January-February 2021

Bethesda interview: Kate Andersen Brower

Bestselling author Kate Andersen Brower talks about presidents and first ladies, juggling kids and interviews, and that time Joe Biden made sure all the reporters had their seat belts on

share this
Kate Andersen Brower at home with her kids (from left), Charlotte, Teddy and Graham. Photo by Joseph Tran

On a cloudy afternoon in October, bestselling author Kate Andersen Brower was sitting on the floor of a small walk-in closet in her Bethesda home. She needed a quiet spot for a live phone interview with NPR. Brower’s toddler son, Teddy, was in his room with the nanny; 8-year-old Graham and 7-year-old Charlotte were busy with Zoom school.

Brower’s husband, Brooke Brower, was downstairs working, and the family’s wheaten terrier, Chance, was out of barking range. Halfway through the interview, Charlotte rushed in to ask her mom a spelling question. “I was gesticulating wildly, trying to get her to close the door,” Brower says. “It was a real pandemic moment.”

For Brower, 40, who has published five books over the past five years, this was a typical COVID-era workday. In 2015, her first book, The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, soared to No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list and she became a regular guest on the news circuit about all things “East Wing.” (Her NPR interview in October was about President Donald Trump’s release from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after treatment for the coronavirus.)

Brower’s second book, First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, another New York Times bestseller, was published in 2017, followed by First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents, and the Pursuit of Power, in 2018. Brower’s latest books, Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump, and Exploring the White House: Inside America’s Most Famous Home, were both released in 2020. These days, Brower is working on two more books and just finished consulting for CNN on First Ladies, a six-part documentary series.

Brower grew up in Waterford, Connecticut, the daughter of author Christopher Andersen, whose nearly 40 books include The Day Diana Died and The Day John Died (about John F. Kennedy Jr.), both No. 1 New York Times bestsellers. Despite her father’s professional success, Brower says her fondest memories involve him being home when she got off the bus after school. “Sometimes he’d go into New York for the day to do the Today show or something, but he was mostly at home, and I loved watching him work,” she says.

A stringer for her local newspaper in high school, Brower graduated from Manhattan’s Barnard College in 2002. She spent her junior year at Oxford and returned there after graduation to get her master’s degree in modern history. “It was like Disney World for history junkies,” she says of her time in England. When she went back to New York, she took a job at CBS News, but moved to Washington less than two years later for a position at Fox’s D.C. news bureau. “I filled in an application online,” she says. “Fox called me back and hired me, so I packed my stuff and moved to D.C.” In 2006, she left Fox for Bloomberg and worked her way up to White House correspondent. Her son was born in late 2012, and shortly afterward she left Bloomberg, moved from D.C. to Bethesda, and began writing books.

Bethesda Magazine spoke to Brower over Zoom as she sat in the bedroom/office of her Wood Acres home just before the November general election, and followed up with her days afterward.

You’ve been promoting your two latest books in the middle of a pandemic. How is that going?

We have a little home studio we did when Team of Five came out. The first TV interview I had was on Morning Joe on MSNBC. My husband had jury-rigged bedsheets over windows and put two floor lamps with exposed bulbs next to me and had spent maybe an hour setting up that shot. After the interview, he was so excited. He came in and said, ‘You got a nine out of 10 on Room Rater on Twitter.’

For Team of Five, what led you to write a book on the lives of the U.S. presidents after they leave office?

Actually, my daughter came up with the idea for Team of Five. I had signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins, and I had just finished my vice president book, First in Line. My daughter said, ‘Why don’t you do a book about Barack Obama and George Bush?’ That’s how it came about.

How do book signings work these days?

I did a virtual book signing at Politics and Prose in D.C., but it’s very different. I have no idea who was watching. Unless readers reach out on Twitter or email, you never hear from them. It’s a negative for writers because you don’t get to talk with your readers.

You are involved in so many projects and you have three young children. How do you juggle it all?

We have a great full-time nanny. She’s much more patient than I am. She helps them with Zoom school while I work. I don’t know how parents do it who can’t afford help. But still, I remember back in March or April when the kids were first home and doing homework from the dining room table because I hadn’t even ordered desks yet. I was trying to help my daughter with math, and The Times of London wanted to talk about Melania Trump. I was trying to do it all, but I wasn’t doing any of it very well.

Is it more under control now, all these months later?

[Laughter] I was just on a call with a British documentary filmmaker about being interviewed for an episode they’re doing on Jackie Kennedy. Charlotte burst in asking for water. I muted the phone and went down to the kitchen to get it for her, and two minutes later she burst in again, crying, because she spilled it and the water was getting perilously close to the school-issued laptop she uses for Zoom school.

Exploring the White House is your first children’s book, written for 8-to-12-year-olds. Did your kids come up with the idea, or were they simply your inspiration?

It was having kids and seeing that there wasn’t a book quite like that. My kids had read the book Grace for President, but there wasn’t anything on the mostly African American butlers and housekeepers who serve the first family. I wanted to make American history accessible to kids, and not always about the main actors. My son’s favorite chapter is on the White House ghosts.

Your sister is 10 years younger than you, went to art school and lives in Manhattan. Your father is an acclaimed writer. What about your mom?

My mom was a commercial banker in New York—now she’s very active in their community [in Connecticut]. She is also an editor—always our first reader, my dad’s and mine. She has a great sense of pacing in books. She can also be brutally honest. She always uses a red pen, and she can be liberal with it. She writes comments in the margins with lots of question marks and exclamation points and ‘WHAT?’ in all caps.

Any advice from your parents that has stuck with you?

My dad taught me not to leave voice messages when trying to get an interview with someone. He said it’s always better to call back and get them on the phone. Messages are too easily ignored. Or deleted.

Your first real job in journalism was at CBS in New York City. What was that like?

I was a broadcast associate. It was from midnight to 10 in the morning. I was basically stuffing producers’ mailboxes at 3 a.m. and the place was deserted. When I got hired, I asked the woman who hired me if I should come in at 8 a.m. or 9, and she said, ‘Midnight is fine.’ She also told me, ‘Don’t worry about what you are wearing.’ I had bought all these new clothes. Andy Cohen—the Bravo host—was a producer there at the time, and I would put mail in his mail slot. Now I’ve been lucky enough to do his radio show and meet him.

What epiphany did you have that made you leave New York for Washington?

It was 2004. I was working for CBS’s Early Show, but I volunteered to go to Madison Square Garden to help [CBS This Morning] set up for the Republican National Convention. I’ve always loved politics, but I just fell in love with the theater of it—the proximity to people who make really important decisions, the sense that they were there for a purpose other than money. I think New York is so much about money, and I felt that D.C. was more about power and smarts.

You came to D.C. to work at Fox News. Your husband, Brooke, is managing editor of CNN Politics, but you met him in 2005 when he was working for MSNBC, right?

We worked in the same building on North Capitol Street. I was booking people for Fox, and he was working at Hardball [with Chris Matthews] at MSNBC a few floors up. A lot of people would do an interview with Fox and then get on an elevator and do Hardball. It was fun that we were in the same world covering the same stories. It would be a better story if I was a real dyed-in-the-wool conservative and we were at odds, but it wasn’t like that.

How did you go from producer at Bloomberg TV to print reporter covering the White House?

I started volunteering on the weekends to cover the arrivals of Marine One taking off and going to Camp David. I remember the first time, they said, ‘Be there at 7 a.m. Saturday morning for the Camp David departure.’ I was so naive—I thought I was getting to go to Camp David. I’d packed a bag. But it was literally standing on the South Lawn watching the [helicopter] take off and then calling my editor and saying, ‘It went fine.’

Is there a lesson in that story for young people who want a career like yours?

I taught as an adjunct at American University in 2018, and I told the kids that’s what you need to do—volunteer to do those kinds of shifts, the kinds no one wants. Sit in the press pool van while the president goes golfing. I did that many times with Obama [when I first started as a White House correspondent] because no one wanted to do it. There wasn’t a lot of news, but it was a chance to see how it all worked.

But news broke on some of your trips…

The ‘underwear bomber’ story broke while I was in Hawaii with Obama. And the prostitute story was interesting: We went to Cartagena, Colombia, with Obama in 2012 for an international summit. But it was completely overshadowed by this glossy story about the prostitutes and the Secret Service. President Obama came to the back of the plane and talked with us about that off the record. Obama didn’t come to the back of the plane much, so it was exciting. I hear that Trump comes to the back of the plane much more often.

Was covering Joe Biden different from covering Obama?

Biden would come to the back of the plane and talk to us incessantly. He’s a talker. On a trip to California with Biden, he came and said to us—the reporters—to make sure we put our seat belts on. Then he sat down next to me. I said to him, ‘Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?’ Since it was for Bloomberg, they were questions about the economy and trade with China. He answered my questions and went back to his seat, but later in the flight his press secretary came back and reamed me out for it. The press secretary said, ‘You can’t just take advantage of him like that.’ I don’t think Biden knew about that. On the return flight, the press secretary came back and apologized to me for getting so upset.

You spent a lot of time with Biden on his trip to China, Japan and Mongolia in 2011. You were one of only three reporters traveling with him. What did you learn about him on that trip?

I was thinking of that Mongolia trip, and I remember that as we watched this incredible celebration, which included traditional Mongol-style wrestling and the presentation of a Mongolian horse, [Biden] came over to where we reporters were sitting and started taking photos of us. Our heads were buried in our BlackBerrys. He was gently chiding us about not stopping to soak it all in. Here he had been all over the world, but even to him that visit was remarkable. I always remember that moment when I’m staring at my phone for too long. It’s important to look up now and then.

The Washington Post called your first book, The Residence, “absolutely delicious.” What inspired you to write about the staff who serve the president and first family?

The idea came to me in 2013 because Michelle Obama had this lunch for the female reporters who covered her—the East Wing reporters. There were about a dozen of us, and this butler came in and he was serving us this really elegant meal. Michelle Obama was on a first-name basis with him, and they had this rapport like he was almost part of their family. It was very interesting to me that there were all these people who work at the White House and are completely devoted to the first lady and the president.

Is the staff really devoted equally to every first family, or do they have favorites?

In 2016, when the florists and housekeepers and chefs would tell me they didn’t care whether it would be Clinton or Trump who won, I kind of didn’t believe them. But it’s true. They are just as devoted to Trump as they were to Obama. Even though many of them are African Americans and many of them are immigrants, too. They are devoted to the White House and they see it as a great honor to serve the first family. During the Reagan years, there was a doorman who needed bypass surgery, but he said he needed to wait for the president to go on a trip because the president needed him. He died of a heart attack on his way to work.

What are you hearing from the residence staff about the impending arrival of the Bidens?

I think the residence staff is looking forward to a sense of normalcy. I’m hearing that some staffers who retired under Trump may look to come back when Biden takes over.

You’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years. Any favorites?

I’d have to say James Ramsey. He was head butler at the White House for decades. He was in his 60s when I interviewed him. He was a wonderful African American man who was very close with the Bushes—George W. and his wife. He was so close to the Bushes that Laura Bush and Jenna flew from Texas to go to his funeral, and Laura Bush spoke at his funeral. He had a small apartment, but the walls of his living room had all these photos of him with Bill Clinton, the pope, Nelson Mandela, Bush. There he was with his arms around some of the most famous world leaders. He was proud but also very humble. He said he would joke with the Bush daughters because he was a bachelor and they would give him dating advice and he’d give them dating advice.

Of all your interviews, who’s been your toughest?

The politicians are the hardest. Al Gore was a really tough interview to get. It was in 2017, and it was on the phone, unfortunately, so I couldn’t see his face. I asked about Hillary Clinton—what it was like to be vice president having such a powerful first lady, a first lady with a West Wing office and competing interests. He said, ‘I think our conversation is almost over.’ And that was toward the beginning of the interview.

Who have you thought would be your toughest interview, but turned out not to be?

I interviewed Dick Cheney at his house in McLean. His neighbor was doing construction, and Cheney was jokingly complaining about the noise. I’d been worried he’d be difficult to interview and give one-word answers, but he was kind and engaged and a real student of history. We talked in his library for about two hours. He told me the most difficult day of his political career was the day Gerald Ford had to concede and [Cheney] had to place the call to Jimmy Carter because Ford had lost his voice. [Cheney was President Ford’s chief of staff.]

Who would you most like to interview, but haven’t been able to get?

Hillary Clinton. And Michelle Obama—I’ve interviewed her in a group setting, but not for a book. First ladies are tough to get. For instance, I’ve interviewed Trump, but I’ve never interviewed Melania. I think they feel that because they weren’t elected, they shouldn’t have to put themselves in that uncomfortable position. And each new first lady is picked apart in a way they never were before. But the first lady’s role is even more fascinating because it’s undefined—there’s nothing about it in the Constitution.

How do you see Jill Biden putting her spin on the role of first lady?

She’ll be the first first lady to continue a full-time career that’s separate from her husband’s. [Jill Biden is a professor in the English department at Northern Virginia Community College.] No one expected Bill Clinton to be obsessing over state dinner seating charts if Hillary had won—so I hope that people will not be too terribly surprised to see a first lady continue her career. It’s important that we have a first lady who represents the balancing act so many women face every day—either by choice or because they have to work to support their families.

Things have become more polarized in the five years since The Residence was published. Has that impacted the projects you choose these days?

It feels completely different today. Everybody now wants you to have an opinion. I always feel like, why does my opinion even matter? That’s where the journalism background comes in—you just want to tell interesting stories from different perspectives. That’s why my next book is not going to be about politics. It’s a biography about a woman who is not political. I think that’s healthier right now.

You are also working on your first novel…

I’m working on a novel because I’ve always wanted to do one. It’s about a fictional first lady, but it’s a bit dark. It’s so much fun to write fiction. But it’s also scary in a different way from writing nonfiction because you are making up these characters. The first time my book agent said the names of my characters it felt so strange. Before that, I’d only said them in my head.

You moved to D.C. in 2005 and Bethesda in 2013. What are your favorite hangouts—pre-pandemic and now?

I love how they’ve blocked Little Falls [Parkway] during the weekends. We taught our daughter how to ride a bike without training wheels in the spring there. It was something we had never gotten around to doing, and quarantine forced us to think of ways to fill the weekends at home. We used to go to Millie’s and Compass Coffee in Spring Valley, where I’d bring my laptop to work. I think I wrote the entire children’s book there. For date nights, my husband and I used to go to Woodmont Grill and eat at the bar. We still get takeout from [Kim’s] Yirasai every weekend it seems. Our kids love sushi. I’m addicted to their Inari and their soybean roll.

With your hectic schedule, do you ever get a chance to read?

I’ve been taking walks with a lot of moms in my neighborhood once or twice a week—the moms of other first and second graders. On my way to meet them, I listen to books on Audible. I just read The Vanishing Half [by Brit Bennett] and The Guest List, by Lucy Foley, that I liked. I also just reread My Turn by Nancy Reagan. It’s my favorite first lady memoir because Nancy Reagan takes everyone to task. It’s my favorite next to Michelle Obama’s Becoming.

When the pandemic is over and you can travel again, where is the first place you want to go?

I would go to Paris with my kids. I keep talking with my daughter about how we’ll go to the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa and then we’ll go for baguettes. I’ve been showing her pictures of the glass pyramid—the I.M. Pei pyramid outside the Louvre—and she’s excited about that. I have a very romantic idea of taking a 7-year-old and an 8-year-old and a 2-year-old to Paris.

Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news, and as the associate producer of an Emmy award-winning documentary. She lives in Potomac.