And you thought your job was all-consuming.
The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, an absorbing two-part, four-hour Discovery Channel TV event premiering tonight and concluding Thursday, takes an unprecedented and insightful look at the men who have occupied what many regard as the second most powerful position in politics: White House Chief of Staff.
The person who holds this job has virtually unrestricted access to the president of the United States as his chief advisor and confidant, yet with that power comes attendant splitting headaches. In these four hours, we get quite a candid earful from all 20 living White House chiefs of staff, as well as exclusive interviews with two former presidents, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
All the former chiefs seem to agree that perhaps the most challenging aspect of this high-profile job is its sheer relentlessness. Most of them say they usually got up no later than 5 a.m., but then, after a wall-to-wall work schedule at the White House, they would take the job home with them. Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, says he usually would leave his office around 7:30 p.m., then takes calls all the way home and during dinner with his family and even while reading bedtime stories to his children. More often than not, he then would be awakened during the night to respond to another emergency.
Donald Rumsfeld, President Gerald Ford’s first chief of staff, says he served as “a heat shield for the president,” while Leon Panetta, President Bill Clinton’s second chief of staff, says “You’ve gotta be the S.O.B. who basically tells somebody what the president can’t tell them,” adding that a chief also has to be prepared to stand up to an angry president – and in the case of some of Clinton’s famous “purple rages,” that took some real backbone.
Small wonder, then, that the average White House chief of staff lasts about a year and a half on the job (the modern record is five years).
“I was 29 years old and I felt 59,” recalls Jim Jones, President Lyndon Johnson’s second chief of staff.
While a White House chief of staff may acquire several migraines and an occasional ulcer on the job, however, he also inevitably picks up some great stories and, while there are few if any actual revelations divulged for the first time in this Discovery Channel presentation, there are still moments of drama, humor and even poignancy in revisiting key moments in modern American history from the perspective of the guy who was, often literally, sitting next to the president.
James Baker (right) with President Ronald Reagan