In 1973, Don Stinson stumbled into a position as a messenger at the White House when he was a freshman at the American University School of Public Affairs (SPA). He worked for the Nixon and Ford administrations through mid-1975, giving him a front row seat to the unfolding drama of the Watergate scandal.
Stinson's new book, "Downstairs at the White House," published in 2017, details his chance meetings and gaffes with celebrities and politicians at the highest levels — all while studying political science at SPA.
"The book is a memoir of mostly funny things," said Stinson (SPA/BA '77). "It is a little like Dennis the Menace meets Richard Nixon. I wrote from the perspective of being 17 and never expecting to be in a place like that."
Stinson, now a business consultant living in Boca Raton, Florida, spent more than a year researching and piecing together his notes to write his first book. He spent most of his career working on the business side of the newspaper industry. Most recently, he was an executive with Gannett Co. in Virginia, serving as senior vice president for marketing.
"I had successfully bored my entire family with these stories, so I thought I'd push on and add victims," said Stinson.
As an SPA student, Stinson would commute by bus to his job at the White House. He was not an intern but a regular government employee working as a messenger and handling correspondence, eventually with a top-secret clearance status.
Always looking for an encounter with the president, he would enter through the West Wing and loiter outside the Oval Office. Conversations with Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew, First Lady Pat Nixon, and President Gerald Ford are retold — often in a self-deprecating fashion — throughout the book.
"I had way too much fun. They never should have given me the ability to have the run of the place like I did," said Stinson, who started college after completing his junior year of high school in Atlanta under a special AU program.
The book also includes the story of Stinson meeting Bob Hope and Charlton Heston at a gala where Stinson's date fainted after being starstruck. The book includes a photo of Stinson with friends and Nixon just before Stinson tripped on his shoelaces and did a face-plant on the South Lawn. Another time, on the afternoon before Nixon resigned, Stinson ran into Gerald Ford on the stairs in the White House and prematurely said, "Excuse me, Mr. President."
Looking back at his time at SPA, Stinson talked about the school fondly.
"I liked that the place was always buzzing," he said. Stinson appreciated how the professors were approachable and shared their real-world experiences in class.
The book illustrates the value of asking questions, taking risks, and having a sense of humor.
"Working at the White House was an incredible learning experience," said Stinson. "Life's short — you need to laugh, and you need to laugh at yourself."