Crossing Paths with Putin

As part of the White House advance team, I traveled to Birmingham, England in April,1998 to help with President Bill Clinton’s schedule during the G-8 Summit, a meeting of the world’s leading economies. At Clinton’s behest Russia became a member of the G-8 the previous year (Russia was removed in 2016 because of their annexation of Crimea). Assigned to make arrangements for Clinton’s one-on-one bilateral meetings with G-8 world leaders, I learned Clinton’s meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin was my most important duty. It had to be discreet, secure and comfortable.

For ten consecutive days before the summit began, I tried to meet with my Russian counterpart at the Russian headquarters hotel. The Russians use KGB officers rather than civilians for their advance teams. Our US Secret Service generally didn’t commit resources until these tentatively scheduled meetings were established by the White House advance person. Even though the press speculated Boris Yeltsin was too ill to attend the G-8, the US pressed the Russians hard to accomplish the bilateral meeting as a show of Russia’s support for the latest nuclear non-proliferation agreement.

We got word at the last minute that President Yeltsin would meet President Clinton upon Yeltsin’s arrival at the Russian headquarters hotel, 24 hours after the start of the G-8 summit. That signaled the KGB to admit me to the secure floor of Russian Command. As I exited the elevator and entered an open door at the end of a typical hotel hallway, I faced men and women sitting at long tables stretched the entire length of the hotel. The hotel rooms’ walls had been removed, and tangles of wires dropped from the exposed ceilings to telephones, fax machines, computers, cameras and ominous electronic components. I announced my name and asked for my contact.

The nearest of the twenty-five or more Russians laughed out loud. “We know who you are,” one said.  

You do?

Wide-eyed at the cornucopia of visual information, I gawked at the long stretch of KGB agents wearing headsets and staring at video screens. One ferret-looking guy strutted around glancing over the others’ shoulders. My Russian contact approached, and we proceeded to a room on the hotel mezzanine reserved for the off-the-record meeting between the two heads of state. I called my Secret Service counterpart and the three of us performed our obligatory walk-through, agreeing to the safest route for both presidents through the hotel, with enough exposure for the media to observe the two men strolling casually together.

The day Boris Yeltsin arrived in Birmingham, he fell down the stairs getting off the plane and was carried to his car. His KGB detail helped him into the hotel elevator but he lumbered on his own down the exposed hallway to greet Clinton. My job completed, I left for the staff room in the US headquarters hotel where I saw a televised report saying Yeltsin appeared inebriated and the two presidents may have had a less than fruitful conversation.

I met the Russian team once more, a year later in Auckland, New Zealand during the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Though Russia is not a part of APEC, Vladimir Putin flew to Auckland to secretly meet Bill Clinton. I secured a space and told the Russian team when and where to bring Putin. When I briefed President Clinton on the logistics of the clandestine meeting, he told me Putin was a real bad guy. I asked why he was meeting him. Clinton said he was going to be the next President of Russia.

I led Clinton to the undisclosed site and saw Putin for what I thought was the first time. Later, in the staff room, it struck me that Putin had been the KGB puppet master in that room in Birmingham the year before.

Boris Yeltsin had a reputation for public drunkenness and erratic behavior. Foreign service officers gossiped that KGB chief Putin secretly kept Yeltsin plied with vodka and drugs to render him ineffective so Yeltsin would either be forced to resign or drop dead. In August 1999 Yeltsin appointed the little-known KGB chief Putin as Prime Minister. Yeltsin retreated to the presidential dacha outside Moscow to recover from various illnesses and abruptly resigned five months later. He appointed Vladimir Putin as acting president.

Thank You Alcoholic Writers

After my first few writing sessions in Beth Finke’s Memoir Writing Class, I asked her why there weren’t more stories about alcoholism. It seemed I was the only one reporting on this particular form of family madness in our weekly writing group. Beth assured me that alcoholism has been a common theme in several of her memoir writing classes over the years.

Ok, so that helped, to know that I’m not the only one. As an alcoholic myself who grew up with two alcoholic parents, I always start from a position of feeling like I don’t belong, like I’m too different to belong. The stigma of alcoholism and addiction doesn’t help. I’ve been sober for 42 years and I still feel like it’s a shameful condition, even after years of knowing it’s a medical condition, a mind-body disease.

Last week Beth sent me an essay by author Leslie Schwartz whose latest memoir is about her relapse and jail time. She writes, “In my case, addiction and the mental illness that 51MsewjwbIL._AC_US218_ 2
follows has been one source of my creativity for a long time. I was able to use my experience of relapse and its devastating outcomes – I nearly lost my life – as fodder for my memoir The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time.”

Leslie spent her 37-day jail time immersed in reading the work of fellow writers who suffered from alcoholism/addiction (Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolff). She studied the recent research about the link between mental illness and creativity by Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison. Plenty has been written about expressive writing as a form of release from mood disorders—James Pennebaker, Dr. Howard Schubiner and others. Indeed, the Fourth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps suggests writing a “searching and fearless moral inventory” as a way to shake the yoke of guilt and shame. It works. After writing a few Fourth Steps, I continue to write memoirs to be free from the chronic pain of fibromyalgia as prescribed by Chicago doctor John Stracks. It works for that too.

I love that Leslie Schwartz uses the words “addiction” and “mental illness” interchangeability in her essay.  “When I write, I feel sane,” she writes. “When I don’t write, I am lost.”

We desperately need addiction/alcoholism and mental illness to be thought of in new ways. Senator Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick (the one who very publicly slammed his car into the U. S. Capitol under the influence), founded the Kennedy Forum in an effort to wipe out the stigma of alcoholism and mental health. By promoting the medical evidence verifying that alcoholism/addiction/mental illness are brain disorders, the Kennedy Forum hopes to reduce the shame induced by the stigma that keeps alcoholics/addicts from getting help, keeps teens from telling their parents, keeps employees from using their medical insurance for rehab. I’ve been sober since 1976 and it seems to me that the stigma is worse than it was 40 years ago. How do we break this? One way is for people in recovery programs like AA to stop acting like they are in a secret society and to open their meetings to those who are simply searching for information on how it works. Another way is for writers like Leslie Schwartz, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr and Brene Brown to keep writing their stories so people like me feel free to write ours.

 

Father Hungry

Father Hungry
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Arkansas Governor’s Mansion

The week before Thanksgiving, 1991, I called my father from Little Rock to tell him Governor Clinton had told all campaign staff to go visit their families. 

“He said we’ll be busy and out of touch from December until the end of the primary season,” I said, letting my father know I’d be back in Chicago on Thursday. 

“What are your plans for Thanksgiving?”

I was so caught up in the excitement of my co-workers’ plans to visit their families that I’d forgotten my father never made plans to celebrate holidays. Nor birthdays. Nor graduations. Nor milestones of any kind.

“Dorothy doesn’t want you joining us for Thanksgiving,” my father told me over the phone.

I can’t remember whether they were married yet or whether Dorothy was still just another one of the girlfriends. I had no particular ax to grind with her outside of her unnerving naiveté. She actually believed my father was going to provide a secure home for her and her son. When she showed me her engagement ring the previous summer and asked why I didn’t jump for joy that they were to be married, I thoughtlessly answered, “You’re kidding, right?” 

Like she knew what I knew.

Furious, alone and full of self-pity, I abandoned the trip to my home town and settled into catching up on the never-ending details of planning events, logistics, contingencies and recruiting new advance people for my candidate. When asked, I’d feign, “I’m spending Thanksgiving in Chicago with my father.”

The hunger to be normal is one of my fatal flaws.

But Governor Clinton was on to me. Late that Wednesday evening he called out of the blue and invited me to “come on over to the house” for Thanksgiving.

I drove into the guest parking lot at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion about 3:00 pm and recognized cars that belonged to staffers from the Governor’s office as well as the campaign. Bill answered the door, introduced me all around and took me into the kitchen to meet the chef.

He bragged that Clarence was the best cook in Arkansas, that he was once on death row for murder but that shouldn’t scare me because he’d pardoned him.

“Thas right. Thas right,” said Clarence.

People who study psychology say if a girl grows up craving attention from her father she will gorge herself on various substitutes to satisfy the longing. I certainly proved that theory while stuffing myself at the Clintons’ dinner table that Thanksgiving. The Governor kept telling Clarence to bring out more food. He insisted we all eat up, and my self-consciousness around overeating in public disappeared into 2nd and 3rd helpings.

After dinner Governor Clinton had us all go “out back” to play touch football. I sat on the sidelines with Hillary and others. The First Lady laughed and joked with us about the goofy footballers and told funny stories about Clinton’s well-reported inept sports activities.

On the way back to my apartment, I stopped by the campaign office to type some final touches into Clinton’s schedule for the next week in New Hampshire. Alone, but no longer angry, lonely or hungry, I paused, called my father and wished him a Happy Thanksgiving.

Up In The Air with Bill Clinton and Daddy

Hillary Clinton celebrated her 50th birthday with a private party at the Chicago Cultural Center in October,1997. Chicago transplants working in the Clinton Administration were not only invited to the party, but also to fly with her and Bill and their guests aboard Air Force One from Washington.

Per instructions, I joined my fellow Chicagoans in the 1950’s era lounge at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington a few hours prior to the scheduled take-off. Boarding the plane in a heightened mood we located our assigned seats in the guest section.

The Clinton friends arrived with the President and First Lady in the motorcade from the White House. Senator Barbara Boxer sat down next to me. Ted Danson and Mary Steenbergen sat in the two seats facing us. I sent a numeric “thank you” text to my friend in the White House who had compiled the plane manifest and assigned the seats.

Mary Steenbergen is an old friend of the Clintons. She and Ted had married about a year before. Ted looked nervous and self-conscious. I had read he had a hair transplant or plugs or something and I couldn’t take my eyes off his scalp. Mary chatted away, making introductions and jokes and we all relaxed. As soon as we were in the air, Bill Clinton, of course, sauntered back to the guest section. He introduced me to the two movie stars, then told them that I had worked in the campaign in Little Rock. They acted impressed. I felt impressive.

We landed on the military tarmac at O’Hare Field in 39 degree rain and rode downtown in the President’s motorcade. I rushed to the makeshift staff room to use a secure landline because cell phone coverage failed inside the 1890’s cement landmark. I needed to call my son at my father’s bedside phone at Northwestern Hospital.

“He just died,” Joe said.

I hadn’t seen my father for about five years, ever since he started trying to swindle my friends and former employers.

“Do you want to see him?”

“No. I’ll call you later.”

I looked at the only other person in the room—a Secret Service agent I didn’t know.

“My father just died. He’s in a hospital 5 blocks down the street.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. Are you leaving?”

I wandered down the hallway to Preston Bradley Hall, grabbed a Diet Coke and walked around in a daze nodding to friends. I found Bob Sirott, who had a morning TV news show at the time. Bob and I had arranged to talk off the record about what it was like to ride on Air Force One. I gave him a box of M&M’s imprinted with the aircraft’s seal and described the inside of the plane and the food.

 

I left early to overnight at Joe’s. He told me some bits and pieces about my father’s last moments.

Up in the air the next morning on a United flight back to Washington, the cumulus heaven below held me in contemplation. My mantra: thank God he’s dead.

Umpteen Nervous Breakdowns

Umpteen Nervous Breakdowns

fullsizeoutput_31ecI’m not exactly sure what a nervous breakdown is. Is it the same as a mental breakdown? Emotional breakdown? Whatever it’s called, I’ve had a few of them. Like in every job I’ve ever had. And with every man I’ve ever loved.

When I was hired to work in the Clinton Administration I walked in the door of the U.S. Department of Education knowing it was the best job I would ever have. I worked for Secretary of Education Richard Riley, one of God’s greatest manifestations of His image and likeness. Surely this was a good sign.th

The previous year I’d been working at the Cook County Clerk’s Office. I’d landed a job there after cracking up in the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. In that grueling 16-hour-a-day job as Clinton’s scheduler, sleep was constantly interrupted by phone calls from Clinton friends who questioned my every decision—everything from who would be introducing Clinton onstage to what sandwiches would be in his holding room. When I returned to Chicago from Little Rock I blamed my getting canned on sleep deprivation rather than a frazzled emotional state. I didn’t want to look weak.
At the Cook County Clerk’s Office, I tucked the shirt tail of my mental collapse into my suit skirt and presented myself as an emotionally stable, confident, experienced political operative. At about the 11-month mark as Director of Communications I took an extended sick leave and started Prozac. That’s when I received a call from a campaign friend who worked in the White House Personnel Office inquiring about my availability to move to Washington. I accepted without deliberation, convinced it was a sign of better days ahead.

A friend keeping watch over my umpteenth nervous breakdown tried to warn me. He said moving to Washington was not a sign from God. He told me it was not a good move. But my default modus operandi is self-sufficiency. Deep inside my soul grows a bed of weeds whose dandelions of reason attract me like bees to nectar. They tell me I am my own master gardener. I provide my own seeds, water, nutrients and sun to my life. Reason tells me it’s unnatural to ask for help or accept advice from others. Whatever my spiritual condition is, at any given moment, Reason proclaims, “You are your own god. Be perfect.”

All spiritual teachers say a life lived on reason leads to despair. And so it did. By the end of the Clinton Administration I was seeing a psychiatrist every day. On weekends I feared I’d drive across the Potomac and buy a gun at a Virginia Wall Mart and blow my brains out.

When I returned to Chicago in 2001 I sought help, as I’ve always done when hitting a spiritual bottom. There’s been no loss of despair but I’ve learned to let hope live next to it—not hope in imaginary perfection but hope in the unknowable.

Remembering Revlon

Remembering Revlon

Whenever my mother dressed for a special occasion, the last thing she’d do is color her nails and lips. She’d sit in a living room chair with high heels dangling from her crossed leg and expertly paint her fingernails with a little bottle of toxic red enamel. She never smudged them, never blotched her cuticles, never spilled the polish, never needed to mop up after herself. 

First, she’d soak a Kleenex in an upended bottle of Cutex nail polish remover and wipe all her nails clean. The vapors would tickle all the hairs in my nose and give me a headache but I never turned away. I’d watch her unscrew the top of Revlon’s Fire and Ice and pull out the dark bristles dripping in red liquid. With one hand flattened on the th-2antique mahogany side table, and the other hand holding the grooved white plastic top, she’d drag the brush along the lip of the bottle to get just the right amount of polish. Pulling the brush from the bottom of the nail to the top in perfect form nail after nail, she’d quietly finish the job, then blow on the tips of her fingers to dry them. 

I’ve watched artists do this same thing with their paintbrushes. I wonder now if my mother could have been an artist since she seemed to be a natural in manipulating the brush. Where did she learn that? Like me, she was not the kind of person who would have practiced such a thing as a teenager. Unlike her, I’ve never managed to lay polish or lipstick on myself with such aplomb.

At the mirror, she’d further glamorize her ensemble with matching lipstick. Gripping a short, thin-handled lip brush in her right hand, she’d cradle the unopened lipstick in her left hand, slide the top up with her left fingers and let it drop into the crook where the palm meets the thumb. Holding both parts steady, she’d flick the lipstick brush back and forth on the creamy substance with her right fingers. Then she’d outline the edges of her top and bottom lips with the curved tapered brush. Next she’d brush the bare flesh inside the lip lines with vertical strokes. With fresh lipstick her beguiling red lips seemed larger than usual but not unnatural. She kept her lipstick and brush in a small leather pouch. Sometimes she left the house with only her Marlboros and her lipstick pouch.

In her dementia my mother always carried a small clutch purse. She incessantly opened it and fingered through its only contents—lipsticks. The nurses gave her their old lipsticks for her purse because the sound of the click-clacking as she rifled through it calmed her down.

Unknown-1For a few years after my mother died, I entered into the ritualized glamor of painting my own nails red. I sat before a young manicurist who updated me every week on the intrigue of her affair with a rich married man. When she moved in with him and quit her job, the allure of painting my nails lost its luster. 

Watch It! There Are Thorns in Those Roses

Watch It! There Are Thorns in Those Roses

My mother woke me very early one morning on my fourth or fifth birthday. Men were waiting downstairs to wallpaper and paint. This was my birthday present—new wallpaper. I had to quickly dress and stay out of my room until they were finished at the end of the day.

“C’mon, we’ll get your sisters and go visit Joanne!”

It may have been that day or another that my mother took my two sisters and I to see her youngest sister, Joanne, who was in the Maryland countryside about an hour from our home in Washington. Joanne was 10 years younger than my mother so she would have been about 20. She attended Georgetown Visitation high school and junior college with the Smith girls who lived at an 18th century Maryland estate, Mt. Airy. During her school breaks Joanne stayed with the Smiths and in mid-June they would have been lounging around the pool with their cigarettes and tanning lotion.

We all got our hair washed and were set out in the sunshine to dry while my mother, Joanne and the Smith girls painted their nails, gossiped and laughed over beer in the estate’s coach house.

My mother directed me to sit in an oversized lounge chair near the shade of a mighty Southern Magnolia.

“Lay down there, Regan,” she said, “Don’t get up until your hair is dry.”

The old-growth evergreen burst with sturdy white flowers that looked like folded linen, sweet-smelling like the Smith girls. This is the first time I remember birds flying in and out of tree branches. The sun fell through the breeze into the dark fleshy leaves and lulled me into a meditative reverie that I can easily reconstruct whenever I’m under a summer tree or feel the whiff of magnolias or their cousin gardenias drift past me.

At the close of day we returned home and I ran upstairs to my new room. Everything was covered in red roses—the walls, the ceiling, the bedspread and pillows. It was the best birthday present I’ve ever received and indeed, the only one I can remember as a child.

My sisters and I were born one after another in the Naval Academy Hospital in Annapolis where we lived in the years immediately following World War II. After myth father left the Navy, we moved to a red brick colonial on Fox Hall Road in Washington and my father started his first job as a labor lawyer for John L. Lewis, founder of the United Mine Workers. They held the same liberal political views but Lewis, a devout, moralistic Mormon and my father, in the early stage of his alcoholism had battling temperaments. 
By the time I was in the first grade, the job, the house and the rose-filled room had all gone south.

My father picked up work in law firms and corporations throughout the Midwest, and my family started moving around the country with him.