Monday, January 8, 2001

Imagine a thriller that also is a guide to the innermost sanctum and secrets of the White House: a book of fiction that tells you about hidden staircases and gun racks and methods used by the Secret Service to protect the president and his family.

A person might also then imagine the author of such a work to be on the secret hit list of the Secret Service or, at the very least, forever banned from admission to the big white mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lawyer-turned-author Brad Meltzer of Chevy Chase, Md., apparently has pulled off such a feat in his third novel, “The First Counsel,” and he has yet to be denounced by all the insiders who patiently helped him with his laborious research.

Friends would draw him maps and then he would compare the maps. As a result, he says, “I have layouts of where I can’t go. Then I got from the Park Service the blueprints to the White House, which no one realizes are available to anyone. There are virtual tours you can go on now, and I went on those and could see the hidden doors.

“I put in all the details and gave the manuscript to a Secret Service agent. I told him, ‘Listen, I want to write a book that is good, but I don’t want to betray your trust or the people in the White House or the security of the White House. Tell me what you are comfortable with me printing … And also tell me where I make mistakes.’”

The agent told him not to change anything. “‘Brad,’ he said, ‘listen, if you can figure this out on your own sitting in your place with just your buddies, don’t you think a foreign terrorist group with millions of dollars at their beck and call can do the exact same thing? It’s all been printed before. You’ve just pulled it together in one.’”

What began as a book about a president’s lawyer gradually turned into what may be a wholly original take in the popular genre of novels about political figures in high places a virtual study of what it is like to be a child in the White House.

• • •

Mr. Meltzer began with the idea of writing about a White House lawyer. “I talked to every counsel I could find, and when they realized I wasn’t after their personal lives, almost everyone would talk unless they were crazy busy. I started digging and digging and then came across the idea of ‘What if one of these guys was dating a president’s daughter?’ Every time I mentioned that to someone, that was what got their reaction. The White House is the place, especially at the lower level of the counsel’s office, where everyone is paid about the same, so the currency becomes power and influence. So if I date first daughter I get both.”

“I took all that legal research and shoved it aside and got obsessed by researching the kids. The legal stuff is in there, but it is secondary.” Curiously, he says, apart from some Disney movies, he didn’t find anyone who had taken seriously the notion of what it is really like to be a child in the White House.

What Mr. Meltzer didn’t anticipate was how sympathetic he would become toward past and present first family children and especially first daughters who make up nearly half of 21 such children still living.

“Chelsea is the lucky one,” he says, “the only one not really ruthlessly ripped apart, except very early on.”

He has become such an authority on their lives that he was asked to write a column of advice in a forthcoming USA Weekend issue addressed to the twin daughters of George and Laura Bush before they become official “first daughters” on Jan. 20.

During the course of his research, Mr. Meltzer says he found only one former White House daughter who would talk with him, and while she didn’t ask for anonymity he refuses to give her name out of respect for her privacy.

Other information came from former Secret Service agents charged with guarding first families and from friends who had jobs with the Clinton administration.

The book’s official publication tomorrow will be celebrated with a party in the Hay-Adams Hotel hosted by, among others, a current White House best friend Bruce Lindsey, who has the official title of deputy counsel to the president. In addition, Warner Books, the publisher, is giving the gritty, articulate, 30-year-old author a month-long 20-city publicity tour. That’s not too surprising, considering that his previous thrillers were best sellers.

The first of them, “The Tenth Justice,” written while he was a student at Columbia Law School, has been sold to Hollywood with a script for a movie now in its third draft, Mr. Meltzer says. He didn’t write the script, being too busy with a fourth novel, the plot of which he won’t reveal except to say that Washington doesn’t figure in it at all. (“The Tenth Justice” was about the power of Supreme Court clerks.)

Call it timing or simply good luck, the unassuming young author now finds his latest work launched just before the inauguration of a new president after one of the most protracted elections in history and in the midst of what seems to be a trendy outpouring of presidential mania.

Scarcely a day or week goes by without the appearance of another book, movie, lecture or exhibit about the White House and its inhabitants especially with the popularity of the TV series “West Wing” at an all-time high.

Just this month alone is the film, “Thirteen Days,” opening Friday with Kevin Costner in the lead, about the Kennedy White House standoff with the Soviet Union in October 1962; a Corcoran Gallery of Art feature Jan. 18 with Peter Jennings on “The Art of Presidentiality”; a Smithsonian Associates seminar on Jan. 28 titled “Presidents on Film and Television;” and, of course, the newly installed permanent exhibit on the American presidency in the National Museum of American History.

“Stories thrillers involving members of a president’s household are in fact nothing new,” says local writer Carl Anthony, who has made a career out of documenting many aspects of White House life. His two volumes on first ladies, published in 1990 and 1991, are still in print. His next one, coming out in the spring, “The Kennedy Family White House Album,” he describes as “the first ever to look at the family life of the Kennedys, both nuclear and extended.”

“There is always new fodder,” he says. “Fictional takes go way back to Henry Adams’ ‘Democracy’ that was very popular at the time and has a fictitious presidential family. And in Franklin Roosevelt’s years there were all kinds of books based on families in the White House, including Fala the dog. In terms of contemporary pop culture, the attention probably focuses on families that had elements of tragedy or glamour.

“An odd movie was made back in the 1960s, a love story about a president trying to have his wife killed who then took off with a Secret Service agent. In an Irving Berlin movie called ‘Mr. President,’ the young daughter of a president falls in love with her Secret Service agent and sings a song titled “The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous.”

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