POLITICS SEPTEMBER 2, 1991
ON A WARM and sunny spring day Bonnie Newman, then assistant to the president for management and administration of the Bush White House, ate lunch at the Occidental restaurant with two former presidential aides, Jonathan Miller and Christopher Hicks. The restaurant is one block from the White House. As 2 p.m. neared Newman announced that she had to get back to attend a Cabinet meeting. Miller and Hicks offered to walk her back. No need, she said. And Newman hurried to a black car with chauffeur on Pennsylvania Avenue that had brought her to the restaurant and was waiting to take her back.
The Bush White House is no Versailles, but there are plenty of perks for the president and his staff. Access to car and driver, even for an obscure aide whose destination is only a few hundred yards away, is a classic White House perk. It has the three necessary attributes: it's a special privilege, it's a convenience, and it's a status symbol. Like most perks, it sends a signal not only to average working stiffs in Washington but to everyone in the executive branch and Congress. The signal: hey, I'm somebody to be reckoned with.
Michael Boskin, the chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, could make his way to work without a chauffeur. And there aren't many instances when he must be rushed to Bush's side to dispense emergency economic advice. But Boskin wanted a driver. His predecessor, Beryl Sprinkel, had wangled "portal-to-portal" service. This is what Cabinet members, Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and House, and John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, get. It consists of a full-time chauffeur to pick you up in the morning, take you home at night, and drive wherever you wish during the day (even if it's a stamp auction in New York, as in Sununu's case). Sprinkel urged Boskin to insist on portal-to-portal when he took the economic adviser's job. Boskin did, and got it.
Not all White House officials get cars. But they are eligible for better, cheaper vacations than the rest of us. And I'm not talking about the handful of aides who go to Kennebunkport, Maine, with Bush. White House officials have a claim on special resort houses run by the National Park Service. Presidential Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, Sununu deputy Andrew Card, and their families are spending a week this August at Brinkerhoff House, a log lodge in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. It has a large stone fireplace, and its picture window overlooks Jackson Lake and the Teton Range. Total cost for eight people: $152 a day.
ALL THIS MAY smack of an American monarchy or at least an imperial presidency, but it could be worse. In fact, it was worse in the perk-crazy days of the Nixon White House. Patrick Buchanan, who worked for both Nixon and Reagan, knows the difference. "When I was a speechwriter under Nixon in the final days, I had portal-to-portal service," he says. "When I came back in 1985 at a higher level under Reagan, I didn't." He inquired about a White House phone in his home, which he'd had in the Nixon era. No way, presidential aide Christopher Hicks told him. "Times have changed." Nixon and his aides took visitors sailing down the Potomac River on the presidential yacht, Sequoia, to Mount Vernon. Rather than fight the current on the return trip, they'd fly back to the White House by helicopter. Now the yacht is gone. Jimmy Carter had it sold.
Shortly after Bush was elected in 1988, he told Card, "I want Rose Zamaria to be in charge of perks." She worked for Bush when he was a representative in the late 1960s, and had since retired to Florida. Card tracked her down and summoned her to Washington. As deputy assistant to the president for White House operations, she carefully rations the cuff links, tie clips, and other presidential trinkets that aides distribute. Bush gets all he wants, and he hands out the $35 cuff links and tie clips; aides are restricted to the $5 trinkets. The difference is the raised presidential insignia rather than a White House seal that's merely painted on. (The Republican National Committee, by the way, pays for this stuff.) Zamaria "says that if too many are given out, their value is diminished," a White House official notes. She grills aides who want to use the presidential boxes at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "Most people don't even try to go to the Kennedy Center anymore," laments Fitzwater.
Every August Reagan threw a blast for the press who covered him in Santa Barbara. It cost more than $5,000, and the White House had the RNC foot the bill. The frugal Zamaria doesn't like that approach. When the White House throws a hot dog roast for reporters in August at Bush's house in Kennebunkport, she bills the president personally. Last year the tab was about $800. Zamaria doesn't handle planes, so she's not to blame for Sununu's subsidized flights. "The only way to curb Sununu's travel is to make Rose his travel agent," says a White House official.
The austerity of the post-Nixon White House is relative. Perk fever rages, only not as recklessly. Tough as Zamaria is, the White House is a perk-rich environment. How rich? Here's a rundown, starting at the top:
Presidential perks. Bush and the First Lady are treated like sole occupants of a superluxury hotel. And they get road service. When Bush travels, a White House steward goes along to supervise the preparation of his meals — and to make sure he isn't poisoned. If Bush appears at a Republican fund-raiser at the Century Plaza Hotel, his steward puts on a Century Plaza waiter's uniform, checks out his meal, and then serves it to him. There are ninety-six fulltime positions on the White House residence staff. Among them are butlers, maids, doormen, housemen, chefs, carpenters, plumbers, engineers, electricians, painters, and an accountant. There are four florists, four calligraphers, and five people in the curator's office. Sure, many of these folks keep the White House in shape for official functions, state dinners, and tourists. But they also serve the personal needs of the Bushes.
ONE MONDAY LAST January when Barbara Bush was out of town, the president decided to invite buddies such as Treasury Secretary Nick Brady, Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, and bank lobbyist Lud Ashley to a stag dinner. He notified the unsuspecting staff late in the afternoon to prepare dinner for eight. They managed. Bush has a $50,000 entertainment budget to pay for the food for such din-ners; the labor is free. Sometimes on short notice, Bush holds movie parties in the theater in the White House basement, inviting friends, aides, reporters, and military personnel. The White House projectionist gets firstrun films directly from distributors. Bush knows what he wants. "When you've got your own theater and can get any movie you want, you keep up with them," says Rex Scouten, White House curator. But Bush isn't always pleased with his choice. Last year he gathered a group to watch Always, starring Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss. Popcorn and soft drinks were served. Afterward Bush polled his guests, "What'd you think on a scale of one to ten?" Bush gave the movie a three.
Bush doesn't use the bowling alley in the White House or the one in the Old Executive Office Building next door. (Nixon was once photographed bowling in dress slacks, a long-sleeved shirt, and tie.) But he uses the tennis court — Reagan didn't — and his children bring their kids and the kids' friends to swim in the White House pool. For weekends Bush has the presidential retreat at Camp David in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, run by the U.S. Navy. Nixon aides used secret military funds to have it enlarged and renovated. Bush invites his children and grandchildren, administration officials, and foreign leaders such as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The weekend after the war against Iraq began, he and Barbara hosted House Speaker Tom Foley and his wife, Heather.
Titles. The higher your rank in the White House staff, the more perks you get. Everyone wants to be a "commissioned officer," which covers assistants to the president, deputy assistants, and special assistants. The rest — presidential speechwriters, for example — are just White House staffers. The number of commissioned officers grows with each administration. Top assistants try to get commissioned status for their underlings. William Clark, as Reagan's national security adviser, persuaded the president that all ten National Security Council section chiefs should be special assistants. Under Bush, they still are.
Commissioned officers get a leather-bound "commission book," which is wallet-sized proof of White House employment. When they leave it's stamped "cancelled" and given to them. Jack Koehler worked in Reagan's second term for only ten days as communications director, but he pleaded with the White House for his stamped book. He got it. Commissioned officers also get diplomatic passports, access to White House cars, coveted parking spaces on West Executive Avenue alongside the West Wing, and the right to eat breakfast and lunch in the White House mess or, in case of assistants and deputy assistants, in the eight-table Executive Dining Room. "You want to have a mediocre meal where everybody's eavesdropping in a dreary setting, then go to the White House mess," says a former official. But food and ambience aren't everything; it's the honor of the thing. Assistants and deputy assistants also are entitled to use the exercise room (weights, sauna, whirlpool, shower, lockers) in the basement of the Executive Office Building. Lower-ranking officials are relegated to the gym across Pennsylvania Avenue in the New Executive Office Building, and they're required to pay dues for it. One more thing: commissioned officers can use the title "honorable." It looks nice on letters.
TITLES WITHOUT PERKS are eagerly sought too. As Reagan's economic adviser, Martin Feldstein was miffed that he wasn't listed as part of the "official party" to an economic summit. He was a member of Reagan's delegation, but that wasn't enough. He complained to Mike Deaver, then deputy chief of staff. "Who do you want me to get rid of?" Deaver asked. "The president? The vice president? The secretary of treasury? Secretary of state? Chief of staff?" At a 1981 economic summit, then Secretary of State Alexander Haig fumed because he wasn't seated in the president's helicopter. He groused about the disgrace of riding in the third chopper. Aides also jockey to ride close to the president's limousine in motorcades. "Where you sit at the State of the Union address is very important to everybody," says Deaver, "because it's a town of appearances."
Offices and phones. Everyone wants an office in the West Wing as close to the president as possible. The Executive Office Building next door is Siberia. Robert Gates, Bush's deputy national security adviser, is in the West Wing, but just barely. His office is bathroom-sized. It's on the first floor, though, where the president works. During the Reagan administration Buchanan balked at moving to the second floor, instead taking a windowless office a few paces from the Oval Office.
"You don't go to the White House for the view," he says. "I had the office between Ronald Reagan and [Vice President] George Bush. That's where you want to be. Proximity means a lot."
HAVING A WHITE HOUSE telephone at home signifies status. With a "White House drop," you can pick up the phone, get the Signal Corps switchboard, and call anywhere in the world. About two dozen Bushies have them, and roughly one-third of them have a separate "secure" phone, kept in a safe at home, for classified calls. Under Reagan, deputy chief of staff Dennis Thomas was threatened with being the only assistant to the president without a special phone at home, He argued and got one. Jennifer Hirschberg, Mrs. Reagan's press secretary for a spell, insisted she needed one because her 14-year-old daughter used her regular phone all the time. She didn't get one. White House aides fought to get slim, state-of-the-art pagers. The larger, older pagers performed as well, but had less status value.
Cars and planes. Under a 1986 law only six White House aides are entitled to portal-to-portal limo service. The president picks the six, or fewer. Bush chose four: Sununu, Boskin, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and Gates. But budget director Richard Darman and his deputy, a post not filled at the moment, are provided portal-to-portal under another section of the law. The president can further designate ten non-Cabinet agency employees for this perk. The lobbying is intense. Chief of Protocol Lucky Roosevelt went right to Reagan with her bid. She failed. As head of the Agency for International Development, Peter McPher-son plugged for one. When the subject of McPherson's car came up at a dinner party, Jonathon Miller, as perk dispenser under Reagan in 1986 and 1987, almost came to blows with an AID official. McPherson didn't get portal-to-portal. Bush has designated only two non-Cabinet officials for this perk: Chief of Protocol Joseph Reed and AID administrator Ronald Roskens.
Lacking portal-to-portal, officials aren't exactly without wheels. There's a huge motor pool that provides car and driver for trips around town. If you're on the "A" list — for assistants and deputy assistants to the president — you can get a government car to take you to social events like lunches and dinner parties. At lunchtime the black cars with drivers twiddling their thumbs are easy to spot outside some of Washington's fancy restaurants. Thomas Dawson, as a Reagan aide, felt guilty when he and his wife were chauffeured from the West Wing to a party. "I don't do this often," he told the driver. "Some folks do it four or five nights a week," the driver answered.
Use of military planes by senior White House officials was held in check until one day in 1987 when Secretary of State George Shultz couldn't reach either chief of staff Howard Baker or national security adviser Frank Carlucci because they were on commercial flights. Despite his imperial image, chief of staff Donald Regan took only two round-trip flights and two oneways on military planes in twenty-six months. But Shultz got Reagan to sign authorization for the chief of staff and security adviser to use military planes. They did until Sununu abused the privilege by taking seventy-seven flights. Now it's up to White House Counsel Boyden Gray to decide if a military plane is appropriate.
Other perks. For those who can't make it to the Tetons, there's Camp Hoover in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Bodie Island Cottage at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, the beachfront Little Cinnamon House in Virgin Islands National Park, and a few other apparatchik-only resorts. Vice President Walter Mondale and Larry Speakes, Reagan's press secretary, were regulars at Camp Hoover, named after the president who donated it. The prices are exceptionally reasonable. Cinnamon House costs $90 a day for a party of four.
PRESIDENTIAL AIDES CAN take friends to the front of the White House tour line and sneak them in for photographs with the president. Zamaria hasn't discouraged use of the presidential boxes at the Kennedy Center altogether. They're still sought by White House aides. The price is right — zero. Since the demand for White House trinkets is great, they follows. For those who used the tennis court in the Reagan era, there were special Izod shirts with "White House" over the alligator and "Tennis Court" beneath. There are presidential golf balls, golf tees, and glasses. Supply doesn't always match demand. The clamor for highball and lowball glasses with the presidential seal and Reagan's signature was so great that they had to be kept under lock and key. It didn't work. Reagan wanted to take some glasses with him on retiring to California. When aides checked the safe, none was there.
John Rogers, a resourceful Reagan aide now nominated to be undersecretary of state for management, found in an attic pieces of the old cork floor from the Oval Office. Some had cleat marks from Dwight Eisen-hower's golf shoes (his putting green was just outside the Oval Office). Rogers put them in lucite with the inscription: "This fragment of cork was part of the floor installed in the White House Oval Office in 1934. The floor supported six Presidents of the United States before it was removed in 1969." Reagan gave the floor souvenirs, packaged in a blue jewelry case with presidential seal, to visitors, Cabinet members, and aides. Rogers also gathered the canisters from the twenty-one-gun salutes at Reagan's inaugurations in 1981 and 1985 and turned them into mementos.
Air Force One. Small wonder that Bush scheduled takeoff at 2 a.m. for his trip to Paris and London in July. The new Air Force One provides luxurious accommodations for him to stretch out and sleep, or do practi-cally anything else. The $181.5 million Boeing 747 has a conference room, a presidential office, a computer center, an operating room for emergency surgery by the personal doctor who always travels with the president, eighty-five phones, a facsimile machine, and numerous VCRs. The plane has room for seventy passengers and twenty-three crew members. Initial plans called for twice as many passengers. Deaver lobbied against that. He said it would increase the already great pressure by members of Congress, administration officials, and White House aides to gain another perk, a trip with the president on Air Force One.
Those who get a ride have a tangible way of letting folks know. They can swipe the special M&MS with the presidential seal and "Air Force One" on the box, then leave the candy in plain view at home or office. (The plane formerly featured cigarettes with "Air Force One" on the pack.) In 1988 the White House contacted M&M Mars Company and asked it to design a presidential candy box in time for Reagan's trip to the Moscow summit. Nancy took a supply of boxes off the plane and handed them out to Russian schoolchildren.
Press. By covering the White House, reporters get perks — and not just M&MS. They get invited to state dinners, can arrange special VIP tours for friends at the White House, acquire autographed pictures of the pres-ident, attend an annual Christmas party hosted by the President and First Lady, and so on. TNR'S Morton Kondracke watched the Super Bowl with the Reagans in the White House theater. I got one of those souvenir cork fragments from the Oval Office floor.
The best press perk is covering a president's trip home to retirement. On that flight you're allowed to join the staff in looting the plane. On Gerald Ford's final ride on Air Force One on January 20, 1977, Thomas DeFrank of Newsweek says he grabbed only a hand towel with "Air Force One" embossed on it; other reporters seized "the cigarettes, the candy, the candy dish, the glasses, the fruit, the fruit basket." Later he told a steward he was embarrassed at how much his colleagues had confiscated. When he swore he'd taken only a hand towel, the steward said he. deserved a reward. He got a double deck of Gerald Ford playing cards.
ARE PERKS A PROBLEM? Maybe, but hardly a threat to democracy. Herald trumpeters to announce the president's arrival, the playing of "Hail to the Chief," and Marine guards outside the West Wing were restored in 1981. These ceremonial perks didn't go to Reagan's head or Bush's. Most perks don't cost all that much, and some are necessary. "But there are people for whom these things take on enormous importance, too much," says Mitch Daniels, White House political director in Reagan's second term. They want to be a caste apart, and hunger for ways to flaunt their status. Wearing presidential cuff links, the expensive ones the president hands out, is one way to show a "flash of power," says a former White House official. The amazing thing is how much energy is devoted to accumulating trifling symbols of influence that would go unrecognized outside Washington. White House officials beg to be listed as "essential" personnel who must show up for work in a blizzard. The heartbreak of being "non-essential" would be too much. Only in Washington, though.
This article originally ran in the September 2, 1991 issue of the magazine.