Twenty years ago today, I was the Military Aide to President Bill Clinton and the first person on his calendar that morning. At 7:00 AM, I arrived in the Oval Office to brief him on America’s nuclear arsenal and process.
I arrived early, notes in hand, anxious to instruct him and answer his questions. It was the last event on my rotation of twenty-four-hour duty at the White House. I walked into the Oval Office’s outer area, the office of Betty Currie. Betty wasn’t in yet, but Kris Engskov, the president’s personal aide, met me and advised me to wait.
I walked over to Betty’s desk and glanced down at the morning’s Washington Post. The headline was “Clinton Accused of Urging Aide to Lie: Starr Probes Whether President Told Woman to Deny Alleged Affair to Jones’s Lawyers.” I had heard rumors about the president conducting an illicit affair with a young intern. I’d even seen the intern once or twice, and asked a colleague what she was doing in the West Wing. I was told to leave it alone.
Now I knew why. Kris motioned me into the Oval Office. Clinton was seated behind his desk. He looked tired and beaten, blanched and swollen. He looked up at me from behind his reading glasses. He knew he’d been caught and that there would be Hell to pay.
Realizing what was happening and that this was not a good time to approach Clinton, I offered to come back later. Before leaving, though, I asked the president to confirm that he had the “nuclear codes” with him (which was the requirement from President John F. Kennedy and beyond). He confessed that he didn’t have them and couldn’t recall when he’d last seen them.
The codes were never found, they were in fact lost. The most important military document in the nation and Clinton lost it. Moreover, he seemed to not care. His priority, now, was to cover it up along with his affair with Lewinsky. He asked me not to reveal that the codes were lost.
I agreed until I retired from the Air Force in 2001 and wrote my bestselling book, “Dereliction of Duty.”
Twenty years ago, today.