Betty Currie

The plight of the presidential secretary.

Most revealing story about presidential private secretaries: John F. Kennedy used to joke that if he decapitated Jackie in the Oval Office, his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, would appear immediately at his office door with a hatbox of the appropriate size.
As far as anyone knows, President Clinton’s secretary, Betty Currie, is not measuring Monica Lewinsky’s head for a hatbox. But Currie’s misery in the last few weeks has undoubtedly reminded her of the dilemma at the heart of her job: How does the president’s secretary protect her boss without corrupting herself?

Currie testified last week to a grand jury about Lewinsky’s packages and Oval Office visits. According to stories in today’s papers, Currie told the grand jury that Clinton had quizzed her about what she would say to confirm her account matched his. She may also have told Starr’s investigators she had retrieved presents Clinton had given Lewinsky. Not since Rose Mary Woods took the fall for the 18 and a half missing minutes of Watergate tape has a presidential secretary been the subject of so much attention. Which is a shame, because the president’s private secretary occupies one of the strangest jobs in Washington. She is the most intimate and the most invisible of presidential employees. She’s the real Secret Service. By conventional Washington standards, she’s a zero: a nonpolitical woman in a world of male political operators. But in a city where the most precious currency is the president’s time, she is Warren Buffett, George Soros, and the Sultan of Brunei rolled into one 

By all accounts, Currie is a paragon of virtue. She entered federal-government service as a secretary immediately after graduating from high school. There she stayed for more than 20 years. She came out of retirement in 1984 to manage an office for the Mondale campaign. She did the same for the Dukakis campaign in 1988. In 1992, she helped run Clinton’s War Room. When Clinton’s own secretary couldn’t accompany him to Washington, he asked Currie to be his assistant. She is an island of calm in the chaotic Clinton White House. At 58, she is a comforting, maternal presence, distributing hugs and candy to stressed young staffers. She is highly professional, dressing formally and working long hours without complaint. In an administration of spinners, she actively avoids the public eye. She lives quietly with her second husband in Arlington, Va. In five years at Clinton’s side, she has appeared in the paper a mere handful of times. She once talked to her hometown Chicago paper for a “Local Woman Makes Good” story. Sometime later, she gave an interview for National Secretaries’ Day (Clinton is a wonderful boss, she said). And when Clinton’s new puppy harassed Socks, Currie made news by comforting the frightened cat.

All this rectitude raises one question: How did such a model employee end up involved in this mess? The history of presidential secretaries offers some answers. Once upon a time, the handmaidens to presidential power weren’t maidens at all: They were ambitious young men. The office of private secretary in the 19th-century White House combined the role of general secretary, press secretary, policy adviser, and chief of staff. As the White House professionalized during the first half of this century, the job fragmented. By Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time, the modern private secretary had emerged: She was gatekeeper, schedule keeper, paper manager, and confidante.
       In most White Houses since, the president has had a closer relationship with his secretary than with anyone but the first lady. It’s symbiotic: He expects loyalty. She, in turn, gains total access to the world’s most powerful man. Secretaries often come to idolize their presidents; presidents invariably come to trust their secretaries absolutely. She keeps secrets that no one else knows: Lincoln, for example, was one of only four people who knew that Kennedy was taping his Oval Office conversations. When Clinton was secretly consulting Dick Morris in 1995, Currie fielded Morris’ calls (his code name: “Charlie”). Not even his closest advisers knew he was talking to Morris.

The secretary often becomes the president’s dearest work companion. Nixon asked Woods to break the news of his resignation to his children. A former aide to Bush says that his secretary, Patty Presock, understood him better than anyone working in the White House. The intimacy can be suffocating. According to FDR’s biographers, his first private secretary, Missy LeHand, was a surrogate wife. She longed for him to retire so that she could stop sharing him with the world. (There is conflicting evidence about whether they had an actual affair.) When Jackie Kennedy wanted to see JFK, or to have him see the children, she called Lincoln to arrange it.
       The intimacy can also make for jealous relations with the first lady. After JFK’s death, Lincoln circulated stories that Jackie had had adulterous trysts in the White House. Mamie Eisenhower feuded madly with her husband’s secretary, Ann Whitman. Nancy Reagan reportedly despised Helene von Damm, the stylish Austrian who was Ronald Reagan’s assistant for 16 years. Not all White Houses are so fraught. Currie, for example, socializes with both Bill and Hillary, and Pat Nixon considered Woods a family member.

B ut presidential secretaries pay a terrible price for their job: moral corruption. All presidential aides are expected to take bullets for the boss. But most such aides are Machiavellian operators (e.g., Clinton pal Vernon Jordan, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman). Presidential secretaries, by contrast, are nonpolitical, innocent. They may be the “mother hens” of the West Wing, but they end up just as dirty as everyone else. Woods, beloved and respected by all, may have erased the incriminating tape in order to whitewash her boss. Lincoln pimped for Kennedy, then lied about it for decades to protect her darling. Currie may have scheduled liaisons between Clinton and a sexy intern. I found only of a presidential secretary who resisted her boss’s attempts to corrupt her.      Everyone else involved in Clinterngate has claimed victim status (Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, the Clintons, Jordan), but Currie is the truest victim of all. It was not her job to question the assignations, and it was not illegal for her to arrange them. And what, exactly, has her discretion and her loyalty bought her? She has been dragged before a grand jury, and her unimpeachable life has been turned upside down. “This poor woman trying to do her job has been sucked into the vortex of Clinton insanity. [Currie] gets infected and he survives,” says presidential historian Gil Troy.

Not surprisingly, presidential-secretarial relationships often end badly. When LeHand fell ill, Roosevelt all but abandoned her for other women. Lyndon B. Johnson fired Lincoln the day after Kennedy’s assassination. She spent her remaining 32 years badmouthing LBJ and Jackie and mooning over Camelot. (She even moved to Sierra Leone for a time, because the country idolized JFK.) Jimmy Carter and Susan Clough split shortly after he left office. The rumor: He fired her for telling personal stories about him in public. Recently, he refused to provide her with a letter of recommendation. Nancy Reagan all but drove von Damm out of the White House to sever her close ties with Ronnie. (Von Damm did, however, get appointed ambassador to Austria.)
       It’s not likely to be so tough for Currie. She has not spent her whole life devoted to her president. Unlike many of her predecessors, she had a long, rewarding career before coming to the White House. And unlike many of her predecessors, she is happily married and may not feel as bound to Clinton as they were to their bosses.
       Anyone who saw Currie get mobbed by photographers at her grand-jury appearance knows that she would rather be anywhere than in the public eye. If she’s lucky, and if there’s justice in the world, she will soon be anonymous again: the invisible woman with the best desk in Washington.