Cover image for Circle William : a novel
Circle William : a novel
Harlow, Bill, 1950-
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Publication Information:
New York : Scribner, [1999]

Physical Description:
315 pages ; 25 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From the C.I.A.'s Director of Public Affairs - a retired Navy Captain & former White House Assistant Press Secretary - comes an entertaining international military thriller that combines the pace & stakes of the best of Dale Brown or Tom Clancy with the irreverence & insider's authenticity of Primary Colors.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Retired navy officer and ex-CIA man Harlow crafts a clever, well-plotted debut about two high-placed, competitive brothers whose complementary talents foil a Libyan attempt at germ warfare. Older brother Jim Schmidt happens to be White House press secretary, while his younger sibling, Bill, is captain of the U.S.S. Winston Churchill; their lives don't intersect as much as run parallel in alternating chapters. The Churchill and its crew have a cowboy reputation that is amply displayed in the opening chapters, so amply, in fact, that the reader might wonder whether all those hijacks have a point to them. When U.S. intelligence discovers that the Libyans are plotting a germ warfare strike on Israel, the news can't be released without prompting General Ghadafi to order another strike with a weapon that's already been smuggled into the country. This means that any attempt to stop a preemptive Israeli attack has to look like an accident‘and thanks to a beautiful and determined reporter from the Washington Post, Sue O'Dell, Bill Schmidt and the Winston Churchill receive front-page press as an accident waiting to happen. Harlow expertly sets up the perfect ruse for an "accidental" shootdown of a Libyan jet (the title refers to a shipboard defense against radiation and chemical-weapons attack), while Jim's official involvement keeps the reader apprised of backstage maneuverings. Subsequent naval scenes vie with the White House settings for authenticity; there's an especially entertaining sequence about a media flap that occurs because somebody says the truth aloud. The plot takes several interesting turns before racing to a suspenseful climax. Despite characterization that some may consider naïve(e.g., that there might actually be a reporter patriotic enough to put her country's best interests ahead of a story), Harlow offers a chipper, spirited first effort that augurs well for a new career. Agent, Sloan Harris. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A retired navy captain and former White House press secretary (and now the CIA's director of public affairs) crafts a thriller featuring two brothersÄa naval commander and a White House press secretaryÄcalled upon to run a tricky operation. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter Two It all became clear when he saw the six-foot-tall rabbit walking along Constitution Avenue. Until that moment, Jim Schmidt hadn't understood why the early morning traffic near the White House was worse that usual. The man in the bunny suit reminded him that today was the annual Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. Schmidt steered his aging Volvo past the barricades on E Street and wended his way toward the West Executive Avenue entrance just south of the presidential mansion. Traffic had been perpetually screwed up ever since Pennsylvania Avenue had been blocked off due to concerns about terrorists. Across the nearby open space called the Ellipse and down every street in sight, parents led hundreds of sleepy children toward the White House gate that wouldn't open to them for several more hours. Some folks will do anything to get their kid a free wooden egg and a picture with Willard Scott, Schmidt thought. His car edged forward, stopping and starting, as he waited his turn to clear security and enter the heavily guarded eighteen-acre compound. What a zoo, he thought. That rabbit will feel right at home. His car lurched forward to the position where the guards were inspecting security passes and using mirrors to check under cars for bombs. Officer Clarence Jackson of the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service recognized Schmidt. After all, the President's press secretary was on TV nearly every night. "Good morning, Mr. Schmidt. Pop your trunk for me, would ya?" Jackson took out his flashlight and quickly inspected the Volvo's trunk, looking for stowaways. "Have a good day, sir," Jackson said as he gave his partner a thumbs up, signaling the okay to open the iron gates leading toward the West Wing. Until the middle of the FDR administration, West Executive Avenue was a public thoroughfare. Citizens routinely drove along it, just a few dozen yards away from the oval office. World War II brought tighter security, and threats of terrorism caused the layers of protection to be greatly expanded in recent years. Have a good day. Not much of a chance of that, thought Schmidt. As he pulled into his prime parking space near the west basement entrance, his mind went back again to his gaffe of the day before, a mistake that would demand much more of his attention today than would the Easter egg festivities on the south lawn. Who would have guessed that those microphones were still on -- and that they were so sensitive? The day before, at a Rose Garden ceremony, Secretary of State Blair D. Harden III had made a speech in which he blathered on about the importance of his efforts to secure a new pact to amend a flawed old treaty banning chemical weapons. Schmidt always had trouble stomaching Harden's immense ego. On this occasion, during one flight of oratory, the Secretary referred to a recent parcel of policies as "the Harden Doctrine." Even in Washington, home of the world's largest egos, this was amazingly self-serving. When the Rose Garden event ended, Schmidt, who had been standing off to the side of the familiar blue presidential lectern, turned away from the audience and muttered, "What a windbag." Quietly, he thought, but apparently not quietly enough. An open C-SPAN microphone had carried the spokesman's verdict over cable systems across the country. It was late that night before Schmidt learned that his private assessment had been broadcast across America. An avid C-SPAN watcher had tipped off the Washington Post, and the newspaper gleefully reported this rare bit of capital candor in the "In the Loop" column of this morning's edition. As Schmidt got out of his car, he dreaded the ordeal that awaited him. He knew that no White House staffer would be able to resist reminding him of his slip of the lip. He imagined that each one would make some lame joke at his expense, deepening his embarrassment. Worse, he would have to face the White House press corps. For the most part, the press liked Schmidt for his easy humor, his unflappability, and his record of honesty. They especially liked the fact that Schmidt was a true insider on the President's team. He knew the President's mind on any given issue. But personal feelings aside, Schmidt knew that the press wouldn't cut him any slack over the Harden jibe. Even though most probably agreed with him, it was just too juicy to pass up. The worst part of the day, Schmidt knew, would be the obligatory phone call to the Secretary of State. He would have to grovel, beg forgiveness, and humbly ask understanding from the sort of man who gave out autographed pictures of himself as Christmas presents. Schmidt walked under the canopied entrance to the West Wing basement. He passed through the outer lobby and through a wooden doorway that cleverly masked a sophisticated metal detector. The hallway was decorated with antique furniture. It doubled as a waiting room for people trying to see officials who occupied the tiny ground floor offices. The same officials could command large airy offices across the street at the Old Executive Office Building. There they might have windows, balconies, and even working fireplaces. But those offices were eschewed for the opportunity to work in windowless, closet-size offices which had the cachet of a West Wing address. Schmidt came upon another Uniformed Division officer sitting at a desk at the entrance to the West Wing. The desk hid sensitive monitors for unlikely threats, such as radiation and poison gas. The officer glanced at the pass that was hanging from a chain around Schmidt's neck and his stone face broke into a smile. It was only then that Schmidt looked down and noticed that the officer had a copy of the daily White House news summary, a compilation of newspaper clippings. Even upside down, it wasn't hard to read the headline of the lead story: "What a Windbag!" Instead of immediately going up to his office, Schmidt turned right, went down a few steps, and entered the White House mess. There he thought he could grab a cup of coffee, a danish, and a moment to reflect on how he was going to get out of his predicament. Jim usually skipped breakfast, but he would fortify himself on days when he felt particularly overwhelmed by his challenges. This might be a three danish day, he mused. On difficult days, Schmidt found the dark wood paneling of the mess somehow calming. He noticed, not for the first time, the nautical decorations about the place. At the entrance stood a model of the "Lone Sailor" statue, a miniature version of one displayed at the Navy Memorial a few blocks away down Pennsylvania Avenue. On one wall, behind glass, was the dinner gong from "Old Ironsides," USS Constitution. These items were reminders that the mess was operated by the U.S. Navy. And they reminded Schmidt of his little brother, Bill. At times like this, he really envied Bill. Commanding Officer of his own boat. Make that "ship." Bill hated it when Jim called it a boat. At sea, Bill was in charge of all he surveyed. He didn't have to kowtow to thousands of reporters, 535 members of Congress, hundreds of contributors, scores of presidential advisors and staffers. That was the life. Jim wondered how Bill was doing and hoped that Bill would not learn of Jim's "windbag" comments at sea. Bill would never let him hear the end of that one, especially because the comment sounded like something Bill would say. Jim looked up from his table to see the President's National Security Advisor, Wally Burnette, approaching his table. Here it comes, he thought. The first person of the day to bust my balls over the Harden screw up. Burnette, a retired Army general, walked briskly up to Schmidt. He paused for a moment, leaned down, and put his arm around the younger man. "Jim, your words have given wings to the thoughts of many. You are a great American." With that, Burnette stood erect, saluted, did an about face, and headed off. Schmidt smiled and for the first time thought that the reaction to his comments would not be too bad. That thought wasn't to last long. Schmidt left the mess and walked the short distance to the stairs. The walls were adorned with massive candid color photographs of the President. How odd it must be for the boss, he thought, to walk down here and every two feet see another view of his own smiling face. On the other hand, if you don't like that sort of thing, you probably shouldn't get into elective politics. Schmidt went up the steps near the Cabinet Room and made a hard left turn toward his own office. As he approached the door he came face-to-face with his worst nightmare: Alice Kenworthy, dean of the White House press corps, sitting on the credenza near his doorway. Like a troll near a bridge, no one would be able to get past without her permission. Alice had been covering the White House since the Nixon administration. Her thick southern drawl had been made raspy by decades of chain smoking. Dictates in recent years that banned smoking in the White House had done nothing to improve her already cranky nature. White House spokesmen over the past several administrations had learned to be wary of Alice on rainy days when her mood grew more foul with every cigarette she puffed in the White House driveway. Alice spotted the spokesman approaching and whipped out her notebook and handheld tape recorder. "Do you plan to insult any more cabinet officers today?" she asked. "No, but I am thinking about working on a few heads of state," Schmidt blurted, instantly regretting it. Kenworthy didn't pause as she launched another round. "Is it true that the Secretary of State has called the President demanding that you be fired?" She's fishing; it is too early for Harden to have gotten a call through, he thought. "Nah, I hear he wants to offer me a job. Say Alice, is Ambassador to Iran a good post?" She gave a brief chuckle of admiration at Schmidt's bravado. The unwritten rules and her own sense of propriety would keep Kenworthy from reporting the spokesman's attempt at humor. Sensing that she wasn't going to get him to say anything of substance on the record, she stepped aside. Schmidt entered his office and quickly shut the door. By White House standards it was a spacious office, with windows looking out on the north driveway and a bank of four TVs. Since it was spring, Schmidt was unable to use his favorite perk, the fireplace. Jim did feel a little guilty every time he called for one of the men from the National Park Service, the only ones actually authorized to light the fires. Jim hung his jacket on an antique wooden cigar-store Indian that he had purchased years ago and plopped down in the chair behind his desk. He felt tired and old. The press secretary's job was a tough one, and Jim's friends thought he had aged about ten years in the three years he had held it. His sandy brown hair was beginning to show signs of gray. Still in his early forties, Jim looked like a thicker version of his brother Bill. There was one other difference. There was something about Bill's face which always made him look happy, even when he wasn't. Jim's countenance took the opposite turn. People were constantly telling him to cheer up even when he was feeling just fine. Schmidt's secretary, Natalie, disrupted his daydreaming when she scurried in with a copy of the news summary, the day's second cup of coffee, and a typed list of fifteen news organizations. Each had already called seeking confirmation and comment on his review of yesterday's speech by the Secretary of State. Might as well get it over with, Jim thought. He asked Natalie to place a call to Secretary Harden for him. What made this more galling was that Harden was known to be a major self-promoter and one of Washington's premier leakers. Jim knew that minutes after his call begging forgiveness, Harden would phone one of his friends in the press and "on deep background" describe the call in the most self-serving fashion. "The secretary's assistant, Margaret, is on the line," Natalie said. In the most cheerful voice he could muster, Jim said, "Good morning, Margaret." "Morning, Mr. Schmidt," was the icy reply. Uh, oh, this isn't good. She always calls me Jim. He was placed on hold for several minutes. Margaret was extraordinarily devoted to her boss. She bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the secretary's wife, "Miss Jane." Margaret wore the same type of clothes and styled her hair in the same fashion as Mrs. Harden. Long-time State Department employees often said there was nothing she wouldn't do for her boss. "This is Secretary Harden," the old windbag finally intoned. "Sir, there is little I can say other than to offer my most sincere and abject apology," Jim groveled. "Young Man, Your Wanton Attempts to Ridicule My Statecraft Have Done Grievous Harm to the Cause of World Peace." Whenever Harden spoke it sounded as if his words were capitalized. Any doubt in Jim's mind about the accuracy of his assessment of Harden yesterday were immediately erased. The phone call went downhill from there. Upon hanging up, Jim gazed out his window and saw scores of White House staffers streaming by with children in tow. One of the privileges of working on the compound was the ability to place your children, your relatives, or your neighbor's kids at the head of the line for the Easter Egg Roll. Those folks all look like they are having a great time, Jim thought. Sure wish I was. There was one more challenge to surmount: the press briefing. If he could get through today's briefing without being brutalized too badly, perhaps the "windbag" storm would blow over. With luck, it might be a one-day story. Maybe I'll get lucky, Jim thought, and somebody else in government will screw up even more colorfully than I did. Looking out at the kids streaming across the north lawn, an idea struck him. Due to the vagaries of the President's schedule, Jim's daily press briefing was usually held any time between 10:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. What if he held his briefing at 9:00 A.M.? Many of the press corps would probably be with their kids and Peter Cottontail on the south lawn, too preoccupied to pester Schmidt about his self-inflicted wounds. Schmidt's staff did a good job of quickly gathering the information he needed for the daily briefing. Answers to questions about the latest unemployment figures, the status of the Administration's crime bill, and reports of a coup in Burundi were assembled. There were about twenty people on Schmidt's staff. Most were young, just a few years out of college, and yet most had worked on political campaigns since they were teens. They were more experienced and more cynical than most Americans of their age. Jim knew that many of his staffers were sons or daughters of major donors to the President's party. There were more BMWs and Mercedes at the outer reaches of the White House parking area, the Ellipse, than could be found inside the gates where Jim's ancient Volvo rusted. He was hoping to dodge a bullet at the briefing, but in the end, Jim knew, there was only one topic of intense interest on this day. At precisely 9:00 A.M., Jim walked into the tiny White House press briefing room. Visitors were always amazed by how small it was compared to the way it looked on television. Less than fifty theater-style chairs were available in the room Nixon built above an old indoor swimming pool where FDR paddled and, it is said, JFK canoodled. Prior to the construction of the press room, reporters were allowed to simply hang around the entrance of the West Wing lobby. There they could buttonhole officials en route to meetings. Nixon wanted his visitors to be able to come and go without running the gauntlet of reporters, and so the current facility was built. The first row of the briefing room was reserved for AP, UPI, Reuters, and the three main broadcast networks. CNN and the Washington Post were among those blessed with seats in the second row. The luckiest news magazines, out-of-town newspapers, and organizations of lesser clout were assigned seats farther back. Most of the 1500 credentialed members of the press did not show up on any given day, thank God. And most of those who did had no assigned seat. They had to stand along the side or back of the room, or jump into an empty seat left temporarily vacant by a late arrival. But today, many of the seats were empty and others were filled with youngsters whose moms and dads were part of the press corps. Clearly the kids were anxious to get outside where there were free toys and food rather than sit in a small crowded room listening to Schmidt's lengthy opening statement about the Consumer Price Index. Children were running up and down the narrow aisles, tripping over TV cables and the jungle of ladders left about by the still photographers. Jim decided to brief the press on the President's travel plans for the next several months. He read a half-dozen personnel announcements, including some critical appointments to the American Battle Monuments Commission. Finally, he ran out of filler and opened the floor to questions. By tradition, Alice Kenworthy got the first question. "Do you think you undermined U.S. diplomatic efforts yesterday when you called the Secretary of State a 'windbag'? What were you thinking of?" Pausing for a moment, Jim saw his opportunity. "What was I thinking of? Well actually, my comments were misunderstood. I was thinking of my upcoming summer vacation. My wife wants to go to the beach but I want to take the kids camping. And I must have mumbled 'I want a Winnebago.'" The press erupted in laughter at the attempt to construct some plausible deniability. Then Jim nodded to one of his assistants, who opened the double doors on the side of the briefing room leading to the Rose Garden and the noise outside. In marched Willard Scott and the six-foot-tall Easter bunny. "Hey boys and girls, who wants to help me and my rabbit friend find some Easter eggs!" Scott shouted. As the noise level in the room grew even louder, the press corps kids began to shriek. Under the cover of the confusion, Jim said he heard someone say "Thank you," the official signal that the press have had enough. He declared the briefing over and retreated to his office. Copyright © 1999 Bill Harlow. All rights reserved.