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Washington Schlepped Here: Walking in the Nation’s Capital by Christopher Buckley


Rating: (Recommended)


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The Two Schlep

I’ve been a fan of Christopher Buckley’s writing for a long time. We can count on him for great humor and outstanding satire. Readers of his latest offering, Washington Schlepped Here, won’t be disappointed. In fact, readers are rewarded with both finely written humor, and some accurate and perceptive historical narrative. Here’s an excerpt from one of the strolls through Washington, DC presented in this small book (pp. 120-124):


The second Bush administration renamed the OEOB the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which to my mind is a bit much, since in 1957 Ike's administration wanted to tear the building down and put up a ghastly modern replacement. The Kennedy crew put a stop to that, thank heavens, as well as to plans to tear down an entire row of historic houses on Lafayette Square. Twenty years later, Mrs. Kennedy would play a significant role in stopping the tearing down of another American Beauty, New York City's Grand Central Terminal.

The OEOB—which I still insist on calling it—is my favorite building in Washington. It's a gaudy old pile, to be sure. Technically, it's French Second Empire, but it's been called other things: Victorian wedding cake, "the greatest monstrosity in America" (by Harry Truman), "Mr. Mullett's  architectural infant asylum"  (Henry Adams). Me, I calls it grand.

It looks a bit like the Denon Pavilion of the Louvre in Paris, only more so. When it was finished in 1888, at the height of the Gilded Age, it was the Pentagon of its day, the world's largest office building, with two miles of corridors, 556 rooms, and 900 columns. According to Applewhite, those 26 concrete Grecian urn-type flowerpots you see were added by Army Captain Douglas MacArthur when he was superintendent of the building in 1913. You don't usually think of "MacArthur" and "flowerpots" in the same sentence, do you?

This is where my office was, in a room with a majestic view of—an interior courtyard parking lot. Into the bargain, it was being resurfaced. Being a U.S. government project, this took 18 months, so my enduring memory of my days of power and glory is the sound of jackhammers and a window-unit air conditioner that raided and dripped onto the shag rug next to my electric typerwriter.

I'm sure there's a plaque up on Room 205 to commemorate my historic tenure, but the OEOB is possibly better known for having provided office space for 25 secretaries of state, including John Hay, William Jennings Bryan, Coidell Hull, and George C. Marshall; and for 21 secretaries of war, including Robert Todd Lincoln andHenry Stimson.

Since Lyndon Johnson's time, vice presidents of the United States have had an office on the second floor overlooking the West Wing of the White House. Vice President Walter Mondale nicknamed the OEOB "Baltimore" because it was so remote from the real power, that is, about a hundred feet away in the West Wing. The VP's office was renovated while I worked here, and after painstaking work was restored to the glory it enjoyed when it had been the office of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt and later. General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing. A poor Secret Service agent had to sit there every day for nearly a year while the workmen labored, to make sure they didn't plant any bugs.

Even after two years of going into that office, I never lost my awe of the place. Mr. Bush's desk had been used by all the vice presidents, and before they left office it was the custom for them to write their names in the drawer. Mr. Bush would show it to visitors. In staff meetings, Mr. Bush would sit in an armchair and didn't mind if one of us sat in his desk chair. I never dared, but one time someone who did accidentally touched an alarm button with his knees and the Secret Service came rushing in through three doors.

There's history in every square foot of the Old Exec. It was originally called the State, War and Navy Building. You could tell from the emblem on the doorknobs—eagle, crest, anchor—what wing you were in. You'd be in some boring meeting with the deputy assistant for whatever and someone would say, "Wasn't this Hull's office?" and it would turn out that sure enough, it was right here that he summoned the Japanese envoys Nomura and Korusu on December 7, 1941, and tore them new orifices. Or you'd be in another boring meeting and that office would turn out to have been Nixon's hideaway, where he went to get away and to scribble his endless, endless memos to Haldeman and Ehriichman on yellow legal pads.

The two miles of corridors are tiled in black and white and if you look down as you walk, you'll see little fossils embedded in them. My girifriend at the time also worked in the building and I still remember the sound of her high heels approaching my office door.

It was in the basement of the OEOB that new staffers who traveled with their principal got a briefing by the Secret Service on how to stay alive. This was just after

Hinckley shot President Reagan and crippled Jim Brady for life, so we did pay attention. Basically, the briefing consisted of home assassination movies, with expert narration. We saw the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, backward and forward, in slow motion; saw Arthur Bremer unloading his pistol into George Wallace, paralyzing him for life. The one I remember most vividly was of an attempt on President Park Chung Hee of South Korea. He's giving a speech, surrounded by security men. Someone runs down the aisle, pulls out a pistol, and begins blazing away. President Park coolly ducks behind the podium, while a fierce gun battle ensues. Then one of his security guards takes cover onstage—behind Mrs. Park. And surprise, she's killed. I thought it was an interesting career move on the security man's part. The Secret Service agent narrating this tragic Keystone Kop drama observed, " We don't do it this way."

When the lights went up, the basement room was very quiet. The agent said, "If something happens, you basically have two choices: duck, or take the round." I said,

“What was the first choice again?" Fond as I already was of Mr. Bush, I was pretty sure that if it came to that, I would opt for Option One.

The OEOB was the creation of an English immigrant architect named Alfred B. Mullett. Poor old Mullett worked 17 years building his masterpiece only to end up suing the government. He felt overworked and underpaid. The government said. Get lost, and Mullet shot himself. His ghost is supposed to wander the two miles of corridors, but I never saw it, even though I spent many late nights in the place.

Let's rejoin Tony by the statue of Andrew Jackson. You can't miss it: it's smack in the middle of. . .



Buckley delivers an insider’s point of view, a fan’s enthusiasm, and a humorist’s élan. I have several disclosures that may influence how you receive this review. First, Buckley and I lived a few blocks apart in DC from 1997 through 2000. No walking tours of that neighborhood are included in that book because he knows the neighbors are fed up enough with tourist traffic. Besides, he can hear and smell the tour buses idling outside Washington Cathedral from his home office. There were times we banged grocery carts together in the neighborhood gourmet hangout. If that constitutes inappropriate conduct for a reviewer, take my comments with a grain of salt. Very pricey salt. I walked by his house regularly and noted when the lights were on in his writing warren. Unless it was cool, he wasn’t writing at home. I share Buckley’s favoritism of the OEOB (which I fondly recall as the State, War and Navy building), so that probably influenced my rating. One day, he and I were drinking at the watering hole where the British soldiers drank after they burned the White House. The site was the same, not the bar. He described the burning in the book, but not the drinking. With these disclosures off my chest, I can now recommend Washington Schlepped Here, and you know from whence I come and go.

Steve Hopkins, May 27, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Schlepped Here.htm


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