Couple views history from their porch President uses cottage during peace summit

October 24, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- From their sprawling waterfront porch, John and Gail O'Brien have watched history unfold.

Sometimes President Clinton looked tired, the couple thought, as they watched the leader of the free world trudge across their wooded back yard.

"It must not be going well," Gail would say to her husband, and they would flip on CNN to check what the pundits were saying about the fragile Middle East peace summit that was unfolding less than 100 feet from their rustic living room.

With the rest of the world, the O'Briens celebrated the signing of an agreement yesterday that could help end bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians. But the couple also heaved sighs of relief that their quiet home at 137 O'Brien Lane would be emptied of Secret Service agents, SWAT teams and heads of state.

The phone call came just days before the summit was set to commence last week.

"The president will be needing a place to rest between meetings, and to hold private, sensitive discussions," Gail was told. "We were thinking your place would be ideal."

The O'Brien home -- estate is more accurate -- sits on the property adjoining the Wye plantation and the Aspen Institute, site of the formal peace negotiations.

"How about the guest house near the tennis courts?" Gail offered instead.

There is a limit to the O'Briens' patriotism. After all, they are registered independents, though both voted for Bill Clinton twice.

It began quietly enough at first. It's not as if the CIA called them at home to check if the friendly, upper-class couple was a security risk.

"They never let us know they were investigating us," Gail O'Brien, 50, said Friday, walking along the wooded path that leads from the main house to the two-story tennis club cottage. "But I think it is very safe to say the Secret Service knows everything we have ever done or ever plan to do."

Overnight, their country home was transformed into a guarded, gated compound.

The Coast Guard dropped anchor just beyond their pier. Camouflaged sharpshooters lurked in the surrounding woods. King Hussein of Jordan stopped over for a nap. On several occasions, Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat held tense, all-night negotiations in the backyard guest house.

"It was unreal," said John O'Brien, 54, a management trainer for Fortune 500 companies. "Beyond description."

Anytime the O'Briens left their property, they had to pass through three security points -- complete with full engine checks and bomb-sniffing dogs -- to return home. Once, as the dogs moved in to search her grocery-filled car, Gail yelled to a Secret Service agent, "Watch that dog -- there's meatloaf in there."

Another time, the agents held Gail at the checkpoint for almost 30 minutes, insisting she was "not on their list."

"You better recheck your list," she said. "Because I live there."

Security became so tight, and Clinton so regularly walked the 1,000 or so paces between the Wye conference center and the guest cottage, that Secret Service agents dubbed the O'Brien property "the mini-White House."

Then, one afternoon as Gail walked her dog in the woods, an armed agent asked her to keep it down. "Shhhhh the king is sleeping," he whispered. Several feet down the path, the petite businesswoman nearly stepped on a mammoth black snake.

"My first instinct was to yell bloody murder," she said. But just because I couldn't see the sharp-shooters, I knew they were there. So, scared as I was, I covered my mouth and didn't say a word. I figured the alternative was worse than the snake."

But things paid off in the end.

The couple met Bill Clinton. Their black Labrador, Jasper, met presidential pooch Buddy. A photograph of Yassar Arafat sitting in one of their chairs ran in newspapers around the world. Their house -- which is on the market, for serious bidders only -- got some free advertisement.

Yesterday, just as CNN went live with the signing of the peace accord, Gail O'Brien toured the already spotless guest house. In the sunny cottage's one bedroom, it was clear that the sheets were untouched and that the bed had gone unused the night before.

"I guess that's good," she said, laughing. "In the current circumstances, the endless jokes and raised eyebrows would probably be more hassle than they're worth."

Pub Date: 10/24/98

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