I only wish I could have been in the quarters of Sam Seaborn when he woke this morning, to see what the man is really like. He walks up the stairs at a brisk pace, cardboard coffee cup in hand, briefcase swinging slightly, his long coat flapping just above his ankles. He looks groomed, fresh, and yes, handsome, as he ascends to help govern and negotiate the terms that will eventually affect the whole population of the United States.
It is a daunting task, but he looks up to the job.
I admit I give a slightly larger than appropriate grin as he smiles at me and gestures for me to follow him, his gentle but precise voice asking if I'm okay, if I've had coffee, if I was really ready for this. I know he hates being followed by reporters. But my piece has nothing to do with bringing down democracy. He knows this is for the younger people, and that is the only reason he is tolerating me with the level of courtesy that he rarely affords those who ask too many probing questions. I walk beside him, a little behind him actually as he passes the security checkpoints. I flash my credentials several times. I'm given a quick briefing of the do's and don'ts and White House protocol. This place is tight, and it has to be.
The halls are clean and darker that I would have thought. Old pictures line the walls, scenes of hope and heritage to look back on and relish. Ghosts are everywhere. This is a place of pure history, the kind of place that sucks your breath away when you realize what momentous events have taken place in these very halls, how a young nation fled its parents to become one of the major powers of the world. It's no wonder people are tongue-tied when they enter. And it makes one wonder if the parents of this great nation are proud, or if they just shake their heads and wonder where they went wrong in teaching their youth.
I follow Mr. Seaborn as he greets, and is greeted, it seems, by the entire House. These people know him, respect him, enjoy saying hello, and seem to enjoy the smile they receive in return. We leave the polished corridors furnished with old pictures and antique furniture. Like Alice following the rabbit, I'm ushered into a hole, another world filled with glass dividers and private offices, buzzing with the hum of democracy. This is the communications office, the "bullpen", and I can easily imagine each of these employees with a matador's red cape dueling the problems of the day. I fall further back as Mr. Seaborn, who quickly told me to call him Sam, is bombarded with questions and papers. He takes it in stride, like this happens everyday, looking at papers, ordering meetings and phone calls while calmly setting his briefcase on his desk. His own office is set aside from the bullpen, just bordering it, right where he can concentrate yet keep his finger on the erratic pulse. I sit in a chair across from him and wait quietly, letting him work.
He offers another smile, the kind that matches his healthy physique and belongs on the cover of Mens' Health, not here in the bowels of politics. He excuses himself, he has to see the President right away. He says that so casually, and I forget that, for him, seeing the President is an everyday occurrence. I want to yell, "How wonderful for you!" Instead I nod and return his smile, and arrange my own belongings. He tells me where I can get a drink and gives me directions to the nearest bathroom, which makes me wonder just how long he'll be gone, then leaves in a flurry that I'm soon to become accustomed to, flinging his heavy coat on a hook as he walks out. I look at my notebook and wonder if my article is to be comprised of one sentence, "Deputy Communications Director Samuel Seaborn holed up with President Josiah Bartlet for duration."
It isn't as long as I feared. I was able to take a good look around his office as I sat there, looking not at the plaques on the wall that basically say he's smart and educated, but for the little things, like the half-hidden stack of CD's that comprise of, not surprisingly, The Eagles, The Allman Brothers and such, but more surprisingly, Eminem. When asked, Sam shrugs and says he admires the man's desire to state his mind, whatever that state may be. Apparently he listens to it on his headphones when stuck on a speech that he considers inconsequential, something he's writing for no good reason than to fill time, because it won't change anything. He say it reminds him that a few words can in fact make a difference, even if the lyrics are a linguist's nightmare.
Personally I think he's just young enough to appreciate the beat.
Sam apologizes for leaving me hanging, as he puts it, and sits across from me, pulling out his laptop and sipping his coffee and shoving aside files while explaining that his day really isn't all that exciting, that he spends most of his days staring at a blank screen that screams for words. As he says this, a ball shakes the glass window between his office and the next. He merely looks up, but at the sudden noise I'm having to find that bathroom Sam had pointed out. "Then of course," he says casually, "There's Toby," and he excuses himself a second time and walks next door. I peek through the window, trying not to be obvious.
And older man is talking to him, his eyes stern but lively, his mouth tense yet humorous. You get the feeling this is a man who would laugh at a good joke then deny it ever happened. He's annoyed, throwing his large yet delicate hands about, thumbing his beard, and I can just hear enough of the conversation to know that Sam isn't in trouble, but that something he did wasn't pleasing. Sam has his hands on his hips, and is responding, one hand out palm upwards, punctuating his remark. Said hand runs through his thick hair, and I wonder what kind of day this is going to be for the young man. Toby, as he was called, gives a nod and pats a stack of papers, which Sam lifts and fans through, then nods in response. He walks back into his office, passing me but not seeing me, and sits, his eyes glued to the sheets. Absently he fumbles for his glasses, and I'm not sure if I should interrupt him. After a moment he glances up.
"Oh, uh, okay. . .this is gonna be hard. See, I've got this thing I have to do. . ." He sighs and leans forward on his elbows, fingering the earpiece. "I have to write a proposition, and I have three hours to do it. During that time I can't accept questions, I can't talk, I have to think. I'm saying maybe you'd like to take a tour of the White House or something, wait, Josh is out. . .um, DONNA!" His shout startles me, and a tall blond woman sticks her head in the window.
"Donna, this is Cassandra Wilson, she's supposed to be following me around today and make me feel like I have an important job to do. Unfortunately Toby just reminded me of that, think you can give her a tour or take her for coffee or something? Or just let her get a feel of the bullpen. I don't care, but I need three hours of silence."
"Good luck, and sure." Donna smiles, and I instantly warm up to this woman who looks like she belongs on a Cosmo runway. Sam thanks her and apologies to me while ushering us out. The door closes, and I can see him lean over the papers, glasses perched on his nose, his brow furrowed slightly.
"It always like this around here?" I ask.
"No, this is pretty quiet, really," Donna replies. "I'm Donna, but you know that, I'm secretary to Josh Lyman."
"Deputy Chief of Staff," I respond. "Is he here?"
"No, he had a meeting." We pass a desk where I hear a secretary say that Mr. Seaborn is currently unavailable. "Would you like a coffee?"
"That would be great. And could I ask you a few questions? At this point I'm wondering what my chances are on getting an article started, much less finished."
"Sure, oh, but I gotta warn you. . .the last time I had an interview it didn't go over really well, so I'd like an understanding that if I say anything that may sound out of the ordinary or out of context, please ask me the question again." I smile and agree.
"So," I start as we sit with our cups, "I guess since this article is supposed to be about Sam, he told me to call him Sam, I guess I should ask what you know about him."
Donna smiles, and I'm taken in by her naive nature that is suddenly obscured by a confident voice. "Well, I work mostly with Josh, but they are good friends, so I see a bit of Sam. We go out at night sometimes after work, but I guess you don't want to know. . ."
"No, no, that's good. Tell me."
"Well, he's good at darts and better at pool. He and Josh are so competitive, it's funny to watch, especially if Toby gets in on it because he whips them both and they spend the rest of the evening arguing about it." Donna takes a sip.
"Toby, wait, that was Toby Ziegler? The guy with the beard?"
"Yeah, that's Sam's boss."
"Well, I was a bit slow on that one. How is his relationship with his boss?"
"Oh, you know," Donna smiles and gives a self-conscious shrug, then leans in. "Truthfully? I think Sam's like a little brother to him. It's funny the way he hassles him and totally has his back."
"If Sam works for him, especially in a situation like this, isn't it normal to have his back?"
"Yeah, but I mean he has his back. One hundred percent. To the point of leaving him out of the loop from time to time."
"See, that lost me."
"Okay. There were times when Toby withheld information from Sam, knowing that it would piss Sam off, but doing it because Sam knowing the situation would only make things worse for himself. He has his back."
"He'd rather incur the wrath of Sam than have Sam incur that wrath upon himself."
"How many times has he done this?"
Again the shrug. "Several."
"And Sam doesn't mind?"
"Well of course he minds, but I think he knows why Toby does it. . .and he respects that."
"I see." I smile at someone who walks past us, and scribble notes. "They ever fought?"
"What's with the ball?"
"Toby's an eccentric. He'd rather summon Sam than walk to his office, unless he's out of peanuts."
"That doesn't bother Sam?"
"Only when he doesn't want to be disturbed, which unfortunately is about ninety percent of the time as of late." Donna looked up and waved to a man in a suit. "Josh! Come meet Cassandra!" The man rubbed at his face and walked over to us, looking like he'd rather be elsewhere. "She's writing an article on Sam."
"Oh, yeah, he warned me about that." Josh smiles and sets down his briefcase and shakes my hand, then glances at Donna's cup. "That coffee?"
"Yeah, and. . .Josh!" She pulls the cup from his mouth.
"Sorry, it was just a reeeeally long meeting. Though I was going to fall asleep on the Secretary of Foreign Affairs." His voice is as soft and gentle as his features, and it's hard to believe he has such a powerful job, and not some position as an English professor in a small remote town. His hair is fighting the style he forced on it, his eyes are dark and sweet, and marked with intelligence. Donna gives him a sympathetic look and keeps a firm grip on her cup.
"You have two more meetings, you know."
"Oh, god, look," he turned to me, "can you somehow go to the presses and engineer a crisis of biblical proportions, nothing true, not that you have any trouble with that, just something that'll put the country in mass hysteria for oh, say, the next twelve hours?"
"Josh, she writes for a teen magazine."
"Really? A teen magazine? Easily done then." The smile was bewildered. "Seriously, a teen magazine? And you want Sam?"
"Yes." I fold my hands and look at him.
"Why not me? I'm high ranking, I've got it going on, I'm in on the know."
"Because, quite frankly, Sam has the strong, athletic look that our readers go for."
"Oh, so, this is a sex thing? Look." Josh pulls off his blazer and unbuttons his shirt cuff.
"Josh. . ." Donna groans, and puts her head in her hand.
"No, no, I want her to see this. . ." he rolls up his sleeve and makes a muscle, "see this? See? Pure steel, this is, and more packed than Sam's will ever be. I may not have the physique, but I'm spry."
"Spry?" Donna asks.
"Yeah. . ." Josh rolls down his sleeve and looks at me, his motions suddenly slowing. "Spry. . . able. . . you're going to out that little display in the article, aren't you?"
"You better believe it."
"I was having a bad day until now. Now it can be classified as truly disastrous."
"Josh," Donna cuts in, "you have a meeting at eleven."
"Right, right," he turns to me, "you're not going to print that, are you?"
"Only if you promise me five minutes after your meeting."
"Quickie person, huh? Don't. . . print. . . that. . ."
I grin. "Four-thirty?"
"My office." Josh pulls his blazer on and picks up his briefcase, takes one more swig of Donna's coffee and hurries off.
Donna looks at me and smiles. "See? Competitive."
It isn't long before Donna has to return to her desk, though if given the chance she'd be willing to sit and gossip all day, and I would have let her. I continue to sit and nurse my coffee, watching the employees pass while glancing at my watch. An hour has passed and I have two more to kill. The people pass in pressed suits like a flowing advertisement for Wall Street. But these people control Wall Street. They could shut it down in a heartbeat. I wonder if it's frightening, knowing that the power of the whole country lies within these walls. Suddenly a man approaches me. "Cassie?"
It's an old friend of mine, Alan Davenport, who writes for the Chronicle. We pass the next hour in idle chat.
By the time I'm back in Sam's office he looks hassled. His neat appearance is all but gone, something I wouldn't have thought possible. And it's not in his clothes, or his hair, everything is in place as it should be, even more so. One would think the hair would at least be tousled. It's his expression that looks hassled, and as I cautiously walk in I'm suddenly wondering if I should go someplace else. "Look, this is a bad day for this. We can reschedule for tomorrow. . ."
"No guarantees for tomorrow. Thing is about this place, you never can make plans. Never know what's going to come up." His hand is to his forehead, pencil clasped between two fingers. In his other hand is a single sheet of paper.
I stare. "Is that it?"
"Three hours?" From what I could tell it looked like a single paragraph.
"Front sheet." Sam gestured to a small stack. "Toby'll iron it out, but the intro has to grip. It's the most important part of an entire presentation, no matter what it is. If you don't hook them, you've lost them." He grins. "Course I'm telling a reporter this."
"Please. Don't lump me in with those in the tabloids, or the press. This is a good magazine. I'm not out to destroy anything."
"Exactly what are you out for, then?" His voice is candid yet serious.
"I'm trying to put a new angle on the White House for our readers who will soon be old enough to vote. I want a sense of familiarity. I want them to see this as an actual place where real people work, and not as faces on a tv. I want the youth to know that this place exists. You'd be surprised how many don't."
"Not as surprised as you may think." Sam picks up his papers and glances at his watch. "Can you hang around for fifteen minutes? Then I promise that interview."
"Got all day."
"Must be nice." Sam hurries to Toby's office, where I see him slap the stack onto the desk. He sits, and they thumb through the sheets.
I sigh and scribble in my notebook, then jump at the sound of a male voice. "Sam's next door then?"
"Mr. Lyman." I smile. "He's meeting with Toby."
"Figures. And I'm not going anywhere near them."
"Your meeting go well?"
"What? Oh, yeah, fine, fine. You?"
"Haven't had one yet, unless you count our wonderful display over coffee."
"Ah. Yes. That. Guess you'll be wanting that interview then?"
"I don't want to intrude."
"Nah, I've got a few minutes." Josh Lyman crosses the room and sits at Sam's desk. "What is it you want to know? Boxers or briefs? His favorite color? Whether he likes blonds or redheads?"
"Actually I want to know what made him take this job."
"Oh. That. Well, you can blame that on me." Josh stretches back easily and threads his fingers behind his head.
"Really?" My pencil is poised and ready. "How so?"
"Guess you have to understand Sam. Now, I've known him a good while, and he's not the kind of person to sit around, and he's not the kind to work for something he doesn't believe in. And as a lawyer, well, he was fascinated by the process. But not with the actuality."
"He couldn't lie."
"I should resent that . . . but no, he didn't have the desire for the combatant nature that law requires. He could do it, he was damn good at it, but he wasn't enjoying it. He worked his way up the ladder, and still wasn't liking it. When I started hitting the political circuit he grew interested. He saw it as a way he could do something good, something bigger, something more worthy of flinging favors and making compromises. I kept him informed. Both of us have the same ideals, we both knew what we wanted. And we got it." He shrugs. "Simple as that. Course I had to stand in the rain for him, but that's neither here nor there."
"So what are some of the things that goes on here?"
"What, you mean betting on ties and trying to burn the White House down, things like that? Not much."
"Burn the White House down?"
"It was cold, you know, it doesn't matter. Ask another question."
"Are you and Sam good friends? You see each other outside of work? Do you all socialize?"
"That's three questions. Yes, yes and yes."
"That's three simple answers. Care to elaborate?"
"You know, I would, but. . .excuse me. . ." Josh holds up and finger and sits up, then walks to the door. An older man is there, mutters a few quick words, and they hurry off. At this point Sam comes back in.
"Sorry," he says politely, "one of those days."
"So I see." I glance at my writing.
"I'm ready now." He sits at his desk and leans forward, hands clasped on top. He looks more relaxed.
I have to refocus my thoughts, and flip the page of my notebook. "Okay. What exactly do you do for the president?"
"I put words in his mouth." Sam laughs. "Actually if you know the man, you'd realize he has plenty of words on his own, and never tires of using them. I just try and make his ideas flow."
"And this is hard?"
"You have to understand the language. Now, you have one party that takes offense easily, and one that would love nothing more than to give offense. These people hang onto every word that comes from mouth or memo and do their best to twist it to suit their needs. So everything that goes into the writing, and I mean from notes on dinner napkins to entrees on the menu, has to be checked and double checked for accuracy and preciseness. You say as much as you can in as few words as you can, because there is a lot of ground to cover. Then when asked for specifics, you have to carefully write out the plan in such a way that the facts are presented fairly, yet pushes your point of view, again without offending anyone. Ideally. I've offended a few congressman in my time.
"As for the other shoe, you have to write for the president. That is where it really gets hard, because you have to get an idea of the man himself and write as he would, then embellish it. You have to make it intelligent, yet keep it where it isn't intimidating. You have to cover the facts, make it pretty, and sell the cause. You have to write something the president can say and write it with all the heart you can muster, no matter how dull, and no matter your own personal views on the subject. Total sidelines. Then you have to put his heart into it."
I realize I've forgotten to write. I hastily catch up. "Sounds tricky."
"After doing it every day it gets easier. But you have to be on your toes."
"And that's your job in a nutshell."
"That's one of them, yes. I could give you a list, but it's long and quite frankly I don't want to run you out of here just yet."
I laugh. "Tell me about your co-workers."
He leans back. "Oh god. Uh, well Toby, he's a big brother. Josh is an annoying brother, Leo, that's the Chief of Staff, he's the grandfather. The President, believe it or not, he's the father. He really watches for us." Sam's pager goes off, and he jolts upright and yanks it from his belt. "Forgot I had this thing on, okay, hang on, I gotta make a call." He picks up the phone and punches in a number. "Hello? Sam Seaborn, you paged. . .yeah, yeah. Uh-huh. Okay." There is a pause. "No, wait, that's not. . .what do you mean they struck it? Why?" Another pause, this time lengthier. "Okay, okay, I'll get Josh. . .no wait, I'll get Josh on it and meet with Tanner. Yes. Um, in about fifteen minutes. Okay. Yeah, bye." He slams the phone down and sighs.
I start to gather my things. "We really should do this another time."
"Like I said before, no guarantees. But this thing has come up," he looked truly apologetic. "I'll be out most of the day. Can-can we do this. . ."
"I'll call and set up another time. It was good meeting you." I truly mean it.
"You too." He stands and gives me a firm handshake, his smile belonging in a commercial or on the Emmys. "Let me walk you out."
We go through the halls as before. People no longer greet him, just smile or wave or shove something in his hands. I'm amazed at how busy he stays, how he is able to keep his focus. By the time we reach the checkpoint he has an armful of documents. There is no doubt that he isn't just someone who strings words together. He is a vital part of operations.
I go through the checkpoint and watch as he walks off, his papers tilting and threatening to spill. Josh comes up right as the stack gives way and catches a load, joking about something that I can't hear. He takes half the stack as Sam grins in response, and put his hand to Sam's back, guiding him up the stairs.
I smile. If that's the way this place is run, I think we're all in good hands for a while.