Didn't get paid, didn't get laid

The president's mistress, the secret showers, the Secret Service hunk—the true confessions of a(nother) White House intern.

In the summer of 1990, as part of Wellesley College's Summer in Washington program, Seattleite Elizabeth Brinkley worked in the White House Office of Communications, assisting seven presidential speechwriters, as one of approximately 50 White House interns. This account is adapted from her journal notes.

Day 1

I have worked in the White House for approximately 42 minutes, and I have already lied to the FBI. It isn't enough that I could barely sleep in the sauna of my George Washington University dorm room, that my roommate went to work at the Justice Department wearing shorts (they were silk, but still), while I'm walking seven blocks in heels and sweaty pantyhose. The District of Columbia has committed significant manpower to digging along the whole of Pennsylvania Avenue, and I spend my day's supply of bottled water wringing the dust out of my stockings in a phone booth outside the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB). I realize this must be the booth where Robert Redford talks to Deep Throat for the first time in All the President's Men. I have had my first brush with fame.

8:35am. Meeting of the Communications interns. We're told that anyone caught misusing White House stationery will be fired. We cannot take stationery out of the building, send letters to our friends, or do anything else with it. Anything else? I spend the rest of the meeting planning spiteful and flagrant breaches of national security (Dear Sen. Gorton: The chicken bone you fed Ranger at the last White House dinner gave him internal bleeding. If you ever approach the White House again you will be shot).

The only other thing I catch is the rule about no leaks to the press. Though I'm a closet Democrat, I have been looking forward to this job. I have vowed to keep an open mind. I am eager to work hard at my bit part in American history. Now I can barely wait until I have something leakable. Wait—I could make up things to leak, then send the pretend leaks out on White House stationery!

Security clearance. All new White House employees, even interns, must submit to a security interview. The FBI agent is friendly enough as he asks about any Communist Party connections, felony convictions, etc. Then he asks if I have ever smoked pot. I say no. As I leave his office, I realize I will never be elected to public office. I will never sit on the Supreme Court. I did not especially want these things before, but I don't like to have my possibilities restricted. Maybe it's because I am a college senior, and already the world-is-my-oyster years are drawing to a close. Not even planning to leave a really steamy letter from Marlin Fitzwater to Barbara Bush at The Washington Post can cheer me up.

First tasks. Make rounds of Communications offices to deliver tomorrow's fake POTUS schedule (the President of the United States is called "POTUS" in all memos). For security reasons, one or more false schedules is distributed before the real one, which is inevitably changed anyway. I decide this is really to keep the overstaffed office busy.

Spend rest of day working the phones, accidentally disconnecting Maureen Dowd and many other important people. Now I'll never get a job in journalism. A White House internship is obviously not expanding my career choices as I'd hoped.

1am: Nightlife. Georgetown is full of lewd, cat-calling assholes who sweat beer. My friends and I exchange thoughts on how great it is that we go to a women's college and don't have to deal with all this sexist nonsense. As we walk home, I poll them: Can you approach a cute Secret Service agent, or would you be arrested for endangering the president? The general consensus is that flirting is OK if said agent is guarding a door or walking Ranger or something, but not if POTUS is around.

Day 2

Spend most of the day helping the seven speechwriters move in a game of musical offices; for some inexplicable reason, they're all getting rotated, even though only one is moving out. Arms sore from lugging copies of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, the Bible, political almanacs, and biographies of famous statesmen.

I take a stray photograph to the Communications Office manager Drucie Scaling and ask if she knows whose it is. She has a sharp gray bob and barks out, "For God's sake, use your head" in a Texas drawl whenever we ask her a question about how to do something. She is also an uncontrollable gossip.

"Let me see, honey." She takes the 8x10. "Look, there." She taps a peach-polished fingernail on a blurry image at the far right, standing by a doorway with George Bush, James Baker, and communications assistant David Demarest. The blur seems to be wearing a skirt and looking down at something in her hand.

"That's Jennifer." Drucie explains that Bush had an affair with this blur for several years, but when he became vice president, Barbara put her foot down: He could not keep his mistress while they were in the White House.

"We like Barbara," Drucie says, handing the photo back to me.

"So whose picture is this?"

"Use your head. You went to college." She waves me away. I leave the photo in the office "Out" box, on top of the latest POTUS schedule.

Gorbachev is here and the Soviet flag is flying over the South Lawn. No one thinks to take any of the interns to the speech, and I feel too new to ask. Later in the day word comes down that Bush is furious at the speechwriter who wrote the words, "fully free," which took him three or four tries to get out.

Assignment from speechwriter Mary Kate Grant: Take jokes she has prepared to Quayle's office and hand them to an intern. All interns there are tanned, with honey- or reddish-blond hair. They sit quietly like a Hitler Youth corps, waiting to be called to action.

Day 3

My first visit to the Rose Garden, for the Montgomery GI Bill speech. The garden is intimate and lovely; temperature and humidity are both around 100. Am thinking of a way to slip my number to Ray, as I have named my Ray Ban­wearing Secret Service crush—maybe on the speech I'm holding? I could say someone in the West Wing wanted it as a memento—when I notice Bush's articulation is even more sluggish today. It's really, well, embarrassing. The congressmen sponsoring the bill fiddle with the buttons on their jackets. Ed McNally, who wrote the speech, stares intently at Bush, his lips moving silently, as if he can improve the president's enunciation through ESP.

Drucie explains later that the president gives up to four speeches a day and rarely has a chance to rehearse any but the televised ones. Ed McNally is in the room, upset that Bush didn't use one of his jokes. Three other speechwriters are opining on the merit of the joke, which played on the GI Bill as follows: "The only bills I get come at the end of the month." Heated discussion consumes the rest of the afternoon. I realize jokes are the staple of this office. Whether or not POTUS likes a joke apparently weighs heavily on the career stability of speechwriters. I am so glad I don't have to think of jokes.

Day 4

Interns compete fiercely for crumbs of duty. Mark Lange asks me and a gazellelike intern from Texas named Kathy to reorganize his files. Lange is responsible for most of the international economic speeches, and is the best-looking speechwriter after Curt Smith, the red-haired former baseball writer. As luck would have it, Kathy is moved to Public Affairs for the day, leaving me alone with beautiful Mark.

I am the filing goddess. It's 4pm and I am almost halfway through reams of clippings, old speeches, and memorandums. Mark is in the corner playing chess with the other Mark, Mark Davis, who wrote the speech Barbara Bush gave last month at Wellesley, my school, where some students made a big fuss about having a commencement speaker known mainly for being a wife. I wasn't involved in the protests, but they were quite a big deal; student leaders appeared on 20/20, and Barbara's speech was aired on national television. Davis, heavy-set with a dark mustache, says little to me beyond the occasional grunt when he shoves a piece of paper in my hand. I am sure he thinks of me as the girl from the school where everyone hates Barbara. He leaves, and Lange looks at me. I am sitting on the floor surrounded by piles of paper, my legs crossed and my shoes kicked to the side in what I hope is a sexy fashion.

"Let me give you a cushion," says Lange. I blush. I am Cinderella.

The phone rings, and Lange picks it up.

"What a nice surprise." He swivels his chair around to talk privately, though I hear the conversation end with "I love you."

Day 5

Week ends on a bleak note. Chriss Winston, deputy assistant to the president for Communications and a sort of editor for the speechwriters, is irritated that the interns have, for lack of duties, spent much of the week in Research watching MTV's "Madonna Marathon." She instructs us to brainstorm jokes and, for inspiration, sets a pile of Reader's Digests in front of us. We are in hell, and I feel myself beginning to bond with my Young Republican colleagues.

I like to start my walk home by leaving through the side door of the OEOB, because across the driveway is the West Wing. The White House is truly a stately building, far more soothing than the stern gray OEOB—whose architect, we learned at orientation, had killed himself from shame as soon as it was completed. This afternoon I see Ray come out of a small door below-grade, as if from a basement. I smile and wave and get—a nod! Progress. Then I notice his hair is wet. He's freshly showered. Hmmm.

Day 8

I am given a brief reprieve from thinking of jokes by Beth Hinchliffe, who wants me to research a speech for the president's visit to Wyoming. She is the newest of the speechwriters, a frizzy-haired, manically friendly woman who tells me she has written, among other things, a biography of Sylvia Plath. I am a double major in political science and English, and Wellesley being a women's college, I've had significant exposure to Plath scholarship. I have never heard of the book. She takes this disappointment in stride, pulling me into her office for an outpouring of patriotic gratitude for her new job.

Finally, a lunch away from the OEOB cafeteria. I'm with Kathy and another intern, Jaylene. Like Kathy, Jaylene is a Texan. Unlike Kathy, she is very short, and a bit stout in a healthy, boppy sort of way. Jaylene and Kathy trade stories about their respective sororities while I wonder who is paying for this lunch. Both women are in bright-colored power suits, and seem much more at ease in high heels than I am. I'm going to need some nicer clothes. This will entertain my other roommate at the dorm, who works at the National Women's Political Caucus and goes to work in fatigue shorts and tie-dyed shirts. She's fond of amusing herself by watching me dress, trying to untangle pairs of panty hose from my sweat-soaked sheets at the end of the bed and tripping into long skirts.

A homeless man lurches into our sidewalk table and wanders away. As if this is a reminder that social issues do, in fact, have something to do with our job, we march dutifully into a conversation about homelessness. Jaylene's opinion is that there are opportunities out there, the homeless would just rather not work. Not wanting to sound humanistic, and so potentially reveal myself to be a Democrat, I nod while tearing bread into pieces, throwing them to the pigeons.

"If I were homeless," Jaylene continues, "I'd become a sorority house mother. They get free room and board, and can audit any classes they want."

We split the bill. Jaylene and Kathy discuss the likelihood of obtaining passes to the White House Athletic Club. As we're standing on the steps between the White House and the OEOB we see Vice President Quayle. He waves as if addressing thousands and says, "Good morning!" It's 2pm.

Research POTUS's trip to South America, scheduled for late summer. Fall asleep in the White House library trying to find out what materials were used in the Kon Tiki raft.

Day 10

Ride in the motorcade! My limo companion is Doug Wead, author of Man of Integrity, a Bush biography I have never seen outside the White House. He clearly hoped to ride with someone more important. Our destination: my most boring Washington event yet, a party for His All Holiness of the Greek Orthodox Church. I worked at Dukakis headquarters (my roommates threaten to send Drucie a copy of that staff roster when I don't do the dishes, agree to be the designated driver, and so on), so I have really done the whole Greek thing. Not that I can tell anyone this.

The speech Bush gives here has nothing to do with policy and is supposed to tug the heartstrings, so of course Beth wrote it. She gets a little choked up when he reads her phrase "the chill darkness of religious persecution."

I feel sorry for Beth. I like Beth, even though I wish she didn't have to write these Hallmark cards for "feminine" social issues—dying children for the an NIH speech, disabled children for the ADA speech, Communist children for the Captive Nations speech (Beth chided me for titling the electronic copy "Kommie Kids"). She should be writing for Princess Diana. Anyway, she's so grateful to be a presidential speechwriter, and cares so much. Everyone in this city cares what people think of them, but Beth makes the mistake of voicing this, and her colleagues smell fear like dogs.

Earlier in the day, when I was in Curt Smith's office making calls for the Nixon Library Opening speech, Ted, a research assistant, started ranting about how "insecure" and "defensive" Beth is. "She's making enemies," he concluded.

I couldn't tell how Curt reacted. I'm sad for Beth, though, because yesterday she told me she has a tremendous crush on him. She even showed me the books he's written. I hadn't heard of any of them (do Republicans go out of print faster than Democrats? What are the stats on this?) but I did see a great baseball article he wrote for The New York Times.

I'm running late for a Seven Sisters/Ivy League mixer at Cagney's, and I have reams of Western arcana for the Wyoming speech but no jokes. I sidle into Media Relations, where all old speeches are filed. I come across some notes by Peggy Noonan, and resist the now-daily urge to steal memorabilia. Here we go, in a speech Reagan gave in Colorado: "There's a herd on Capitol Hill I'd like to corral." Perfect; now I have time to shower.

Evening, Cagney's. Harvard men are lewd assholes who sweat beer. Fortunately I'm introduced to a Wellesley friend's boyfriend's old roommate—nothing beats a chain of accountability. Plus he works in Gephardt's office. We're getting along so well I reveal I'm a Democrat masking as Republican, just so he knows we're on the same team.

"How interesting," he says, his eyes already looking over my shoulder for new possibilities. "I'm actually a Republican, but I'd never admit it. You probably shouldn't say anything to anyone else."

Day 14

Am moved to Public Affairs for a week (we all rotate among the five Communications departments, except Media Relations). I asked to go to Media Relations, but Drucie explained that press interns have yearlong positions and always come from journalism schools. (Apparently if you're in TV you need no expertise whatsoever.) No wonder they look so smug. I don't care. What kind of journalism student wants to work inside the White House? Creating propaganda? I did. I thought it would be cool to get a recommendation from Marlin Fitzwater.

Public Affairs is run by two fake-tanned, gel-using men, Paul Luthringer and Barrie Thon. They like lesbian jokes and fiercely debate such topics as "Does drinking Perrier make you look gay?". Their job is to film POTUS with various Republican candidates for the candidates' campaign commercials. A corner of the the room is made up like the Oval Office. Bush and the candidate chat (all chats scripted by Paul and Barrie), then POTUS gives his endorsement.

All Communications staff know that Bush hates this duty. With a vengeance. This is the closest I have come to him, and he whines about how long it takes, fusses when he has to practice pronouncing a candidate's name (as he does today, with New York gubernatorial candidate Pierre Rinfret). And God forbid something goes wrong, as it does today.

I'm starstruck as even a Democrat can be (this is the president), with the added bonus of Ray in the pack, sitting on a couch, hands folded, taking this all in, while Barrie and Paul minister to POTUS.

As the cameras are broken down, Bush pats Rinfret on the shoulder and says, "Hit Cuomo hard."

It's nearly 4:30 when Drucie calls Public Affairs, three research assistants, and four interns into the main office. Chriss Winston is so red she looks freakish. Apparently Rinfret passed Bush's remark on to a journalist, saying "Hit Cuomo hard" is considered unpresidential. Chriss wants a transcript or video clip to prove Bush didn't say it—a recording of what he didn't say. No one tells her this is a vain request. Am I Alice in Wonderland?

This also means the president said he didn't say it. Yuck. Paul and Barrie just nod to Chriss like the sycophants they are. I wonder why Media Relations doesn't deal with this, since clearly no one in this room knows how to control their emotions or have a constructive idea in a Breaking News Crisis. The hostility reaches such a pitch I feel it could land on me at any moment, at which point I would probably do something stupid like say what really happened and be fired on the spot.

I recall my horoscope from my deep reading the night before: This is not the time to act impetuously. I sneak away to my nook in Research, the only place besides the cushioned, nap-inviting bench on the second floor of the White House Library where I feel comfortable. Two researchers and Jaylene are watching the French Open, as Billie Jean King does commentary. I sit down.

"Billie Jean King is such a dyke," says Jaylene, of send-the-homeless-to-Pi-Beta-Phi fame. "She loves being one, too." I listen to the soft thwack-thwack of tennis balls for a few minutes, then leave.

Already vending carts sporting anything red, green, and gold line the streets around the White House and OEOB: Nelson Mandela arrives tomorrow. While South Africa isn't my specialty, I'll never forget a particularly impressive high school teacher who taught the history of Southern Africa: Biko, Soweto riots, Mandela. After being in prison longer than I've been alive, he's been free for four months and is spending the week of his birthday in Washington. The Bushes better give him one great party tonight. If no one asks me to his speech tomorrow I'll beg. It could make this whole surreal summer worthwhile.

Day 15

The first person I see as I walk up the OEOB steps is Ray, coming out of the same below-grade door, again with his hair wet.

I wave. "Hello."

"Hello, again." I am remembered!

I tell him I'm an intern, where I'm from, etc. He smiles, offering nothing. It's almost farcical, this secretive Secret Service man. Battered by nerves or a personality disorder, the filter between my thoughts and their utterance shuts down completely.

"So why aren't there any women in the Secret Service?" I ask. Maybe there is medication for my condition.

Ray, God bless him, laughs: "There are. They just don't work with the president."

I giggle as if he has just told a hilarious joke, and flee.

I spend most of the day wondering what people who don't work with the president are doing in the Secret Service, and decide that maybe no one knows. I read more about South America. I like Violeta Chamorro, Nicaragua's new president, so I copy a bunch of clips on her. I pretend to forget that I'm supposed to find a "positive article on the economic situation in Brazil," because Mark Lange is an intelligent person and will realize how ridiculous this idea is before he asks again. Dan McGroarty, who's so kind and respectful, even to lowly interns, looks at my Chamorro notes and explains that we're not to talk about the people in a country Bush visits. Foreign speeches are about what America has done or will do for the country. This seems selfish and rude, and I say so.

Dan smiles. "Well, we always use a joke that shows we know something about their way of life."

Searching for National Geographic articles on the South American countries Bush is doing, I flash back to elementary school reports. I should have time to get to the Library of Congress and back before Mandela. I buy a red, green, and gold coin purse at the subway entrance.

Head aching from overexposure to microfilm, I'm trying to get ink from a poor-quality copy off my hands as I exit the library.

"Bag, please," mumbles the security guard. I stretch open the tote and do my Vanna White wave. The guard looks at me like I am insane and pulls out Kon Tiki.

"I can explain. One of the researchers checked that out and gave it to me, but I'm here for something else. I forgot that was there." Bureaucracies aren't prepared to digest stories like this. I try another tack.

"I work in the White House, you can call."

"Yeah, right."

"Look at my badge." I find my plastic-square-on-a-chain and realize it says nothing about White House or OEOB for security reasons; it just has my photo and a scanner code. I'm not sure when this afternoon Mandela speaks. I'm shaking, thinking I might miss him. I am taken to an underground cubicle (is any security office in DC above street level?) and grilled in the usual fruitless manner. I spend two hours in custody, hearing that stealing is stealing whether it's from a store or the library, and that I didn't just steal, I stole from the government. Eventually they agree to call the office, and eventually someone answers in Research, the only number I've memorized. As the guard hangs up the phone, uproarious laughter spills from the receiver.

Afternoon, South Lawn. Amazing. Very emotional. It probably goes without saying that Mandela is not well-liked among Republicans, who think he is a commie anarchist. On the other hand, what looks like every African-American employee at the White House is standing on the lawn, thrilled. The president gives a speech that hardly mentions Mandela, focusing on what America has done and will do for South Africa. Then Mandela takes the stage. He is stunning, moving, so graceful and dignified. He speaks strongly on the need to keep sanctions in place, directly contradicting the president's speech. Mark Davis, who wrote Bush's speech, looks grim; the way he stands absolutely still is kind of frightening.

Mandela hears the cheers from the White House staff; I bite my lip to avoid joining in. Later I learn Chriss Winston was "appalled" at the "behavior" of the African-American staffers, who looked to me like receptionists, janitors, and others who are kept a world away from political decisionmaking. Many arms are in the air, both hands waving. Chriss called it "a goddamn spectacle. So embarrassing to the president."

Mandela moves away from the politicos, the news cameras, and the president, who follows him looking confused. This is obviously not the planned exit route. Mandela is shaking people's hands. People are crying. I put my hand out across the rope, and he takes it, first with one hand then two. He looks at me kindly and nods, and I feel like I've received a blessing. Then I notice Bush is shaking hands now too, and all my fellow interns are jockeying for the Bushes, ignoring the Mandelas. Mark Davis stares at me like I have blood on my hands, but I can't stop crying.

Day 20

No one really talks to me anymore except Beth. I guess they've added it all up: how I left the room when the lesbian jokes got to be too much, how I asked at a congressional event if anyone had seen Democratic Speaker Tom Foley (from my home state), and, finally, the Mandela episode, when I snapped at Chriss Winston, "What's so wrong with being excited? These are famous people." I thought it was a fairly tame retort, considering.

On top of everything else, I got a huge lecture from Drucie for starting a pool on the Supreme Court nomination. ("There is no gambling in the White House.") For the record, I started the pool in Research, but Ed McNally, the head speechwriter, already had one going, and he called me to "pool pools." I lost $20 and my dream of another woman on the Supreme Court, and Bush nominated some guy no one's ever heard of.

Iraq invaded Kuwait yesterday, so POTUS's South American tour is cancelled. The window in Research looks across the driveway to the second-floor, west-wing office of National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. This afternoon he's in there, occasionally walking in front of the window. He isn't gazing out thoughtfully, or pacing in a tormented way. He's just sort of moving around his office, not at all like someone in his position. It's unsettling. I concentrate all my energy on his window, vibing thoughts of peace.

When I step outside for lunch I almost collide with a jogger. For a minute I wonder if he's running from the guards; then I realize he is a guard. It's Ray, all sweaty and breathy. He isn't wearing the sunglasses and he has lovely green eyes.

"Hey, you," he says.

We chat a bit, about the weather, my afternoon picture with the president and VP. Then I realize his hair is always wet because he showers after running.

"Hey, I would love to dress after I walk to work. Where are you showering?"

He smiles, then stutters something about a private area.

"Well, of course I don't want to go into the men's locker room."

"Well, it's all a men's room." He's grinning, obviously dying to let me make sense of this.

"Tell me," I hiss gleefully, as if to a girlfriend in sixth grade.

"Well, we aren't really supposed to, but after we work out, if no one's looking, we take the elevator to the president's bomb shelter." He shrugs. "There are lots of showers."

Afterword

Beth Hinchliffe, the "warm and fuzzy" speechwriter, was fired in November, just after the Senate confirmed Supreme Court Justice David Souter. The Kon Tiki raft was made with balsa logs from Ecuador. In 1992, Spy reporter Joe Conason published the only major article on George Bush's affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald. I never did talk Ray into escorting me to the bomb shelter for a shower.

 
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