New York Times best selling author Brad Meltzer releases his newest book "The Inner Circle," in which he reveals untold secrets about the U.S. presidency.
Read an excerpt of the book below and then check out the "GMA" Library for more great reads.
He knew the room was designed to hold secrets. Big secrets. The briefcase from Watergate was opened in a room like this. Same with the first reports from 9/11. He knew that this room -- sometimes called the Tank or the Vault -- held presidential secrets, national secrets, and pine-box secrets, as in, the kinds of secrets that came with coffins. But as he stood in the back corner of the small, plain beige room, swaying in place and flicking the tip of his tongue against the back of his front teeth, the archivist with the scratched black reading glasses knew that the most vital thing in the room wasn't a classified file or a top-secret sheet of paper -- it was the polished, rosy-cheeked man who sat alone at the single long table in the center of the room. He knew not to talk to the rosy- cheeked man.
He knew not to bother him.
All he had to do was stand there and watch. Like a babysitter. It was absurd, really. But that was the job. For nearly an hour now. Babysitting the most powerful man in the world: the President of the United States.
Hence the secure room.
Yet for all the secrets that had been in this room, the archivist with the scratched black-framed reading glasses had no idea what he'd soon be asked to hide.
With a silent breath through his nose, the archivist stared at the back of the President, then glanced over at the blond Secret Service agent on his far right.
The visits here had been going on since President Orson Wallace was first elected. Clinton liked to jog. George W. Bush watched baseball games in the White House Residence. Obama played basketball.
All Presidents find their own way to relax. More bookish than most, President Orson Wallace traveled the few blocks from the White House and came to the National Archives to, of all things, read.
He'd been doing it for months now. Sometimes he even brought his daughter or eight-year-old son. Sure, he could have every document delivered right to the Oval Office, but as every President knew, there was something about getting out of the house. And so the "reading visits" began. He started with letters that George Washington wrote to Benedict Arnold, moved to classified JFK memos, and on to today's current objects of fascination: Abraham Lincoln's handwritten Civil War notes. Back then, if there was a capital case during a court-martial, the vote of "life or death" would come straight to Lincoln's desk. The President would personally decide. So in the chaos of President Wallace's current life, there was apparently something reassuring about seeing the odd curves and shaky swirls in Lincoln's own handwriting.
And that, as Wallace scribbled a few personal notes on his legal pad, was a hell of a lot more calming than playing basketball.
"Four more minutes, sir," the blond Secret Service agent announced from the back corner, clearing his throat. President Wallace nodded slightly, beginning to pack up, but never turning around. "Is Ronnie joining us or no?"
At that, the archivist with the scratched reading glasses stood up straight. His supervisor, Ronald Cobb, was one of President Wallace's oldest friends from law school. It was Cobb who usually managed the visits and selected which priceless files the President would read. But with his recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, Cobb wasn't going anywhere for a bit.
"Mr. Cobb's at a chemo appointment, sir," the archivist explained in a voice that seemed strained even to himself.
Again, President Wallace nodded without turning around, flipping his legal pad shut.
It was the quick motion of the legal pad that caught the archivist's eye. For a moment, as the pale yellow pages fanned forward, he could swear one of the brown, mottled Lincoln letters was tucked inside.
The archivist squinted, trying to see. But from the angle he was at, diagonally behind the left shoulder of the President, the Lincoln document was --
This was the President of the United States. He'd never . . .
No, the archivist told himself.
No. Not a chance. No.
"Before we go, I just need to hit the little vice president's room," President Wallace said, using the joke that always got him easy laughs with donors. He stood from his seat and held his legal pad at his side.
According to current research, when faced with an awkward social situation, the average person will wait seventeen seconds before breaking the silence.
"Mr. President," the archivist called out without even hesitating.
"I'm sorry, but --"
President Wallace turned slowly, showing off his calming gray eyes and flashing the warm, fatherly grin that had won him the governorship of Ohio as well as the White House. "Son, I just need to run to the restroom, and then we can --"
"It'll just take a second," the archivist promised.
The room was no bigger than a classroom. Before the archivist knew it, he was standing in front of Wallace, blocking the President's path to the door. The blond agent stepped forward. Wallace motioned him back.
"Tell me the crisis, son," the President asked, his grin still keeping everything calm.
"I just . . . urr . . ." the archivist stammered, slowly starting to sway. "I'm sure it was just an honest mistake, sir, but I think you may've accidentally . . . huhh . . . In your notepad." The archivist took a deep breath. "One of the Lincoln letters."
The President laughed and went to step around the archivist.
The archivist laughed back.
And stepped directly in front of the President. Again.
President Wallace's gray eyes slowly shrank into two black slits.
He was far too savvy to lose his temper with a stranger, but that didn't mean it was easy to keep that grin on his face. "Victor, I need you to excuse us a moment."
"Sir . . ." the blond agent protested.
"Victor . . ." the President said. That's all it took.
With a click and a loud metal crunk, the metal door to the Vault opened and Victor joined the other three agents stationed in the corridor outside.
Staring at the archivist, the President squeezed his fist around the legal pad. "Son, I want you to be very careful about what your next words are."
The archivist craned his neck back, taking in the full height of the President, who was so close the archivist could see the golden eagle and the presidential seal on Wallace's cuff links. We have a set of LBJ's cuff links in our collection , the archivist reminded himself for no reason whatsoever. And as he looked up at the most powerful man on the planet -- as he studied the leader of the free world -- it took far less than seventeen seconds to give his answer.
"I'm sorry, Mr. President. But those Lincoln documents aren't yours."
For a moment, the President didn't move. Didn't blink. Like he was frozen in time.
There was a deep thunk from behind the archivist. The metal door to the room clicked open.
"I toldja, right, Mr. President?" a familiar midwestern voice called out as the door clanged into the wall. The archivist turned just in time to see his boss, Ronnie Cobb, hobble inside, faster than usual. "I told you he'd come through. No reason to bother with Beecher."
The President smiled -- a real smile -- at his old friend and put a hand on the archivist's shoulder. "Good for you," he announced.
"I-I don't understand," the archivist said, still focused on Cobb. "I thought your chemo . . ." He looked at Cobb, then the President, then back to Cobb, who was beaming like a new father. "What the heck's going on?"
"Didn't you ever see Willy Wonka?" Cobb asked as he limped a few steps closer. "The big prize goes to the one who tells the truth."
The archivist paused a moment, looking at the two men.
"What're you talking about? Why'd you mention Beecher?"
"Relax -- we've got something a lot better than a spooky chocolate factory," President Orson Wallace said as he closed the door to the Vault, once again keeping his Secret Service agents outside. "Welcome to the Culper Ring."
There are stories no one knows. Hidden stories.
I love those stories.
And since I work in the National Archives, I find those stories for a living. They're almost always about other people. Not today. Today, I'm finally in the story -- a bit player in a story about . . .
"Clementine. Today's the day, right?" Orlando asks through the phone from his guardpost at the sign-in desk. "Good for you, brother. I'm proud of you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I ask suspiciously.
"It means, Good. I'm proud ," he says. "I know what you've been through, Beecher. And I know how hard it is to get back in the race."
Orlando thinks he knows me. And he does. For the past year of my life, I was engaged to be married. He knows what happened to Iris. And what it did to my life -- or what's left of it.
"So Clementine's your first dip back in the pool, huh?" he asks.
"She's not a pool."
"Ooh, she's a hot tub?"
"Orlando. Please. Stop," I say, lifting the phone cord so it doesn't touch the two neat piles I allow on my desk, or the prize of my memorabilia collection: a brass perpetual calendar where the paper scrolls inside are permanently dialed to June 19. The calendar used to belong to Henry Kissinger. June 19 is supposedly the last day he used it, which is why I taped a note across the base of it that says, Do Not Use/Do Not Change.
"So whattya gonna say to her?"
"You mean, besides Hello?" I ask.
"That's it? Hello?" Orlando asks. "Hello's what you say to your sister. I thought you wanted to impress her."
"I don't need to impress her."
"Beecher, you haven't seen this girl in what -- fifteen years? You need to impress her."
I sit on this a moment. He knows I don't like surprises. Most archivists don't like surprises. That's why we work in the past. But as history teaches me every day, the best way to avoid being surprised is to be prepared.
"Just tell me when she's here," I say.
"Why, so you can come up with something more mundane than Hello?"
"Will you stop with the mundane. I'm exciting. I am. I go on adventures every day."
"No, you read about adventures every day. You put your nose in books every day. You're like Indiana Jones, but just the professor part."
"That doesn't make me mundane."
"Beecher, right now I know you're wearing your red-and-blue Wednesday tie. And you wanna know why? Because it's Wednesday."
I look down at my red-and-blue tie. "Indiana Jones is still cool."
"No, Indiana Jones was cool. But only when he was out experiencing life. You need to get outta your head and outta your comfort zone."
"What happened to the earnest you're-so-proud-of-me speech?"
"I am proud -- but it doesn't mean I don't see what you're doing with this girl, Beech. Yes, it's a horror what happened with Iris. And yes, I understand why it'd make you want to hide in your books. But now that you're finally trying to heal the scab, who do you pick? The safety-net high school girlfriend from fifteen years in your past. Does that sound like a man embracing his future?"
I shake my head. "She wasn't my girlfriend."
"In your head, I bet she was," Orlando shoots back. "The past may not hurt you, Beecher. But it won't challenge you either," he adds. "Oh, and do me a favor: When you run down here, don't try to do it in under two minutes. It's just another adventure in your brain."
Like I said, Orlando knows me. And he knows that when I ride the elevator, or drive to work, or even shower in the morning, I like to time myself -- to find my personal best.
"Wednesday is always Wednesday. Do Not Change." Orlando laughs as I stare at the note on the Kissinger calendar.
"Just tell me when she's here," I repeat.
"Why else you think I'm calling, Dr. Jones? Guess who just checked in?"
As he hangs up the phone, my heart flattens in my chest. But what shocks me the most is, it doesn't feel all that bad. I'm not sure it feels good. Maybe it's good. It's hard to tell after Iris. But it feels like someone clawed away a thick spiderweb from my memory, a spiderweb that I didn't even realize had settled there.
Of course, the memory's of her. Only she could do this to me. Back in eighth grade, Clementine Kaye was my very first kiss. It was right after the bright red curtains opened and she won the Battle of the Bands (she was a band of one) with Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n Roll." I was the short kid who worked the spotlights with the coffee-breath A/V teacher. I was also the very first person Clementine saw backstage, which was when she planted my first real wet one on me.
Think of your first kiss. And what it meant to you.
That's Clementine to me.
Speedwalking out into the hallway, I fight to play cool. I don't get sick -- I've never been sick -- but that feeling of flatness has spread through my whole chest. After my two older sisters were born -- and all the chaos that came with them -- my mother named me Beecher in hopes that my life would be as calm and serene as a beach. This is not that moment.
There's an elevator waiting with its doors wide open. I make a note. According to a Harvard psychologist, the reason we think that we always choose the slow line in the supermarket is because frustration is more emotionally charged, so the bad moments are more memorable. That's why we don't remember all the times we chose the fast line and zipped right through. But I like remembering those times. I need those times. And the moment I stop remembering those times, I need to go back to Wisconsin and leave D.C.
"Remember this elevator next time you're on the slow line," I whisper to myself, searching for calm. It's a good trick.
But it doesn't help.
"Letsgo, letsgo . . ." I mutter as I hold the Door Close button with all my strength. I learned that one during my first week in the Archives: When you have a bigwig who you're taking around, hold the Door Close button and the elevator won't stop at any other floors.
We're supposed to only use it with bigwigs.
But as far as I'm concerned, in my personal universe, there's no one bigger than this girl -- this woman . . . she's a woman now -- who I haven't seen since her hippie, lounge-singer mom moved her family away in tenth grade and she forever left my life. In our religious Wisconsin town, most people were thrilled to see them go.
I was sixteen. I was crushed.
Today, I'm thirty. And (thanks to her finding me on Facebook) Clementine is just a few seconds away from being back.
As the elevator bounces to a halt, I glance at my digital watch. Two minutes, forty- two seconds. I take Orlando's advice and decide to go with a compliment. I'll tell her she looks good. No. Don't focus on just her looks. You're not a shallow meathead. You can do better, I decide as I take a deep breath. You really turned out good, I say to myself. That's nicer. Softer. A true compliment. You really turned out good.
But as the elevator doors part like our old bright red curtains, as I anxiously dart into the lobby, trying with every element of my being to look like I'm not darting at all, I search through the morning crowd of guests and researchers playing bumper cars in their winter coats as they line up to go through the metal detector at security.
For two months now, we've been chatting via email, but I haven't seen Clementine in nearly fifteen years. How do I even know what she . . . ?
"Nice tie," Orlando calls from the sign-in desk. He points to the far right corner, by the lobby's Christmas tree, which is (Archives tradition) decorated with shredded paper. "Look."
Standing apart from the crowd, a woman with short dyed black hair -- dyed even darker than Joan Jett -- raises her chin, watching me as carefully as I watch her. Her eye makeup is thick, her skin is pale, and she's got silver rings on her pinkies and thumbs, making her appear far more New York than D.C. But what catches me off guard is that she looks . . . somehow . . . older than me. Like her ginger brown eyes have seen two lifetimes. But that's always been who she was. She may've been my first kiss, but I know I wasn't hers. She was the girl who dated the guys two grades above us. More experienced. More advanced. The exact opposite of Iris.
"Clemmi . . ." I mouth, not saying a word.
"Benjy . . ." she mouths back, her cheeks rising in a smile as she uses the nickname my mom used to call me.
Synapses fire in my brain and I'm right back in church, when I first found out that Clementine had never met her dad (her mom was nineteen and never said who the boy was). My dad died when I was three years old.
Back then, when combined with the kiss, I thought that made Clementine Kaye my destiny -- especially for the three-week period when she was home with mono and I was the one picked to bring her assignments home for her. I was going to be in her room -- near her guitar and her bra (Me. Puberty.) -- and the excitement was so overwhelming, as I knocked on her front door, right there, my nose began to bleed.
Clementine saw the whole thing -- even helped me get the tissues that I rolled into the nerd plugs that I stuffed in my nostrils. I was the short kid. Easy pickings. But she never made fun -- never laughed -- never told the story of my nosebleed to anyone
Today, I don't believe in destiny. But I do believe in history. That's what Orlando will never understand. There's nothing more powerful than history, which is the one thing I have with this woman.
"Lookatyou," she hums in a soulful but lilting voice that sounds like she's singing even when she's just talking. It's the same voice I remember from high school -- just scratchier and more worn. For the past few years, she's been working at a small jazz radio station out in Virginia. I can see why. In just her opening note, a familiar tingly exhilaration crawls below my skin. A feeling like anything's possible.
For the past year, I'd forgotten what it felt like.
"Beecher, you're so . . . You're handsome!"
My heart reinflates, nearly bursting a hole in my chest. Did she just --?
"You are, Beecher! You turned out great!"
My line. That's my line, I tell myself, already searching for a new one. Pick something good. Something kind. And genuine. This is your chance. Give her something so perfect, she'll dream about it.
"So . . . er . . . Clemmi," I finally say, rolling back and forth from my big toes to my heels as I notice her nose piercing, a sparkling silver stud that winks right at me. "Wanna go see the Declaration of Independence?"
Kill me now.
She lowers her head, and I wait for her to laugh.
"I wish I could, but --" She reaches into her purse and pulls out a folded-up sheet of paper. Around her wrist, two vintage wooden bracelets click- clack together. I almost forgot. The real reason she came here.
"You sure you're okay doing this?" Clementine asks.
"Will you stop already," I tell her. "Mysteries are my specialty."
* * *