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From “All the Houses”

Often when I tell people I grew up in Washington, D.C., they ask me if I grew up in the city proper or in the suburbs. “In the city,” I tell them, though I’ve felt funny saying it. “But it was like a suburb,” I’ve sometimes added, because I grew up in Cleveland Park, a leafy realm of large houses and oak trees and private schools, where people could (and did) tune out the rest of the city.

This book is set in that world, the genteel neighborhoods of northwest Washington, where a legion of lobbyists, lawyers, consultants, economists, and others make their homes and raise their kids. People in that world tend to be more than a little obsessed with their work and their professional status, which takes its toll on the families there.

The story traces the repercussions for one family after the father, a Reagan Administration official, gets caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal. It alternates between the mid-1980s, when Tim Atherton is working at the White House vetting communications for the national security advisor, and 2004–2005, when Tim’s middle daughter, Helen, returns to D.C. to take care of Tim after a heart attack.

The chapter you will read here takes place in 1985, as the secret negotiations and operations that led to the scandal are well under way. A couple of months prior to this, Tim attended a meeting in Miami between Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North and leaders of the Nicaraguan Contras. After the meeting, Tim related a story to North about a cabinet secretary who’d made a coarse joke in front of the president—a story that will work its way back to him. —Karen Olsson


Nobody sleeps. The men tasked with running the country, they are in bed a few hours a night, if that, which they occasionally supplement by snoozing on an office couch or nodding off in a meeting. Night after night they deprive themselves, until more than a few hours of sleep are no longer even an option, for they’ve replaced their steady circadian rhythms with staccato, erratic beats. Their heads buzz and ache and echo. Other countries, distant wars, twirl in the dreamless kaleidoscopes of their minds, as they write memos and more memos.

Most days, Tim drives to work. At six, six-thirty you can usually still find a space not too far away. From behind, with its fountain not yet turned on and the East and West Wings half-hidden by trees, the famous building is just a house. Often, the sunrise is the last thing he sees before he goes inside of it, joining a slew of nervy workers in coats and badges. And once he passes through the portal that is the west entrance, through security, he finds himself in the midst of an alternative civilization, a hive, with fluorescent lights buzzing and the presidential seal everywhere, on the walls and the coffee cups. Men in dark suits walk briskly to and fro as brisker couriers retrieve and deliver the great daily burden of paper documents, waves of memoranda and briefings parceled out in manila envelopes, bound dossiers, file folders, naked stacks still warm from the copy machine. Here are the graying viziers of the free world and their minions, their staffers, their secretaries—eager Southern girls changing out of their Reeboks into navy-blue pumps. Here a lingering odor of scrambled eggs from the breakfast trays.

Tim works for Robert McFarlane, the national security advisor, a.k.a. the assistant to the president for national security affairs. It bothers McFarlane no end that the president has not yet established a clear set of policy goals, leaving his own office without an agenda. The advisor tries to seal away his grievances, his fear that he isn’t accomplishing anything, and yet he takes such pains to present a calm facade that the underlying turmoil is all too apparent, as if he were continually declaring that he was not upset, no, not in the slightest. Not at all! At times the force of his anguish and the force of his efforts to swallow the anguish combine to make him hover just above the ground, or so it seems to Tim. He returns from the president’s morning security briefing with his jaw locked and his Florsheims floating over the carpet: out of sheer frustration, the assistant to the president for national security affairs is levitating.

He is mysterious to the people around him. He speaks in abstractions, makes general pronouncements in a flat voice that stops, backs up, starts again, and does everything it can to avoid any slithering, biting emotion. His jaw clenches. But every so often, a vent opens and he releases a quantum of steam. His voice grows more insistent, though no louder, and his ears redden. Tim doesn’t necessarily know what (or who) caused it. His boss, as he’s confided to Jodi Dentoff over lunch, is an honorable, thoughtful man, but his desire for the president’s approval runs so deep it can never really be satisfied.

McFarlane would return from a meeting and lament, The president has been misinformed! It’s bad policy!

All right, Tim says. Let’s put together some information for him. But his boss bristles at that, ever loath to contradict his commander. Instead, he contradicts himself: It’s not a matter of information, he says. And then, just as quickly as this upset emerged, it is suppressed. Redacted. A thick black line is drawn over his covert turmoil. McFarlane places the studious mask back over his face and asks Tim to locate an unrelated document. Then he asks whether Poindexter is in, nodding at the closed door to his deputy’s office.

I believe so, says Tim.

The deputy is a taciturn man, a vice admiral more inclined toward technical questions than politics, his mouth frequently plugged by a pipe, the door to his office usually shut. Tim doesn’t know—almost never knows for sure—whether he’s there behind that door or not. At the end of the day, Tim is distantly, quietly fond of McFarlane: he’s rooting for the boss, hoping he’ll drone and frown his way out of the administrative straitjacket he’s been forced to wear, unlikely as that may be. But with the technocrat in the deputy’s office, who mostly communicates, if at all, through short sentences scrawled on memos, Tim rarely finds common ground.

McFarlane heads toward his own office door, then reverses direction and asks Tim to lend him a quarter for the vending machine. He takes a series of deliberate breaths, as his eyes peer out from their cool caverns. Before he marches off he says—to Tim, to Poindexter’s closed door, to nobody—I believe it is necessary for us to follow a coherent course of action, in accordance with the president’s objectives.

His voice becomes lower and slower as he continues. That’s of the utmost importance, he says. Clear, decisive action is needed.

In the courtyard at the Tabard Inn, Tim drapes his arms over the back of his small chair and clasps his hands behind him. He tilts the chair onto its hind legs. It’s a balmy day, and the light lusters the two friends he’s met for lunch. He listens to them trade tattle, between bites.

Because what I hear is, Shultz has been offering to resign on a daily basis, Jodi says, referring to the secretary of state.

I wouldn’t call it daily, says Dick.

He’s spinning his wheels.

It’s not like Shultz is the only guy who’s got problems.

The clusters of iron furniture are like big spiders that screech every time they move. He and Dick and Jodi meet up once a month, sometimes more, for breeze-shooting purposes. The Washington breeze: the braid of information and misinformation and you-didn’t-hear-it-from-me, the airstream of open secrets. Flirting also plays a part in it, the weightless, daytime flirting that keeps things interesting.

Look at this woman eat, Dick says.

She is a tiny woman with an enormous appetite, now making short work of a cheeseburger. For Tim it’s like watching his daughters when they were younger and had hands as small as Jodi’s and ate real food—before all the diets. Do Jodi’s feet even reach the floor? He is a giant by comparison.

She takes a sip of her iced tea. I’m still recovering from last week, she says. I was in Phoenix, which was like Satan’s armpit. So hot I couldn’t eat.

What were you doing out there? Dick asks.

Talking to loons, she says. These people had their own logic that I couldn’t follow. I understood what they were saying on the face of it, and going from A to B it made sense, but once they got out to F or G it was just gobbledygook. This group called the United States Council for World Freedom, they’re out there in the desert plotting how to eradicate communism globally.

I hear they’ve got Scottsdale pretty well cleared, Tim says. When you’re out in that kind of heat there’s a different thinking process that happens, she says.

Tim dreamed, once, that he and Jodi were standing together at a cocktail party, a fund-raiser in a great empty plain of a room, with a huge marble floor and no one else there but the waiters. When he awoke he retained that image, and it has stayed with him as though it’s a secret they share.

And how goes it in the inner sanctum? she asks him.

I wish I knew. You know how many people are on our staff, Tim says. It’s one hundred eighty-something. And McFarlane talks to maybe half a dozen of those. The rest don’t know what the hell they’re doing. I mean, some do, but we’ve got guys who are literally wandering the halls.

Look at this woman eat, Dick says.

She narrows her eyes, even as she eats and eats. It’s an impossible situation, she says.

Exactly, he says. That’s off the record.

Mitchell scoops up a bundle of Jodi’s fries and eats them one by one out of his hand.

If you want any fries, just help yourself, she quips.

On paper Tim and Dick Mitchell have the same credentials, same track records in Washington. Tim would never swipe fries off someone’s plate without asking, though. At work, he relies more on diligence, while Mitchell has his card shark’s memory, his agility, and a talent for endearing himself to older men.

There’s been talk about your hardworking marine, Jodi says to Tim. They’re saying that the lieutenant colonel has gone operational, she says. That he’s been jetting off to Ilopango and Tegucigalpa. They say his ass is way out on a limb.

How people relish the sheer insiderness of inside information, the specialized lingo of the agency and bureau, the acronyms within acronyms within acronyms—and inside the innermost one, a rumor about a petty feud or somebody’s drinking problem. Or North’s irregular (since nobody really knew what was illegal) activities. Every fact has its own, erratic momentum. It sticks to other facts, and they drag words along behind them. For instance: after the president was diagnosed with intestinal cancer he said that he did not suffer from cancer. He later clarified that while he did have cancer, he did not suffer from it. He didn’t feel that he had suffered.

Jodi has stopped eating: Any chance you could confirm—I can’t, Tim says.

It must make you uneasy, she says.

I see the guy sometimes. I barely know him.

You know what the complaint is, she says. You’ve got all these military officers, ex-military working over there—they don’t understand politics. They resent it. They see Congress as the enemy.

Tim nods. It’s a familiar rap on his bosses, but to him it seems superficial, a description as opposed to a diagnosis. I don’t think anybody really knows, he says. Knows the whole situation.

You’re talking about North, Jodi says.

North isn’t so bad, he says. Everything’s happening interstitially now.

Jodi notices the time. She lays cash on the table, stands up, and backs away, smiling. Gentlemen, she says. It’s been a pleasure.

After she leaves another spark lights up Mitchell’s face. He taps the edge of the table twice, with both hands, and tells Tim: You managed that well enough.

He isn’t aware that he tried to manage anything. He doesn’t think of it that way. But he can see from Dick’s expression that his friend knows all about North’s game, maybe more than he himself does. There is too much to know, too little to do. Every morning the agency staff descend from Annandale and Arlington by the thousands, with their lunches in brown bags, and succeed by dint of their long memories and regulatory vim in maintaining what the outsider might take to be stasis but what, to these balding Virginians, is a delicate equilibrium. A hippopotamus perched, just so, on top of a pole. Required to maintain the balance are strategic delays, lunch at one’s desk, gallons of sour coffee, thousands of ballpoint pens, careful ignorance of what might be happening in other departments, and countless memoranda with titles like “Initial Proposals Re: Preliminary Steps to Prevent Negative Consequences.”

Tim’s position is superior to those of the pencil pushers, yet he has limited authority; it is not for him to direct policy or to be captured on camera as he marches from a doorway into a waiting black car. He is a platinum conduit, a fancy connector, through which top-secret matters ooze their way along, and as they go past, small adjustments can be made, suggestions offered, deposits of information amassed. He is close enough to the peripheral bureaucracy that he nurses a fear of becoming engulfed by it, of turning into a numbassed, forgotten desk rat, to whom none but the most inscrutable and irrelevant documents are routed, and routed last—the fear that his would be the desk where disregarded memos go to die.

A few years earlier, the White House had been no more technologically capable than a bank branch, but just recently a man who’d worked on the president’s campaign promoted, then installed, an office computer network. Now every desk has a machine, its rounded screen traversed by letters and numbers, a glowing green armada of characters arranging themselves into directives and updates and schedules. Now messages can be sent directly from one person to another, rather than by the standard routing arrangement. Nobody has oversight over the flow of it all.

It was part of Tim’s job to review the documents intended for the national security advisor, forwarding some of them along and rerouting others. He has tried to maintain an equivalent control over the computer messages, but often he’ll ask for a document only to be told that it has been sent straight to the boss. There’s no controlling the little green characters. North, he knows, sends everything directly to Poindexter and McFarlane.

He goes across the street, looking for North.

Inside the Old Executive Office Building, the grand rooms that once housed the Department of War are themselves embattled, in disrepair, spattered with bits of chipped-off paint, stalactites of dust in the corners. Distinguished area experts bring in box fans during the summer and space heaters during the winter. Exposed wiring dangles from the ceiling in one of the men’s rooms.

Within this massive and sodden building the rhetoric of crisis is slung about. He waits outside a meeting of the Outreach Working Group on Central America, where North is holding court, and after the meeting breaks up he intercepts North. He wants to discuss the computer messaging system. Let’s walk back to my office, North says. In his head he has rehearsed what he means to say. He wants to discuss the computer messaging system. I think we need to get something straight. These are the rules. An organization has to abide by its own rules, or else chaos will result. But those are words in his head, spoken to an image of North, and here is the man himself swaddled in his noble causes. Rules and procedure and caution are impediments, obstructions to right action. Tim has to portray himself as a fellow warrior.

Within this massive and sodden building
the rhetoric
of crisis is slung about.

All messages from you are considered high priority, Tim says. I’ll see to it that he gets everything right away—

You bet, I’ll route everything through you, North says.

I only ask because that hasn’t been the case recently.

What happens is, I’ll be working late, I’m here at ten p.m., or on a Sunday, and since you’re not here I just send it directly.

But if you route it to me, it’ll still go to the boss as soon as he’s in.

You bet.

Room 392 is North’s command center: there are multiple terminals and a printer with paper spilling out onto the ground, and several different-colored phones, one of which is answered by the prettiest woman in the building. As they walk in, she calls out messages like numbers in a bingo game, ending with, And you-know-who came by to say that Motley still hasn’t sent the draft directive you asked for.

That’s just what we were talking about upstairs, this BS from State. If we didn’t have one or two friends over there, I don’t know what we’d do.

Then he turns to Tim and grabs him by the forearm. Hey, listen to this.

He proceeds to tell Tim a variation of the story Tim told him in Miami, but now it’s the secretary of state making the joke about the man and the elephant, the story exaggerated and turned into a parable of ineptitude. He clearly has no idea that Tim told it to him originally, and that it was about a different man, no memory of that at all.