5 Lessons From the Room Where Presidents Decided History
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5 Lessons From the Room Where Presidents Decided History

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5 Lessons From the Room Where Presidents Decided History

George Stephanopoulos is the host of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos and co-anchor of Good Morning America. Stephanopoulos joined ABC News in 1997 as an analyst for This Week. Prior to joining ABC News, he served in the Clinton administration as the senior advisor to the president for policy and strategy.

Below, George shares five key insights from his new book, The Situation Room: The Inside Story of Presidents in Crisis. Listen to the audio version—read by George himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

The Situation Room George Stephanopoulos The Next Big Idea Club

1. Information is power.

John F. Kennedy created the Situation Room in 1961, just a few months into his presidency. He was given a memo about creating this room by his military aide, but he did not act on it until after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. Still fuming over the lack of good planning from the CIA and the lack of good information from the joint chiefs of staff and generals, Kennedy set up this nerve center in the White House in just two weeks. It would be an information clearing house. In this room, the President could get intelligence from all over the government, looking at it on his own with a small team of loyal aides.

Ironically, it turned out that John F. Kennedy didn’t end up using the room all that much once it was built. At the time, it wasn’t much to look at. He called it a pigpen. He did rely on information from the Situation Room, but he didn’t go there all that much. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where he was getting dispatches from the Situation Room, he worked with his executive committee in the Cabinet Room and inside the Oval Office. That was just the beginning for the Situation Room. It has evolved over the last several decades, and the next president, Lyndon B. Johnson, would use it more than any other.

2. Information is not insight.

President Lyndon Johnson was an information junkie. He was hyper-connected in the pre-internet age. He loved telephones. Every room in the White House had one—including the bathrooms. There were 72 telephones on his ranch in Texas.

LBJ probably used the situation room more than any other president. He used it so much that he even moved his favorite chair down there for endless meetings, mostly about Vietnam. That was his obsession. LBJ did not believe the war could be won, but he could not figure out how to get out of it either. He was always desperate for information about Vietnam. He would call the Situation Room officers at all hours of the night for information on possible casualties, body counts, and battle plans.

“LBJ thought that the war could be managed from that room in the basement of the White House.”

The problem for LBJ was that Vietnam was not a war that could be won, and the information he was getting could not tell him how the war was going. Body counts were not an accurate measure of how the battle was going. No matter how much information Lyndon Johnson got, he could not find that nugget that would unlock the trap he was in in Vietnam. That was the tragedy of his presidency. The tragedy of his presidency was that he had so many domestic accomplishments in his short one-term presidency. Still, Henry Kissinger said that Lyndon Johnson succumbed to what he called the Situation Room Syndrome. LBJ thought that the war could be managed from that room in the basement of the White House.

Richard Nixon, his successor, would not use the Situation Room all that much because of the insights of Henry Kissinger. Of course, he would have problems of his own.

3. Experience matters to a point.

Brent Scowcroft proves this insight. He trained as an Air Force fighter pilot but then worked his way up through the military in a series of jobs. He taught at the Air Force Academy and West Point and served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He first served in the White House as a military aide in Nixon’s White House and went on to become national security adviser to Gerald Ford. There, he built up a strong relationship with President Bush George HW Bush, who had served as ambassador to China and head of the CIA.

All that experience was brought to bear when he became national security adviser to President Bush during a time of tremendous change. They managed with amazing skill both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the orchestration of the first war against Iraq. In fact, John Bolton, who went on to serve as national security adviser to President Trump, said that they were performing at the level of the 1927 Yankees. They put together a team built on trust, based on Scrowcroft’s experience, that functioned at the absolute highest level. As the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley told me, Brent Scowcroft was the gold standard.

A generation of national security professionals also grew up learning from the experience of the Desert One debacle under President Carter. Desert One was a failed rescue mission during the Iran hostage crisis that included Admiral William McRaven, who later went on to lead the Navy SEAL raid that took down Osama bin Laden. He went to school on that original failure, fixing intelligence and communications failures and making sure they had all the equipment they needed. He insisted on a full dress rehearsal several times before they took on that successful raid.

Robert Gates is another individual who proves that experience only matters to a point. He also had extensive experience in several administrations, going as far back as the CIA under the Carter administration. It was there he first learned from the Desert One debacle. From there, Gates worked his way up, serving as Defense Secretary to both President Obama and President George W. Bush. But he wrote in his memoir that, at the time of the Osama bin Laden raid, all of that experience may have colored him too much. He warned President Obama that it may have made him too cautious. He was the only national security principal who argued against the raid when President Obama polled his advisors for their opinions on what to do.

“This moment in history proves that you have to learn from experience, not be paralyzed by it.”

President Obama, of course, disagreed in the end. He appreciated the insights he was getting from Robert Gates, but this moment in history proves that you have to learn from experience, not be paralyzed by it.

4. Desperate times spawn desperate measures.

President Jimmy Carter’s diary entry on May 8, 1980, contained one simple line: “We had a session in the Situation Room concerning a Paris psychology project, where people can envision what exists at a particular latitude and longitude, et cetera.” That was it. It is referred to as parapsychology. This was a desperate time during the Carter Presidency. He was locked in an election battle against Ronald Reagan. Inflation was soaring, gas lines were long, and it was just two weeks after a disaster in the desert. The failed rescue mission had unsuccessfully attempted to get hostages who had been trapped in Iran for more than six months.

It turns out that Jake Stewart, a Navy captain at the time, gave a briefing that day about parapsychology. During my research, he was reluctant to talk at first, but when we finally got him on a video call, I asked him what happened that day. His eyes widened, and he told me an amazing story. That day in 1980, Jake briefed President Carter on Operation Growth Plan, an army program. This program used psychics to help gather intelligence. He briefed Carter on what he thought were the program’s successes over the last several years. At the end of the meeting, Carter didn’t say a word. He simply wrote one word on a piece of White House stationery and slid it across the table to Jake Stewart. He had written the word “hostages” followed by a question mark. He was asking Jake for help with the hostages stuck in Iran.

Jake Stewart said yes, and they went to work on it. They proceeded to have six different remote viewer psychics working on trying to locate the hostages. Eventually, they did, and they were credited with helping to find hostage Richard Queen, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis and was brought back home. As we now know, the rest of the hostages were not released until after Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. On inauguration day, they were released. The hostage situation completely crippled the Carter Presidency. He was doing anything he could to try to solve it, even going to the point of calling in government psychics. Desperate times certainly did call for desperate measures.

5. The deep state is packed with patriots.

At any one time, the Situation Room is staffed by several dozen individuals from across the government and military. For some people, it is a stepping stone for higher levels in the government. For others, it’s a capstone to a successful career. Across the board, these people are rigidly, rigorously apolitical. They are determined to serve the presidency, not the president. They are patriots.

They include people like Gary Bresnahan, who has served under seven presidents. He is the son of a truck driver whose mother was on welfare. He worked his way into the army as a cryptologist and became the Zelig and MacGyver of the Situation Room. He was in the Situation Room for just about every important mission over the last several decades. He was there when Reagan was shot and during 9/11, and he helped set up the secret communications link that allowed President Obama and his team to watch the takedown of Bin Laden in real time. Through it all, he was humble and dedicated to serving his country.

“Across the board, these people are rigidly, rigorously apolitical.”

Sarah “Sally” Botsai was the first woman in the National Security Agency to work in the Situation Room. She started under President Nixon and was there during his darkest days of impeachment, determined to carry on during tumultuous times.

Ed Pedensky was a naval officer who rushed to the Situation Room from his child’s kindergarten classroom on 9/11 so he could be there on watch when the White House was under attack. He and his colleagues refused to leave, even when told to evacuate. He served through those days even though he lost several colleagues in the attacks on the Pentagon. He was also on watch on the naval carrier when Osama Bin Laden was given his burial at sea. That moment, he said, gave him a kind of closure, and he knew that his colleagues lost during 9/11 were there in spirit.

For Mike Stiegler, working in the Situation Room was on his bucket list. He even wrote his master’s thesis on its inside workings. He ended up working there on January 6th. In that room, individuals were dealing with an insurrection inspired by the president in office at that time. Never before had the tension between serving the president and the presidency been tested.

Stiegler talks about that day in hushed tones. He recalls the moment when Vice President Pence was almost lost. He also remembers having to start to implement continuity of government operations, which would ensure the survival of the government if an insurrection was successful. He was back in the Situation Room the next day, determined to carry on. He was also there on President Biden’s first day of office. He answered no when asked if he was tempted to slip President Biden a note of good luck during his first briefing. “We serve the presidency, not the president,” he said. “We serve in silence.”

To listen to the audio version read by author George Stephanopoulos, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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