You Make The Rules

Traditions are only a guide. As first lady, you set the tone.

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perezrules

Nov. 18, 2008--Months ago my hairdresser told me that President-elect Barack Obama would win because while his opponent wanted to become president, your husband wanted to be president. For her, and many others, you were the one who sealed the deal. Please accept my heartfelt congratulations to your husband, your family and colleagues, and to you for an extraordinary job well done.

This, of course, means your life and your family's life will change. I hope the following is useful as it is based on several years of experience as a White House staffer; though in the interest of full disclosure, I always worked for Republicans.

After years as the wife of an elected official and almost two years on the presidential campaign trail, your family's life has been as closely examined as a foodie's $20 a pound free-range Thanksgiving turkey. Well, you ain't seen nothin' yet. You, your husband and your daughters are now singular and possibly unprecedented objects of curiosity for a global news and information media that is as voracious as it is relentless. Plus, when you guys are on the front page, it sells.

My advice: accept it, use it and then ignore it.

Shortly after being named Barbara Bush's press secretary, I was upstairs in the White House residence, helping the first lady prepare for her first post-election meeting with a group of reporters. In the pre-brief, as I laid out the press ground rules and options for her along with my recommendations, Mrs. Bush stopped me mid-sentence and said, "If I say it, they got it." My immediate protests to the side, that was The Rule for the next four years. No "background" or "off the record," just "If I say it, they got it." The Rule became a source of discipline for both of us.

Some days spent in the glare of the public's eye may feel as if you are living on the first rock from the sun. Reporters think they have a right to know everything—no detail being too small or too seemingly private—that might directly or remotely affect the president. They are, of course, wrong, but that changes nothing. The good news is that this relentless focus on all things Obama can be used to help any number of organizations and individuals around the country that are doing the hard, day-by-day work to strengthen their communities. When it follows you to a meeting with military families, for example, The Glare becomes a light.

At state dinners when reporters would ask Mrs. Bush "whose dress are you wearing?" she would reply, sweetly, "mine." This was a big change from her predecessor, Nancy Reagan, so the press and the dress designers were not happy. But because her press office, at her instruction, provided no additional information, pretty soon the inquiries about Mrs. Bush's clothes stopped. And later in the term, when Bush's daughter was to be married at Camp David (with the Bushes paying for everything), the media was in an uproar because the event was to be private and closed to the press. We were not to release a guest list or menus or any other information. The then senior White House reporter for the Washington Post was particularly outraged and was taking it out on the president's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater. So when a very irate Marlin called my office to demand we release wedding information I had a ready reply, "pick your poison—who do you want mad at you—the Washington Post or Barbara Bush?" On the wedding day, we released a single photo of the happy couple, and the republic survived. In today's hyper media world, you can still draw boundaries of your choosing and find some shade from The Glare.

Even post-9/11, the White House is the only head of state's residence in the world open to the public on a regular basis. This is just one of the reasons why members of the household staff regard their jobs as part of a public trust. From the florists to the chefs, from the stewards to the ushers, to the White House butlers, their professionalism is exceeded only by their discretion. As the first African-American press secretary in the White House (all "props" to Mrs. Bush, but this is not a distinction I cherish; it was, after all, 1989 and like so many other "firsts," too long coming), I felt a special bond with the White House butlers, the proud, capable black men who worked so well and so comfortably in this seat of power. One night, a part-time butler, who for decades had served during state dinners, told me that between this and his day job as a taxi driver, he and his wife had been able to raise and send their five children to college. And when my then 9-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son would occasionally come to work with me, these wonderful men would make them feel as if they really belonged there, in the White House.

One thing there is no shortage of in the White House is tradition. It imbues everything and everyone with a historic sense of place. But traditions are guides, not rules, and during your family's residence in the White House, you make the rules. From FDR's hot-dog dinners for royals to Caroline's pony to President George H.W. Bush's horseshoe tournaments, each family puts its own imprint on this very special place. And the staff? Well, they are from the government, and they really are there to help you.

Like most Americans, my family and I will always remember where we were and what we witnessed on Election Night 2008. For that, may I add my gratitude to my congratulations and wish you, your husband and your family Godspeed.