With the Obama White House trying to achieve a diplomatic solution with Russia as an alternative to a military strike on Syria, most of us can only imagine what it must be like to be in the closed door meetings of the West Wing during a crisis – except for these guys.
For this episode of “Top Line,” we talked with three former White House chiefs of staff who gave us an insider’s view of what the White House is dealing with in the Syria negotiations.
Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, who served as the White House chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush, said the White House is likely in “angst” and “wishing they had done something right a long time ago” about Syria.
“The biggest problem is [that] they know they waited a year and a half or two years too long,” Sununu said during an interview at the premiere of a new Discovery documentary on White House chiefs of staff, “The Presidents’ Gatekeepers.” “So the White House is going through a lot of soul searching and really looking for some kind of a Hail Mary solution for a problem they let themselves get creeped into.”
Sununu was also a top Romney surrogate in the 2012 presidential election and said the current Syria crisis highlights that the country “made a mistake in ’08 and now they’ve made a mistake in ’12.”
Josh Bolten, who was chief of staff while the U.S. was engaged in two wars under President George W. Bush, recalled that he was “pretty much always in crisis mode.”
“When there are tough issues on the agenda that have a very fast past and need fast action, everybody just kind of cranks it up a notch,” Bolten said. “It's not really qualitatively all that different from a regular day at the White House. It's just quantitatively different. You have got to do it faster and more vigorously and for longer.”
Jim Jones, who served as chief of staff to President Lyndon B. Johnson, said he would advise the Obama White House to keep all options on the table for as long as possible.
“I think the best advice is to keep your lines of communication open, bringing in all the advice you can get, hold the decision that you have to make until the very last minute … because it's very easy to make a mistake, and it's very hard to pull that mistake back,” Jones said.
Jones went on to describe Johnson as “the toughest boss” he’d ever worked for, and recalled that one of his jobs was letting the president blow his top from time to time.
“If he was blowing steam … to us, he wasn't doing it to Nikita Khrushchev, and that was a positive right there,” Jones said.
"The Presidents' Gatekeepers" airs on the Discovery Channel on September 11 and 12.
To hear more of the stories of these chiefs of staff, including what Josh Bolten says were his criteria for opening the gate for a meeting with the president, check out this episode of “Top Line.”
ABC’s Alexandra Dukakis, Gary Westphalen, Wayne Boyd, and David Girard contributed to this episode.