I'm glad you brought this up because I wanted to ask you about what Jim Jones said. Yeah, go ahead.

WHIPPLE: Yeah, I'm old enough to remember that I thought LBJ looked like he was 90 years old. Yeah, he was 60 when he left the White House. He died at 64. But Jones made the point to claim that you've got to take care of the president. You've got to make sure he gets his sleep. Jones used to make sure LBJ had his nap in the afternoon. Well, you know, so far so good, as Biden said.

BROOKS: But Jones also said, and you quote from that Zoom meeting that he had with Ron Klain, you know, he does see signs of age and he sort of recognizes his own signs of age. And he says it's his gait, it's his walking ability, stumbling on the steps on Air Force One. I can tell when he's tired, he's having trouble getting the right word out, thinking of the right word. And then finally, I don't think it's noticeable to most people. But being there myself, I recognize it.

WHIPPLE: Well, yeah. So it was fascinating to hear Jones on that subject. And probably, you know, I'm not sure that Ron Klain found it all that helpful.

WHIPPLE:  But he has a point. And Biden has, I think look, I think Ron Klain's replacement has enough problems. But one of the biggest problems is going to be making sure that the president gets his rest, that he's firing on all cylinders. He's got to make sure that everybody wants the president's time. Ron Klain's successor is going to have to make sure that only the most important people get it.

BROOKS: Yeah, and we should we sort of backed into this and probably a lot of listeners know. So Ron Klain, chief of staff for the first two years, he's just announced that he's stepping down and we can talk about who's going to replace him. But tell us first about Ron Klain and in what ways he has been key to Biden's first two years in office.

WHIPPLE: You know, I spent two years talking to almost all of Joe Biden's inner circle, including Ron Klain, at great length and regularly. And it's a fascinating story. I mean, I trace the trajectory of Klain's stewardship of this presidency from day one, actually before day one to now. And there there's no doubt about it, at the nine months point of the Biden presidency, Klain was so exhausted and bone tired. We sat on the patio of his outside his office in the West Wing on a Saturday when Biden was in Europe, and he told me he was thinking about quitting and he was going to talk to his wife about it.

That's how relentless and exhausting the White House chief of staff's job is. There's a reason why the average tenure is 18 months. And anyway, Klain ultimately decided he had to stay for the midterms. Joe Biden is happy, you know, thankful that he did. That's for sure. But I predicted in the book that Klain would leave at this point. Be careful because the White House has not confirmed this, nor has it confirmed that his successor will be Jeffrey Zients, which everybody in the world is now reporting, but they haven't formally confirmed it.

BROOKS: Interesting. So, Jeff Zients, he ran President Biden's COVID-19 response effort and served in the Obama administration. And it is being reported here by a number of sources that he's going to replace Ron Klain. What do we know about Jeff Zients? I mean, what's your sort of assessment of him as someone to fill Ron Klain's rather large shoes?

WHIPPLE: Well, interestingly, Ron predicted to me way back when that when I asked him who it who his successor would be, he said, I think Joe Biden might want to pick a woman. There's never been a female White House chief of staff, and that's long overdue. So if it is science, it's a defeat for womanhood. But he's got a lot of really exceptional qualities. He's, by all accounts, a managerial genius. He earned this reputation when the website for the Affordable Care Act was such a disaster, and they called in science to fix it. And he did.

Ever since, Biden has called him my BFD for big blanking deal. After his famous off make comment you'll. Zients is really I mean he was masterful; I think in running the coronavirus response team. So there are a couple of reasons why Ron Klain's shoes are so big and tough to fill. Zients does not have Klain's political savvy. You know, he's a great manager, but he doesn't know Capitol Hill or have that finely tuned political instinct. Number one. Number two, while he has a very good relationship with Joe Biden, he doesn't have a three-decade long bond with the president that Clinton had that made it possible for Klain to tell Biden hard truths. It may be more difficult.

BROOKS: Chris, I want to talk to you a little bit about sort of the relationship you had with President Biden via email. How useful was that and what did you learn about Biden the person, from his responses that maybe surprised you the most or provided the most insight into who he is?

WHIPPLE: Well, I thought he was extraordinarily revealing. I didn't ask him about his age because I knew what the answer would be. But one couple of things I asked him and I also asked Ron Klain. I asked him what was his worst day and what was his best day as president. His worst day was the day that 13 service members were killed in that tragic suicide bombing in Kabul. And this was so personally wrenching for the president, and he was quite moving in his description of what that day was like. He was sitting in the Situation Room, of course, when the word came through and it was first one or two casualties and then three or four and then six, seven, eight.

As all of this was happening, this tremendous thunderstorm blew in over the White House and lightning was striking the north and south Lawn. There was just this feeling of this terribly sad, tragic, gloomy feeling in the White House. And of course, not long thereafter, Biden went to try to console the families of the fallen. And this was a really very awkward experience because a few of the families were blaming Biden for their loss. One of them shouted at him, one of the relatives shouted at him on the tarmac. And some were unhappy that he was invoking his son, Beau, who died of a brain tumor, of course. And Biden likes to invoke him when comforting families, as Jen Psaki told me later, you know, for weeks afterwards.

BROOKS: That was his press secretary. Yeah.

WHIPPLE: Yeah. As Jen Psaki told me for weeks afterward, he felt this terrible, misunderstood sadness that invoking Beau of all things would have been would have made things worse.

BROOKS: There's some interesting revelations in this book, at least to me. I was interested to read your portrayal of Biden's view of the vice president, Kamala Harris, calling her a work in progress.

WHIPPLE: It's a fascinating, complicated relationship. And there's no question that in the beginning they had a real bond. Joe Biden liked having Kamala Harris around. He wanted her in every meeting. And they were thrown together in part by COVID. Nobody was traveling at the time. And Biden really valued her input. He gave her important national security responsibilities. There's a great story about that, I can tell you later. But things got more complicated as time went on.

And she had some missteps, particularly around the issue of the Northern Triangle, which was part of her portfolio. There was that awkward trip to Guatemala when Lester Holt asked her why she hadn't been to the border and so on. But what really got to Biden was her allies complained that she'd been given Mission Impossible and not only some of her allies, but it got back to the president that the second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, was complaining around town that she was being set up for failure. Well, this really annoyed Biden. And, you know, he hadn't asked her to do anything he hadn't done as vice president under Barack Obama.

BROOKS: But what did he mean by that phrase, a work in progress, in your view?

WHIPPLE: Well, I think he meant that boy, you know, she's got a ways to go, I think is what he meant. And but as I say, he's given her important national security responsibilities. And there's one previously unreported story that I tell about her. She was sent to the Munich Security Conference on the eve of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and she met privately with Vladimir Zelensky.

And she told him in no uncertain terms, not only are the Russians coming for Ukraine, they're coming for you personally and your wife and your family. Zelenskyy was still unconvinced. I think it got his attention, but he was still skeptical that the invasion was going to happen. When he left, the vice president turned to her aide and said, I wonder if that's the last time we see him alive.

BROOKS: I want to talk about the sort of drip, drip, drip sort of controversy of these classified documents. What's the impact of this controversy around the classified documents, Chris Whipple, specifically because, of course, the former president is dealing with, you know, albeit a sort of more serious version of this. But I think to a lot of people, it's like, oh, my God, it's two presidents who didn't handle classified documents neatly, cleanly, the way they should have been.

WHIPPLE: Yeah, it's a real political problem for Joe Biden. I doubt it's a legal problem for him unless there's much more to this than meets the eye. But it wasn't well-handled. And you have to wonder why. You know, this White House is usually a pretty smooth-running operation. You have to wonder why Ron Klain wasn't in the loop when those documents were discovered on November 2nd. You know, Biden says that he did what his lawyers told him, and I have a lot of respect for his lawyer, Bob Bauer.

I spent a lot of time talking to him over the last two years and certainly particularly about the wild transition when he was the senior legal counsel. But this is something that the White House chief of staff ... this is the kind of thing that you expect the White House chief of staff to be in the loop on and to say to the president, wait a minute, Mr. President, how is this going to look if it comes out that we have been sitting on this for a couple of months without disclosing it. So, you know, that goes to the importance of the White House chief. But I do think that this is, unless there's much more to this than meets the eye, that this is a short-term political problem for Biden.

BROOKS: Chris Whipple, I mean, the Republicans aren't going to let this go. I mean, what are the sort of long-term impacts of this on the Biden administration, for example? I mean, on the Department of Justice's ability to prosecute Trump and for his mishandling of classified documents, doesn't this affect that in ways that are extremely negative?

WHIPPLE: Yes, I do. I think it does affect that. But let me just say for openers that it is just rich for Kevin McCarthy, of all people, to talk about hypocrisy. Having said that, look, it's a problem. I really think that after all of this, that it will make it difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute Donald Trump for his handling of the classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, no matter how much anybody says about this being about the facts and the law alone, the truth is that it's a huge political decision. And I think that Merrick Garland has to think about a jury, whether a jury will find Trump's behavior all that egregious when documents keep popping up in this endless scavenger hunt of Joe Biden's houses. So I do think it has a real effect.

BROOKS: I want to talk about, you know, we spend a lot of time looking back. I'd love it if we could look forward about sort of what's going to be coming up in the next couple of years. Joe Biden is going to be dealing with a possible recession, inflation keeping NATO united in support of Ukraine. He's got to deal with the Republicans in the House who seem to be hell bent to come after him on a number of fronts. He's still going to have to deal with Trumpism across the land. What stands out on that list of challenges and how do you think Biden takes that on?

WHIPPLE: Well, you know, I've just written an op ed piece for The New York Times that it should appear as soon in which I say, in effect, after all of what Biden's been through. Now comes the hard part. Not only does he have to balance the demands of a campaign at the age of 82, which he will be with governing, but he's got to implement all the legislation that was passed in the first two years because none of it matters until the rubber meets the road. As you say, that he's got to avoid a recession and control inflation. He's got to keep NATO unified against Vladimir Putin and he's got to confront the lasting power of Trumpism that continues to be a threat to democracy. Trump could very well be the nominee in 2024. And so it's as I say, I think that Biden has many problems and challenges that lie ahead.

BROOKS: And, you know, one of the big ones, of course, is going to be dealing with a Republican controlled House. So I'm wondering, I think you point to some past presidents in particular that he might want to look to for guidance about how to deal with the challenges coming from the House.

WHIPPLE: Yeah, I think that Joe Biden and his next chief of staff would be smart to take a page from Bill Clinton's playbook. And all they have to do is walk down the hall and ask John Podesta, who is working for the White House again. He was Clinton's last White House chief of staff during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The genius of the Clinton playbook during those days when Newt Gingrich was pursuing a scorched earth political strategy, impeaching Clinton for his affair with an intern. What the Clinton White House did was ignore it and get on with the business of governing, and they were richly rewarded. Clinton, he was richly rewarded with reelection. That's a template I think Biden should follow.

BROOKS: Interesting. Interesting. Is there any chance of bipartisan legislation in your view?

WHIPPLE: I actually think there is. You know, everybody thought Biden was smoking something when he said back in 2021 when he took office that he was going to get bipartisan stuff done. Joe Biden has been underestimated time and time and time again throughout his career and certainly was during his first two years and passed, you know, a string of bipartisan legislative accomplishments.

I think there are enough there may be just enough Republicans in the House who represent districts that Biden carried that might be able to go for some bipartisan legislation. Probably not the big things. Probably not. You know, he's not going to get immigration reform, probably he's not going to get voting rights, but I think he can get some stuff done.

BROOKS: On the other hand, if the hard right block in the house has its way and really wants to obstruct more than govern, I mean, do you think there's a chance that the Republican desire to disrupt and block could actually work in favor of Biden and that it gives him this opportunity to present the Democrats as the serious party that actually wants to govern?

WHIPPLE: Oh, it absolutely does. And I think, again, that's the that's the Clinton model from the Newt Gingrich days of Clinton. Just you know, they came off looking like a bunch of radicals who were setting their hair on fire every day. And, boy, they were mild compared to this bunch. You know, we've got a Republican Congress that's populated by election deniers and they're there for insurrection. So it's not a stretch for Biden. You know, James Carville likes to say about. The about the documents scandal that you can't prevent the press from losing its mind. I think Biden can simply sit back and let the Republicans lose their mind while he governs.

BROOKS: I want to ask you about something that's often talked about Joe Biden and has been over the years, even before he was president, that sometimes he's not disciplined in the way he talks. And so this sort of returns us to the issue of Russia. So last March, Biden flew to Poland a month into Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and he took some criticism for what he said about Russian President Vladimir Putin during that speech in Warsaw.

So it was [a] last line, 'This man cannot remain in power.' It sounded like he was calling for regime change. His administration had to spend days sort of walking back that statement. No, that's not what he meant. But Chris, talk a little bit about that tendency, whether, you know, if that's a fair charge or not, that sometimes he does go off the rails. And I gather I gather that you think sometimes it helps him in a certain way.

WHIPPLE: It was quite a line, wasn't it? I mean, it's sort of it'll be almost as memorable as Reagan. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall, which was also kind of an adlib that, you know, Reagan's line was actually something that the State Department and everybody else thought was had been excised from that speech. Reagan was riding to the Berlin Wall and he turns to his chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, and says, Ken, it's going to drive those guys crazy at State, but I'm going to leave the line in.

Well, Biden didn't give anybody a heads up when with his line, and they were shocked that they were running around with their hair on fire at the White House. I spoke to Ron Klain about 15 minutes after Biden delivered that line. And I asked him about it. And Clinton said, Chris, he ad-libbed the line. They didn't see it coming. And of course, they ran around trying to correct it, which was silly. This was a moment of authenticity. This is often Biden at his most effective, I think. And I thought the line was I asked John Podesta, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, about it, and he said, you know, Bill Clinton used to go off script once in a while and we go there he goes, committing the truth again. Sometimes it's effective.

BROOKS: Sticking with Russia, another issue I wanted to ask you about was Biden's. I mean, this is this is scary, actually. Biden's preoccupation with nuclear danger and the Russian war against Ukraine. I say scary. You know, to think about the president worried about this, it means we should all be worried about it. But can you talk a little bit about his level of concern there?

WHIPPLE: This is the thing that keeps Joe Biden up at night. Bill Burns, the CIA director, told me we had a long talk over it, in his office at Langley. And he told me that for Vladimir Putin, the issue of Ukraine is existential. And so you have to think about the possibility. They don't like to talk about it out loud at the White House. But you can be sure war games are going on constantly, gaming out every move the U.S. would make in the event that Vladimir Putin resorts to that.

BROOKS: Chris Whipple, thinking about the challenge that you took on, I want to ask you about. What was the biggest challenge writing about a presidential administration at this stage, just two years in? Because one could argue that no matter how good a job you do in telling the story at this point, it might end up bearing little resemblance to the way history will ultimately remember the Biden administration. But I'm just wondering to what extent you thought about that, that challenge.

WHIPPLE: It was a huge challenge, no question about it. My last two books about the gatekeepers, about the White House Chiefs of Staff and The Spymasters, about the CIA directors, covered something like 100 years. This one covers two years, but it was the most difficult thing I've done to write about a White House in progress. It's like designing an airplane in mid-flight. You know, you're getting knocked this way in that by unexpected things, a COVID variant or the invasion of Ukraine.

And you just hope you can land safely. Having said that, it's the most rewarding experience I've ever had professionally, because I really felt that again, that this is a kind of political thriller. It unfolds from inside the White House. I had extraordinary access to not only to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and Ron Klain, but Tony Blinken and the CIA director, Bill Burns, and all the way down the line.

So for me, it's even more rewarding, I think. And also, I think this is a book not just for political junkies. I think it's a very human drama. My favorite parts are the kind of unguarded, private moments with Biden when you find out what he really thinks about Kamala Harris or his fraught relationship with his Secret Service detail.

BROOKS: Well, give us one more of those. We literally have 20 seconds left. But talk about another favorite unguarded moment, Biden moment that you came across in the 20 seconds that remained.

WHIPPLE: Well, the Secret Service is one example. All you need to know for context here is that Donald Trump tried and to some extent succeeded in politicizing the Secret Service. And Joe Biden was shocked to discover that some of his detail were MAGA sympathizers.

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House by Chris Whipple. Copyright © 2023 by Chris Whipple. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

This program aired on January 23, 2023.

Related:

Anthony Brooks Twitter Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.

More…

Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.

More…

Advertisement

 
Play
Listen Live
/00:00
Close