by Angelica Hill (UK), Resident Press Corps
Before the start of another working week, Residents of International House spent their Sunday evening having a lavish dinner with two incredible journalists. There was plenty of food for both their mouths, and for thought as the evening unfolded. The International House Sunday Supper is a tradition that began in 1909, and is continued to this day at the beginning of each term.
On Sunday January 28, 2018, International House had award-winning journalist, and Emmy Award-winning producer and filmmaker, Chris Whipple share his insights on one of the most powerful jobs in the United States, the White House Chief of Staff. His best-selling book The Gatekeeper, which was released in April 2017, is an in-depth insight into the various men who have served the American Presidents as Chief of Staff, and is the first book to give such an unrestricted back-stage view of the mechanics and operations going on behind the Commander in Chief. It’s a look at the men who have been the president’s closest advisers, whose actions—and inactions—have defined the course of the United States. He conducted rigorous of interviews with all seventeen living former White House Chiefs of Staff, as well as two former presidents. He exposes the experiences and thoughts of people such as Rahm Emanuel, Dick Cheney, Leon Panetta, and Donald Rumsfeld. His book is unbelievably relevant and intriguing as the United States has an outsider governing an increasingly divided government and country.
Whipple’s partner in conversation for the evening was Columbia University Professor June Cross, who teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism’s Masters. She is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to her drive, passion and commitment to the work she does. A documentary filmmaker and journalist who emphasises the human story and the importance of community, her reporting for NewsHour on the U.S. invasion of Grenada won the 1983 Emmy Award for “Outstanding Coverage of a Single Breaking News Story.” Her documentary Secret Daughter, an autobiographical film that examines how race and color impacted her family, won an Emmy in 1997, as well as being honoured the same year with a DuPont-Columbia Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism.
With these two incredible investigators and creators on stage in Davis Hall, the dinner conversation was far from tame.
I-House Resident Akshay Madhavan, from India, expressed that he has been interested in American politics since she started watching The West Wing close to a decade ago. As he progressed in his career he came to realize just how much American policies and politics influenced the rest of the world (whether they liked it or not). “It is clear that the President’s Chief of Staff is almost as powerful as the President himself,” he said. He was eager to hear their individual stories from an expert.
Resident Scott Belding, from the United States, studying Renewable Energy Policy at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), shared Madhavan’s enthusiasm. “The role of Chief of Staff to the President has fascinated me for a while,” he said. “It is sometimes regarded as the second-most powerful position in the country, yet almost never receives attention commensurate with that status.”
Before the evening began I got a chance to speak to Whipple who expressed his excitement to be speaking in such an amazing venue to such clever and interesting individuals. He said the opportunity to speak at I-House was “too good to pass up.”
Speaking of his book he expressed how surprised he was that no one had beaten him to the topic because it seemed to him such an obvious area to explore, however he is happy no one did beat him to it of course. He decided to write the book after making a documentary on the same topic, with the same title, having realized just how much ground there was to cover on the topic, and finding that the film only scratched the surface. He concluded by mentioning the fact that he is currently working on two new potential books, as well as a film, however couldn’t go into detail as they are still in the early stages of development.
As a Global Thought student, doing his Masters at Columbia University, Andrew Ryan explained why he came to the dinner. “I am immensely interested in American politics, particularly what happens behind the scenes. Mark Whipple has written extensively on the position of White House Chief of Staff, so I think he’ll have some really interesting stories and insights on the position.”
At 6.15, the evening dinner began with a Resident musical performance. Linda Cartolano, from the United States, and Emma Liu, from Taiwan, played “Imagine” by John Lennon, and “How Far I’ll Go” by Auli’i Cravalho from the recent Disney movie “Moana.”
Over the next half an hour Whipple and Cross spoke about the book, the Chief’s of Staff he interviewed, as well as today’s political climate. As was to be expected, President Donald Trump inevitably made an appearance in the conversation. As Whipple called Trump intellectually and psychologically unfit to run the country those attending broke out into applause as Cross couldn’t help but smile to herself. The pair discussed the fact that it seems generally that Republican Presidents seem to give their Chiefs of Staff much more power than Democratic Presidents, as well as ideas around what the role of Chief of Staff really means and entails. There discussion was followed by questions from the floor.
The evening concluded with a final musical performance on the piano of “Isoldens Liebestod”, composed by Wagner-Liszt, performed by Resident Sisi Liu from China. Following her performance many in the audience gave her a standing ovation.
Scott Belding, a Resident from the United States, said, “The Sunday Supper combined several great things: a beautiful room, bright company, and a compelling speaker.”
Resident Ray Luo of China added, “The conversation with Chris Whipple was enlightening, and educational about the history of the Chiefs of Staff position, really opened my eyes to all the power hidden within. The piano performance was spectacular.”
Another Resident, Erle Blakstad of Norway, noted, “The speakers were great. It was really cool that the Residents could ask them questions. Also really cool that they have the flags from every country represented at the dinner in the hall. I am very grateful for the opportunity to attend such an evening.”
Warda Saleem, a Resident from Pakistan, summed up the evening as she made her way out of Davis Hall.
“I felt so much pride to be part of the I-House community. We all had a wonderful chance to appreciate each other, all elegantly dressed up, and able to share the experience. Performances, dinner together, and then an opportunity to be grateful to our Trustees and staff along with having dignified guest speakers, it was all terrific to celebrate. Thank you I-House for everything!”
To be in the presence of two people with such drive and talent for what they do, discussing a topic of great importance and interest, especially in today’s political climate was a pleasure and a privilege, and something that we are lucky enough at I-House to get the opportunity to witness every few weeks. Without fail, all who attend these Sunday Suppers leave feeling intellectually stimulated, educated, and with their heads buzzing with new ideas and queries they can go onto explore further.