Just as our nation begins the warm-up to Election 2016, former White House communications director and current The View co-host Nicolle Wallace brings us Madam President, her third novel in a series starring Charlotte Kramer, the 45th president of the United States.
The story follows three top Washington women — Charlotte, secretary of defense and former chief of staff Melanie, and White House press secretary Dale — on a day when five U.S. cities come under terrorist attack, and while a team of embedded CBS reporters happens to be on-site covering the administration for a “Day in the Life” special.
Charlotte, a Republican who is in her second term with her third vice president, has agreed to the special, hoping to boost her public appeal, which took a beating when her second vice president, a Democrat whom she’d plucked from political obscurity and chosen for the re-election campaign to create the first party-unity ticket, had a complete mental breakdown once in office, trying to do a job she couldn’t handle.
There are other juicy tensions in Charlotte’s White House, including the fact that Dale once had an affair with Charlotte’s husband, and Charlotte’s continuing struggles as the mother of twins.
Wallace brings an insider’s view to political and personal relationships in Washington, relying on her own experiences. She worked in the White House on Sept. 11, 2001, and was President George W. Bush’s communications director. She also was an adviser for the ill-fated presidential campaign of John McCain and Sarah Palin.
We asked Wallace to chat with us about her new novel, her relatively new gig at The View and some of the details of her own career in government.
This is your third novel about 45th U.S. President Charlotte Kramer. Can you tell us why you decided to write these books and where the inspiration initially came from?
I became obsessed with the idea of writing about the White House after I’d worked there long enough to know that I’d never write about what I’d actually seen. The decision to set three fictional stories about the people who run the world felt like a perfect way to share all of the secret workings of the White House without betraying the trust of the people who’d entrusted me with their confidences.
Charlotte is a great though flawed president. She’s a Republican, and, in this book, she has chosen a VP who is not only a woman but also a Democrat. And while you’re a well-known Republican, you also said on Wendy Williams’ show that you are a huge fan of a Hillary Clinton candidacy. Do you see this cross-the-aisle possibility as something women might bring to the table? How do you think, in general, a woman president might approach the office differently than men have traditionally?
Women have a greater capacity for political compromise. I harbor fantasies about a unity ticket, and while I may never see it in my lifetime, I thought I could play with the idea in fiction. Sometimes an idea has to exist in the make-believe world before people will consider it in the real world!
In Madam President, President Kramer faces another round of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. How are your experiences in the White House reflected in the novel?
I served as a mid-level communications aide on Sept. 11, 2001, so I was not on Air Force One with the president and I didn’t witness the conversations that took place on that day between the president and his national security team. But I did work for him for nearly six years after 9-11 and I witnessed his courage and strength and compassion every day after that day.
I also read just about every book written about that day and interviewed dozens of my former White House colleagues and journalists who were on the White House complex on 9-11.
My personal experiences on 9-11 are sprinkled into the novel, but so are the personal stories of everyone I spoke to and people I imagined. My hope was to create a realistic experience of a day like 9-11, not to re-create that fateful day.
I once spent a day on the campaign trail with George W. when he was running for governor and distinctly remember the plane trip home to Dallas from West Texas when he quizzed the small group of us on the plane about the state bird of Texas, the state song, etc., and, I believe, launched into song even. Do you have a moment you can share about your time working with him in the White House that gives us a unique insight into his personality?
I loved traveling with him during the re-election campaign in 2003 and 2004. He was focused on the country’s security at that time, and it was my impression that he viewed the campaign events as slightly annoying at the beginning.
I often had to cajole and persuade him to engage in local media interviews, but he was always a good sport and quick to laugh and tease me for my efforts. He remembered reporters’ first names and the details about their kids or past reporting in a way that was remarkable and showed me that he listened and internalized everything that his staff said to him.
The campaign was exciting, and he was a pleasure to travel with from state to state, city to city, stadium to stadium. I have countless memories about being aboard Air Force One with him and the rest of the staff between campaign events. Those were some of my favorite times and happiest days.
My favorite memory is one of being in the Oval Office with him after the re-election but before his second inauguration. He congratulated me on my new (big) job as White House communications director and said, “Are you ready?” I remember wishing with every fiber of my being that I would live up to the trust he’d placed in me.
After working for Bush, you were an adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign, which you’ve said “ended disastrously” for you. In your second novel about Kramer’s presidency, her vice president has a breakdown, realizing that she’s in over her head. Are we wrong to connect the dots and see Palin in that character?
Many writers draw on their real-life experiences for inspiration, and that was certainly the case with all of my novels, but the line between inspiration and reality is a bright one. I’ve never suggested that the novels are tell-alls disguised as fictional accounts.
The characters are entirely fictional, and while they let me play with themes and emotions that are very real to me and often born of things I experienced in my political career, the stories are entirely fictional.
You joined The View as a co-host last fall. What’s been the most surprising thing about that experience?
I had no idea how much I’d love my co-hosts. Whoopi [Goldberg] and Rosie Perez are so dear to me. I admire them, and I’m so proud to be on a show with them every day. I am excited to come to work and ask them what they think about things in the news or that happen in all of our lives. They are spectacular and I feel like a won the lottery every day that I walk into the ABC studio.
You also worked for Jeb Bush once — back when you were just 25. Any chance you might jump back into politics again should he run for president in 2016? Or is politics really in the rear-view mirror?
Jeb Bush is a special leader, and I’m thrilled that he jumped into the 2016 campaign. He has a brilliant team of advisers, and I am very happy to be on the sidelines for this cycle.
The novel ends with another year and a half in Charlotte Kramer’s presidency. I’m assuming (hoping) there will be at least one more novel in this series?
I honestly don’t know. I am very attached to these women, but I’m itching to write other stories as well, so we’ll see.
What great books have you read recently — or do you even have time to read for pleasure given your professional work and your commitments as a wife and a mother?
I wish I had more time to read. I recently read The Unwinding by George Packer, How Toddlers Thrive by Tovah Klein and Dana Perino’s yet-to-be-published new biography.
In an article for UC Berkeley’s alumni magazine, you noted that after you got a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern, you spent years as a “mediocre TV reporter.” Obviously, things have worked out well for you, professionally. What advice can you give young adults — or, really, any of us — about finding a road to success in a career?
I hate this question because I mostly feel lucky about all of the great opportunities I’ve had.
I think that if you fall in love with the right person — someone who supports your dreams and is willing to make sacrifices to help you realize your wildest career ambitions and dreams — then you’re halfway there. I would never have written the three novels if my husband hadn’t been willing to support our family for the years it took me to write them, and I’d never have been able to take the job at The View if my husband hadn’t been willing to spend more time with our 2-year-old son.
Falling in love with the right person is the best career advice I can think of, and I’m not even sure if that counts, but without it, nothing else really would have worked for me the way it has.
by Nicolle Wallace
Atria Books, $25