My Brush With Obama's Top Spook
A trip aboard Air Force Two with Dennis Blair, Obama's likely pick to be Director of National Intelligence.
I read in the papers (you remember, those things that the news used to be printed on) that my old friend Dennis Blair is up for the top intelligence job in the Obama administration.
They used to be called “Director of Central Intelligence,” but then it was decided that we need someone more even more central, and if possible, more intelligent, so our top spook is now called “Director of National Intelligence.”
Calling Admiral Blair “my old friend” is probably putting it a bit strongly, inasmuch as I haven’t spoken with him since February 1983. Our friendship, if it could ever have been called that, really just consisted of spending nine days on Air Force Two together.
God, I miss the Cold War. It was so much more fun than this one.
He was, at the time, a bright and quite dashing Navy commander, seconded (a British term—being affected, I tend use a lot of them) to the National Security Council at the White House. My own august title was Chief Speechwriter to the Vice President of the United States. (Whenever I put it that way, I sound like Austin Powers, “One million dollars!”) I was speechwriter to George Herbert Walker Bush, as fine a man as I have ever known (next to my late dad).
Remember the Cold War? God, I miss the Cold War. It was so much more fun than this one. Anyway, it was on, back in 1983, and running kind of hot for a cold war. As we now know, the Russians absolutely believed that Ronald Reagan would launch nukes if necessary; just as we now know that Ronald Reagan would never have used “the nuclear option,” even in retaliation. But these facts were unknown knowns back then, as Mr. Rumsfeld might put it.
In February 1983, Vice President was dispatched on a hand-holding mission to our allies in Europe. In brief: NATO countries had petitioned the U.S. to deploy intermediate-range Pershing nuclear missiles and air-launched cruise missiles (“Al-Cums” in the grim parlance of Armageddon), to protect them against similar weapons already deployed by the Evil Empire (the Rooskies, who are still evil; they just dress better these days).
Then, a year after asking us to deploy INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces), the Europeans, being total weenies, were backing down, under pressure from the Soviets. Mr. Bush was dispatched to make nice—which he was brilliant at—while simultaneously stiffening Euro-spines so that the deployments would go forward and maintain the balance of deterrence.
The Vice President hit eight countries in nine days; or nine countries in eight days. I can’t remember, my noggin is still spinning. It was grueling, but it worked—NATO went through with the deployments and six years later the Berlin Wall came down.
But to my little story: this was a vice presidential mission, but as it was one of actual importance (unlike—let’s face it—most vice presidential missions), the White House sent along Commander Blair, to keep an eye on things and—we figured in West Wing paranoid fashion—to report on us. It was all very collegial and we were all on Team America and all that but we on the Vishnu’s staff (we used to call Mr. Bush “The Vishnu” for reasons I won’t bother going into) felt a little, um, supervised by the presence of an NSC nanny. Moreover, I was informed that I would have to “clear” my speech drafts with him. Harumph!
The VP’s chief of staff was himself a naval personage, a former four-star admiral, Daniel J. Murphy. “Murf,” a term I never—ever—used to his face, was a genial, Brooklyn-Irish guy, and an 800 pound gorilla when it came to bureaucratic infighting. He could disembowel a man at 100 yards. Admiral Murphy was of course friendly toward Commander Blair, but he too felt a little, um, supervised. At any rate, there was a certain sense of us-versus-them aboard Air Force Two as we winged from Brussels to Berlin to Rome to Paris to Geneva to London making the world safe for more nuclear weapons.
Commander Blair handed me back the draft of speech number one (there would be about a half-dozen, plus arrival statements, departure statements, toasts, pledges of undying unity, etc,). His manner was, I thought, in my youthful chesty way, slightly aloof. He sort of tossed it at me and said, “It’s okay, but it needs be to peaced up a bit.”
“Pieced up?” I said.
“Peace. Put in more about peace.”
I went back to my typewriter (mechanical things we used to write on) muttering. We writers are, you’ll be surprised to hear, hot-house flowers and generally impossible; but I felt that my draft was a work of oratorical magnificence of Ciceronian quality; as Oscar Wilde said to an editor who had made a few suggestions, “Who am I to tamper with a masterpiece?”
I groused to Admiral Murphy, who sympathetically nodded. He was a lion to his cubs, but there wasn’t a whole lot he could do. He shrugged, Navy-admiral body lingo for “Whatever.”
Then, two days later, the Good Lord, having heard my whingeing, took pity and delivered Commander Blair unto me. It happened in this way.
He had given me back the draft of speech number two. I went through it, page by page, and then found it had two extra pages. He had accidentally paper-clipped something to the bottom of my draft. What was this? I read. My eyes widened. My jaw dropped. This was no boring, bureaucratic jibber-jabber. Au contraire—it was a TOP SECRET/CODEWORD document of sizzling import. My little hands practically melted, just holding it.
Discretion advises that I probably ought not to reveal, even now, a quarter century later, what it was, as I have little desire to spend the rest of my life at Guantanamo, being coached by my fellow inmates on the Koran. Suffice to say it was—well, it was all about nuclear launch procedures. Take my word for it—not boring. It was the kind of document you’re supposed to eat, or insert in a nether orifice if the enemy is closing in.
So now the question was, what to do with this radioactive windfall? I reviewed my options: a) sell it to the KGB at the next stop and retire to Pitcairn Island in comfort, b) give it back to Commander Blair, with a coy “Um, sir, does this TOP SECRET CODEWORD memo belong to you, by any chance?” or c) leverage! A couple of years at the White House would turn Pollyanna into Machiavelli.
I sought out Admiral Murphy. “Dan,” I said, “I thought you might be interested in this.” He read it. Dan, a former Naval aviator who had commanded the Sixth Fleet during the Yom Kippur War was not the sort to jaw-drop, but his eyes did widen and he did exhale in a whistly sort of way. He looked at me a bit suspiciously and said, “Where did you get this?” I explained, adding with a smile, “I thought it might, you know, come in … handy?” Dan nodded, folded it and tucked it away in his vest pocket. He smiled and winked. I smiled and winked.
After that, things were ever so collegial aboard Air Force Two. Commander Blair’s editorial comments to me consisted of variations on “Sheer genius, Buckley!” and “Another home run!”
For whatever it’s worth, let me conclude by saying that I think Admiral Blair (Ret.) seems to me a spiffing choice for director of whatever we’re now calling it. I couldn’t have won the Cold War without him. He went on to a brilliant naval career, and besides, how could you resist a guy who once water-skied behind his own destroyer?
Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. His journalism, satire, and criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Esquire. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.