I got called to the White House basement, the situation room, for speechwriting assistance. Seems that the chief executive was giving a major foreign policy address and wanted some visuals to spruce up the language. Having just done a major book that contained oodles of visuals, my number was called and another fellow, one senior to me, and I were on our way, taking just a notepad, a few pencils, and a memory for phone numbers. This trip was important enough that a chauffeured car from the motor pool was summoned.
Coming through the adjacent 17th Street Northwest entrance I remembered that the Old Executive Office Building, the ornate and strangely elaborate Victorian building nestled to the right of the White House, was called the box that the presidential mansion came in. I guess maybe that’s true.
It’s a long walk to the situation room in the White House basement, and the walls are lined with large color photos of the president, some taken that very day, in poses with the famous and ordinary. It’s a rotating gallery of images, all flattering of a handsome man in good settings with good light.
I entered the room, plumping myself into a luxurious burgundy leather chair, sat against the wall in self-defense, and waited for the assembled to wander in. I marveled at the opulence of this room, one that most, no, all Americans might never see.
My agency colleague had to sit at the big table where the chairs had no arms. He was nervous; he felt as if he might have to answer a question. I had the luxury of knowing that he felt that way. Schadenfreude, a word I loved and just learned, (the malicious satisfaction of the misfortune of others), summed up my emotion. But, there I was in a chair with arms, enjoying my relative anonymity.
The Chief of Staff and his entourage arrived. Lots of good-looking suits, more expensive than mine, entered the room. The conversation started somewhere else; we were there to get orders not to discuss the fine points. My colleague and frontbencher was sweating; eyes were on him. Surely he would be embarrassed.
“So, Mr., whatever your name is,” the Chief of Staff began, “you mind telling me how you are going to support this presidential address?” The dagger was thrown, my colleague tried to grab it but failed, leaving only a bewildered expression to confront the verbal onslaught that was to come. He looked at me, obviously reeling and in pain, and asked if I could help. At least his lips were moving, there was no sound coming from his mouth.
I stood, introduced myself as only those who know that they have nothing to lose can, and said, “I can get photos for the address if you need them.”
“Where are you from?” the Chief of Staff asked. “Sure you can do this?” he added for good measure.
“Yes sir,” I said, gaining speed and confidence. “I can have them here in under two hours.”
“Settled,” the Chief of Staff said, rose, and adjourned the meeting.
My colleague looked more worried than ever. “What the Hell are you thinking?” He asked. “How in the world will you get that stuff here that quickly?”
“Phone call,” I answered with little enthusiasm.
“You got the damn numbers memorized?”
“Get me to a phone,” I answered haughtily. Using a White House phone involved the assistance of a White House operator, the kind of call that caused immediate reaction and total compliance with anything that was asked by the caller. I recited the phone number to the operator and found myself speaking with a frightened agency division head who happily gave me the photos after meekly mentioning that they were never really unclassified, but that was no problem. “Send them over to the White House by courier, I need them in an hour,” I said with authority.
The six black and white photos came. They were the kind that the speechwriters were looking for, the address was given that evening, photos included, and the Washington Press Corps was abuzz with the images and the words spoken by Ronald Reagan that night in 1983. He introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative, “Star Wars,” in that speech, scaring the hell out of the Russians and hastening the demise of communism. I had to catch a cab back to the office; the motor pool did not answer my call, even with the white house interceding.
I drove home in the darkness, about an hour ahead of the presidential address. My wife met me at the door, pointing to her watch to suggest that being late was getting tiresome. “What happened at work today?’ She asked.
“Not much,” I answered, “work is work.”