Discovery Channel is so all over the place these days — oscillating between classy nature documentaries and demo-pandering reality shows like “Porter Ridge” — one hesitates to quibble about the flaws in what’s intended to be a serious examination of U.S. history. But “The President’s Gatekeepers,” a two-part, four-hour production, proves disappointing, seemingly so pleased to have gotten all 20 surviving White House chiefs of staff to participate that it sacrifices insight, or an overarching point of view. As such, while the project proves something of a logistical triumph, it’s only fitfully interesting.
Directed by brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet (“9/11,” “In God’s Name”), “Gatekeepers” zeroes in on how the chief of staff is in many respects the second most-powerful person in the administration, even if that presumption has lost some of its potency since Dick Cheney (a former chief of staff, and one of those interviewed) elevated the role of Vice President under George W. Bush.
“The White House chief of staff’s job has more authority and more power than the Vice President,” Cheney says near the outset, seemingly unmindful of how he helped shift those perceptions.
Mostly, “Gatekeepers” characterizes the job in terms anybody paying attention probably already knows — hugely demanding, enormously stressful and, to hear those who occupied the hot seat tell it, an opportunity they wouldn’t have missed.
There are fascinating tidbits here, to be sure, like Rahm Emanuel orchestrating a chief of staff gathering when the Obama administration was dealing with the financial crisis, or Donald Regan having the temerity to hang up on first lady Nancy Reagan. (Never a good idea, George H.W. Bush’s right hand, James A. Baker III, says wryly.)
For the most part, though, this is a case of access without much payoff — a once-over-lightly view of key historical moments from the past 50 years as related by those who enjoyed a front-row seat, including former presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
In one respect, the shared experience of these White House officials obscures the partisan divide, reminding us that every administration — Democratic or Republican — has experienced headaches, and that they usually come at the most unexpected and inopportune times. The notion that such powerful figures are swept along by events is also humanizing, and the participants can certainly be more candid discussing them now that they’re removed from the arena and enjoy the benefit of hindsight.
Still, one would assume that the audience apt to be drawn to something like this is going to be reasonably sophisticated, or at least have watched enough episodes of “The West Wing” to understand what the job entails. And honestly, what more can Andrew Card say at this point about delivering the news about the Sept. 11 attacks to Bush in that schoolroom?
Viewed that way, “The President’s Gatekeepers” plays like a high-school-level civics lesson — and feels like less than the sum of its parts.