By Frank Ahrens
They keep mum.
With only a couple of notable exceptions over the years, each president's personal secretary has declined the spotlight with a zealous selflessness. Personal secretaries tend to be career government employees who take great pride in staying efficiently, professionally behind the scenes. Once they leave the office outside the Oval Office, they blend just as smoothly into workaday society.
Betty Currie, President Clinton's personal secretary, is cut from the same cloth as most of her predecessors -- calm, solicitous, hyper-competent. And private.
"I don't think I've ever seen her frazzled," says James Carville, one of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign strategists. He worked with Currie when she was the office manager of the "War Room," the campaign's frenzied headquarters in Little Rock, Ark. "Everybody knew she was legendary for her decency and calmness."
Yet the recent media images of Currie have been anything but calm. As she's mugged by camera crews on the front lawn of her Arlington home and bounced about like a pinball by screeching rings of reporters in front of the federal courthouse, the expression on Currie's face has been a mask of torment and alarm.
In response, she's clammed up, declining to speak to the media. The silence obviously is prompted by independent counsel Kenneth Starr's ongoing investigation.
But her response is consistent with the nature of the job and the personalities of the women who have filled it. Loyalty to the president and the presidency always means discretion and usually means silence.
Over the past six administrations, perhaps three or four dozen people have occupied the offices directly outside the Oval Office -- near the president's personal secretary is usually a scheduler, who keeps track of the president's appointments; a personal aide, who keeps the president moving from one function to the next; and sometimes an intern. Few of these former Oval Office staffers are willing to speak on the record.
H.R. Haldeman "used to quote somebody, saying that a White House staff member ought to have a passion for anonymity," says Steve Bull, who was the personal aide to Richard Nixon. "I can characterize it by saying that, when [Nixon and I] were alone in the Oval Office, as far as he was concerned, he was by himself. That's the way it's supposed to be -- he should be without fear that I'm going to go out and tell somebody what I've heard."
It's probably easier to talk about your former boss if he's dead or not under investigation. Evelyn Lincoln, John F. Kennedy's personal secretary, wrote two books about her years with JFK and gave lectures after his death. Helene von Damm, who was personal secretary to Ronald Reagan during his first term and later ambassador to Austria, wrote a 1989 book called "At Reagan's Side."
Despite its lack of shocking insider stories, the book was received coolly by some Oval Office staffers from other administrations, at least one of whom had turned down offers to write her own tell-all.
"Many years ago, a guy who was the head usher of the White House wrote a book," Bull says. "I thought he was violating confidences."
If former aides and personal secretaries won't tell what they've heard, some can be persuaded to describe how the Oval Office looked and ran during their time there. The geography and tone of each is determined by the personality and priorities of the occupant. But one thing is true in each administration: The personal secretary's office is a bustling crossroads of power, as it is the portal to the presidency.
During the Nixon years, personal secretary Rose Mary Woods sat in the same office where Currie sits. Chief of Staff Haldeman established formal protocols for entrance to the Oval Office, some of which remain in place today. Visitors and most top-ranking aides, such as Henry Kissinger and John Ehrlichman, entered from the secretary's side; Haldeman himself would sometimes cut around to the other side and enter the Oval Office through what is now Clinton's private dining room.
Nixon didn't like lots of meetings; he preferred making decisions from papers prepared by aides and key staff members. His Oval Office staff was formal. Gerald Ford was more collegial, frequently joking with aides and making decisions based on meetings with his advisers. Ford's secretary sat in what is now Clinton's study, on the opposite side of the Oval Office from Currie.
One aide in the Ford administration lit fires in the Oval Office fireplace -- and once smoked the president out by forgetting to open the flue. The same aide once found himself, along with Ford and a broom-waving Secret Service agent, trying to shoo out a bird that had flown into the Oval Office through the Rose Garden doors.
Ronald Reagan also liked to talk to a lot of people, as evidenced by the freeway that ran through the personal secretary's office: More than 400 members of Congress dropped by in the first two months of his first term.
As Clinton's personal secretary, Currie directs her fair share of traffic, but also has performed wide-ranging duties: deciding which of the many gifts sent to Clinton actually gets through to the president (he particularly likes old books); leading White House tours for overnight guests in the Lincoln Bedroom; doing computer background searches on scheduled Oval Office visitors; and sorting through some of the presidential mail that arrives at the White House, including letters bearing Clinton's personal Zip code.
Some things are true of most administrations: If a family member is visiting the White House, the president may ask his personal secretary to bypass the typical visitation procedures that involve waiting rooms and escorts and Secret Service agents every step of the way from the White House gates to the Oval Office. The personal secretary usually maintains the "walk-in" list -- the select few White House officials (such as the chief of staff and the national security adviser) who can see the president without an appointment. And the personal secretary records the time each visitor enters the Oval Office past her desk. (It is possible to enter the Oval Office through three other doors, bypassing the personal secretary.)
In some administrations, the personal secretary -- like Currie -- is the chief gatekeeper to the president. But in others, such as George Bush's, it was the deputy assistant, a position that carried more management than clerical duties.
Whatever the title, the job requires a delicate balance of courtesy and firmness, which Currie possesses, say those who have tramped past her desk on the way to or from the president.
"She has a very reassuring personality; she's very quick to talk and visit," says one former Clinton administration official. "But, in a very polite way, [she] keeps traffic clear in front of the president's office, where you can imagine the bottleneck as people try to see him, or run into him or get him for 30 seconds."
Currie, 58, balances the White House's security and protocol regimens with the desires of old Clinton friends who hope to maintain intimate access to the president, the former official says.
Currie was tossed into the spotlight in late January, when it was revealed that she had admitted Monica Lewinsky to the Oval Office a number of times and was the recipient of packages that Lewinsky sent to the president. Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan also said that Currie asked him to help Lewinsky find a new job after she left the Pentagon.
Currie's $60,000-a-year job begins at 7:45 a.m. and ends around 8 p.m. She works a half-day on the Saturdays when the president delivers his radio address. Sundays are spent with her husband, Robert, and begin with services at Community United Methodist Church in Arlington. She gets a thrill out of meeting and working with the powerful, but prefers to stay in the background, according to a 1996 Chicago Tribune profile. (Her biggest thrill, she said, was meeting Nelson Mandela.)
For many, the intense media scrutiny has made Currie a sympathetic figure in the ongoing investigation of Lewinsky's allegations concerning the president. But it could be worse, says one presidential historian.
"Ms. Currie has gone through, so far, nothing compared to what Rose Mary Woods went through in the way of press and media coverage," says historian Stephen Ambrose of Nixon's secretary, who took the blame for erasing the infamous 18 1/2 minutes of a White House tape.
The word "secretary" derives from a Latin term meaning "one trusted with secret matters." For most presidential secretaries, though, staying loyal to the president means keeping quiet about relatively mundane things. Loyalty, for instance, means that a secretary would never repeat a president's off-the-cuff remark about someone who'd just left his office.
Now, Currie -- described as "everyone's favorite aunt" -- finds her loyalty being pulled in two directions: toward her boss and toward the legal authority of the independent counsel, whose investigation may undo her boss.
Last summer, she testified as part of the Senate inquiry into Democratic fund-raising. Investigator Paul Robinson found that many presidential suitors try to use Currie to get close to her boss. At one point, they discussed one request for a meeting with the president:
Robinson: "Do you have any idea why [Arkansas lawyer Mark] Grobmyer would choose to go through you here?"
Currie: "He may have thought as the president's secretary that I could make sure he gets it."
Robinson: "Okay. I would imagine that in your position, a lot of people try to . . . "
Currie (anticipating his question): "A lot, a lot."
Robinson: " . . . become friendly with you."
In January she faced investigators from Starr's office, and, according press reports, told them Clinton was sometimes alone with Lewinsky, a potentially damaging blow to the president. Loyalty vs. legality.
Currie is still at her desk outside the Oval Office and presumably will continue to keep the daily confidences of her job. Unless she's told to turn them over again to a prosecutor or congressional committee.
For years, she has been the calm voice in the storm, the "trainmaster in a hectic train yard," Carville says. Now, she must feel as if she's been run over, others say.
One thing is certain: She has the quiet sympathy of those who've held the job before her.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company