It’s been called “the toughest job I ever had,” “a heat shield for the president,” “the biggest honor of my life,” and like “walking a high-wire rope with no net below you.” Yet every man, without question, said he would do it again—to serve his country and “be at the center of history.”
For the first time, all 20 living White House chiefs of staff sat for exclusive interviews in The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, a four-hour documentary that premiered last week on Discovery Channel. The series offered a masterful look at the men who have served as the president’s closest advisers and most powerful consiglieres over 50 years and nine administrations.
It is the cinematic equivalent of Hilary Mantel’s piercing novel, Wolf Hall: a privileged perspective on power from the one person who sees the world’s most powerful man at his best and his worst.
One of the most fascinating moments in the series is the depiction of an unusual meeting held at the opening of the Obama administration. Through the initiative of both Joshua Bolten, the outgoing chief of staff for President George W. Bush, and Rahm Emanuel, the incoming chief for President Barack Obama, every living White House chief gathered to share with Emanuel their experiences in the job. The series is so compelling because it offers a behind-the-scenes look at how Washington works at the highest level. But this meeting was especially intriguing because it hinted at how Washington could work—and too rarely does—with the best minds in both parties finding common cause around the national interest.
The chiefs acknowledge such bipartisan moments are rare, but in the past they were not unheard of. “I found that if you were willing yourself to put partisanship aside, if you were willing to listen and to build up trust…that you could get both sides to come together for something that was good for the country,” said Erskine Bowles, President Bill Clinton’s third chief of staff.
Ken Duberstein, President Ronald Reagan’s fourth chief agreed. “Principled compromise is not a four-letter word,” he said. “That’s what makes our system go.”
Many of the chiefs pointed to James A. Baker III, who later served as Secretary of both Treasury and State, as the gold standard among their fraternity. Brilliant, charming, tough and politically savvy, Baker helped Reagan, a Washington newcomer, navigate the city’s power structure. Baker also held the position under President George H.W. Bush from 1992-93, making him the only person to serve as chief of staff to two different presidents.
When Bill Daley was appointed by Obama, the first call he placed was to Baker, seeking the Republican’s sage advice. “Congratulations,” Baker said, “you’ve got the worst —-ing job in America.”
And the series offers plenty of evidence to support Baker’s conclusion. The average stint as White House chief of staff lasts under two and a half years. Emanuel explained that the easy decisions are generally made before they reach the president’s desk. “If it’s good and bad, somebody else will handle it. All the stuff that gets into the Oval Office is between bad and worse.”
Emanuel described a typical day on the job—which usually starts at 5am—this way: “You finish up around 7-7:30 in the office. You go home and you’re on the phone on the way home, on the phone during dinner, on the phone while you’re reading your kids to sleep and you fall asleep before the book ends.”
Which is to say, this is a job that tires you out early – when it isn’t keeping you up all night.
The Presidents’ Gatekeepers – by directors and executive producers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, executive producer Chris Whipple and producer David Hume Kennerly.