The Lord gave me at least my fair share of character flaws, but a taste for larceny wasn't one of them. Nor was extreme risk taking. So, breaking into the Oval Office, one of the most tightly guarded rooms on the planet, was not a natural thing for me to want to do.
Granted, I wasn't going to take anything. My goal was just to leave something behind. So, if I was caught, theft was not what I was going to be charged with. Nor was the charge going to be breaking and entering. I've been there many times, and it isn't like there was some lock that I was going to jimmy or window that I was going to smash. Still, unless I was very clever, I was quite confident that the government would find something to charge me with.
A knowledge of the inner workings helped. I would need at least two coconspirators; one of them would be the next president of the United States. Actually, all I would need from him would be his silence. The papers that I was going to leave for him were intended for his eyes only, and he really didn't have anything to gain from sharing them. My other conspirator would have to be a member of the outgoing administration-easier to arrange perhaps, but it would involve imposing on a long friendship.
The most ticklish problem was the timing. Any paper that the president of the United States got after he was president would be turned over to the National Archives for display in the Presidential Library. The putative reason for this was to preserve for future historians the thinking that went into presidential decisions.
Like so much else in government, it was full of unintended consequences. The most obvious was that it stifled candor, at least in writing. Who would want to be as blunt with the president in a memo when the ultimate readership wasn't just him but every literate person on the planet? So, the papers had to get to the president before noon on January 20, 2009.
But until then, the president-elect would have his own retinue of retainers and soon-to-be officeholders around. There were only a few moments when the president-elect was alone in the Oval. By custom, that happened on Inauguration Day. The president-elect would go to the White House. The departing incumbent would greet him. They and their spouses would have coffee, and then the president and president-elect would stroll over together to the West Wing, and the president would show his successor his new office.
Here it would get particularly tricky. Some knowledge of George W. Bush would certainly help. First, he was an early riser. My suspicion was that he would be up bright and early, showered and dressed, and over to the Oval for one last look at the place by himself. The staff, if they were around at all, would be preoccupied with emptying their offices, as they had to be out of them by noon. Second, Bush was a real gentleman, with a particular sense of propriety about making sure he did whatever it took to ease the transition for his successor.
Letting his successor have a moment alone in the Oval to contemplate what lies ahead would certainly strike Bush as the right thing to do. Bush would likely walk over with his successor along the covered walkway by the Rose Garden. Even though it was cold, they would probably make the left turn up the walk leading to the Rose Garden entrance to the Oval rather than using the interior entrance. There, at the double doors of paneled glass, Bush would open the door and say something like, "It's all yours. Good luck." He would then shake hands and walk back to the residence to join their spouses in small talk. The president-elect would have a few minutes alone in the Oval before he too would return to the residence. Or at least that was what I was counting on.
If everything played out as planned, the president-elect would find my package under the courtesy note that the departing president would leave on the desk. Far be it from me to try to leave the impression that the package was from the president. The president-elect had better get used to having papers stacked up before him, each from a different person on a variety of topics. But my plan didn't require that the president-elect think that the courtesy note was attached to the package. His curiosity would doubtless be aroused, if not by the package itself, then by the discrete label in the upper-right corner bearing the words "To Be Read in Private When the Need Arises."
Okay, I'll admit that might be a bit dramatic. But I wasn't going to take any chances once the plan got that far. He would open the package and see an actual briefing book: a standard one-inch three-ring binder with a set of memos inside. The notebook would be quite similar to what he would have to take back to the residence each night, except for the cover label. This would doubtless cause him to at least glance at what lay below and note the package of memos. Pressed for time, he would realize that now was not the moment. He would try to figure out what to do with the papers and realize that this was now his office and that this was now his desk. He would open the top right-hand drawer and deposit the papers inside. They would be there, just like the cover said, "To Be Read in Private When the Need Arises."
That would be followed by a glance at the watch, a deep sigh, and a final look around the room. Today was a day for ceremony, the oldest celebration of the peaceful and democratic transition of power on the planet. Work was for tomorrow.
It was a great vision, anyway. The key, as with most things, was the timing. The memo had to be put in place between the outgoing president's last visit and his return with his soon-to-be successor. Sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning seemed ideal, but the actual timing would require being pre-positioned and ready to grab opportunity when it presented itself.
This meant bringing my other coconspirator, the outgoing economic policy adviser, into the loop. We had both served in two administrations, so I knew that after the initial shock, he would find the idea intriguing.
He took the call himself and agreed to my request for a rendezvous early in his office on Inauguration Day. I knew he would be there on his last day. There is something distinctly pleasurable about watching the heavy metal gates of the compound swing open as you drive in for the last time. And on that last day, you get to notice how your chest puffs out an inch or two as you walk in the basement entrance, steps away from your parking place, while a Secret Serviceman welcomes your arrival. All those other days you are too busy to smell the proverbial roses. The greatest thing about your last day is that you can fully savor the trappings on the way in, knowing when you leave that someone else will be shouldering the responsibility.
Yes, he would be there. He would want to savor the moment but, unlike the incoming president, not necessarily alone. He was not by nature a solitary man. Besides, we were the bookends of national economic policy for this president's two terms.
Of course, I didn't fill him in on the details over the phone. I just promised to bring the champagne, orange juice, and glasses for some early morning mimosas. Besides, the phones were tapped on a routine basis, and having the Secret Service find out about the plan in advance just wouldn't work.
I was even cleared in to park on West Executive Avenue at 7:30 A.M., a real honor for someone on the outside. Maybe he actually preferred to have company and the chance to reminisce. Maybe it was the mimosas that sealed the deal. It was then that I felt some momentary guilt. I was using him and candidly wouldn't blame him if he just called the guard. But I had a hunch he wouldn't.
In fact, the reprimand I got when I sat down at his conference table and explained my real purpose was fairly mild. "Meddling again LL?" was all he said. Meddling, especially in public policy, when prudence would dictate otherwise, was one of those character flaws I had in abundance. We both knew it.
He took the bottle of Clos du Mesnil from the table and refilled the glasses. Champagne is meant for sipping, not swigging, but this was one of those swigging moments. Jack Daniels would have been more appropriate.
He was someone who it would have been fun to have had as a fraternity brother in college. In fact, this caper was just up his alley. No real harm done. Just enough risk to get the adrenaline pumping. Besides, it would be a great story to tell our grandkids. And at our age, grandkids were a lot closer in time than were our college days.
When I handed him the package, he looked at the envelope and joked, "Hey, where's the red dot? I thought you said this was important." It was part of his ironic sense of humor and was delivered in his accent that smacked of his southern upbringing. It also brought back memories of our first days working together. The stick-on red dots, each a bit less than an inch in diameter, indicated a need for immediate attention. Of course, every sender thinks that the package he is sending needs immediate attention, so most such envelopes carry red dots. Nearly two decades earlier, this had led some unthinking staff assistants to begin attaching two or three red dots to each envelope, leading to what became known as "red dot inflation."
"It is important. We could have used something like this eight years ago. Even though the president watched what his dad went through, it still wasn't the same as having it happen to him personally. The job wears down even the best man over eight years, and we both know he's a darn good one. You've known him for more than thirty years. How much of the man you once knew is still there?"
It was a rhetorical question but still one that needed to be repeated because it refocused us on the big picture. He had been ground down for the past four years by the need to get through each day without another crisis. It was easy to lose sight of the big picture. I had been out for six years. It had been time enough for me to recharge and time enough for me to care again. It didn't matter who was entering the office just below us; the new president deserved to know what he was about to get hit with. And the country needed him to be prepared.
We stood up together and walked down the narrow back staircase that leads from the second floor down to the main level where the Oval Office sits. The real West Wing is not like its television namesake. The corridors are much narrower, and the stairs usually require that someone coming down pause on the side to let the person climbing pass by. On the main level, it was a right out of the stairwell and then a left down the corridor.
A smile crossed my face as we turned the corner. The duty guard outside the Oval was Mike, who recognized me instantly. Seven years earlier, he had called out a "thanks" to me from one of the guard booths. I had responded with an instinctive "You're welcome," followed by a "for what?" He had just gotten his first paycheck for 2002 and had already done the math. "The tax cut will mean a bit more than 2,000 bucks for us this year." I had said, "Thank the president, don't thank me."
I was glad it was meaningful in a tangible way to someone real. I had spent most of my time on the big picture, making sure it helped to minimize a recession. That happens a lot in Washington. The "macroeconomy" we all focus on is really just a large collection of people like Mike and his family. It was really thoughtful of him that every time he had seen me since, he had mentioned it, including again today.
I asked about his two boys and was informed that the oldest was going to graduate in June. Tip O'Neill was wrong. All politics isn't local; it's personal. I guess that is just the political analogue to macroeconomics.
My coconspirator asked, "Mind if we take a last look?"
"Well sir, your pass will get you in, but not Mr. Lindsey. Sorry, sir, those are the rules."
We actually knew that, and I was counting on it. "I'll just stand here and chat for a while; you go ahead." I positioned myself to look in, which, of course, also forced Mike to look out. We continued our chat about family and work, and I managed to discover that, yes, the president had been here alone, bright and early, and then gone back to the residence.
In the end, it all seemed too easy. Maybe fate was shining on me; maybe it was, as I thought, that the rhythms of government tend to be fairly predictable. But I felt a huge sigh of relief. The deed was done. I had done all I could do.
What follows is what I left.
Excerpted from What a President Should Know (But Most Learn Too Late)by LAWRENCE B. LINDSEY Marc Sumerlin Copyright © 2008 by Lawrence B. Lindsey and Marc Sumerlin. Excerpted by permission.
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