From left, former chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld, Betty Ford and Dick Cheney (David Hume Kennerly/ )
“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 in “The Gatekeepers,” a multi-episode special on chiefs of staff over the years.
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 — 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, a Writers Guild of America Award, the Radio 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”:
Whipple and Jules Naudet said they were surprised at how forthcoming all the men were, although an 11-minute sizzle reel shown to The TV Column was more gate-keeping than eye-opening. (Sample: “The White House chief of staff is one person besides his wife who can do that,” Rumsfeld says, “who can look [the president] right in the eye and say: ‘This is not right. You simply can’t go down that road. . . . It’s a mistake.’ ”)
But, Whipple and Naudet explained, they’re saving the best bits for the telecast. 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.
Carter is seen trying to salvage something from the botched rescue mission during his administration, suggesting his mistake helped inform Obama’s campaign to kill bin Laden. (We already know it served as a cautionary tale as to how it could end a presidency.)
We also got to hear Carter’s chief of staff, Watson, say: “Had I known about [the rescue mission], I would have said to the president, ‘Flying helicopters at low altitudes over vast stretches of desert is a formula for disaster.’ ”
And what did Carter think about that? Not much: “Whether Jack Watson had been in that meeting or not would have had no impact on my decision to go ahead. In fact, everybody in that meeting agreed we should go.”
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.”