Melanie pushed the tissue paper aside and gazed adoringly at the Dior bag she had splurged on for her 37th birthday. It was a ridiculous extravagance. The second most expensive bag in her closet was a Marc Jacobs she’d purchased on sale years before. The elegance of the $2,000 Dior purse would be lost on most of Melanie’s colleagues, but its perfection brought her a surprising amount of happiness.
As Melanie pulled the purse out of its protective cloth and removed the paper stuffed inside, she suddenly felt worried that all of her electronics wouldn’t fit into it properly. She looked at the three BlackBerrys—one for the classified email system, one for the normal White House email system, and one for her personal Yahoo account. She considered leaving one of them behind but thought better of it. Gently, she stacked the BlackBerrys, two phones, her ID for the West Wing, an ID and key for the underground command center she’d be evacuated to in case of a terrorist attack, her passes to the Pentagon and the State Department, an ID for the Camp David guard station, a West Wing parking pass, and her wallet and keys inside and closed it.
She stopped in front of the hallway mirror to attach her hard pin to the lapel of her black Armani pantsuit. The small, round pin bearing the presidential seal signaled to the United States Secret Service that she was to be granted full access to the president. Only a dozen White House staffers were given hard pins. She glanced at her reflection and nodded approvingly. Five years on a strict no-carbohydrate diet had banished her full cheeks, and the miracle of chemical straightening had finally tamed her red curls. Melanie’s hair hung in a stylish strawberry-blond bob. She scrunched her nose and leaned in to examine the creases and dark circles that rimmed her eyes. “Those look like the eyes of an old woman,” she said to herself before turning out the lights in her Georgetown condo and walking out.
“Morning guys,” she said to her agents as she hopped into the SUV that would take her less than two miles to the White House. She’d resisted full-time Secret Service protection at first, but on mornings like this, she was glad she’d relented. Snow had been falling since late the night before, and at 5:30 a.m., they would make fresh tracks.
“Happy birthday, Ms. Kingston,” Sherry said. Sherry was one of her regular agents. She turned around, smiled at Melanie, and handed her an envelope. “Open it—it’s from both of us,” she said, gesturing at Walter, Melanie’s other agent.
“Thanks, Sherry, but my birthday is a classified national security event. I didn’t even remind Char—er, President Kramer that it was today.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Walter said, glancing at Melanie in the rearview mirror as he navigated M Street in the snow. “And it’s not like she has the CIA or the FBI to turn to if she wants to find out for herself when her chief of staff’s birthday is, so you should be fine, Melanie.” He smirked. “Your secret is safe with us.”
“Shut up, Walter. Just keep your eyes on the road,” Melanie said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Walter said, still smiling.
A minute later, he pulled the car as close as possible to the entrance of the West Wing and jumped out to open the door for her.
Melanie stepped out of the SUV, holding her Dior bag protectively under her suit jacket so the fresh snow wouldn’t touch the leather. She wished she’d worn a coat, but she’d stopped dressing for the seasons years ago. It could be 97 degrees outside, or -7, and the climate was always a cool 66 degrees inside the West Wing, where she’d be for the next 16 hours.
Melanie climbed the single flight of stairs to her office and walked inside. Her assistant, Annie McKay, was already there.
“Happy birthday,” she whispered, even though no one else would have heard her if she’d yelled at the top of her lungs. Melanie always arrived before anyone else on the senior staff.
“Thanks, Annie,” Melanie said.
“Let me see it,” Annie said.
“What?” Melanie replied innocently, opening her suit jacket.
“Oh, my God, it is amazing—totally worth the splurge. It has elegant and expensive and woman of substance written all over it,” Annie exclaimed, standing to get a better look at the bag. Melanie smiled. She settled in at her desk, casting an admiring glance at the fire that had already been lit in the fireplace. Cozy, Melanie thought. Maybe today won’t be so bad.
She looked around her spacious office on the main floor of the West Wing and wondered if it was her elevation to this most lonely job on the White House staff or growing fatigue from so many years in the political trenches that had made her reflective to the point of distraction.
Every room in the White House brought back a memory of a time when she had felt fortunate to be there. These days, she usually found herself standing in these rooms, asking—sometimes begging—the walls to talk to her. Sometimes the history that she and Charlotte were making struck her as embarrassingly overdue—many other countries had been ruled by women. And at other times, it was exhilarating to think that a new generation of women would grow up knowing that the glass ceiling had been shattered once and for all. But the vast majority of the time, Melanie’s life was exhausting, her assignments unseemly, and the rewards nonexistent.
She read the intelligence reports from the overnight, a memo from the national security adviser about troop reductions that would go to the president that morning, and the jobs report number that would be kept secret until 8:30 a.m. She finished the front sections of The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Washington’s first official tabloid, the Washington Journal.
When she noticed that the sun had come up and brightened her office with an orange glow, she glanced up at one of her five televisions. She unmuted one of the stations just as it was teasing its lead story: “Coming up at 7 a.m.: Is President Kramer AWOL on the economy? We’ll have some surprising reactions from our viewers to that very question.”
“The president is on her way to the Oval,” Annie said, appearing in Melanie’s door. “You should probably walk over. She’ll want to see you about the speech, I’m sure.”
“I’ll head over in a couple minutes,” Melanie said.
Melanie had been given a desktop device that told her where the president was at all times. “Wayfarer” was the president’s Secret Service code name, and whenever the president moved anywhere—other than the bathroom—an automated voice would announce her whereabouts: “Wayfarer departing residence. Wayfarer arriving Oval Office. Wayfarer departing Oval Office. Wayfarer arriving Cabinet Room.” The voice had driven Melanie crazy, so she’d moved the box to Annie’s desk, and it fell to Annie to inform her of the president’s movements.
Annie reappeared one minute later. “Sam just called. The president wants to see you,” she said. Samantha Cohen was the president’s assistant.
“Tell her I’m coming,” Melanie said. She stood up and walked the 25 feet to the Oval Office, stopping briefly at Sam’s desk.
“Morning, Samantha. Is anyone else in there?” Melanie asked, even though she knew no one would be.
“Nope, she’s waiting for you,” Sam said.
Melanie walked into the Oval Office and stood a few feet away from the president’s desk.
“Good morning, Madam President,” Melanie said.
“Good morning, Melanie,” the president said.
“How are we doing today?” Melanie asked.
“Crappy. Did you see the jobs number?” the president asked.
“Yes. One hundred thousand is better than they predicted. The markets might hold up,” Melanie said.“I don’t think so. We’re going to get killed today. The story writes itself: ‘President Proves She Is Tone-Deaf on Economy.’ I don’t know why I’m giving this speech in Detroit. Why couldn’t we go to Silicon Valley or New York or somewhere with an economy that isn’t in the toilet?” the president asked as she took her black Sharpie to the speech text and started slashing huge sections—a tactic she employed to show her displeasure and make staffers nervous.
Melanie’s head started to throb. “Sam, get the boys from speechwriting down here,” Charlotte ordered. “This speech was either written by an idiot or someone got drunk last night and wrote it as a joke. The press will kill me if I say the economy has turned a corner. Tell that to the unemployed mother of four. Who writes this garbage, Melanie?”
Melanie sighed. She had told Ralph Giacamo, the White House political director and Melanie’s nemesis, that the president wouldn’t like the spin. He’d launched into a tirade about how he was in charge of getting her reelected and needed to have his voice heard on message matters. Melanie didn’t have the energy to fight with him, so his language remained in the draft that went to the president.
“Earth to Melanie? Did you even look at this?” the president snapped, tapping her perfect bone-colored high heel—a Manolo Blahnik, for sure—on the floor under her desk. The president always dressed in the same color from head to toe. Today she was in a crème skirt and matching belted jacket. She wore a silk camisole underneath and a single strand of tiny pearls. Her thick blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she didn’t have any makeup on yet. Her hair and makeup team came in at 7:45. From a distance, she could easily pass for someone 15 years younger than her 47 years.
“Of course I did, Madam President, and I’m sorry it isn’t to your liking, Madam President. We’ll write you a new speech, my lady,” Melanie said, bowing her head down toward the president in an exaggerated act of deference. She stayed in that position until the president spoke.
“Oh, shut up, and stop with the bowing,” the president said, stifling a smile. She rose from her desk and walked over to one of the sofas. A fire burned in her fireplace. “This fire is a little much, don’t you think?” she said.
“It’s a little more robust than the one they lit in my fireplace,” Melanie said.
“Looks like a goddamn bonfire,” the president said, gesturing toward the sofa across from her for Melanie to sit. Melanie laughed and sat down, relieved that Charlotte’s dark mood had passed. The president needed to be “on” for the trip to Detroit. Half a dozen small-business owners and a handful of members of Congress were flying on Air Force One with her for the speech, and if Charlotte were brooding the whole time, the trip would be a waste.
“Sam—will you please bring Melanie’s present in here?” Charlotte yelled. “And two cups of coffee with cream.” She turned to Melanie and broke into a full smile for the first time that morning. “Happy birthday, smart-ass,” Charlotte said.
“Oh, God, no presents, please. I’m trying to go to a happy place in my mind—a place where I’m not 37 years old, single, childless, and working steps away from the office where I sat when I was 23 years old,” Melanie said, sinking into the couch and looking up at the ceiling.
“Oh, your life is so awful. You’re just the White House chief of staff, that’s all. What an underachiever you are. Open your present,” Charlotte said, smirking and pushing the gift toward Melanie. She let the speech scatter on the carpet beneath them.
Melanie picked up the carefully wrapped box. As she slowly untied the bow and removed the tape from the wrapping paper, Charlotte grew impatient.
“Hurry up, the speechwriters will be here soon,” the president said, grabbing the box from Melanie and removing the wrapping paper herself.
Melanie stared at the black Bulgari box and said softly, “Charlotte, what did you do?”
“You’ve been so depressed lately, I thought you needed to be cheered up,” Charlotte said. “Open it, already. This Hallmark moment has gone on too long.”
Melanie stood up to give her a hug.
“Open it first,” Charlotte squawked, pushing Melanie aside. “I have to go to Detroit in this damned blizzard to console the inconsolable about the crappy economy in a few minutes.”
Inside was a thin white-gold chain dotted with diamonds—the most tasteful and beautiful thing Melanie had ever seen and, by a factor of one million, the most elegant piece of jewelry she owned.
“Thank you so much. I love it,” Melanie said, sliding it over her head and admiring the way the long chain sparked against her black silk blouse.
She knew she was lucky to work for Charlotte, and it almost hadn’t happened. She had been planning to move back to Colorado with Charlotte’s predecessor, President Martin, to head up his presidential library. But then she’d agreed to meet with Charlotte two weeks after she’d won the election.
When she’d walked into the room for their first meeting, she’d been struck by how small Charlotte was. She was a natural blonde, but her hair looked like straw. It was her one feature that actually looked better on television than in person. The toll of the long, nasty campaign was apparent on Charlotte’s face. Her blue eyes looked gray, and the lines around her mouth that usually disappeared behind her campaign smile were deep. She was so thin that the black slacks and jacket she wore looked as if they belonged to someone else several sizes larger. She wore low heels that almost passed as sensible, but when she crossed her legs, Melanie noticed the red soles that gave away both the price tag and Charlotte’s commitment to fashion.
Melanie hadn’t wanted to like her enough to be tempted to say yes. She really hadn’t wanted to like her at all. There was a cushy job waiting for her in Colorado with “nine to five” and “private jet” written all over it if she agreed to take President Martin up on his offer. There was nothing tying her to D.C. She could have easily flipped her condo to someone in the new administration—even in a down economy, people would be looking for places to live close to the White House. But something had nagged at her. She felt a sense of obligation at least to go through the motions and meet with the president-elect during the transition.
Melanie had been told that President-elect Kramer had made a special trip to Washington to meet with her.
“Please call me Charlotte,” she’d said. “It took me two years to get used to ‘governor,’ and now all this ‘president-elect,’ and then ‘Madam President,’ who can keep track of it? Call me Charlotte—I insist,” she’d said.
She was smart and funny and self-deprecating. She’d seemed to have been handed a briefing paper so detailed about Melanie’s career that Melanie wondered if the FBI had been involved. After some small talk about the unusually cold temperatures for Washington, Charlotte had told Melanie that she’d seen her on the Today show years earlier and that she had admired and tried to emulate her cheerful toughness in her own television appearances. She’d praised Melanie’s decision to have the president do weekly press conferences in media markets around the country instead of from the White House. She’d said she agreed with the outgoing president’s decision not to campaign on her behalf because of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which she must have known had been Melanie’s advice to the president.
Melanie’s defenses had been down. She was feeling more and more flattered by the minute. And the idea of being the highest-ranking staff person for the first female president in America’s history did capture her imagination. Despite the fact that in the recesses of her mind, she understood that it was all part of an elaborate scheme to entice her, she’d said yes on the spot to serving as chief of staff to the nation’s 45th president.
That was three years ago. Melanie fingered the smooth gold chain around her neck and stared at the reflection that the diamonds made on the wall of the Oval Office.
“If you’re still in there, Melanie, you’re welcome,” the president said, waving her hand in front of Melanie’s face. “I’ll see you tonight. We need to talk about the campaign. I’m sorry I’m missing your party, but at least I’m taking Ralph off your hands.”
“Party? What party?” Melanie groaned. “I told them you’d hate it, but as usual, nobody listened to me. Act surprised. Sam and Annie have been working on it for weeks.” The president turned back to her desk. “Sam, please tell the speechwriters to get on the helicopter. We have to write a new speech.”
Melanie turned to leave and smiled sympathetically at the speechwriters who were huddled in front of Samantha’s desk.“Good luck, guys,” Melanie said. “I’ll throw Ralph under the bus later. She’s just being melodramatic. Roll with it.”
Melanie endured the senior staff singing “Happy Birthday” to her at their 7:30 meeting. She took calls from most of the Cabinet members, wishing her a happy birthday and from many of the reporters she’d known from her eight years as press secretary for the previous president. Her parents sent a dozen white roses mixed with white tulips, her favorite flowers. But nothing could have prepared her for her own reaction to the slideshow that the White House staff assembled to pay tribute to her 15 years of service.
Thank God the lights were dimmed and the music blaring. Against a soundtrack of depressing spinster ballads from Natalie Merchant and Tori Amos, the images flooded the room. There she was at 23—in the group photo of all the White House interns—smiling and oblivious to the three chins she’d had in those days. President Phil Harlow was the first president Melanie had worked for. She’d lied about being a student to get the internship, since the White House intern program was only available to college students earning credit for their free labor. When a spot opened up for a junior press aide, she’d confessed about graduating the year before, and they’d given her the job. She spent nearly three years in the same cramped fourth-floor office in the Old Executive Office Building, across the driveway from the West Wing.
The next images were from her days as a campaign aide to President Harlow’s nephew, Christopher Martin. He’d surprised everyone when he announced a run for the presidential nomination during President Harlow’s last year in office. Melanie had signed on as his campaign press secretary. Everyone was shocked when he won the nomination and, eventually, the presidency. President Martin made Melanie his first press secretary, and at 26, she’d been the youngest White House press secretary in history. The pictures of Melanie as President Martin’s press secretary made her cringe. Fortunately, her clothes, hair, and figure improved with age. There were pictures of her sleeping with her mouth wide open on Air Force One, plenty of shots of her fielding questions from the podium in the White House briefing room, and images she recognized as having been Photoshopped to remove all evidence of Matthew, her husband for a brief period during the Martin administration.
Photos of Melanie as Charlotte’s chief of staff made up the last and longest part of the slideshow. She’d been around the photographers so long that she didn’t notice them anymore, but there she was: speaking to Charlotte as they walked across the South Lawn to board Marine One, being summoned by Charlotte as she stepped off Air Force One, whispering in her ear in meetings with foreign leaders, hiking with her at Camp David with the dogs, and laughing with her in the Oval Office over one of their many inside jokes.
Melanie stood and applauded when the slideshow finally came to an end. “Thank you so much. It has been the privilege of a lifetime to serve this president alongside all of you. Thank you for this great surprise. I don’t know what to say, other than thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”
She stayed and thanked everyone for coming and asked the stewards to bring the leftover cake to the residence. She and Charlotte would eat it for dessert.
Fifteen years, three presidents, and seven executive assistants later, Melanie thought to herself as she walked back to her office. “And all I’ve done is move 40 feet.”
Around 8 p.m., Melanie heard the sound of Marine One as it neared the South Lawn. She loaded her BlackBerrys and phones into her purse and walked down the hall toward the residence where she and Charlotte would have dinner. Charlotte had been bugging her for an answer about running her reelection campaign for weeks.
As the chopper came closer, her mind flashed back to her first ride on Marine One. It fell on her 26th birthday, and she had been nervous and excited about joining the elite group of top staffers who rode on the presidential helicopter instead of driving the short distance to Andrews Air Force Base. They’d been traveling to Detroit that day to talk about the economy, and President Martin’s poll numbers were almost as battered as Charlotte’s. More than a decade later, Melanie still remembered how her stomach had churned and the sweat from her underarms had soaked her blouse that day. She had heard the sound of the helicopter as it neared the South Lawn, and she’d raced down the hall to the Oval Office. President Martin had looked at her, clearly enjoying her anticipation.
“You ready?” he’d asked.
“I’m ready,” she’d said with a grin.
He’d flung his arm around her and walked out to the South Lawn, where the helicopter was parked. He’d waved to the cameras and the crowds and mouthed “Thank you” to the friends and staffers who had gathered to see him off. Melanie had walked on her toes to keep her heels from getting stuck in the muddy grass, but it wasn’t enough. She lost one of her Stuart Weitzman pumps in the mud and was too afraid to stop and pick it up with the cameras rolling. She’d boarded Marine One and taken a seat across from the president.
“You sit here—you won’t bump into me the way these thugs would,” President Martin had ordered, referring to the male staffers who would bump into his knees if they sat in the seat across from him.
“Yes, sir,” Melanie had agreed as she sat across from the president and peered out the window of the helicopter. Melanie had no idea what to do about her shoe. She hoped that no one would notice. She’d send someone to buy her a new pair in Detroit. Ernie Upshaw, President Martin’s deputy chief of staff, noticed her bare muddy foot first.
“Where is your shoe, Melanie?” he’d asked.
“Uh, it fell off.”
“Where?” the president had asked.
“Somewhere between the Oval Office and the helicopter,” she’d admitted, her cheeks and neck turning hot.
The president had howled with laughter and sent Buckey, his personal aide, out to find her missing shoe. The shoe was wedged so deep in the mud that it took Buckey about five minutes to find it. The helicopter pilots had eventually powered down Marine One, and all three of the cable news networks had carried the shoe hunt live.
Melanie’s BlackBerry had filled with new messages. Her assistant: “They aren’t looking for your shoe, are they?” Her mother: “All the news stations are calling you Cinderella. Why didn’t you wear flats?”
The White House chief of staff: “Way to go—the president will be late, but you will have your shoes.” He is such a jerk, Melanie had thought.
Buckey had finally returned to Marine One with Melanie’s muddy black pump in his hand. The president thought the whole episode was hilarious. As they lifted off from the South Lawn of the White House and flew over the Washington Mall, Melanie had felt as if she’d been transported to a different world. The Tidal Basin glistened in the morning sun, and the Washington Monument jutted out of the ground. The flags that surrounded it flapped in the wind below her window, and the tops of the buildings on the mall looked like doll houses.
“It’s pretty spectacular, isn’t it?” the president had said.
“Amazing,” Melanie had replied, not moving her eyes from the sights below.
“How could that have been 11 years ago?” Melanie thought, not realizing she’d muttered to herself until one of Charlotte’s agents spoke to her.
“Ms. Kingston, is everything all right?”
“I’m sorry; I’m fine. Losing it, perhaps, but fine. Is she upstairs yet?”
“Yes. She said to tell you to come on in.”
Melanie walked past the table that had been set for two with fancy china and flatware and out to the Truman Balcony. Charlotte had installed heaters so they could sit out there year-round. Melanie sat in her usual spot and pulled a blanket over her lap. She took in the view and tried to work herself into a positive frame of mind for Charlotte’s benefit. The Washington Monument was directly in front of her, lit to perfection by carefully placed spotlights and brightened by the full moon reflecting off a blanket of fresh snow. The Lincoln Memorial could be seen off to her right, and if she leaned forward, she could make out the top of the Capitol to her left.
One of the president’s dogs put her two front paws in Melanie’s lap and started kissing her face. She leaned back and let the dog lick her.
Melanie had never planned to spend her entire adult life working for the president. When people gazed at the wall of presidential commissions that hung in her West Wing office, she used to feel proud. Now, they embarrassed her.
With the 35-pound dog now sitting in her lap, Melanie practiced what she would say to Charlotte that night: “Charlotte, I can’t run your reelection campaign, because you can’t run for reelection.”
Nicolle Wallace, author of the upcoming novel Eighteen Acres, served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.