Excerpts from Chapter 2 of
It all became clear when he saw the six-foot-tall rabbit walking along Constitution Avenue. Until that moment, Jim Schmidt hadn't understood why the early morning traffic near the White House was worse that usual. The man in the bunny suit reminded him that today was the annual Easter egg roll on the White House lawn.
Schmidt steered his aging Volvo past the barricades on E Street and wended his way toward the West Executive Avenue entrance just south of the presidential mansion. Traffic had been perpetually screwed up ever since Pennsylvania Avenue had been blocked off due to concerns about terrorists.
Across the nearby open space called the Ellipse and down every street in sight, parents led hundreds of sleepy children toward the White House gate that wouldn't open to them for several more hours. Some folks will do anything to get their kid a free wooden egg and a picture with Willard Scott, Schmidt thought. His car edged forward, stopping and starting, as he waited his turn to clear security and enter the heavily guarded eighteen-acre compound. What a zoo, he thought. That rabbit will feel right at home.
His car lurched forward to the position where the guards were inspecting security passes and using mirrors to check under cars for bombs. Officer Clarence Jackson of the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service recognized Schmidt. After all, the President's press secretary was on TV nearly every night. "Good morning, Mr. Schmidt. Pop your trunk for me, would ya?" Jackson took out his flashlight and quickly inspected the Volvo's trunk, looking for stowaways. "Have a good day, sir," Jackson said as he gave his partner a thumbs up, signaling the okay to open the iron gates leading toward the West Wing.
Until the middle of the FDR administration, West Executive Avenue was a public thoroughfare. Citizens routinely drove along it, just a few dozen yards away from the oval office. World War II brought tighter security, and threats of terrorism caused the layers of protection to be greatly expanded in recent years.
Have a good day. Not much of a chance of that, thought Schmidt. As he pulled into his prime parking space near the west basement entrance, his mind went hack again to his gaffe of the day before, a mistake that would demand much more of his attention today than would the Easter egg festivities on the south lawn.
Who would have guessed that those microphones were still on--and that they were so sensitive? The day before, at a Rose Garden ceremony, Secretary of State Blair D. Harden III had made a speech in which he blathered on about the importance of his efforts to secure a new pact to amend a flawed old treaty banning chemical weapons. Schmidt always had trouble stomaching Harden's immense ego. On this occasion, during one flight of oratory, the Secretary referred to a recent parcel of policies as "the Harden Doctrine." Even in Washington, home of the world's largest egos, this was amazingly self-serving.
When the Rose Garden event ended, Schmidt, who had been standing off to the side of the familiar blue presidential lectern, turned away from the audience and muttered, "What a windbag." Quietly, he thought, but apparently not quietly enough. An open C-SPAN microphone had carried the spokesman's verdict over cable systems across the country.
It was late that night before Schmidt learned that his private assessment had been broadcast across America. An avid C-SPAN watcher had tipped off the Washington Post, and the newspaper gleefully reported this rare bit of capital candor in the "In the Loop" column of this morning's edition.
As Schmidt got out of his car, he dreaded the ordeal that awaited him. He knew that no White House staffer would be able to resist reminding him of his slip of the lip. He imagined that each one would make some lame joke at his expense, deepening his embarrassment. Worse, he would have to face the White House press corps. For the most part, the press liked Schmidt for his easy humor, his unflappability, and his record of honesty. They especially liked the fact that Schmidt was a true insider on the President's team. He knew the President's mind on any given issue. But personal feelings aside, Schmidt knew that the press wouldn't cut him any slack over the Harden jibe. Even though most probably agreed with him, it was just too juicy to pass up.
The worst part of the day, Schmidt knew, would he the obligatory phone call to the Secretary of State. He would have to grovel, beg forgiveness, and humbly ask understanding from the sort of man who gave out autographed pictures of himself as Christmas presents.
Schmidt walked under the canopied entrance to the West Wing basement. He passed through the outer lobby and through a wooden doorway that cleverly masked a sophisticated metal detector. The hallway was decorated with antique furniture. It doubled as a waiting room for people trying to see officials who occupied the tiny ground floor offices. The same officials could command large airy offices across the street at the Old Executive Office Building. There they might have windows, balconies, and even working fire-places. But those offices were eschewed for the opportunity to work in windowless, closet-size offices which had the cachet of a West Wing address.
Schmidt came upon another Uniformed Division officer sitting at a desk at the entrance to the West Wing. The desk hid sensitive monitors for unlikely threats, such as radiation and poison gas. The officer glanced at the pass that was hanging from a chain around Schmidt's neck and his stone face broke into a smile. It was only then that Schmidt looked down and noticed that the officer had a copy of the daily White House news summary, a compilation of newspaper clippings. Even upside down, it wasn't hard to read the headline of the lead story: "What a Windbag!"
Instead of immediately going up to his office, Schmidt turned right, went down a few steps, and entered the White House mess. There he thought he could grab a cup of coffee, a danish, and a moment to reflect on how he was going to get out of his predicament. Jim usually skipped breakfast, but he would fortify himself on days when he felt particularly overwhelmed by his challenges. This might be a three danish day, he mused.
On difficult days, Schmidt found the dark wood paneling of the mess somehow calming. He noticed, not for the first time, the nautical decorations about the place. At the entrance stood a model of the "Lone Sailor" statue, a miniature version of one displayed at the Navy Memorial a few blocks away down Pennsylvania Avenue. On one wall, behind glass, was the dinner gong from "Old Ironsides," USS Constitution. These items were reminders that the mess was operated by the U.S. Navy. And they reminded Schmidt of his little brother, Bill.
At times like this, he really envied Bill. Commanding Officer of his own boat. Make that "ship." Bill hated it when Jim called it a boat. At sea, Bill was in charge of all he surveyed. He didn't have to kowtow to thousands of reporters, 535 members of Congress, hundreds of contributors, scores of presidential advisors and staffers. That was the life. Jim wondered how Bill was doing and hoped that Bill would not learn of Jim's "windbag" comments at sea. Bill would never let him hear the end of that one, especially because the comment sounded like something Bill would say.
Jim looked up from his table to see the President's National Security Advisor, Wally Burnette, approaching his table. Here it comes, he thought. The first person of the day to bust my balls over the Harden screw up.
Burnette, a retired Army general, walked briskly up to Schmidt. He paused for a moment, leaned down, and put his arm around the younger man. "Jim, your words have given wings to the thoughts of many. You are a great American." With that, Burnette stood erect, saluted, did an about face, and headed off. Schmidt smiled and for the first time thought that the reaction to his comments would not be too bad. That thought wasn't to last long. Schmidt left the mess and walked the short distance to the stairs. The walls were adorned with massive candid color photographs of the President. How odd it must be for the boss, he thought, to walk down here and every two feet see another view of his own smiling face. On the other hand, if you don't like that sort of thing, you probably shouldn't get into elective politics.
Schmidt went up the steps near the Cabinet Room and made a hard left turn toward his own office. As he approached the door he came face-to-face with his worst nightmare: Alice Kenworthy, dean of the White House press corps, sitting on the credenza near his doorway. Like a troll near a bridge, no one would be able to get past without her permission. Alice had been covering the White House since the Nixon administration. Her thick southern drawl had been made raspy by decades of chain smoking. Dictates in recent years that banned smoking in the White House had done nothing to improve her already cranky nature. White House spokesmen over the past several administrations had learned to be wary of Alice on rainy days when her mood grew more foul with every cigarette she puffed in the White House driveway.
Alice spotted the spokesman approaching and whipped out her notebook and handheld tape recorder. "Do you plan to insult any more cabinet officers today?" she asked.
"No, but I am thinking about working on a few heads of state," Schmidt blurted, instantly regretting it.
Kenworthy didn't pause as she launched another round. "Is it true that the Secretary of State has called the President demanding that you be fired?"
She's fishing; it is too early for Harden to have gotten a call through, he thought. "Nah, I hear he wants to offer me a job. Say Alice, is Ambassador to Iran a good post?"
She gave a brief chuckle of admiration at Schmidt's bravado. The unwritten rules and her own sense of propriety would keep Kenworthy from reporting the spokesman's attempt at humor.
Sensing that she wasn't going to get him to say anything of substance on the record, she stepped aside. Schmidt entered his office and quickly shut the door.
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NOTE: From the book, Circle William, by William Harlow. Published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright �1999 by William Harlow. All rights reserved, including all rights of reproduction in whole or in part.