Since the Civil War, the White House has maintained an intelligence, alert, and crisis-support center. In the 1860s, it was the telegraph office of the War Department, located next door to the White House in what is now the Old Executive Office Building. By World War II, it had evolved into the Map Room on the White House’s ground floor. Today’s Situation Room came about in 1961 following the Bay of Pigs incident, when President Kennedy needed more details about world affairs than the national-security system had been providing.
Nerve Center is a comprehensive history by Reagan-era Situation Room director Michael Bohn. Most interesting are the anecdotes and first-person accounts: During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the officer in charge of the room, Gerry McCabe, delivered a report to the presidential bathroom while JFK was in the tub. George H.W. Bush checked in every morning during the Gulf War between 4 and 5 AM. During a Sunday-afternoon conference in the Situation Room, Bill Clinton served his staff—including Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher—veggieburgers and fries, not the hamburgers they expected.
White House staffers remember using the room for purposes other than national security. Leon Fuerth, Al Gore’s national-security adviser, called for directions to his Manhattan hotel. Bohn kept a phone with a secure line to the room in the basement safe of his home. One Christmas Eve, he took his sons and two of their cousins to the safe and called the North Pole: “The forewarned Signal operator played Santa Claus and listened to the kids’ wish list. . . .”
Except for such stories, Bohn’s 216-page account is dry, repetitive, and sometimes confusing. He relies on dozens of acronyms—some familiar, some not. It’s often necessary to refer to the key; occasionally, I had to reread entire sections to understand who did what with the POTUS (President of the United States).
Nerve Center does deliver an insider’s look. Just don’t expect it to be as exciting as The West Wing.
Michael K. Bohn