As the Clinton administration drew to a close last week, I kept wondering when the moment of what the psychologists call “closure” would come. Instead, all I experienced was a rolling series of partial goodbyes that never quite amounted to an ending.
It certainly didn’t happen Thursday night, when the president delivered his “farewell address” to the nation from the Oval Office. I watched the speech on a TV set at the Judson Welliver Society dinner, a semi-annual get-together of current and former White House speechwriters. When the speech ended, society president William Safire (a Nixon speechwriter) opened the floor for critiques. Former Carter speechwriter Gordon Stewart offered the pithiest comment. The president’s speech, he said, was “less a farewell than a ‘see you Monday.’ “
I spent most of the next day, with the help of our interns, sorting through my files, packing up my office, and hauling boxes to my car. Members of the uniformed Secret Service checked every box to make sure I wasn’t smuggling out government property. I finished around sundown and proceeded to a temporary “transition office” on the first floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Inside, a line about 200-people long snaked past a series of folding tables, behind which sat staffers who helpfully stripped us of our identities. At the first table, I closed out my White House mess account with a credit card, then paid off my accumulated Air Force One food bill (yes, they charge you for meals on Air Force One). Next, I handed over my diplomatic passport. Then, the pager I had worn on my belt for two and a half years. And, finally, the White House pass that hung around my neck. Each step was bittersweet and mildly cathartic. I felt a growing lightness, a sense of burdens being lifted.
The room was jammed with other staffers going through the same ritual. I recognized nearly every face and had worked at one time or another with about half of them. People chatted amiably, exchanged handshakes and home e-mail addresses, and asked each other about future plans (a surprising number had not found jobs or—they said—had not even begun looking).
After eight years, members of the Clinton administration, like the president himself, still look young and energetic. The junior people are mostly in their 20s, while the senior staffers are in their 40s and early 50s. I remember, when I first joined the administration in 1998, being pleasantly surprised at how competent people seemed to be. They made few dumb mistakes. Unexpected stuff would happen, but nobody would panic. People knew the ropes and did their jobs with confidence—from ginning up new policies to negotiating with an obstreperous Congress to managing the complex logistics of getting hundreds of people into and out of the White House for events every day. It was a well-oiled machine, utterly different from the callowness and chaos I had read about in the early Clinton years.
By 7 p.m., I was finished. I had no work left to do for the Clinton administration. I went back to my empty office, sat at my desk, and placed my last phone calls from the White House—first to my parents, then to my brothers, and finally to my wife. Then I went over to the West Wing office of Communications Director Loretta Ucelli, who was pouring champagne in paper cups for her staff. There had been talk about getting together for drinks at the bar of a nearby restaurant called the Oval Room, a favorite White House hangout. But somebody called and found out that the place had already been booked by Bush people, which was kind of depressing. So we decided that we’d meet at a more downscale bar called the Bottom Line, on I Street.
Before we left, I went back to the EEOB, grabbed my coat and briefcase, and took one final look at my office. If I were ever to see it again, it would be somebody else’s office. It occurred to me that anyone who has worked in the White House can probably finagle an invite back in once their administration is over. But it would be a bit like visiting the house you grew up in. You have to prevail upon the kindness of the people who now live there to let you in, all you can do is take a quick peek around, everything looks smaller than you remembered, and you don’t like the way they’ve decorated it. All the same, you’re glad you came.
Then I went back to the West Wing and wandered the halls. Everyone was hugging everyone else and saying things like, “We had a great ride, didn’t we?” I joined in the hugging.
I had heard that the walls of the Oval Office were bare and the floor was full of boxes. But when I went by, the doors were closed. The president was inside, deciding whom to pardon. I said goodbye to his secretary Betty Currie, and she gave me a hug. I forgot to congratulate her for being the new owner of Socks the cat.
I met up with several of my speechwriting colleagues—John Pollack, Heather Hurlbert, and Sam Afridi—and we headed for the northwest gate. As we walked past the darkened forest of klieg lights where the network correspondents do their stand-ups in front of the White House, a lone news crew stopped us and asked if they could interview us on camera. We said sure, what’s the harm. They turned out to be students from the University of Connecticut journalism school, but we still felt like celebrities.
It was raining lightly as we walked through the gate and onto Pennsylvania Avenue. The street was brightly lit, with bleachers on either side for the next day’s inaugural procession. On the way to the bar, we saw plenty of stretch limos, men in cowboy hats, and women in wet furs.
Most of the speechwriting and communications departments were at the bar. So was EPA Director Carol Browner, a friend of Loretta’s. We got to talking. She said she’d given a valedictory speech to her staff, many of whom were depressed at the prospect of an anti-environmentalist running the agency. She told them that it would be a great public service if all they did for the next four years was to hold the line and help America absorb the regulatory changes of the last eight years. I asked her to describe in one sentence her proudest accomplishment at EPA. She said that the exhaust coming out of the average car tailpipe today is 95 percent cleaner than it was eight years ago. I thought, “good answer.”
The next day, my wife and I put the kids in the car and headed to Andrews Air Force Base to wave goodbye to the president. On the way we listened to George W. Bush take the oath of office and give his inaugural address. Like so many of his speeches, this one struck me as rhetorically brilliant but incongruous coming out of the mouth of someone not known for his verbal acuity. It was like watching Yogi Berra reading Shakespeare.
Because it was raining, the event at Andrews took place inside a hanger. The atmosphere was more festive than sad. There were kids everywhere. The crowd was so thick along the rope line that we couldn’t see the action. But some nice people in front of us insisted that our children come to the front.
My wife and I hung back, socializing with White House colleagues I’d already said goodbye to the day before. It confirmed a mounting sense that this was not really a farewell at all. The president struck the same theme in his remarks. When someone in the crowd waved a sign saying, “Please Don’t Go,” he said, “I left the White House, but I’m still here.” After his remarks, the president worked the rope line as he always does, slowly and thoroughly. My kids got to shake his hand. On the way home, we stopped at a McDonald’s near the base and ran into still more White House colleagues. Again, that sense that goodbye doesn’t necessarily mean goodbye.
It is a source of some comfort, even to many Democrats, that the new Bush administration is filled with people who have worked in government before and seem to know what they’re doing. It is a consequence of the fact that Republicans have held the White House for 20 of the 24 years between 1969 and 1981. Bill Clinton will never be president again. But one of the many legacies he can be proud of is that by holding power for two terms and governing more or less effectively, he has provided an entire generation of Democrats with the opportunity to learn the skills of running a superpower. Most of these people are still pretty young. In four years, many of them will be hungry to get back into power. If they succeed, they will at least know what they are doing, and that should be a source of some comfort, even to Republicans.