Years from now it will hit them. They will wonder. They will weep. The missed vacations. The unread books. The roads not taken. The lost quiet of a thousand Sunday afternoons. The realization that they might as well have been playing golf ...

George Bush's staff keeps doing more while less is happening: rising before dawn, migrating to meetings, spinning spins, planning summits, conference-calling, staying late, eating takeout, carrying beepers home, returning on weekends. Those with families try to explain. Those who date find others of their kind.

If they seem bloodless or bland, take pity. Nervous? Distracted? Of course. The centuries-old legacy of overworking has been passed on to them -- the White House Beavers.

The Lodge

The West Wing is a small place. The ceilings are low. The corridors are narrow. The carpet is a new, watery pale blue. The ground-floor offices smell like soil. It's a cave smell without the bats. This is where Jim Cicconi overworks so loyally, in a cheerless office with leftover Carter administration decor. It's wood pulp central. Cicconi channels every piece of paper floating to and from the president -- what John Hay did for Lincoln, Dick Darman for Reagan. He's an assistant to the president and deputy to the chief of staff. (One colleague calls him "Mr. Paperflow." Another points to his closed door and says: "He lives in there.")

Above, on the first floor, you'll find Brent Scowcroft's office -- which he never seems to leave, maybe because his cozy little bathroom is so close. As national security adviser, Scowcroft's got a job that traditionally requires long hours. He doesn't mind, apparently. "My West Exec parking spot is right next to Scowcroft's window," says Chriss Winston, director of speech writing, "and he's always there when I leave at night."

"Remember," adds Cicconi, "this is the man who jogs at midnight."

Around the corner, there's Chief of Staff John Sununu (called a "Hall of Fame Workaholic" by one staffer, "a lifer" by another and "very unfriendly" by a third). Nearby are Sununu's sidekicks -- Andy Card and Ed Rogers. Rogers, a combination leak-chaser and aide, is notorious for beavering ("his follow-up," somebody gushes, "is incredible"). And Card, Sununu's deputy, has pulled a couple all-nighters already, he says: "the Philippines and Panama."

Up another flight of stairs, there's Chase Untermeyer's office. Untermeyer, the director of presidential personnel, shares a reception area with Fred McClure, the president's assistant for legislative affairs, and it's knee-deep in re'sume's, memos, files.

"I can get by on four or five hours of sleep," says Untermeyer. "And it's been that way since November '88." He was working 13 to 14 hours during the administration's early days. "I could have worked longer," he says, "but I do believe you have to eat, exercise, sleep... . At one point I was so busy, I asked my doctor which I should choose -- sleep or exercise. He reluctantly advised sleep."

On a Saturday, the lights in Roger Porter's office are burning. Porter, the president's adviser on domestic and economic policy, can beaver like nobody's business. Inexplicably, he keeps the longest hours of all, according to an informal poll of his White House peers. "I'd put Roger Porter in the Vampire Category," says Card. "I don't think he ever sees daylight."

"He's Mormon. He can't even drink coffee or smoke," says a fellow staffer. "Without caffeine or nicotine, how does he do it?"

"A known insomniac," answers a third.

White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray's lights are also blazing. His office staff move around like zombies. "He's always there," someone says of Gray. "He's never there," says someone else. "He's always there," says another, "but he's never working."

Dam Building

This strange, obedient creature is capable of being swept away by delusions of grandeur while actually enduring an agonizingly dull life. Dam building. The young among them labor intensively and often leave their twenties with little to show for it, except for White House cuff links, White House luggage tags, White House stationery, a paperweight with the seal, and several photographs of themselves standing awkwardly next to their president.

The older ones -- children grown, spouses gone or well used to them -- work even harder. The high-ranking variety, particularly those dwelling in the West Wing, enjoy color TVs in their beaver lodges, smug secretaries, many phone lines and microwaves for in-office popcorn.

King Beaver George Bush -- in the office by 7, eight newspapers read -- has made the White House so collegiate, his staff doesn't seem interested in going home. Some say it's horribly chaotic, disorganized -- but gosh, he writes his team players grateful little notes. They might snarl that his decisions always come at the last minute -- but hey, he knows everyone's name. He may disrupt their lives -- calling his beavers at home more often than Ronald Reagan ever did -- but gee, it's the president on the phone. He may expect them to work anonymously, hoping they never stick out enough to be profiled by the press, but boy, it's so fun -- all their friends are at work. So important -- it's their duty.

Listen to their sounds:

"I've never worked longer hours than in this administration," crows Porter. "There's more to do. I love my work. ... And I love staying here."

"One of the amazing things about working here -- the one thing I love so much," says Alixe Glen, who returns 60 to 80 calls a day from reporters as the deputy press secretary, "is that despite the 13-hour day, suddenly it's 8 o'clock."

"The year I spent as campaign manager for George Bush in New Hampshire was much worse than this," says Card. He gets to the White House at 6 every morning and tries to leave before 9:30 at night. "Then, I slept on a cot," he says. "So this is great."

"White Houseitis," says one old-timer. "It happens to all of them."

The Legacy

Paw prints are everywhere. Generations have gone before them. The long hallways of the Old Executive Office Building are made of polished, dark marble. If you look closely, you'll see many tiny dents. A thousand points of high-heeled shoes -- the damage started in the '40s. The White House -- the West Wing, the OEOB -- has always been an exalting place to work. The Pride. The Glory.

History. People fondly recall Darman's extra suit coat during the Reagan days -- he kept it on the back of his chair so it looked as if he was always working.

People still talk about Lee Atwater's legendary working pace, the plates of old sandwiches and the empty boxes of Popeye's chicken under his sofa while he slept on top. People mention names of other Reagan beavers past -- H.P. Goldfield, Mitchell Stanley, Doug Bandow, James Pinkerton.

"No, I haven't pulled any all-nighters during this administration," says Pinkerton, now a deputy of Porter's. And he wasn't happy to be asked. (He has a personal life now, don't you know.) "It just shows you," he says, "how long you can ride on your old reputation in this town."

The Carter administration had David Rubenstein, who was deputy to domestic adviser Stuart Eizenstat. A magazine article once detailed Rubenstein's workaholic habits, and as a result, a California sperm bank wrote to ask if he would donate some of his "superior" genes for the good of mankind.

He refused.

"Deep down -- if people are really honest about working at the White House," says Jody Powell, press secretary under Carter, "they will tell you that they feel inadequate working there. You think about what important work you are doing, and it's scary," he says. "You tend to compensate by working longer, harder. You're just trying to do something."

During the Reagan years, beavers clearly felt they were doing something. They dreamed of demolishing the dam and starting over. "There was a cadre committed to the Reagan Revolution," says Bandow, a recovering Reagan beaver and former assistant to the president for policy development. "If you're very committed to what you're doing, you will put in longer hours ...

"My sense is that there aren't many ideologues under Bush," says Bandow, now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. "It's the in-box presidency -- people working to simply respond to problems hitting their desks ... but it's also enjoyable, let's face it. You get to ride around in White House cars. You're invited to parties, receptions, seminars. People think you're very important."

Craig Fuller says the White House "can be a little addictive." He's been there. Fuller is a former Reagan beaver, a former chief of staff to Bush when he served as vice president, and now a consultant with Wexler, Reynolds, Fuller, Harrison Schule Inc.

"There are some people who I thought were afraid to leave," he says, "because something might happen and they wouldn't be there. There are people who always like to be in on the front-burner issue. They want to be somehow involved, so they hang around for that purpose."

Question: Possible to have a normal life while working here?

"I don't think so," says Fuller. "I don't know if anybody tells you that it is possible. But if they do, then they have a very different definition of the word 'normal.' "

The Top Ten

An Informal Poll:

1. King Beaver, George Bush.

"Every time the president picks up the phone," says Anna Perez, Barbara Bush's press secretary, "it makes work for somebody. And he picks up the phone a lot."

"The president puts us all to shame, workwise," says Cicconi. "And I think he enjoys doing it."

"He dips his hands into everybody's business," says a Bush staffer who used to work for Reagan. "It's not orderly here. There's no sense of process -- not like the Reagan administration, which loved process. I feel like I'm treading water all the time."

"The president starts an hour and a half earlier {than Reagan did}. There's more time every single day," says Fuller. "And conceivably, if it's 1 1/2 hours more a day, then it's almost like a full day a week."

Swept along in the current are Bush's two longtime beavers -- Patty Presock, his secretary, and Tim McBride, his personal aide. Like many others around the president -- David Bates, Rose Zamaria, Untermeyer -- they are longtime Bush beavers, nearly indentured. Presock and McBride both arrive at dawn and work into the night, according to others in the kingdom. "He's one of the all-time wonderful people who has sacrificed social life, personal life," Fuller says of McBride, "and has just been wonderful for the Bushes."

2. Roger Porter.

3. Brent Scowcroft.

4. Chriss Winston.

"The hours are like a roller coaster," she says. "It gets busy, then it gets slow for a while." In his first year, Bush made more than 300 remarks. But Winston can't drive the speech writers -- there are six of them now -- too hard. "They are creative people, you know. And you don't want them to burn out."

"Chriss's idea of a slow day," muses speech writer Edward McNally, "is when she puts in 10 hours instead of the usual 18."

5. John Sununu.

6. Ed Rogers.

7. Andy Card.

"Lots of Type A personalities here," he says. "It's easy to get your adrenaline up."

8. Jim Cicconi.

"I've been reading the same book," he says of his leisure time, "for the last five months."

9. Alixe Glen.

"Sundays are killers," she says.

10. Boyden Gray.

Foraging

During odd hours, scant food in the White House can mean famine for the beaver population. Foraging trips out of the lodge, to McDonald's or nearby Chinese takeouts, are common. In times of political crisis, there is always Domino's.

"We knew something was up," says Frank Meeks, president of Domino's Pizza Team Washington, "several days and nights before the invasion of Panama. ... All the coming and going -- and lots of late-night pizza."

Fifty pizzas a day is the White House norm, delivered between lunch and 2 a.m. They are handed, usually, through the metal detectors.

"And three-quarters of them call and say the pizza has to be especially good," says Meeks, "because the president will be eating it."

Otherwise, the Old Executive Office Building has a cafeteria -- with that unmistakable industrial food odor. The West Wing has the very clubby, dark-wood-paneled White House Mess (with a waiting list of special assistants still hoping to get privileges). Both of these close after lunchtime.

There is also machine food. Observed recently in a Very Important White House Vending Machine:

Bologna sandwich on white bread with a line of green, which could have been lettuce.

Fish dinner with macaroni and cheese.

Beef-and-bean burrito.

"Buttered" popcorn.

Ice cream bar.

Half-smoke.

The White House "has the most inspired vending machine complexes in Washington," one staffer observes. "I can get $4 books of stamps and do my bills in the middle of the night."

Meeting Rituals

Like so many bureaucracies, the White House suffers from a chronic meetings problem. The only difference: The beavers enjoy them.

"I like people," says Card, "so I like to make myself available. I can have a schedule with two or three meetings taking place at the same time. This sounds hokey, I know, but I love my job. I pinch myself sometimes."

Since Bush arrives between 7 and 7:15 a.m., the meetings at the White House begin early. Sununu gets in around 6:30, and the impromptu gatherings start. The senior staff meeting, which Sununu runs, begins at 7:30, before his daily meeting with the president at 8. Individual offices will often have their own daily meetings at 8:30, 8:45 -- with fresh news from the preceding meetings.

There are long-range scheduling meetings, once-a-week congressional meetings, Cabinet meetings, Cabinet council meetings, National Security Council meetings ...

Cicconi says the daily schedule card that his secretary types up could include from two to 12 meetings. Fuller reveals that he suffered from Meeting Fatigue in the Reagan White House. "There was a real premium put on face-to-face interaction," he says. "It was overdone. A more thoughtful, quiet kind of work would sometimes achieve a lot more. ... And I could never figure out the people who'd show up at a lot of meetings and then never say anything."

Toward the end of the Carter administration, a systems analyst was called in to attend meetings.

"It was discovered," Fuller has learned, "that the people in the Carter White House -- and the same is true with Reagan, and Bush, I'm sure -- is that they were so busy going to all these meetings that by the end of the day individuals had lists of 20 or 30 things they were supposed to do, but they never, never had time to do them, much less write them down and delegate it. They just went to the next meeting. And the next day, it'd start all over again."

"At the White House," remembers Powell, now at Ogilvy & Mather, "there is a great deal of effort that sometimes produces very little."

"We had somebody -- who should go unnamed -- in the first term," remembers Fuller, "who'd come in on Saturdays and scout around to see if there was a meeting going on -- just so they could get in it. And we would have meetings where we'd close the doors, just so we could have a small number of people."

Hard to Think

"You're so busy," says Winston, "you don't have time to think."

Time to think?

"That's the hardest part," says Cicconi, "finding time to put thoughts on paper, analysis down, to look ahead at what's happening down the road. You can do it -- but only when it's quiet."

The Call of the Mild

Beepers and cellular phones are a critical part of active beavering. They're a way of never really leaving the White House. "You take your life in your hands," says one former aide, whose White House years total 20, "if you go home."

Cicconi has a formula. He takes a beeper-cellular phone combo to softball games in his athletic bag. When the beeper goes off -- the technological equivalent of a tail slapping water -- he gets out the phone and calls back.

"It seems like every time I go to a movie," says Card, "I get beeped. I went to see 'Glory,' and if I saw 15 minutes of the movie, I was lucky. The people in the theater thought I had to go to the bathroom a lot."

Darman sat through the opening of "Batman" last year with a cellular phone resting in his lap -- he was waiting for a call from his office. When he was told that a reporter sitting nearby was also packing a phone, Darman said, "Hey, what's your number? I'll call during the movie."

Says Untermeyer, "I was beeped out of 'Peter Pan' last summer by the president. ... No, my beeper's the kind that doesn't make a noise, just vibrates. And when it goes off, I always think my stomach's acting up."

"You find yourself tethered to the beeper," says Cicconi, "and they go off at some inopportune moment -- like when you finally are having that nice, quiet, long dinner with your wife because you haven't been around for a month."

Winston is considering another sort of White House umbilical cord. "The next toy I buy," she says, "will be a fax."

And Roger Porter?

Porter returns a reporter's call. He's asked about his job. Why does he work so hard? "I teach when I'm not working in Washington," Porter says. "And I always tell my students to look for a job that's contributing to making the world a better place. And one where you admire and respect the people around you. It doesn't matter how big your office is, or where it is, or your title ..."

He pauses. "I am in a car right now," he says. "I am being dropped off now. And I will have to get out in such a manner that continuing to talk to you will be impossible. I will have to call again tomorrow."

Family Values

"It wasn't as romantic as at a Xerox machine," says Untermeyer of his first meeting with fiancee Diana Kendrick, a fellow White House staffer. "We met in Boyden Gray's office." Untermeyer works six days a week, Kendrick seven -- as executive assistant to Gray. They see each other a fair amount.

Others aren't so lucky.

Cicconi's wife, Patricia, has joked that he's "the Stealth father" of their three young daughters, and Chriss Winston says her life seems like a "relay race" some nights. Her husband, David Winston, who works at the Republican National Committee, has hours "as crazy as mine," she says. And while the Winstons have a full-time nanny at home for Ian, their 2-year-old son, "she has a class some nights," says Chriss Winston, "and has to drop the baby off at the White House gate. It's like passing the baton."

As Ken Duberstein and Darman used to bring their kids to the White House on weekends, Chriss Winston will sometimes bring Ian. "When he was smaller, I'd put him in a playpen on the floor and it was easy," she says. "But three weeks ago I came here on a Saturday with him -- I had to edit a speech -- and just as I looked up, he pushed a button of the computer and boom, the whole thing was gone."

Card works four to five hours on Saturdays, and two Sundays a month. Kathleene, his wife of 22 years, doesn't complain. "She knew what she was getting," he says, "before she got it."

There's a story about Reagan. Fuller tells it. After Reagan's first inauguration, there were full agendas and Cabinet meetings planned for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But Reagan said, "Well, I don't think we should meet on Saturday. Won't people be getting settled and moving in?"

"I don't think President Bush worries about this," Fuller says. "I think he wants people to spend time with their families, but he knows ..."

Roads Not Taken

Years from now -- in the middle of a golf game, perhaps -- it might hit them. Did they make a difference? "They may be committed to their particular jobs, but not to a shared commitment to ideals," says Doug Bandow. "Nobody's talking about The Bush Revolution. People are just loyal to Bush, and share his interests."

"I won't have this job forever," says Chriss Winston. "Someday I'll get to relax, write, commune with nature, have more of a life. ...

"I'm not ready to give notice yet," she says, "but when several nights go by -- and I don't get to spend time with Ian -- I get torn. It's a real privilege to work here. A once-in-a-lifetime privilege. But Ian's only going to be 2 years old once, you know. It's not always easy."

Jody Powell says people can get "a kind of disappointed feeling" after leaving the White House. "The first few mornings you wake up," he says, "you realize that you don't have anything to do. You realize nobody cares that you have nothing to do. That nobody cares what you're doing."

Cicconi well remembers the last time he left the White House. In 1985, during the Reagan years, he took a job with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a private law firm. "It's the most liberating feeling when you leave," he says, "in terms of your personal life."

The first day on the new job, he arrived at his usual beavering hour, but he had to wait outside. "They kept the doors locked," he says, "until 8."