Former White House staffer, author to speak in Strasburg
By Josette Keelor --firstname.lastname@example.org
Melinda Bates met Bill Clinton during her first week at Georgetown University freshman year.
"Hi, I'm Bill Clinton and I'm running for freshman president," she recently remembered him saying.
"He walked away, I knew he was going to be president one day," she said. "If you meet him, you know. And now of course he's become president of the world, and he's busier than he was as president."
As director of the White House Visitor's Office for all eight years of the Clinton administration, Bates made history by becoming the first director ever to last for an entire eight years.
Now, having made her home in Northern Baja, Mexico, and living temporarily in Woodstock, she continues to set more records. Preparing for a book signing and presentation Sunday at Shenandoah Valley Art Works in Strasburg, Bates recently sat for an interview on the patio of her home on the banks of the Shenandoah River to talk about her book, "White House Story: A Democratic Memoir," the first book written about the White House by someone who lived the story.
Currently fixing up an 1897 home off of Ridgeley Road in Woodstock, Bates spends much of her time these days traveling the Celebrity Cruises circuit, rotating among seven speeches she wrote to educate listeners about the White House. On Sunday she plans to speak on "They did what?: Surprising stories of families at the White House" and do a book signing.
She's also selling her CD, "A Walk Through the White House," which she said is the first recorded audio White House tour. That's because she recorded it herself -- from memory, at home in Mexico.
It actually wasn't that difficult, she said. -- "I did something that nobody else does." As a White House employee, she could not keep a journal off anything that went on at the White House, in case she or it were ever subpoenaed. So instead, every six months, she brought home pictures she had taken at events, and she filed them into photo albums.
After eight years on the job, she had 24 albums.
"So those are my reference materials when I want to write my book," she remembered thinking. Describing herself as a very visual person, she said she could look at a picture and just remember who the people in it were, and what the situation of their lives and jobs had been at the time.
White House tours were more common when she was there than they are today, she said, so those who cannot manage a tour can still get the effect from her CD.
When Clinton was in office, she said, "a million and a half people went through the White House in the first year," but, she added, the incoming Bush administration was not happy to hear about that, fearful of admitting so many people on a daily basis.
She remembered the practice under Clinton was "We want this to be the most open and accessible White House in history. And we did that," she said. "I was really proud of that."
"It's very rewarding to make history," she said. "That's kind of your goal at the White House, making history."
Asked about her favorite experience there, Bates recited a date -- July 4, 1995, when she was coordinating the admission of 14,000 people to listen to the president speak on the White House lawn before fireworks were to begin at dusk. The president was running late, Bates said, and she called up to the residence to remind him that the event would start at 9:10 p.m., whether or not he was there, and he was distracted but assured that he had not forgotten.
A few minutes later, the elevator from the residence opened downstairs, and the president exited and pulled Bates aside to look at a long strip of paper.
She remembered thinking, "I don't know what it is, I don't care what it is." It was the first photographs from the Mars lander, she said, and after showing her, the president walked outside to the waiting crowd and showed the photos to them.
"I think I'm the first person he showed them to," Bates said, and knowing that -- that those photos were sent from Mars to NASA to the White House science advisor to the president -- and that Bates likely was the next to see them, was amazing.
The next day the photos were printed in newspapers around the country, she said, "But I had seen them first in the hands of the President of the United States." She still has goosebumps, she said. "Stuff like that happens in the White House every single day."
Some stories she relates in her book are when she had breakfast with Tom Hanks and lunch with Michael Douglas. When Douglas was working on the film "The American President," -- "By the way, that movie is so accurate," Bates interrupted herself to say -- he ate at the White House "mess," named for the Navy, she said, because "Everyone knows the Navy has the best food."
Bates was tasked with lunching with him, and she promptly called up to the maitre d to request the most conspicuous table the mess could provide, so everyone who entered the room would see she was having lunch with the actor.
Another time, she took Robin Williams to lunch in the mess, and they were walking along the ground floor when they ran into Dan Aykroyd, who was there visiting someone else.
During her time at in the Visitor's Office, the writers of "The West Wing" called every week, Bates said, for details to use in the show.
"They came to the White House. I took them to lunch," she said, and "They wrote me into an episode, I was so excited."
She was watching when the episode aired and character C.J. Cregg demanded that someone send for the director of the Visitor's Office. Bates said she had no idea she would be featured in the episode -- and, as she found out, she wasn't.
Instead the director represented in the Christmas episode was a snooty, older British man. Bates was so furious, she wrote a poem in the style of "Twas the Night Before Christmas."
"Just be glad you were too far away for a fight," she read from the poem. "When I went into the office the next day, I faxed it to them."
Show creator Aaron Sorkin called her and apologized.
Much of what was depicted in "The West Wing," however, was true to life, Bates said, "Except for the locations." Scenes showing characters conducting conversations while hustling from one room to the next and around plexiglass walls and cubical partitions were embellished for television, she said.
"We used to refer to it as the Hill Street Blues White House," she said. The real White House work environment isn't like that. "It's calm, it's dignified."
Bates credits her previous job as exhibition supervisor at the National Gallery of Art as preparing her for working at the White House.
"I really had a wonderful time at the gallery," she said, "and I loved it. I loved my work."
It's important that people who work such long hours believe in what they do, she said. Her passion helped her last for eight years at the White House, when others in the job last only about 18 months. -- "The sense that what we were doing made a difference to people," she said.
Remembering the first and only full staff meeting she attended shortly after beginning at the White House, Bates said the president, first lady, vice president and second lady all repeated the same concept in their speeches to staff:
"The American people have taken a chance on us," Bates remembered them saying. "It will not be easy. These are big things. It's hard to do big things." But that's what it would take to accomplish what they wanted to, Bates said. "We're here to make the world a better place, and it's going to be hard," she said.
"Outside of church it was the most inspirational meeting," Bates said.
She remembered talking with people after they left their jobs at the White House, who would describe how much they slept.
"It's just exhausting," Bates said.
During her first year the staff spent six months working 15-hour days to modernize the system they used. Bates said they didn't realize at first how much the changes would affect how she worked with Congress and that she did a terrible job selling the idea to them. The experience changed the way she related to people.
"That was a hard lesson," she said.
The book took much longer to write than she though it would, Bates said.
"It actually took me two years to figure out how to write it." That's when she realized that she'd left herself out of the story. After years of promoting the White House and herself remaining in the background, she again had to change her way of thinking.
The book is print on demand through Create Space, and it's available on Amazon.com and at WhiteHouseBook.com.
"I'm really proud of it," she said. She finished it in 2008 and sent a copy to Clinton's office in New York, "and he sent me a wonderful thank you note," she said.
"He's become my biggest fan and supporter."
Melinda Bates will speak and do a book signing of her book "White House Story: A Democratic Memoir" Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at Shenandoah Valley Art Works, at 234 W. King St. in Strasburg.