It’s the second most coveted job in Washington, but by far the most grueling.
Mack McLarty says being chief of staff to the president is “like ‘The West Wing’ without the script.”
He and the other 19 living chiefs talk about their time as the president’s right hand in “The Presidents’ Gatekeepers,” a four-hour documentary that airs tonight and Thursday on Discovery Channel.
The film, produced by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Hume Kennerly, explores the experiences of the men, including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who both served as chiefs under Gerald Ford.
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter are also interviewed about the role of the chief of staff.
They have a front row seat to history, but pay the price to be there. Days begin at 5:30 a.m., and end around 8 p.m., and there are usually phone calls in the still of the night. “It’s not the president who gets the call at 3 a.m., you do,” says Kenneth Duberstein, who worked for Ronald Reagan.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing ever comes easy. You usually fall asleep before the book ends,” said Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s first chief, who juggled his duties while reading to his children.
Who nodded off the most in meetings? That would be Dick Cheney, who was given a gag award by his colleagues, “which I treasure,” he said.
The subjects reveal that they are the president’s friend, confidant and, at times, punching bags.
Andrew Card walks viewers through his memories of being at George W. Bush’s side as the events of Sept. 11 unfolded. It was Card who informed the president that “America is under attack.” Card says the tension became so intense later in the day that “he was yelling at me.”
“I was 29, but felt 59,” said Jim Jones, Lyndon B. Johnson’s chief.
George H. W. Bush’s chief John Sununu is equally candid. “If people don’t like you, but love your boss, then you’ve done your job.”