Our Only Possible Success

People often ask me where it all began for me, and I say different things at different times, but usually I say this: It all began for me at Bronx Lebanon Hospital in December of 1970. I was born to Sophie Yankel and her husband Thomas, then a young lawyer in Manhattan. Though my family were observant Jews, I went to a secular–and posh and pricey—private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where we lived. There was a prominent Jewish school nearby where I could have gone, but my parents thought I could do just as well going to Hebrew school on Sunday mornings and getting the advantage of the best education New York City had to offer in more general terms.

     To say my family had great expectations of me was an understatement. To say I disappointed them was as well. My father got nearly perfect SATs; I struggled to break 1200. My father went undergrad at Harvard and to law school at Columbia; I only got into Colgate, and probably only even did that because of my father’s influence. After an undergraduate career spent largely boozing and lolling around the dorm, I somehow managed to double-major in international relations and environmental studies. This impressed girls I picked up at bars, though they would not have been so impressed if I told them my GPA. Law schools I applied to did, though, and I was lucky to get into Brooklyn Law School, where I also barely kept afloat.

      All this even though my father was Tom Yankel, who had first become famous when, after doing some business for Mr. Steinbrenner when he was still only a Cleveland shipbuilder, he became general counsel to the New York Yankees after Steinbrenner bought the team. Yankel of the Yankees! After a few years in this position, he had started his own firm, and developed a targeted, elite, and thoroughly white-collar practice, representing a select set of clients, often other lawyers. Just like a doctor to whom other doctors go to when they are sick has a certain undeniable prestige, a lawyer retained by other lawyers when they get into some sort of trouble, or at least a delicate situation, is in a category of his own. For instance, a man who had represented President Clinton, in one or another of the escapades resulting from the Whitewater scandal, himself needed representation, and turned to Tom Yankel. If he was not a boldface name or anything like that, in the corridors of what was important in the city, no legal name was whispered with more respect than Tom Yankel. And my father had the ability to attract and inspire people of many different sorts. Alan, for instance, a man of counsel to his firm, was someone of unbelievable intellectual ambition and breadth, a trained philosopher who yet, when taking a totally impossible case turn into a tiger in passionate defense of a client whom everyone else would think unambiguously guilty. When I looked at people like Alan, I know I could never live up to that. Or even live up to my father.

    Indeed, I did not have many offers coming out of law school. I spent a year at a Wall Street firm that did mainly divorces, run by a control freak who insisted on buying every stapler and copy machine the firm used. I soon escaped, but every interview I had, I ran up against expectations I would be a younger version of my father, which I wasn’t. For one thing, I kind of reversed the usual pattern people expected of fathers and sons, particularly Jewish fathers and sons. First of all, usually the father would be named Hillel, the son Thomas. But my dad for whatever reason decided to give me a more Jewish name than he had, a much more Jewish name. He was Thomas, and I was Hillel. At school, I was called “Hilly,” and I continued to go by this at Colgate. But by the time I entered the workforce that sounded too much like another name: Hillary as in Hillary Clinton, and I was Hillel in my legal career from thenceforth. But that marked out my weird difference from my father even more: that I seemed the street-smart, striving, obviously Jewish guy, whereas he was the urbane, polished, clubbable Jew. I guess sometimes generations don’t work out the way they are supposed to.

      For all these reasons, and also just because he was my dad, Thomas Yankel was not the right mentor for me. But I found a mentor more suited to me. He had been a former official in Mayor Koch’s administration who had been bounced out in same sort of petty scandal. Despite this, he was still a mover and shaker who knew people and was connected. He was street-smart like me, and knew his way around, unlike me. He taught me that my father’s kind of credibility is only one kind of credibility, and that being willing to jump into the gutter if business demands it is just as operative a virtue as being refined and dignified. He made me feel a lot more confident. But I still wasn’t getting a lot of action on the job market. In desperation, and to diversify myself, I decided virtually at random to take a literature course at a local adult education institute. Weirdly, I actually found I liked it. The professor was kind of a strange dude, but he was encouraging. I put a lot of work into my research paper. It was on Henry James, and the question was, was he more American or European as a novelist? The book we read in class was Portrait Of A Lady—the movie made of that book was just about to be released—but the professor suggested I also look at two shorter novels, Daisy Miller and The American. I was actually really getting into the paper when my new mentor called me.

      “You did environmental stuff in college, right?”

      “Um…yeah.” In reality, I did little else in college but attend every keg party imaginable, but the major on my transcript—one of them, at least—was environmental studies.

      “The Governor needs advisory staff. He’s trying to get an environmental bill through the legislature.”

   “The governor?” I stammered. “Of New York State?” It was stupid. He couldn’t have meant the Governor of Idaho. But I was goddamn floored.

     “Yeah. Pataki. He needs people. He didn’t expect two in, you know. He’s had trouble assembling personnel.” George Pataki, an unknown state legislator, had been considered a long shot against the legendary Mario Cuomo, but 1994 was a Republican tidal wave, and he had been swept into Albany. And soon enough, I joined his administration. Just a quick meeting with the lanky, almost shy Governor, and I was hired. It was understood that, like so many who worked for him, I would get a small place in Albany to spend some weeknights but that I could basically be commuting from the city. This would give me time to finish my Henry James paper. Not that I really needed to do it now, or ever, but I had put a lot of work in and I did not want to disappoint the professor. I was hard at work late one Saturday night thinking about whether Isabel Archer was ever as innocent as Daisy Miller when the phone rang. I picked up. It was Pataki. “Where are you?” he bellowed. “We have to get a draft of the bill for the Senate leadership on Monday.”

     “I’m…writing. I have a paper due on Henry James and American innocence.”

     “Damn it, Hillel!” The mild-mannered man I had met last week had seemed incapable of ever getting angry, but Pataki was smoldering. “I need this bill passed or I’m screwed, and you are thinking about literature. Get your ass up the Thruway and be here by 8 tomorrow.” And I heeded the call. I knew my life from now on would be centered around one thing: politics.

     We got the bill through. And I was officially named senior advisor to the Governor on environmental issues. Senior Advisor. At 26! Just as good as Yankel of the Yankees, huh? And things rode along pretty well for a few years. The trouble was, the Governor thought he was a national figure, and in a way who could blame him? Cuomo had been one, even if he had never actually run for president, and before him Rockefeller, Roosevelt, to a degree Harriman had been national figures. But for whatever reason George Pataki was not. He had trouble accepting this, and dreamed of running for President. One Friday morning he called in his entire staff. “I want to float something by you all,” he said. “I’ve been considering slightly amending my first name.”

    We were all stunned. To what, I wondered. Barbara?

     “I think from now on you should call me Geo Pataki.” Geo as in gee-oh. “It would make me sound more approachable. Also, it would make people think of the geo- in geopolitical. Everybody is talking about globalization these days. New York is a global state, and I want to be a global political figure.”

     Senior advisor I may have been, but there were others more senior than me, and they were the ones who had to prevail upon the Governor to step back from the brink in this respect, which he finally did. And from then on the air began to let out of the balloon of the Pataki administration, even though he stayed in office for one more term after that. I realized that, though the Governor was genuinely concerned about the environment—he had grown up on a farm near the cliffs and coves of Peekskill—that the effort he was spending on it was largely connected to his attempts to grow a national profile. As if Republican primary voters out in flyover country gave a shrug about the environment. In 2000, I left the administration and set up an Albany-based practice as an environmental lawyer. When you hear ‘environmental lawyer’, you might think I was representing those who wished to preserve forests and parks from development, or those who had been harmed as a result of environmental misdeeds. Far from it. I was representing the corporations these sorts of people were suing. Just like, in the city, some real estate lawyers represented only tenants, not landlords, I did the reverse: I represented only corporations. This would be really funny when I would go to parties and tell chicks I was an environmental lawyer. They would say, all earnest-like, I so resect the work you are doing to preserve our forests, wetlands, and oceans, which enhances and ennobles us all.” Just the opposite: I was working to help these businesses milk every cent of profit they could, oceans, forests, and wetlands be darned.

        But the era of picking up chicks at parties was coming to a close for me. In 2000, I met Rachel. She was dark-haired, petite, and nice as heck. She was a few years older than me, but neither of us ever minded that. I proposed within two months of our first date. It took us a while to have kids, but soon we had two sons. Jared was like me—irrepressible. That is what one of the people in the Governor’s office called me. But Jared is, unlike me, highly intelligent as well as being irrepressible. Jeffrey, our younger boy, is different—thoughtful, difficult to get out of his shell. At first we thought he had some developmental issues, but every intelligence test we had given to him showed him brighter than average.

    Life wasn’t all coming up roses. Commuting between New York and Albany was tough, travelling all across the state—to Plattsburgh and Olean and Patchogue and Batavia—was even tougher, and sending the kids to expensive nursery schools and then to the school I had gone to was expensive—though both my folks and Rachel’s helped out. And there were times when even I felt ashamed of myself because of who I was representing. But I had the consolation of knowing there was someone even lower than me on the moral food chain in the circles I was frequenting. This was Myles Scungelee. If I represented my corporate clients with barely concealed shame and self-contempt, Scungelee did so with gusto. We were often resenting businesses that were joint plaintiffs against New York State, and as such hung out together. I remained aloof, though, partially because I didn’t want to descend to his level, partially because I feared I was too close already. Scungelee was a real worm, a total slime-ball. He had no redeeming features. He looked just like his name, something crawling at the bottom of the sea. At the end of one case we had a drink, and Scungelee said to me, “Hillel, I think you have a grudging respect for me. You have to admit it, huh? A grudging respect.”

       After the boys had both started elementary school, we got a bit of a surprise. Rachel was pregnant again. This time, it was a girl. We named her Jafit. We found the name in a baby name book. It was Hebrew, meaning beautiful. And my new daughter was beautiful. Robust, bouncy, intense, with piercing eyes that somehow seemed to look straight out of her face and hone in on you. There was so much of her, not to say she was hyper or cried a lot to get attention or anything, it was just that there was so much of her. Jafit’s arrival made my father beam and Jared even bouncier and even Jeffrey began to smile once in a while. But then, one night, we lost her. It was a freak medical event, sudden and irreversible, swift as a snake.  Jafit was gone. I still don’t want to talk about it or think about how it happened, but we lost a daughter.

         Understandably, I entered into a protracted of moderate depression after this. Not only was my family absorbing his considerable blow—although Rachel really held things up in emotional terms, I have to give it to her–but I was feeling less and less excited about my job. 2017 was one of my best years financially, but I just did not feel satisfied with things. Then, out of the blue, I get this phone call. From guess who? Scungelee. And guess who had hired him? Donald Trump. The president. It was the same story had before. The Republican had not expected to win, and everyone who might have been qualified to work in the White House had campaigned against him or refused to endorse him. There was a job open. As assistant to Scungelee. Deputy Assistant to the Assistant to the Chief of Staff, if you want the full title.

        So we had to move to Washington. We bought a row house right in the city, in Adams-Morgan, a few blocks to the east of the Zoo. It wasn’t Georgetown, but it was what we could afford, and I though the boys being used to city life, would prefer that to the suburbs of Virginia or Maryland. Also, we wanted to be near a good Conservative synagogue, and we settled in happily at the Shul of the nation’s Capital. Jared was enthused. He was a teenager by now, had just had his bar mitzvah, and his big thing was sports analytics. I just don’t get this sometimes. Sure, I watched baseball as a kid, my dad worked for the Yankees, but for me, it was simple: strikes, balls, outs. Singles, doubles, home runs. With Jared… it was all these welter of acronyms and metrics I didn’t even begin to get. He kept on talking about BABIP, for instance. Finally, I asked him what it was. Jared talked ultra-fast. “Batting average on balls in play is what happens when the batter hits the ball: does not walk or strike out. It is inefficient to measure a batter when his bat does not even touch the ball. This statistic tells you what happens once they make contact. What it’s useful for is catching outliers. If a player has an unusually high BABIP one year, there is a slim chance it might represent real improvement, but most likely he will regress to the mean next year. It’s a tool to prevent people from overvaluing players. Most players might get lucky, but then they’ll fall back and find their norm.”   As I said before, generations are funny things. With my dad I seemed more like the father—striving, visibly ethnic. More street-smart than book knowledge. With Jared, he sometimes seemed like the dad—explaining difficult things I didn’t understand to me. Although maybe Jared took refuge from his grief over his sister’s loss in being obsessed with statistics and details, his mind always on the move. Anyway, Jared said he was actually enthused about moving to Washington, as he wanted to watch the Nationals closely and see if Anthony Rendon’s BABIP was ever going to catch up to his peripheral stats.

          I expected Jeffrey to be a much tougher sell. He was closer in age to Yafit and, I think, took her loss much harder. Jeffrey is a kid deep inside of himself and I worried that disturbing his outer surroundings might upset him just by the inconvenience of making him feel something about the outer world. But Jeffrey nodded—in that grave way he has, almost like an Indian sachem—and said if it was good for me, he would do whatever he needed to do.

         And so Team Yankel moved south seamlessly. And I started at the White House April 1. Scungelee immediately took me under his wing, if that is the right animal body part to use as a metaphor here. The Wings of the Scungelee, as Henry James might say. It was weird. Scungelee made clear to me I was there totally on his recommendation and his say-so. He was my boss, and I reported only to him. In effect, I was utterly in his power. Yet he also made clear that we had one mission at the White House—to support the President. It was not our place to worry about good policy or good politics or even good ethics. Our only possible success was the President’s success, and any failure of the President was a failure of us all, no matter what we had or had not to do with it.

        You would think that being a son of a prominent New York lawyer, and being connected with politicos and honchos from the whirl of Gotham, I would somewhere along the line met Donald J. Trump. But, for whatever reason, I did not seem the man in the flesh until he was in the White House. I had been to a couple of benefits where he was present, and I had once talked to Eric Trump in the clubhouse of that golf course in Albany where all the politicians play, the one with the rolling green hills and treacherous white bunkers. But don’t go thinking I met the President the first day on the job. Scungelee warned me I wouldn’t, and that I wouldn’t expect to meet most anybody early on. I should act in my first wakes on the job as if was just there in Scungelee’s guest pass, and relate to people only through Scungelee. In fact, Scungelee told me to, when third parties were present, never speak to them directly, never look them in the face, only talk to Scungelee as if they were not there. This is how, Scungelee said, I would earn my place within the system. And I heeded his order—except for once when Jared Kushner came in. I felt I could speak to him man-to-man, Jew-to-Jew, and tell him I had a super-smart son named Jared. Kushner, though, looked pained. He responded, but as minimally as possible, Scungelee’s dressing down was epic, and I feared for my job.

   But I escaped the ax, and the summer of 2017 proved a good time for me at the White Hose. With all the confusion around the time Reince left and General Kelly came in, there were a lot of personnel shifts, and by September I was one of the longer-tenured members of staff. By then, I had actually met the President. Scungelee felt comfortable enough with me that he had me come along when he had a brief one-on-one with the Chief.  I was good and did not speak to him directly, or look at him in the face. I looked only at Scungelee. Still, without my eyes swerving directly to face the person of the President, I gained a distinct impression: of the immeasurable power of the office, and the immovable and terrifying and deeply uncomfortable humanity of the man who occupied it.

     Donald Trump, in short, appalled me. But, if this was possible, it was the good kind of appalled. I felt I had been splashed in the face with cold, cold water, reminded of how much more powerful he was then me, what I mere cog in his machine I was. I lost any desire to approach him again. Curiously it was just after this that he began to take notice of me. One time he barged into Scungelee’s office unannounced to make appoint about a memo Scungelee was drafting. “Hill-EL,” he said to me. That isn’t actually how I say my name, I say Hill-el, accent on the first syllable. Maybe he was trying to say it the more Jewish way, which in Hebrew terms is the correct way. Maybe Jared–his Jared—told him to say it like that. Or maybe he was reminding me that I was a Jew? Of a different kind, a kind not his own, or Scungelee’s? Would he invite me to the White House Chanukah party? Would there be one?

       In any event, I got more and more responsibility. In the fall of 2017, the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin heated up, as special counsel Mueller handed down two indictments and seemed to be planning for more. The White House had just been avoiding comment and denying everything, but there had been little of any length, beyond the President’s tweets, that was at all substantive, Finally, in mid-November, after the President returned from Asia, we felt he had to put out a convincing, definitive and lengthy Russia statement, I was told to email it to the Press Secretary’s office by the end of the day on Thursday. I was supposed to send it at 4:30, but Scungelee’s higher-ups insisted he make several small revisions. Finally, at 4:56, I sent it to the Press Secretary.  We wanted to get it out that day because there had been several stories in the news embarrassing to the President and the Republican Party, and getting the full Russia statement out would dominate the headlines of the nightly news and the evening cable talk shows. I went home to Adams-Morgan, turned on the TV, and told Rachel, Jared and Jeffrey that schmucky Hillel Yankel, their father and husband, played a big role in what was going to be in the news tonight.

   Except it was not on the news. It was the same old stories, the ones that would have been on anyway. My pager beeped. It was Scungelee. “What the hell happened!” he screamed. “The Press Secretary says she never got it! You totally fucked up.

  Now, the White House email system works a certain way. I think it had worked this way even under our predecessors, but the Trump administration made certain further refinements. No email can be sent outside the White House. In other words, the system cannot be accessed remotely. If you’re wondering why this is so, just think of Hillary Clinton and her emails. Secondly, every communication has a timestamp no it. This is somewhat like that little bit of typing in your emails that tells you what time the message was sent, or like the old AOL when you could tell instantly if your message was read. Except for us the timestamp is in huge black letters against a bright orange background. I don’t know if the orange is in tribute to the color of the President’s hair, but bright orange it certainly is.    Anyway, I was totally convinced the timestamp would be there and that it was sent. I told Scungelee. He was still furious. “You’ve made sure this administration will fail!” I told him that if the timestamp was not there, I would resign instantly, “You better!” he screamed.

  I stood there, motionless. I was 95 percent sure the timestamp would be there. The Press Secretary had missed the email. It must have been just too late for her to see it before she shut down for the day, but that was not my fault. I sent it just when, and only when. Scungelee told me to send it. Besides, it was before 5. But not 100 percent, and that remaining 5 percent was agony. Jeffrey looked at me beatifically, like a Zen monk. Rachel sobbed. It felt like a pale echo of the day we lost Jafit, though nothing could ever be that bad. Jared pointed out, consolingly, that Jayson Werth had still provided nine runs above replacement level, even in a down year that would be his last with the team.

    There was nothing to do but wait for the morning, and the return to the office. November’s late sunrise peeled itself through the sky like a ghastly beacon. I showed my ID and tread ever so lightly beyond the White House gates. As soon as I accessed my email, I saw the timestamp of 4:56 PM, unambiguously there. Three minutes later, Scungelee came in. “The Press Secretary made a mistake,” he said quickly. “She agrees about the timestamp.” He paused. “And the document will be released to the media this morning.”

       I was relieved. My job was safe. But I was furious not so much that I had been accused, but that my word had been doubted. “I told you the timestamp was 4:56 and the document was sent. I told you that because it was the truth. I tell the truth.” I paused and suddenly and directly, not stridently smoothly, yet insistently, it came out. It just slipped out. “I demand a fucking apology!”

       Scungelee looked at me. His eyes drew back, his nostrils began to make small circles, his nose-hairs seeming to take on a life of their own within their lair, bobbing and weaving like centipede-legs. “You demand a fucking apology!”

       The die had been cast. There was no turning back. “I demand a fucking apology!”

        Scungelee pressed forward. The funny thing is, our voices had not been raised. Our tones were firm, stringent, but not booming. “You….” He seemed incredulous, “You…demand a fucking apology?”

        Suddenly a third voice came in. And I heard the voice first, before I saw the face, felt the presence of the flesh pervade the room. “You…” it boomed. “You demand a fucking apology?!” I did not have to see his polished Oxford shoes or his gold-plated cufflinks or least of all his massive orange protuberance to know it was the President.

      The next hour passed by in a whirl. The rapid cleaning-out of my desk. The swift confiscation of my ID card, the nullification of my passcodes, the being escorted out of the building by two guards who looked like something from Men In Black II. The surreal way the media reported the Russian denial statement, how they were surprisingly impressed, how I might have been proud of it, associated with a rare administration success. Now power and I were irremediably divorced.

      The next few days felt like a dream that never ended; not a nightmare but a world that did not seem quite right. That first Friday night, I had to tell our friends at the Shul Friday night that I had been fired. They looked at me as if I was a ghost. My family, though, was still the same. Rachel was compassionate, Jeffrey thoughtful and grave and nearly silent, Jared perkily chattering about how Mike Rizzo should really retain Sean Doolittle that given his WAR of 1.0 was pretty good for a reliever obtained midseason. But I just sat at home, numb. There wasn’t even much media attention: a few phone calls, one story in the Post, a smaller item in Politico, but I was too low-level, as it turned out, for anyone to take any notice of me. I felt like I had become nobody, dropped beneath the level of significance. How was I to restore my sense of meaning? My father called and spoke of trying to get me an interview with a pal of his. But going back to the law seemed empty now, and going through my father even emptier. After a week, though, I had a dash of inspiration. I decided to write my memoirs!

     But that was easier said than done. Writing was a new experience for me, and suddenly I understood everything I had heard about writers’ bloc. When you have to do ordinary things, you do them, even if you feel sucky. But I didn’t feel I could write unless conditions were absolutely perfect. And they weren’t. I hung my head over my desk for nearly a whole day. Even endlessly googling my own firing was somehow easier than writing, Then Rachel tried to help me. “Say what you feel.” I didn’t feel anything. I was numb. I wrote no words. The next day, Rachel persisted. “Just tell the whole story,” she advised. “Begin at the beginning. Where did it all begin for you?”

      I could never resist my wife’s doe-like brown eyes. I thought about it. And I thought that maybe this time I would give a different answer to when it all began for me, different from my usual.  And then I began to write. The words came to me, at least three of them. The words that marked my beginning. “Governor George Pataki…” My self, my very self, now began only..,.only….in politics.

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About Nicholas Birns

Nicholas Birns is a writer living in New York who teaches at NYU. He has published many books and articles of academic literary criticism which have been reviewed in journals such as the TLS, the New York Times Book Review, and the Hudson Review.

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