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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Most people who become part of the senior White House staff are seasoned professionals who believe they have paid their dues and are ready to handle anything that develops in the intense pressure of national politics. At the same time, even the most experienced personnel are awed by the honor of serving the president and excited by the perks of office—the limousines available at a moment’s notice, trips to Camp David (the presidential retreat), and what they call “face time,” those precious meetings when they have the president’s attention. They want to perform well and prove themselves. For most, this means a level of anxiety and exhaustion that leads to burn-out and disillusionment. The truth is that there is never enough time and that mistakes are constantly made. No one, Birnbaum concludes, can come out of this “madhouse” without getting scarred.

Birnbaum concentrates on the stories of six staffers—all of whom left the White House in the first two years of the Clinton Administration. Howard Paster, a lobbyist extraordinaire, quit after failing to move most of President Clinton’s legislative agenda. Paul Begala and Jeff Eller never did find a persuasive way to present Clinton’s program to the public. Press secretary Dee Dee Myers never did penetrate Clinton’s circle of male privilege. Gene Sperling and Bruce Reed never got a handle on what Clinton’s policy agenda should be.

MADHOUSE presents a compelling inside look at how these diverse personalities were thwarted by the disorganization of the White House, and why their ambition to serve the president and to advance their own careers foundered so badly.