Longtime New York Times correspondent David E. Sanger ’82 discussed a documentary he produced alongside Emmy award-winning director John Maggio on the Biden administration’s first year at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Thursday.
Sanger, who is also a Harvard Kennedy School adjunct lecturer in public policy and a former Crimson editor, opened the conversation with a tribute to his late friend, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter. Sanger said he met Carter for lunch on Monday, the day he died.
“Ash was fully engaged,” Sanger said. “He was full of humor, as usual. He seemed to be on top of his game — which makes this all the more tragic, what happened later on that night.”
Maggio said Covid-19 precautions created hurdles for him and Sanger while shooting the documentary.
“David and I, actually, were the test case for Warner Brothers,” Maggio said. “They let us shoot an interview, and we had created a plastic room, with plastic sheets between us, and they had cut a hole on the camera.”
At the time of filming, the White House had in place a 15-minute limit on in-person meetings and a five-person capacity for all rooms — a challenge given the number of crew members and public relations officers usually present for filming, Sanger said. He also addressed the difficulty of gaining the trust of cabinet members and convincing them to go on camera.
“It did take a while because no cabinet member wanted to go on and do this until they knew they had lots of company. No one wanted to be first. I think the first naturally was a Harvard graduate and a Crimson newspaper graduate, Tony Blinken,” he said, referring to the Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken ’84.
The documentary relied mostly on firsthand accounts from Biden’s cabinet, along with commentary from journalists to tell its story.
To keep the documentary’s breadth roughly one year, as stated in the film’s title, Sanger and Maggio bookended the film with Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 and his State of the Union address in March 2022.
Sanger said in an interview that concluding the documentary with Biden’s State of the Union address put “ a punctuation mark on the first year.”
“In a first year, you set the tone,” Sanger said. “The impressions you get — and that the American public gets — about any new administration in the first year is likely to set their impressions for the next three, or the next seven.”
In response to pre-release skepticism that the HBO documentary would be too favorable to the Biden administration, Sanger invited the audience to watch the film’s coverage of Biden’s pullout from Afghanistan and “see what a lovefest it is.”
To close the forum, Sanger offered advice to his 18-year-old self.
“You only get four years,” he said of his time at Harvard. “So like I said before about the lessons from Ash’s life is — don’t waste a day.”