Witness To History: 30 Years As a White House Steno

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Thirty years ago, Peggy Suntum got a phone call. She was set to begin a new job the following day as a White House stenographer, meticulously transcribing the president’s every public utterance. The caller informed her that the Marine Barracks in Beirut had been attacked, and that she was needed immediately.

Since then, Suntum’s three decades at the White House have spanned five presidencies, throughout which she has had a front-row seat to history, recording the words of commanders in chief for posterity. She was with President George W. Bush on September 11. With George H. W. Bush in Wenceslas Square in Prague to commemorate the first anniversary of the velvet revolution in 1990. With Bill Clinton through the darkest days of the Lewinsky scandal. “It doesn’t seem like yesterday, but it also doesn’t feel like 30 years,” she says.

She was also the stenographer of record when George W. Bush misspoke at a school event in 2000, saying, “Rarely is the question asked, Is our children learning?” She decided to correct the grammar in the transcript, unleashing a torrent of criticism against the Bush White House for trying to correct the historic record. “I called [White House Spokesman] Ari [Fleischer] and I said I’m so sorry about this. And I said ‘It was me. We heard it clearly as “is” and I made the change to “are.”‘ And he said, ‘You know what, they’re not after you, they’re after me.’” Then Suntum added, “No administration has ever told me to change anything that the president said.”

At the White House, stenogtaphers are omnipresent—in the Brady Press Briefing Room, on Air Force One, and standing to the side in the myriad other venues where presidents speak. Suntum has visited every state and roughly 80 countries. She’s long since lost count on how many trips. “More than five and less than a zillion,” she jokes. At 120 words per minute, her work has becomes the official historical record, a stressful task made all the more complex by the rhetorical sensibilities of each president.

In an interview with TIME for her three decade anniversary, Suntum, 64, reflected on her years at the White House, cleaning up presidential oratory, and what keeps her on the job.

Q: What was your first day at the White House?

A: My first day was the day the Marines were killed in the bombing in Beirut. I was supposed to start the next day, but it happened on a Sunday and they called me in one day early. So that was my introduction to being a stenographer:  crying over the then-typewriters, before computers. And that was in 1983.  I think coincidentally at exactly the same time President Reagan was down in Georgia for a golf outing. And on the golf course there was a hostage situation because someone was trying to rob the clubhouse and got caught in the middle because there was all sorts of Secret Service around. A couple of staffers were taken hostage. But that was my introduction to White House stenography.

What are some of the moments that stand out?

With President Bush I, that was the beginning of the first Iraq War, we went for Thanksgiving to Saudi Arabia before the troops were sent out to war. And that was for Thanksgiving dinner he was having with all the troops. And I just realized, gosh, look how young these kids are. They’re all suited up for battle and I thought, how many of them are going to come back in one piece. An aside to that, you know they have celebrities for the soldiers for Thanksgiving. The celebrity that time was O.J. Simpson,that was before his big crime that he did.

President Clinton took us on some wonderful trips. I was in New Zealand with him. I’ll never be there again, I don’t think. President Bush II was of course 9/11. I was down in Florida at the time for that. And then about 10 or 15 feet in front of him when he took the bullhorn and said his famous words on that Friday after 9/11. I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you. So there’ve been a lot of moments that stick with me. I would say that overall there is an awful lot that is the same as far as how administrations run. There’s some stuff that has changed, party being one of them, but there’s an awful lot that’s the same as far as the day-to-day functions.

What’s it like behind the press room door?

I will tell you, we do get a lot of our news from you guys. That’s changed over the years. We didn’t travel on Air Force One before the Clinton Administration, when they needed people on there for briefings. So a day to day is we get our schedule from the press office staff. We’re considered just as part of the mix, part of the team. And we are pretty much autonomous.  We know what we’re supposed to cover and how to cover it. Our schedule is the same from lid to lid—lid off to lid down—and sometimes later if we’re involved with stuff that’s off the record or things like that. It’s like being behind the blue curtain during these momentous moments. You see these things, and then you read about them the next day in the paper and say ‘Oh wait, it didn’t go exactly like that.’

What was your welcome to the White House moment?

Our offices are in the Old Executive Office Building. The very first time, which was probably the first day, that I walked across the driveway to the White House, I realized. Oh my gosh, that’s the White House. I’m walking into the White House! I can remember that feeling. And it doesn’t go away too quickly. Walking through the OEOB, this is an amazing building and I could often feel these people from the early 1900s walking through this building. Kind of the ghosts haunt the building. It’s kind of constant.

The first time I walked on Air Force One, actually the first time I saw Air Force One, saw that huge bird, just realizing that’s the president’s plane. So that still stays with me even now. This is a pretty amazing thing to be involved in. The president knows who I am, but I don’t know if he knows my name. He’ll say hello and that kind of thing. The same with all the presidents. And I just feel that what I do, what our office does, represents him so we cannot screw up.

How do you cope with the pressure to be accurate and fast?

We break it up into parts, so we’re all working on the same thing at the same time. And kind of the rule is ‘fast and correct.’ So we have had a few—. I think we had a stenographer back in the Clinton days who called the Palestinian Authority ‘Palestine’ back then and I remember Sandy Berger turning all shades of red. Once in a while we do create international moments. So yes, we try to get it out fast, but we double proof everything when it’s finished. The crew right now, oh they’re just so great. They’re all young. They are all very motivated. They are inspired like I was when I first came, so that’s a good thing.

You’re writing for the historical record, right?

This is going to sound a little bit crazy. Even where to put a period in a sentence. When the president is giving a big speech, and you could tell, ‘Well, he’s emphasizing that right there.’ So even if the next sentence starts with ‘and’ you put the period there. This is something you emphasize, because this is a point he’s trying to get across. Especially when it’s a momentous event that’s going on you just realize that you’re representing the president so you have to get this right, you have to get his ideas across in the way you punctuate the speech.

What has changed about the way the different presidents speak?

Of course President George W. was well known for coming up with some imaginary ways of saying things. A lot of times we had to go back and listen, ‘Okay what exactly did he say’ because it’s supposed to be verbatim. You leave out the ‘ums’ and the ‘uhs’ and the ‘you knows,’ but we put it down as the president says it. But to make it readable sometimes it’s a challenge. He would be a little bit of a test sometimes. I remember at a the end of his administration he had us all in for a picture and he said, ‘You know I’m reading these transcripts and I’m thinking do I really talk like that.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, you do.’ And he said, ‘I think I just think faster than I talk and that’s why it comes out that way.’ He was aware of all of that of course. There would be little stories in the press about him saying something one way. When it was an education speech it seemed like he would always say something that was incorrect English.

President Clinton had his own ‘isms.’ He had the southern colloquial remarks. So those were always fun. The Vice President now always says some very interesting things.

President Obama is just very well spoken, so there’s never any difficulty. If we can’t hear something, we know it’s us if we can’t hear it right. Because he would never speak incorrect English. And President Reagan, his speeches were directly written for him. I don’t think he had too many off the cuff remarks. So there’s a little bit of change over time. And you very quickly get used to how they speak. That’s the most important person to get used to listening to and understand what they’re thinking. We cover the first lady and the vice president too, but the president is the most important.

Doesn’t he speak in long sentences?

I learned in grade school you don’t start a sentence with ‘and,’ and I said when he got here you just have to forget that rule. Because yes you can, you have to, because otherwise his sentences would go on for half a page.

How did you get this job?

Believe it or not, it was an ad in the Washington Post. And it just described it as working for the government, needing a security clearance, travel is part of the job. So when I came for the interview I found out what it was. This is a contract, so different companies get the contract. So I didn’t have to do the application for the government job. We’re not considered government, we’re considered private sector employees. So when I came down for the interview I said, ‘Wow.’ I’ve always been a bit of a politics groupie, and very interested in all this kind of stuff. I loved to read the behind the scenes stories about it. I can’t wait to read Peter Baker’s book. So I said this is right up my alley.

But there are also bad days?

There have been a couple of times where I’ve thought it’s time for me to go because I’m getting disenchanted or something like that. There have been a couple of moments where I’ve just been, ‘it’s time to go’ and usually the president, either in something he has done or something he has said that changes my mind. With this president, when President Obama came in, I just knew that this was going to be a wonderful new time in history so I want to be part of it. So my intention is to stay through his administration and then I think it might be time to retire. I’ll be 67. Oh my gosh, that’s a scary though. So yes, there’ve been a couple of other times.

Going through the whole thing with Monica Lewinsky and all of that. When you’re talking about what it was like at the White House during that. It was just—everybody was walking around so depressed and sad. And it went on for so long. And then your friends outside, who work in government or just want to know well why is that going on and it’s very hard to explain. I knew all the parties involved there. So those kind of things do have an effect on peoples motivation and, you know, wanting to come back every day.

But for the most part, over the years it’s been amazing being this close to history. It’s amazing to me all the things I’ve been honored to see. I was in Wenceslas Square with President Bush I when he spoke a year after their revolution. And we were outside in the crowd that just went on and on and on. And these people were singing our Civil War songs as a celebration. And then they started singing what was obviously their songs. There were these two burly young guys standing next to us who were waving their hands and singing and tears were streaming down their faces and they were doing the ‘V’ sign. I couldn’t even talk. It’s these moments that make this job something that I am so happy that I was able to be a part of for so long.

What would you do differently if you were on the other side of the podium?

If you were in our office when we were transcribing the briefings—everybody is talking for Jay [Carney]. They’ll answer for Jay. ‘Oh wait a minute, don’t let him get away with that.’ It’s a constant conversation about what’s wrong with that question or whatever.

In fact, Helen Thomas told me once that I should be on the other side of the podium. And I said ‘yeah right.’ It’s much, much easier to do it when nobody’s listening.

What has been your proudest day?

The first day of every administration. Not of a second term, but the first day, is when the two administrations transition. So the only people—just about the only people who are still here because we’re not government, we’re not an administration hire, we don’t have to turn in our resignation. So we’re the transition people to do the transcription of the inauguration of a new president. So that’s always been for me a very proud moment. That is the first thing that I’m doing for this new president. And it’s the first thing that the press office puts out for the new administration.

Gosh there’ve been some big moments. Of course 9/11. I was proud to be an American. I was proud when I heard President Bush say what he had to say. And I will say that I didn’t vote for him and when he was coming in, that was one of the times I was thinking is it time for me to go. But that day he made me proud to be an American.

Is there ever any tension between the stenographers and the White House?

Every single administration staff has been very appreciative and protective too. There have been times—with president Bush W, when he misspoke he said something about children ‘is’ learning. Oh my gosh. I changed it to ‘are.’ And the press caught it and they were sure that the press office made the change. I called Ari [Fleischer] and I said I’m so sorry about this. And I said, ‘It was me. We heard it clearly as “is” and I made the change to “are.”‘ And he said, ‘You know what, they’re not after you, they’re after me.’ No administration has ever told me to change anything that the president said. They might ask if that’s what the president said, but they never try to change anything.

Do you consider yourself a Democrat or a Republican?

I consider myself a liberal Democrat. All the administrations’ press office staffs knew that. Marlin Fitzwater used to say ‘I need a liberal point of view, what do you think?’ They all knew, but they didn’t hold it against me. But of course it never had any effect on the transcript.

You’ve thought about retiring?

If we have a female president, I might stick around. But I’m just thinking that might be a good time. But it scares me to think about getting out. It really does. Because I know I’ll be thinking in terms of what’s going on over there. How are they doing. What’s going on behind the scenes. That’s at least still a few years away. This is five [presidents]. This might be the last one.

The interview has been condensed and edited.