How a White House Chief of Staff Survived the Stress

"The President's Gatekeepers"
"The President's Gatekeepers"Courtesy of Discovery

There are physically demanding jobs, there are emotionally draining jobs, there are personally difficult jobs, and then there is the job of the White House Chief of Staff (WHCoS), which may be the most all-consuming non-executive position in America. Somewhat self-servingly dubbed “the second most powerful job in government” by former WHCoS and Secretary of State James A. Baker III – the sobriquet was also used by Vice President Dick Cheney – the Chief position is famous for offering the anxieties of office without the perks. The complexities of the job are the focus of Discovery Channel’s two-night, four-hour documentary special, ‘The President’s Gatekeepers,’ which debuts on September 11 at 9p.m. ET and features interviews with the varied men who have thrived or broken under a shared strain.

Produced by Pulitzer Prize winning White House photographer David Hume Kennerly, the documentary provides an unprecedented glimpse into the lives of some of the country’s most influential and misunderstood political figures and ultimately serves as a clinic on how to handle stress in the workplace. Thanks to the surprising frankness of the 20 living former Chiefs of Staff who appear on screen, the special shows the degree to which a very public job can become a private cross to bear.

“It’s a privilege beyond description, but the burdens are also beyond description,” says former WHCoS Andrew Card, who spent five years serving as President George W. Bush’s right hand. “They go far beyond that which would be defined as what would be the responsibility of a job – even if that job were the CEO of a company.”

Given that the average lifespan of chiefs hovers around 23 months, Card’s run in White House was downright Cal Ripken-esque, something he jokes about, telling Men’s Journal that he “overstayed [his] welcome by a year and a half.” Asked about how he so effectively managed the stress, he is quick to thank his wife and credit President Bush for fostering “a candid relationship” that left room for disagreement. According to Card, it is personal relationships of the type he built with his boss that kept him from being paralyzed in the face of his accountability to the world’s most powerful man and the American people.

“What is not well understood by most [people] is that the responsibilities also include helping with the President’s state of mind,” Card explains. “You have to make sure that when [the president] is faced with really challenging issues, he’s not hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.”

The key to meeting the demands of the powerful, it turns out, is remembering that people remain people despite the size or shape of their office.

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