Council official to testify in FBI file probe Panel seeks story of White House usher fired by first lady

July 21, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Chris Emery put down the phone, jammed his fingers into his hair and bowed his head. It was a private moment to absorb sudden emotions -- nerves, pain, pride.

Emery, administrator of the Howard County Council, is best known locally for his battles with Councilman C. Vernon Gray. But the phone call was from a U.S. Senate investigator asking about his other life -- his lost life -- as a White House usher at the elbows of three presidents and their families.

More than two years ago, White House officials requested Emery's confidential FBI file. Ten weeks later, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered him fired.

Now, the Senate Judiciary Committee is investigating the White House for obtaining FBI files on hundreds of present and former employees -- and wants to hear Emery's story. He might become a bit player in Washington's hottest scandal.

The possibility makes him nervous, excited and wary.

"If I appear on CNN or C-Span, you know what my life is going to be like for the next few months," he said. "At the same time, it's an opportunity of a lifetime. How many people get to testify in front of 18 senators? It will give me a chance to tell my story."

Emery, 38, says the testimony will not be an attack on the Clintons, but his public battles with Councilman Gray have some local Democrats warning he is confrontational and unusually partisan in his job as council administrator.

"I think Chris and [Howard County Council Chairman] Darrel Drown are really political ideologues," said Jim Kraft, president of the Columbia Democratic Club. "They are true believers, and I think it's dangerous."

But Carol Arscott, former chairwoman of the county's Republican Central Committee, said: "Everybody likes Chris -- except Vernon Gray and Hillary Clinton. They're the only two people I know who don't. This is truly a man with no enemies except two very powerful ones."

Even two years after his firing, the White House has a powerful emotional hold on Emery. His office in Howard County's government complex in Ellicott City is a virtual shrine to the presidency.

Days at the White House

Photographs show Emery and his family beaming beside Ronald Reagan and George and Barbara Bush. In one snapshot, five men stand in the White House Red Room in identical dark-blue suits. Left to right: George Bush, Jimmy Carter, Chris Emery, Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford.

Emery also sometimes wears cuff links bearing the presidential seal. He has three pairs, one from each president -- Reagan, Bush, Clinton -- that he served as an usher from 1987 to 1994.

And then there are his gold Mickey Mouse cuff links. As Emery tells it, George Bush was undressing one evening, taking off his cuff links -- a present from a Disney executive -- when he offered them to Emery.

"George, George, they're a gift," Barbara Bush protested.

"That's right," the president replied. "They're a gift from me to Chris."

A lifetime assignment

As one of the four White House ushers from 1987 to 1994, Emery's job was to make the White House seem like a home, not a museum, for the presidential families that lived there. It was to ,, be a lifetime assignment. Since the office was created in 1892, there had been 18 ushers. None had ever been fired.

But Emery was, on March 3, 1994. The first lady was "uncomfortable" with him, his supervisor said, but no other explanation was given.

Later, as the firing became a public issue, word leaked out of the White House about one cause of the first lady's discomfort: Emery had spoken by phone to Barbara Bush about a problem with Bush's personal computer.

"It showed a lack of discretion," said the first lady's spokesman Neel Lattimore, confirming the story in a recent interview.

Though devastated by the firing, Emery said he refused to divulge embarrassing personal details about the presidential families for whom he has worked. As a result, he turned away most of the reporters, publishers and book agents who came calling.

He once started a book based on notes he kept while an usher -- but his focus was the workings of the White House, not the gossip a publisher wanted, said Emery.

Back to school

Instead of becoming an author, Emery went back to school at the University of Maryland -- he had an associate degree from Howard Community College -- and began working as a computer consultant. He will get his bachelor's degree in science next month.

In March 1995, a year after his firing from the White House, Emery won his current job as council administrator in Howard County. He makes $59,900 -- about what he earned as a White House usher.

Democrats have complained about Emery from the beginning.

They noted his slim academic background and complained he was nothing more than a favorite son of the Republican political establishment, which took over the council after the 1994 election, for the first time in Howard County's history.

Emery, who now lives in the Hammond Village section of north Laurel, doesn't dispute that contacts helped him get hired.

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