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Presidential Pen Pals

TIME Magazine

Their loyalty has earned them access to the most exclusive zip code and fax number in America: the ones that get letters straight to the Oval Office

By Karen Tumulty

(TIME, January 27) -- In a season when Washington is turning itself inside out over the issue of access to the President--who has it, how much did they have to pay to get it, what did they get in return--it turns out that the most valuable scrap of information to have is a nine-digit number. That number is a ZIP code, one that tells the White House post office to pluck that letter from the 15,000 addressed to Bill Clinton every day and slip it directly under the President's door. The people who know the code are Clinton's oldest friends and earliest allies. Few of them followed him to Washington, and maybe that is why they are the people he trusts to have his interests at heart. They are his private epistolary brain trust.

The President has groused that the biggest frustration of being in the White House is that it's so hard to get out of it, to know what is going on out there in America and to benefit from unfiltered common sense. And so when his Georgetown University hallmate David Matter complained in September about the way the organ-donor system allocates livers for transplant, with people in one city waiting months while patients elsewhere can expect them in less than two weeks, the Department of Health and Human Services was ordered to take a new look at who should get to the top of the list. Last spring Carolyn Staley wrote to chide the President about his promise that improving education would be his legacy. Was he aware, she wondered, that he had produced a budget that would cut spending for adult literacy to a level below what it was in the Bush Administration? The next thing she knew, Staley got a call from the budget analyst on whose desk her note had landed. "And who, exactly, are you?" he inquired rather nervously. The deputy director of the National Institute for Literacy, it turns out, and a preacher's kid who grew up next door to Billy Clinton. Adult-education programs are now scheduled to receive a $95 million boost in this year's presidential budget.

The idea of a special ZIP code was George Bush's, but Clinton adopted it shortly after he was elected and soon added a fax number as well. Clinton has given it out to strangers when he wants to hear their stories in full. But most often it's a way for people like Staley to bypass regular channels, which once left her in tears after she'd poured quarter after quarter into a phone at Washington's National Airport. From the day she was handed the magic number, Staley has been faxing a stream of jokes, gossip and encouragement. "Hello from one essential government worker to another," she wrote the day after the first government shutdown began in 1995. "I'm only hearing support for your refusal to sign a bill you don't believe in."

It may surprise some that a poll-obsessed President who checked the numbers before deciding where to vacation could be guided by such unscientific advice. Yet Clinton has said that poring over these missives is an indispensable part of the three or four hours of private time that chief of staff Erskine Bowles has built into each presidential day. They arrive, sometimes a hundred in a week, sometimes 500. About twice a month, he hears from Mauria Aspell, who was the only other non-Catholic at St. John's parish school in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The two shared many hours in an otherwise empty classroom while the rest of the second grade was at Mass. Says Aspell: "It helps him have a window to his past, and the things that touched his life."

From these letters, the President also gleans some of the bite-size policy prescriptions that helped get him re-elected, and that will shape his approach to governing in a second term. Clinton's Everyman is elementary school chum David Leopoulos, a traveling software salesman who faxes the Oval Office as much as three times a week. Often it is from a laptop in a hotel room, filling Clinton in on family news, on what he has heard listening to Rush Limbaugh and on the joys and frustrations of daily living. Leopoulos was watching the final presidential debate last year from yet another hotel room--this one in Madison, Wisconsin--when he recognized that one of those tales had got results. Asked how he might encourage people to save for their own old age, the President mentioned a law he had signed that would help small-business people take their retirement accounts from one job to the next. "My best friend from grade school is a computer-software salesman, and he told me last time he changed employers it took him nine months to figure out how to transfer his 401(k) plan," the President added. "Now, none of that will happen anymore."

Sometimes the President gets speechwriting help from this private circle of correspondents. His pronouncement two weeks ago, "Great Presidents do not do great things. Great Presidents get a lot of other people to do great things," was passed along by his college friend Kit Ashby. It was just the kind of pseudo profundity the two used to toss across the supper table when as Georgetown seniors they shared a house. Philip Jamison, who was in a math class with Clinton when word came that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, forwarded to Clinton a speech Kennedy had given at the Naval Academy, Jamison's alma mater, just in time for Clinton to use it when he addressed the graduating midshipmen in 1994. "I read that speech carefully before I came here," Clinton said. And then the President paraphrased Jamison's favorite part: "If someone asks you what you did with your life, there is not a better answer than to say I served as an officer in the U.S. Navy."

When the question of whether to normalize relations with Vietnam exposed one of Clinton's biggest political vulnerabilities, Clinton probably found it reassuring to read Jamison's judgment that it was the right thing to do, an afterthought Jamison had added to a note about their upcoming class reunion. For while Clinton was at Oxford plotting how to avoid the draft, his friend was logging 343 missions in a Navy helicopter-gunship in Vietnam.

In a White House that is not above auctioning off the Lincoln Bedroom, an obvious question arises: Would it take a nine-digit campaign contribution to get the nine-digit number? White House spokesman Michael McCurry insists it is not for sale at any price. As for Clinton's informal advisers, they contend they won't be following the example of Dick Morris--cashing in on their access and taking credit for every successful White House move. Leopoulos, for one, won't even be at this week's Inauguration. The $150 cost of an Inaugural Ball ticket is too steep, he says, and he would have to miss his 12-year-old daughter's tryout for the Arkansas select soccer team. How's that for common sense from the heartland?

Mail to the Chief

Some of Bill Clinton's childhood friends stay in touch with him by using a secret ZIP code and fax number.

Philip Jamison
Job - Pentagon foreign affairs specialist
Connection - High school classmate
Advice - Moving to normalize relations with Vietnam is the right thing to do

Carolyn Staley
Job - Deputy director of the National Institute for Literacy
Connection - The girl next door
Advice - Don't cut spending for adult literacy

David Leopoulos
Job - Computer-software salesman
Connection - Clinton's best friend from grade school
Advice - Make 401(k) accounts more easily transferable

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