NEW YORK -- The only man to hold both jobs says in a Discovery documentary that airs today that the White House chief of staff generally has more power than the vice president.
"I was speaking from an historical perspective," Dick Cheney is quick to clarify in an interview. Cheney, chief of staff under President Gerald Ford, was widely perceived as an involved and influential vice president under George W. Bush.
Discovery's film, "The Presidents' Gatekeepers," airs for two hours each today and Thursday. Dozens of little-known stories about historical events big and small are told while outlining the duties of the appointed official most responsible for seeing whether a president's agenda succeeds or fails.
Joshua Bolten and Rahm Emanuel discuss the terrorist threat that kept them in the White House situation room as Barack Obama was inaugurated to replace Bush. Assistant chief Larry Higby reveals that the voice-activated tape recorder that led to Richard Nixon's downfall was installed because the president was too clumsy to figure out a manual one. Lyndon Johnson's fear that he wouldn't survive a second term because of his health was a big factor in his decision not to run in 1968, Marvin Watson explains; Johnson died two days after a second term would have ended.
All 20 of the presidential aides sought for interviews agreed to participate, along with former presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, said filmmaker Jules Naudet, who made the documentary with his brother Gedeon and executive producer Chris Whipple.
They enlisted former Ford aide David Hume Kennerly to win the cooperation of Cheney, who sat for seven hours of interviews, and his one-time boss Donald Rumsfeld. When former Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush aide James Baker, considered the "gold standard" of modern chiefs, became the third interview, the rest fell into place.
"The chiefs love the fact that for the first time, it's about them and not about their presidents," Naudet said.
To a man, they agreed it was a meat grinder of a job, with constant pressure and endless hours. The typical chief lasts less than two years. It's miserable to go through, Emanuel concludes, but every chief would do it again if asked.
Before being brought down like his boss in Watergate, H.R. Haldeman set the modern standard for a strong, centralized authority at the White House, said Cheney, a low-level Nixon aide then in his 20s.