The WMATA Metrobus 38B crosses the Potomac on the Francis Scott Key Bridge, turning east on M Street and traversing a fitfully elegant Georgetown. Heading southeast and transitioning onto Pennsylvania Avenue, the city bus crosses Rock Creek and fully engages the brooding, low-slung metropolis that is the nation’s capital. Hayley Chill, wearing a white blouse and ruffled hem cardigan from Dressbarn with dark straight-leg trousers and functional pumps, has claimed a window seat near the front of the bus. Her straw-colored hair has grown out from Fort Hood days, styled on a budget at Diego’s Hair Salon on Q Street. JanSport bag on her lap, she is barely recognizable as the triumphant and bloodied boxer in the ring or subdued soldier in crisp service uniform mustering out of the army. Whatever the metamorphic process she has undergone in the fifteen months since saying goodbye to Stanley Oakes at the Killeen bus depot, it has transformed Hayley Chill into an accurate facsimile of a DC worker bee.
It is 7:08 a.m. in late November and the weather clings stubbornly to Indian summer. Passing sights they’ve seen hundreds of times before, all other passengers on the bus are engrossed by handheld devices or asleep. But Hayley has ridden the 38B only once before, one week earlier, on a test run after signing the lease on a studio apartment just across the Potomac in Rosslyn, Virginia. Despite having grown up only a six-hour drive from Washington, DC, the city and its monuments are entirely new to her. She gazes out the window, gathering impressions of the passing city with the keen attention of a cultural anthropologist.
As the Metrobus eases to the curb at the southeast corner of Farragut Square, its last stop, Hayley disembarks with a dozen other passengers. The familiarity of another workday is etched on the bored faces of those stepping off the bus. Only Hayley moves with a surplus of energy and a brisk, five-minute walk south on Seventeenth Street brings the President’s Park into view. She pauses on the sidewalk to take in the iconic sight. The White House, partially obscured by fern-leaf beech, American elm, and white oak, impresses her as both splendidly grand and surprisingly modest at the same time. She knows the building’s original architect was Irish-born. She has memorized the names of every senior aide and their phone extensions. Somehow she has even ascertained what flavor ice cream the president is said to prefer. Unsurprisingly, Hayley Chill has arrived for her first day of internship at the White House completely and thoroughly prepared.
A gatehouse opposite the EEOB controls entry into the White House complex, and Hayley joins the long queue there. The majority of staffers waiting in line have green badges on lanyards. Many fewer, including Hayley, possess blue badges. The young Park Police officer who performs the initial screening accepts her driver’s license and checks it against her badge. He has warm eyes and a folksy grin.
“West Virginia, huh? I grew up in Lewisburg.” His voice possesses the familiar twang of Hayley’s tribe.
She nods. “Lewisburg. Sure. Nice.”
“Blue badge,” the Park Police officer remarks with surprised regard. He hands her ID back and gestures behind him, toward the White House complex. “Ready for the viper pit?”
Hayley laughs. “I hope so!”
The policeman waves her through the gate. “You have yourself a pleasant day, Ms. Chill.”
She offers her hand. “Hayley, but you already know that.”
He nods, shaking her hand. “Ned.” Hayley continues forward as the line of people waiting for ID check lengthens behind her.
Once cleared through security screening, she and other arriving personnel are waved through an aggressive, final series of barriers and frowning Park Police. As instructed by email, Hayley passes through the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and continues outside, onto West Executive Avenue. Nearly all interns receive green badges, designating their access as being limited to more prosaic confines of the Eisenhower building. Hayley’s blue badge allows her to breeze past the Secret Service agents monitoring access between the EEOB and the White House’s West Wing.
Hayley enters the West Wing through a door on the ground floor. She is older than the typical White House intern by at least five years. Her serious expression is evidence of a life lived without favor or entitlement. Self-delusion is a luxury she could never afford. Even as an eight-year-old sitting on the lap of a Charleston department store Santa reeking of Camel cigarettes and boiled onions, Hayley could tell a fake beard when she saw one. Nor is she unduly overwhelmed here, within these historic walls of the president’s house.
Hayley pauses just inside the entryway to get her bearings, the plastic encasing her blue badge shiny and unscuffed. A passing man, cowboy handsome and wearing a dark suit, perceives Hayley’s plight. “New intern?”
“That obvious, huh?” Hayley’s demeanor is friendly and matter-of-fact. The Secret Service agent knows from experience that most new interns are like kindergartners on their first day of school, breathless and wide-eyed. For that reason alone, this young woman impresses him. He gestures toward her credentials. “They teach us how to decipher those doodads, oddly enough.”
“I feel safer already,” Hayley says, smiling.
“I’ve heard of him,” he responds sarcastically. He indicates a nearby stairwell door, but his hazel eyes remain on Hayley. “One flight up, go right, then right again. First door on your left. Can’t miss it.”
Hayley nods curtly, signaling she’s got it from here. The Secret Service agent is disappointed their encounter is over so quickly but covers with a wink, continuing on his way.
There have always been pretty boys on the periphery of Hayley’s life. Back home in Lincoln County, a roundelay of aggressive suitors vied for kiss, grope, or better from the most desirable girl for miles. Charlie Hadden, All-Conference quarterback and proud possessor of a cherry 1964 Pontiac GTO, hung in long enough to earn the mantle of Hayley’s high school boyfriend but too much Smirnoff and a hairpin curve on Sproul Road ended his tenure, and he died before she could gain what she had at long last decided to take. Hayley wore black for two months, fetchingly so in the opinion of would-be replacements.
Enlistment followed high school graduation by twenty-four hours, a day in which Hayley relinquished her virginity to a twenty-eight-year-old drifter who wrote love songs, had a mutt dog with a face like Bukowski, and played a pretty wicked twelve-string guitar. After that underwhelming initiation to the world of sex, Hayley had chosen to never attach herself to a steady mate. Her priorities were other than romantic love, namely seeing that there was a roof kept over the heads of her younger siblings and food on the table. Nearly every penny of her army pay was sent back home. Pay scales are higher for infantry soldiers, all the inducement Hayley needed toward becoming one of the first eighteen women to earn her blue cord.
Once she’s climbed the stairs to the first floor, Hayley finds herself in a carpeted corridor that muffles the footsteps of dozens of staffers and personnel hustling to and fro as if the nation’s business really is important work. None pay the slightest notice to the new intern. Hayley threads her way along the corridor, dodging other staffers, and stops outside a door like all the others. On the wall to the left is a surprisingly unostentatious placard that identifies the office as belonging to the White House chief of staff.
Pushing the door open, Hayley ventures into the suite’s reception area. No one is inside the compact room. The single, curtained window boasts a commanding view of the North Lawn and Lafayette Square beyond. An oil painting of a three-master blasting through a white-capped tempest hangs above the couch. Lights blink silently across an impressive phone console on the receptionist’s desk. With no receptionist to offer guidance, Hayley is unsure what to do. She hears voices drifting from the partially open interior door.
Crossing the room, Hayley stops just inside the doorway leading into the suite’s primary office and observes sixty-three-year-old Peter Hall, wearing a suit jacket and tie, sitting behind a large desk and surrounded by a nervous litter of aides and assistants. The White House chief of staff has a black phone receiver pressed to his ear, barking into it as he scans papers held before him by his courtiers. In jarring contrast to his august work space, Hall’s voice possesses the timbre of a high school football coach from west Texas, which in fact he once was before running for the state’s Twenty-Third Congressional District and winning in an improbable landslide.
Representation of a mostly Hispanic constituency of five hundred thousand souls offered only modest horizons for an idealistically charged, ambitious former All-American tight end and only son of a Korean War veteran. Over the years, however, Peter Hall paid his political dues and amassed influence extending far beyond the dusty Twenty-Third district in Texas, stretching to every corner of the nation and beyond. But there are limits to power and prestige even for one of the highest-ranking politicians on Capitol Hill. Congress makes laws. The executive branch makes history.
Hall’s salvation came in the form of Richard Monroe’s stunning victory in the previous year’s presidential election. The president-elect yielded to Hall’s persistent lobbying and plucked him from the House of Representatives, installing him as chief of staff of a West Wing in need of congressional expertise. The president, an actual war hero, was the embodiment of the electorate’s craving for change in Washington and possessed the necessary gravitas to inspire that political revolution. But as political neophyte, he hadn’t the legislative tools to effect his controversial agenda. Every great president needs a Peter Hall, that skilled mechanic who operates belowdecks and keeps the engine’s machinery running.
Hall couldn’t be happier with his role of president’s loyal consigliere. There are only two directions on the chief of staff’s moral compass: the president’s way and the wrong way. Hall’s fervent opinion is that Richard Monroe is America’s last and best chance for survival as a democratic superpower. Political opponents, congressional naysayers, critics in the media, and hostile foreign powers are to be methodically destroyed, ignored, or neutralized. If Monroe simplified some of the complexities on certain issues and ironed away nuance with language his base could easily comprehend, so be it. No other political leader has come close in the last hundred years to furthering the basics of a party’s political agenda. The time to strike the iron was now.
“Senator, the president is in fact the leader of your godda**n party and expects the votes he needs for passage of this bill!” Hall bellows into the phone, pausing for the unfortunate recipient of this abuse to fumble a reply, then resuming his tirade with even greater amounts of venom. “Hell yes, I’m shouting, ’cause you’re clearly not hearing me, Senator! The other side is throwing every f**king thing they’ve got into obliterating our mandate, and the godd**n media is passing them the ammunition!”
As Hall continues to verbally pummel the unnamed senator into submission, one of his aides glances in the direction of the doorway, where Hayley stands. Karen Rey, midthirties and furiously raven haired, with a master’s in English literature from UVA and a Bedlington terrier back home named Churchill, reacts with outraged expression to the unknown young woman’s presence in the gaping doorway.
Rey stands fully erect and darts across the expansive office, a Scud missile headed directly toward Hayley. She confronts the White House newcomer, and her question is neither gentle nor rhetorical. “Are you insane or just stupid?”
Hayley’s gaze is unwavering. Her voice is firm and clear. “Hayley Chill, ma’am. I’m interning for the chief of staff’s office.”
Rey sizes up Hayley with an incredulous gawk; the intern’s West Virginia drawl is often mistaken by some as a sign of slow-wittedness and unsophistication. Rey thrusts out her hand.
“Let me see your paperwork,” she snaps.
Hayley complies, retrieving the pertinent documents from her backpack. Rey briefly peruses the paperwork, arching her eyes in mild surprise.
Hayley is used to such reaction to her military status. With her trim build and pretty face, she could easily be mistaken for a performer with Disney On Ice or a retired beauty queen. “Third Cavalry Regiment, ma’am. Forty-Third Combat Engineer Company,” she informs the White House aide and intern wrangler.
“No college degree?”
“Two years at Central Texas College, ma’am, on the Active Duty Montgomery GI Bill.”
Rey looks up from Hayley’s paperwork and offers it back as if it were drenched in biohazard.
“The West Wing operates at a grueling pace, Ms. Chill, especially with this administration. No disrespect to your community college, but perhaps the First Lady’s office would be a better fit.” Her condescension is not gratuitous. Peter Hall’s persecution of the slightest incompetence is of DC lore. Hayley’s first significant flub would be on Rey’s head.
“Thank you, ma’am, but I believe I’m up to the task. Mr. Hall must think so, too.” Hayley flips to the last page of her sheaf of papers and offers it for Rey to see. “That’s his signature right there.”
Karen Rey’s expression goes flat. She silently leads Hayley back into the reception room and to the entry door. Stepping out into the corridor, she points toward the near stairwell as if casting a fallen angel from the heavens. “Interns live, work, and die downstairs.” Pronouncement issued, Rey turns and retreats back inside Hall’s office suite, closing the door behind her with an emphatic push.
HAYLEY ARRIVES BACK where she started, on the West Wing’s ground floor, and locates the correct office door, a handwritten sign designating it as “CoS Support.” Entering, Hayley discovers a room not much bigger than a janitorial closet, which in fact it was until only a few months before. Peter Hall wanted his interns close at hand, located in the West Wing, and being the chief of staff, that’s exactly what he got. Four desks are jigsawed into the claustrophobic space, three of which are occupied with sharply dressed young people. The fourth desk, Hayley’s apparent work space, is heaped with files and binders, an impressive and disorderly pile two feet high.
The other interns, two-week veterans of the West Wing, regard Hayley with cold suspicion. CoS Support has been their exclusive domain, and Hayley is an unwelcome addition. What possible good could come of her joining the team? At best, the blue-eyed, blond-haired young woman wearing an off-the-rack Dressbarn cardigan represents an annoyance. At worst, she is potential competition. The goal of any White House intern is to be noticed, achieving special recognition at the expense of the several dozen other young people toiling there. A glowing personal recommendation from a powerful DC player is of incalculable value in scoring admission to Ivy League graduate programs, entry positions at Goldman Sachs, or further advancement in Washington.
Luke Charles, the only male in CoS Support, is a junior at Georgetown with the obligatory major in political science. His father, a fantastically wealthy hedge fund manager, hopes Luke’s interest in politics is a phase his son will soon leave behind. In the elder Charles’s view, politicians follow while money leads. Luke will indeed come to this same conclusion in the coming year. The grubbiness and panhandling that defines every politician’s life doesn’t escape the notice of the sufficiently bright Luke. After graduation from Georgetown and an MBA from Harvard, he will join his father’s firm and notch his first seven-figure annual bonus before he’s thirty.
Sophia Watts, her desk abutting Hayley’s, is barely receiving the required grade point average to avoid expulsion from USC, having spent much of her first two college years trolling Los Angeles’s hottest clubs. In Sophia’s second sophomore semester and still an undeclared major, she had a two-week-long Tinder fling with an aide of a Los Angeles councilperson. Landon was a sweet and fun-loving boy who infused an impressionable Sophia with a passion for government. Given this newfound purpose, her father, a successful film producer of cacophonous superhero movies, used his clout to score his only daughter a highly coveted internship at the White House. Sophia’s future love child with a Senate minority leader will result in moderate infamy and a best-selling memoir, a literary sensation that, synergistically, will be adapted by her movie-producing father into a scorching independent film. Daughter will join father onstage at the Oscar ceremony for a Best Picture acceptance speech.
The third intern in the room, commanding the biggest and best-positioned desk, is Becca Byran. With a lion’s mane of dirty-blond hair, she is a recent graduate from NYU under an accelerated program. Her father owns a small print shop in Queens, on Myrtle Avenue. Her mother is stay-at-home, taking in neighborhood toddlers for day care. Burning deep within Becca is an obsession to rise above these modest origins and apply her fierce drive to amassing power in whatever form it might exist. In seven years’ time, she will be the founder of a rapidly expanding, quasi-religious “commune” located in Vermont. Within the decade, Becca Byran will begin an eight-year stretch at FCI Danbury for bank fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion.
“What’s your name?” Becca demands of the newcomer, weaponizing that brief, normally innocuous sentence.