By Brad Meltzer
II had a question that only the President of the United States could answer.
And the good news was: he actually gave me an answer.
It started back when I was interviewing a source who used to work with the Department of Homeland Security, and we were talking about the secret presidential spy ring that was started by none other than George Washington. Back during the Revolutionary War, Washington was so tired of the British intercepting his military officers, he tapped a group of regular citizens and asked them to move his secrets (on the theory that no one would look twice at these “ordinary” men). The members of this small group called the Culper Ring used invisible ink, secret codenames (George Washington’s codename was “711”), and were so good at keeping their secrets, we didn’t even know about their existence until nearly 150 years later.
But what struck me most was when I asked my source if he thought something like the Culper Ring could still be valuable today. Right there, the phone line went silent.
“What makes you think it still doesn’t exist?” he challenged.
My response was thoughtful and concise. “Wha?”
“Think about it: If the Culper Ring was so good, why would George Washington ever disband it? Why not keep it going?”
Yeah, I know: I thought it was a bit whacky too. But there was something to it and in the spirit of finding truth and selling books, I realized I knew someone who would know the actual answer. So I did what anyone else would do.
I emailed the President of the United States.
Okay, it was the former President of the United States. George H.W. Bush. 41. And I did have his email.
(How? Because he wrote me a few years ago to say he liked one of my thrillers. Yeah, I know … that happens to me all the time too.)
And by the time I worked up the nerve to ask him the question, I’d even figured out how the existence of the Culper Ring could be passed from each outgoing President, to each incoming President. This is true: During his last moments in the White House, President Ronald Reagan scribbled a note that said “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” He then slipped the note into the Oval Office desk and left it for his successor: President George H.W. Bush. Bush then left a note for Clinton, who left one for W, who left one for Obama. It is, to this day, the greatest private tradition of the US Presidency.
So there I was, typing up my email to former President Bush, telling him what I’d found about the original Culper Ring and my theory that each President could tell the incoming President about the existence of George Washington’s ingenious invention. Could the greatest secret of the US Presidency still exist and be passed like that?
To my surprise, it didn’t take long for the former President to write me back. But instead of answering my question, something was attached to his response. My eyes went wide as I realized what it was: The never-before-seen secret letter that George H.W. Bush hid in the Oval Office desk and left for Bill Clinton.
It’s a private letter — President to President — that the world had never seen before. A personal moment between two of the most powerful men in the world. And Bush sent it to me.
Okay, this was even better than the crazy insanity I was making up. This was it, right? There had to be a secret message in the letter!
For days, I combed through it, using every historical code I knew. I tried the codes invented by Thomas Jefferson. Civil War encryption. I put every sentence into an anagram generator. I even wrote out the third letter of each word, waiting to see if it spelled out, “I hate you, Bill.” (Don’t forget, at the moment this letter was written right after the election Bush 41 had every reason to despise Clinton).
But the more I combed through it, all I kept finding was this:
January 20, 1993
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair.
I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
Good luck –
“Wait!” I kept saying to myself. “There’s got to be something I’m missing!” I wish you great happiness? You will be our President? I am rooting hard for you!?
It can’t be! No way is anyone that gracious and nice!
But the more times I read the letter, I quickly realized that what Bush had sent me was the greatest secret of the US Presidency. And it was also the greatest aspect of the US Presidency: that no matter how famous they get … no matter how much of a pedestal (or ditch) we put them on or in, we are led by true, real people.
Doesn’t sound fancy.
But it is.
We get to pick them. We get to vote for them. And though they may not live up to our expectations (I’m looking at you, Nixon), we are, for good or bad, led by our own.
To steal from the best, this is how the story goes: We the people. Period.
And right now, with everyone talking about what’s wrong with our political dialogue, it’s nice to have an example of what’s right.
© Brad Meltzer