White House Story
Melinda Naumann Bates
Prologue ~ 2001 ~ Goodbye to All That
I’m staring at the door to the Oval Office, about to go in for the final time, to say my farewell to the President. There’s a peep hole in the staff door, so the President’s assistants can see if he’s deep in conversation with the Nobel Prize winner or movie star du jour, or if he’s looking restless and waiting for someone to come in and break up the meeting. (He doesn’t like to be the bad guy. That’s what staff is for.) But I know there are no celebrity visitors today. Today it all comes to an end.
I glance at Betty Currie’s desk and it’s clear for the first time I can remember – no papers waiting for his attention, no schedules, no agendas. Tan packing boxes are everywhere, stacked along the walls, neatly sealed and labeled, reaching almost to the ceiling. She looks plenty tired herself, and I notice that Socks is not in his usual place lying by the French doors in the sun.
Betty knows I’m looking for the President and we both turn to that door. It’s closed.
“Is he with someone, Betty?”
“No, he’s free, and I’m sure he’d like to see you – go on in.”
I square my shoulders, tug at my suit jacket, and take a deep breath. I push open the white, paneled door and notice absently that my hands are shaking. Damn! This is going to be hard.
The President looks up, gives a weary smile. “Hi, Melinda. I’m glad you came by.”
He looks exhausted, his normal ruddy color faded to ashen. Of course, I’ve seen the President worn out before. We have all seen him beaten down more than once, and seen him recover – every time – even from the “troubles” of 1998. But never like this. This time his eyes carry the sad realization that now we are truly at the end. This time his weariness is shocking. For weeks he’s exceeded even his normal hectic pace, getting little sleep and wearing out the staff. He’s
working like a madman to do, do, do, all the last remaining things that have simmered on his agenda, some for years, against time that is now run out. Eight years may be enough for some presidents, but not for Bill Clinton. He’s been working to solve America’s problems forever, it seems. The idea that his time at bat is now over must be intolerable.
I laugh a little as I realize I don’t look that great myself. We’ve all been pushing ourselves to get one final thing done for him – the brilliant transition he asked for – and I’m about dead from the effort. Exhaustion is simply a garment we all wear, hanging loosely over our aching bones. We keep going with the promise that soon (soon!) there will be plenty of time to rest all we want.
It’s Friday, January 19, 2001. At 11:59 a.m. on Saturday he will stop being President and become simply “Mr. Clinton.” There will be a new sheriff in town, a new family up in the Residence, testing the mattresses and admiring the art, and a new man in the Oval Office, sitting at the Resolute desk, being addressed as “Mr. President.”
It’s breaking my heart to turn over the Visitors Office, my baby that I have nurtured for all eight years with my time, energy, sweat, sacrifice, imagination and determination. But giving up the Presidency? I can hardly imagine.
He stands, stretches, steps to the front of the desk and reaches out to hug me. I go right into his arms and stay there for a moment. Finally, we pull apart, wipe our eyes, give a small sigh. I manage a sad grin. “This is finally it, Mr. President. I can’t believe it. Where has the time gone? Eight years? It feels like only eight months!”
“Well, it’s been a hell of a ride, hasn’t it? A hell of a ride … and I’m so glad you came along for the whole deal. What a time we’ve had. Who would have imagined all those years ago at Georgetown that we’d get to do … this …”
He looks down at the desk, gently brushing his fingers over the gleaming surface. His eyes are distant, looking either back at our amazing adventures, good times and bad, or forward at some imagined future; I can’t tell which. Then he gives a little shake, smiles and says, “I’m glad to see you – I have something for you. Only the folks who came along for the whole ride are getting these.”
He holds out a narrow, rectangular white box. I open it with careful hands. Inside, nestled on cotton, is a small gavel, about 7” long, made out of honey-colored wood, with a brass band around the crown. I take it out and hold it up to the light. “It’s beautiful, but, what is it?”
“Read the band,” he says with a sly grin.
“President William J. Clinton, January 20, 1993. So, it celebrates your first inauguration?”
“It’s made out of the wood they used to build the platform I stood on to take the oath of office. There are only a few, and I wanted you to have one.”
I shiver, and the hairs on my arms stand up. Tears threaten my eyes again. This is our final gift exchange in the Oval Office, and it’s pretty swell. “Thank you, Mr. President, I love it! And I have a gift for you too.”
I reach for the folder I’d laid on the desk. There hasn’t been time to wrap my present, but he won’t care. For years I’ve shopped on eBay for White House memorabilia, building my own impressive collection and buying things for the President’s birthday or Christmas gifts. I can’t compete in the gift area with his rich friends. I mean, Stephen Spielberg gave him a Norman Rockwell painting of the Statue of Liberty for Christmas 1999! But I seem to be the only one who knows how much he loves old books or publications about the White House and Presidents, and where to find them. I’ve gotten amazing things online, for very little money. His favorites are articles clipped from nineteenth century magazines, often with elaborate illustrations, about his predecessors, or the White House. Sometimes I find these at flea markets, but eBay is my best source. I look there almost every day. I enjoy the hunt (and the shopping). This “going away” present is another of these historic documents, and his eyes light up when he sees it.
“Where in the world did you find this? 1885 – just look at these pictures of the House back then. This is great!”
“eBay, Mr. President. I’ve become an expert at online auctions for you.”
Finally we have something to laugh about, and we pore over the article together for a minute, gently turning brittle old pages. “These gifts are so thoughtful. Thanks very much. It will go either in the Library or maybe my new office up in Harlem. I’m glad to have it, and I’m glad to have had you here all these years.”
He shakes his head, thoughtful again. “A hell of a ride, a hell of a ride … ”
We look at each other one last time, each of us trying not to cry, reach out for a final, quick hug, and I walk out of the Oval for the very last time. Betty glances up as I leave, but I‘ve already said goodbye to her. I guess she’s seen plenty of these sad farewells, and knows if she says anything we’ll both fall apart. Such a nice lady, and who knows if I’ll ever see her again.
My heart is so heavy I have to clench my teeth and tell myself, Just walk. Just walk.
Out into the crisp, cold air of the West Colonnade, glancing at the bare sticks of the Rose Garden, where the President loved to throw the ball for Buddy. Through the House, pausing for a last look at the China Room, Library and Vermeil Room, to set their details into my heart. I know it will be a loooong time before I’ll see them again, if ever. Down the East Colonnade with a look out at the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden and the lawn stretching down to the South, the ghostly trees covered in frost. The little pool under the pear tree is frozen, and I know I won’t see it when flowers bloom there again.
Down the hallway to our offices, now empty. My staff all gone. No reason for them to stay. All those people I have come to know and love over the years, gone to who-knows-where, and who knows when I’ll ever see them again. I look at the empty chairs and blank computers and remember our normal, frantic pace, our laughter and dedication, our pride. My heart’s getting ready to be broken, and I can’t let on – the Bush people are coming for a briefing and to get the keys. Time for all us Clintonistas (a word of scorn for them that we wear with pride) to move on out the door. Emotion has to wait ‘til I’m out of here and safely in my car – if I can manage it.
So now I am the last one, waiting alone in my office. I’d like to send a few more emails from my impressive White House address, but the Archives people have shut that all down, so I sit in silence and stare at the blank walls, vaguely wondering how the new Director will decorate. It used to be so beautiful. In a couple of hours I’ll turn out the lights and walk away from the most amazing and wonderful time of my life. A hell of a ride. A hell of a ride …
To read ALL of Melinda’s amazing story, go to: http://tinyurl.com/3g4oynf
Chapter One ~ 1964 ~ In the Beginning
“Hi!” said the tall, skinny kid with the whiteboy Afro, offering his hand with a big grin. “I’m Bill Clinton and I’m running for freshman class president!” You are probably hearing those words in your head in whatever American accent seems normal to you. But I heard those words in a rich Ozarks twang that was brand new – and grating – to me.
I winced and tore my eyes away from my class schedule. My parents had neutral east-coast accents; most of their friends were diplomats and journalists. This drawly, twangy Arkansas-speak is harder on the ear than the soft Southern accents of Georgia and the Carolinas I’d heard in movies. To my mind it boldly announced Southern hick alert! Which is pretty funny when you consider the speaker was one of the smartest, most interesting people on the planet, and was eventually going to change my life.
But we were just kids of eighteen, and I didn’t know that yet, so I had to firmly repress the giggle that threatened to cut our conversation short. Thank God my head firmly told my mouth, No – no! Don’t laugh. If you talk to this boy you will at least know somebody here.
A reassuring thought. I had been at Georgetown University a whole day now, wandering around, muttering to myself, Where is my next class? Do I have the right books? Am I smart enough to be here? Where’s the cafeteria? Will I ever have friends here? Damn! How stupid was it to decide to be a day student? At least if I had a roommate I’d know somebody … And then, more importantly, Is my long straight hair longenough and straight enough? Is my skirt short enough? I wanna look great, but I don’t want to look like every other girl in the freshman class!
Now I had somebody to talk to, even if it was just for a minute. I squinted up at my new friend in the brilliant September light and smiled. I looked down and noticed he still held my hand in his. I’ve always noticed men’s hands, even back then, and his were beautiful, the fingers long and slender. “OK, tell me about it.”
He dropped my hand and off he went about how this freshman class could be the first to do this or that or whatever. I wasn’t really interested in college politics. In 1964 the world was virtually humming with possibilities, or so it seemed to me. I was finally an adult – no more nuns to boss me around – and could hardly wait to discover who I really was. I was pretty sure that would not involve campus campaigns, but this boy was just so nice, how could I not listen? I’d probably still have time to find my next class, and maybe he could help me.
So I nodded, and smiled, and pretended to be interested. I don’t remember his words, or his platform, but I do remember thinking, Good Lord. This boy has more smarts, charm and charisma than any person I’ve ever met – heck, any person I’ve ever heard of. And he’s just a kid like me!
In someone else this might have been intimidating, but there was nothing intimidating about Bill. He was friendly, open, and genuine. My smile became sincere – I liked him a lot. When he turned to go, something happened that had never happened to me before, and has never happened again. Even after all these years the power of it is as clear as if we spoke just yesterday.
He turned to go and my heart and my head spoke out to me, loud and clear: This is an extraordinary person. He’s going to do amazing and important things with his life, and I hope I get to watch it happen. He’s gonna make history some day.
I can’t tell you why I thought this, and you may think I’m making it up, but I promise you I’m not. It happened exactly like that. And I can also tell you that over the years when I’ve given speeches and tell this part of the story, there is often a person in the audience who comes up after to say, “I met him in Chicago in 1970 and had the same experience.” Or, “I met him at Oxford and that’s exactly what it was like…”
This is the effect Bill Clinton has on people. His brilliance and personality are a force field you can’t resist. If you’ve ever been in the same room with him, you understand it. If you haven’t, you may be thinking, “Oh, come on! I don’t believe THAT …” so here’s a more contemporary example:
My friend, Howard, was the only Democrat in a group of venture capitalists in Washington, in the late 1990s. Every time they met he had to take a lot of grief from the other members, who all
despised President Clinton. One in particular, let’s call him “Mr. Critic,” really hated him. (Isn’t that stupid? How can you “hate” someone you never met?) Then Mr. Critic was invited to attend a luncheon with the President.
The hotel ballroom was arranged for the President to speak from a lectern for twenty minutes, (oh, yeah, like THAT’S gonna happen!) and then move to the luncheon tables, where a seat at each had been left empty, so he could talk more intimately to the guests. Mr. Critic found himself next to the empty seat at his table. He listened intently to the President’s remarks and chatted with the other guests. Then President Clinton came to his table, sat down, turned, and smiled at
Mr. Critic, who later sheepishly told Howard that his head could not comprehend what his ears heard his mouth saying: “Mr. President, it’s so great to meet you – I am one of your biggest fans!”
It’s funny, but not unusual. Bill Clinton’s intellect, curiosity, charisma, grace and empathy are legendary. During our years at Georgetown I counted Bill a good friend. I took him to his first Judy Collins concert, and he so loved her music that, years later, he and Hillary named their daughter Chelsea after her song, A Chelsea Morning. We saw Bob Dylan perform in Gaston Hall, before an audience of no more than six hundred people. Most students hadn’t even heard of Dylan yet. Bill repeatedly – and unsuccessfully – tried to set me up on dates with various friends at school.
I was in the Institute of Languages and Linguistics and Bill was in the School of Foreign Service but we had some classes together, including two with the famous Professor Carroll Quigley, the first man who ever demanded that I think so hard it made my brain hurt. (Write a 400-word essay about the history of man from the end of the Wurm glacier to the beginning of the Iron Age … )
As a non-Catholic, Bill took a required class in comparative religion one semester, and the Jesuit who taught it invited him for a beer and burger in The Tombs. “My son, I’ve been watching your work in class and wonder if you’ve ever considered that perhaps you have a vocation?” (As in, for the priesthood.)
“Well, Father, that’s nice of you to think so, but, ah, wouldn’t I have to be a Catholic first?”
Bill had been a Baptist since he was very little. There was a lot of good-natured kidding about THAT question. Talk about throwing yourself into your class work …
In 1966 the school ran a contest to find the “sexiest voice on campus.” I won. My prize was to get to record the daily phone updates for class changes or special events. I’d forgotten that long (long) ago, but to my great embarrassment, at a fancy event on the State Floor years later, the President’s assistant, Betty Currie, whispered in my ear, “Melinda, what does ‘FEDICAB’ mean?”
I almost dropped my drink and stared at her in shock. “Well! I guess I know who’s been telling tales to you!”
“Yes, he said you’d be shocked, but, what does it mean?”
“It’s the acronym for the phone number students called to hear my “sexy” voice reciting the day’s schedule. I cannot believe the stuff he remembers!” He loved to tell these stories to take me by surprise at the oddest moments.
By 1967, a time of great unrest and upheaval in universities around the country, Georgetown was still a relentlessly stodgy place. I broke out into full-fledged rebellion against everything my wonderful parents tried to teach me and became the only hippie on our conservative campus. Years later, when Bill said he didn’t smoke grass, I knew he was telling the truth, because if he had, he would have been smoking it with me. I’m not proud of it, I just think it’s important to tell the truth.
While I was a hippie, Bill was already an activist, deeply involved in politics, volunteering and working in Arkansas Senator Fulbright’s office, and carrying bags of food to terrified families hiding in their Washington tenements during the race riots. Still, we had a lot of fun together. I was never a girlfriend, but always a good friend.
During the 1992 campaign, NBC asked me to do an interview about what Bill had been like as a student and friend. The interviewer, pushing for a bit of background, asked repeatedly if we had dated. He was just sure there had been some grand romance, and if he pushed hard enough he could get me to tell him all about it for the Nightly News.
After a few rounds of this I got a little exasperated. With the camera rolling I leaned in, smiled and said, “Try to understand. It was the late 1960s. Bill Clinton was one of the truly nice guys on campus. As far as I was concerned, that immediately eliminated him from the realm of romantic possibility!”
Well, everyone in the room laughed, including the interviewer. I told myself, Now he’ll back off, they will cut that bit of tape, and we’ll go on with more substantive things.
Imagine my surprise – and embarrassment – that night, when Tom Brokaw introduced the tape, and those few moments were almost the ONLY thing they aired. I was mortified, but I guess there are worse things to be said about a candidate than that he was a really nice guy.
Over the years my friend went off to Oxford, then Yale, then back home to Arkansas and the beginning of his political career. We sometimes saw each other when he came to Washington, and we occasionally exchanged letters.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s I took my rebellion to serious lengths. For my twenty first birthday I took my Grandma’s inheritance money and bought a motorcycle – not a dainty, girly bike, but a big Triumph Daytona, the one with twin carbs that went like the wind. I replaced the standard exhaust system with snazzy, hollowed-out chrome tail pipes, with no baffles – it sounded like a 747 taking off.
I loved this. In fact, it was so loud that the police in Georgetown started stopping me for disturbing the peace (and also, I think, for the novelty factor. The bike was big, I was small, and a GIRL, so what was up with that?) Eventually, they tired of it and warned me to just not drive through there anymore. I’m just 5’3” tall, so my feet could just barely touch the ground on either side. At first I could only start it by standing next to it, kicking the starter, then swinging my leg up and over the seat. It looked stupid. Then one of the local motorcycle outlaws took an interest in me, the pretty “uptown” girl, and taught me how to start it while standing up on it, giving a swift, hard kick down, then gently rocking it off the stand and zooming away. I was so proud of that move! My favorite thing was to put on my semi-transparent shirt, with no bra, and go out on the bike to see how many accidents or near-misses I could cause.
My poor parents. Such lovely people, who raised me, my sister and brother to be nice, civilized, and (above all) intelligent. I cringe now when I think of what I put them through. I don’t know which was worse – that it was stupid, careless, self-destructive? All of the above?
In 1972 I got born again (halleluiah!) and married my longtime boyfriend, Darryl Bates. We must have been insane. He’s a very nice man, but we were completely unsuited as mates for each other. I wish someone with a little wisdom had stepped in to stop us. We were trying to do the right thing and didn’t know any better. But, from our troubled marriage came our best blessings, our sons, Shiloh and Noah.
In 1978, at age 32, Bill became the youngest man ever elected governor of any state. I sent my congratulations with a note: “… and we know perfectly well this is only the beginning, as you move on to even more exciting achievements. Your friends are all proud of you!”
I spent my whole life in or close to Washington, DC. It’s a great city, but people come and go; they don’t usually stay. By the late 1980s, I was getting lonely. All my friends had moved away. I missed them. My kids were in school, and I had a great job at the National Gallery of Art, but I needed friends too.
Then, in early 1988, I got a notice about our upcoming Georgetown twentieth reunion. I’d never attended a reunion, but this seemed like a good place to make or re-make connections. Since I lived close by, it was easy to volunteer to help the event committee. I was told to call Tim Chorba, a graduate of Georgetown College, about participating.
You have to understand that way back in the late ‘60s, the “East Campus,” where Bill and I studied, was as separate from Georgetown College as East and West Berlin. Somewhere over on the other side of the campus I vaguely knew they were studying for a liberal arts degree, while we were specializing, as were students in the Business School, or Nursing. I never knew any of those boys, never dated any, never took any classes with them and didn’t think much of them.
So, I didn’t know Tim and he didn’t know me. I had a hard time persuading him to allow me to help the committee, but he finally, reluctantly, agreed. How silly was that? Life rule #45: never, EVER turn down an offer of volunteer help for your project.
A group of us gathered one night in the Alumni House to call classmates around the country and encourage them to attend and donate to the school. I reached Governor Clinton in Little Rock, and we happily chatted. He said he couldn’t wait to see us all. I was surprised at how easy it was to reach a governor – I would have expected layers of staff to get through, but it was just a trooper, and then Bill. Maybe it’s an Arkansas thing? I was pretty persuasive with my other calls – I’m effective with a message I believe in – and eventually made a good impression on Tim. I never imagined this would turn out to be important later in my life.
As part of the 1988 festivities, the University invited Governor Clinton to address all the reunion attendees. Try to remember the days of Ronald Reagan, a president who never spoke publicly without notes (unless he was making up a story) and had to be prompted about most topics if taken by surprise. People called him the “great communicator” but many of us wondered if he knew (or cared) enough about anything to speak about it with real passion.
In this context of low expectations, Gov. Bill Clinton spoke to us about America heading into the next century. “What kind of country will we be? What kind of country are we leaving to our children? What can we do to make it a better world? What should our foreign policy be? How can we help people rise out of poverty and join the middle class? How can we strengthen the middle class? How can we make college affordable for more people? What do we do about health care? How do we make the American dream a reality for people struggling to move their families ahead?”
He asked, and answered all these questions, and more. He talked about the issues and problems any governor faces and how similar they are to those a president must solve. He spoke from his heart, without a single note, for two hours. I know, I know – that sounds like a looong time, but it was fascinating for anyone who cared about the future of America. I don’t think a single person left the room. This was clearly a man who’d spent his life thinking about and dealing with the many difficult challenge a leader faces. It was a thoughtful, impressive performance.
After the speech, Bill and a few of us old friends had a quick meal in the Tombs, the dark, basement campus beer and burger joint that had been the scene of many of our most productive college discussions.
I told Bill, “I’ve been a Republican all my adult life. These roots go back to Abraham Lincoln. Really. My great grandfather ran on the Lincoln ticket for an office in New York City in 1860 and 1864, and I have his badge to prove it. But, if you run for president, I’ll not only vote for you, I’ll work for you. You should be president.”
He laughed, and gave me a serious look. “Well, you know, I might need to take you up on that offer sometime.”
I was sure he would.
Finally, in the fall of 1991, Gov. Clinton announced he was running for president. George Bush’s approval ratings were at ninety percent, and there weren’t a lot of Democrats around willing to take him on at first. People forget how bold this decision was.
In Washington, I was delighted my friend was finally running, and looked for a way to help without leaving my job (now at Macy’s) and family to work in Little Rock. I found it with other Georgetown classmates, working under the direction of Tim Chorba, now a senior partner at the well-known lawyer/lobbyist shop of Patton Boggs, LLC. Once again I had to prove myself to him. At first he didn’t remember me from the 1988 reunion efforts, and was reluctant to include me in the campaign. But as I reminded him of our telephone project he suddenly burst out, “I do remember you! You’re the woman who gives great phone!”
Tim, who went on to much grander things as US Ambassador to Singapore, and is therefore quite dignified, insists he never said any such thing. But I remember what I remember.
At that point I was warmly welcomed as a campaign volunteer. We had a great base of operations in the Patton Boggs conference room. We’d meet and distribute lists of names and phone numbers, get reports about money raised, plan events – it was fun! Still, I missed being part of the work in Little Rock or on the campaign trail. That sounded like the most excitement ever. You could see the crowds on the evening news and sense the electricity surrounding the candidate. I tried to imagine what it would be like to actually be there, in the center of all the energy. It seemed amazing and far removed from what we were doing. Then I’d shake my head and get back to the drudgery of making more calls.
My parents raised us to be responsible citizens, and I voted in every election since I came of age. But this was my first experience working in politics – and the presidential race is the biggest game of them all. I was so green I actually thought once the next fund-raising event was over, we’d be “done” with all that. As in, OK, I can make fifty more phone calls now ‘cause once this next dinner/luncheon/brunch/whatever is over, we’ll be done with fund raising!
Go ahead, roll your eyes here. Talk about clueless … It took me six months (six months!) to come to the forehead-smacking realization that fund- raising NEVER ends. It just goes on and on and on forever. So we kept calling to plead for money and kept running events and kept talking about what a great president Bill Clinton would be.
I was new to this kind of cold calling, but I passionately believed in Governor Clinton and his agenda for America, so it wasn’t difficult to talk to people. And, after all, we had the shared Georgetown experience. I usually received at least a polite and often cordial reception. But I remember speaking to one classmate, a doctor, who snarled at me, “I wouldn’t vote for Bill Clinton if he promised to appoint me Surgeon General!”
“OK, I’ll put you down as not a fan…”
A year later, in the summer of 1993, when our Georgetown class had its twenty-fifth reunion at the White House, we briefed the President on this remark, so that when the reluctant doctor went through the receiving line the President could greet him with “George! I wanted to make you Surgeon General but they told me you were not interested. What a shame!”
Fortunately, that was the minority view. There was a great response from classmates who were generous with money and promises of support. But to the general public, for a long time, Bill Clinton was simply, “Governor Who?” I mean, how many people had heard of the Governor of Arkansas? How many people could imagine the Governor of a small, poor, rural state could run and be qualified to be president? As an East coast snob myself, it was a stretch to visualize anything important coming from Arkansas – and I KNEW him.
In the summer of 1992 the campaign was so desperate for money that you could “Be Bill’s Running Mate” on a jog to the White House for free, and have brunch with the candidate at the Old Ebbitt Grill for $250. This is chump change in politics at the Presidential level, but he needed every penny.
When brunch ended, the candidate stood and shook every hand, including the waiters. A few of us classmates waited over at the side, watching. We saw how he connected with each person, turning on his intense attention and megawatt charm. Unlike every other politician I’d ever seen up close, when he’s talking to you, he’s talking to YOU, and no one else in the room matters. You are the focus of a virtual supernova of charm, and you’re just gonna get pulled in.
I turned to Tim and said “You know, if we could only figure out a way to get him to interact with each voter for just a minute, he would win in a landslide….”
Fortunately, Bill and his advisors were able to figure that out without my help – they created town meetings, which were a whole new way to campaign back then. Once he got up in front of those folks and started talking, and looking into the camera at the people at home, his victory was assured.
To read ALL of Melinda’s amazing story, go to: http://tinyurl.com/3g4oynf
Chapter Two ~ I Have a Dream
For a year we labored on behalf of our friend. Every moment I wasn’t working at my job I was doing something to help the Clinton campaign. In all that time I never once thought that if he won, I might get a job in the new administration. Not once. Like most people I assumed all the jobs in the White House went to foreign and domestic policy experts, numbers crunchers, lawyers and the like. Since I am none of those, I never imagined there could be a place for me. I worked because I believed in Bill Clinton’s agenda, and his willingness to work heart and soul to accomplish it. I believed in his decency and his dedication to making ordinary people’s lives better. I’d seen these things since we were both eighteen, and was happy to have a small part in making the dream of all those years become a reality.
All our efforts finally ended on election day. No more calls, no more events, even (oh happy day!) no more fund-raising. Now only the voices of the voters would determine the future.
I stood in the little curtained voting booth in the Fairlington Elementary School auditorium staring at the ballot before me. It was so strange to see at the top of the ticket the name of a friend; someone I’d known for most of my life, someone I’d worked my hardest to help put into the most important job in the world.
I shook my head in disbelief, muttered a little prayer and pushed down firmly on the button.
I don’t remember a thing about the rest of the day, but I sure remember election night. It came in a delirious haze of excitement. It was finally decision time. Thank God Darryl drove us to the party at the Women’s National Democratic Club. At that point I hardly remembered my own name, so I can’t imagine where we would have ended up if I’d been in the driver’s seat. All of us who worked so long and hard together were glued to the multiple TV screens doling out the news in bits and pieces. I could feel the adrenaline tingling in my fingers. I was tempted to take a nice, stiff drink, (that seems to work for everyone else!) but my limit is one glass of wine – not nearly enough to knock down the anxiety rising in my gut.
Slowly Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw called the states for one candidate or the other. We agonized over the total of electoral votes. We cheered for some states and groaned for others. We held our breath, watching the tally, state by state. Finally, the magic number, 270, flashed on the screen. We let out our breath in screams of joy, pounding each other on the back with stunned faces. “He won! He won! He did it! He’s the next President!”
The numbers clearly said so, but believing it was another matter. It took a while, at least for me, for it to sink in.
I’m sure it’s exciting to work on a campaign you support and win, but it was a lot more than that for me. This was not just a politician I admired, but a man I’d known since we were both barely able to vote. He was a dear and caring friend. He laid out a vision of our country I believed in. And now the American people said they believed in it too, and trusted him to make it happen. It seemed incredible – the kind of news you only think you hear, until you shake your head to clear it. Presidents are older men – our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations. How could one of us be President? And not only one of us, but a DEMOCRAT, for the first time in 12 years.
We staggered home very late, not drunk on booze but on the sheer excitement and wonder of the moment. It’s a good thing I didn’t have to go to work at Macy’s the next day. I had the day off from special events and concierge duties. I hadn’t slept a wink and I had an adrenaline hangover – a new and unpleasant experience. But, when I did get up, I had a sudden thought, for the very first time: Boy, working for Candidate Clinton was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. I loved it! Now that the campaign is over, I wonder if there’s a way I can continue to make a contribution to President Clinton’s agenda.
I’m not an ambitious or competitive person, and this wasn’t a typical thought for me, so it took me by surprise. Then I realized I had no idea how to do anything about it. Maybe I should go to the Library, take a look at the “Plum Book.”
This is a bible to Washington political types and wannabes. It lists all the “plum” political jobs a President gets to fill with friends and supporters, hopefully well qualified for their positions. (At least they were in the Clinton administration.) Victorious campaign workers pore over its pages like pagan priests over the entrails of a slaughtered goat.
I vaguely knew about The Book but had never seen it, and ended up at the Arlington County Central Library. “Do you have the Plum Book,” I asked?
I bet I was the first of many to request it – it was only the morning after the election. The librarian produced the book and I leafed through it. I saw positions for lawyers, policy experts and … numbers crunchers. Damn! Just as I expected. Then I found a page listing the “Executive Office of the President.” Here were the names, titles and phone numbers of about a dozen White House officials. One of these was “Janet Johnson, Director, Visitors Office.” I photo copied the page and returned the book to the librarian, who asked, “Did you find what you wanted?”
“I hope so!”
Back at home I settled in my favorite chair and studied the page again. I’d never heard of the White House Visitors Office, but I was an expert on visitors’ services from my four years at the National Gallery of Art in the 1980s. As an exhibition supervisor I designed ticketing systems, arranged crowd control, hired, trained and scheduled staff, and worked to accommodate the (literally) millions of people who came to the Gallery for shows like, Treasure Houses of Britain, Impressionist Treasures from the Soviet Union, and Japan, the Age of the Daimyo. My first day on the job I met the handsome Prince (Charles) and exquisite Princess (Diana) of Wales, who walked up to me and began a conversation about tourism in Britain. (As if my opinion mattered.)
That was more conversation than most people at the Reagans’ state dinner at the White House had gotten! When they floated out the door I thought, I am REALLY going to like this job!
And I did.
Over the next four years I met royalty from all over the world, movie stars, theater and opera stars, and the famous people mentioned in the Washington Post Style section. One day, Jackie Kennedy sat down next to a colleague in the East Building, and slipped off her flats to rub her aching feet. The next, the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan arrived for a performance of the most bizarre music you ever heard. In Ga-Ga-Ku the notes actually hit the pain centers in the middle of your brain. Every American in the room made that little sucking sound you do when fingernails screech down a blackboard. But the Japanese guests were in heaven.
I loved all the amazing and creative things that happened at the Gallery on a daily basis. It was a privilege to be there. I even learned to enjoy working with the sometimes difficult public. Yes, I loved the Gallery, and when it was time to move on I assumed I was leaving the best job I’d ever have. After all, where else could I work in such beautiful surroundings? What other work could I do that would be this much fun, where I’d have such interesting colleagues, meet royalty and movie stars? I couldn’t imagine what my future would be.
Now I looked at the name on the Plum Book page and wondered if the people in the White House Visitors Office did the same kind of work. The easiest way to find out would be to call and ask, but I didn’t want to do that. Whoever Ms. Janet Johnson was, she knew as well as I did that she, and her beloved boss, George Bush, just lost their jobs. Calling her to ask about it seemed too much like rubbing salt into an open wound. The idea made me squirm. I’m a softie. (Or, at least I was then.)
No, I can’t do that. She must be horribly depressed right now. Maybe next week …
The next day I returned to work at Macy’s and listened to phone messages from people wanting information about events we advertised. One call was from a Ms. Johnson, and gave her phone number. I wasn’t thinking about the Plum Book when I returned the call, and was shocked almost speechless to hear the phone answered, “White House Visitors Office.”
I gulped, stumbled back into my chair and asked for Ms. Johnson.
“We’ll see if the Director is available, one minute.”
Oh my God. Literally. Oh my God.
Of course you can believe anything you want, but I’m a Christian, and believe, without question, God knew I wasn’t comfortable calling this lady, so He arranged, out of all the millions of calls in Washington that day, for her to call me. And really, how could it have happened by chance? No, the universe moved and the stars aligned for me in that moment.
Next thing I knew, we were chatting. “Yes, Ms. Johnson, how can I help you?”
“I’d like information about the children’s event you advertised for next Saturday, please.”
When we finished, I said, “I’ve never heard of the White House Visitors Office before. I used to work in visitors’ services at the National Gallery, and I wonder if that’s similar to what you do. Would you mind telling me about it?”
“Of course,” she said nicely, “I’ll be happy to.”
And that’s what she did, describing their work with some detail. I was madly taking notes on my side of the conversation and at the end said, “Thank you for telling me about your office. Under the circumstances I hope my questions haven’t upset or offended you.”
She knew exactly what I meant and laughed. “Not at all. The only thing that will bother me is if you come and take my job away from me, but there’s not a darn thing I can do about it!”
We hung up. I stared at the phone without seeing it and whispered to myself, Oh my God, there IS a job at the White House I’m perfect for. Now, how am I gonna get it?
I hope you have enjoyed these free sample chapters of my memoir. Just wait ‘til I get into the White House stories – you’ll never read these anywhere else!
To read more of Melinda’s amazing story of how she got her job and what life and work are like back stage in the White House, the world’s most famous house, how it all works, what happens when it doesn’t work, who comes to visit America’s house (Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas, Robin Williams, Oprah, Dr. Ruth … the Grateful Dead and the Queen of Sweden. On the same day!) go to: