The man who minds the president

The C-17 cargo plane had just taken off over Bosnia when the pilot invited the president of the United States into the cockpit.

Heading home after a long tour reviewing peacekeeping troops, Mr. Clinton accepted the invitation. But as he slipped through the cabin door to take in the expansive view, he nodded for one of his closest staffers to join him.

It wasn't his chief of staff, the vice president, or even the first lady. It was a young man named Kris Engskov, his personal aide.

As the airlifter cruised westward through the night sky, Clinton reflected aloud on the operation and the cargo plane's role in supporting US troops there.

The president looked at Mr. Engskov, a fellow Arkansan, and said, "This is a long way from Carroll County."

Indeed it is. Yet for 2-1/2 years, this son of a hardware-store owner in Berryville, Ark., has been arguably the person who works closest with the most powerful man in the world.

Say "personal aide to the president" and the image of a gofer comes to mind - someone who passes out the souvenir cuff links when the meeting is over. But the job is a complicated and sensitive one, and its occupants often go on to much bigger and better things. George magazine has picked it as one of Washington's Top 10 jobs.

It's also probably in the Top 10 list of jobs most likely to lead to burnout. It requires working longer hours than the president, after all. That's why Engskov is finally leaving.

Still in his late twenties, he's been a key moving part in the traveling whirlwind that is the Clinton White House. For him, it's been worth it.

"When I first started, I thought they were joking," Engskov (pronounced En-sko) recalls, upon learning of his new duties. "They said you actually have to walk in there and tell him it's really time to go."

Making sure things run smoothly

It has fallen to him to keep Clinton, notorious for running late, on schedule, politely, but firmly, shoehorning him on to his next appointment.

The aide must also be politically savvy, watching to ensure a hand in a crowded room has not gone unshaken, or a congressional member unintentionally slighted.

"You'll notice sometimes the aide pointing out someone the president missed in a crowd," says Martha Joynt Kumar at Towson University in Baltimore.

"You have to manage so many egos, see problems before they come up, and gate-keep so many of the people who want a piece of the president's time," says former Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who watched Engskov move Cabinet members and staff through the West Wing like a collie moving sheep - smiling all the while.

From arriving at work earlier than the president to examine the schedule and predict any pitfalls, to glancing through papers before placing them on the dais moments before a speech begins, the responsibility is, in a word, big.

Personal aides "don't second-guess speech writers very often, but they feel like they have the right and obligation" to point out or question flaws in a speech, says Bradley Patterson, historian of White House staff.

During a routine work day, the aide outlasts Secret Service detail shifts. When the president is at his desk, the aide is outside the door or nearby in the West Wing.

Unlike senior staff who in recent years have disclosed the behind-doors goings on in kiss-and-tell books, an aide operates under the same ironclad expectation to keep silent as the Secret Service does.

"I never wanted President Bush to fear or worry that because of my unique vantage point I might later reveal things that they trusted me to maintain as private," says Tim McBride, an aide to George Bush who is now director of government relations at DaimlerChrysler.

For Engskov, who first worked in the White House travel office, and then in the press shop under former spokesman Mike McCurry, that proximity became a liability during the investigation by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. He and another former aide were subpoenaed and testified before the grand jury. But because most of the Lewinsky matter occurred before he arrived, he was called only twice and dismissed.

Close ties required

For presidents, it's often the case that the closer the ties to the aide the better. In Engskov's case, they go way back.

"I first met Kris when he was four years old," Clinton recounts of his first meeting with Engskov while campaigning in his family's hardware store back in the 1970s.

As a young boy, Engskov recalls candidate Clinton "walking across the Berryville town square, carrying campaign brochures. Alone."

Throughout history, presidents have sought closest friends or family members for the job. Early on, the president paid the aide's salary from his own pocket.

"The closest aide historically was a friend, and normally they were armed," says White House historian William Seale, pointing out that George Washington's first aide wore a pistol and served as an adviser. Washington then hired a nephew at $300 a year.

Aides also have a history of going on to bigger things, sometimes much bigger. Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, served Thomas Jefferson before heading west to chart the frontier.

For modern-day aides like Engskov, the vistas are different, but nonetheless rich in first-hand experience. These days, the travel is decidedly more comfortable than in Lewis's day.

Engskov has accompanied the president to more than 50 countries. Besides the first lady and the Secret Service detail, he's typically the only other person to accompany a president.

"We were at Chequers [the British prime minister's summer retreat], and one morning I woke early and everyone else was upstairs asleep," Engskov recalls. "I got up at 4 a.m. and toured the whole place, just wandered around the library, looking at one-of-a-kind books and maps going back to the 12th century," says the avid book collector. "I've done that in a lot of places."

Hobnobbing with world leaders

Who are the most interesting world leaders from the perspective of a kid from Arkansas? Tony Blair ("very Clinton-esque") and the late King Hussein ("the most gracious man I've ever met").

The most memorable overall? "Nelson Mandela," he says without hesitation. "Here you are with the president of the United States every day, and here's a guy he's in awe of."

The stream of celebrities who come and go at the White House, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert DeNiro and Kevin Spacey, also makes things interesting.

And what does he think about his fictional double on the television series "West Wing?"

"They don't give him as much of the responsibility as he really has in guiding the president's day," says Engskov, who is moving on to work for a venture-capital firm in Seattle.

"In the show, they underestimate the importance of the aide's job to the president. It's a great responsibility, but incredible opportunity at the same time," he says. "But a lot of people here at the White House still watch it, he smiles."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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