Miller Center

Interview with Kris Engskov

Introduction

Kris Engslov talks about presidential travel, press relations, 1996 campaign, President William J. Clinton's personality, day to day activities of the president, and the Monica Lewinksy scandal.

Copyright 2014 the Miller Center Foundation and The Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. Publicly released transcripts of the William J. Clinton Presidential History Project are freely available for noncommercial use according to the Fair Use provisions of the United States Copyright Code and International Copyright Law. Advance written permission is required for reproduction, redistribution, and extensive quotation or excerpting.

Transcript

Riley

This is the Kris Engskov interview as a part of the Clinton Presidential History Project. We appreciate your letting us come talk with you. For the record I ought to say we’re in London in the Marriott Kensington Hotel, a little unusual for us. We’ve had a brief conversation about ground rules, but we always begin by reiterating the most fundamental ground rule, which is the confidentiality of the proceedings. Anything you say here you’ll have a chance to revisit in the form of a transcript, and neither Stephen nor I is in a position to go out and talk about it. We encourage you to speak candidly because you’re not speaking to us but to people 30 or 40 years from now who want to come back to this Presidency and understand it as it actually was. So we hope that you will speak candidly. 

It probably will help the transcriber, since we have three male voices here, to get a voice ID. I’m Russell Riley, an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, and am heading up the Clinton Project.

Knott

I’m Stephen Knott, an Associate Professor at UVA, involved in the Kennedy Project and helping out with the Clinton Project. 

Engskov

Kris Engskov, the interviewee. 

Riley

Great. You’re from Arkansas, so you and your family had an association with President Clinton when he was still in Arkansas, I guess?

Engskov

I first came in contact with Bill Clinton in 1974. I was four, so I don’t recall that particular meeting, but my father and grandfather at different times helped the attorney general and Governor in various campaigns. Not at any level of depth. We live in a little town called Berryville, which is up in the northwest corner of Arkansas. My father’s first interaction with Bill Clinton was to invite him to come speak to the Rotary Club when he was running for attorney general. My father was president of the local Rotary Club. Bill Clinton came and spoke, and my father drove him around the county a little bit and introduced him to a few people. That was our first association. My grandfather and father had a hardware store on Berryville Square. 

Riley

Berryville is where, in relation to Fayetteville?

Engskov

It’s just an hour northeast of Fayetteville, not far, about 60 miles. I mean, it’s truly in the Ozark hill country; Carroll County as a county was actually a pretty important part of the politics in Arkansas, only because, in a pretty Republican area, it was one of the few counties that had some Democrats in it. So Clinton made his way through there a time or two when he was campaigning, although northwest Arkansas had always previously been a very conservative place. Orval Faubus and other politicians—there were a few politicians from there, but it had been changing over the years. Clinton was one of the first politicians in a while who thought he might be able to make some headway there. 

So he came through Berryville and Eureka Springs and the other cities there. That’s how we got to know him. We had a hardware store on the square. My grandfather was an early Clinton supporter. He got to know him literally from just coming to town. He came several times to Berryville. Looking back on that now, at the time when the Governor came to town, it was quite an occasion. My grandfather was very interested in politics—I mean, he was a true political animal. He was always there; he wanted to be a part of it. He came quite close to Clinton, as much as a supporter.

Riley

His name is what?

Engskov

Si Bigham. Oddly, he ended up—Clinton ended up mentioning him in his book. He died in ’86, but if he’d ever known—and he was just a hill country guy, the most salt-of-the-earth character you can come up with. He ran a hardware store and had been a teacher for years. I think he would have been taken aback by showing up in this book that the President of the United States wrote. That was what was too bad, really, because he never got to see that. I remember, we stood in the middle of the Osage River one day fishing with my brother. He said to me, You really ought to stay close to this guy, because he is going to be something. I can remember him saying that to me at the time. 

That was true whenever you’d go to something Clinton was at. There really was something about him at that time that was very different from other politicians we had, whether it be Congressmen or Senators. He was clearly smarter, more charismatic, more energetic than anybody else we had in Arkansas. He was as down-home as he could be. There was something very special about his intellect; he clearly was a very bright guy.

His ideas were pretty progressive for a lot of Arkansas, as we saw in subsequent elections after he first ran for attorney general. There were some early adopters. We’re not here to talk about his politics, but he got some early progressive thinkers in there. He’d seed those areas, like Carroll County, which was a very tough place to work. 

I remember times when Bill Clinton would come—again, I can only use Berryville as an example, because that’s what I remember most specifically. I can remember real early days him walking around the town square with a handful of brochures, by himself. For me that was an amazing evolution to watch, from that point to the Presidency, and to be able to remember it. I was very interested in politics as a kid. I used to go to meetings with my grandfather. Had a guy who used to take me to events, because he took an interest in me and knew I was interested, so I got to see a lot of that. It really was—I got the whole picture. To have that perspective now, and to have had the opportunities in that time, was really an amazing education. 

Early on, he came very specifically to light the Christmas lights. As you know, it’s a very big deal to come light Christmas lights in these little towns. It sort of begins the Christmas season. It probably is anywhere, but particularly in these small towns. Clinton came to light the town Christmas lights for the official start of Christmas. There was a little reception down at the county courthouse. I remember him coming. I was about 10 at the time. It’s the first time I can really remember spending any time with him. My grandfather had taken me down there, and there was a little reception for him. He was to walk up the square and light the lights. 

I remember looking out the window and seeing the state police car pull up. Clinton is in the front seat. He jumps out—it’s freezing cold, it’s the middle of winter—and he’s got this huge navy blue coat on. He’s young at this time; he’s only 32 years old or something, but he looks like the Governor. He looks like the guy who should be the Governor. When you’re from Berryville, nobody looks like the Governor. We were really proud of that, but I think it was the first time I really thought, Wow, that’s the Governor. That’s an important position.

He came in and talked to everybody, talked to my grandfather. My grandfather introduced me. He came up to me and he said, Hello, Kris, how are you? like he did to everybody. I did have a name tag on at the time, but I didn’t realize it until I saw the picture later, and I said, It was amazing he knew my name. Clinton was always good at picking up—I guess that wasn’t a very subtle clue, but for a guy who was 10 years old, that was pretty impressive.

Other times that I remember he came—He spoke at my high school graduation. I invited him to come speak at my high school graduation. 

Riley

This is very important background. 

Engskov

So he came and spoke at the high school graduation. I didn’t know him well, but I knew him. Once I had that job later in my career, working with him every day as President, it was those things that really made our relationship much more special, because we had, I wouldn’t say an important history together, but we had some history together. I knew where he came from, and I knew what he’d done. That was actually an advantage I had over most other people, because most people came to know Bill Clinton in 1992 at the earliest. They may be very smart and networked and know everything about politics, but they hadn’t seen it like I’d seen it early on. 

Riley

I guess by the time you were his personal aide, some of the Arkansans were not—

Engskov

A lot of them had gone back. 

Riley

Right. They’d gone back, so there weren’t a lot of people around, other than Bruce [Lindsey] and I guess a handful of others.

Engskov

Bruce, and Nancy Hernreich was still around. It dwindled, toward the end especially. I think people from Arkansas, especially in the beginning, were not ready for what Washington really was about.

Riley

This is telegraphing ahead, but did you find that the fact that you had those Arkansas roots was something that he was sort of holding on to at that moment? 

Engskov

I wrote this in my notes here. He always had an amazing relationship to Arkansas. One time one of the newspapers in Arkansas—I think it was a local newspaper—wrote an editorial that we got a copy of. This was in 1998, ’99, somewhere in there. It was really condemning. There were lots of bad things written about the President, obviously at different times, for various things he did. It was something about the delta—that he hadn’t worked to provide funding for it or something. It was a really damning editorial that was written. I remember the President reading that. He was truly heartbroken by it, especially about the delta, because he had put in so much effort when he was Governor in trying to help the folks down there. 

That happened all the time. He reached this pinnacle, right? He was really President, but the things that seemed to bother him the most, I think, were the early days when he hurt people who were just the regular folks. He always had a special connection to Arkansas. He’d run into people all over the world from Arkansas, or who had a connection to Arkansas, and it was an easy thing to talk about. They met him and they’d say, My mother grew up in Mountain Home, or whatever. He’d say, I know Jim so-and-so from Mountain Home. They’d end up of course knowing him and there would be the whole conversation. Those were routine conversations. You’d always see him—I’d watch this guy talk to people for hours on end. It’s an unusual thing to get to observe somebody like that. But you’d always see him light up when he talked about Arkansas. That was universally true. 

If you ever wanted to get his attention—I think some people knew this—you talk about Arkansas. He loved that place in a very raw way. No matter how big he got, he always knew where he was from. That was the great genius of Bill Clinton—He was always able to relate to just regular folks.

Riley

I can remember reading the stuff about him being at Yale and they said the same thing about him then, that if you wanted to get him started, he could tell you about watermelons and everything from Arkansas. 

But I interrupted you, Kris. You were telling the story about the high school graduation. I’ll be prone to do that all day.

Engskov

I understand. I could talk about Berryville for the rest of the night. He came to speak at our high school graduation. That was in ’89, I think. 

Riley

You’re a very young man.

Engskov

I’m a young guy. I remember there was a tornado. I’m sure you speak at thousands of high school graduations as Governor, but he got up on the podium and he spoke to different people in the crowd; he pointed them out. We were in the high school football stadium. That was what he was great at. He knew exactly how to read a crowd; he knew exactly what to talk about, even though he hadn’t been to Berryville in years. 

That day—he and I have talked about this since—it was an outside football stadium, like all high school graduations. We had a horrible storm that day, but like his luck with everything he did in his Presidency or any other time in his political career, he always outran the weather. He flew into the airport, got in the van, came into town, gave the speech, and literally, behind him—there are pictures of this at home—there are billowing thunderstorm clouds behind him. You can see it. People are just waiting for it to open up and he outruns it as he did every time. It’s amazing, his luck with weather. We still talk about it. There was a huge tornado after the high school graduation. It really did a lot of damage. He was always really good with weather.

Riley

So you go from there to the University of Arkansas?

Engskov

Yes, University of Arkansas.

Riley

And were you politically involved at Arkansas, or sticking to your studies?

Engskov

I really liked politics. Arkansas is a small state, so it wasn’t difficult to get involved in politics. There were a few of us around the state—it’s funny how we all went to school together who were in politics in high school, and worked for different campaigns and that sort of thing.

I went to the university. My first two years were probably not particularly valuable years, as probably most people have at university.

Riley

Other than Steve, of course.

Engskov

I stayed involved in politics, did a lot of things, went to state conventions and stayed involved in the Democratic Party. I didn’t have much of a relationship with the Governor then. I mean, I certainly paid attention. Then in early ’91, I guess, they started talking about Clinton being a candidate. Actually, in ’88, I remember Dale Bumpers being talked about as a candidate for President.

Riley

Clinton, too, in ’88 for a little while.

Engskov

For a very short time, when he gave the [Michael] Dukakis nominating speech at the convention.

Riley

Do you remember your reaction to that?

Engskov

I do. I went to the convention. I was there for the speech.

Riley

On what grounds were you at the convention?

Engskov

I just went down there. I convinced the state—Looking back to that time, we didn’t have any money. 

Riley

You can’t live in London and not have money, so I’m not going to—

Engskov

You’d be surprised. Kip Blakely, who was the head of the Arkansas state party at the time—I was 16 and I was dying to go to that convention, because I just thought it was the coolest thing you could do. 

Riley

The convention that year was where?

Engskov

Atlanta. I got him to let me go, to get me a ticket. We paid for that plane ticket. That was a big deal. My parents said that was a good opportunity and they paid for that plane ticket down there. I remember Clinton being there. I got to go to some things he was at. I just thought that was the most amazing thing. The night Clinton spoke—I don’t know, I’m not nearly as resourceful as I used to be—I stood outside the CNN center and as people would come out—I didn’t have credentials. You’ve probably been to these conventions. As you know, you have these credentials to get in. I didn’t have any credentials to get in to watch his speech. 

I stood outside the convention center. As people would come out—it was like 7:30, because he was the late speech. I figured, if they’re getting on the bus, they’re probably going back to the hotel, so I asked them for their credentials. About the 110th person, they finally said, Okay, I’ll give you the credential. They gave it to me and I got in. That’s how I saw Clinton’s speech. There’s just no—we didn’t have any credentials. It’s such a big deal. So I got to watch that speech.

Riley

Did you die with him that night? That speech was famous for not being—

Engskov

It’s funny, I don’t think the people in the hall actually knew how damaging that speech was. I knew it was going on way too long, but we didn’t have the commentary on the TV to really see the light—

Riley

Interesting. 

Engskov

To be honest with you—I remember the Tonight Show. Clinton went and did the Tonight Show after that and kind of redeemed himself, made a joke about it. I think people in Arkansas were just glad to see somebody from Arkansas on the podium. They were happy about that. 

Let’s go back to that Dale Bumpers thing. I think that that was the first time that we in Arkansas had ever heard of anybody even remotely being considered for the Presidency, even in random mentions. It was really inspiring for a lot of us in college. Arkansas is one of those places that we’re really proud of, and it was weird—it did hurt—it was like Clinton—it really hurt you when people would—because they didn’t understand it. Yes, there were a lot of country folks down there but there are a lot of amazing people who came out of Arkansas, even at that time: James William Fulbright and Sam Walton and all these people. 

So, early ’91, Clinton starts to get this serious attention and actually is responding to it. A lot of people, my grandfather and other people who through the years had thought he could do it, thought he might be that kind of character, were still a little taken aback. People were not ready to take him seriously. My father kind of wrote it off. He never thought it would happen. Of course, he decided to run. I was still at the university at the time. It’s funny, I didn’t know how to get involved in a national campaign. It just wasn’t something that you knew how to do as a student. We weren’t connected to people; it was well beyond our Arkansas roots at that point. There were a few people on the campaign from Arkansas, but for the most part it was run by people who were professional people. 

So, through the summer I organized, another guy Michael [Teague] who actually wound up working in the White House too—

Riley

This is summer of ’92?

Engskov

Summer of ’92, yes. We organized a trip up to Missouri and Kansas. That was going to be our contribution, two of the most Republican states in the country. We decided that the University of Arkansas students could go up there and make a difference. We rented two vans there in Fayetteville and we took about 30 people up through southwest Missouri and eastern Kansas and just went to county fairs. We called the Little Rock campaign office trying to get some stuff, some brochures. It was like pulling teeth—like any campaign, you know. I don’t think they thought there was a lot of value to a bunch of kids running up to southwest Missouri and handing out brochures. 

But we had a great time and for me it was the first time I had really campaigned outside of Arkansas, seeing people’s reaction to somebody they don’t know. It was later, it was probably March or April, so still early in terms of politics. We came back from that and—obviously, this is in the heat of the campaign—Clinton came to Fayetteville and did a campaign rally at the University of Arkansas in something like October, late in the campaign. It was kind of a coming home. They did a big rally at the University of Arkansas. 

I got involved in the event. I just didn’t understand any of this stuff. Everything was new to me. This idea of advance people—I just thought someone put up a podium, people showed up and there it was. But there was a whole system. I got to know these guys who were there: Andrew Kline and Chris Gallagher and—Stephen Goodin was the advance person at the university at that time. I worked really hard and I thought, I’ve got to know these guys. These were big guys, important people I should know because they flew in on a plane. 

They said, Why don’t you go out and do an advance trip? I said, I’d love to. How do I do it? We all drove to Little Rock together the next day after that rally. We went into headquarters. I’d never been in this Clinton headquarters and I just thought it was the mecca. I remember seeing Dee Dee Myers and other people, and I thought, This is amazing.

Riley

You’d seen these people on television by then.

Engskov

Only on television. Someone like Dee Dee Myers was just so big. She was a political celebrity for those of us who just didn’t know anybody. I mean, I knew Bruce a little bit but I didn’t know him. I remember very specifically, Andrew walked over to whoever was running the advance desk and said, We’ve got to send this guy out. They said fine.

They sent me to Springfield, Ohio. I’d never been in Ohio in my life. They gave me a plane ticket. I couldn’t believe it, because plane tickets were so expensive. I couldn’t believe they just handed me a plane ticket, sent me on a plane and I left the next day to go to Ohio. We organized a whole trip for Clinton in Ohio. That was the only advance trip I ever did during the campaign. I came back to Fayetteville after that was over and I was just on a high.

Riley

What were you finding in Ohio at the time? Was there a Clinton network in existence? 

Engskov

It was very intuitive. I went with a couple of guys. We showed up in Ohio, we got together, and we had to organize an event there on—I think it was called Haymarket Square or something—in Springfield, a pretty small town, but obviously Ohio is an important state. We were going to organize a rally. We went out and put things on car windows at malls and went over and recruited a bunch of volunteers at Wittenberg University, which is in Springfield. I remember going up there. We called ahead to somebody at Wittenberg, the head of the Young Democrats, and said, Hey, we’re coming. Can you set up a group for us to talk to? 

I was thinking we’d have five, ten people who would want to help out. I walked into this auditorium—this is the first time I’d ever been out doing something—and there were, I think, a couple of hundred people in the audience. Young students. They introduced me and when they said, the representative from the Clinton campaign, I thought, Good Lord, I have no idea what I’m talking about. I made something up. I would love to have videotape of what I said that night, because it has just got to be completely out-to-lunch.

Riley

But you’re from Arkansas, so you’ve got credentials that way.

Engskov

I was from Arkansas. I remember saying, We’ve just come from Arkansas where the Governor has done a big rally at the University of Arkansas and we’re in the home stretch. I mean, I just made up all this stuff. I couldn’t do it in a million years if I tried now, but it was a fun time. 

That really solidified for me that this was great. I was having a great time and meeting a lot of really smart people. That’s a theme that I’ll come back to in the whole White House. The people that we met along the way, you’re talking about best and brightest, that whole David Halberstam view of the White House. These were people like I’d never met before, not just in intellect, but in energy, in idealism. Just people I just didn’t know. The University of Arkansas is a great school, but we didn’t have that culture of learning and—

Riley

We find the same thing to be true in our interviews. It’s just remarkable, exactly as you say, in the intellect and the energy level of virtually everybody that we talk with. In my teaching, it’s one of the things that I often mention to my students if you’re looking for some encouragement in the political universe when there seems to be so much discouragement out there. And it’s true on the Republican side as well as the Democratic side. The caliber of people who are drawn into politics—you would be astonished at how impressive these people are. So I can certainly understand the point you’re making. 

Engskov

I don’t think I’d ever met anybody who had been to Harvard before I got with the campaign. I was very intimidated by that for a long time. It was very different, until you get to know folks.

Riley

They put their pants on one leg at a time, too. 

Engskov

I also realized that a lot of people are probably—that’s all they’ve got. Harvard. 

Riley

That’s true. You wouldn’t stick them in certain settings in Arkansas and expect them to be able to work their way out of it, I suppose.

Engskov

But they taught us a lot. We really learned from each other. The connection was the energy and the idealism. Then there was a lot of learning to be done. 

Riley

And the commitment to a common cause.

Engskov

Absolutely. Clinton really engendered an amazing amount of sheer optimism. I remember feeling that way. You’d see these videos that the campaign produced. We’d be as moved by them as the people we were supposed to be affecting. That’s hard to find. I have not found that in politics since. 

Riley

Kris, what was your thinking in terms of a career path before you got on this airplane and went to Ohio and felt like you found your calling?

Engskov

You know, I was thinking about that this morning. There was a guy named Steel Fletcher—there’s no better name in Arkansas than Steel—who I was best friends with. We thought that we were going to work for Tyson Foods. We were trying to figure out a way to get a good job at Tyson Foods. That was the big company in Arkansas. You could go work for Wal-Mart but we didn’t know anybody there. We knew a guy at Tyson and we were going to get a job there. That was our career path.

We decided, after that experience—Steel and I actually interned in Washington the year before for David Pryor, who was the Senator for Arkansas. We had such a great time and we thought about going back, but we just thought—

Riley

The internship was in ’91?

Engskov

Summer of ’91. The campaign was in full swing. We had done a little work for Clinton while we were on the Hill, but Washington was not important in the campaign. Clinton came through one time and we did something for him. 

Riley

Ninety-one is a little early, too. 

Engskov

It was pretty early. Clinton was still kind of going around.

Riley

I interrupted your train of thought. We had you coming out of Ohio and you’re thinking—

Engskov

I came back from Ohio and I said, Steel, we’ve got to go get involved in this thing. He’s going to win and this is our opportunity. We didn’t have any sense of what would be required to get a job. We just said we’re going to do it. We’re going to give it a shot. We agreed, over beers one night, sitting in our little house in Fayetteville, that we were going to go give it a year. We figured we could survive a year, even if we had to wait tables, and so we’d give it a shot. So we did. We graduated, and the week after graduation—

Riley

You got your degree in what area? 

Engskov

I got a degree in Public Administration. Steel and I packed up our cars and we drove to Washington just with what we had. 

Riley

This was?

Engskov

May of ’93. 

Riley

So the election has taken place.

Engskov

The election is over. He’s won. 

Riley

Did you go to Little Rock for the election?

Engskov

We did go to Little Rock for election night. We got in and he won, you’re right. So it’s a big thing. 

Riley

I stick pretty close to the chronology on some of these things to make sure I don’t miss anything. Were you running into people? I mean, I would guess that that must have been a thrilling time, but you’re probably trying to think, How can I get a piece of the action? at this point.

Engskov

We are, but we are still are so disconnected from that world. We don’t know anybody. We saw a few people that we knew on the way over. I still don’t know anybody. To be honest with you, we’re not a part of it, so people who are part of it are the ones being part of it and we’re kind of bystanders. I look back on it and I think it was probably okay at the time. I can’t remember. I remember being at the Old State House on election night and seeing people from afar—people that I knew from TV. Wow. But yes, we drove down just for the night and came back. I think we came back that night. You couldn’t get a hotel room in Little Rock. 

Riley

Then we dial forward to the spring of ’93 and you decide you want to do this and you’re willing to make sacrifices. You pack up the car and head to D.C.

Engskov

I’m sorry this is so disconnected.

Riley

No, it’s not at all. I spend more of my time thinking about this period than you do, probably, because you’ve got—

Engskov

I haven’t thought about it for a while. What was probably important to say is that for a lot of it, especially the work doing these advance trips, we just walked away from school, basically. We didn’t do a lot of school work at that time. We were seniors and at that point we were pretty much on a glide path. 

Riley

You go to D.C.

Engskov

We went to D.C. We were driving up on—Route 66, isn’t it?

Riley

Yes, we spend a lot of time on 66. 

Knott

We know it well.

Engskov

I’ve been living in D.C. for so long now I feel like I know the highways. But I remember driving on 66 and we got lost. Now that I know 66, it’s funny. You can’t get lost on 66, but we did. We got lost. We couldn’t find Washington. We were just driving around with all our stuff in the back of our cars. We’d installed CBs in these cars so we could talk on the way up, because we were just by ourselves. I was talking to him on the way up and thinking, What are we doing? We’ve lost our minds. We don’t have anywhere to go. We literally just drove up there. 

So we got there. We finally found D.C. We got there late some evening and we checked into the Towne Motel in Alexandria, which is still there. We ended up living in the Towne Motel for a week and we didn’t have any money. I think it was about $25 a night. It was pretty raw. We were definitely being resourceful. 

We went over to Capitol Hill. We finally talked our way into a place in Southeast—we lived at Seventh and F, or Seventh and G, which at that time was rough. I think it’s now a beautiful new complex. 

Riley

You couldn’t afford to live there now, probably.

Engskov

I guarantee we couldn’t. We got a place. It was just a run-down little apartment. I remember—again, we had another beer, sitting on our stoop that night on G Street—just thinking, Man, we have just lost our minds. We said we were going to go out and start the next day looking for jobs, and we did. Steel ended up getting a job at the Agriculture Department, which he ultimately hated. I remember feeling pressure because I didn’t have a job yet. 

I’ll bring the White House in. Stephanie Streett—you probably interviewed her.

Riley

I haven’t, but I know her and we want to talk with her.

Engskov

She was working in the White House at this point as a deputy scheduler or something. I’d gone to school with her brother, Graham [Streett]. I was good friends with her brother, actually. Graham had said, Go talk to Stephanie and see what she can do to help you. This was the first time I’d ever been in the White House like that. We toured it when I was 12 years old or something. I went to the White House and I talked to Stephanie. I said, Stephanie, I’m looking for a job. We just moved up here. She knew Steel, too. She was the only person I knew in the White House at all, or in the administration. 

She said, Why don’t you go talk to these three people? She gave me a list. A couple of them were on the Hill, and one was Catherine Cornelius, who had just been handed the travel office. If you remember the chronology of what happened, when they dismissed all the folks in the travel office, they handed the job to Catherine Cornelius. She was one of the people to go talk to. So I left the White House that day and I called her up and I said, Hey, Catherine, Stephanie said I might be able to come in and talk to you to see if you had anything I could do, as a volunteer. They had a lot of volunteers working in the White House. 

I was hearing from people that I was talking to that a lot of times what happens in Washington—and again, we just didn’t know anything. We didn’t understand how it worked. We thought that you volunteered for a while and then if you become indispensable they’ll just give you a job when someone leaves. In the meantime we applied for wait-table jobs. I applied for a Mexican place up there on the Hill. I didn’t get the first job I applied for. I was horrible. I was really an incompetent waiter. I had never waited tables. But I finally got a job at Tequila Coast.

Riley

You know this place, Steve?

Knott

I think I may. 

Engskov

I never ended up starting. That’s a long story. 

Riley

You thought he looked familiar.

Knott

I’ll have a margarita. 

Engskov

It grounds you, it really does. I never ended up starting that job. I did get it, but I went to see Catherine, and Catherine was head of travel at this time. She worked in the Old Executive Office Building. I sat down with her and—you know, Catherine also is from Arkansas, has Arkansas roots. She’s the President’s cousin. I said, Hey, I’m looking for a job. I’ve got some time and if you need me to do anything, I’d love to do it. She said, Absolutely. I didn’t know this at the time, but Catherine was embroiled in all this stuff. This was about two weeks after we had dismissed all these people in the travel office, so things were in shambles, as we all know now. She said, Can you go to Philadelphia next week? 

I said, Absolutely. I came back in a week later and she gave me a train ticket to Philadelphia and she said, I want you to ride up with these people and take care of them on the way up. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to know how to take care of people. These were all press people, actually. The travel office, as you probably know, is responsible for organizing all the press travel. It looks at other things but that was the main job, because there was such a huge contingent of press people who travel with the President. So I got on a train to Philadelphia. I met all these folks at the station, and I got them on the train. I rode up with them and made sure the buses got there and rode back with them. 

Riley

Doing this as a volunteer? 

Engskov

A volunteer. I have no ID; I have nothing. I go, Catherine, what if some one asks me who I am? What do I show them? She said, Just tell them—use confidence. I don’t want to make it sound like we were disorganized, but I think it was just that things were moving at such a pace that they just needed people to go take care of things.

Riley

I want to ask you a question about this, because one of the things that we’ve heard from people is that the President’s pledge to cut back on White House staff by 10 percent had really pinched in this period. Do you remember hearing this when you were talking with folks? Were they saying, I’d love to give you a paying job but we’re really strapped here because we’ve got a pledge to cut back? Or not? 

Engskov

I certainly remember hearing it. I remember the pledge. I remember hearing about—it wasn’t a factor in the travel office, because the travel office didn’t have anybody working there. I think there was some administrative issue with not being able to hire until they got this sort of figured out. 

Riley

Okay.

Engskov

Oddly, that trip turned out to be a real turning point for me because—it sounds so trivial—we lost the buses; the buses disappeared. Looking back on this, we had a really shaky time with the press at that time because we had dismissed the travel office. The travel office—they are advocates for the press; that’s who takes care of the press. It’s funny to look back. At that time, I didn’t understand the subtleties of that. It just seemed to me to make sense that we had to be an advocate for the press. Make their lives easier and they’ll do better for us, right?

Riley

Sure.

Engskov

So these buses got lost. I remember running down some street after buses, chasing them, trying to find them, I mean, just trying to be helpful but going well above and beyond the call of duty. I created a little bit of a story there. Catherine says, talking to Dee Dee, Oh, my gosh, Kris just chased the buses down the street. I did all this stuff. That was good, because you kind of started to become—somebody would say, Oh, this guy is a go-to guy It was just so funny. That was such a turning point for me. Now I know what I should do. 

I started doing these trips. The President was going to Japan shortly after that and I remember someone saying, Maybe you should go to Japan. I’ve never even been outside the United States, let alone to Japan. It wasn’t as disorganized as it sounds, but for me in my head, that was such a big step. I was just out of college. They ended up sending me to Hawaii to do part of this trip. The President was going to go to Japan and come back through Hawaii. 

Riley

That sounds terrible.

Engskov

It’s a tough business. I think it really was in my head very early. Stepping onto the stage in Springfield, Ohio, you’re suddenly representing the White House. Whether you’re organizing hotel rooms, or whatever the jobs were, it really was about confidence. I still didn’t have a business card; I had nothing. I’d just show up at these hotels and organize hundreds of hotel rooms for people. They’d just take my word. Thank God we were all honest and wanted to do the right thing. 

So that was the travel office work. That was how I got in. Ultimately, probably six months down the line, I got hired. There was finally a job that existed somewhere, so I got hired.

Riley

Within the travel office?

Engskov

Yes. I was going to be a trip coordinator in the travel office. My job was to organize these trips for the press. 

Riley

Let me ask you, because you just said, Thank goodness we were all honest. There was a period of time when there were questions about this. Were you ever concerned? Did you see anything around that gave you cause for concern that maybe people were either in over their heads or weren’t shooting straight with you about the way things were going?

Engskov

No, but then again, I didn’t have a lot of visibility into what was going on.

Riley

No, but you’re an observant person and—

Engskov

No, I didn’t. Looking back, I wasn’t observant enough to know—I guess I knew what was going on, but I wasn’t primed; I wasn’t interested. I was only interested in going out and doing this job. 

Riley

Let me rephrase the question in a way that might help. You’re dealing with a lot of the press people at this point, right?

Engskov

Yes.

Riley

Are you getting reports back from them that things aren’t going as well as they should—not about organization, but about day-to-day?

Engskov

Yes. Certainly there was a need, and I only know this through Catherine, that things should go smoothly, right? We want to make sure things go smoothly because we need to prove that we can do this. Again, I didn’t know a lot about the politics of the situation at that time because I wasn’t really privy to it, and honestly wasn’t that interested in it. I was interested in doing the job to get the job. I was a volunteer. I remember Catherine saying to me at different times, You’ve got to make sure you’re on top of that. We’ve got to make sure that goes well. You’re having discussions about different options of transportation—Should we do this? Should we do that?—to make sure they’re getting the kind of service that they got before.

Riley

Exactly.

Engskov

From Billy Dale and the team.

Riley

But there’s a difference between saying, We want it to go smoothly, and actually having the know-how and the experience to make it happen. Obviously you were investing all of your energies and the enthusiasm, and the willingness to chase the buses down is a good signal, but I’m just wondering if the press people aren’t saying, Man, things are much more screwed up now than they were six months ago. 

Engskov

Oh, they were, no doubt. It’s funny, as I would walk around these filing centers with the press—I got to be very close to a lot of these guys. The White House had an interesting relationship with the press. I never thought of myself as a press person. I never even imagined getting into that business, but as I got to understand the relationship with the press, it was always funny to me then to meet people in the White House who were standoffish with them. Sure, there are a lot of things—you don’t share everything you know, but in a day, they’re looking for honesty and straightforwardness and being helpful. Half the battle was just making their job a little easier.

Riley

Creature comforts.

Engskov

Partially about creature comforts, but also just about—when I got the press office job later—what were we so scared of? There were certain people who drove the culture. George [Stephanopoulos] was very standoffish with the press. I remember things that he would ask us to do. I can’t think of good examples, but, maybe put people in a different hotel or something. Really it just made people’s lives harder and didn’t do any of us any good. 

Riley

Right. There was the flap over opening the door to the press office.

Engskov

Yes, that was ridiculous.

Knott

I’m just wondering, did you have any sense of why Stephanopoulos felt this way?

Engskov

I didn’t know George at all. I only got to know George later. I didn’t know him at the time. I only heard what he asked us to do. I don’t know, maybe he’d been burned at different times. It was great for us with fresh minds, open minds, to come in and just—as I got to know these people I found that I could be a good representative of the White House by helping them, and making their jobs easier, and helping them get access to different things—and partially creature comforts, which was my job—without endangering any of our secrets. Not that they were secrets, but obviously the communication strategy was giving a message, and we weren’t at the level to impact the message, but we were at the level that we could make sure that we created an environment in which that message gets through easier. 

Again, I was a young guy, and there weren’t a lot of people around, but I think we created a little group that really took pride in rebuilding that reputation of the White House with the press. Sure, there were tough times. I remember Brit [Alexander Britton] Hume just railing on us about how stupid we were, how we couldn’t get it right. We lost his bag one night. He just went bananas on me. I understand that. We should be able to get it right. It’s funny to look back on those things now. Just like anything in management, it’s about admitting, hey, we’re working at this. We made a mistake. We’ll get it right next time. We learn from that. That’s what we did. 

I remember it happening fairly quickly. There was an ongoing controversy with what happened administratively with the travel office. We started to get their trust back relatively quickly after that. I came two weeks after the dismissal. By the time I actually got a job, it was about six months. At the end, I felt like at least the day-to-day was going relatively smoothly, given the kind of challenges we had. We didn’t have the charter companies or bus companies or whoever Billy Dale and his team had built years of relationship with. We didn’t know them. 

But at the end of the day it’s a lot about common sense, too. We had a very basic package of responsibilities that was: make sure they had an airplane that worked; make sure they had transportation to and from that event and a hotel room; and make sure the bag gets there. At the end of the day it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to do that.

Riley

Sure. And was it your perception that when these things didn’t go well, that you could detect a registering of that—

Engskov

Oh, yes.

Riley

In how the reporting and stuff went?

Engskov

I don’t know about the reporting. I thought that what was odd was when they actually wrote stories about themselves and their creature comforts. Paul Bedard wrote a piece one time about—in conjunction with the travel office firing—Paul Bedard and I end up becoming very close friends, but he was one of the main instigators of the travel office coverage. He would drive that story. He was at the Washington Times at the time. They would write stories about how we didn’t take care of them, how we screwed it up. What I thought was odd about it was it would almost sort of show them to be prima donnas. These airplanes they fly around in—We didn’t get a hot meal, and those sort of things. 

At the time, I didn’t always connect the dots, because I didn’t know enough to know. But we worked really hard at going above and beyond to make them happy and to show them that we were really committed to doing whatever was required to show we could do as good a job. We didn’t have as much experience, but we weren’t building rockets, we were booking hotel rooms. Once you break it down, when you really start to break it down into small pieces, it just wasn’t that complicated.

Riley

How long did you keep the job in the travel office?

Engskov

I was there for three-and-a-half years, a long time.

Riley

Were you doing basically the same job?

Engskov

The same thing. Looking back on that time, I’d never traveled much. We’d traveled some as a family when we were in Arkansas, but we just never had the opportunity. I remember going to Europe for the first time with the press, landing in Brussels for the first time. I’d never been to Europe; I’d never been to Asia; I’d never been anywhere outside the country besides Mexico. For me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to travel to these places.

I got to a point where I was kind of unhappy in the travel office. I was doing the same thing day after day. But you’re running around with the President of the United States. You’re getting to know some of the most important journalists in the world. There was rarely a day when I was bored. I didn’t like some of the—I felt that I needed to move on from managing people’s bags. But I tell people today that that was the most satisfying job I ever had, because at the end of the day you knew whether you had done a good job. You knew whether those bags got to the rooms. To be honest with you, that was really important. 

One time—I won’t tell you who it was—we lost a guy’s bag—a very prominent correspondent in television. We were going to Jerusalem. We flew over in the plane, and we lost his bag. I remember him being on TV the next day in the same outfit he wore on the plane. I was watching in my hotel room and thinking, Gosh, that’s my fault. He looked terrible. It is the small things when you’re traveling with the President. 

Knott

You said this was the first time you really left the North American continent. Did you have any free time on these trips, or are you running 24 hours a day?

Engskov

You’re running 24 hours a day, but what’s funny about that—my mother used to ask me if I’d seen anything. Did you get to see anything when you went to— wherever we went. I’ll illustrate this with a story: We went to Moscow. Now, if you’re from Arkansas, let me tell you, Moscow is about as far from the real world as you can get. I just had no idea what that would be like. I went to Moscow on the travel office job. Again, our job was bags. So one morning—these are really trivial details—

Riley

They’re not at all trivial details. What you’re doing is giving us a picture that will go in with hundreds of other pictures, and when people are coming back to try to figure out what life is like in this White House, your portrait is going to be a very important piece of that. 

Engskov

So one morning we had a baggage call at two o’clock in the morning or something. The travel schedule, at least especially early on was remarkably fast. We would just get to one place and then fly to the other. There was never any kind of real—I think that was driven by Clinton. I didn’t have visibility at the time. I learned later that it really was his style; he drove that schedule. Later we learned things like, when you fly—Clinton wanted to leave at seven o’clock at night to go to Europe so we could start the next day right off the plane. That’s great for him because he had a shower and various other amenities, but for the rest of us who get off the plane with our hair like this, it was a little more difficult.

Coming back to the story: We’re in Moscow. We had a very early baggage call. The press all brought their bags down. My job was to go with another guy to the Vnukovo Airport, which is about an hour-and-a-half outside of Moscow. It was the dead of winter. This is a December trip. 

We worked with the Russian military and our military. We had these guys who used to work for the travel office, these military guys. We loaded the bags in the back of a little Russian diesel truck and I rode in the front of that truck with a Russian driver who didn’t speak a word of English, and a guy from the embassy. We got on the highway out to Vnukovo Airport—I mean, dead of winter, no heat. You’re just sucking in these diesel fumes—with all the press bags, and you think, What am I doing out here? We got stopped by the Russian police three times on the way out there. 

Riley

Checkpoints? Or they’re pulling you over?

Engskov

No, no. I don’t know how familiar you are with the—the police have these sticks, the traffic police, and they just hold the stick out and you have to stop. Who knows? The driver would have these stereotypical yelling matches with the police. I’m a 21-year-old guy, and I don’t know, I may end up in prison. All we’re trying to do is get the bags to the airport. We got to the airport after being stopped by the police three times. This is the dead of night. This is three or four o’clock in the morning. We get there and we talk our way onto the airfield. Yes, that’s our big 747 over there. We need to put the bags on.

Riley

By this time you have credentials at least, right?

Engskov

We do have credentials. I suppose it was very organized, but sometimes it seemed that the challenges were big when you’re just doing something simple like getting bags onto an airplane. But it was critical because if you didn’t get it done you couldn’t leave. 

So here we were, out at Vnukovo Airport. We got onto the airfield. The travel office is responsible for renting these planes, chartering planes, and we had a Northwest 747 out on the airfield. It’s way, way out on one of the curtains on the airfield. We drove this Russian truck across the tarmac. The Vnukovo Airport is a massive diplomatic airport. It has all these old broken-down Aeroflot airplanes and it’s like being in a different world out there. It’s surreal, these experiences you have. We got out to the airplane—and we had Bill Pierce, who was then the Northwest charter guy, with us in another car. The crew wasn’t there. Bill Pierce took out a screwdriver and went to the bottom of that 747. There were no stairs or anything. He unscrewed this panel and he crawled up into the plane. 

I thought, Bill, what are you doing? He said, I’m going to get on the plane. I’m going to get it started. We crawled up this ladder from underneath the wheel well, into the 747. It’s freezing cold. He goes up in the cockpit, switches some switches, and the whole airplane lights up.

Knott

Puts the heat on?

Engskov

Puts the heat on, opens the bins, and then the Russian guys start loading the plane. To me—it’s one thing to go see the Kremlin and other things, but these were the kinds of life experiences that to me as a 21-year-old guy were remarkable. Tell your mom, Mom, we broke into a 747 at the airport. We just had so many unique experiences like that. Becoming resourceful and working with other culturally challenging—to do very basic tasks. But they were fun. We had just a great time.

Riley

Did you have a chance to do some of the more touristy things, to see the Kremlin and so forth?

Engskov

I did, certainly later with the President. As the aide, I had remarkable opportunities to see things.

Riley

We’ll come to that. 

Engskov

But in the travel office, yes. Our job was obviously at odd hours of the day. Once we got everybody into a hotel room, we kind of had our job done for a short period of time so we’d steal away and go to some—Right before a bag call one night we walked down from the King David Hotel in the Old City in Jerusalem. We walked to the Old City at two o’clock in the morning. For a kid from Arkansas, that was—I mean, you come to the Wailing Wall, and just sort of look around; there’s all the stuff you studied in history books but now it’s suddenly very real and you’re seeing it at unusual times and under unusual circumstances. 

So we did, we saw lots of things like that. But anybody who worked in the White House, especially on the traveling staff, will tell you that you had to be a little bit selfish. We weren’t very good at that. You had to be a little bit selfish in that every once in a while you had to look up and just see what was going on, see who you’re standing next to, seeing what you were missing. Once I got working with the President a lot closer, those opportunities became really remarkable. 

Riley

I’m assuming that at this time you’re not having much interaction with people—senior White House officials.

Engskov

Not really. I got to know a few of them, sort of, but I’m still pretty distant. I’m actually very close to the press at this point. Brian Williams, who is now the anchor at NBC, was the White House person at the time. He’s the nicest guy. We used to run around, shoot the breeze, play cards on planes. I really became very good friends with these guys because I was their helper; I really worked for them. That felt good because I got to know not only just really impressive people but all kinds of people who were journalists. I started to pick up the subtleties. I was just learning all the time, the subtleties of journalism—who writes what, and why they do what they do, and I could see the impact of that day in a story.

Riley

What should we know about these creatures that you’re dealing with? Were there certain people that you just knew were going to be hard cases throughout, who were naturally crabby?

Engskov

There were two different schools in the press corps. There was the old guard—I think of people like George Condon, Jr. at Copley News Service, or Kathy Lewis, at Dallas Morning News, who were truly, genuinely great people: old-school, hard-core journalists who would dig and ask the right questions and really do the work. They weren’t too clever; they asked the question that needed to be asked, and they worked hard. I was always amazed by it. People would get off a ten-hour flight and then sit there and write a news story, pulling very quickly from the facts they could get on an event. Really, they’ve got an hour to file it and then they’ve got to be off to somewhere else. I was always amazed. I’m sure it’s something you become good at if you’ve done it for a while, but watching the pros—it’s really impressive.

The old guard was—what’s funny is they were the hardest ones to bring around on the travel office stuff because they had known these guys for a long time and I think that was about personal connection. But once we proved to them that, gosh, we were young and we were maybe a little bit naïve and not very experienced, but we really believed in what they were doing and we took them seriously and we weren’t too clever—that’s a phrase that they use over here, which I think is a good descriptive thing to say. We weren’t trying to be too smart; we were just trying to do a good job. We believed in this guy. 

The other good thing was we didn’t get so close that we would compromise what was good for the President over what was good for the press. Often I can remember thinking in my head, Okay, that maybe crossed the line on what we should be doing. We still work for the President and there’s a limit to that.

Riley

You said there was the old school. Then presumably there was a new school?

Engskov

I think there was a new school. This is not a critical statement if he listens to this, but Jay Carney at Time magazine was a very young guy. He came in. A guy named Josh Gerstein. There were some real young guys, just a little bit older than me, who came in, obviously intellectually very bright or they wouldn’t be doing it. Jay Carney was writing for Time magazine at the time. This was clearly a very different regime of White House correspondents, much more clever in how they approached their writing, much more clever in their questioning—I wouldn’t say any less straightforward, but just a little bit more clever.

 I was always more on guard with those guys because I felt like they would sometimes cross the line with us, in terms of—I always respected George Condon, for instance, because George Condon would tell you why he’s asking the question. If he thought it was maybe too clever to ask a 21-year-old guy who’s just trying to carry his bags, who might have visibility into something, he would tell you why he was asking, as opposed to somebody else who might ask you a question and not tell you why they’re asking. Not that they were obligated to do that, but it’s about playing by the rules and having some mutual respect for each other.

Riley

Part of what you’re suggesting, if I’m hearing you correctly, is that because you develop these close—physically close, not intimate—intimacy may be a part of this, but—when you’re dealing with these people on a daily basis, you must have developed some sixth sense for—when you’re talking with somebody just because this is a human being, and I’m talking to somebody, and the risk of talking to somebody and saying something that they then pick up and it works its way into a story in some way—Is that what you’re suggesting?

Engskov

Yes, I am, and I think it was a fine line, because if somebody works in the White House, you’ve got a lot of access. You can go find out anything you want to find out, really. In terms of how that information is shared, you had some ground rules. When you work for the press, you were still working for the President. I would apply the same rule to the President that I applied to the press. You weren’t their friends, right? You couldn’t become friends with them, even though it seemed like that at the time. You’d really have to say to yourself, Okay, this is a job. 

Because you spend so many hours with these people, they’re almost your family. You have to really be careful in terms of those relationships, again, not because you were going to give away something, or screw something up. You had to be conscious of that.

Knott

Did you ever slip? Did you ever have an occasion where—?

Engskov

Oh, yes. I got in trouble, I’m sure, more than once. Something as simple as, We’re going to change the schedule. We’re going here instead of here, which would be a revelation because we hadn’t told anybody yet. Again, simple things, but it might indicate a much larger shift in something that you think was pretty innocuous at the time. On two different occasions when I was in the press office—the night the President was at Greg Norman’s house and fell and clipped a ligament—I think that was what he did. I can’t remember now. It’s so long ago. 

Riley

He injured himself there, but I don’t remember what it was.

Engskov

It was in Jupiter Beach, Florida. I was still—I had either just switched over from the travel office, somewhere in that zone. We were in some random little hotel in Jupiter Beach and I had the press pool with me. I got a call at two o’clock in the morning. This may not relate as much to the travel office as I initially thought. I got a call at two o’clock in the morning. I remember Mary Ellen Glynn, who was Deputy Press Secretary at the time, saying to me, The President has been injured. I need you to get the press and bring them to the hospital. Click. Just distinctly like that. Going through my head I’m thinking, What has happened to him? Has he been involved with something horrible? Is he okay? She didn’t even tell me it was his knee. I gave her a hard time for that later. 

I called these guys in their hotel rooms and I said, The President is injured. That’s all I can tell you, all I know, and we’re going to the hospital. It’s funny looking back on that. Ron Fournier, who I was very close to because he’s just a good guy—He had worked in Arkansas for a long time. He wrote for the AP [Associated Press]. Of course when I called him, when you say, The President is injured, obviously he has to do something with that. I was put in a very difficult position because I didn’t know, and he filed the story that Kris Engskov had said the President was injured and they are on the way to the hospital.

That actually set off of a whole—there was about a 30-minute period in which—there was a wire story that went out at two o’clock in the morning that said the President was injured, based on a report from a guy who really is responsible for the bags. They didn’t know more and they were on the way to the hospital. 

It’s funny looking back on those kinds of experiences. That was our fault for not communicating better, but you just find yourself in odd positions sometimes. Physically very demanding situations. You’d just woken up, you’d just packed your bag and thrown it—we didn’t even pack our bags that day; someone else had to go back and pack them and send them back to Washington on a plane. 

Riley

I want to ask a question about the idea of pack journalism. One of the things that you hear from the outside is that in this group of people that makes up the press corps a story will take on a form of almost instant conventional wisdom, depending on who within the pack is considered to be the leader. Did you see evidence of this, where a story would kind of congeal in a certain direction and all of a sudden people would begin running with it?

Engskov

If you think about the timeframe—we’re talking ’94 and ’95, and 24-hour news is just becoming a big thing. The Internet hasn’t even really—it’s there but it’s not a driver like it is today. I think you saw the beginnings of that. Depending on the news cycle, or where you were and what was happening, obviously there was a strategy to this in terms of communication that we tried to employ at times, but we were not always successful, depending on where we were in the world or when things happened, frankly. 

Depending on who was out first—if TV was on with the story and there was a particular slant to it, I think there were certainly some pack tendencies there. I noticed among the writers—again, this is reflecting on a time long ago, so I’m not sure how much context it had at the time, but it did seem that certainly writers, especially filing on very tight deadlines on a story, would read the stories and they would typically follow pretty closely the same sort of main headlines. That may be common sense, but they all sat in the same room; they all heard the same things. They would be in the same sort of senior administration gaggles, right? That set the tone. And they couldn’t help but talk and exchange ideas. These were very small rooms. 

Frankly, among the crowd there were pretty small groups of people. There might have been ten writers on the trip who were all the important newspapers—the Post, the Times. I would guess there’s a certain amount of pressure there to know what your colleague is writing so that you didn’t misunderstand what happened. There were probably certain people who did take a lead, right? If you’re respected, I assume that people ask your opinion. I don’t know. I never had much access to those conversations, although I overheard many of them, around how they would treat each other in terms of a story. That’s probably not what you were looking for.

Riley

I didn’t know whether you might have picked things up, because you had been a close observer of this particular breed of animal—

Engskov

I think I was too young and too inexperienced to really understand what I was seeing. I look back on that now and think I missed some opportunities along the way to understand. But really, the policy nuances of what we were doing—I hate to say this, but I was just worried about getting the bags in the room. 

Riley

Of course. That was what your job was, and it’s how you understood your rewards were going to be garnered, right? You went back to chasing the buses down the street. This isn’t the only case. We interviewed a senior policy guy here a month or so ago, whose name I won’t mention, because it’s not consistent with our ground rules. But he tells basically the same story. He said, During the campaign and the early stages of the White House, I would do anything. I knew that regardless of how small it was, even if it was making photocopies, I was going to be the best photocopier there was.

Engskov

Absolutely.

Riley

And this is somebody who went on to take a very senior policy position. So probably the people—I’ll float this as a proposition and see if you rise to it. If somebody in your position is detected as being a bit too interested in press relations, in other words, communicating the message of the day to the press, they probably don’t last very long in that kind of job, do they?

Engskov

No, but that’s not my job, right? It’s very clear. I think also that helped define my relationship with the press. If you were the bag guy, you were the bag guy. They didn’t come to me—I didn’t want that responsibility, even though I might have been able to handle it. Or might have liked it, but I didn’t want to mix those two up. That was a very clear delineation in the White House between the press office and everybody else. 

That’s where I come back to the whole—journalists being a little too clever, in that they abused that trust sometimes. They abused your, maybe your lack of experience, your ability to read between the lines of what’s happening there. That didn’t happen often, but it did happen enough that you certainly saw people that you’d definitely put your guard up if they needed to know something. 

Riley

So you were in that job, you said, three-and-a-half years?

Engskov

Three-and-a-half years. 

Riley

That would take you through the ’96 election?

Engskov

In the ’96 election I was in the press office, so I’d gone in, I took that job—maybe it wasn’t three-and-a-half. I took the press office job in January of ’96. I was doing that job during the election. 

Riley

How did you come by that job? You said you were getting burned out—

Engskov

I wanted to move up. Everybody was always looking for a new challenge. I basically worked in the press office, because the travel office really was a subsidiary of the press office in terms of who it served, its constituency. 

Riley

And you’d done a good job. 

Engskov

I’d done a very good job.

Riley

You got high marks.

Engskov

People trusted me. I think they trusted me to take on more responsibility. I’d gotten to know Dee Dee a bit. I think she liked me. Jeremy Gaines, who is now, oddly enough, at MSNBC, was in the job and he decided to leave. You never applied for a job at the White House. There was sort of a shortlist that gets put together behind closed doors and they figure out who it’s going to be. This is a unique job. The job was really—they call it the pool wrangler. It was the guy or girl who manages the press that travels directly with the President, the thirteen people who are always with the President whenever he leaves the White House. It was a great job because you traveled with the President wherever he went. Again, you weren’t a spokesperson, but you’re certainly part of that communications team. 

I interviewed for it basically with Dee Dee and Evelyn Lieberman. Ultimately I got it. I didn’t have a lot of visibility into how that worked. They just said, We think you’ve done a good job. We think you can do this job. Show up on Monday and start.

Riley

Were your day-to-day responsibilities dramatically different from what they were before?

Engskov

Yes, they were quite different. I had a little bit of a learning curve.

Riley

Who had the job before you had it?

Engskov

Jeremy Gaines. I spent a couple of weeks with him kind of going through what it was like to work in the press office every day and do that job. I think the big shift for me on that one—I was used to traveling, but I wasn’t used to traveling on Air Force One. That was a big shift in life, because I was spending a lot of time on airplanes but it was a different one, and I was now spending time with much more serious White House people. The only people who really traveled consistently were the Chief of Staff, the National Security Advisor, military aide, me, the press office person and the President’s aide. That was the consistent package. There were some other people obviously who would go along for the trip, but I was always there.

Riley

Do you remember the first time you went on Air Force One?

Engskov

Like it was yesterday.

Riley

Tell us about it.

Engskov

Stephen Goodin, who was the aide at the time—You get on in the back with the press. I remember going up the stairs. They have two military, two of the flight crew. They’re very imposing because they have on full dress uniforms. They have guards at Air Force One. Air Force One, itself, is an incredibly imposing airplane. 

Riley

Now had you taken Marine One to get there?

Engskov

No. The President would fly from the White House on Marine One to Andrews Air Force Base. That was considered to be sort of on his own time because you could see it, technically. A group of press would watch him take off. Then the press pool that was going to travel would actually meet him at Andrews. 

Riley

So they would get in a van or a bus?

Engskov

They’d usually just come out there on their own. We’d check people in. I’d go out early, check people in, make sure we had the team there and then we would get everybody on the airplane. They’d watch the helicopter land, watch him walk onto the airplane, and we’d take off.

Riley

I interrupted your story. You’ve got very imposing military aides at the back of the plane.

Engskov

Yes, you walk up and, it’s funny, the first time you fly on Air Force One they treat you like—they’re probably supposed to treat you like, What are you doing here? sort of thing. I remember talking to these guys and they couldn’t find my name. I was like, This is so typical. My first time on Air Force One and I’m not going to be able to get on. Stephen came out and helped me. He said, He’s fine. Get on the plane. It was their job to make sure they manifest correctly the airplane. Obviously they’re quite serious about that. 

It was amazing. You come up a set of stairs into the airplane and you can’t believe you’re on the President’s airplane, because you’ve heard about it all your life. You’ve seen it. Stephen gave me a little tour of the airplane. Just remarkable space. Probably one of the most interesting things, the most interesting history about the whole White House, was the airplane, the evolution of the airplane and that particular one. 

Over time you get to know the flight crew and the people who work around the airplane and you become very comfortable with them. Actually, Air Force One became my home in a lot of ways. The relationship I had with the airplane if I traveled on it every day, which is what we did oftentimes, was that it was my home. It felt good to be on the airplane because there was food there, normal food. There weren’t people clamoring to get at us. Really, it was a place where we rested. I know the President looked at it that way. It was really comfortable. That’s not something you typically associate with airplanes but it was designed that way.

When I first got on Air Force One, I read a lot about the history of the airplane. It was designed to work that way. It was designed to be a working office for the press as well as the President. It was just such an amazing experience to get to work on the airplane every day, and to work with the press on the airplane. It’s as important to the press what kinds of facilities are there as it is to the President, because you do spend physically so much time on the airplane. 

Riley

You said it felt like home. Did you have an assigned or designated space there?

Engskov

I did. I had an assigned seat. I look back on it now, they used to have these cards, they were seating cards, that said, Aboard Air Force One, and they’d have my name on it, Mr. Engskov, or Mr. Whoever. I’ve kept all those because—what an amazing souvenir. I remember on that first trip I found my name and I thought, Gosh, I’ve really made it now. I’m on the plane. That was the ultimate exclusivity. There was no better place to be at the White House.

Riley

Beyond first class.

Engskov

It was fantastic. Once I started traveling every time, I definitely got a seat. I had a seat that I always sat at in the conference room because I could spread stuff out and kind of get ready and work.

Riley

This was as the press guy, the pool wrangler.

Engskov

Yes. I didn’t sit with the press; I sat with the staff. There’s a rule in Air Force One—we did not follow it in our administration but apparently other administrations have—that you don’t actually go forward of where you’re seated. There’s a whole protocol. If you’re seated in the staff cabin, you don’t go forward of the staff cabin without being invited.

Riley

You can go back but not forward.

Engskov

It sort of goes: back galley, press and Secret Service, office, then the staff cabin, then the conference room, then the President’s facilities are in the front. I’m so naïve, I didn’t even know that was a rule. So I’m just walking around. You certainly knew when you first got on that you didn’t go near the President’s area. From the back of the airplane, from the staff cabin, you can look all the way up the hallway that runs alongside of the airplane and see the President’s door. It has a big imposing seal on it. There’s the President’s cabin; that’s where the President is. 

Even after all that time working on the plane at different times, I was always in awe of the accoutrements that come with all this stuff. I always looked up there and thought, Wow, that’s the President of the United States’ cabin. I never got over that. I don’t think most people ever do. 

Riley

But flying on that was a sea change from what you had experienced where you were— taking midnight bus trips through the tundra of Russia to get to your—

Engskov

It was still very hard; the job was very hard, but certainly I felt much more a part of what was going on. At least on the travel piece, I was much more a part of—I was in the middle of things, so I needed to be a part of a lot of the—especially logistical conversations. If the President was going to do something a little bit different, I had to be part of that. So I knew a lot more about what he was doing and why he was doing it. 

Especially as I got better at that job, the press trusted me more to do—I never became a spokesperson, but I certainly communicated a lot more with the press and learned a lot from this experience. Again, it comes back to that relationship, that cleverness. I was changing roles. I always had to calibrate that. I didn’t want to be that guy who says something I shouldn’t without being the guy I should be, whether I’m senior or junior or wherever I fit in that. The slightest bit of information can really set off a huge flurry.

Riley

You’ve already learned that by this time.

Engskov

I did, many times, the hard way.

Riley

Are you at this point beginning to have some significant interaction with the President, probably for the first time in your life?

Engskov

I was spending a lot of time around the President. Air Force One is kind of a neutral zone for him. People are not doing business unless he wants to do business on the plane, unless we have to. You’re on an airplane with him so you’d think you’d spend a lot of time with him, but you don’t actually see him that much unless you’re with him. 

Riley

He liked to use this for down time? He didn’t like to do business—

Engskov

It would depend. He used it a lot for down time. We spent so many hours on there that down time was inevitably a part of it. The conference room was sort of like the common ground. Everyone came to the conference room to watch movies and play cards and those sorts of things, when we had down time, which was not common unless it was on an international trip. 

He would be in there a lot. What was odd about him was you could actually be in a room with him—and he talks to everybody. When it’s the President, you were just the audience. There weren’t a lot of people who would talk with him one-on-one in that environment. So you’d have the opportunity to watch him. Having that kind of space to watch him so closely—like anyone that well-known, it’s sort of hard to get used to, in your head, what he looks like, what he does and how he acts. It took me a long time just to become comfortable being around him physically when I was in that job. 

He knew who I was. He knew I was from Arkansas; he knew my grandfather—all those things. He knew those connections in the back of his head. What was odd is that my brother, [John Engskov], is actually a very well-known basketball player in Arkansas. He played on the Final Four teams in Arkansas in ’93 and ’94. We won the championship in ’94. And Clinton is a huge basketball fan. We actually ended up going to a couple of games my brother was playing in. That really bonded us together. We went to the semi-finals in Dallas in ’94—I think in Dallas. 

I went to the locker room with the President, and John was in there and it was a nice connection because he really did love basketball, especially NCAA basketball. Then we ended up going to the Final Four, and actually got to go to the game my brother played in the Final Four. That helped bond us together a little bit.

Riley

Of course.

Engskov

Clinton loved basketball; he loved John; he loved the team, and that was just a good connection. That helped us create a conversation. Not that it’s hard to talk to the President, but when you’re 24 years old, what can you really talk to the President of the United States about? I don’t think at that age I was engaging him very often. I’d say, Did you see the game last night? Simple things. 

The Arkansas connections came in very handy because, as I built that relationship with the President, there would be people we would know. Maybe something would happen to somebody in Arkansas—one of our icons would pass away, or something good would happen to somebody and we could share that. No one else on the airplane would know that. 

Knott

Were there any instances where you had to wrangle the pool on very short notice, a secret trip somewhere that was announced at the last minute? How did you deal with those kinds of things?

Engskov

We didn’t have any Iraq sort of things. One Thanksgiving we went somewhere; I can’t remember what we did on that. My recollection is that we did it twice when I was in that job. Typically what would happen is we would call at ten o’clock at night—there was a list. We knew who to call. Or you called the news desk and they would assign somebody to do it. You’d say, Be at Andrews tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m. We’re leaving. Or whatever time. We’d usually give them six or seven hours’ notice.

Knott

Were they instructed not to—do you have the right to tell them they can’t report anything until—how was that handled?

Engskov

Well, you can embargo things, right? Obviously the press secretary would set the rules around what could be released and what wasn’t. I can’t remember what those two instances were—I just remember doing it a time or two, having to be the communicator. They weren’t Iraq sort of visits where there was a real security issue, because we didn’t have a lot of that. They were more, We’re going to go somewhere and we need you to be ready to go. We may have done that in Bosnia. It was always about security though—It was about just making sure they didn’t know to be looking for a—

Riley

There was one visit to Pakistan. I don’t know whether that came—

Engskov

I didn’t go on that. I had dropped off in India to go climb a mountain on that trip. Doug [Band, Jr.] actually went in my place to Pakistan. They did do some unusual things to kind of throw people off that trail. They changed planes. It was a very unusual security situation. But I wasn’t there so I can’t tell you about it.

Riley

I thought that might have been one case.

Engskov

We tried to be very straightforward with that stuff, especially on Thanksgiving or Christmas. The President does travel sometimes on those holidays. Clinton was very conscious of the fact that the Secret Service and the press have families. You can take Thanksgiving away from somebody, but you better give them a heads-up. He was conscious that people have lives. There were times when it was important enough, that’s your job, and we all do it and we all make those sacrifices, but in terms of where we had an opportunity, he was oddly the one who would call it out and say, let’s do it this way so that we don’t—especially with the Secret Service, because—talk about guys with stressed families because of travel. He was very conscious of that. 

Riley

I want to ask a question about this in relationship to the Secret Service. This actually will bridge back to your early time. There were some significant press reports early on, and these things would come out occasionally, about the tension between the incoming political people and the White House ushers and the standing staff of the White House, the permanent staff there. Did you detect any of that when you were there?

Engskov

That’s in my notes here. You know, I never once encountered—and I’ve spent countless hours with the White House staff, the permanent staff. There was nothing but great affection for the President. I wasn’t there in the beginning, which is where I think most of that friction happened. 

My guess is that’s about style. The Clintons are very informal people. I don’t know anything about the Bushes, so I don’t know how that worked, but I would guess that there’s a transition to be made there in terms of the informal style. Bill Clinton is a very happy-go-lucky guy in that way. He’s a common guy. He’s as happy to eat a hamburger as he is to dine grandly as Presidents are supposed to dine. Knowing some of the staff, that probably ruffled some feathers early on, in that they wanted to produce that level of service and were frustrated they couldn’t, or he didn’t appreciate it and want it. You would see that occasionally when he didn’t—that’s the great problem with the Presidency. People have these expectations of the Presidency, whether it’s the White House staff or people you go visit in another country. Or they set these things up.

At the end of the day, it almost creates barriers between people, between the President and the people he’s trying to spend time with. These elaborate arrival ceremonies in some of these foreign countries—the President appreciated them but they would almost take away from the kind of guy he was. He didn’t want these grand arrivals. He wanted to go out and meet people and understand them, and represent America as a populist kind of place, a high-touch place. You know what I’m saying?

Riley

Sure. It’s very consistent with what we’ve heard, especially in talking with people who worked with the First Lady’s office, that there was a certain jealousy on the part of the President that she actually got to go out and had the freedom to move around in a way that was relatively more open and democratic than he did.

Engskov

He was very frustrated by the pool thing, I think. He was frustrated that every time he went out, he had to have the press with him. And sometimes he would just leave. That caused some real tension between the press and the press office, especially if it was to play golf or something. Oftentimes on weekends—when I was in the press office job I had the responsibility to, if he went to play, or he went to do something like go shopping—he’d do all kinds of trivial things in Washington like that—I had to get somebody there to get them out. Oftentimes he’d outrun us. He would just walk out and leave. You’d have the President running around in Washington and the press are not with him. We’d get everybody together and they’d go chase him down. It did cause some tension, but he understood the need for that. 

Obviously that pool was created after the [John F.] Kennedy assassination. Helen Thomas was always there. Every time that happened she would say to me, Do you know why we created the press pool? I’d say, Helen, why did you create it? Because when President Kennedy was assassinated, we weren’t there. Every time, she’d tell me that. It almost became a joke. It was funny. Helen was a fantastic person we learned a lot from. She was the principle-setter. She made it clear that that was not all right and that somebody should talk to the President about it. She would ask him about it from time to time. She would go, Why did you leave on Sunday to go play golf without us? 

He’d just—Okay, see you later. He would wait sometimes. When I was the aide, I’d be like, We’ve got to wait for the team; they’re not loaded up yet. He’d just go, Ohhh [deep sigh]. He would just sigh and be like, Okay. He kind of relented at the end. He knew that was part of his—it is sort of odd, though, to stand there with the President and say, You can’t leave yet because the press is still loading up. But he was good about stuff like that.

Knott

Were you ever asked to delay, to hold the press back?

Engskov

No. You mean in terms of leaving someplace? 

Knott:
I just need an hour to go jogging, or whatever. Can you just—
Engskov

Oh no, he knew that was part of the deal. That’s a White House agreement, not a Clinton deal. Again, he made his own rules sometimes, too, especially early on when he’d go jogging on the Mall and that sort of thing, although that really curbed early because when he became President, he didn’t do that as often. But he’d just head out, that sort of thing. 

[BREAK]
Riley

I wanted to ask about your transition, because the Press Secretary changes at some point in your tenure. How was that for you? And what can you tell us about the different operating styles between Dee Dee and Mike McCurry?

Engskov

Very different people. Very different personalities, and very different levels of experience with the press, was my view. Dee Dee was great. I loved Dee Dee as a person. She had the benefit of spending all that time with the President early, being there in the dog days early in the campaign. I think he appreciated that loyalty. Also, he liked her. Everybody liked her. She was a genuinely good person, a nice person. She was a very progressive thinker around communications. She came from California and had worked on some of those campaigns out there and just had a different angle on a lot of things from the traditional Washington approach. 

Riley

You mean communications, or—

Engskov

Communication strategy, politics—everything.

Riley

You mean by that—I’m just trying to refine it—the use of alternative means of communication at that point?

Engskov

I think she was more open to that, yes. One of the early campaign strategies was to reach out to local press, to really get very local in how we approached it, not just do the New York Times and Washington Post every day. 

Riley

Okay.

Engskov

But, as we know now, that irritated some in the institution. Obviously we survived that early on, but I think we went back and forth between that relationship, how to keep both those worlds happy and fed, for lack of a better word.

Riley

Were you seeing that from your perspective all through there?

Engskov

Yes.

Riley

Is that right? You used the old guard, new guard in a different way earlier, but some of the inside-the-Beltway press organs were feeling less well-attended to, because there was an effort to go outside?

Engskov

Yes. We probably weren’t very smart, in the sense that we didn’t—we were very explicit in our communication about that—If you’re not going to write the way we want you to write, we’ll just go find somebody who will—which probably wasn’t a very smart way to do it. It was effective at different times. Obviously, in the local markets, it’s hard to fly Air Force One into Louisville, Kentucky and not end up on the front page of the local newspaper, right? It was relatively a good story. You don’t have to be a long-time press officer to understand the value of that. 

When we used to fly Air Force One, they’d turn on the local TV on the plane—they’d pick it up just before we were going to land—and you’d watch yourself flying into these little local towns. It was fantastic, because unlike New York or other places where the President is an inconvenience because it’s going to screw up the traffic, you go to Louisville, Kentucky, or any of these other small towns, and they’re happy to see you. And he liked that. There was real energy associated with that. From a press perspective, especially in a place like—I’ll use Louisville as an example because it touches three important states—there was no writer—I think reaching out to local press, certainly in the sense of setting up something tactical, but also our treating them the same way. 

A lot of times in different towns we’d set up a press filing facility with telephones, which seems so decades-ago, now that everything is done digitally, wirelessly. But at that time you still filed over a phone, up until—gosh, we were still installing phones up until the end. That filing center would be shared by local people. One of the bad things about the old guard was they’d just say, Who are these local people in with us? Get them out. They would use the whole, We’re paying for this, as the excuse. 

We had to strike that balance because—you know, it was a little bit like me when I first got there. I didn’t understand all that. When a guy from the local newspaper sees a filing center, he wants to go sit by the guy from the Washington Post, and that’s okay; they’re all journalists. We tried to tailor our approach. We’d provide the same level of service to the guy from the Star Progress, at least from an engagement standpoint, as to the guy from the New York Times. In reality that didn’t happen, but we made an effort to do that and it paid off. Again, if you represent the President, I guarantee you, that’s the way he’d want to play it. In fact, he might want to go the other direction and take care of the little local guys a little more than the New York Times at times.

Riley

I interrupted you. You were saying that Dee Dee was somebody who distinguished herself as being very savvy in that kind of new environment, and then you moved on to McCurry.

Engskov

Mike was a very different—Mike was a true operator. He stepped right in and did things quite differently than Dee Dee—he valued the relationship with the press. He knew that was an important part of the day-to-day, and being successful day-to-day, not just how you do the job, but also how you value the relationships, especially with the old guard. He knew it was smart to go out and have a beer with the press and get to know them, and get to know their families. Again, probably a common sense thing, but not something we’d been very good at until then. He really connected us with—I don’t want to say the institution of the Washington press, but that’s what it was. That really kind of solidified that this was a truly professional organization. We treated things professionally and we didn’t—not that Dee Dee wasn’t professional, but those early days were still a little bit like the campaign. Now it was the White House, and Mike helped make that a reality. 

Not only was he well-liked, but he was very good at doing his job. He enjoyed it. You could tell he enjoyed it; he didn’t get stressed. He enjoyed it and he liked it and he liked the press and that helped a lot. We had people in the press office at different times who didn’t like the press. I don’t know why, but they didn’t like the personality, they didn’t like the job, or didn’t understand the necessary relationship. But Mike really liked the press people. I did too, and I think other people—as you got to know them you found that if you respected what they did and liked them, you made your life a lot easier.

Riley

That was a kind of jagged transition from those two. I think Dee Dee had actually been terminated once and then saved her job. Were you picking up bits and pieces?

Engskov

I don’t know the history of Dee Dee because I really came in on the tail end of all that. I spent most of my time with Mike, so I’m not answering the question, because I don’t know. I will tell you that Mike—another thing about Mike that I really like and I think the press valued was—back to your comment earlier about making the best photocopy—if that’s what it took to help that guy out, that’s what Mike did; he didn’t care. 

Mike was not the kind of guy who felt like he needed to be The Press Secretary. He could be the press secretary or he could be the guy who goes and gets Diet Cokes for everybody so they could stay awake. He didn’t care; that’s the way he was. That set the tone for the press office, from his deputies on down. We were a service organization and weren’t the imperialistic press office that sort of dished it out and everybody had to take it the way we wanted it. We were there to make it easy to understand what the President was doing.

Riley

Did you detect any residual reluctance to embrace McCurry?

Engskov

You mean by insiders?

Riley

Yes, by insiders. There had been some bad blood, based on his experience with Bob Kerrey.

Engskov

Any time anybody new came to the White House there was always politics. It doesn’t make any difference what level you were in. If you had a job that somebody else didn’t get and you got—everybody had favorites and there were plenty of people to pick from. I remember there being some friction about that, but there was friction about everybody; it didn’t make any difference. It could be the Chief of Staff; it could be the Press Secretary, anybody who was at that level. Even if it wasn’t at that level—even junior appointments were controversial. Why did that guy get it and I didn’t get it? Like any office. I don’t think it affected the way—in fact, I think that friction may have helped. 

Looking back to when I was the aide, and Mike was the press secretary during most of that time, during all that time, that healthy friction may have helped Mike be successful. Mike was very much his own man. He would be very honest with the President and tell him like it was, which was not, frankly, very common. Some people could be more honest with the President than others. Mike told it like it was, every time. I had the benefit of having worked with him before I was the aide, so I had seen both sides. 

He would say, if you’re screwing it up, Mr. President, you’re screwing it up right now. Sometimes the President would say, Fine, I don’t care. Other times he would take Mike’s advice and say, Okay, you’re the boss and we’ll make it better. That friction—that was probably not Dee Dee’s strategy. Dee Dee was much more of a true heart loyalist. Mike was a guy who could play all those sides. He was a guy who understood the job, understood what was required to make the President successful with the press in Washington, particularly the Washington press. 

The President listened to that. There were some rough times. Occasionally he didn’t take his advice and things went south, or not, and the other way around. I know that I felt very confident that when Mike told us it was going to be okay, it was going to be okay. And people felt like that throughout the White House.

Knott

I may be taking you far afield here. I hope not. You’re in the press office at a time when talk radio is really starting to emerge, especially right-wing talk radio, Rush Limbaugh most particularly. Do you recall a lot of discussions or concerns about this phenomenon and suggestions as to how to deal with it?

Engskov

I don’t. I don’t think we talked about it much. To be honest with you, I don’t think that that really—it may have been having a big effect on voters, people, influencers, but I don’t know how aware we were of it. Radio really took a back seat at the White House in a lot of ways, in my view. I’m just basing that on the kinds of people who were in radio and their complaints about this or that. We certainly interacted with a lot of radio folks, but it wasn’t a key piece of strategy. Again, some will probably tell you differently who actually know what they’re talking about, but it just didn’t seem like that. 

Radio was also very static. The people who were in radio had been in radio for years and they were always the same people. They didn’t change. The only person I can remember leaving radio to go to TV was Wendell Goler, who went to Fox TV. And that was a big deal, a shake-up in radio. I don’t think we—the Rush Limbaugh thing was not discussed a lot, maybe because talk radio wasn’t our constituency. We weren’t trying to talk to those folks. We’d like to, but they weren’t listening. 

Riley

For the period when you’re in the press office, could you kind of survey the members of the press corps that you were working with on a daily basis? You don’t have to do all of them, but just pick out a few and tell us a little bit about what it was like to work with these people and whether you found some of them to be fair and particularly balanced, shall we say? Were there some who were particularly unfair and imbalanced? 

Engskov

Everybody had a different angle and they were pretty consistent in those angles. What’s funny is that most of the people in the press corps were actually around the President’s age—the White House correspondents. There were some younger people, but a lot of them were in his baby-boomer generation and probably politically found him to be along their lines, how they viewed it. They didn’t always discuss it with me. Some did, some didn’t. For the most part, most of them identified with his politics. They certainly didn’t write that way a lot of times. 

What we tried to do was—Mother always said you’ve got to kill them with kindness, right? At least the way I approached it was, the ones you could never win over were the ones you treated the best, because—and I think we were pretty equitable to everybody. We treated everybody pretty much the same. Deborah Orin, for instance, for the New York Post, never could write a good word about the President. She’d never write a good word about the President, but we’d always treat her really well. You know what? What have you got to lose?

To be honest with you, in my relationship with the press, both in the travel office and the press, I never even really thought about it, because it wasn’t my job to think about it. I figured my job is to do the best I can for them and they’ll write what they write. If they’re wrong, let’s just hope they present the facts. I certainly saw other people in the press office not do that, certainly play favorites. Of course you play favorites, but that wasn’t my job. I leave that to somebody else. 

Riley

Do you recall any instances of your witnessing interactions between the President and members of the press corps, either on Air Force One or during the period when you were in the press office? Can you tell us about his relationships and interactions with members of the press corps? 

Engskov

Mike would probably—you’ve talked to Mike, or you will talk to Mike. The crazy thing about the President is that oftentimes on Air Force One, just in the middle of a long flight, he would wander back to the press cabin and say hello. Of course, that hello would turn into sort of, How’s your day today? How’d it go? He’d start into a conversation and suddenly you’re into a three-hour briefing on Middle East peace. That frustrated Mike, because—Mike might have just started taking caffeine to stay awake on those flights because we might be on a 12-hour flight and you’ve got the President back there speaking to the press and no one is there supervising. That was frustrating at times because, to him—I don’t think he always completely understood the impact of some of the things he said. I’m sure he did and he probably didn’t care. He’s the President. But it would frustrate the communication machine, obviously, to get too far off base.

The President genuinely liked a lot of people in the press; you could see that. He certainly had people he enjoyed talking to. He was frustrated by the fact that he couldn’t have more of a relationship with some of them, just because of the nature of the relationship. He read about the old Kennedy days, and the Ben Bradlee–John Kennedy sort of deals. That’s not a real world anymore. It’s such a competitive business and it became extremely competitive during the time we were there. I have to say, those were really revolutionary years in the news business. I think that probably frustrated him. 

Also, the 24-hour news cycle frustrated people, just the constant need to churn something out, to react to things immediately. I saw that when I was an aide, that it would frustrate the President. He would understand the need to have to react to something immediately, as opposed to the old days where you just need to make the nightly news or the newspaper deadline the next morning. Sorry, we’re completely off on a tangent here.

Riley

No, we’re not, not at all. 

Engskov

I forgot what the question was.

Riley

It was about the President’s own relationship with the members of the press corps. Were there people he seemed to get along with really well on a personal level? Maybe it’s impossible because of the professional barriers that exist.

Engskov

I’m speculating here, but I would say that he also probably identified the kind of old guard–new guard thing. The old guard—I don’t know how much—during the campaign he really did make an effort to reach out to local reporters wherever he was. I think he came to really respect the Washington press more over time, the George Condons, the people who have been around covering four or five Presidents and made a career out of it. They weren’t gotcha people like some of that new guard became, where they’d really drive a big, hard hitting piece in Time magazine or wherever it was. They were really just trying to get a pretty solid story and trying to report the news. 

Certainly as news became more—I guess there have always been slants in the way people report, but maybe not. I think he came to respect the older guard more for that old-fashioned sense of journalism. That is sheer speculation, based on his relationships with people that I thought were in the old guard versus the new guard. When we had interviews with the new guard, I felt like he was a little more on guard, I guess, waiting for the gotcha question. 

Knott

I apologize if I’m taking you off-track here, but there were reports at the time, and persistent to this day, that Mrs. [Hillary] Clinton had a particularly, somewhat hostile attitude towards the media. Did you ever see any indications of this or hear reports of this?

Engskov

She was certainly more guarded with the media than the President was, but I don’t—I spent a lot of time with her but not in those kinds of situations. I don’t really know. I never heard her say anything negative—she certainly talked about news pieces. She would say, Did you see the piece in the New York Times today on so-and-so? I thought that was right. Or, I thought that was not right. These were just conversations I was overhearing between them. There have been a lot of things reported in the media about Mrs. Clinton that I think are not true, but I would not characterize her as hostile to the press. Then again, I didn’t spend an enormous amount of time around her in that context of business. 

Knott

She had a completely separate press operation, is that how it works?

Engskov

Completely separate staff and press operation. We’d certainly communicate, but we didn’t—I’d say her staff was more guarded. I always sensed that that was because of the position. They didn’t think the First Lady’s job, even though we put her, or she put herself, in positions that were much more public than her staff thought appropriate. I guess if you run the healthcare operation, that in itself defines what role you want to play. You don’t get to be just First Lady. So sometimes there was a disconnect between the role she played and then wanting to be First Lady in the traditional role. People think she’s hostile to a lot of different constituencies. I actually found her to be a remarkably nice woman, I mean, certainly intense, but in a good way.

Riley

Did your job change? You went to the press office, I think you said in early ’96. Was there any wrinkle in your job related to the ’96 campaign? 

Engskov

No, we were very separate from the campaign. Other than going to these events, we didn’t do campaign work, obviously. We were still the White House staff.

Riley

Exactly. But the President is going to do campaign work.

Engskov

Oh, yes, we went to the events. In that job you go with the President everywhere. I can’t remember the accounting, but obviously there’s a lot of accounting.

Riley

But other than just the accounting, there wouldn’t have been any decipherable—

Engskov

Again, in that job, I was responsible for the press. They would go everywhere, regardless. I was with them and that was my job. 

Riley

Very good. Back on the plane. Were you a card player?

Engskov

That’s a great question. I was not. I’ll tell you why. Doug is a card player; he plays cards with Clinton all the time. I never played cards with Clinton. I may have played with him one time, but I made a decision early on that I just was not going to do that. I had the opportunity to watch him a lot, interacting with people—

Riley

This is at the beginning?

Engskov

When I was in the press office. In all these jobs, you had to remember who you were and what you were doing, because it was easy to get caught up in thinking you were more important than you were. I saw that happen thousands of times, literally. There was always a bad result to that particular strategy. I didn’t play with him because I didn’t really want to be his friend. I didn’t think it was my job to be his friend. I thought trying to be his friend was not good and not the right approach. There were lots of people who did that, but Andrew and Stephen and I, particularly, were very straightforward in the sense that we were there to serve the President and weren’t there to be his friend. Playing cards with him—we all had unique opportunities to spend time with him, but that was not one of the ones I thought was the right one.

Riley

Most of the people who played cards with him were at the friend—?

Engskov

I don’t think they were. They were probably whoever was there. Clinton plays cards with whoever is there physically and can play. He prefers some people to others. But when you get into that kind of relationship with him, it changes how you do your job. I didn’t feel comfortable with that, as much as I would have liked to, because it would have been fun to know him like that, to kind of joke around. We did joke and that sort of thing, but at the end of the day, I worked for him and I don’t know that I would—like anybody you work for, it makes it a little bit awkward. I had enough awkward moments with him that I didn’t need to create more. 

Riley

Should I stop right here and ask you about your awkward moments?

Engskov

I just think, in this job you’re with him all the time. You’re with him 24 hours a day, basically, just short of a few hours of sleeping. You have to create a bond with this guy that is unique. Everybody has their own, especially with him, because he is an interesting character. It’s like anybody, right? Someone that smart, and he’s under a lot of pressure. So you have to fit into his style. 

When you’re the guy who wakes him up in the morning and you’re in his personal space, you need to have a certain basic working relationship with him that I think you can push too far. I felt at times we spent too much time together. Toward the end of our time together, we were like an old married couple. We would go through the whole day and I would know exactly what to do. We wouldn’t need to say a word to each other. I’m not saying that was good or bad, but we had a great working relationship. I knew what I needed to do. I would have it ready to go, set up. If he had a question, he’d ask me, and I’d answer it, and we’d get along really great. That wasn’t the case when I first started. It takes a while to get in that groove.

Riley

Well, we’re sort of headed in that direction.

Engskov

It was interesting to watch people, because people yearned to do that stuff. They wanted to be close to him. They wanted to play cards with him; they wanted to play golf with him; whatever it was. I guess it’s easy when you’re in some of these positions where you spend a lot of time around him to just make that decision not to do it. I understand that, because he is the President of the United States. There are very few opportunities for people to get the opportunity to spend time with him, so people would jump at that chance. 

It was a lot easier for me to make a decision and say, you know what? I’m going to be the servant that I am, because that’s what I do. It was just a lot easier for me to make that decision. I don’t count it against other people for doing it, because they may have different roles. A lot of senior staff are very good at that. They’re the perfect people to play cards with the President. Then they can talk about whatever they need to talk about. Those were good times to actually get him to engage on things in a more informal way.

Riley

And you didn’t play golf with him, either, I take it? 

Engskov

I played golf with him a time or two but only under enormous duress. I just didn’t want to be in those situations with him. I followed him in a golf cart a lot, but I usually did not play.

Riley

Did he like to win?

Engskov

He liked to win, no doubt. At all costs, he would win. He was a good golf player. He was great at golf. He really enjoyed the game. What’s great about Clinton, though, is he always understood—talk about a history professor. He really is a history professor in a lot of ways. In addition to playing golf, he’ll tell you about the history of golf and why golf is important and how it relates to modern day politics. One of the most interesting things about golfing is that, oftentimes, especially if we were out of town, I would go with him on these golf games. I wouldn’t play; I’d just ride behind in the cart with a phone and make sure everything was okay. 

Riley

Enjoy the scenery.

Engskov

Oh, yes, we played spectacular places. What was interesting was to listen to the conversations he was having with the people he was playing with. He is a consummate teacher. He’s always lecturing, and not in a bad way. I used to have this thing I called—it was something about Presidential doubt. The theory was that no matter what the President says—he’d always have these audiences. He’d get a group of people gathered up and he’d be saying something, and no matter what he says, it is brilliant because it’s the President. 

He’s a very smart guy and he would say amazing things, and occasionally just really remarkable things. And he was a great communicator, so he could really communicate in a very sophisticated way. A lot of the stuff he was saying was stuff he’d watch on CNN, but because the President said it, it was amazing, really remarkable. I always loved to watch people listening to him, especially people who hadn’t spent a lot of time around him, because he genuinely liked to teach and he had amazing things to say. He just knew incredible facts.

Riley

He had a remarkable memory, I hear.

Engskov

One night we were flying back from Little Rock and it was just me and him and we were sitting in the conference room of the airplane, sitting there catty-cornered in the conference room in Air Force One at the table. We were watching a movie. I said something about the elections in Arkansas. He loved to talk about Arkansas. We got into a conversation—it was a one-way conversation—about election results from 1980 when he got beat in the Governorship by Frank White and then when he came back in ’82 and won again, because he lost on the used-car tax. He went through, county by county, the number of votes he got in the ’80 election. He knew every count. I have no idea if they were right, but the context of the conversation sounded so genuine, I think he had to know.

Riley

He had every one of them?

Engskov

I’m talking about a couple of hours we talked about election results in the ’80 campaign. I walked away from that conversation thinking, That really impacted him. It did. He’s written about it.

Riley

Of course.

Engskov

The ’80 campaign was a turning point for Clinton in how he approached everything he did. He knew ballot box numbers. I think he’s got lots of stories about how voting works in some parts of northern Arkansas, in those little counties up there, just really amazing stories.

Riley

That had the prospect of changing his life forever, for the worse.

Engskov

It almost sealed the fate of his political career.

Riley

One of the things that I often hear is he sees people that he remembers from having met—

Engskov

I cannot tell you the number of times when he would be standing on stage in front of a crowd, especially during the ’96 campaign when there were very large crowds. And they weren’t invited crowds; it was just come-one, come-all. 

He’d be on the podium and I’d see him and he’d say, Come here. I’d go over and he’d say, Randy Pierce and his wife June, from Murfreesboro, are standing right out there. Do you see them? I’d have to get up on the stage—and he’d be doing this during the program. He’d say, It’s the guy with the yellow shirt and the beard. I would go out and chase these people down and bring them back and they would be people that—Randy Pierce is not a real person; I just made that name up. They would be people that he went to high school with in Hot Springs, or randomly knew from Oxford—people he hadn’t seen in 20 years that he would know. 

We’d bring them back. If you hadn’t seen somebody in 20 years, what would be your relationship with them? And it’s so weird when you’re the President, because you’ve got to—I’d see him talk to these people and he’d be like, My God, I haven’t seen you in 20 years! What have you been doing? I heard about you from Joe Smith, that you were now working on an oil well out in Venezuela. You’d just be stunned by this. They were blown away that he even knew who they were, let alone knew something about them. He’d always know something about them, especially if they had an Arkansas connection. That was really wonderful to see the genuineness of that, the way it made them feel. Can you imagine? When he pulls them out of a crowd? 

Incredible memory—the way he can remember verse and books, anything literary. He’s got things stored in his memory—quotes, not just quotes that he would use in a speech, but I’m talking about real verse, prose. He can remember large chunks of verse if you get him started. I’m talking about Oxford days stuff that they probably made him recite at different times there.

Riley

There was a story—maybe you saw this in the New York Review of Books about two or three weeks ago—

Engskov

The New York Review of Books is one of the things I miss most living here, by the way. 

Riley

You can see it online but it’s not the same. Someone—and I don’t even remember who the author was—was saying that he had been in a receiving line with Clinton at some point and had—I think this was probably late ’98 or ’99 when the President was in a lot of trouble—It made a pointed reference to something in Macbeth. The President had flipped the comment around. You should see this. He had said, Don’t you think this about Macbeth, which was sort of a jab at the President. And the President said, No, I think Macbeth is about this, which turned the interpretation around. The guy was sort of astonished. I guess he was a literary person. He said something else about that, and the President went on and quoted, perfectly, about 30 or 40 lines from Macbeth that he said he’d had to memorize for high school. It was incredible but it was very much on point. 

Engskov

It happened all the time, not at that intensity level—stuff he’d just pull out of nowhere, stuff that would be hard to—if he didn’t review it occasionally, it would be very difficult to just—

Riley

Did he have a photographic memory?

Engskov

I don’t know. I don’t know literally what a photographic memory is.

Riley

I don’t either.

Engskov

Can you remember faces? He’s very good at faces. He’s very good at associating things with—what was interesting was how he’d remember faces. If he saw people more than once—people in Washington—he would typically remember one or two things about them and he would use those routinely. He wouldn’t necessarily gather new information. 

Did you talk to Steve already? Steve or Andrew [Friendly] knew this guy better than I did. He had people he would run into routinely that he would know. For instance, there’s a bellman at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, a guy he ran into one night in the kitchen and just shook his hand and there’s a name tag on. I can’t remember what the guy’s name was. He said hello and the guy said, Hello, Mr. President. It’s so nice to meet you. I’m such a huge fan. When he saw him again the next time, he said, Oh, I saw you here last time. He got to know this guy. He has people like that all over the country, because he goes to basically the same hotels. It’s not like he changes hotels. He had people like that all over the place. It’s not really a memory thing, but he thought that he needed those touch points of real people, and those represented real people to him.

Riley

We’ll get into this a little more. We’re sort of telegraphing ahead a little bit, but I want to come back and ask something about—because you mentioned this twice—movies on Air Force One. Tell us about watching movies on Air Force One. Did the President have a particular taste in movies?

Engskov

Boy, I’d better be careful about this question. He had bad taste in movies.

Riley

He had bad taste in movies?

Engskov

He’s a consumer. He consumes media at a pace that we don’t understand. He consumes all media: books, movies, everything. Anything he can get his hands on, he will consume. I joke with people that sometimes I would go through his stuff—I’ll come back to movies in a second—I would go through his stuff and I’d find a random brochure for something, something you’d pick up in a hotel lobby.

Riley

Why would you be going through his stuff?

Engskov

I organized a lot of his papers. I kept all that together. I’d come across a brochure for, like, a tour bus in Barcelona. It would be so crazy. I would say, Mr. President, why do you have this? He’d say, I picked it up in the hotel lobby. I thought maybe if we needed to do something, we could do this. I’m not trying to say he was disconnected in any way. He just wanted so much to be part of normal day-to-day. 

One great story is: the State Department used to make these luggage tags for us, like a souvenir, and it would say, The trip of the President to China, and it had your name on it. All the senior staff got them. Why they made them for the President, I have no idea, but it would say, The President on it. One day—this was on a China trip—someone had put them up on his desk. Probably the State Department person on the plane put them on his desk. He walked in there—

Riley

This is on Air Force One?

Engskov

This is on Air Force One. He had his briefcase up on the desk and he was putting the luggage tag on his briefcase. I said, Mr. President, that briefcase never leaves my sight. It’s chained to my arm. Do you think you need to put your name on it? He goes, Well, you never know, it might end up in a luggage bin or something and I just want to make sure that people know it’s mine. It was funny, but he was dead serious about it. He was so serious about the fact that he had to put his luggage tag on. 

That’s what made him such a genuine nice guy. He didn’t know. I said, You know, it never leaves my sight Mr. President, ever. But he was very determined. 

So—movies.

Riley

You’re not avoiding my movie question?

Engskov

No, no. Lots of movies on Air Force One. As I understand it, the studios would send the Air Force movies they could put on the President’s airplane. 

Riley

These are first-run?

Engskov

Yes. Generally. There was stuff that was certainly in the theater. He would get a lot of movies in advance at the White House from the studios. We’d have videotapes on the plane, and they would be first-run movies that we would be seeing in theaters. He’d watch anything. Some days he’d watch—he loved everything. He was a consumer of all media. He’d watch everything from something serious like Schindler’s List to—he probably wouldn’t mind if I said this, but one night we’re in the middle of a movie and it’s called Anaconda. You ever heard of that movie?

Riley

Sure, it’s got—

Engskov

It’s about the huge snake. We land—one of the worst things about Air Force One was that sometimes in the middle of the movie you’d land and you’d have to get off the plane. So everybody would go, Okay, Timmy [Kerwin], who was the flight steward, Hold it right there, because we’re going to watch it when we get back. So Timmy would pause it, get it in the right spot and the President said, God, I love this movie. He asked Timmy if he could take it home and finish it. 

Riley

It’s a bad movie.

Engskov

It’s a horrible movie. But, it was funny, when he was watching movies on Air Force One he would react to them. He would go, Oh, no! and yell at the movie. What was amazing was he would watch these movies and he would be playing cards, doing a crossword puzzle, talking, and watching a movie all at the same time. And he could do it all. He’d sit there at the head of the table and he would do all these things. He’d have a crossword puzzle on his left, he would be playing in a card game, he would be talking, and he’s watching the movie, all at the same time, and he could do all of those things pretty easily. He constantly needed that new information coming in all the time, no matter what it was.

Riley

Were you very helpful at crossword puzzles?

Engskov

Oh, no, but in his archives—we kept them all.

Riley

Is that right?

Engskov

Even the Sunday crossword puzzle in the New York Times, he’d whip that thing out. He’d carry it with him all day long. In fact I used to photocopy it. When we’d be traveling I’d stick it in his papers and he would work it out before the end of the day. I’d always find them stuck in a folder somewhere. He was so smart. He certainly worked them all out.

Riley

I don’t think those have made it out into the library. 

Engskov

They’re definitely there.

Riley

That would be a great exhibit at some point. Maybe he’s concerned about the image that is portrayed of having the New York Times crossword puzzles out there.

Engskov

I doubt it. I’d photocopy the New York Times crossword puzzle almost every day and stick it in his book. One of the great things I took away from the President was that he never went anywhere without a book and a crossword puzzle. We could be on a three-minute drive down to the West Gate of the White House and he’d have a book in his hand. He would churn through hundreds of books a year just doing that. 

Riley

Very fast reader?

Engskov

He had to be fast, because he finished books so quickly, although I think he spent half the night reading. He would never sleep. I think that’s pretty well known. He did not sleep much. He’d get engrossed in a book and just not go to bed. The next morning, I’d say, Good morning, Mr. President. He’d say, Good morning. I’d say, Are you tired? He’d say, Yes, I spent the whole night reading this book on Alexander Hamilton, or whoever it was. It would almost always be biography, almost always something in relation to the Presidency. 

Then, whatever book he was reading, that next night when he had the audience at the fundraiser or wherever, he’d say, Have you read this book about Alexander Hamilton? I don’t know if you know this, but the way Hamilton… and then he’d go into this whole lecture about—and he would incorporate it into his own Presidency. I think that’s what he liked about it. He related to these guys. In some ways that’s a pretty small fraternity. He understood that better than most. 

He would always have—some were old. He read the Federalist Papers, one of the original copies of the Federalist Papers. Erskine [Bowles] gave him a copy. He bought it at some fancy book auction, one of the first printed copies. Clinton actually read the original, one of the first copies.

Riley

You probably won’t find many political scientists who have actually read the whole thing.

Engskov

That was classic Clinton, though. He would read stuff like that all the time. 

Riley

I’m going to dial back, because we’re actually getting into a lot of this stuff that relates to your knowledge that would come as the personal aide. You’ve got some notes there. Should I stop and let you see if there are some things—

Engskov

Let me see if there’s anything here that we might have missed. No, I guess we can probably move into the personal aide stuff. We covered a lot of this. 

Riley

It’s your interview.

Engskov

There might be some stories I could come back to at the end that we probably need to record. We’ll never get to all of it.

Riley

If now is the time to do it, then—

Engskov

What I get concerned about—I know all these stories. I share them with friends, but I think it is important to share them with somebody who is pretty neutral and they can go someplace—that’s why this is a good opportunity. 

Riley

Exactly. The fact is, when you get the transcript, if there are some pieces of this that you’ve forgotten to include, you can type it up and we’ll just put it on as an appendix and we’ll treat it with the same care that we do the transcript.

Engskov

I think people are quite careful in what they say about the President. 

Riley

All right, so you are in the press office until late ’97?

Engskov

Yes, December ’97. 

Riley

Had you been looking around? Was there any point where you thought, man, this is great, but I’ve got to get out?

Engskov

A lot of us were in that situation where we thought, How much longer should we be doing this? I was still quite young, 26 or 27 years old. But at some point people started thinking, What is this going to get me? What job do I go do from this? I knew I wanted to go do something more than just politics. I didn’t want to be a political consultant. So there was always that draw, but every time I’d try to leave, they would always coax me back with something else. 

This aide job was always in the back of my head. When I first came to Washington with Steel, the very first time, Andrew Friendly, with whom I’m now very close friends—I remember we went to an event that Clinton was at in Washington on the Mall. We were standing on the side and Andrew was sort of standing out of the way over there. We went and introduced ourselves to Andrew. Andrew, how are you? I’m Kris, and this is Steel. We just want to say hello and meet you. It was funny—we looked up to him. It was such an incredible job; we couldn’t even imagine getting to do that. I don’t know that I ever thought I could actually get it, because it is the best job to have for someone young. You know, I angled my way in there. Somehow I got really lucky.

Riley

I don’t know, was it? Did you know—your predecessor was Stephen Goodin.

Engskov

Yes.

Riley

Did you know Stephen was contemplating leaving?

Engskov

I wouldn’t say Steve and I were very close, but we worked a lot together because we traveled together a lot. Just by the nature of being around the President, he was comfortable around me, so when Stephen needed a night off, I would slip in and say, Okay, why don’t I just finish the night off with him? Especially when it was really late. Sometimes we’d stay out until three or four o’clock in the morning—dinners and on planes. Stephen had, luckily, gotten a serious girlfriend about that time, so he was kind of tired of staying out all night. I was a single man and I said, Oh, I’ll do it. Again, all of us were—and it was an incredible opportunity.

Riley

Of course.

Engskov

So I started filling in for Steve, just every once in a while. One night every month or something, I’d go hang out with the President. It was a weird situation because of course as soon as you started doing that everybody started talking: Oh, Stephen must be going to leave, because they’re trying people out. They did try a number of people out. In fact, because I’d always be with him, I’d see a new guy and I’d think, Oh man, that’s not good. Ultimately, once that job finally came up and Stephen decided to leave, I had done a fair bit of work with the President, filling in for Stephen, which I thought was important to get in there. But they interviewed other people. They interviewed a number of other people, including a Cabinet Secretary’s son, and a guy who had a father who was much closer to Clinton than I was in Arkansas. 

It was funny, I just knew that—the interview process was long; it took forever. They didn’t interview everybody. Nancy [Hernreich] had us write a paper about why we’d be good at this. I agonized over that for weeks trying to get that right. We did interview with her; we didn’t interview with the President. I don’t know if other people did or not. I think I had enough of a relationship with the President that I knew how to get along with him. But every night I’d go home and I’d think, The Cabinet Secretary’s son is going to beat me because he’s a Cabinet Secretary’s son. Can’t be beat by a Cabinet Secretary’s son, the old patronage days.

Riley

I have to tell you, from the close outsider’s perspective, I would think that would be a non-starter from the word go. Probably the fact that he’s doing the interview is the extent of the obligation. 

Engskov

Funny, I never thought about that.

Riley

But you can’t know that. I mean, even from the outside you could easily be wrong. If I knew anything like that for sure, I wouldn’t be sitting here interviewing you; I’d be a Cabinet Secretary. 

Engskov

A lot of us from Arkansas—I can think of three or four of us—were very intimidated, at least initially, by that whole—

Riley

Sure.

Engskov

There was a pretty big influx of the Harvard–Yale–Princeton crowd that were around. That was intimidating. Gosh, I barely graduated from the University of Arkansas. It took a while to get used to that. Actually, once you got used to that—I feel, obviously, very confident today, but that was a new learning for a lot of us from Arkansas. We didn’t always have the highest regard for people from Harvard, just because they went to Harvard. I admit that now.

Riley

That’s a wise thing. I spent one year at the Kennedy School and I remember somebody telling me, who had also been at school up there, that the one thing that getting the degree from Harvard allowed him to do mentally and psychologically was to recognize bullshit from other people at Harvard that he might not otherwise—And I think it’s true. I think that the only thing that it does is—you recognize, when you’ve been in school at a place like that— 

Engskov

There’s the environment of really wanting to learn at a place like that. I wasn’t always in classes where people wanted to learn. Your chances at a place like that are much higher of having an environment where people want to learn. That was the difference I didn’t understand so well at the time.

Riley

I was a product of Auburn, which I’m sure is a superior institution to the University of Arkansas—

Engskov

I have doubt it’s not. 

Riley

But anyway, I’m taking you far afield. You’re getting the job and you thought for sure that the Cabinet officer’s son was going to land that position. Your paper for Nancy, how did that turn out?

Engskov

I’ve still got it. I kept all that stuff. One thing about the White House is you do keep a lot of stuff. You keep all your notes and that sort of thing, which actually became a liability at some point, which is interesting. 

Riley

Yes, we want to hear about that.

Engskov

We’ll come back to that. It’s interesting to look back on my time like that, because I never had time to really catch up on perspective. I was always moving at such a rate that I never thought about what I did. In fact, I can remember times when I could not think about where I’d been. I’d wake up in hotel rooms where I didn’t know where I was. That’s how fast it was going. I never had perspective on anything. I never looked back and said, Wow. Where I just let my head catch up a little bit.

That felt good because it was all adrenalin, momentum, but when I hit a wall, I really hit a wall. There were times at which—during the interview process, it was so stressful because—here’s my big opportunity. I knew this would be a big opportunity for me. If I could get that job, that would be a step-change in the opportunities I might have to witness the history. That’s not like becoming a product manager. The stakes were really high and I felt that. I remember when I got that job, the day Nancy called me in there. I literally worked 20 feet down the hall from her. She called me and she said, Hey, can you come see me? Have you interviewed Nancy?

Riley

Yes.

Engskov

Nancy at times can be very animated, but usually in her business mode she’s very across the board. She said, Come see me. No energy in her voice. I thought, Oh, God, here it is. So I went up there. She said, Kris, we’re going to give you the job. I remember I left the White House and I was driving across the Key Bridge back home. I called my mother. And I had called my mother the very first time I got the travel office job and I said, Mom, I got a job in the White House. Actually, it wasn’t in the White House, it was in the OEOB [Old Executive Office Building]. I was so proud of that. I thought, for that time in my life, that was the best job you could get.

I called my mother and I said, Mom, I got this job. I don’t think she understood what the job was. She didn’t understand how big a deal it was to get this sort of opportunity. It was just a great day. I’ve basically just been given this ticket to see the world, even on top of what I’ve already done. I just had a whole renewed sense of energy at that time.

Riley

So you got your batteries charged at that point. You felt you were ready to take off.

Engskov

Little did I know it would be very hard, at least from the beginning.

Knott

It was very hard?

Engskov

It’s a hard job, but well worth it. I have no regrets from that at all.

Knott

You mentioned earlier—did you actually wake the President up each day?

Engskov

Almost every day.

[BREAK]
Riley

We’re coming back for the afternoon session. We were just talking off the tape about archives and paper records, and you said—maybe now is not the best time to get into this, because it projects a little bit ahead, but your experience was that people were a little bit careful about what they put on paper.

Engskov

I would say, yes, generally. It certainly wasn’t explicit, but it was probably implicit. Especially once, I mean, in the first part of Whitewater when they started subpoenaing diaries and various things, you had to be quite careful what you put down on paper. Unfortunately, it’s a certain sacrifice, I guess, associated with—there’s a lot of stuff you’d like to write down but you probably didn’t because of that reason. Both for personal protection, but also protection of the guy you’re trying to serve. I’m sure history suffered a little bit because of that. It’s probably why people are trying to get some of that out now. 

Riley

Sure. We had you into the personal aide’s job—when did you first begin that?

Engskov

I took that job in December of ’97. 

Riley

Which is about to become a very interesting time in the White House. How did you go about—you said you had begun standing in, so you had a pretty good idea of what the job was like before you came.

Engskov

I had a pretty good idea about what I thought it was like. It took a while, from that first day when I showed up and actually did the job, to get into the groove with him. It’s just like any new job. You’ve got to figure out what’s required and how to work with him. It’s probably unique in that sense because if the relationship doesn’t work, it’s not like you can go do something different. I had a pretty good sense that we would get along well, that he would get along with me. I guess it doesn’t really work the other way. So, yes, you work at that. I think it was adapting to his style and getting to know him better, an understanding that allowed him to do his job better, that eased his day a little bit—that was my role. 

Riley

Let’s just throw out a very broad question about how you went about learning the particulars of this, or what it is that you’re finding out about this President that allows you to do your job well. We could also think in terms of—march us through a day at some point, a fictitious day in the life of a personal aide.

Engskov

Well, my very first day at work, in terms of actually having the job—I showed up on a Monday. I remember this very specifically, my first day in the role, the very first time I walked into the Oval Office. There was no, kind of, Nancy walking me in and saying, Mr. President, Kris is here. It was just, start the job. That was sort of abrupt, but I guess it was okay, given that I kind of knew him already. 

I remember walking in there and he said, Hey, good morning. He got up, and anybody who has ever talked to him one-on-one will know that he’s not good about personal space. He came right up to me. He was in the middle of something, and he said to me—we’re actually the same height, and he was looking right in my face and telling me something, and I never got it. I walked right out of there and I had no idea what he told me to do. I was so close to his face I could see his pores. This was the part I mentioned earlier about getting used to being in the physical space with him, being close to him. It was the first time I’d ever been in a room, by myself, with Bill Clinton. It was an unusual, awkward sort of moment because I’m getting ready to do this a lot. I wasn’t prepared for talking to the President nose-to-nose, and getting on with the job. 

I can remember what his face looked like that day. I just didn’t take it on. I went back in and I said, Mr. President, I’m really terribly sorry, but I have no idea what you said I should do. It really dawned on me at that moment that I’ve just got to concentrate and throw myself into it. That’s what that first day was about. It was about throwing myself into the job, not worrying about him. He’s a normal guy and just get on with it. That’s what I did.

Riley

The personal space issue—you’d witnessed it with other people or you’d experienced it before?

Engskov

Clinton is a very emotive guy, right? He puts his hand on your shoulder, he’s got your arm. He’s a little bit like Lyndon Johnson that way. Lyndon Johnson was rumored to be a guy who didn’t understand personal space very well. I’d probably put the President in that category. Not in an intrusive way, just—especially when he has something to say, he will walk right up to you. And that was fine, but I think it was unusual. The first time I was in the office with him alone—the Oval Office is already a very imposing space. It’s all these physical things of the Presidency, whether it’s Air Force One or the Oval Office or the spaces. They’re actually very large spaces if you look at them, but when you’re in there it seems very small, especially when you’re not used to those spaces. 

The Oval Office was always such a sacred spot, whether he was in there or not. I remember being in the Oval Office a lot by myself. I would always think to myself, I’m in the Oval Office, by myself. Those are the times that I was most sensitive to what was going on around me. I was looking at the details of the Oval Office. There’s just not many people who spend time alone with the President. I never took that for granted.

Knott

I was going to ask what it was that he asked you to do. I wonder if you still remember?

Engskov

It was very trivial. It was to get something, or go do this, and I can’t remember now, but I do remember very distinctly that it was embarrassing. But he understood and he laughed about it.

Riley

You also said he’s a very physical guy. He put his hand on your shoulder and—

Engskov

Yes, he is. He gets a lot from that touch. When he shakes hands—it’s why he likes to go and shake hands.

Riley

A lot of eye contact, I’ve heard, too.

Engskov

Clinton is very good about eye contact. He must understand the power of that. A lot of people describe him—when he’s talking to somebody they’ll feel like the only person in the room. That’s probably part of how he does it. I think 99.9 percent of the time he’s genuinely interested in what that person is saying. He’s very good at putting himself in that situation. He blocks it all out. He’s very good at listening to people. In some ways that is his great genius. He can listen and react and be sympathetic and all those things that Presidents are probably supposed to be.

Riley

Do you remember anything else about the first day? Are you finding your way along? Are you stumbling?

Engskov

Yes, I’d say I stumbled a little bit on the first day, the first week, I’d say. The first month was sort of a difficult time. At times I would say to myself, I’m not sure we’re going to get through this.

Riley

This is January of ’98, which is a difficult time for everybody.

Engskov

It was.

Riley

We’ll talk about the particulars—

Engskov

I had a couple or three weeks there before things really kind of broke loose on the [Monica] Lewinsky stuff. The President was very—he got into things. He’d get into a project and it was very difficult to get him out of the project into the next one, especially when you have a schedule like that and you’re on a very fine timeline. At first there was always pressure to keep him moving, to keep him in the right place at the right time. I learned very quickly that it’s really not about the schedule; it’s about him. 

You can stand there all day and tell him—some guy like me telling him to move along, it’s time to go. But at the end of the day, he goes when he wants to go. He certainly understood the constraints of what he was trying to accomplish, because he wanted to get a lot done. He drove his own schedule in that way. But at the end of the day there were certain things, certain ways he needed to feel about whatever he was doing, that they were done right. 

He got into these conversations. He’d get into a conversation with somebody and he was so curious and interested in everything that you couldn’t get him out. I suppose that’s a great thing. To answer the question, I’d have to oftentimes go in several times to kind of get the meeting broken up, or get things moving along. That was my job. But I learned to work with him really well, in learning those signals and going in at the right times and not trying to push too hard, because he did not react well to pushing. In the back of his head he knew what he had to get done that day; he had that calculated.

Riley

Did he have a temper?

Engskov

Yes. It’s so funny—everybody thinks he had a temper. I wouldn’t say he didn’t have a temper. I wouldn’t answer it like that, but I would say it was very uncommon for him to be upset about something. When he was, it was usually appropriate and usually related again to constraints, things like schedule and other things that are just completely beyond his control in a lot of ways. It was kind of a contradiction, because he wanted to drive at this pace, and they scheduled him at that pace, but then he didn’t like that all the time, especially when he was involved—when he thought he was cheating people out of something, time, or he thought we were trying to rush him through something he thought was important.

He was especially sensitive—I remember one time, I think it was TWA 100, or it may have been before my time—one of the jet disasters. He was going to meet with families. They had him jammed into something on the back of that and he just said, We’re not doing that. I’m staying here as long as I want to stay here. That’s just the way it is. They can wait. 

He would do that routinely. He would push back. Those are the times he got angry, when he thought we hadn’t considered the sensitivity of the situation, or there were times we didn’t take into consideration that things could just be well beyond our control. These are emotionally-charged events sometimes, especially when it has been a national tragedy or someone has been killed.

Oklahoma City—I wasn’t the aide then, I was in the travel office, but I remember distinctly that being a really emotionally-charged time, and for him, personally. He was very emotional about these events. He really felt them. I think he probably put himself in those situations deliberately to try to understand the situations. You can see he wears a lot of his emotion on his sleeve. You could see how he was affected by certain events. It was just very clear he was a very emotive guy. 

What question are we on?

Riley

Just about, did he have a temper?

Engskov

He probably had a temper with some people. I find that he’s like anybody else: as long as you’re learning from your mistakes, he’s pretty forgiving. It’s when you make that mistake time and time again—I’ll use an example: Presidents are overwhelmed with briefings. They’ve got to be briefed on everything. You’ve got to brief him on this, brief him on that. Especially before events, he would be briefed by a group of people. It was always interesting to see. There were always times set aside to be briefed before an event. 

A group of people come in, tell him what he’s going to go do, why he’s doing it, the politics, the message, all these sorts of things. My observation was that most of the time he’d figured it all out by then, it was a little late for that. His habit was to take the speech, and depending on what it was, or the material, if he knew it well—he really marked up speeches. He’d take a hard copy of the text that he was going to deliver and he would mark it up before a speech. Very rarely did he not work on a speech before the event, in the car. There are some great examples of speeches that—in fact, Michael Waldman, who was one of the chief speechwriters for a while, was presented with one of the pages from a speech he had written where Clinton had marked up every line and written something on the thing. Speeches were merely a suggestion of what to say, rather than what he actually delivered. 

Often he’d mark these speeches up during briefings. I won’t use a name here, but one guy would continually come in and—it was clear that there was nothing of great utility in these briefings. This guy would deliver briefings by design, just because he thought that was the way it was. Clinton would be perturbed by this and just think, why are we wasting time? I could see it, I was aware of it, I could see how he reacted to that. He was just so smart that if you’d give him a little information, he would put all this together and he would sort of do it his way. This story’s not coming together very well, but I think generally—

Riley

This is a President that, at least by the time you became aide, had been President for six years and he knew the drill, so—Why are we going through the drill? I know the material, I know the audience, I know all this stuff.

Engskov

It was interesting to see the kind of intellect we had in the White House. Then sometimes when they’d come in, they’d brief something and they’d say, Okay, here we go. We’re doing this event. Here’s what you’re going to say. He’d say, Great, fine. He’d get there—and oftentimes these programs and events—so much of the Presidency is driven by events, for obvious reasons. He’d get to the event and he’d sit on the stage—and there would be a big pre-program. People would introduce people and you have to give everybody the opportunity to speak. He’d be the last to speak, and he’d be listening to all this. There were a number of times when he would just leave what he was going to say, the speech, on his chair and just go up and give a completely different talk, because he was very good at reading the crowd. Sometimes the White House was way off in the reality of what he was trying to say.

In the car back, he’d sometimes say, What were people thinking? That was not even close to what we were supposed to be doing there. So he would make a lot of really quick, off-the-cuff decisions about how he would deliver things. He didn’t do it by talking points. I can very rarely think of times—and this is all in the archives, obviously, in these speeches—when he would deliver a speech as it was written. 

That was the ironic part for the speechwriters. I used to have a terrible relationship with speechwriters. Because Clinton didn’t need necessarily a lot of prep time for things, they got into the habit of delivering speeches quite late. Sometimes he’d get the speeches a half an hour before the speech, because Clinton could really read it, digest it and have it ready to go, sometimes in car rides.

He was notorious for that, actually, making changes. People remember the State of the Union changes, on the way, on a laptop in the car on the way to the Capitol. The speechwriters used to believe they were such artists, wordsmithing and creating these grand visions of what the President was going to say. Then, of course, when he’d get the speech he would mark it all up, and write out what he wanted to say. Sometimes he’d just do it off the cuff. Pretty remarkable stuff. 

Riley

How did that work with the TelePrompTers?

Engskov

He never used the TelePrompTer that I’m aware of, that I ever saw, other than the State of the Union.

Riley

Is that right?

Engskov

No, he never used the TelePrompTer. In fact, the TelePrompTer at the State of the Union was pretty much a suggestion. He would keep up with it. Obviously he put a lot of practice into the State of the Union to make sure—you don’t want to provide too much artistry to the State of the Union. But almost every other speech—this will be worked out when people really study the speeches in the archives, but most of those words were his. He would take grains of things, but those speeches as they were delivered were real shells, and he would provide most of the—once he had the basic policy seeds, he could build the color around that. 

That was remarkable to watch, actually. I would actually take speeches off and I would follow along and just watch what he did. You could watch the loop—he’ll start right off with what he means to say. He gets that sort of put out there and then he creates this whole thread of things, related, pulling from all other parts of the administration. 

That was what was so myopic about those briefings at times. You have somebody who is a policy expert on, let’s say, healthcare—I’m being very general here. We’re going to do a speech on healthcare, great. So Clinton says, Okay, we’re going to announce a healthcare thing. Fantastic. Then he goes in and he relates that to the bigger picture. He says, Okay, here we’re doing the healthcare, but let me tell you how it relates, by the way, to the bigger world. That was really his genius. I don’t know that we, the staff, were always able to support that sort of communication. 

Knott

You said that you had some problems with the speechwriters. That was because they’d be getting this material to you late?

Engskov

Yes, they got it to us late. To their credit, sometimes these events would come out of nowhere and they’d be writing speeches overnight. Obviously wordsmithing is important in certain places. You’ll see in those old speeches, if you look at them, that there are certain places that are bracketed. We would also bracket speeches where we’d say to the President, Mr. President, you need to use this language because it’s important— whether it’s the Hill— because people are actually going to draft some legislation based on this language and we want it to match up. Various things like that, where you would bracket something out and say, Please use this phrase. 

But for the most part he created it himself. You know, speechwriting is a very great, grandiose art, especially Presidential speechwriting. I think they were really bothered when he would take out some of these things, especially these phrases they’d worked on for days. Then, to add insult to injury, he would come up with something much more brilliant in more beautiful language than they were able to come up with. 

They’d get it to us late. Josh Gottheimer, who is now a big shot in a PR firm, used to be one of the main speechwriters, and he and I just had yelling matches. I’d say, Josh, he’s the President, he can do his own stuff. Just get him the information. He’ll figure it out. Josh was very resolute about his role as a speechwriter. He didn’t deliver great products so that the President could then—I’d always say, Josh, you don’t understand this guy. He’s got it, he doesn’t need you to help him craft something. There was always some nice friction between—Josh and I are very close friends now, but at that time we were not very good friends. They’d write it down five minutes before the event at times. Luckily, Clinton would never ask anybody. He’d just be, Ready to go? We’d get in the car and he’d do it on the way. 

Riley

When he was getting up to give a speech—did he wear contacts when he was speaking?

Engskov

No, he didn’t need glasses on speeches. 

Riley

Is that right? I thought I’d remembered instances where he didn’t have reading glasses, where it would have been difficult. So he could read a text sitting in front of him?

Engskov

Oh, yes, without glasses. He would have to use glasses for small text. He would usually read a book with glasses.

Riley

For small text. So the speeches would be printed out—

Engskov

In a large font, quite a large font, actually.

Riley

Let’s go back. You mentioned at one point that you woke the President up in the mornings. Take us through your day. Where were you living? How early did you get up? You’re going to be exhausted after this day of remembering all of this stuff.

Engskov

No, that’s good. I lived in Adams Morgan, so I lived about five minutes up the street from the White House, and I drove to the White House. I had a parking spot for the first time, which you had to have because you just couldn’t go back and forth like that without—I lived in the White House, essentially. I didn’t sleep there but I did everything but. 

I would get there generally around 6:30. The President would usually start his official day at 9:00 if he was in the White House. If we were on the road it would be much earlier. We’d start at 7:30 and would not end until probably 9:00 at night, generally, on a normal day. If I could do a typical day for you in the White House. I’d come in. I’d get his briefing book and my briefing book in the morning.

Riley

You’d pick it up in the West Wing?

Engskov

I would. They’d put it on my desk in the morning. He got one in the residence, too, so he’d get his. They basically want to give you a book that has everything in it. So you have your whole day right there. Honestly, an aide doesn’t look very far ahead unless you’re on a trip. If you’re in the White House, you’re looking one day ahead. That’s all you can manage.

Riley

That’s sort of the way I am.

Engskov

Probably strategically that wasn’t very smart, but I had calendars. I kind of knew what was coming up but I really approached it one day at a time. You’ve seen those briefing books. I had a briefing book just like his, exactly the same. It had the schedule; it had various packages on what he was doing that day. Depending on what he was doing, it could be anything from a briefing memo to the actual copy of the speech text, to a list of attendees—all the pertinent events. Very tactical, logistical stuff. Usually, if it was a particularly difficult subject, or something we didn’t think he knew a lot about, he would get that memo quite far in advance, or if a decision was required or something like that. 

He would come to the Oval Office usually around 9:00. I would call him to wake him up if he wasn’t already up. I’d check with the ushers and the ushers would know—the residence staff—whether he was up and around. If he wasn’t, I’d call him to wake him up. 

Riley

What time?

Engskov

It depended. The President was a fast dresser. He didn’t need a lot of time to get up and around. Like any of us, he had mornings when it was harder than others to get up. That wasn’t an issue. As the aide, I’m really just making sure that he is up and around, which was a sometimes interesting job. So he’d come to the Oval Office around 9:00 and we’d start the day. He always started the day with a few minutes with the Chief of Staff and the National Security Advisor and then start the formal part of his day where various events—there might be a head of state in town, or various things going on. 

Erskine actually created something called phone-office time, which he’ll probably tell you about when you talk to him. They didn’t have it in the beginning. In the very beginning of the administration he didn’t ever have any time to actually be alone or to think. Erskine created something called phone-office time, which is usually two or three or four hours a day where it was off-limits—it was really his time. He could do whatever he wanted to with it. Really it was created to give him just some reflection time to be President. 

Riley

This is in the afternoon, usually?

Engskov

It was always in the afternoon, depending on what was going on. It was almost only in Washington. When we were on the road, time was a little too valuable to give up just for thinking time, so it tended to be shorter on the road. The President used it in different ways. Some days he’d just go out to the putting green and putt around. Other days he would spend working on whatever was happening that day, making calls, writing notes. One of the most interesting things about the President was that he wrote a lot of hand-written notes. I felt like that was one of those things that he felt he had control of. It was production. It was something that he could do that was tangible. He wrote a lot of notes.

Riley

The notes were to—?

Engskov

They could be to friends; they could be to people who had done something for him, just like any of us write a thank-you note. It was always amazing that the stationery—he had these great cards that just said The President on them, with the Presidential seal, which I thought was a pretty amazing piece of stationery, if you think about that. 

Toward the afternoon the day would become a little looser. He’d kind of finish his day and he had some more time to craft what he wanted to do. One thing about that place, there’s always lots going on. There’s no shortage of opportunity to talk to people about various things. 

Depending on what was happening, he’d call people to the Oval Office. If there was some breaking news happening, he would obviously tune into that. He didn’t have a TV in the Oval Office. We had a TV just outside in our office, where Betty [Currie] and I and Nancy sat, that we could watch CNN, a local station, a national station, and we could keep up with what was happening. Honestly, that’s how we found out about a lot of things. I hate to say that, but the Columbine shooting and things like that would be on CNN before anybody could possibly get to us about it. That was a good way to keep up. I hate to say it was that primitive, but at times it was. 

So that was a pretty typical day at the White House. We’d get done quite late. I would typically stick around until he went back to the residence. I would grab his stuff, walk him back to the house, and then he would spend time with his family or do things. He was down for the night, essentially. 

A day on the road was very different. There’s a lot of support staff at the White House, so at the White House that briefing book shows up and everything is there. You have people who can do things for you. When you’re on the road, you’re kind of on your own. I was the switchboard operator, I was the photocopier, I did it all out there. We did take along some support people at different times, but it was much freer movement out there in terms of the numbers of people with us. Again, we would typically travel with the Chief of Staff or somebody at that level, the National Security Advisor, a military aide, doctor, and myself. Then other staff if there was appropriate staff that needed to come along. It was a much more streamlined operation when you were out there. It actually made it a lot easier to communicate with him.

He was probably much more easygoing when he was outside the White House. He liked being outside, traveling and seeing things and being on the move. I don’t want to detract from his interest in the actual physical building of the White House, and I’ll come back to that, maybe, because I think that’s an interesting point about his personality. But in terms of just managing his day, it was much easier outside the White House. 

Travel days were very packed. They usually involved at least one flight, sometimes many. He really liked that constant movement and he really liked to be out talking to people. The schedule was much tougher on travel days, in the sense that it was much busier. We had to stay on time. He didn’t always like that, because he liked to touch people; he liked to get out in those crowds and really chat with people. It was quite different out there.

Riley

Difference in foreign and domestic travel?

Engskov

Yes. Domestically we could travel at a lot quicker schedule. We could move faster by going to lots of different places. Typically, if we were going to California we would stay out there a day or two, but compared to most people’s standards they were pretty quick trips. There were lots of days when we’d go to California for the day and come back, which to most people seems kind of crazy, but for us that was kind of a normal thing. 

The way that the airplane was set up, you could operate a normal office there. The phones were great, and he had plenty of space. To be honest with you, he’d take people along on Air Force One that he needed to do work with, and just make them have a trip out there so he could use that time wisely. That was how domestic travel worked. Again, you really could do almost anything on that airplane. 

On foreign travel—that was much more complicated just because it required much more planning. There were no spur-of-the-moment side trips. Because you had hosts in these countries, you couldn’t decide you wanted to veer off schedule and go see something unless you asked first. Clinton was very good about that, although I saw many times when he’d be touring with a head of state somewhere and he’d say, I heard you have a great Inca Indian museum. I wonder if I might be able to drop by and see that? Then everything goes into motion. He always knew what was in these places. If it wasn’t on his schedule, he would sort of secretly make a way to get there.

Knott

Well, he had all those hotel brochures. 

Engskov

He did. As I said earlier about these state arrivals, the President really enjoyed a lot of that, especially in the beginning. But as he got toward the end of the Presidency he was much more interested in spending time with the people, getting out and seeing what these places really look like. I guess he was somewhat fearful that he might never be able to see what’s really in these places. Would he even go back to some of these countries we were in? We were going to some pretty remote places at times. 

In Africa the restraints on movement—you couldn’t just leave the hotel and go someplace. And the crowds that gathered—they physically couldn’t go places because of the crowds that would gather in places, especially on the Africa trip. He had crowds of hundreds of thousands of people who gathered in various places to see him. We couldn’t get to some places. We physically couldn’t get the cars into some places.

Riley

Because the crowds were too big?

Engskov

The crowds were too big. In Accra, Ghana, I think we had half a million people who got in the square to see him. I’ve never seen a half-million people in a place, at least that close. That was pretty awe-inspiring. There were lots of examples of things like that. Foreign travel just had many more people along. The State Department was along. We took two airplanes on those trips almost always. A lot more support was needed in a foreign country, both from the security standpoint as well as the staffing standpoint. 

Riley

He made a lot of foreign trips.

Engskov

He did.

Riley

Any in particular stand out in your memory, either for personal reasons or—?

Engskov

Every one was great. I would be excited if we were going to Cleveland, Ohio. We had a great time. We went to some remarkable places. Russia always sticks out as remarkable because you go to the Kremlin; you go to Red Square; you go to these places that people had just never been, into in the inner sanctum of the Kremlin. Or Vatican City, the Pope’s private apartment, places that you will not see again unless you become President, which is unlikely for most of us. 

There were certain places that I would look more carefully and really try to take advantage of that experience. One place that I am still amazed by—here in Britain the Prime Minister has a country residence called Chequers. The building is, I think, 17th century, sort of an old manor house, a mansion, a big house that has been at the Prime Minister’s use for the last couple of hundred years. Someone donated it to the government. The history contained in it is amazing. Queen Elizabeth’s coronation ring is there. It has this library with books dating from the 1100s. It has Napoleon [Bonaparte]’s bag and some of the papers he was carrying at Waterloo. Just remarkable stuff. 

In this particular instance, the first time we went to Chequers, the only person allowed to stay at Chequers with the President was me, and the doctor. I kind of finagled my way into that, thinking someone has to stay out there with him. Everybody else stayed in a little town there, Aylesbury, at a little bed-and-breakfast in the town. I stayed there. 

I stayed out of the way, but I got up at four o’clock in the morning and I just wandered around that building because it’s just incredible what’s in there. At about 5:30, I was in the library and I was taking books off the shelf, because you can touch everything. This isn’t a museum; this is the Prime Minister’s house. 

The Prime Minister and Mrs. [Anthony] Blair were there. The only other person, literally, who was there was the housekeeper. I was wandering around and I went in the Prime Minister’s office and the red briefcase was sitting on the desk, I mean, all of his own—it was really amazing just wandering around the Prime Minister’s house. I felt maybe a little nervous about that. At about 5:30, I was sitting in the library and I hear, Are you finding everything you need? It’s Tony Blair. He’s up and he’s walking around. He’s in jeans and a tee shirt. He comes in and he says, Are you enjoying this? Again, I go back to those days in Arkansas and now suddenly I’m talking to the Prime Minister of England in his house.

Riley

It’s not Tyson’s Foods any more, is it?

Engskov

It’s not Tyson’s Foods. I guess those kinds of experiences for me were just the kinds of things—I did write some of that down, the stuff that was very experience-based. 

Riley

Did you get the feeling that the President felt the same way? Was there a little bit of that Arkansas boy in him?

Engskov

He did. I’ll give you two great examples: One night we were at a fundraiser in New York Caroline Kennedy was the—I can’t remember what the fundraiser was for, but it was a Kennedy-related thing. She gave him, on the podium, a pair of President Kennedy’s Tiffany cufflinks that said JFK on them. You’d recognize them. If you look at all those old Kennedy books, there are pictures of him wearing them. He may have had thousands of sets of them, who knows? She gave him a set of these cufflinks. They were in an old Tiffany box. We’re walking out of the event, and he was going to go shake hands and he says, Here, hold these. He gave them to me. I stuck them in my pocket. I was always careful with anything he handed me. 

We got in the car. I don’t know why I rode with him that night. I didn’t usually ride with him, but I got in the car and he said, Do you have those cufflinks? I said, Yes, here they are. He said, These were Jack Kennedy’s cufflinks. I said, Mr. President, you’re the President. You hold the same job. He was so in awe. He was always like that around the Kennedys. You know, like for a lot of us, the Kennedys were such a huge part of the Presidency and government. He was close to the Kennedys, but I was just kind of taken aback by how inspired he was by that gift, by owning something—

Riley

You had told us that at Chequers you had found yourself—

Engskov

Yes. I tell that story to illustrate how he was around the Office of the Presidency and how much respect he had for the Office, so much for the physical space. I read now that George [W.] Bush will go down to the ranch and they count the number of days he spends down there. You couldn’t pry Clinton out of the White House. I don’t know how many days he spent on vacation, but not a lot, especially toward the end. I left six months before the real end. I would often just go looking for him in the White House when I needed him for something, and I’d find him walking around the [Abraham] Lincoln bedroom. He’d be up there looking in the nooks and crannies, looking at things. 

There’s a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln bedroom that is part of the Lincoln bedroom. It’s covered up in a glass case, sort of a novelty, an amazing artifact that sits up there as part of the permanent collection in the White House. I just think that he spent a lot of time thinking about what was in the house and why it was there and who had been there before him. 

The desk he used on the second floor of the residence was the table that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on. I’d oftentimes be up there at night and he’d be sitting at that desk. He had his glasses on his nose and he’d look across there. I’d see the desk and I had to think that he thought about who had been there before, who had been in this room. He knew the history. In fact, he would take people on tours, particularly of the second floor of the residence of the White House. He would tell them things about the most obscure parts of the room, the furniture, particularly, because it all had history. 

He just had enormous respect for the place. My guess is that he wandered around that building a lot, just looking at things, just trying to put it in perspective. It’s a pretty insulating place, with a lot of people like me who keep people away from you. How do you keep perspective?

Riley

Do you have any special recollections of him on these foreign trips? Instances where he seemed to be overwhelmed, or where a couple of Arkansas guys that are in a different setting—

Engskov

There were lots. It’s in that news piece—it meant a lot to me—[Nelson] Mandela and [King ] Hussein [bin Talal], as world leaders, were probably—when he was in their presence, he always sort of took a sub role. You’d see that in his body language, whereas maybe with other people he was much more commanding in both the way he acted and in what he said. I think that was out of respect for the respected positions these men held in history, and what he could learn from them. He really looked at them as almost, I wouldn’t say mentors, because he couldn’t have spent that much time with them, but he was always learning. He would talk way less in those meetings with Mandela, at least in my experience. 

Yes, I think he was probably overwhelmed many times, especially in places where he had put an enormous amount of effort, like Africa, where he had really tried to do things to help people. To a lesser extent, but certainly in the former Yugoslavia, where people would turn out to say thank you, although I would say that it was probably much more present in the U.S. that we’d get that really emotional Clinton, where he would meet somebody—It’s like that [Henry David] Thoreau quote about if you affected one life, made it better. I think he felt like that. 

Certainly he’d affected lots of lives. The way he stayed connected—he’d meet people on the rope line. They’d tell him a story about how something he had done had really impacted their life and he would really hold on to that. He’d tell that story lots of times, if he had a story like that. It would occasionally choke him up. He’d get choked up routinely. Again, back to that emotional—a great leader, but also really emotionally connected to the people he would meet. He would really pour himself into those situations, good or bad. 

Knott

Were there any foreign leaders in particular that he may not have gotten along with so well? The chemistry just wasn’t quite right?

Engskov

A lot of times when there was a language barrier it was hard, although he got through a lot of that. I can’t think of anybody he didn’t get along with. Most people were amazed that he could charm a lot of these guys the way he did, especially people who probably didn’t want to be charmed by the U.S. President. There were certainly meetings with heads of state that were colder than others, but I think that was less about the person than it was about the issue, especially if they weren’t giving on something, or that sort of thing. 

Back to the ceremonial stuff—if he felt like the meeting was just about ceremony, he was way less engaged in it than if he thought it was going to actually accomplish something, or had an opportunity to accomplish something. It felt like a lot of the Presidency, especially on the international side, there’s a certain piece that really rests all of it on ceremony and setting up what may or may not create progress. He was very frustrated by things when there was not an expectation of progress. That bothered him, when you were just doing something to do it, rather than having a chance to move something along. And I would see that, again, in his body language. I’d watch the meetings and know whether he was there, or just kind of, let’s get this done.

Riley

You mentioned his body language. Were there any signals that you watched for in meetings, where there was a sign, Oh boy, this isn’t going well? I know it’s different with different people. With him, what were your tip-offs that he’s disengaged?

Engskov

There were rarely meetings where he would say, It’s time to go, because, as I said, he could get engaged in almost anything. Especially, if he was really engaged, he was not moving. There were definitely times at which I walked in, or I was standing there kind of hovering over things, where he would look at me and it was a signal of, You need to back off and tell everybody else to back off, too, because we’re doing it on my time now. Occasionally he’d verbalize that. He’d just say, This is Kris. He’s here to keep me on time, but unfortunately we’re not on time today. Things like that. 

Then John [Podesta] or the Chief of Staff would come in and he’d say the same thing, John, thank you for coming in, but I’ve got this right now. Are there other things? I can’t speak for the other aides, but I definitely communicated with him very much in sign language. I can’t describe what that was, but you just kind of knew. He’d glance over at you and you kind of knew what he needed or what he wanted. I thought that was a brilliant thing because—

Riley

Sure, you know it but nobody else does.

Engskov

Yes, you kind of get into a groove with him. You know what he needs. You know that if he’s looking tired, you’d better throw a Diet Coke over there and pep him up.

Riley

Did he like Diet Coke?

Engskov

He drank a lot of Diet Coke. 

Riley

All they have in this hotel is Pepsi, so I’m not sure he’d be happy here. Would he drink Pepsi?

Engskov

Probably not. It is the small things that count, and a lot of times this aide job, if we’re going to talk about that, is about small things. You’re not a policy guy; you’re there just to help manage that immediate space around him. Sometimes that has a big responsibility associated with it; sometimes it’s just keeping him awake, or making sure he’s happy. I had no problem doing those things. I never thought that was a lowly job. I thought that was a great opportunity, because the by-product of all that carrying Diet Cokes around was getting to be a fly on the wall to the most amazing events in history. You got out of it what you put into it. The more energetic you could be about carrying a bag, or fetching a Diet Coke, the more you got out of that experience.

Riley

Were you the source of last resort on things like food or diet? I mean, if someone wants to give him a piece of candy or something right there, are you—

Engskov

He was pretty careful. You had to be quite careful when people handed you things. He would take it and he would hand it to me if it was something unusual. You get a lot of unusual things on rope lines and most of them were very well meaning, gifts and different things.

Riley

So he takes it and gives it to you?

Engskov

Yes. If I thought it looked odd, I’d give it to the Secret Service and they would deal with it. There were routinely things you got that just didn’t seem right. The Secret Service gives you a lot of training in what you are looking for and if you see something unusual—because there are times when those guys are not around. Not with the public, but if you just saw something—Especially on rope lines we’d occasionally get something that I didn’t think was right and I would give it to them, especially food and that sort of thing. It’s unusual to give the President cookies, although people did and that was fine. Again, most people are very well meaning, but we occasionally had—it wasn’t threatening things, but it was people who wanted to disrupt things, to cause a scene. That’s what we had to be on the watch for. He was very good about that, too. He could spot those people a mile away. 

We’re getting way off on a tangent.

Riley

No, it’s not a tangent at all, it’s directly on point. Was there ever an occasion during your time as the President’s aide where you felt he was threatened, or where you felt uncomfortable, that the Secret Service are going to have to weigh in on this?

Engskov

Not really. We never had anything individually that I thought was threatening. We had so much protection. I can’t imagine what it’s like today, compared to what it was like then, because I thought it was very heavily protected then. We didn’t actually encounter anybody who hadn’t gone through a metal detector and been searched at any event site that the President went to. At any planned event, we couldn’t encounter somebody who hadn’t gone through a metal detector.

Riley

That’s true overseas as well?

Engskov

Everywhere. Now, if we were driving along the road and he decides to stop and go into a general store, that’s different, but I never thought we were—the only times I felt nervous were when, particularly at Accra, Ghana, during that big event, when you’ve got that many people and everybody surging toward him trying to touch him on the rope line. The fence started to come this way and then it got close enough where it got very tight in there and that made people nervous and we did leave.

Riley

Sure, you’ve got half a million people. 

Engskov

At some point you can’t control that many people moving in one direction. What would bother him was when we’d get crowds surging and it would start to hurt people in the front, especially children, because people are trying to get children up there. They’d get pushed against—there’s always a fence there. It’s kind of chest height. If he thought that was happening, he’d get in the car and leave, he wouldn’t even mess around with it. We had people injured because of that, because of big crowds, especially during the campaign.

Riley

Does he wear protective vests?

Engskov

No.

Riley

Did they ask him to wear them and he refused?

Engskov

If the Secret Service—ideally, he’d never leave the White House and they’d build a bubble over it, I suppose. I’m sure they asked him. They asked him lots of times to do different things. They also asked him not to get out of the car at certain places. 

Riley

Did he do that often? You’ve mentioned this now twice, where you’d be going down a road and he’d say, Let’s pull over here. So that was pretty commonplace?

Engskov

The greatest moments of the Presidency for me were when we made unplanned stops just driving along the road. I remember coming back from the World Economic Forum—the best way to illustrate this is with a story: We helicoptered to Davos. He gave his speech. Unfortunately, a snowstorm started so we couldn’t helicopter out, so we had to drive back. It was like a four-hour drive.

Riley

In Geneva, you said.

Engskov

From Davos back to Zurich, through the mountains. They always have backup cars, so he got in the car and we got ready for this long drive. Halfway there, he had to go to the bathroom. We pulled over at this—and thank goodness he did, because everybody else had to go, too, but you can’t exactly say to the President, We have to stop because some of the folks in the back have to use the bathroom. It was a four-hour drive. It was a long drive.

We pulled in at this random Swiss equivalent of 7-11. No one had any idea we were coming. He just walked right in. He bolted in there. Only one Secret Service agent was in front of him. The guy at the counter—I’m sure he said to himself, Wow, that’s Bill Clinton. It sure looks like Bill Clinton, but it can’t be Bill Clinton, because I work at a 7-11 here in Switzerland. Clinton shook his hand and said, I’m really sorry to bother you, but do you have a bathroom? I don’t need to buy anything, but I need a bathroom and I need it quick. 

The guy just said, Right over there. He went downstairs and went to the bathroom, and then ended up buying a whole load of stuff from there. 

Riley

Did he say this in English or German? 

Engskov

He spoke English. Luckily the guy spoke English. There are lots of examples like that in America, stopping along the road, especially on the campaign, where people would gather. If they thought he was on the route from the airport, people would gather along the road in groups. He’d stop, go out and shake hands, and talk to people. You’d get big signs that said, Mr. President, please stop. 

He couldn’t stand it not to stop, he had to. He’d see people on the road he knew. I’ve been in the car where we’d drive by a group of people and he’d go, Don [Flynn],—that was the head of the Secret Service—Don, stop the car. That is Joe from Pine Bluff. It happened all the time, especially in Arkansas. In Arkansas, he’d see people all the time that he knew. It wasn’t easy to stop 20 cars. I thought those were some of the greatest moments when, completely out of the blue, no one knows you’re coming and the President of the United States walks into your hardware store—it was just great.

Riley

And the President liked this, too, I guess.

Engskov

Loved it. Most times he could do that. The Secret Service was really good with him. 

Riley

Did he express to you frustrations with the Secret Service being overly—

Engskov

The stuff he didn’t like, in my view, was when we shut down huge—we’d go to L.A. and they shut down the 405 for him to drive down the road. Obviously, when you do that in New York or L.A. or San Francisco, you back up traffic for hours. People can’t get home. That’s why we used helicopters and other things to get around, but some of that was unavoidable.

Riley

Did you ever have any trouble on the helicopters or on the airplane?

Engskov

I think it was Louisville, Kentucky where we took a corner too sharp—and we were on a 707, not the big Air Force One but a smaller one—and put a wheel into the mud and couldn’t leave. We had to fly a new plane in.

Riley

Was that an Air Force One, or was it—

Engskov

That was Air Force One. That was with the President. The pilot came down and said, You know what, I’m really sorry, but we’ve taken that corner too sharp. The plane was probably fine, but they don’t take chances, so they flew in another plane. They always have a back-up plane somewhere close. It didn’t delay things very much. 

Helicopter travel was great for the President. It was very quick and he liked the helicopters. They were comfortable and he could work on them. That’s how he usually got between Camp David and the White House. He used them a lot, obviously, from the White House to Andrews to get the airplane.

Riley

Did you make those trips to Camp David also?

Engskov

Aides never went to Camp David. I’ve been to Camp David, but I didn’t go as a matter of practice. He went out there completely alone, besides the military aide and the doctor. Actually, we all looked forward to that time. He’d go out there—he could get to the White House in a second if he had to. You could get out there pretty quickly. It’s about a ninety-minute drive from D.C. It was really his time. That was their getaway. The Chief of staff wouldn’t go, nobody would go out there. Everybody got very comfortable with that. It was almost like a vacation. Everybody’s saying, Oh, Camp David, thank goodness. 

Riley

Did he like going up there? I got the impression early on that he didn’t make that much use of it.

Engskov

I think he was there quite a lot. Toward the end, especially, he spent a lot of weekends up in Camp David.

Riley

Something about allergies—he has allergies, right?

Engskov

He does have allergies.

Riley

Is that something you had to monitor?

Engskov

Not really. The doctor took care of that. I don’t even know how severe that was. Occasionally he would get a little hay fever, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. It wasn’t a major factor in the way we did our job. 

Knott

You mentioned earlier that you had to go through some Secret Service training?

Engskov

Yes, they’d take the White House staff through a lot of Secret Service training. Especially if we were influencing what he’s doing, they take us out to the training center in Beltsville, Maryland, and kind of run us through some of the training. It’s actually very helpful. 

I’d joke with him that it’s a brainwashing so we learn what kinds of things go on out there in the real world, just so we have a little bit of reality. The world is not always a nice place. But it was really helpful just to understand the constraints they’re working under, and that they do have his best interests in mind, if it’s a little over the top sometimes. At the end of the day, unless it’s quite serious, the staff are really the ones who make those final decisions, the ones with the President. He knows what risks there are. As long as he goes into those with eyes wide open, they’ve done their job. I could not talk about a more professional organization that worked for the staff. There were times when they said, Not a chance. There’s no way we’re doing that. Other times they would work with you. You’d just explain to them that he’d really like to do this, and we’d like to make that happen. They’d say, Absolutely. We’ll make it happen. 

Especially among the senior team that was around, he was very close to those guys, Don Flynn particularly, toward the end. Such a great guy. He knew the President well, knew what he liked to do. Part of that job is anticipation. A lot of those young agents would go out in the field—they’re the ones who set everything up. Don would get there and he’d be like, Oh, my God. He’d send those guys off to do something else and get that straightened out, because they didn’t all know him, and Don knew him well. That was all of our jobs, right? To really anticipate things and make sure it was okay before he got there, whether that’s making sure that you don’t back up the entire 405 for something that is really just a matter of general policy, not a have-to-do, or other things. 

There are so many things that are just tiny minor things that really make an impact on people. Clinton did not like parachuting into big communities and shutting them down because the President, the imperial President, is there. He hated it. You could see it, he would just steam in the back of those cars when he saw these backups. I’m sure part of it was about—these are voters, these are people who make a difference, in a place like California, particularly. You’d drive down the road and you’d see the backups and you’d just think, Not going to be good.

Riley

Did you have any big screw-ups that you want to repeat?

Engskov

Not a lot of big screw-ups. It sounds so trivial, but I think they’re funny. Someone was saying, You could write a book about aides. You could tell these stories. Not a lot of big ones. Getting used to his style—there were lots of things I had to do and there were certainly things that I just didn’t do because that was not his style, and I adapted to that pretty quickly. 

All of us did stupid trivial things, like one time we left the White House to go to a speech, actually just at the Interior Department down the street about four blocks. We got to the thing and he was ready to go up there and I didn’t bring the speech. It was lying on his desk. I thought he had picked it up. He said, You got the speech? I said, I thought you had it. He says, No. It’s on the desk? I say, It’s on the desk. So I sprinted on foot back to the White House. 

Knott

You’re kidding.

Engskov

No. I sprinted back to the White House, four blocks, jumped the turnstile. I said, Don, call the gate. I’m going to jump the turnstile. Jumped the turnstile, ran into the West Wing, grabbed it off the desk, ran back out the South Gate and back to the Interior Department. I was so out of breath. It was so embarrassing. I handed it to him just as he was getting ready to go up. He was not happy about that. There were lots of things like that. 

Knott

That’s a great story.

Engskov

It is a good story.

Riley

It’s very dramatic. 

Engskov

It was hot as hell that day, too. I was sweating like a pig. But he thought it was funny later. Walking into the State of the Union the year after that, he’s walking hand-in-hand with Mrs. Clinton and I’m right behind them walking into the Capitol and he says, You got the speech? I say, I’ve got it. It was sort of a jab for—you know. He was in a good mood that night.

Riley

He remembered?

Engskov

Yes, he remembers all that stuff. There were tiny things, not big things.

Riley

Did he ever engage you in conversation about bigger things than just, I need a Diet Coke, and, It’s a little too warm in here?

Engskov

Yes.

Riley

Did he sit down and say, Man, I’m really puzzled about how I’m going to work my way through this. Can you help me get my thoughts straight? 

Engskov

Because you spend a lot of time with him, you spend a lot of time talking to him. I’ll come back to the question, but there was also a lot of time where my job was to be quiet. I could also be the guy—we could sit in this room and not say anything to each other and be completely comfortable, like two friends would do on a long car ride. You had to be in that position. I didn’t engage him very often. I kind of followed the rule of, Speak when you’re spoken to, generally, because that was my role. This goes back to the card-playing thing. I was there to serve, not to be the entertainer.

There were certainly lots of times when he’d ask me about things. The times I’d probably provide a utility would be when he’d ask about people. What’s that person like? Or, What are they like when they’re not in the Oval Office? Everybody was so young. They worked hard. He’d be like, What time does everybody go home? I walked by here the other night and that guy was in there at three o’clock in the morning. What are you doing at three o’clock in the morning? Things like that. I think it just gave him color into the real world. He felt like he could trust me to ask me. 

The policy stuff—there wasn’t a lot of policy stuff, because frankly I just didn’t have visibility to it. I didn’t sit in meetings, I didn’t have a policy role. What does that person like to do on the weekends? Because I don’t know him well. Or, I didn’t know that guy was a mountain biker. Stuff like that.

Riley

This is White House staff?

Engskov

Yes, White House staff, or people we’d meet along the way. A lot of it was about personality, because he didn’t often spend enough time with people to get to know them. I might have that insight, or I could find out. He was very interested in people, especially the people who worked in the White House. 

Riley

He would have no way of seeing somebody when they don’t have their face on.

Engskov

That’s right.

Riley

So time is short, and on the assumption that most people follow the model that you’ve defined as a successful model of keeping your business to the matter at hand, he’s got no way of knowing this about a lot of people who are working for him, right?

Engskov

Yes, and there were so many people working there. The White House staff is relatively small, comparatively, but there are still way too many people that would actually—back to this high-touch thing. When he had extra time he’d stop in, say hello to people, just pop his head in offices. Oftentimes we’d go to the Old [Executive Office] Building. There was a recording studio on the fourth floor we had to use for various things. On the way back he’d just pop his head in certain offices. 

It was really meaningful to people, because actually, at the White House you don’t see the President very often. He’s pretty distant. I think he was interested in what goes on in the White House, what goes on in all those rooms. He’d pop his head in and he would say, What are those people doing in there? I see all my stationery. They’re writing things, but who are they writing to and why are they writing to them? He was really interested in what goes on in the White House. On the other side of that, Why are those people doing that? Is that a good use of their time? He wasn’t a management kind of character, but he definitely asked questions about it from time to time. What does that guy do? He’s in here all the time but I don’t know what he does. 

Riley

This is the kind of stuff that you would know, or you’d go find out? 

Engskov

I’d probably know. My job is to know what’s happening. In that job, people tell me everything. I know everything. That’s a good thing about that job. People will confide in me and they’ll say things like, Listen, I’m thinking about doing this, and this is how I want to approach him. Do you think that’s a good idea? Is this a good time to do it? Would you do it now or later? What else you got going on today? I mean, I’d do that with the Chief of Staff, strategize. John, Erskine—they’d say things like, So what does he have in the afternoon? Has he talked to so-and-so? How’s he feeling? Because I’m there, I’m always there, and I can follow the whole day, where they don’t have that sort of visibility even though they’re quite close. I think that was actually quite helpful to those guys. 

Riley

So you knew his temperature better than—

Engskov

I was the keeper of temperature.

Riley

People who wanted to do business with the President from inside would come to you to find out what the temperature was that day or that moment?

Engskov

I don’t want to overstate the role. If Erskine Bowles wanted to go see the President, he’d go see the President. 

Riley

Of course.

Engskov

He didn’t need permission. There were times when, certainly as the aide, even if it was Erskine, I’d say, It’s not a good time. I’d just say, If it can wait, it would be better to come back. Because I know a lot of their personal stuff and that’s not necessarily something other people know. That is an important buffer for the aide job, to play that personal buffer. Sometimes the policy operation—and this was part of the problem in the beginning when they scheduled him, chock-a-block, with no time. Policy operation didn’t understand that this guy was a human being. At some point he wears out. He does hit a wall, even though it’s a much longer runway than for most people. 

I’ll give you a perfect example: the President had a cold one day. He was in disaster mode, the flu. We have the flu and we’re down for two days. He didn’t have that option, right? We were going to an event and they said, Oh, we’re going to add on these two other receptions. I said, Guys, he can’t even walk, let alone give a speech. I played that role a lot, regardless of who it was, just trying to represent the human side of him. If I really forced him into it, he’d probably do it, but it probably wasn’t the smart, long-term approach to that problem. He’s very human. 

People forget. Sometimes he gets a blemish on his skin and suddenly, my God, it’s a huge thing. The press, Hey, we noticed the President has a red dot on his nose. What is that? It’s acne. Occasionally it happens to everybody. They forget that this guy is just a human being and he can’t stop those things from happening. He can’t stop from getting sick or tired—

Riley

Angry, or just—

Engskov

He wasn’t an angry guy. Rarely did I see him angry.

Riley

But just worn-out.

Engskov

When he got tired he would certainly get more high strung. When he thought there was little value to what he was doing he would, or when he thought someone was using the event for the wrong reasons, when it wasn’t in his interest, it was in somebody else’s interest, which occasionally happens.

Knott

I did an interview with one of Ronald Reagan’s personal aides and he told a story about—it’s on the public record so I can go ahead with it—how George Shultz treated the personal aide inside the Oval Office, and then the minute they walked outside the Oval Office doors he was a completely different person, not particularly pleasant. Did you have experiences like that?

Engskov

That’s a very interesting question. The answer is yes. Especially when I first started I got that a little bit because they were testing me a little bit. But at the end of the day I kind of have the final call on what happens in that office, or on the plane, or wherever. The people who treated me like that, they weren’t all George Shultzes. The [Samuel] Sandy Bergers of the world, the Madeleine Albrights—they couldn’t have been more genuine and nice and wanted to get to know me. They never treated me like a servant. They wouldn’t say, Get me a cup of coffee. Very much different. The ones who did were always the ones who were the kind of people that probably shouldn’t have been there to begin with. You know, to be honest with you, the Clinton administration was so populist that we’d just say, The Mess is down the hall. You can go just get a cup of coffee there. 

But the ones you’d be honored to work for—There’s a great story about Bob Rubin, who I love, just a genuinely, unbelievably nice guy. He comes into the Oval Office. I had a tiny desk by the door. Betty sat over here and Nancy sat in a little office. Bob Rubin comes in one day—I’ll tell you two quick stories about Bob Rubin because they will show you the kind of people he had around him. Bob Rubin said, Hey, Kris, how are you? I said, Mr. Secretary, how are you? He said, Listen, I need to use a phone. Could I use your phone? I said yes. You’re the Secretary of the Treasury. You can use my telephone any time you want. He sat at my tiny little desk and used my phone for a long time. We have a picture of him sitting at my desk. Here’s this titan of industry, head of Goldman Sachs and now the Treasury Secretary, and he’s just crumpled over using my tiny little phone.

Another time—I’ll tell you a great story about him—The President was doing an event for the Mint. We’re reading the briefing materials and somebody had a question. Nancy had a question about something in the speech, about what something meant or whatever. So I called Treasury and I called his office. I can’t remember the woman’s name who used to be his assistant, but I said, Do you have somebody over there who could tell us the answer to this question? It was some crazy question about the Mint, what the symbol means, that the President was talking about. She said, Yes, let me find out and I’ll call you right back. 

Ring, ring. Kris, it’s Bob Rubin. Listen, that eagle with the palm that’s.… He gives me this whole thing and I—that goes back to the Arkansas kid thing. I’m talking to the Treasury Secretary. Those are the times when I just—it really said something about their personalities, that they had a lot of respect for the Presidency and the President. His office called. They were on it. I just thought that was great. It was fun. I didn’t ever task them with that stuff but they just did it.

Riley

Why don’t we take a break?

[BREAK]
Riley

There was a brief reference once or twice to Mrs. Clinton. Did a part of your job involve, also, helping to protect family time for him?

Engskov

Yes. There were those times that were set aside for that and I definitely had a role in making sure that remained clear. Some of it was personal time; some of it was just working together as politicians, really. Coordinating that—I don’t know, just making sure there was some coordination between the two of them. They obviously had two different lives, yet the same life, and that sometimes could be difficult. Different priorities, too, for staffs. So it was not always easy.

Riley

Did Mrs. Clinton have an equivalent to a Presidential aide?

Engskov

She did. She had the same position, really, a woman named Huma [Abedin], who used to travel with her all the time.

Riley

That was the person who was there when you were there?

Engskov

Yes. There were two people there: Whitney Williams was there when I was there in the beginning, and then Huma Abedin came in afterwards.

Riley

What about Chelsea [Clinton]? 

Engskov

Yes, I worked with Chelsea a lot. She was around. She left for Stanford—I can’t remember what year she went. We took her to Stanford.

Riley

Yes, I thought I read in the briefing book that you went out there. Tell us about that trip.

Engskov

The Clintons were very careful about their personal stuff, especially when it came to Chelsea. They’d taken great pains to protect her from a lot of the stuff that came with their respective careers. College, particularly, was no different. Stanford was very good about it—they’d dealt before with people of that caliber and with those kinds of constraints. They flew her out there and we did our best—I think I was in the press office when we did that. We did our best to understand that people needed to know the Clintons were taking Chelsea to Stanford, because they’ve got to know, but also trying to work with everybody to make sure that—it’s a very personal thing. They’re taking their daughter to college and they shouldn’t be robbed of that experience. It’s a quintessential family thing to do.

If I look back on that day, I think they had a great day out there. I think they accomplished what they tried to accomplish. The press was great about Chelsea. Chelsea was also great about the press. She was a very well behaved, smart young woman who obviously recognized that unfortunately she was under a different rulebook than most other kids her age. 

Riley

Was she in London when you were in London?

Engskov

No, she wasn’t. We came after her.

Riley

Go ahead, I’m sorry.

Engskov

She’s through here routinely. She was here just a couple of weeks ago. I just think they were very careful, and people were very careful with Chelsea. They did everything. The press were great about Chelsea. I think they recognized how seriously the President took that relationship, not that you wouldn’t with your child—but particularly one that age. She started in the White House when she was probably 12 or 13, I guess, maybe younger. No, 12 or 13. 

Riley

You mentioned earlier that you started at a difficult time in January of 1997 so we might as well go ahead and march through that. At what point did you become aware of the story?

Engskov

I started the job in December ’96, and then January of ’97 was when the story first broke about Lewinsky. I found out about that—I got a call from Mike McCurry late on the day before the Washington Post story ran. He said to me, Hey, I just want you to know that there’s going to be a big story tomorrow on the front page of the Post. He didn’t give me a lot of detail about it, only because he may not have known himself. He just said, You might want to get in early and be ready. I said, Got it. I’m not sure that was that uncommon. Every day there was something going on, so you just sort of took it in stride. I remember not being particularly worried about it.

I used to live in a building called the Woodley there on Columbia Road at 18th Street. My neighbor always got the Washington Post and it always lay on her doorstep. I got up very early, I was out about 6:00. I walked out of my house and I looked down at the Washington Post and there’s a picture of Monica Lewinsky and it said—I think it did—something about, President in Illicit Relationship with Intern. I remember thinking to myself, This place has gone completely off the deep end. What is going on in this town? They were always after him, but I thought, This is really taking it too far.

Riley

Did you know that name or that face?

Engskov

I knew her, yes, I knew her. I didn’t know her in that context.

Riley

I understand. But how would you have known her earlier?

Engskov

She worked in Legislative Affairs. I knew of her. If I had walked by her in the hallway, we would have said hello. That’s the extent I knew her.

Riley

Had you heard anything about her before that time?

Engskov

No. 

Riley

This is not a deposition.

Engskov

No, I’ve already been through that one. 

Riley

I’m going to ask you about that, too.

Engskov

That was why it was so striking. As a matter of fact, I can’t remember what the front page of the newspaper—I can’t remember her picture being there. I don’t think it was there. 

Riley

I don’t believe it was either, because I was living in Washington at the time. 

Engskov

I remember just being—I was saying to myself, I cannot believe what is going on in this town. So I got in the car, drove down to the White House, and—you guys know the story as well as I do. By nine o’clock that morning, the whole world was turned upside down, really.

The President was in the office quite early that morning. We had a pretty big day scheduled, which we canceled. We had some interviews scheduled in the afternoon that he went ahead and did. McNeil-Lehrer News Hour was one of them—Jim Lehrer, and Mara Liasson from NPR [National Public Radio], and maybe even NBC [National Broadcasting Company]. I can’t remember what the issue was. We had a topic, obviously, that day—not this one. 

Riley

You had the State of the Union coming up.

Engskov

It may have been State of the Union. So, obviously lots of activity that morning in terms of meetings.

Riley

How was he? What was his demeanor?

Engskov

Not good. He was clearly concerned. Looking back on that time, I think the gravity of the situation hadn’t hit us necessarily. We didn’t know—I didn’t know—I certainly didn’t have any details.

Riley

And you’d been through a lot of stuff before then?

Engskov

No, this is the first day.

Riley

I mean in the sense of—

Engskov

Attacks?

Riley

The gravity of things. It was not as though this was the first shot that the President had taken while in office.

Engskov

Gosh no, this was an everyday thing. That’s why I had that reaction to the newspaper article. It was Susan Schmidt, and I just thought they had another wild goose chase we were going to have to play for a while.

Riley

But you said his demeanor was not good. Grumpy, or angry?

Engskov

No. I think he was concerned. I don’t care who you are, if they run a newspaper article that says you’re involved with an intern and you’re a married man, regardless of who you are you’re going to be concerned, whether you did it or not.

Riley

Fair enough.

Engskov

Beyond that morning—there was a series of meetings, mostly in terms of just trying to understand what’s going on. In my role then I really took a step back. That was well beyond my pay grade. I really tried to support the President in whatever way I could, which was making sure we did the small things that day. I spent a lot of time with him that day, oddly. But he was pretty reserved, very quiet.

Riley

Why would you have spent a lot of time with him on that day?

Engskov

He was in the office all day. There was a lot of coming and going, obviously. In the afternoon, he was by himself. I was with him a lot in the afternoon, after the interviews. I can’t remember exactly how the whole day went. Obviously the subsequent days were as difficult, trying to sort it out. To be honest with you, a lot of that is a blur. I didn’t take notes in that period, I wish I had. The schedules are all in the archives, too, because the aide actually keeps a running schedule of what happens and who is where and what. It really would be fascinating to go back and look at what happened that morning—to know. 

Riley

That’s very helpful.

Engskov

There will be a record, obviously, of what happened that morning.

Riley

Have you got, to your recollection, more than the normal number of people coming to take your temperature about his temperature?

Engskov

There were very few people in the office that morning. The Chief of Staff was there. Sandy was there. There wasn’t a lot of traffic. There was a lot of traffic with those guys but not a lot of general traffic. It was a general blur. The whole week there was kind of a blur. If you gave me the chronology, I might know what happened after those things, but I can’t remember.

I know that it was a very challenging time. I remember at one point walking into the Oval Office and the President was sitting at his desk and him saying, You okay? which he did routinely, but it took on a little different significance. Being the loyalist that I was, I was like, Mr. President, I’m okay. I’m right with you. He just meant, Are you okay? and I felt like an idiot when I said that—awkward moment. You know, it was really a tough time and we didn’t talk about it, obviously. 

Riley

Did you talk about it with others?

Engskov

We had to. You couldn’t not talk about it with others. I was very protective of him then because I thought that was my responsibility.

Riley

Of course.

Engskov

I shut down a lot with—that’s funny, because looking back at that time, that’s when a lot of those press relationships sort of changed. I couldn’t walk through the briefing room any more on the way out. I got a lot of calls from people. I took a lot of calls from people that I would have thought wouldn’t have called me because they knew that I wouldn’t—

Riley

Press people or others?

Engskov

Press people, who just said, How’s the President doing?

Riley

That’s a loaded question, isn’t it?

Engskov

I remember getting lots of calls. The people I respected, I called back and just said, Sorry, can’t help you with that. You’ve got to speak to the people who can. No disrespect. Some people I just ignored. Really, in that position, I probably knew more than almost anyone in terms of how he was feeling, what he was doing. 

Riley

Sure.

Engskov

That was a remarkably challenging time, I think, with the First Lady, with the President, with staff. Again, it wasn’t my job to judge at that point. I remember thinking that. Because, you know, even my mother asked you about those things, What is the President doing? I’m like, Mom, I don’t know. My friends asked me that; other White House staff asked me that, because they think I’m privy to that stuff. Other people asked me, I can’t believe you did this, and let him do this. Obviously I had nothing to do with those things. I just tried to remain neutral and say—again, back to this whole card playing analogy thing—I’m not here to judge this guy; I’m here to help this guy do his job better, and I respect him, no matter what he did. 

Part of that job is about the office. Regardless of what stupid thing he did, he still runs the country, and you’ve still got to go on doing that stuff, and there are a lot of people relying on you to do it. I think he said that a lot, and a lot of people thought that was sort of, Okay, so I’m going to ignore this and I’m going to keep trudging along. But there is a lot of truth to that. There is a lot of truth to the fact that just because you get derailed by something, even if it’s your own doing, you still are in charge of the country, and that’s a big responsibility.

Riley

Your conversations with other staff members, what’s the substance of those? Is it, What do you think happened? 

Engskov

A lot of, Do you think it’s true? How could that happen? I mean, anybody who understood how the White House worked found it hard to imagine how it could happen. I still don’t quite know all that. Probably naively I’ve chosen to ignore a lot of it and just sort of not—especially during the impending few months, because of all the legal action and that sort of thing.

I wasn’t there when those events occurred, at least in that area. I respect Bill Clinton as a policy maker. I just didn’t feel obligated to make a judgment on him about his personal life. Sometimes he doesn’t return calls, but do I judge him on that? I don’t know. The seriousness of the event, I just tried to calibrate and do my job. Really, at the end of the day, I work for the government. I certainly work for him, but I work for the government. We went on.

Riley

Were there people that you knew who were giving serious consideration to resigning under the circumstances?

Engskov

I don’t know of anybody. No one ever said that to me. Then again, they probably wouldn’t, especially someone remotely senior. I don’t think they would play that kind of stupid game. I doubt whether they would tell the President, but you never know. You wouldn’t want to be the guy to go back and say, Hey, I just ran into so-and-so in the hallway. They said what you did was really stupid, by the way, and they’re thinking about resigning. I think I know what he would say. People were rattled by it, there’s no doubt about that. Clearly a lot of people who thought he could do no wrong, even before it was a real thing, probably were rattled by that. 

I had to balance these things, right? All these guys have flaws. It doesn’t make it okay. It’s a horrible thing. What are you going to do? You just say it was wrong, he shouldn’t have done it; he should know better. But it was done. Especially toward the end, I think it was, It’s done. Let’s move on. 

Certainly in the battle of impeachment—one thing I didn’t like about the impeachment was, you know, we sort of rallied as a team to kind of beat that back, which obviously we did, ultimately, in terms of the acquittal. I think you have to separate that from, Was it right or was it wrong? Sure it was wrong. Should they have done all the things they did to punish him for it? It was very political, as were a lot of things that went on during that time. But the rallying team thing probably wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do. We needed to do it because we had to win that. That was going to be the—when the House voted for impeachment, it couldn’t escape me that it might be over, right? It certainly went through my head. But at the end of the day, everybody thought, politics is politics, and we were the best there is at politics, and we’ll come through this. That doesn’t excuse the fact that it was very wrong.

Riley

One of the things that happens—we mentioned the State of the Union message. You’ve got that coming up. I guess you must have some piece of the walkthrough and conduct of that. Do you notice any discernible steeling of his resolve in getting ready for this?

Engskov

I actually found that after the initial shock he was probably stronger than he ever was. People say he’s not very disciplined. That’s supposedly one of his great character flaws. That’s certainly true around some things. But when he puts his head to something, he’s very disciplined, especially around pulling something like that together—getting focused on a task like the State of the Union or something else. 

I remember that being—I’ll say this carefully—a distraction, almost, from the other stuff. How do you get on with doing what you’re doing? The State of the Union is a good place to do that because you’re talking about—you’re looking forward, not looking back. They say all that stuff about how it wasn’t right, but he was now moving on, trying to resolve it. I didn’t see any degradation in his ability to execute that job. 

Riley

You don’t have any specific recollections of events leading up to the State of the Union?

Engskov

I don’t.

Riley

He must have felt pretty good about—the atmosphere in the White House was improved after that address. Or is that an overstatement?

Engskov

I think that would probably take it too far. Still there was a lot of discontent about what happened. People were disappointed. They weren’t leaving; people weren’t doing that kind of thing, but they were disappointed and probably looked at him in a different way.

Riley

To be clear, I know you weren’t taking a poll, but was it your informal sense that people thought that something must have happened between these two folks?

Engskov

You know, I guess—something would be a pretty big statement. Did people think that maybe something inappropriate happened? Probably. Did they understand the extent of it? Probably not.

Riley

At what point does the legal piece of this, the Ken Starr investigation piece of this, encompass you?

Engskov

I can’t remember the dates—

Knott

We’ve got it as February ’98. There’s a piece in the Washington Post on February 5, 1998, saying that you had testified before the Federal Grand Jury.

Engskov

So that must have been almost a year later—

Riley

No, actually, Kris, all this was taking place in ’98. It may be telescoped in memory, but the Post story on Lewinsky came out around January 17th, I believe, of ’98. 

Engskov

So I testified in February of ’98. It happened in January of ’98.

Riley

That’s when the story broke. So within a month—

Engskov

I guess that’s right. It all seems like it’s—I’m sorry you’re having to tell me the dates.

Riley

There’s no need to apologize. In fact, part of what we do is—I mean, everything we do relates to memory, and when your memory plays tricks on you like that, that’s an interesting piece of evidence about something; I can’t tell you what it is. 

Engskov

I think we compartmentalized everything in the sense of—I can remember the day it happened; I remember that week.

Riley

But you said it’s a blur.

Engskov

It is a blur. Certain details are not a blur. What happened at the Grand Jury is not a blur. I got a call from Cheryl Mills, who was one of the White House counsel. She said, Just want you to know that you have been subpoenaed by Ken Starr’s investigation to go talk about your knowledge of Oval Office operations. I said, All right, so what does that mean? We talked about—really, in my head I had decided that I had nothing to do with this, right? I had no knowledge of that time. So I found it surprising that they would subpoena me. I think a lot of it had to do with politics. Get people in there; start talking to them. When you had nothing really to share other than how the Oval Office worked. So that was the context of my testimony.

Riley

And you hadn’t been in that position very long, right?

Engskov

I guess I’d been in there about a month-and-a-half. I don’t remember it being that quick. That is amazing that it happened that quickly, that’s true. I remember being angry about that, about having to commit the time required to prepare for this, because it was an enormous amount of preparation. I won’t go into the details of legal representation, but you had to have an attorney. All of this really soured me on the system of some of what I had been idealistic about for some time.

Riley

You had to hire a lawyer?

Engskov

Yes. I did a lot of preparation for that testimony, whenever this was. I can’t believe it was condensed in that amount of time, but I guess it was. I did a lot of preparation for this, preparation that seemed to me to be completely inane. But I’m not an attorney. I’ve never been before a Grand Jury, obviously. There were a lot of things I needed to be educated on, which I accepted and I prepared for. It took me away from my job, which bothered me because I didn’t sign up for this, but it was part of it. 

I went on two occasions to the Federal Courthouse. Rick Ripley, who was my attorney, and I pulled up in front of the courthouse—do you know the Federal Courthouse?

Riley

Yes.

Engskov

Big long walkway up there. We got out of the car—and I was one of the first people to testify. We walked up the front of the steps there; it’s a long walk up that thing to the door. There were two photographers sitting outside whom I knew well. I remember the photographer seeing me and saying, Oh, shit. They hopped up and then we got in the door.

Riley

They missed you.

Engskov

They missed me, that’s right. So we went in. We sat down in front of the Grand Jury and they went through the whole thing.

Riley

They being who?

Engskov

The prosecutor, I guess.

Riley

Do you remember which one it was?

Engskov

Gosh, I can see him in my head; I can’t remember his name.

Riley

[Robert] Bittman?

Engskov

No. He was kind of a large guy with black hair. If you gave me a list of names, I could tell you who it was. He talked down to me. He treated me like I was a servant. I understood that. 

Riley

You didn’t have your lawyer with you?

Engskov

No, you can’t take your lawyer into the Grand Jury. To be honest with you, I took the oath and I told them what I knew, which was nothing. They asked me a lot of questions about how the Oval Office works, access to the President. Looking back on that time, I probably approached it a little bit the wrong way. I certainly told the truth and did all the things I had to do, but I probably didn’t have the best attitude about it.

Riley

My guess is that lawyer wasn’t coming to you free, was he?

Engskov

I don’t even want to talk about the whole thing, I’m just so irritated about that.

Riley

I only raise that issue because it would help explain your state of mind when you’re—

Engskov

Yes, absolutely. You’re taking along a pretty expensive lawyer and you’re doing something that—The real kicker for me was when I walked out of the room—you come around a barrier and then you’re in the public zone, basically, where the press are. They don’t allow cameras in the building but they certainly allow a lot of reporters in it. On this particular trip, I only remember one AP [Associated Press] reporter, who asked me how it went. I just rode down the elevator with him and didn’t say anything. When I got outside there were lots of cameras. I mean, I’m suddenly going from being a guy following the cameras to being the guy on the camera.

I was on NBC News that night. My mother is watching me on NBC News in front of a Grand Jury. I think that that was disappointing to them. Here’s this guy who has done very well and suddenly—something that actually has nothing to do with me—suddenly it looks like I’m the criminal. I looked like a criminal on that NBC footage. It’s funny to look back at that time. I was in Time magazine that week, I was in various places. Nobody made clear that I had nothing to offer, which was interesting.

We got back in the car after we got through the scrum. We had Federal police officers helping us get through there, it was really a big deal. They called us back, so I went back a second time. I don’t know what the date was.

Riley

It’s checkable.

Engskov

Each of those testimonies was probably three or four hours long. Maybe it was less. I went back a second time and I remember it was exactly the same situation, although we came in the side door this time to avoid the whole press thing. I really believe it is set up to be quite intimidating. I’m sure most Grand Juries work that way, I don’t know. Never been to one before or since. I spent a good deal of time again talking about things that were almost exactly the same as I’d talked about before. Then I left after another period and I never heard from anybody again about it. Obviously all that testimony has been published in various places. 

Riley

We tried—I think the online version of it only—

Engskov

They didn’t use any of my stuff. 

Riley

We tried to find it for the briefing materials, but we couldn’t find it. Did you or your lawyer have conversations with other people in the White House when you finished that, to sort of debrief and let them know what—

Engskov

No. What’s interesting is no one ever asked me about it. The President didn’t ask me about it, no one in the White House asked me about it. No one asked me about it. I figured that was on purpose. Like I said, I wasn’t an attorney, so I didn’t understand the rules and I assumed at the time that it was by—

Riley

Standard procedure. Some people we’ve talked to said there was some—coordination is too strong a word, but there was at least some debriefing that went on.

Engskov

I just think that I was a small fish and they just knew that there wasn’t anything to offer, and they had bigger fish to fry than me.

Riley

But they might very well have wanted to know the kinds of questions that were being asked, as a means of preparing.

Engskov

I’m sure, if there was communication, maybe the attorney shared with them.

Riley

I suspect that’s probably the case.

Engskov

Honestly, I wanted to do the minimum amount of work I needed to do on that. I was really very irritated about the whole thing, only because once I got in there it was so clear to me that there was nothing that I could add, and they knew that. 

Riley

Was there anything that you could tell us about the ensuing months, in terms of the President’s demeanor? Was it consistently somber, or was he able to make peace?

Engskov

Oh no, it dragged on until August, right?

Riley

Exactly.

Engskov

It was quite long, I mean, certainly around the impeachment votes and that sort of thing—

Riley

Well, there was his own Grand Jury testimony. 

Engskov

I wasn’t present for that.

Riley

There was a speech afterwards,

Engskov

Yes, the Oval Office—

Riley

There was a speech he gave, I believe, in mid-August that was—it was after he had given—

Engskov

I remember that, you’re right. Where he basically admits that he—

Riley

He admits, but it was—there was a kind of defiant aspect to pieces of the remarks.

Engskov

I was there for that. I didn’t attend the testimony.

Riley

Which was taken somewhere over in the—

Engskov

In the reception room was where it was.

Knott

August 17th.

Riley

That’s right. You were in the White House in the West Wing during that time?

Engskov

I was. I remember there being a defiant tone to it and that not being the right chord to strike. That was very clear after that was over.

Riley

Did you see the President after?

Engskov

Yes. 

Riley

Do you have any recollection of what his demeanor was then?

Engskov

I don’t remember specifically his demeanor, but I know generally how he was after those things. As expected, he was not very happy. It’s pretty unprecedented for a President to be questioned in his own home like that. You know, it’s interesting—again, a lot of this is a blur. I think it’s because at that time I may not have fully understood how to process it. A lot of young staff probably were in that position. 

Riley

After the President confirms that in fact there was an inappropriate relationship, did you have conversations with the staff at that point?

Engskov

I’m sure I did. I don’t remember them, but I’m sure I did. I’m sure we talked amongst ourselves, especially the immediate staff. He did what he did, we move on. It really was a very—I mean, what do you say? It’s a pretty horrible thing.

Riley

Of course. I’m not trying to dwell on this; I’m merely trying to see if I can find questions that might prompt a specific recollection. The only way that I know how to do it is to slice into this.

Engskov

I wish I could tell you—I don’t even know how the chronology fit together very well, but certainly there was a somber tone in the White House, especially during the days when it was really impacting day-to-day business. We kind of carried on the nation’s business in a lot of ways during that time.

Riley

I understand that the President was actively encouraging people to focus on—

Engskov

Absolutely.

Riley

Erskine was the Chief of Staff at this point, still? Was there any sense from you that Erskine or any others at the senior reaches seemed to be more distracted than others?

Engskov

Erskine is a pretty disciplined guy. Of all the people in the White House—I want to make sure it was Erskine—I guess it was Erskine—Erskine would have to tell you himself, but I think a lot of people got tired. Some were in Washington the long summer, especially in August when really August is a down time. You should be using August for rest and relaxation and to get ready for the fall when Congress comes back.

People were just whipped. They were just tired, and tired of dealing with it. I vacillated between real anger at the stupid politics and let’s just get this over with. But politically there was a lot to gain from keeping it going. At least that was my view. I vacillated between that and then just anger at the President for doing something so stupid. What do you do? You try to move beyond these things. 

Clinton talks about forgiveness a lot. He talks about that in religious terms. He uses that concept routinely, if you look at the whole Presidency, and particularly at this time. He gives a big talk to a bunch of evangelical ministers in the East Room of the White House shortly after it’s over. I think the impeachment and the acquittal was over. Maybe it was before—

Knott

It’s September 9th.

Riley

Yes, I think that’s the moment after that more defiant speech.

Engskov

Yes, that’s right.

Riley

So you were with him on that occasion?

Engskov

Yes, I was with him. That’s not the first time I’ve heard him talk about that. It struck me that day that that wasn’t—he’s asked for forgiveness before. He’s provided forgiveness to people. If you know him really well, you know he’s like that. He’s not a guy who holds grudges, really. I remember watching him speak that day and thinking, Here’s a manifestation of something you’ve talked about for a long time that’s really hitting home today. He was at his best when he was with religious people, actually. I found that always odd. He gave some of his most impassioned speeches in churches. I don’t know what that was. Religion tends to be kind of an emotive thing for people. He felt comfortable in those kinds of venues, providing that message.

Riley

Did he talk religion with you?

Engskov

Gosh, did we ever talk religion? I’m sure we did, but I can’t remember specific situations where we would have. I gave him a book one time on—I found a crazy old book in a used bookstore one time in Alexandria, on JFK [John Fitzgerald Kennedy] and his use of religion in speeches. I gave him that book. It was really a very simple book. It was just quotes that JFK had used to insert in various speeches to illustrate certain points. I thought it was an interesting book, and he always was interested in JFK and how he communicated.

Riley

Were you religious yourself?

Engskov

Yes. I grew up a Methodist and I would say I’m a routinely practicing Methodist, generally. 

Riley

I only raise the question because if you were not, then—

Engskov

I wouldn’t say I’m quite spiritual, but I would say I’m religious, yes, Christian. Mrs. Clinton was a Methodist too, so we shared that background. That goes back to Arkansas a little bit, too. You know, Arkansas is a very spiritual place. People rely upon their faith in surprising ways. Faith is a pretty strong thread in Arkansas and certainly in politics in Arkansas. You don’t get too far from that. The church is oftentimes as much a political organization as a religious organization, as we found in the 2000 campaign. Clinton understood that. He was a deeply faithful guy. I mean, he really—lots of things. He routinely read the Bible. He would search out advice from people who were religious leaders.

Al Gore was a deeply religious guy, and I think that drove a lot of the President’s sort of day-to-day faith. Does that make sense?

Knott

I’m just wondering if you ever heard the President make any comments about the Republicans, about Newt Gingrich. Gingrich gets entangled in his own allegations of extramarital affairs and steps down in the midst of this. Then there’s the [Robert] Livingston thing that blows up for a week or so. Do you recall any—

Engskov

I don’t recall him ever saying anything, but it didn’t surprise me that he didn’t. Although, I will tell you—what was that guy’s name, the Congressman from Louisiana?

Riley

Bob Livingston.

Engskov

Yes, Bob Livingston. The morning that happened and he stepped down, I was upstairs on the second floor, and the President was in his dressing area. I said, You’re not going to believe this, but Bob Livingston has stepped down for an extramarital affair. There was dead silence. I said, Did you hear me? He just goes, Yep. That was it. That was the only time we were in discussion. Routinely, if you thought there was something important to tell the President, you would tell him and he would react to it. He distinctly did not react to that. I remember that very distinctly. He just said, Yep. I think that’s kind of his way of internalizing all that stuff. 

Riley

Did you make the family vacation—

Engskov

To Martha’s Vineyard? No, I didn’t go. I sent a surrogate because I was just worn out. I needed a break. I went to Maine or something. I just took a vacation because I needed one at that point.

Riley

Needed to get your batteries recharged?

Engskov

I did. That was a very tough vacation, as I understand it. Kirk Hanlin went in my place. To be honest with you, that was the right thing to do. Everybody just needed a break, to recharge a little bit in September. It had to be the middle of September.

Riley

August or September. I think it was fairly soon after the President’s remarks. 

Engskov

We came back in a different way. I think we came back pretty refreshed, just to get it out of our heads for a few days.

Riley

Then you had those midterm elections. I don’t know if you have any recollections of that or not.

Engskov

We won big, didn’t we?

Riley

Well, any win would have been a surprising win, but under the circumstances, to have won—

Engskov

I’m sorry I have such a bad timeline here.

Knott

The election was November 3rd. Gingrich announced three days later that he would not seek reelection as Speaker in the Congress.

Engskov

It was interesting because—I have a good story about Wye River. I don’t know if you remember Wye River, but Wye River was—[Benjamin] Netanyahu.

Riley

The date on that is when?

Engskov

October 23rd.

Riley

Of ’98?

Knott

Yes.

Engskov

It’s interesting, thinking about that—that’s sort of right in the middle, before the midterms yet right before the impeachment stuff. We went to Wye River. Wye River is an interesting place because it was kind of a farm out in Maryland. We’re out there with Netanyahu and [Yasser] Arafat and King Hussein. That was his last trip. He looked terrible, I remember, when he arrived. He was clearly suffering—I think that it was cancer that he was suffering from, but he was in bad shape and it was a big deal for him to come. Clinton was very touched by that, that he made that trip over. 

Clinton was pretty buoyant during this thing. He was really engaged. There was a lot of travel. We were flying back between the White House and Wye River every day on the helicopter, which is a pretty long trip. It was like 45 minutes out there on the helicopter. The last night, we didn’t ever go home, we just went straight through. This may not be very important to this Lewinsky thing, but that was a really busy time at the Wye River. 

Clinton was very sick during that time with a cold. In fact, he had to go to a house and lie down at one point, because he had the flu. I remember just thinking, We’re out in the middle of nowhere in this house—it was kind of a random old house. The President of the United States is sleeping upstairs in this kind of crazy attic bedroom, with a cold, and no one to take care of him except for a doctor. He must have just thought the end was near. 

But I remember that being a very good time for the President. He was very engaged. He was very—shuttling between the White House and here and getting these guys together. I know he was very relaxed out there. At one point we took a walk. This goes back to populist Bill Clinton. He decided he wanted to take a walk with Madeleine Albright. It was very informal. It was very casual. There weren’t many people out there. We walked off the compound out into a very traditional suburban neighborhood outside this kind of estate. There were maybe 15 or 20 houses in there. Think of any suburban neighborhood, just random ranch houses. 

One guy had his garage door open and he had a bunch of puppies in a pen right inside the garage. Clinton was walking down the street with Albright and says, Hey, let’s go see those puppies. He walks up this driveway into this garage and he picks one up. We have pictures of this; I remember it distinctly. It’s me and the President and Madeleine Albright and a woman named Suzy George, who was Madeleine Albright’s aide, and a bunch of Secret Service people. 

You know, it was like any of those ranch houses, and the screen door inside the garage door opens, and these people walk out and the President of the United States and Madeleine Albright are in their garage handling their dogs. The guy goes, Good afternoon. I don’t think he knows—It’s one of these—it’s such a surprising thing, what’s going on. He goes, Mr. President! I don’t know how he knew to say that, because—I guess he must have known he was out there. We sat and talked to those people for a long time.

Riley

No kidding.

Engskov

It’s such a crazy story—walking into someone’s garage. It has nothing to do with what you actually need to know, but it’s an interesting story.

Riley

It’s an interesting character sketch. 

Engskov

We walked back to the thing. We finished Wye Valley that night. We stayed all night and finished it. We flew back to the White House that next morning. We stayed up all night and they signed that agreement, the Wye Valley Agreement, at the White House in the East Room that next day at two o’clock. I remember that being a—probably that was a great distraction for the President. He was doing what he knew how to do best. I don’t know how to give you more color on that one.

Riley

That’s great.

Engskov

I don’t remember the midterms very well.

Riley

The impeachment, you mentioned a couple of times. His mood was generally upbeat through all of that?

Engskov

Well, we did the air strikes, you remember that. We had the air strikes in Iraq during that time. Of course, that was all supposedly political and all that sort of thing. There’s actually a picture of me sitting in the office reading a Washington Post copy that says, Iraq Air strikes, Impeachment. I always look at that picture and think what a crazy time that was. 

Yes, he was very resolute. He was very irritated about the connection with the politics, that he would he endanger people, U.S. military forces, or the possibility of killing innocent people in another country—that that was about politics. I remember him being very irritated by that, but also kind of resolute in his decision. 

He had a TV in the back room. We did not watch the trial. I kept that off. I didn’t turn on the trial. I turned off the TV outside the Oval Office. We were very careful just to keep that out here and not part of the day-to-day. It would be easy to leave that TV on. There was nothing on TV besides that. 

When Dale Bumpers came to give that speech in the Senate, he came and spent some time with the President. That was very reassuring for the President, I think. Again, it goes back to this theme of Arkansas. Arkansas is a comfort, and Dale Bumpers—there’s no one who represents Arkansas better than that, that old—when you bring it back down, we’re all just a bunch of guys from Arkansas. When Bumpers came to spend time with him, he was definitely comforted by that. He felt good about that. He watched Dale Bumpers on television. I think I watched it with him, I can’t remember. I think I did. He felt really good about that. He was glad, for better or worse, that that was who they had chosen to make that case. He thought that was the right guy. Bumpers came back to the White House after that was over and they spent some time together. That was a very personal thing, right? These guys had been professional colleagues for a long time. Really, they governed together for years and worked together.

Riley

Sure. Competitors in a way, also, or is that too strong a word?

Engskov

I think it’s too strong a word. I don’t think they were ever very much competitors. 

I don’t know that Dale Bumpers was ever a very serious candidate for the Presidency—himself, not so much the people. I go back to this Arkansas thing because if you look at all the bad things that happened, it would routinely be people from Arkansas, old friends, who would typically provide that comfort for Clinton. If I think about Whitewater or Paula Jones, or the impeachment, Arkansas friends were always the core of this. I think about that a lot. I think a lot about new friends he made when he was in the White House. It’s a very tough job to make new friends when you’re President. 

Riley

Sure.

Engskov

There’s always got to be questions in the back of your head about why they’re your friend. He did make a few. I could probably list them on two hands, people I think are genuinely—

Riley

Who are some of the people?

Engskov

I’d prefer not to say, because I’m not sure he would agree. Those are my observations; that’s not what this is about. 

Riley

But there were also some Arkansans—I mean, it was hard on Arkansas—the support structure and his roots in Arkansas that you talked with us about—but it was also a hard experience on Arkansas, I mean, Vince Foster, Web Hubbell, and some others.

Engskov

I think it’s the disappointment by people, because Clinton was—there’s nobody harder on himself at different times than him. He was very hard on himself. Other times he was way too easy on himself, right? There, the lack of discipline would come into play. And he would read it wrong. He would get defiant as opposed to acknowledging that he was wrong. But again, the politics of it, the Ken Starr politics of it not being particularly above-board, really drove that feeling of him overstepping when it came to accepting responsibility for doing something wrong. 

Back to the Arkansas thing—the friends were great support and that worked for him. There were a few—Bruce Lindsey was always there, kind of coordinating that. This is a weird connection to the ’80 campaign, but he always thought that people would forgive him and he could win people back. 

But it really bothered him to disappoint people, especially in his home state. You could always see that. We’d be in Arkansas sometimes and someone would come up and say something to him. They were very honest down there. They felt comfortable with him and they didn’t care if he was President or not. They had nothing to lose. So some guy in overalls would come up to him and say something, and he would just—I could see him internalize it. And he would take it back. He’d say something about it to somebody. He’d say, Bruce, you know, I ran into this guy down there and he says that we turned our back on something. Bruce would say, Well, I think we did. He’d be like, How could you let that happen? That’s when he’d get mad at other people. He’d call them in. 

Again, what really expresses—there were lots of Arkansas examples like that. I’d just go back to the Dale Bumpers thing. I know this is completely off—

Riley

No, it’s not.

Engskov

The Dale Bumpers thing was interesting because he really trusted—he could put trust in a lot of people on that thing, and he decided on Dale Bumpers. My guess is that it was his decision. The stakes were high and it’s interesting who he went to to help him with that. 

Riley

You mentioned Bruce here. Bruce had a role that was not commensurate with his title in the White House, as best I can tell. How would you characterize what Bruce did for him?

Engskov

There were very few people in the White House—obviously, as you make your way up to the Presidency, you come across a lot of folks. There are very few folks who have been with you the entire way and have established that kind of loyalty with you. They know everything. They know all your secrets. They know all your strengths, weaknesses, whatever. I have to say that Bruce was probably one of the few people who had the intellect to keep up, and then also had the experience and history.

There were other people who certainly were valuable to the President in a variety of ways, but they may not have had all of the experience and intellect necessary to play that role. Bruce kind of fell into that, right? He had a formal role in the Counsel’s office and added some great technical expertise to the White House. But at the end of the day, he could really always speak for the President. He knew what the President would do if put to that situation. He could head off a lot of these things at the pass, before we got down that road, especially when it came to some of these really sensitive issues. Because who do you have do that work? Who’d anticipated we’d have that kind of issue in the White House during those years? Bruce was a trusted—he was a friend and great legal advisor to the President. There are very few people you can have play that role, to have the President hand over that kind of responsibility to them. But he felt very comfortable. 

Riley

Coming to mind now is one other question area. There may be some things on your list. I want to make sure we leave just a few minutes here for you to go back through what you had brought with you to make sure we covered that. But you mentioned Gore earlier. I wanted to get you to talk a little bit about the relationship with the Vice President, as you saw it. You probably were privy to a lot of their conversations and how the two worked together. 

And then, to get your reading about how Clinton felt about Gore’s effort in 2000, to the extent that you were aware of it. We’ve had people comment on that. Obviously, there had to have been some disappointment there, but maybe more than that. 

Engskov

They’re two very different people. Their styles are very different. Their approaches to issues are very different. What’s interesting, if you watch them both, is that they clearly learned things from each other that they would adopt. I think Clinton really respected Gore’s amazing discipline at analysis of issues. I don’t think Gore ruled by gut very often like Clinton did. Clinton could get a good gut feel for something and most times he was right. I don’t think Gore did that. Gore would really want to see the data and understand analytically how to rationalize that. I’d see that Clinton would appreciate that view and how to do it, but he also recognized that in politics sometimes that’s not fast enough. Sometimes you have to be faster, and he didn’t like the speed at which the Vice President’s operation made decisions. 

If you look at it at different times—we traveled a lot with Al Gore in 1996. Al Gore was almost like another human being in 1996 than he was early on. He was a great campaigner, he was very populist and out there with the people and shaking hands. They had a great time together. We did those bus trips in ’96 and just had a fantastic time. Gore was fun. He had his wife along and he just seemed like he was enjoying it. 

Certainly, there were times that stressed that relationship. Certainly, Lewinsky stressed it. I don’t have any visibility into the Vice President’s views on that but I’m guessing they were not good. He was part of that—he expressed that pretty clearly. You could tell by the way he approached the situation, approached the President’s relationship, going forward. That did heal itself over a period of time in terms of their working together again. 

They used to have weekly lunches together. It was always interesting. They used to pray together at the beginning of each of those lunches. I will reserve the detail of the prayers, but I think Al Gore was a strong—it kind of goes back to those southern roots again. Al Gore was a strong faith leader for Bill Clinton in a lot of ways, in ways that I don’t know that he would probably talk about, or want to talk about. Al Gore was the sort of golden boy, always doing things right and by the book. That could never happen to Al Gore. Clinton respected that, even though he wasn’t necessarily capable of it himself. So he probably learned some stuff from Gore in that way.

They spent less time together, certainly, after the Lewinsky thing. I think they clearly felt less comfortable with each other. I don’t have a lot of visibility of the campaign in 2000. I left sort of halfway, before it got hot and heavy, but I remember that Clinton would react to certain things the Gore campaign did and just would think that wasn’t good. I can’t give you examples because I can’t remember, but I remember him making comments about it, just saying things like, I think I would have done it this way. Easy to say, because he had a very different style. 

Even the Vice President’s staff was very different. We knew there was friction between staffs. Mike Feldman, who is a good friend of mine, was very close to the Vice President and worked on his staff. We talked a lot about that. We played poker together and we’d talk about it.

Riley

So you were a card player, just not with the President?

Engskov

No, not with the President, right. There was a friction. We couldn’t always describe it, but we talked about it a lot. We’d say, What is that? What is it?

Riley

This is even before the campaign?

Engskov

This is all the time, probably more toward the end than in the beginning. We recognized there was a real friction there. Not a serious friction, nothing that got in the way of working, but it was two different worlds, really. The Vice President was—like a lot of these Cabinet officials, he was a very easygoing guy. He’d come, and if the President was busy he’d always ask me, Can I go in? Is it okay? I’d find that amazing. I thought that was such a great thing that he was very respectful of the President, that this was the President. His approach was the right approach, even if he wasn’t always in control and he didn’t like what he had to do all the time. He played that role.

Knott

This relaxed, easygoing campaigner that you saw in ’96, what do you think happened between ’96 and 2000? 

Engskov

I think there were a lot of people involved in his campaign that were just—I don’t know anything about political strategy, really, but one thing that—I can only address this from what I know about Bill Clinton and that is, when Bill Clinton was faced with a political situation, he was the ultimate decider; he would make the decision. He would sometimes listen to people and sometimes he wouldn’t. At the end of the day, he always made the decision on his own. It was very clear it was his decision. Yes, he would solicit an opinion, but ultimately in his gut he knew what was the right thing to do. Sometimes it took him a while to get around to it, sometimes he knew it immediately. It’s a little bit like reading those crowds. He could feel that, if he could just get close enough to it, especially on hard decisions, like decisions on trade when you’re dealing with the unions, and other decisions he made along the way, because he got contrary advice oftentimes for the decisions he ultimately made. In politics, particularly, he always seemed to know the way the breezes were blowing and how to do it right. 

Gore just didn’t seem to understand that. If you watched Gore in situations, he never seemed to me to feel very comfortable around the President, especially when he was on his own. We’d be in a black church down in Florida and Gore was with the President and it was very clear that the President looked very comfortable and happy and in his element and Gore didn’t. Now, I don’t think that’s because Gore doesn’t have a great relationship with the African-American community, but I just think he felt he was under the big oak tree there. He didn’t necessarily like that very much. Clinton could feel comfortable almost anywhere. He was always comfortable. He ruled by his gut and that was very different from the way the Vice President approached things.

Riley

Did Clinton get nervous before speeches?

Engskov

Boy, if he ever did, I never saw it, ever. The guy was just nerves of steel. I tell a lot of people the story about—he catnapped. That was his way of getting sleep. That is a scientific way to keep the day going, right? He’d get in the car and we’d usually have 20-minute drives. I don’t know why every drive was 20 minutes, but it was. 

He’d get off the plane, get in the car, and he’d go right to sleep. He’d just put his head on the back of the car and he’d go to sleep for 20 minutes. We had two limousines. I’d usually ride in the one in the back. I’d walk up to the car and I’d see his head still on the back of the thing. We’re standing at the event and there are 20,000 people. They can’t see him, he’s in a tent, but there are 20,000 people ready to see the President. They’re cheering, right? And he’s asleep in the car. 

I would think, That’s not good. But Clinton, absolutely every time—the Secret Service would say, Should I open the door? I’d say, Don, open the door. As soon as Don would open the door, he would gather up his stuff, he’d step out of the car, and he’d go, Showtime. He’d walk on the stage like he was ready for it all the time. That was him. He’d do that every time. 

None of the rest of us could do it. I remember trying to catnap in those cars, too. They’re really uncomfortable cars, because they’re bulletproof cars and they’re not very big. I remember one time falling asleep in the car and literally not waking up, and he’s out of the car running down the hallway and we’re trying to chase him. You know how when you first wake up you’re not quite there? He never had that problem. It was just [snapping fingers]. It was just Showtime, and he said that. There was a psychological thing for him about getting into—

Riley

But I mean, being able to sleep when you’re about to be in front of 20,000, too. Most of us would be throwing up in the back seat.

Engskov

It was just nerves of steel. He would literally just wake up—Showtime. He could be on that stage five seconds later and give that speech and have a roaring crowd. It was the most amazing thing I ever saw. Just amazing. I think that was part of how he managed his life. He had to do those catnaps to get all that stuff in.

As the aide, coming back to that, I learned to manage him that way. I knew what his capability was. We were on a train trip and he was sleeping. We pulled up to the event and someone said, Don’t you think you should get him up? I’m like, No, let him sleep. That extra ten minutes could really be the difference.

Riley

If he didn’t get those catnaps, then you would notice it?

Engskov

Absolutely. Like anybody, when he got tired—he had the potential to slip up when he was tired, and he’d say things, maybe not huge slip-ups, but he’d make a mistake here and there. 

Riley

There was an episode in ’95, I think, where evidently he was giving some late-night speech—I want to say in Houston—and said, Some people think I raised your taxes too much, and he said, I’m going to tell you, I think I raised them too much, too, which angered a whole bunch of people. He later went out and apologized. He said, My mom always told me that I only make mistakes when I’m tired, or something to that effect. Or, I’m more prone to make mistakes when I’m tired. 

Engskov

Yes, he made mistakes at night, generally late at night. They were at fundraisers and no one was really listening very closely. 

Riley

Yes, I think this was one of those events.

Engskov

When he would get tired late at night, he would make mistakes, but again, it was just pushing people too far, pushing the guy too far. You can only do so much.

Riley

Anybody in the bunch have the same kind of stamina that he did?

Engskov

It was all about conditioning, right? If you were conditioned for it, you could do it. A lot of us got conditioned for it. Now I have to go to bed at eleven o’clock or I can’t operate the next day. In the old days, I could stay up all night and not even be bothered by it.

Riley

You get to be my age, it’s going to be ten o’clock. 

Engskov

I look forward to that. I’m still catching up. He just had an enormous amount of energy. I don’t know how to describe it. He didn’t need to sleep and he didn’t. Occasionally he would hit a wall and he’d have to really sleep hard. That’s like any of us, right? But he could go for much longer.

Riley

Did he like going on vacations?

Engskov

He did.

Riley

You keep talking about, this is a guy who is a workaholic—

Engskov

He went on vacation, and he was good about it, I mean, he enjoyed vacation. 

Riley

Did you vacation with him?

Engskov

Generally, yes. I wouldn’t say it was a vacation.

Riley

Well, for you it wouldn’t be.

Engskov

I was physically there, on the island, or wherever we were. Yes, he loved Martha’s Vineyard. He loved going out there. They found a place that they felt comfortable with. They could get away. It was on a big enough spot of land that they didn’t have everybody checking in all the time. That was part of my job. I had to keep people away from the house. He got a dog at one point. I don’t know if you remember this.

Riley

Sure, Buddy.

Engskov

The dog is sort of a minor footnote in history, but it was an important piece of Bill Clinton’s history. I don’t remember right when he got that dog, but I remember the dog coming to the White House. Nancy said to me, Oh, I just want to let you know today there’s going to be a dog that’s going to show up and we’re going to give it a test drive to see if it works. It was this beautiful brown Lab puppy. A guy who was a breeder brought it. The President got his puppy and he just fell in love with it. It became a real part of the West Wing, I mean, a real part of the President’s life. 

The very first day we got this dog, we had a fundraiser that night. He had it in the Oval Office all day. It followed him around, jumping around, chewing on the Oval Office desk—he didn’t do that. Everybody was trying to understand the impact of this dog. The press didn’t know he had a dog and it was a big deal. He was going to a fundraiser that night over in northwest Washington and I peeked my head in at 6:30 and I said, You ready to go to this fundraiser? He said, Yes, but I want to take the dog. 

I said, I don’t think that’s a good idea. We should probably leave the dog here. You can see it when you get back. No, we’re going to take it. I want it in the car. So we took the dog to this fundraiser. It rode in the car with the President. I think I rode in the car with the President, I can’t remember. We get to the fundraiser and I said, Are you going to take the dog in? This is some fancy house over in northwest. He said, No, I can’t take the dog in. I said, Why’d you want to bring the dog? He said, Well, you take care of the dog. 

The press come out, and they stand on this driveway as he’s walking in. They’re just going to watch him walk in. There’s no coverage or anything. Somehow this dog hops out of the President’s car and everybody’s like, What the hell is a dog doing—what’s he doing with a dog? I take the dog, and everybody is like, Whose dog is that? I go, It’s the President’s dog. There’s this whole media craziness that goes on for three or four days about the dog. I remember I was going to walk the dog to the back of the house to tie him up, or do something with the dog. I’m followed by a media circus about the dog. I couldn’t believe the attention that dog got. Ultimately, you know, he ended up getting killed—

Riley

I remember, after he went back to Chappaqua. 

Engskov

The dog was really a big piece of the West Wing for a long time. The dog, when he grew up, used to run around the West Wing, and people fed him. It made the President so irritated, feeding the dog when he came into the office. He’d just roam around the West Wing looking for food. You’d get a call from an office—Carol Cleveland, who was this great woman who worked in the staff secretary’s office, would go, Kris, Buddy is down in the staff secretary’s office. Could you come get him? He’s driving us all nuts. It was a nice thing for the President. The President really loved that dog. He spent a lot of time with that dog, actually.

Riley

Well, Kris, what else have you got on your list over there? We have just about run out of time.

Engskov

Yes, I think we’ve probably covered about everything.

Riley

If those are legible notes that you want to part with, you can keep them and put a copy of them in with your transcript, or if you want to clean it up and put a copy in, in case there are some things—

Engskov

I’ll just tell you one other quick story. There are two other quick stories I’ll tell you. One of them was about—back to Clinton and the trappings of the Presidency. A lot of times you get caught up in these things. You’ve got this huge airplane that takes you around. You live in this big White House. You go to hotels and you stay in the Presidential Suite. There were lots of trappings of the White House. Clinton really didn’t care—I always tell people—about any of that stuff. It’s so true. Sure, the plane was nice. Gosh, it was fantastic. 

I remember the time his uncle died. Uncle Buddy [Henry Grisham] died, down in Hope. We were going down to Hope and we were going to spend the night. There’s only one hotel in Hope and that’s the Day’s Inn. It’s a truck stop. It’s literally a truck stop with those outside motel railings. Clinton, the President of the United States, stayed at this motel truck stop with Mrs. Clinton for a night. I have to say, that was the biggest circus of my life, trying to manage Clinton, who couldn’t care less, who was happy as a clam in that hotel room. They had a TV nailed to the wall. Soap—they had to go in and put in real soap and everything. It was just funny how sometimes those things are just not available. People think the trappings of the Presidency are so— 

I’ll tell you one other quick story that also illustrates that about Clinton. Six o’clock in the morning, Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Presidential Suite. I’m standing in the kitchen of this thing. I don’t know if you’ve been in there, but it’s a huge suite. It has six or eight rooms. It’s where he always stayed. I’m standing in the little kitchen there and I hear the phone ring. I was just making sure he was awake. We were getting ready to leave in an hour or so. Now, when a phone rings, it can only be a couple of people, because they can’t ring through. The way it works is the only people who can ring directly through to the President are the Chief of staff, the National Security Advisor, or his family. 

Riley

Right.

Engskov

So I was thinking to myself, Who is that? Because they install these special phones and it’s got a seal on it. It’s this crazy infrastructure they install for the President. I think to myself, Where’s Mrs. Clinton? She must be in China; she’d call at an odd hour to reach him. I hear, Hello? I hear him in the back room. He goes, No, you must have the wrong number. I mean, these were just normal exchange lines. No one knows the number but they’re normal phone lines.

Riley

Hotel phone lines?

Engskov

No. These are real, hardline phones. They have to use existing phones, but they’re just unused. So someone in New York City has accidentally, of all the numbers being dialed, rung the wrong phone and he’s picked it up.

Riley

At six o’clock in the morning.

Engskov

At six a.m. I’m listening to this conversation and I’m thinking, Holy cow! I hear him say, Who are you looking for? I don’t see him, but I hear him kind of fumble around like he’s going to try to find the phone book. Ultimately he says, Well, I’m sorry, I don’t think I can help you. He hangs up. What’s amazing is that somebody out there in New York City had the President of the United States on the phone and didn’t know it. He was perfectly happy to try and help them at six a.m., which I thought was just hilarious. It says a lot about him. 

Riley

Exactly.

Engskov

That’s all I can tell you. 

Riley

You have done us an enormous favor. 

Engskov

I hope it’s helpful. 

Knott

It really is. 

Riley

What you have to understand is that your piece is an important piece of a puzzle that we’re trying to put together. We get bits and pieces from everybody. When we interview a personal aide, we know that we’re going to get a different piece. We don’t come to you to talk about foreign policy. But, guess what? There are some things in this that relate to foreign policy. We don’t come to you to talk about healthcare or others, but because you’ve got experience—

Engskov

It was a unique time. 

Riley

We tell people—I know you’ve moved on from public service into the private sector over here, but this is a real public service endeavor on your part, so look at it as a continuation of that. And we’re grateful. It’s been a lot of fun for us. 

Knott

Very much so.

Riley

Not only a chance to come to London, but to sit here and talk with you about this. This is going to be very useful for a very long time.

Engskov

I hope so. If I can help any more, let me know. You’ll send me a transcript?

Riley

Absolutely, you’ll get it. It will probably be four to six months before you get it. It takes a while to get them transcribed and edited. We’ll include some detailed instructions there about what to do. But we’ll hold onto all of this in strict confidence, and once you tell us the transcript can come out, then that piece will be freed up.