Almost everyone has a boss and almost everyone struggles to maintain a cordial personal and professional relationship with that boss. It can be tricky going. Now imagine that you're the White House chief of staff and your boss is the president of the United States. Your boss isn't just the most powerful man in the meeting, he's the most powerful man on Earth. You better learn to play nice.
As Discovery Channel's new special, 'The President's Gatekeepers,' proves over the course of its four hours, the position of White House chief of staff is no ordinary job. It's a relentless gauntlet of political chess matches, sleepless nights, and life-or-death decisions. Most bend, many break, and every WHCoS feels the pressure both from their overwhelming responsibility to the nation and their loyalty to their boss. In the doc, Chicago Mayor and former WHCoS Rahm Emanuel sums up the rigors of serving as chief with his trademark bluntness: "Brutal on you, brutal on your family."
Arguably no one has a more acute understanding of this than former chief and longtime Beltway veteran, Andrew Card. Card served as chief of staff to President George W. Bush for an almost unprecedented six years, helping to guide his boss through war and political gridlock.
Card is candid about his time in the White House – "I'm sure that I overstayed my welcome by a year and a half or so," he jokes – and pulls no punches when it comes to explaining what it's like to serve as consigliere to the leader of the free world. A chief of staff must manage "an incoming barrage of challenges that doesn't respect a 9-to-5 responsibility. It's 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he says.
The most important challenge: Serving the president. And given that he lasted three years longer than the average WHCoS, it's easy to argue that Card served his boss better than most. We asked the man who used to be the most famous and important assistant in America how he met the needs of a demanding boss and how we could learn from his example.
The second part of 'The President's Gatekeepers' airs tonight, September 12, at 9 p.m. ET, on Discovery Channel.
Unsurprisingly, the West Wing is full of type A personalities. Everyone has an agenda, everyone craves influence, and everyone is grappling their way up the totem pole. Sound familiar? In a nutshell, the White House is a normal office building turned up to 11.
"You have to manage extremely challenging personalities, because most of the people around the president are quite confident in their abilities," Card says. "You have to make sure that none of them bully the president into a decision."
In Card's opinion, this is among the most important duties of any good employee: help facilitate better decisions by presenting options rather than solutions. Though you may not like your boss's choices or their outcome, you have to respect that the buck stops with them. "The president's decisions are always tough. They're brutally difficult decisions to make," says Card. "That's why the president's decisions are the president's decisions. They're not an adviser's decisions. They're not the staff's decisions."
As the saying goes, heavy is the head that wears the crown. The upside of being farther down the ladder is that the consequences of a catastrophe will be brunted by your boss – a perk that often gets forgotten amid the static of ambition.
Credit: Paul Morse