Yesterday morning on my way to work, as I rounded the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street—past the temporary grandstands from where dignitaries will watch the Inauguration procession on Saturday—I heard someone on the radio comment that it is a “miracle” that for 200 years executive power in America has changed hands without violence. As I listened, it occurred to me that an underappreciated explanation for this miracle is fatigue.
Working in the White House is exhilarating but also exhausting. It is the most interesting and heady work imaginable. But the pace is grueling; the hours are insane; you never see your family; you can’t make any firm plans because at any moment you might get called into the office. In an election, you desperately want your side to win. But if the other side wins, even under dubious circumstances, then as the end approaches, the urge to resist is far outweighed by a sense of relief. Ahhh, I’m going to get my life back! The idea that someone on the other side, whom you don’t know, and who is probably ill-prepared, will have to deal with all the headaches of your job, is not altogether unpleasant.
This feeling may be especially acute in the Clinton White House. In previous administrations, the pace of work slowed at the end. In this one, it seems to have sped up. In the last few weeks the president has issued a flurry of executive actions, everything from recess appointments to diesel fuel regulations. Each of these requires hundreds of hours of staff work to prepare. There’s surprisingly little grumbling about the work, in part because the actions are worthy, and in part because the president is, characteristically, putting in even longer hours than we are.
Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day, ostensibly a federal holiday, but the whole White House speechwriting department came to work. There are six of us and seven speeches to write by Saturday morning. My assignment was to write remarks for a speech on Tuesday before the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I came into my office, grabbed some files, and headed back home to write the speech on my computer in the basement. I was supposed to be watching the kids while my wife, Kukula, went to her work for a few hours. What I really did was put them in front of the tube. When my 11-year-old daughter, Hope, asked when she could use the computer, I told her, “Tomorrow.” When my 4-year-old son, Adam, begged me to play with him, I said,”Sorry buddy, President Clinton is waiting for this speech,” an excuse I won’t be able to use much longer. When evening came and someone needed to drive my brother-in-law Sanjay and his wife, Deborah, to the airport, that someone was my wife, not me. I was working. Around midnight, I finished the speech, drove into work, and handed it in to the staff secretary for circulation among the senior staff. I was back in this morning at 8:30 to take corrections and get a final version to the president. All in all, a typical day’s work. I’m going to miss it but I’m too tired to know it right now.