(797 words; posted Tuesday, July 5; to be composted Tuesday, July 12)
The highlight of Gary Aldrich's book, Unlimited Access, about his adventures as "an FBI agent inside the Clinton White House," is his tale of President Clinton sneaking past the Secret Service in the middle of the night and hiding under a blanket in aide Bruce Lindsey's car on his way to a sexual liaison at the local Marriott. Even before Newsweek exposed this story as totally harebrained, nobody in the Washington press corps believed it. Only the conservative Washington Times reported it in all its implausible detail. Yet all the established media reported other allegations in Aldrich's book, and often made passing reference to the sex stuff--leaving out the self-discrediting bits. Why? Surely a book that features such a large and comically transparent falsehood is not to be trusted on other matters. And any fair-minded reader of Unlimited Access would find it too bilious and untrustworthy in dozens of small ways to take it seriously. Why repeat any of Aldrich's stories?
Yet all the established media reported other allegations in Aldrich's book, and often made passing reference to the sex stuff--leaving out the self-discrediting bits. Why? Surely a book that features such a large and comically transparent falsehood is not to be trusted on other matters. And any fair-minded reader of Unlimited Access would find it too bilious and untrustworthy in dozens of small ways to take it seriously. Why repeat any of Aldrich's stories?
The most common excuse has been social anthropology: Aldrich's story supposedly has a larger significance, beyond truth and falsehood. Even Newsweek took this dodge:
Details aside, Aldrich's book is essentially an outpouring of shock and dismay at the Clintonites' manners and morals. Aldrich ... was clearly at home in the buttoned-up atmosphere of the Bush administration. But in 1993, he writes, the White House was invaded by cheeky, sloppy, profane and irreverent thirtysomethings whose behavior appalled him.
But even this high-minded aspect of Aldrich's tale is phony. I know, because I worked--at a very low level--in the Bush White House. I was a college intern working for Vice President Quayle. And though I was only there for a few months, I saw things that make Aldrich's alleged horror at the manners and morals of the Clintonites seem ludicrous. Nothing especially scandalous, at least to me, but plenty that should have offended Aldrich the Puritan. The only difference a social anthropologist might detect is a certain Republican flavor to the Bush administration's lifestyle.
Aldrich writes with distaste: "Staff would gather in the hallways and chat as though they were in a college dorm." That's nothing. I often witnessed Bush staffers tossing softballs in the hallways--and hitting golf balls in their offices.
Aldrich says he was sickened by the sight of George Stephanopoulos blowing bubble gum. He scolds: "The Reagan and Bush administrations had had plenty of twenty- and thirty-something staffers, too, but none of whom behaved like this. It wasn't a matter of age; it was a matter of maturity." Bubble gum does seem a bit childish; we Bush staffers preferred beer. Especially when it was free (or "on the taxpayers' dime," as Aldrich puts it). Four or five times that summer, the White House kitchen staff wheeled ice-cold brew right to our offices, and more than once staffers--some of them underaged--drank enough to pass out for the night. Superiors would wake them up the next morning. "You've got to clean yourself up," they'd say. "Go take a shower." And here is the really shocking thing: Some Bush staffers didn't even go home for a shower--they used the office showers (hot water on the taxpayers' dime!) and put on the same clothes they'd worn the day before. And these were Republicans!
As for sexual mores, I never saw President Bush hiding under a blanket in the back seat of a car. But I did see a Bush staffer share in a public sex act on the balcony of his Georgetown townhouse, in the midst of a party attended by many White House employees. The act was heterosexual in nature. Perhaps that is why nobody said, "Stop! This is a buttoned-up administration. What will the FBI say?"
Aldrich complains of shocking security breaches--temporary staffers allowed to breeze past security checkpoints without being searched. I still have my orange intern's pass, which routinely got me through an entrance such passholders specifically were forbidden to use. With the pompous air of a White House aide, I would wave the badge dangling from my (buttoned-up) seersucker summer suit. The Secret Service would buzz me right in, without leaving the air-conditioned comfort of their booth to check my credentials.
In short, I could write a book--and maybe get on This Week With David Brinkley--about the debauched atmosphere in the Bush White House. But I think I won't.
Press pass illustration by Nina Frankel
Secret Service illustration by Robert Neubecker