It’s said that people who live near the beach stop noticing the sound of the surf. Something similar happens when you go to work in the White House. At first, you’re so excited, even the smallest experiences plant themselves in your memory. After a while, you stop noticing your surroundings.
I can distinctly recall my first week as a White House speechwriter two-and-a-half years ago. I remember pulling my car up to the security checkpoint near the southwest gate and feeling a James Bond-like thrill as the uniformed Secret Service agent used a pole with a mirror at the end to check the underside of my vehicle for bombs. I remember walking around the West Wing trying to orient myself without advertising my confusion to others. And I remember my first 8:15 a.m. communications meeting in then-deputy chief of staff John Podesta’s office. I got there early and sat in what I thought was an out-of-the-way place, until a colleague whispered in my ear, “That’s John’s chair.” I got out of the chair and found a nice spot on the wall to lean against.
As time wore on, I learned the ropes and became quite comfortable. But as the routine set in, I became less aware of the majesty of my surroundings, less appreciative of the fact that I was working in the epicenter of world power. The thrill would come back in certain situations (for instance, whenever the president was in the room). Otherwise, I fell into a quotidian fog, my mind focusing on what I was doing rather than on where I was.
Now that the administration is coming to an end, the fog is lifting. I’m much more “in the moment” knowing that moments are ticking away. The last days are bringing back the feelings of my first days.
Everyone seems to be feeling the same way. Last Thursday, I flew with the president to New Hampshire and Massachusetts, on the second-to-last part of his “farewell tour.” Even the senior advisers, knowing that this was probably the last time they’d ever fly on Air Force One, were unusually ebullient.
I brought my video camera, figuring that the benefits of having a personal record of the journey outweighed the risks of looking cheezy. Then I noticed that Bruce Reed, the president’s long-serving domestic policy adviser, brought his video camera too. In fact, everyone on the trip seemed to have a camera. As we milled about on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, we snapped each other’s pictures like a bunch of tourists.
Once inside, as we waited for the president’s helicopter to arrive, the chief steward announced that he was offering a guided tour of the plane. This is a courtesy usually meant for first-time visitors. But everyone, including Reed and OMB Director Jack Lew, jumped at the opportunity. So we got to see, one last time, the communications center and cockpit; the infirmary (with an operating table that drops down like a Murphy bed); the president and first lady’s sleeping quarters; and his private office (next to his desk is a boombox and some CDs, mostly by 1960s artists, including the Beatles and Judy Collins).
First stop Dover, N.H. That’s the town where, during the 1992 primaries, candidate Clinton, his poll numbers falling and the press probing his private life, gave a brilliant and defiant off-the-cuff speech in which he promised voters that if they supported him, he would work hard for them “until the last dog dies.” Rereading that speech, my colleague Josh Gottheimer and I were humbled, knowing that Clinton’s ad-libbed remarks were better than anything we could write for him. But we did what we could. The president seemed to like our speech (that is, he used it, adding riffs of his own). And the media picked up our favorite sound bite: “That last dog is still barking.”
What the media didn’t convey was the speech’s actual theme: that the administration’s policies on the economy, welfare, crime, etc., have been guided by an overarching political philosophy—a vigorous centrism that seemed odd to Washington eight years ago but that has now become more or less the national governing consensus. To have done so would require reporters to concede that Clinton’s policies are at least partially responsible for the country’s unbelievable turnaround over the last eight years. Few reporters will do that. So, they portray his sky-high approval ratings as the result of good luck and uncanny political skills. And they talk of a general “disappointment” that he didn’t accomplish more. Every time I hear that, I think of John Cleese’s bit about the Romans in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. “Yeah, but aside from managing the longest economic expansion in American history, turning record deficits into record surpluses, bringing the crime rate down to a 25 year low, cutting the welfare rolls by 60 percent, reducing poverty, increasing wages at all income levels, extending the life of Medicare and Social Security, expanding NATO, bringing peace to Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and preserving more public land than any president since Teddy Roosevelt, what has Clinton REALLY done for us?”
Our next stop, Manchester, N.H., where the president made an “OTR” (off-the-record but planned-in-advance) walk down the town’s main drag, Elm Street. In 1992, half the stores were vacant. Today, the street is bustling. We flew in and out of Manchester in helicopters, the president in Marine One, the rest of us in CH46 Echoes—big Navy transport craft where you sit on benches with your back against the fuselage, and they give you ear plugs because of the deafening noise. According to White House custom, you’re supposed to look nonchalant and slightly bored when flying in these things. But on this trip, that pretense was dropped. Everybody was grinning, flashing each other high fives, and taking pictures.
Final stop, Boston, where the president spoke before a wildly enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd at a hockey arena at Northeastern University. He worked a rope line (the fifth of the day) then went to a reception at the New England Conservatory of Music, where hundreds stood in line to have their picture taken with him. I got my brother George, who lives in Boston, in near the end of the line. As he shook George’s hand, I could see the fatigue in the president’s eyes, yet he was perfectly warm and gracious.
The trip back home on Air Force One is usually pretty subdued. It’s late; everyone’s tired and talked out; they burrow into their seats and read. Not this trip. People grabbed beers and milled around the cabin as if it were a bar on Friday night. They were making the most of the last minutes of what had been a wonderful ride. As enthusiastic at the end as they were at the beginning. Someone told a story about how, in the previous administration, the staff was not allowed to cross an imaginary line in the hallway at the front of the plane leading to door of the president’s private quarters. But Clinton, on his first trip as president, came out of his office and down the hall to where the staff was sitting and said, “Hey, y’all have to come see this,” and brought everyone forward. From that day on, the invisible barrier disappeared. It will be interesting to see if the new administration reimposes it.