White House Tales – 3


However cynical we may be about government, it’s hard to match the cynicism inside government. But, when I think about history, I remind myself that the really enthusiastic governments were also the most dangerous. When I started doing stuff at the White House it was exciting and glamorous for a little while.

One topic that brewed up on the national scene, early in the Clinton administration, was that there was a huge number of people employed by the White House. The actual number was something staggering; everyone had a posse and important people’s posse-members had posses of their own. It was posses all the way down.

The news was that there were too many White House employees so one day I went down and half of the people were now wearing NASA, Department of Agriculture, and other agency badges instead of White House badges. Problem solved! Since I was working for TIS, on behalf of DARPA, I always had a visitor badge and had to be separately cleared into the building.

There was another problem, that there were too many non-cleared people with White House access; everyone was supposed to be cleared through a background check – presumably to make sure there were no Russian spies, or something. The idea that spies could be kept out of such a permeable perimeter was absolutely absurd; there were people everywhere and meetings so big and vague that a Russian spy could have probably dropped in and died of boredom. I do not know where the interesting business of government happens, but it doesn’t seem to happen in the government, per se. Someone, probably ${nameless jackass} put me on the list of people who need to get a clearance.

My memory is probably exaggerating but I remember being given about 25 pages of stuff to fill out. It included a bunch of things, like: every job I had ever held and dire warnings about what could happen to me if I answered any question inexactly. Some of the questions were stupid – such as whether or not I had ever advocated the overthrow of the government. This was early days – now I’d have been able to answer that question with a flat “yes.” I got to the one where it asked me to list any contacts I had with foreign powers and suddenly I was thinking how I looked – many trips to Europe, academic family, dated the daughter of a communist labor activist and hung out with her union organizer mother, grew up around Columbia University student radicals; my baby-sitter may have been a member of the Weather Underground, etc. What was any self-respecting anarchist doing, here, anyway?

I looked up at the Secret Service agent who had given me the questionnaire and asked, “how many other ‘firewall experts’ do you think the White House has in its rolodex?” He chuckled, “probably not very many.” I handed him back the stack of paperwork and said, “I’d be perfectly happy if you guys revoke my access,” and left.

This is from some seller on etsy. The real thing had a bright blue background and was made of high-impact plastic with a rubber backing.

Security in the building was remarkably lax (a typical perimeter security set-up) once you were in the door you could wander around all you wanted. One night I was there late and wandered the upper floor of the Old Executive Office Building and found myself passing the office of the Vice President – empty. Naturally, I looked inside. I stole the mouse pad off of Al Gore’s desk as a memento; it was nice blue plastic with a Vice Presidential logo. Since my systems at home were mostly Sun workstations, the mouse pad lived in my random stuff drawer until I switched to windows around 1997, at which point I used the mouse pad until a friend of my then-spouse noticed it and said “it would be funny if that were real.” The joke was on them and, since it wasn’t a very good mouse pad, I gave it to them. If it’s still in existence, Al Gore’s custom mouse pad is being used by an old stoner hippie in Harper, TX. Since there are a lot of stoner hippies in Harper, TX, I don’t think I have pinpointed its location.

At one point I was asked if I wanted a photo-op with anyone, or anything like that, and I asked if they did photo-ops with Socks the Cat. There, the joke was on me: the next day I was given a fairly nice reproduction of a photo of the First Feline. It turned out that the official White House Photographer had gotten a lot of requests for photo-ops with the cat, so they had an official photo to give to nice kids or annoying people like me. I may still have the picture of Socks in my Memory Drawer at home; I will check and see if I can find it.

Comments

  1. kestrel says

    That 25-page stack of paperwork brings back memories… I had to fill out something like that once. And yes, they wanted to know every place I’d ever lived, every job I’d ever had, my phone numbers, my addresses etc. I was being bonded to work in a vault, so OK but holy cow it took me several days to fill all that out. Unfortunately I was not an expert on anything at all and did not have the option of handing it back and explaining what they should do with that stack of paper. It would have been so fun to do that…

    The amount of posses sounds astonishing… what on Earth are all those people finding to do? Standing around and looking important?

  2. says

    kestrel@#2:
    The amount of posses sounds astonishing… what on Earth are all those people finding to do? Standing around and looking important?

    Mostly flapping their wings and squawking a lot.

    Here’s what goes in my mind: every time anyone makes a statement or does anything, if there is media coverage, there is immediately a great big meeting in which everyone squawks and flaps their wings. It is impossible for the smallest action to be taken without a bunch of squawksquawkflapsquawwwwk going on. I mean, look at the “message from the Swedish Prime Minister” – seriously, nobody should have given a shit about that; it was a pointless gesture. But it wound up dominating at least a dozen people’s lives for the 2 days it took to draft and send all those responses.

    The TV show VEEP really captures it; it’s almost like a documentary as far as I can tell. When the VP has a zit on their nose, there are meetings about what to do about the zit. And if the media comment, it’s zitgate.

    I think that all the people who are caught up in this mess are the same ones who ran for “Class President” in grade school and who mistook popularity for power and vice-versa. They are the ones who grew up and become Sarah Huckabee Sanders – utterly compromised in order to get some attention and get “their” 15 seconds of fame (except it’s not “theirs” and they know it, and hate themselves and everyone because they are just hangers-on to someone else’s coat-tails) VEEP really captures that personality extremely well. Self-hating, hateful, sociopaths – Washington attracts some of the worst parasites that the empire has to offer. You can see echoes of it in the news but the full impact is hard to imagine. Take for example Ben Carson’s overpriced desk at HUD. I am sure there were huge meetings about “what to do?!” because just under Carson and his posse are professional bureaucrats who have dealt with several administrations and they now have to figure out what to do about Carson’s ridiculous requests (the request for the desk probably was from one of Carson’s posse, who wanted to curry favor with the boss) – and someone leaked it because it was going to embarrass Carson (who they doubtless despise) and squawksquawkflapflapflapsquawk! None of it had anything to do with Carson or his desk – but everything about who was close to Carson and the desk of power.

    I despite the Washington “inside the beltway crowd” but they are the people who run the world. Think about that: the same people who have meetings about Ben Carson’s desk – they are the empire.

  3. says

    John Morales@#1:
    You’re a better than passable raconteur, at least in writing. Nice.

    Thank you.

    I have one more story I think I’ll drop, and then I’ll stop with the “personal stories” – I always worry that it’s a bit self-indulgent. I’m comfortable with technical analysis using first person but, for what it’s worth, a lot of this is experimental writing for me.

  4. says

    I have one more story I think I’ll drop, and then I’ll stop with the “personal stories” – I always worry that it’s a bit self-indulgent.

    So far, I have been enjoying your “White House Tales” series. It’s fun to read. Well, to put it more precisely, it’s fun as long as I don’t start thinking about the pesky fact that these people are the ones who control a country that has stockpiled nuclear weapons.

    Regarding personal stories, I’m always unsure about whether it’s OK for me to share those. The way I see it, every human believes that their personal stories are interesting and fun for the readers/listeners. Each person cares about their personal experiences, they have lived through these stories, and thus the story seems interesting for the person who is telling it. But for the readers/listeners? Well, the thing is that I have heard plenty of personal stories that seemed outright boring for me (even though I’m aware that the person who was telling that story perceived it as interesting).

    Each time I have to make a decision about whether to tell some personal story or no, I don’t worry about self-indulgence. Instead I worry about whether I will bore my listeners/readers. My own opinion about my stories is biased, thus I’m bad at judging whether some story will be interesting also for others. I once read a book in which there was a character, an elderly woman who always talked about her grandchildren and always showed their photos to every person she met. Of course, every person who was forced to look at these children’s photos and listen to stories from their daily lives was annoyed and bored. Personally, I really don’t want to behave like this fictional character, I don’t want to annoy or bore other people. Hence I frequently wonder about whether I should tell some personal story or no.

    Anyway, your White House experiences seem fun for me as a reader. Therefore, if you have more interesting stories, I see no reason why you should abstain from sharing them.

  5. says

    Just throwing an agreement in with the pro-stories crowd.

    Consider, Marcus, the self-selection at work here: by definition, those of us who regularly read stderr are those who on balance agree with you about what sort of thing is interesting to read and talk about. Therefore, stories of yours chosen because you think they are interesting are strongly likely to be interesting to us too.

    (Also we’re not hooting dickholes so we will just click past anything that is not.)

  6. komarov says

    The news was that there were too many White House employees so one day I went down and half of the people were now wearing NASA, Department of Agriculture, and other agency badges instead of White House badges.

    Honestly, I could see myself embracing nepotism, cronyism and posseism, only stopping short of literal boot-licking, if it meant getting an interesting job with NASA. Yet somehow I don’t think this would have qualified.

    Some of the questions were stupid – such as whether or not I had ever advocated the overthrow of the government.

    Was there maybe a checkbox indicating that it was another government and done at the behest of the US?

    I stole the mouse pad off of Al Gore’s desk as a memento

    Clearly a security breach the secret service wasn’t creative enough to appreciate. You could have poisoned the mouse pad (among other things) and, in the time it takes for a few handshakes, assassinated the president and most of the senior staff of the White House.* I don’t suppose there was a question on that questionnaire asking if you were a contract killer?

    *”The firewall expert with the poisoned mouse pad in the VP’s office” is probably a new one for murder mysteries.

    P.S.: So far I’ve been well entertained by all the personal stories here, no matter the source. By all means, please, do go on.

  7. kestrel says

    @Marcus, #3: OK, so like chickens, except not useful and more malevolent. Got it!

    I think this series is really interesting and I’ve been fascinated to read it. It’s OK to have had interesting experiences and tell other people about them! They will not begrudge you this. Not many people have been inside that particular world and yet have the (perhaps) audacity to tell others what it was really like, so your voice is something I think others would like to hear.

    And you STOLE THE MOUSE PAD FROM AL GORE. That is just too cool for words…

  8. says

    (Also we’re not hooting dickholes so we will just click past anything that is not.)

    Yes, I can second that. This is a crucial difference between face-to-face conversations and a written text. If your readers perceive some blog post as boring, they simply won’t read it, and that’s it. There’s no harm done (besides the fact that you have just wasted a bit of your own time writing a text that few people want to read). In face-to-face conversations it gets trickier than this, because another person is put in the situation where they have to figure out some polite way how to say, “Sorry, but can we change the conversation subject, because I’m bored.” (By the way, this is one of the ways how I differentiate between my friends and acquaintances. When speaking with a friend, I can always say, “This is boring, let’s change the conversation topic,” knowing that nobody will get offended.)

  9. ridana says

    Each time I have to make a decision about whether to tell some personal story or no, I don’t worry about self-indulgence. Instead I worry about whether I will bore my listeners/readers.

    My biggest worry is that someone I know will read it and recognize themselves (or me) in it and be upset for one reason or another, depending on the content.

    I also vote for more stories. These have been very interesting. Remembering how long the wingnuts kept passing around the outrage over the theft of computer keys, I just hope there’s a statue of limitations on White House tchotchke theft…

  10. says

    kestrel@#9:
    And you STOLE THE MOUSE PAD FROM AL GORE.

    Yeah, I had trouble believing I had done that for a while – I was acting on some kind of instinct. I was really beginning to hate the place and everyone involved in it, and it was a small way of giving the system the finger, or something. It also seemed like some kind of statement about the security in the place. (And now you know why everyone is so terrified by Novichok)

    I’ve only stolen two things in my life, and they were both impulsive and weird moments – sort of a trance-like state of “I am taking this, now.” And then when I got home there was this moment of “What? Why do I have this?” Perhaps I disassociated, I don’t know.

  11. says

    @Everyone – OK, thank you. I’ll tell two more of these stories; I think that abbeycadabra’s point is very good: if you’re already here you’re probably the kind of person who might find this stuff amusing.

    One of the fun things about blogging has been exploring different voices and styles as I write. It’s an interesting challenge and it feels a lot like role-playing, sort of.

  12. says

    ridana@#12:
    Remembering how long the wingnuts kept passing around the outrage over the theft of computer keys, I just hope there’s a statue of limitations on White House tchotchke theft…

    Since we are in a post-truth world I’d simply deny it. And I’d deny ever making a blog posting about it. You think you read a blog posting about it? Fake news. Oh, you say it’s still there on my blog? But what about her emails!

  13. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#5:
    Well, to put it more precisely, it’s fun as long as I don’t start thinking about the pesky fact that these people are the ones who control a country that has stockpiled nuclear weapons.

    It’s a really creepy place in a lot of ways.

    On one of my explorations I found the underground tunnel between the Old Executive Office Building (where I was) and the West Wing of the White House. There was another security search-down and badge check. I just looked busy, waved, and kept moving.

    Regarding personal stories, I’m always unsure about whether it’s OK for me to share those. The way I see it, every human believes that their personal stories are interesting and fun for the readers/listeners. Each person cares about their personal experiences, they have lived through these stories, and thus the story seems interesting for the person who is telling it. But for the readers/listeners? Well, the thing is that I have heard plenty of personal stories that seemed outright boring for me (even though I’m aware that the person who was telling that story perceived it as interesting).

    Exactly! We’ve all experienced the self-important jerk who does nothing but tell tall tales about how cool they are. I don’t want to be that guy. So there’s a balance between “is the story interesting?” and “am I going to look like I think I am cooler than I do or than I am?” There’s plenty of personal stuff I could tell but I try to think where there’s general interest – what are funny/unusual experiences that probably are unique and that I can describe in a quirky way.

  14. jazzlet says

    I too am enjoying the sories, although also despairing about what they say about the Ameican political class, and probably that of many other countries too.

  15. kestrel says

    @jazzlet, #18: RIGHT?! Or just basic human nature. One thing I learned is that no, it is not just “these people around here” it’s unfortunately the entire human race.

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    I stole the mouse pad off of Al Gore’s desk …

    Have you considered this may have set in train a chain of events leading to the presidency of George Dubious Bush?

    Trump™ may give you a medal, or nominate you for the next NATO ambassador or torturer-in-chief… (Semi-OT: just saw Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 today; wandered around in a stunned daze for a while afterwards. We B scrude!)

    [Pls increment more-stories vote count by 1]

  17. rq says

    More stories! After all, it’s your blog – I think you’re allowed to indulge yourself a bit. ;) Tell stories for long enough, though, and I’ll start clamouring for a book.

  18. Owlmirror says

    One topic that brewed up on the national scene, early in the Clinton administration, was that there was a huge number of people employed by the White House. The actual number was something staggering; everyone had a posse and important people’s posse-members had posses of their own. It was posses all the way down.

    In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, he describes the hierarchical staff surrounding political figures as being like the similar hierarchy of bladder-flappers of Laputa, in Gulliver’s Travels.

    The analogy is, of course, imperfect, since in real life, the hierarchy is a lot less genteel, as you note; each sub-assistant to the secretary to the member of cabinet [or whatever] needing to speak out and show that they are being dynamic and proactive in their job, especially if their in danger of being steamrollered by a different sub-assistant to a different secretary to a different member of cabinet [or whatever].

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