The Presidents' Gatekeepers: TV Review

The President's Gatekeepers - H 2013

The President's Gatekeepers - H 2013

An engaging, sweeping political special detailing the highest stakes faced by some of the country's most powerful men.

The two-part political special features Rahm Emanuel, Leon Panetta, Dick Cheney and others, as well as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush

Anyone who has watched fictionalized accounts of White House operations knows, from The West Wing to Scandal, that the President's Chief of Staff is one of the most important positions one can hold. But it's also true in real life: Former Chief and Vice President Dick Cheney once said it was a position of more power than the Vice Presidency. There have been over 20 Chiefs over the last nine presidencies (the average turnover rate is one-and-a-half years, with a record being five), and all of those still living have gathered together for Discovery's The Presidents' Gatekeepers, a four-hour event that focuses on their job.

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The special divides its story into two episodes that contain eight segments each, detailing the failures and triumphs of every administration including and since Lyndon B. Johnson. The special includes many familiar Chiefs -- Rahm Emanual, Donald Rumsfeld, Leon Panetta, Andrew Card -- but also pulls a coup by speaking with Presidents themselves, including Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. The series comes from filmmaker brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet (the 9/11 documentary), as well as Peabody Award winner Chris Whipple (60 Minutes) and Pulitzer Prize winning White House photographer Dave Hume Kennerly.  The production's pedigree is high.

The Chiefs are described as "an elite fraternity," and they have gathered before (most recently during President Obama's swearing in, to advise Emanuel on the job). They define their job as "constant," and that a good Chief must be a quarterback calling the President's plays, as well as an enforcer, a confident, a teller of hard truths, a receiver of bad tempers, and a person who can handle being attacked from all sides. Because of the understanding of the rigors of the position, their respect for each other goes beyond partisanship, which is a refreshing change from the barrage of antagonism found elsewhere. 

The Presidents' Gatekeepers premieres on Sept. 11, and addresses that tragedy immediately after its opening segment. Like most of the rest of the special, it's a fast-paced survey of the events that is both emotional and telling. None of what is being said by any of the Chiefs is particularly groundbreaking -- they've addressed most everything in memoirs or profile pieces. But having it all in one place, along with the way the series is fluid with its timeline, gives a very powerful impression of its look at recent history, even if it doesn't make an overt overall statement. 

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While the first episode takes, overall, a more somber tone (discussing not only September 11th, but about nuclear codes, emergency exercises, and Presidential explosions of rage), it does insert some moments of levity, though not as much as the far punchier second hour, which details White House scandals like Bill Clinton's impeachment, Richard Nixon's resignation, and the sharing of power between the Chiefs and First Ladies (hanging up on the First Lady is, apparently, a fireable offense). Each presidency gets at least one segment of focus, though never exclusively, and the series jumps around both in time and subject. That effect allows viewers to clearly see the behind-the-scenes brilliant ideas and terrible mistakes that have secretly shaped the country's course.

The Presidents' Gatekeepers is an engaging watch for most, though some segments are more accessible and interesting than others, especially when the history and details of those others become dense and the names become unfamiliar for younger audiences (which makes it an interesting learning tool). The idea of "learning" anything on Discovery lately is surprisingly, and The Presidents' Gatekeepers feels like something more likely to appear on PBS. That's a compliment to the special's worth, along with a hope that these kinds of programs on the network cease being so increasingly rare.