A few days before the G8 summit last month, in the seaside resort town of Heiligendamm, Germany, Noel Zanchelli's White House employers gave him a secret assignment, telling him it was imperative that the Germans didn't catch him. The objective: Procure period furniture that would match the ornate, classical decor of George W. Bush's assigned meeting room at the 200-year-old Kempinski Grand Hotel, where the president would be commiserating with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy, then–British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and other leaders of the industrialized world.
Normally, Zanchelli's duties as a White House advance site officer are more pedestrian. He travels to the site of a presidential visit in advance to help with logistics, and once the president arrives, sticks around to ensure that the trip goes according to plan—a role that extends all the way to making sure the door the president is supposed to walk through is unlocked. (In this vein, there are even advance staffers who walk the president's planned path with light meters, to determine the best locations for photographs.)
In Germany, some of Zanchelli's colleagues had concerns about the existing furniture, a collection of black pieces whose Bauhaus styling put it at odds with the Old World grandeur of the room. In addition to obtaining more appropriate furniture, Zanchelli also had to secure movers and a location to temporarily store the unwanted pieces—all without gaining the attention of his German hosts.
Once everything was in place, he met with the hotel's general manager to coordinate the furniture exchange. "Don't you wish Chancellor Merkel had better taste?" the general manager remarked.
"What do you mean?" Zanchelli said.
"Well, Merkel picked out all the furniture personally months ago," replied the GM.
A phone call to the Germans confirmed the GM's information, and Zanchelli informed his superiors that switching couches might not be such a good idea. His new marching orders: Abort the mission and tell the general manager to disregard all conversations she had with Zanchelli.
"In retrospect, it's an embarrassment," Zanchelli says. "Knowing that Chancellor Merkel chose this herself, I would have felt bad replacing it."
Five years ago, Zanchelli would never have imagined working for the highest office in the land. In fact, his road to the White House was almost as peripatetic as that of the president he serves. The difference is that Zanchelli, 35, happily admits its unlikelihood.
Local sports fans may remember Zanchelli, a Magnolia resident, from his broadcasting days, when he hosted the Mariners pre- and postgame segments on KIRO-710 radio, as well as a weekend show on Northwest Cable News, where he was a sports anchor. Back then, Zanchelli was a rising star who harbored dreams of being on The Today Show. He was also a loyal Democrat who voted for Bill Clinton twice and Al Gore once.
But broadcasting was actually Zanchelli's second love: His first was cycling, and he was an elite junior racer at Bishop Blanchet High School, competing against the likes of Bobby Julich, who has ridden in the Tour de France nine times. One of Zanchelli's mentors, Steve Poulter, who raced for Great Britain in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, says there was no doubt Zanchelli had the goods to become a professional cyclist. "He was a very good rider," he says. "Great spin, like a Lance Armstrong."
After high school, Zanchelli enrolled in the University of Southern California on a U.S. Cycling Federation scholarship. But on May 3, 1990, while on a training ride, Zanchelli was hit by a car at the intersection of Sycamore and La Brea Avenues in Los Angeles and never raced again. "The accident was a really tough pill to swallow," Zanchelli says. "It changed my focus in a hurry."
Zanchelli graduated from USC in 1993 with a degree in communications, and despite having no radio experience, landed an internship at KJR-950. Later that year, KIRO hired him away from KJR as a producer for Dave "The Groz" Grosby's show. "He immediately made an impression as a guy who was enthusiastic and was going to be good at this," recalls Grosby, now with KJR. "He's the sort of guy who's impossible not to like."
Following a couple of successful years at KIRO, Zanchelli caught the eye of Northwest Cable News. "It looked to me like he was going to be in TV sports for a long time," Grosby recalls. "It fit him, and he had the face and personality for it."
But Zanchelli soon got swept up in the tech boom and went to work for a startup, SeasonTicket.com, an online sports video site. Despite rumors of being acquired by Yahoo!, which would have been a windfall for Zanchelli, the company went under in December 2000. Zanchelli spent half of the next year on unemployment and the rest working odd jobs while trying to land another broadcasting gig. He worked part time at a home furnishing store at Westlake Mall, showed apartments, and bar backed at the Corner Bar (now the Whiskey Bar). "At one point I was doing four part-time jobs while sending out résumés," he says. "I was trying to keep my dream alive."
Zanchelli left Seattle in 2002 to help launch an ABC/FOX affiliate station in Billings, Mont., and quickly established himself as one of brightest young talents in the region, winning the Montana Broadcasters Association's sportscaster of the year award. But the station eventually folded its news department, and he and his fiancée were transferred to Springfield, Mo., a place Zanchelli never warmed up to. "I'm a very open-minded guy, but it was a little too right-wing for me," he says.
In 2004, Zanchelli got a call from an old USC fraternity buddy, John Meyers, then head of President Bush's advance team. Meyers told Zanchelli that he needed someone with broadcast experience to help at the Republican National Convention in New York. "John, I've been hearing these stories for years," Zanchelli replied skeptically.
But Meyers assured Zanchelli that there was a plane ticket waiting for him at the airport, and a hotel room booked in his name. The next thing Zanchelli knew, he was helping coordinate a party for the Bush twins and acting as Sean "Diddy" Combs' bodyguard. "He put his hands on my shoulder and we parted the crowd," Zanchelli says, shaking his head. "It was like a prize fight. I couldn't believe it."
Since 2004, Zanchelli has worked presidential trips to the Czech Republic, Germany, Colombia, Guatemala, and all over the States, including Bush's 2006 visit to Seattle. In Orlando, Bush teased him for being too stoic. "At least say, 'good morning,' damn it," the president told Zanchelli, who sometimes introduces Bush's entrance at rallies and fund-raisers.
At the G8 in Germany, Zanchelli planned a bilateral conference with the Russians. He diligently set up the room, then slipped out to grab a coffee. When he returned, his Russian counterparts had rearranged everything, just moments before the meeting. Then the Russians decided to meet with the prime minister of Canada before Bush. "They were 15 minutes late; screwed up our whole day's schedule," Zanchelli says.
So when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Bush did their walk for the media, Zanchelli swiped Putin's notebook (after Putin had removed the pages with his scribblings) from the conference table. "I said, 'Screw it,'" he says. "I figured I'd at least get a souvenir out of this."
Few of Zanchelli's friends or former colleagues saw any of this coming. "Politics never seemed to be his bent," Grosby says. "I cannot imagine a more unlikely spot for him."
Zanchelli says the attacks of Sept. 11 changed his outlook on both his career and his politics. Still, Zanchelli was such an unlikely Bush acolyte that White House officials were circumspect about his intentions when he first signed on. Now a Republican, Zanchelli has proven his loyalty to his employers, though now he faces a familiar skepticism when he talks about his new vocation. "Nobody believes me," he says of acquaintances' reactions. "Or when I say I work for the president, people say, 'The president of what?'"
It doesn't get any easier once Zanchelli manages to prove he's telling the truth, as he often becomes a proxy target for Bush haters. Some have told him to punch Bush in the face the next time he sees him. "Come on," Zanchelli says. "That's not right. We're all working for a better America here. I just say, 'You know, he's still the president. Respect that.'"
Zanchelli's political views, perhaps tempered by all those years as a Democrat, remain moderate. "I'm pro-choice," he says. "And gay marriage? Jesus, some of my best friends are gay....If they want to be as miserable as everyone else, let them."
"I'm not going to contradict anyone's opinion of the president," he adds. "Think what you want to think. Just don't base your opinion on a sound bite on Jon Stewart, or Ann Coulter, for that matter. And please don't listen to Rush Limbaugh. It's not hard to make some people look like a doofus, and [Bush] does it himself with what he says—but he speaks from the heart. He's a bit misunderstood, [but] he's a good man."
But there's one person who remains unconvinced: Zanchelli's die-hard liberal mother, Patsy. "My mom can't stand it," he chuckles. "She likes that I'm working in the White House, but she...wants me to work for Hillary."
But first, there are the 18 months of Bush's final term to attend to. At the end of August, Zanchelli will head to the "Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Australia. And while a portion of his heart remains in broadcasting, he's at peace with his new endeavor. "At the end of a long presidential trip," he says, "I feel a lot more satisfied with work than at the end of a sportscast."