The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
Nicolle Wallace: Lottery Tickets
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg, and I’m honored to be your host for a series of compelling conversations with fascinating people from the world of public service. Today on the Oath, I sit down with Nicolle Wallace, who’s had a fascinating career at the intersection of journalism, politics, and public service, working her way up from a reporter for a small television station in Fargo, North Dakota, to become the director of communications for the president of the United States: George W. Bush. Nicolle Wallace, welcome to the Oath.
Nicolle Wallace: This is so cool.
Rosenberg: Really cool for us. Thank you for being here now.
Wallace: It’s so cool that you’re doing this.
Rosenberg: We’ll see. You know, I learned a little bit about you just reading and watching some old video clips, and you’ve had a really interesting sort of career.
Wallace: I have felt like Forest Gump for a lot of my career. You know, I keep showing up where the big, big story is whether it’s the recount, or Sarah Palin, or this Trump story now. I’ve been really blessed.
Rosenberg: We’ll talk about some of those, but I wanted to go back to earlier days. I know you were born in Southern California and grew up in Northern California, a town called Orinda.
Rosenberg: Which I think I once read is one of the friendliest towns in America.
Wallace: It’s really friendly.
Rosenberg: According to Forbes Magazine.
Wallace: But they usually have it right.
Wallace: Yeah. Very friendly, very nice, little town. You know, people grow up thinking–you know I get–a lot of towns–that anything’s possible. I think that I was really lucky to go to Berkeley but I remember wanting to go anywhere but
Rosenberg: Why was that?
Wallace: Well, because it was 17 miles away from the town in which I grew up. But our rule was if we got in, it was such a good school, if we got in, we had to go. So, we were sort of the only family that rooted against admissions.
Rosenberg: And maybe the kids did, but perhaps parents felt otherwise.
Wallace: Yeah, I think that’s right. All four of us got into Berkeley and all four kids and my family went to Cal.
Rosenberg: And you said it’s a town in which you grew up thinking you can do anything or be anything. What did you want to do or be when you were in high school?
Wallace: You know, I wrote a report about journalism and journalists, I think in third grade. I turned it in in my application to Northwestern, to graduate school. I went to Medill for graduate school, and I was just going through some papers from elementary school and I found this report I’d done in third grade about the history of journalism, the history of muckraking, and yellow journalism, and Trump supporters may feel as though my arc has come full circle there. But I always wanted to be a reporter, and studied under Lowell Bergman, 60 Minutes producer, as an undergrad at Berkeley, in their graduate journalism school, they didn’t have an undergraduate program for journalism. And then I went to Northwestern’s journalism school: Medill.
Rosenberg: But you didn’t go directly to Northwestern. You were a reporter in between.
Wallace: I was a reporter and I did some PR for the Oakland A’s during the baseball player’s strike and I wasn’t particularly expert in baseball.
Rosenberg: How’d you get that job?
Wallace: So, I had sort of a gap year and I worked in television, but I was on this swing shift. I worked 2 a.m. through the local television morning show, which comes on before the network morning shows. It was really early sitting, so I worked like 2:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. in local television. And that schedule will grind just about anyone to the ground, especially a college student who’s sort of nocturnal in the other direction. So, when I couldn’t take those hours anymore, I got a job in public relations, and my client, my one client, was the Oakland A’s, and I helped the Haas family navigate the public relations challenge of a looming player strike, and so I wrote letters to the season ticket holders. I started writing press releases about how great the replacement players were gonna be. I was not very fluent in baseball, so I used to call my dad and say, you know, what’s in RBI? And you know, I didn’t know anything about baseball stats or players.
Rosenberg: And despite working for the A’s, you’re really a rabid Golden State Warriors fan.
Wallace: Yeah, I read that story for the A’s, but the Warriors were never good when I was growing up. But, they’ve become very good, and it’s a real combination of just being a big Coach Kerr fan and big Steph Curry fan, and that sort of–that tie to my hometown.
Rosenberg: I wonder if I can get them on the Oath.
Wallace: Oh, listen, I hope so. I’ll come here and bring them, bring them water on their water breaks.
Rosenberg: I know you once said that you were the worst reporter that WDAY Fargo ever had. When did you go to work for WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota?
Wallace: So, the end of my graduate school program at Northwestern was really neat. They put us to work, which is probably the best way to learn any of those jobs. Actually, all throughout Northwestern graduate school program in journalism, you work, you’re a working reporter. I covered the Cook County courts one quarter, and then one quarter I came to Washington and worked as a TV correspondent for WDAY, Fargo. It was so called work for a small market. The senators used to call me and say, “hey we’re today do you want to come down and interview us.” Because for them, it was one of the only ways to get on local television in their states. But, I think I figured out early on that I wanted to maybe explore some other things before working in television full time.
Rosenberg: You weren’t really the worst reporter–
Wallace: I might have been, I might have been. You know, I used to send packages without a standup in them.
Rosenberg: Explain what you mean by packages and standup.
Wallace: I used to send local stories about a car accident or a drug bust or sometimes, just a county fair, and I wouldn’t have the part in it where my face showed up when I was holding the microphone and said my name. I thought: well, it’s not lacking without me in it. And they said: well, that may or may not be true Nicolle, but if we don’t see you, it’s sort of this for the viewer it feels like this disembodied voice–that we have to see you, at least a little bit. So, I learned that lesson early on
Rosenberg: When you graduated from Northwestern with your degree in journalism, you actually got a full-time job as a reporter.
Wallace: If you can call it that. I mean I think I made I don’t know like ten thousand dollars a year and my student loan debt was a multiple of about eight times that, but I went to work in Chico, California and I was a full-time reporter at KHSL.
Rosenberg: Did you like it?
Wallace: I loved it.
Wallace: You know, it was just me in the police scanner. You know, I went to bed with the scanner. I lived in the I-5 corridor in California, which is where a lot of tragic traffic accidents. I got to know the DEA officers in my town, there are a lot of drug busts, a lot of drugs were run from Southern California up to Washington state and Oregon, up by five. Being a local reporter is a great experience. I don’t know if it’s an experience that points you toward a career in television. It’s hard and it really is true that if it bleeds, it leads. I mean, I was out there in the middle of the night because people died in car accidents and people dying–you know, violent crimes, and I don’t think that was for me, so I veered off after a pretty short time.
Rosenberg: But you were sad when you left.
Wallace: I was poor and I was sad and I thought how does anybody do this. How does anybody borrow all the money it costs to go to Northwestern graduate school for journalism and make twelve thousand dollars a year as a local reporter.
Rosenberg: Where did you go from there?
Wallace: So, I started working in politics. I moved to Sacramento and in one week I interviewed with a Democrat and a Republican. The Republican hired me and that was my ideological fork in the road
Rosenberg: Meaning that you were amenable in either direction.
Wallace: Yeah. Yeah. My family then wasn’t particularly political. You know, in journalism school I hadn’t been particularly political in college or graduate school. That Democratic state legislator was Cruz Bustamante and the Republican state legislator was Bill Leonard and Bill Leonard hired me as the deputy communications director for the Assembly Republican Caucus. And so, began my career in Republican communications work.
Rosenberg: And also, I gather, the first time you took the oath.
Wallace: Yes, definitely.
Rosenberg: Do you remember that?
Yeah, I wasn’t in the state capital–the state capital in Sacramento was beautiful, but I don’t think we did it in there. I think we did it in the–I mean like in Washington, there are, you know, office buildings where a lot of the staff works. I think we did it in there, as the staff.
Rosenberg: How long did you stay in that job and why did you leave?
Wallace: Oh, I loved that job and I might still be there but they fired me. You know, they had sort of California’s version of midterms and I ended up going from the legislature to the governor’s campaign.
Rosenberg: It was Dan Lundgren’s campaign
Wallace: Yeah. And at the end of that cycle, as with in many cases, I would learn later in my career, if everybody loses, they sort of reboot at a staff level. And so, I lost my job after that losing campaign.
Rosenberg: But that led to some incredible opportunities for you because somehow, you get fired in California and you end up on the staff of Governor Jeb Bush in Florida.
Wallace: Yeah, I mean I’ve picked up a lot of lottery tickets off the ground and that might have been the biggest one.
Rosenberg: So, how did that lottery ticket get you to Governor Bush’s office?
Wallace: I’m not sure. You know, I always–I always had amazing mentors around me and there were some great people and outgoing in Governor Pete Wilson’s office. Sean and Kim Walsh who knew some of the folks from Jeb Bush’s office: Sally Bradshaw. And when I was out of work, and fishing around for new opportunities, they put me in touch with Governor Jeb Bush’s office.
Rosenberg: Sally Bradshaw was the governor’s chief of staff.
Wallace: Yeah, she was sort of the first bad ass woman in Bush world that I worked for.
Rosenberg: I was gonna ask you about that because you’ve spoken about the incredibly strong and talented women in Bush world. But Sally was the first you encountered.
Wallace: She was the first, and she was Jeb’s chief of staff. She ran Jeb’s presidential campaign. And I think worked for him in some capacity from the starting point, through his presidential. She had worked for his father in the White House I believe, and then went down to Florida and worked for Jeb Bush for his first unsuccessful and unsuccessful run for governor. I worked for Cory Tilley, who was the communications director. He hired me as Jeb’s first press secretary. And Florida is such a cool place to be a press secretary because it’s governed by sunshine laws. So whenever two lawmakers are together, whether it’s social or professional, reporters have the right to be there. So, I went a lot of places with Jeb that a press secretary in a different kind of state might not have had a chance to go. I got to play golf once with Tiger Woods. I mean, I got to really sort of be a fly on the wall.
Rosenberg: Who won?
Wallace: That’s a good question.
Rosenberg: Well, I mean, putting Tiger aside, who won?
Wallace: I don’t remember who won, but I remember I was in the golf cart. I mean, looking back, I don’t know why I got to see all these things, but it was when the Nike ad campaign was out that was, “I am Tiger Woods.” Do you remember that? I’m dating myself here. And Tiger Woods had gone to Stanford for a year when I was at Berkeley—he’s a couple of years younger than me. He was probably starved for human interaction, who was this young golf phenom. So, he was very chatty, very friendly with Jeb and the staffers that were with us. And on a back swing, I said, “I am Tiger Woods” from the Nike ad, and Jeb turned around and shot me this like death glare. And then Tiger Woods laughed, and he said to me afterwards, he said: “you’re lucky he laughed.” Oh that was close.
Rosenberg: It’s probably true. You said Florida is a fascinating place to work because some of the issues that arise are from immigration and asylum, to Cuba and environmental issues. Interesting place.
Wallace: You know, the other thing about all these issues is I dealt with them when I was– I don’t know, a 25-year-old press secretary for the new governor. I’ve dealt with those issues throughout my career. Not a single one of them has been solved.
Rosenberg: They’re hard.
Wallace: And some of them are worse, but they’re all issues that the governor of Florida dealt with when I went to work for him.
Rosenberg: And did you like Jeb Bush, not just as a governor but as a person?
Wallace: I adored him.
Wallace: He is so real, he is so earnest, and he is so hardworking. I mean, he was so accessible to the Florida press corps, that Lucy Morgan who was sort of the dean of the Florida press corps and I worked there–she would email him and if I didn’t get back to her in time, he would just respond himself. You know, he was so–it was my first experience as a spokesperson where I really was taught the importance of precision. If you are to be believed as someone’s spokesperson, you must actually speak for them, and it doesn’t argue for more access than anybody else, but you just have to get their voice right. And because Jeb was constantly e-mailing the reporters himself if there was any discrepancy between what I said, and what he said himself, those were really, really competitive papers in a really big state. I learned: it takes courage to sort of storm into a governor’s office or the Oval Office. But when you understand why you need to get the principal’s voice right, it sort-of gives you the courage to go in and get an answer for a press call, and they were lessons that served me well when I worked for his brother and in the White House.
Rosenberg: Look, everyone starts out with no experience and you had some of course in journalism, but none in Florida, and none at that level.
Wallace: Every press call about any issue is the first time you’ve ever dealt with an issue and so, I remember one of my first press calls about the Everglades, and I made some quip about having to go learn about the big swamp that is the Everglades, and offended every environmentalist the world over. Well, it was a steep learning curve. And they made mistakes and I made them on a pretty big stage.
Rosenberg: We all do.
Rosenberg: How long did you stay with Governor Jeb Bush?
Wallace: Well, this was a sore spot with him. I stayed one legislative session. My college boyfriend was back in California. So, I couldn’t convince him to move to Tallahassee, which I thought I was living in Steel Magnolias, I loved living in Tallahassee but I couldn’t convince my California boyfriend. So, I went back to California and then I actually did a second tour of duty with Jeb. In 2000, which also ended up being cut short. The Florida Recount happened and I went to work for his brother. So, I did two short tours.
Rosenberg: So, how did you end up working on the recount, and then how did you end up working for President George W. Bush?
Wallace: Election night 2000. We were all sort of gathered watching returns when Florida didn’t come in. You know, he’s not just the candidate’s brother. He’s the governor of the state that didn’t come in. So, in Florida came in funky, we were all sent to the Tallahassee Regional Airport. And I think we all got on airplanes that night to go down and help with the recounts, and automatic recount is triggered in Florida. The difference is I don’t know what it is less than 1 percent.
Rosenberg: So, in your case going down meant going down to Palm Beach.
Wallace: And I remember asking how long I would be there, and if I should go home and get my charger. I had, you know, a StarTAC flip phone, and I said, “how long am I going to be there? And they said, I’m not sure. I said, “well, should I go get some clothes and a charger?” And they said, “well you should have your charger.” So, I went home and got some clothes and my charger and ended up being there for 37 days.
Rosenberg: What did you do during that 37-day period, and who were you working for?
Wallace: I was an employee of the state of Florida. So, I took leave, I took vacation because I was volunteering to help the Bush-Cheney ticket. I was not on the state payroll. I used all my vacation time, I went to Palm Beach, and I helped count chads, and hanging chads, and I helped with all the media relations. It was a real political street fight and they were counting ballots and there were recounts. There were automatic recounts and there were trials and hearings and then it ended up in the state Supreme Court and ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rosenberg: A stressful environment, an exhilarating environment, an interesting environment?
Wallace: All of the above, and then some really. You know, until 9/11, the most extraordinary news story had ever been in the middle of.
Rosenberg: Do you remember where you were when the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore?
Wallace: Yeah, I was back in Tallahassee. I mean, at some point, we all had to go back to work for the state of Florida and the citizens of Florida.
Rosenberg: I assume you run out of leave.
Wallace: Yeah, I ran out leaving and I went back. So, I was back in Tallahassee and you know it was before Twitter and social media site either heard it on the radio and ran home. I remember watching on television.
Rosenberg: Did you know when that case was decided and when George W. Bush became president, that you would end up going to work for him?
Wallace: I didn’t, but I imagine you’ve had those professional experiences where you are so cemented to the people that you work with because you’re in the trenches together doing this extraordinarily, in this case, bizarre thing that really could’ve gone either way. And there was such a shortened transition after the recount, that it was more of a flurry–for me, I didn’t have any plans to go work for George W. Bush. I was really happy working for Jeb Bush.
Rosenberg: And you like Tallahassee.
Wallace: I love Tallahassee, but George W. Bush’s sort of the environment, the vibe around him is very inclusive. You wanted to be a part of it. So, I think by the end of the recount, I wanted to be a part of his presidency.
Rosenberg: And there are things that you almost literally cannot say no to.
Wallace: He was one of them. And I remember I went up for the for the inauguration, and didn’t even bring you know, work clothes to interview in and didn’t think I’d go to the transition office.
Rosenberg: Did you bring your charger?
Wallace: I did bring my charger. The StarTACs didn’t last very long. I miss them, though. I ended up meeting Dan Bartlett who is a communications director and they asked me to come in in the communications operation.
Rosenberg: I remember, Nicolle when I was working for Bob Mueller at the FBI, and John Ashcroft was the attorney general, and he asked me to come join his staff, and I asked Bob Mueller what I should do, and he said, pretty simple, when the attorney general asks you to join his staff, you join his staff–conversation over.
Wallace: And I remember when I was offered the job as Jeb’s press secretary, I didn’t tell anybody and talk to anybody. I just said yes. And the White House was the same. I didn’t really consult anybody, I just said yes.
Rosenberg: So, what was your first job with President Bush?
Wallace: So, I was the deputy director of media affairs, so I was the number two in the office that deals with every reporter who doesn’t have a chair on the briefing room. So, I worked for a really smart guy named Tucker Eskew, and under us, were all of the regional press secretaries, so you know, the San Francisco Chronicle the Florida papers that I loved from my time in Tallahassee would call our office and the White House press office would really just deal with the reporters that lived and worked in Washington.
Rosenberg: Did you like that?
Wallace: I loved it.
Rosenberg: This is the third time you took the oath.
Wallace: Yeah, it was the third–and that’s serious because that oath, and you know this: first, you’re investigated by the FBI, and all that you’re told is don’t lie–you know, you’re you’re not told: oh, you did drugs in college you won’t get hired, you’re just told: don’t lie.
Rosenberg: They’re looking for honesty, not perfection.
Wallace: I think that’s right. And it’s not like cheating on a test, but people tell you that. You are sort of reassured that they’re not looking for people that never got in trouble, they just want to see if you’re honest about it. Because I think that one of the principles is if we’re in trouble as a White House staff, or it’s if you’ve made a mistake, I think they want to make sure that that show sort of share that information up the chain of command
Rosenberg: Because it can reflect not only poorly on the president, but on the presidency.
Wallace: Exactly. And they need to know that you’ll go to your superiors, and that things will be managed that way.
Rosenberg: You mentioned that when you work for Governor Jeb Bush, that there was a very talented woman, Sally Bradshaw, who ran his office, but you’ve also said that in working for President George W. Bush. He was surrounded by these extraordinarily intelligent, thoughtful, talented, women–that it was a very good environment in which to be a woman.
Wallace: They were wicked smart and they were a hoot. I mean, when I started, Margaret Tutwiler, who had worked for Secretary Baker, was there helping us sort of get some lift. Mary Matalin was running Cheney world, Karen Hughes was running comms, Condy Rice ran the world, and Harriet Miers sort of ran the paper process in the West Wing. So, anywhere you turned, you faced a strong, smart woman who had the complete confidence of the president or the vice president. And one of, sort of the jokes among women, was that you didn’t worry about the young women in the Bush White House in their early years, you worried about the young man. We were being facetious. There were plenty of men in positions of power too, but it was an extraordinary sort of display of women who were peers but were also running at almost every major office in the White House
Rosenberg: And there were two women you haven’t mentioned yet: Laura Bush and Barbara Bush.
Wallace: Yeah, well, they were ever present. I mean–
Rosenberg: I was wondering if you might say a few words about each of them.
Wallace: Yeah, well, Laura Bush, you didn’t have to know George W. Bush well to know that she was you know the love of his life and a partner in every way. And whether it was you know, Laura Bush was asking me about mercury in the fish, what’s the deal with that to his environmental guy, or some policy that she was pursuing, or a trip. I mean, I think she was pretty judicious about focusing on her own issues. But she was always on his mind. To spend time with the president it was to sort of always be aware of what a big, big, big player she was in every, every minute of his day.
Rosenberg: And how about Barbara Bush?
Wallace: I got to know Barbara Bush when I worked for Jeb Bush down in Florida. And then when I went to work for George W. Bush, there were not a ton of us who’d work for both of them. So, I remember when Barbara Bush and 41 came to a tee ball game, and they came up to me and said, “you’re one of the unlucky few. And I said, “what’s that?” They said, “to work for two of my sons.” After the George W. Bush presidency, I actually spent more time with Barbara Bush and Bush 41 than even–then 43 I would go visit them up in Kay bank poured and I got to see them a few times in the summer of ‘16 which was when we were in the throes of a pretty exciting presidential election, and Bush was just so, so sophisticated in our understanding of you know the nuances of that race in the electorate. I also went down to Houston, I know jumping around in years, but my Barbara Bush memories are so seared into, into my mind. After 2012, I went down to Houston to do an event for her literary foundation. I remember we were sort of taking apart the after action at that presidential year when Mitt Romney had lost, and she was just an incredibly intelligent, intuitive, sophisticated, fluent, political savant in her own right. She was amazing.
Rosenberg: It was interesting to me, Nicolle, the Secret Service agents with whom I work would really never say anything bad about the people they protected, if there was something bad, but if they liked the people they protected, you couldn’t shut them up and they loved Barbara Bush. And I talked to a number of agents who had worked with her
Wallace: She’s amazing. I have to say one of the last times I saw her, George W. Bush had started painting, and she said, did you see the paintings. I said Yeah, yeah they’re getting better and better and better and better. And she said, come with me and she took me into her bedroom and she showed me this beautiful painting that he’d done for her for her birthday that year. And her eyes glistened and I thought Oh my God. I mean to have this woman’s I mean it must be easier just to feel what he must have felt in terms of her pride and his artistic talent. She she was just a force, and really really caring. I mean, you couldn’t be in their house without feeling, sort of, enveloped by their hospitality and their acceptance and their love. And, and their house was filled with, you know, just the most diverse group of people: singers, they loved the arts, so there would be a couple of singers, an actor, former secretary of state, and a world leader. And then, you know, family in every corner. I mean, they were just there were magnets. Everyone was so drawn to them.
Rosenberg: You know, one of my memories of President George W. Bush was his conduct right after the attacks of 9/11. You were working for him at the time weren’t you.
Wallace: Mm hmm.
Rosenberg: And do you remember where you were?
Wallace: They were in Florida, and I was back in Washington. My office didn’t travel, you know, on every trip. I didn’t start doing that until ‘03 when I was on the reelect. So, this was a one–and when the first plane crashed, we were in our meeting and then I had just walked back to my office, and saw the second plane hit on the television, I have The Today Show on. The first thing my boss asked me to do, was pull up Clinton’s public remarks after the World Trade Center attack while he was president. And what I found, was that he didn’t–it was on a Friday, he didn’t say anything until the radio address the next day. So, I called Mike McCurry quickly and I said Is this right. You guys didn’t say anything. And this was this was 1993…
Rosenberg: 1993 when six people were killed in a subbasement of the World Trade Center when a truck bomb exploded.
Wallace: So, Clinton had waited until the next day in his radio address to address the American people. Just such a different time–can you imagine? Now we count it in minutes. And even in ’01, it was even–you know, it was a different time. We knew there was no way we could wait until the next day. We were trying to figure out whether to stop the president before he got on a plane and left Florida, or whether we could record something. But the first thing I worked on on 9/11, were the president’s initial remarks.
Rosenberg: So, one of the things that President George W. Bush did, just six days after 9/11, was speak at the Islamic Center of Washington. I went back and did a little research, and I learned that Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 spoke at the dedication of that Islamic center. But just six days after 9/11.This is some of what President Bush said at the Islamic Center of Washington: “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace, they represent evil and war. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace, and that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race.”
Wallace: And I don’t think that was the first time he said Islam is peace after 9/11. I think he actually said it even before he went to the mosque.
Rosenberg: But, I think people forget that he did that and that.
Wallace: We don’t.
Rosenberg: We don’t, but it was such an important thing to do and a message to send, and it wasn’t for political gain. It struck me that he was really compassionate and decent man at root.
Wallace: He also saw his job after 9/11, as coming down to a simple thing: protecting every American. And he saw the need immediately to protect every faith, and make sure that we didn’t sort of turn to our darker angels. And I remember the visit to the mosque.
Rosenberg: Were you with him?
Wallace: I don’t think I made that. These were really short motorcades. He was traveling and really–you know DC had been attacked. So, the trip to New York and the trip to the mosque were, you know, short motorcades. Cities were basically shut down still. The National Cathedral was also an event where he had people of all faiths talking about the importance of not turning on each other. My office dealt more with the anthrax mailings and the anthrax attacks because it was a regional press office. So, we were dealing with the media markets in the places where anthrax had shown up in the mail. The DC post office. There was an anthrax death in Florida, and then the national press office was dealing more with the airspace, which was closed for days, and the walk up to the initial attack in Afghanistan. And Tom Ridge was named homeland security director, and he worked most closely with my office, really reassuring people that they could open their mailboxes, people and pick up their mail.
Rosenberg: I was at the FBI at the time. And so, not only was there the aftermath of 9/11 and all that it brought and rot, but also the anthrax attacks. And also, if you recall in 2002, the D.C. sniper attacks.
Wallace: So, the D.C. sniper attacks or when I sort of asserted myself as a communicator, and there was one day that we were going to do something, I don’t know, energy or something, and I stormed into it storm and I was probably already in the Oval Office but I just blurted out “you can’t talk about energy, people in D.C. are afraid to walk into Home Depot, there’s a freakin’ sniper running around shooting people at Home Depot.”
Rosenberg: In fact, the woman killed at the home depot in Falls Church, Virginia, happened to work for the FBI.
Wallace: And either I had known that, or I had been there. I think I was doing a remodel, so I was super tied to the sniper story and I lived in D.C. and I was terrified. And he looked up and he looked at me and he said “what do you think I should do?” And I said, “you should go out and tell people we’re going to help him catch the sniper.” Everyone sort of looked at me. And he did, I think he ended up saying something about the D.C. sniper, talking about how you know, of course the FBI was helping local law enforcement, and that was my role. That was my enduring role: to try to meld together stories that may have just been local stories at the time, but that I thought had sort of crossed over, and made us look out of touch if we weren’t speaking to them, or to people’s fears.
Rosenberg: But what I don’t want to lose in the story you just told, was the fact that you could speak to the president of the United States candidly and forthrightly, and that he would listen.
Wallace: Karen Hughes gave all of us these little wooden paperweights for our desk that said, you know, always give the president the unvarnished truth. And some of my mentors back in California had said, you know, their only advice– it was sort of in the day when news came off the wire and it was–is Kim Walsh and Shaun Marsh and they said that their advice from being on the plane with the 41st president was to just stay in your lane. You know, the president was fishing around for policy advice or political advice keep your mouth shut and let the policy person or the political person you know weigh in unless the president asked you. But to always, always, always know the latest White House story was off the wire. I really–I was the communicator who never wanted to be anything other than a communicator. I never wanted to weigh in on anything else, but I really did always try to bring a communication–level of sort of communications advice to him whether he asked for it or not. You know, this is what it will look like, this is what it will sound like.
Rosenberg: But, he was willing to receive it.
Wallace: He wanted it. And I was in the Oval Office plenty of times, I’m sure this is true of all presidents, and Bush 43 used to say it, I’m sure Trump says it. People walk in and they say “ooooohh.” But, when you’re a staffer, that’s not your job, you’re not there to look at the art. You are there–and you may have four seconds, you may have four minutes, you may have 40, but if you only have four seconds, it’s your job to give the president, you know, the news he may not want, but he needs.
Rosenberg: That said, it’s still awe-inspiring place to walk into. I mean, it must have sort of taken your breath away, that first time, or the first several times
Wallace: I remember when I started traveling with him regularly on Marine One and it was after I’d been on the reelect. So, it would have been January of ‘05. I said, “how will I know when we’re leaving?” He goes, “you’ll hear it.” And “I said I’ll hear what?” And he said, “the chopper blades.” And I was like “oh my God, gulp.” And I did, I felt like Bridget Jones and I wrote about some of it in my, my novels about the White House.
Rosenberg: You’ve written three novels.
Wallace: Yeah, yeah. But I wrote this scene—that pretty closely resembles what happened to me that–I had on heels, but you walk out on the muddy lawn–not muddy lawn, but it’s a well-watered grass, the South Lawn, and so I walked out to that helicopter and I had on a heel that got stuck in the mud, and it stayed, but I was walking next to the president, I didn’t want to bend down to get it. We were in the helicopter, and everyone’s going: “why are they waiting, why are they waiting?” And someone got my shoe.
Rosenberg: Waiting because of your shoe
Wallace: You know, and I was like, I had on one shoe, and I’m thinking like what are you’re doing. Go. We’re going to Chicago—don’t go to Chicago without a shoe. What do I do? So, someone looked down and saw that I only had one shoe, and they sent sometime down to get my shoe, but there was plenty of awe-inspiring time spent there. But, there also a lot of laughs. I mean if you–and Bush was the first to laugh, and we would sit on Marine One eating Starburst and looking out the window and he’d want to know who everybody was, and who was dating who, and he’d show me his friends up in the residence, and he’s, he’s a normal guy
Rosenberg: Could he laugh at himself?
Wallace: Oh, the easiest way to make him laugh was to laugh at himself. And he has–sort of known for occasional mal props, but if he came back on the plane and had screwed something up, he’d look at me–and Dan Bartlett was my colleague–and he’d say, “what, what did I say? What did I do?” And he would laugh harder than we would, and he’d laugh ‘till he cried. We told him “oh, you botched that line about OBGYNs.” And then, I think there was one speech to the Correspondents Association where he pulled out all of his famous mal props, you know, “is our children learning,” “OBGYN, spreading their love with women every…” All of the sort. He called them “chestnuts.” He had his greatest hits and he was a hoot
Rosenberg: That sort of underscores both humility, and a confidence which you sometimes see in great leaders. They have to make incredibly hard decisions often, or almost always, with imperfect information. And that takes a degree of confidence. But to be able to laugh at yourself, and to enjoy that, and also to be able to receive unsolicited advice and follow It, takes humility.
Wallace: He also was so generous. I mean, some of his favorite staffers to be around were the youngest staffers. You know, the body guy was first—
Rosenberg: –so, a body guy for our listeners, is somebody who sort of–it’s sort of like Radar O’Reilly in the series, M*A*S*H—
Rosenberg: The person who’s always there with the thing you need
Wallace: Right. And I think Reggie Love was Obama’s Body Guy, right.
Rosenberg: Reggie Love, who played basketball for Duke.
Wallace: Yeah, yeah. They were younger guys, in Bush’s case, and he just adored them, and they’d crack him up, and they’ve all gone on to be really, really, really successful. They were really smart. And there were always a couple of younger staffers in the press office, but Bush was just drawn to, you know, not just the most senior staffers, but sometimes, the most junior ones.
Rosenberg: I know we’ve jumped a bit, but you left the Bush White House in 2004 to work on the reelect. And that was the Bush-Kerry election. What’s the difference between campaigning and governing?
Wallace: Being honest, the campaigns are more fun. I mean, ‘03 was a hard year. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were hard, and they were not always going well, and to go to the campaign–what I wanna say, is the stakes aren’t as high, but I guess, the stakes are the highest, right, we’re determining who wins, but they don’t feel as high. Campaign feels like the fun stuff. And I know the White House staffers felt that way too, that you know, that we were lucky to get to go work on the reelect, and it felt that way.
Rosenberg: Governing, at least, should be more sedate.
Wallace: Yeah, and more serious, and we really honored all of the lines between government work and political work. Most senior level people weighed in, and so that was always at the campaign. I traveled–I was the first, sort of, campaign staffer to start traveling with Bush–I started traveling with him on all political trips in ’03, and you know, the campaign paid my share of the freight, but I went on every domestic trip starting in ‘03 through Election Day.
Rosenberg: And you mentioned the line, Nicolle, that you should explain how seriously government officials, at least proper government officials, take that line between what you can do as a government worker, and what you cannot do as a government worker.
Wallace: I think I left in the middle of ’03 because we decided that you couldn’t do anything. So even to have a campaign that existed to start raising money, even without the president’s participation, we had to set up a political entity. He was still the president, so anywhere he went for the campaign, his national security adviser, who at that time was Steve Hadley, went with him. So, there were, you know, we were a country at war post 9/11. So, we always had national security adviser with him. A normal president goes on a trip, and he’ll do a couple of political events, but then sometimes an official stop as well, so we always had duplicate staffs, so that the political staff handled anything political, and the government staff handled everything official, and never that–never an intersection. I would stand next to the White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan, and I wouldn’t answer any questions about the president as president, and Scott wouldn’t answer any questions about the president the candidate.
Rosenberg: I was struck, but not surprised by something you said when you were describing your time on that ‘04 campaign: that you became friends with on folks on the Kerry campaign.
Wallace: Oh yeah, yeah. I’m still friends with them. My counterpart there–I mean the only people living your same life, are the people that have your job on the other side.
Rosenberg: But isn’t that the way it should always be done?
Wallace: I mean, that’s the way it always was. I mean Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart became my friends before I became White House communications director, and they’re my friends now.
Rosenberg: And they came out of Democratic administrations.
Wallace: They came out of the Clinton administration.
Rosenberg: After George W. Bush is re-elected, you rejoin the White House, now, as director of communications, so a bigger job, a promotion. You’re also assistant to the president.
Wallace: When you’re on the reelect, you don’t have any expectation of a job back in the White House. You don’t do it to climb, you do it to make sure the president’s reelected. So, I didn’t know when I was on the campaign, what I would do on the other end, and the thing about campaigns, is whether you win, or lose, you’re unemployed on election day. It ends, and you’re out of work. So, nobody on the reelect really knew what they were going to do, win or lose. And when he won—
Rosenberg: –although there is a better path–
Wallace: –better jobs–
Rosenberg: –better path if he wins.
Wallace: But, no guarantee because all those jobs if it’s an incumbent president are already full. I went in–Dan Bartlett because he was the White House communications director, he became counselor to the president and I got his job and we really did the job together. But I remember walking into the Oval, sometime after the re-elect but, but well before the inaugural, and Bush had his hands in his pocket and was staring out the window, it was January, and he turned to me and Danny, and said, “we got to get them home,” and we said “who?” And he was talking about Iraq. I mean it was–the campaign was almost like this distraction for some of us–obviously not the president, and not the White House staff. But it sort-of pulled me back into government and the responsibilities and sort of the somber nature of working in the White House from what had been a nice, sort of, detour, to the campaign.
Rosenberg: That was exactly the word I was thinking of, somber. I imagine there were a lot of somber moments.
Wallace: Well, his day started every morning with Tenet and Mueller and the threat assessment.
Rosenberg: So, George Tenet ran the CIA and Bob Mueller was the FBI director, right. And the rhythm of those days was to have those two come in and tell the president about all the bad stuff going on everywhere in the world, all the threats.
Wallace: And I think the West Wing’s line was that he got the scary news and then the shitty news when me and Dan walked in with the headlines and the press that we were getting.
Rosenberg: In another interview I did with Lisa Monaco, who was President Obama’s homeland security adviser, she described the fact that he had a nickname for her: Dr. Doom, because whenever she showed up at the door, it was to deliver bad news.
Wallace: Yeah, I mean look, I wasn’t in those briefings, but I imagine those briefings ground every president in, sort of, the most-dim, sort of, devastating and dire aspects of the presidency. It’s unfathomable to me that this president doesn’t take those meetings.
Rosenberg: I’m struck by a lot of things about this president, but I’m also struck by the similarities between Presidents: Obama and Bush, that people sort of ignore. That they really had more in common. They were really more alike than they were different. Is that fair.
Wallace: Yeah. and listen, I mean, I don’t know that this is anything that President Obama would say about himself or his presidency, but he did a lot of the same things that Bush did to keep us safe. And I’m sure that the philosophy around can–counterterrorism was different. He certainly ran on a different approach and there were changes.
Rosenberg: But I’m talking less about policy, and more about personality.
Wallace: But, I mean, I think that shaped their day. I think that, I mean we were talking about the threat, I think that they started their day in a similar way. I think they approached their staff in a similar way. I think each man valued the truth-tellers on their staffs more than the ass-kissers. I think that they each had a healthy skepticism of the press. I think that their presidencies, well their policies were very different, I think their presidencies were pretty similar.
Rosenberg: And they like one another.
Wallace: Well, the families are–you know, I mean, I describe the Bush 41s this way–is they reached back to the Clinton years by becoming friends with Bill Clinton, and forward to the Obama years by forging all those friendships and then Bush 43 has a very genuine friendship with Michelle Obama, and you know, I think it’s good for the country to see all those families: the Bush’s and the Obama’s and the Clintons as friends
Rosenberg: I completely agree. When you won’t go back to the White House, the president having been reelected in 2005, you run into one of the most difficult periods in the Bush presidency, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was wondering if you might talk about that a little bit.
Wallace: Yeah, I mean, I think this was one of the most painful periods for the president. I think there’s a feeling of helplessness. I think there was a feeling of failure, of letting people down. I think there were–it’s never–you know this in government: there’s never one mistake. I mean, there were mistakes made around the evacuation of New Orleans. There were misjudgments made about the levees. There were mistakes made at the local and the state level, but then there were images that were self-inflicted mistakes that President tipping the wing of Air Force One over New Orleans, and looking at the Ninth Ward. I think the mistakes that were made are well known. What happened afterward, though was that Bush really tried to make up for it. I mean, that was such a focus on a policy level. I mean, we all became experts in the ducked canals. We all became experts in the rebuilding of New Orleans. We were all down there–I was down there once a week for nine months. We became storm chasers. So, we tried to make up for what we saw as our own mistakes and failures after Katrina.
Rosenberg: More than 18 hundred people died in the storm. It was a catastrophe. And you’re right, catastrophes tend to be the product of many bad decisions, mistakes, breakdowns, but also things that are beyond your control. When the weather is beyond the control of the president, the response may not be, but the weather certainly is–it has to be a stark reminder of the limits of a president, and a presidency too.
Wallace: Yeah, but I think once you’ve made a mistake, you own all of it. And I think there was a sense that, that our early failures, from being slow to respond to the gravity of the natural disaster by not, you know, getting back to Washington–the president, I think, was on the west coast, and then appearing out of touch by looking at it from the airplane. These were perception problems, but perception becomes reality when hundreds of people die. So, I think there is you know the helplessness would describe how we felt that I think reality set in pretty quickly that we owned the whole thing because of some of our self-inflicted mistakes.
Rosenberg: We talked earlier about the president’s visit to the Islamic Center six days after 9/11. He really is a very compassionate man, so that must have pained him personally.
Wallace: I think it probably pains him still.
Rosenberg: Nicolle, when did you make the decision to leave government and pursue the path you’re on now?
Wallace: I haven’t made a lot of plans. You know, I, I keep–I said earlier, I have been like Forest Gump and I keep sort of stumbling into neat opportunities and sort of stumbling up, not through a lot of–you know, just through a lot of good fortune and a lot of saying yes, yes to new opportunities
Rosenberg: But in some ways, you’re back to that place you were when you were in third grade and wrote that you wanted to be a journalist.
Wallace: I think what happens when you get older, and I don’t know if you feel this way, when I was at the beginning of my career in politics, it was really easy for me to make black and white arguments. When I was Bush’s communications director on the reelect, I get to see a moment, I could just see Kerry waver, stumble and I knew how to sort of slide right in, and make an argument I really knew how to draw a very sharp contrast. And I was never nasty, but I worked for some really, really shrewd political operatives, people like Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, and I knew how to find the communications opportunities to go with their shrewd politics, and you for better or for worse, that’s how presidential campaigns are waged. And in the context of this president, it’s sort of quaint and charming by comparison because the attacks and the contrasts–the only ones that worked were the ones that were true, and they may have been brutal. I mean, a lot of people thought it was unfair to go after John Kerry for saying he voted for. He was for it before he was against it. But they were his own words. You know, our politics have really devolved to a totally different place where were the attacks, not only are they not real, they’re they’re not real by design. Politics are so different covering them now. Was it really a decision, you know, I sort of got knocked out of politics, took myself out after the McCain-Palin campaign.
Rosenberg: You had been assigned to assist vice president nominee: Sarah Palin.
Wallace: Yeah. And at the time, that felt like a really challenging assignment. In hindsight, it was such a gift to sort of see where our politics were going. The Republican base loved her, and to get that. So, when ‘16 came around I could say, I know, I know this part of the party. They were the ones that liked her more than you know McCain is sort of a political messenger.
Rosenberg: Did you see that at the time, or did you see that now in retrospect?
Wallace: I thought in retrospect, but I saw it early. You know I saw it by ’15-‘16 and I recognized it at the time. You know, it’s always disturbing when the vice-presidential nominee draws a bigger crowd or excites the base more than the person at the top of the ticket. I think she might even acknowledge that. But, you know, the Palin campaign was so dramatic and so tense and so toxic. But, the lessons were just invaluable.
Rosenberg: And what was John McCain like?
Wallace: He’s amazing. He’s, he’s you know, got the reputation that he earned and deserved as an American hero.
Rosenberg: You know, I think of John McCain much the way I do of Bob Mueller: as patriots, as you know a man of great principle and integrity. And so, it pains me, and I don’t mean this from a Republican perspective or a Democratic perspective, to see people like McCain and Mueller attacked. I just–It’s hard for me to fathom.
Wallace: And you know, if you go deeper, what is it about people like McCain and Mueller that drives this president so bonkers? I think it’s sort of a combination of the discipline with which they lead their lives, and the honor that is so obvious to everyone, that it draws such a distinction and such a contrast to someone like Trump, that he just can’t help himself but to attack them.
Rosenberg: You made a really interesting decision as the host of Deadline: White House last November: not to cover a presidential press conference. Even that sentence coming out of my mouth seems odd, because as a child growing up, if the president said something, you would stop and listen, always. How did you make that decision, and do you think it was the right one in retrospect?
Wallace: There are, there are—I was going to say: there are a lot of people–I would say just about everybody probably at MSNBC is better at the television side of television than me, but—
Rosenberg: I think I disagree.
Wallace: I first read a teleprompter in January of 2017, but I spent my whole career trying to understand and intuit what voters want. I view my viewers that way. Trying to understand and intuit what their expectations are of our hour. And my sense is that they understand that a show called Deadline White House has to cover the president, but I feel like they appreciate some Purell on him, and by that, I mean let’s not shove a firehose of Donald Trump’s lies in the face of my viewer. Let me watch it. Let me scrub it. Let me see what he lies about. Let me see what he offends about, and I’ll turn around and play it for them. And I think we had a test run of this with Sarah Sanders. We don’t air any Sanders tape live or taped.
Rosenberg: She’s the spokesperson for President Barack Obama.
Wallace: And when she started lying from that podium, I mean, it gutted me–is a podium from which wars are started and stopped.
Rosenberg: And the podium from which you spoke
Wallace: Not often, I wish I was the conditions director, but, but I would.
Wallace: Occasionally, and, and I spoke for president. And so, and this isn’t personal–I have– you’ve tried to drum up something, but I’ve never read their standard. I’ve seen her a couple of times at NBC, but it’s not personal. But you know that she lies for the president. It’s between her and her God. Not my business, but I will not put it on my hour. And then president is a known liar.
Rosenberg: But it’s one thing not to air Sarah Sanders speaking. It seems like a more momentous decision not to air the president of the United States. I can’t imagine that’s something you came to casually or lightly.
Wallace: No, and I’m really blessed to work at a network that permitted me to make that decision. We almost always now turn him around, which means we listen first. We almost never take him live, and I’m really lucky to work at a network that lets me do that. It just gives us a minute to fact check it before we broadcast it. And so far, our viewers seem to appreciate that.
Rosenberg: Nicolle, if you weren’t doing what you doing now, I assume you would be the general manager of the Golden State Warriors.
Wallace: Well, I don’t know–I’d be there PR girl hopefully, hopefully.
Rosenberg: Well, at least PR
Wallace: Yeah. Look, my dad said he’d read the front page to read about men’s and women’s failures in the sports page, to read about their successes. And in some ways, the happiest job I ever had was doing PR for the Oakland A’s. You know, a family owned, professional sports team. It was Jason Giambi first year. Yeah, I mean it was it was it was great. You know, I always sort of grieve a little bit when basketball season ends. Lucky for me, Warriors are always in the play-offs. Yes, I’ve got a few more weeks of it
Rosenberg: Doesn’t say your basketball season as a fan ends much like almost anybody else
Wallace: I know and my family. You know, it also sort-of brings my family–and I’m not you know, the real sports fans in my life laugh about my–you know, “Nicolle the sports fan.” You know, I don’t, I don’t know everything about sports, but, but, yeah, the Warriors give me a lot of joy, and I love Coach Kerr. I mean, Coach Kerr tweets more about politics than he does about sports, and if I had my way, I’d tweet more about sports than politics.
Rosenberg: I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy watching your show, and how grateful I am that I’m occasionally on it.
Wallace: You are our favorite guest. And I–you–
Rosenberg: –you have to say that if you’re on my show.
Wallace: No, but there are only a handful of people that make me forget I’m on television, and they are always the people that I actually call and I’m not on television, so that would be you. It’s such a gift. I mean our, our viewers go bananas for you because there’s no sense that you’re saying something different because you’re on television. If I learned anything being on television, it’s that viewers like voters they see through everything. Television is the giant x-ray it’s an MRI they can tell who’s telling the truth.
Rosenberg: Well, you’re awfully good at it.
Wallace: Thank you. So are you,
Rosenberg: And thank you for coming on the show.
Wallace: That’s the coolest. Thank you so much.
Rosenberg: Wonderful to have you here, Nicolle Wallace.
Wallace: Thank you. I’m glad you’re doing this Chuck Rosenberg.
Rosenberg: Thanks to Nicolle Wallace for joining me today on the Oath. You can see Nicolle every day at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time on MSNBC, where she is the host of Deadline White House. Or, you can read one of the three novels that she has written: 18 Acres, It’s Classified, and Madam President. I’m so grateful to Nicolle for joining us today. If you liked this show, and you think you might know someone in your life who would enjoy it, do me a favor: please tell them about it. Also, keep those ratings and reviews coming in. As I’ve told you before, I read every single one of them. I love reading them. And even though we can’t answer each one personally, please know that your words matter to us. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That is: theoathpodcast, one word, @gmail.com. We love to hear from you.
The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by Fannie CO, with the wonderful Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon, and Rob Hebert. Lauren Chadwick and Laurel Hyneman provided production support. Our senior producer is Barbara Raab, and Steve Licktieg is our Executive Producer.
This is the Oath, with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.