“When anybody gives you advice about, ‘Oh you should do this, you should do that’ — unless they’ve sat in that cockpit seat and been strafed by friendly fire as well as enemy fire, they don’t know anything about the job,” former Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel insists during a multi-episode special on chiefs of staff over the years, called “The Gatekeepers.”
The special, which Discovery Channel will premiere next year, spans nine administrations, with interviews from more than a dozen former chiefs of staff (a more powerful job than vice president, says Dick Cheney — who’s been both — says in the series). The list of those who agreed to sit with the exec producers includes not only Emanuel and Cheney but also Donald Rumsfeld, James A. Baker III, John Sununu and Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, as well as former presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
The project is the brainchild of brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet, filmmakers made famous when their work on a documentary about firefighters in Lower Manhattan put them at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The results of that dramatic coincidence became the riveting CBS News documentary “9/11,” which was showered with awards — including an Emmy (Outstanding Nonfiction Special) and a Peabody award, a Writers Guild of American award, the Radio and Television News Directors Association’s Edward R. Murrow Award, and a Television Critics Association Award, among many other accolades.
“We had been fans of ‘The West Wing’ and love that character,” Jules Naudet told the TV Column, regarding the beloved Leo McGarry role played by the late John Spencer in the hit NBC drama that put the White House through the Aaron Sorkin Filter.
“A lot of people know about the president and vice president, but the chief of staff – that’s a very strange, secret brotherhood no one knows about,” said Naudet — and that fact, Rumsfeld told the filmmakers, “is a good thing.”
The Naudets, in turn, brought in exec producer and longtime news exec Chris Whipple (“60 Minutes,” ABC News), who conducted many of the interviews. And Pulitzer Prize-winning White House photographer David Hume Kennerly was brought in as producer.
Discovery Channel will unveil the resulting multi-episode series during its “upfront” presentation to advertisers next week in New York. The network promises it will detail how two Reagan chiefs of staff, Baker and Ken Duberstein, handled the demands of Nancy Reagan’s astrologer; which 25-year-old chief of staff was put in charge of reviewing J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous FBI files before forwarding them to the president; and whether Carter believes he could have avoided the disastrous mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran, if only he’d asked his chief of staff Jack Watson (Spoiler alert: no).
(Discovery, BTW, seems to be doing more history projects than a cable network called History these days, including the recently announced Amelia Earhart Project, in which Discovery will attempt to recover the wreckage of the famed aviator’s plane; she went down on the last leg of a round-the-world trip 75 years ago.)
Anyway, getting back to “Gatekeepers”:
Although an 11-minute sizzle reel shown to the TV Column was more gate-keeping than eye-opening, Whipple and Naudet said they were surprised at how forthcoming all the men were. (Sample: “The White House chief of staff is one person besides his wife who can do that,” Rumsfeld says, ”who can look him right in the eye and say: ‘This is not right. You simply can’t go down that road. . . . It’s a mistake.”)
Whipple and Naudet also explained that they’re saving the best bits for the broadcast. Fair enough. So you’ll have to wait for the premiere next calendar year to learn what Rumsfeld and Cheney told them about the Obama administration’s having successfully knocked off Osama bin Laden.
We, however, did get to see what Carter had to say about it, after hearing Watson say if he’d been in the room, he would have argued against Carter’s [failed] rescue effort in Iran years earlier.)
Carter’s response to Watson, in a nutshell: Who cares what Watson would have said?
Carter, seen trying to salvage something from the botched rescue mission, suggested during his interview that his mistake helped inform the decision-making process of Obama’s campaign to kill bin Laden. (We already know it served as a cautionary tale as to how it could end a presidency.)
Whipple did volunteer that, during his interview, Baker told them that when Reagan took office, he wanted to reform Social Security. Baker took Reagan aside and said: “Mr. President, Social Security is the third rail of American politics. If you touch it, you will be electrocuted.”
“And lo and behold, what did Reagan decide to pursue, which became his legacy? Tax cuts. Baker really turned him around on that,” Whipple concluded.
Cheney, who was interviewed twice for the special, told them he has forgot a lot of the stuff he did as vice president, but remembers everything he did as a 30something chief of staff for Gerald Ford. “It was probably his favorite job of all the jobs he’s had,” Whipple said.
And the job Cheney blames for his first heart attack, Whipple added.
Some of the men stipulated that they could only be asked about their time as chief of staff, and not other political roles they’ve played, Whipple explained. Cheney, though, himself seemed to forget those ground rules during the course of his interviews. And Emanuel — the series’ only former chief of staff to a sitting president — focused more on the personal aspects of the job.
“What I love about this series ... ,” Whipple said, “[is that] chief of staff is confessor and consigliore to the president, but you really can make the argument that he really makes the difference between success and failure for every president.”
Indeed, several men are seen in the 11-minute trailer arguing that the job is the second most powerful in the country — a theory that former first lady Barbara Bush did her best to smash to bits during her interview for the special:
“This is going to disappoint you terribly,” Bshe said, filling the screen, all pearls and no nonsense.
“But I never once called one of George’s chiefs of staff.
“If I had anything to say — I said it to George Bush.”