"What happens when they throw me out of Washington?" Linda Gale isn't joking. She's been asked to reveal her trade secrets and she's a little uncomfortable.
She knows firsthand the closed-door policy that prevails in the corridors of power and the corporate suites of the rich and famous. A self-described "gate-crasher," she once spent most of a year trying to land in-person appointments with important people who'd never heard of her (a few later wished they never had).
But even now she doesn't want her name filed in the tidy memories of administrative assistants and executive secretaries in town whose mission is to buffer the boss. Giving the slip to guardians of the prominent is tricky enough as it is, she sighs. Who needs the aggravation? Because you never know when the impulse to chit-chat with politicians, chairmen of the board, tabloid goddesses or syndicated columnists will force her hand toward the telephone again.
If this is compulsion, so be it. But Linda Gale isn't deep down inside crying out, "Stop me before I call a famous person again." In fact, once she gets beyond her initial discomfort, Gale leans across a club sandwich in a downtown restaurant and speaks in confidential tones about her secretary-dodging with obvious pride.
"If you can learn certain things in life, you can get by anyone, anywhere, for anything," says Gale, 50, a transplanted New Yorker who moved to Washington three years ago after spending months jamming her proverbial foot in the doors of this city's celebs.
Art Buchwald was a difficult one, she says, as if running through a mental Rolodex. The humor columnist and screenplay writer is one of her favorites, nonetheless.
She hesitates, confiding in heavy New Yorkese, "A-a-rt Buchw-o-a-wld is going to kill me." She goes ahead anyway: "I called his office and got to his gatekeeper, I think her name was Penny at the time. He got right on the phone. He kept on saying call back. So by the third time I called back, he said, 'Sorry, Linda, I won't do it in person. On the phone or forget it. Take it or leave it.' I thanked him very much and said goodbye."
Gale flew back to Manhattan, disappointed she was unable to connive an interview. "I was getting Caspar Weinberger, Knight Kiplinger and Jack Valenti, but I couldn't get Art Buchwald. I was very frustrated."
But not defeated. You might say Gale comes from the school of intrusion that takes to heart J.P. Getty's quip, "The meek may inherit the earth -- but not its mineral rights." In New York, she met someone who knew that Eddie White, the actor, Broadway producer, and onetime composer for Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher, had been childhood pals with Buchwald in the Bronx. Gale called White and persuaded him to see her.
"I told him my story and he said, 'You want me to give Art a call?' " says Gale. Minutes later, White arm-twisted his old friend by long distance into meeting with Gale.
But Buchwald was hardly the toughest. Gale had to cross Ted Kennedy off her list as impossible after months of getting nowhere. She stroked and pressured Tip O'Neill's schedulers for eight months before the then-speaker of the House gave a flat-out no. And psychologist Joyce Brothers had three secretaries who drove Gale crazy: "Every time I called, it was someone else. I had to go through the whole thing all over again, and tell them so-and-so said if I called back. ... "
Tough or not, Gale usually succeeds. The standard runaround "he's in a meeting" is kid's stuff to her. Tell her to call back a dozen times and she does, a hundred if necessary. This is a woman so persistent as to laugh in the face of "No way" and "Not possible."
Her fascination with meeting remarkable people started 12 years ago. A housewife and mother who had assisted her then-husband, Barry Gale, in pioneering a career-testing business by licking stamps and answering phones, she started making calls to writers and editors when sales of their first book, "National Career Directory," sagged from lack of publicity. "For the first time in my life," she remembers, "I had a feeling of power ... and I wanted the world."
Within a year, for no clear-cut reason, she wrote 4,000 letters to "top people, all walks of life ... the media, entertainment, politics, business." She asked them one question: What advice would you offer someone entering your field? Four hundred responded -- folks such as Bob Hope, Marcel Marceau, Edith Head. A book, she thought! A bestseller! Wrong. "I was in awe of famous people," she says, "but if they had nothing to say, no book would there be."
After pitching in on publicity for "Discovering What You Are Best At," the bestseller she and her husband spawned from their business, Gale still felt unfulfilled. Her youngest child would soon leave home for college and she needed a challenge. "My quest was to go out in the real world and see what I could do," she says. "The first thing was to get past the gatekeepers. It started as a game: How many CEOs and executive vice presidents could I get in to see?
"For six months, I had a wonderful education. I learned how to feel comfortable with these people who were up there sitting behind the desk. I learned that they were just like you and me. I learned that if one would not fear, anyone could pick up the phone and do the same things that I did."
Early on, Gale, who turned some of this interviewing into a 1989 book on career decision-making titled "Stay or Leave," rehearsed a three- to four-second script to introduce herself, explain who she is and say what she wants, just in case the person she wanted to see unexpectedly got on the phone. "You've got to be prepared," she says, "but you've got to sound natural."
Gale picked up other tricks, such as calling after hours hoping the late-working luminary would answer the phone himself. She would try the pest approach -- always polite but bugging secretaries until they put her through. When up against resistance, she'd try for sympathy, empathy, or an alliance with the gatekeeper. One top gun told Gale, after months of her calls, that she was "the most persistent woman he'd ever met."
In September, Gale phoned a telecommunications exec she'd seen months before after a lot of hard work. He'd been transferred. She asked for an appointment with his replacement. "I was told, 'Sorry, but it's impossible. He does not take his calls unless it is a dire necessity,' " she says.
By the fourth week of calling, Gale had established herself to be polite but stubborn. Same for the gatekeeper she talked to nearly every day. "She wouldn't budge and I wouldn't budge," she says. "I got to the point with this woman where I knew nothing was going to happen. Finally I just said, 'Look, I want to get in. It's important to me. Please put yourself in my position. Can't you help me?'
"We went on for a couple more months but with a different feeling. She was now saying, 'I'll try to put you through, but I can't promise anything." In December, the secretary promised Gale she'd get her interview after the first of the year. She did.
Generally, Gale prefers the ally strategy. She fondly remembers Sen. Alan Cranston's gatekeeper. "One of the most wonderful that I came across," she says. "She worked around the clock with me." Another time, after weeks of striking out, Gale persuaded a secretary to call her the next time the boss was standing right there at her desk. Fortunately Gale was home when she called.
One of her most creative ploys? The time Gale was getting nowhere with a prominent New York businessman until she sent a picture of herself as a little girl sitting on her father's knee. "I wrote him a short note saying my father and he could have been brothers," she says. "And for that reason alone, he should see me. He did."
Not surprisingly, tales of Gale's antics raise hackles among some gatekeepers.
"Oh, really?" says Alva Murphy, when told that Gale figures she can get past just about anyone. "Sic her on me!"
After all, Murphy isn't just any gatekeeper. For 22 years she's protected Cyrus Vance from those who regularly seek out the prominent New York attorney and former secretary of state. What's more, she is president of the Seraphic Society. Based in Manhattan, it is an exclusive club of the topmost secretaries and assistants to some of the most important people in this country.
"There's no way she could get through me," says Murphy, sounding feisty. "She might somehow get his home phone number and reach him that way. But she wouldn't get through me here until she tells me her business and I told her she could talk to Mr. Vance."
Lately, says Murphy, the volume of cold calls seems to have increased. "When they get really pushy, I say that I don't work for them, I work for Mr. Vance. I follow his directions," says Murphy. "I give them the address and suggest they write Mr. Vance.
"Usually they don't want to hear the word no. The ones who are aggressive and desperate, from their point of view, this is the most important thing for them. As soon as you tell them no, they approach you a different way. ...
"My last line is 'I know that you don't want to hear the word no. You want to hear yes. But the answer is no." That, she says, usually ends it. "Some of them are gracious and some of them are awful, but, of course, they all hate me when they finally hang up."
But Gale doesn't recall many gatekeepers that she didn't like. Oh, sure, some were gruff, some impossible, very few impolite. "The caretaker of the one I wanted to meet, I could tell by the attitude, the mannerism, the tone of voice, whether she was pleasant or had a lot of things going on yet took the time to speak to me, what that person behind her is going to be like, nine times out of 10," says Gale. "Because that person is hired as an extension. ... Most of the time, they do understand. They know how it is."