“They’re not the most powerful man in the world. But they do sit next to him.”
Those striking words flash across the screen in Discovery Channel’s trailer for The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, the network’s new show highlighting the work of a White House chief of staff – often mentioned as one of the toughest jobs in the world. Gatekeepers features exclusive interviews with all twenty living White House chiefs of staff – as well as two presidents, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter – offering information and anecdotes from the last half century and nine administrations on the challenges and complexity of running the Oval Office.
One of the twenty featured presidential confidants is Institute of Politics’ (IOP) Senior Advisory Committee member and former Ronald Reagan White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein, who served in the chief of staff role from 1988-89. In his IOP capacity, Duberstein has helped guide the Institute toward fulfilling its mission of inspiring youth to politics and public service for nearly two decades.
Prior to serving as White House chief of staff in President Reagan’s second term, Duberstein had his hands full running legislative affairs in Reagan’s first term but emerged victorious going toe-to-toe with a congressional Democrat majority – and legendary House of Representatives speaker Tip O’ Neill. After leaving at the end of Reagan’s first term, Duberstein hadn’t planned on returning to the White House staff. When asked in the second term if he would return in the new role, he was reluctant.
“You do a White House once, it’s an honor,” Duberstein told the IOP. “You do it a second time – you are a glutton for punishment.”
A one-on-one meeting with President Reagan in the Oval Office convinced him, however, to sign-up again. Reagan told him, “’I just want you to know one thing. Nancy and I want you to come home for the last two years of the Administration.’ It was obviously the best professional decision of my life, to be able to sit at the right hand of a truly transformational president, who not only rebuilt America but fundamentally ended the Cold War.”
Make no mistake, the job is hard. Saying it’s 24-7 is an understatement, and the responsibilities don’t end… really, at any time of day. “When the phone rings at three o’clock in the morning, they don’t call the president, they call you – you’re the one who gets to decide whether to awaken the president,” said Duberstein. “And the problem is when the phone rings at three o’clock in the morning….somehow it’s never good news.” Another major challenge is ensuring the countless aides and advisors who brief the President tell him, “….what he needs to know, not necessarily what he wants to know.”
Duberstein said that Reagan, known as the “Great Communicator,” would be the first to say that the essential part of communication is listening – not talking – a tactic that could help correct today’s polarizing political atmosphere and discourse. “The art of governing is not at getting 100 percent, but getting 80 percent and moving the ball down the field,” said Duberstein. “The trouble in American politics today is it’s either 100 percent or nothing. We have to make sure that compromise is not a four-letter word.”
Duberstein’s experience in the Oval Office also appealed to Hollywood and the producers behind the hit late 1990’s-early 2000’s NBC series The West Wing, who asked him to serve as a consultant to the show for storyline and accuracy and help map out the last three years of programs. He was charged with translating what happened in previous administrations into “Hollywood speak” – and still make it accurate – a process he called,”…not only challenging – but fun.”
Dozens of exclusive interview clips and more information about the show – which premiered September 11 – can be found on Discovery Networks’ website.