White House Guardian Finds New Home In Harrison
Former Secret Service Officer Speaks of Eventful Career
By Dianne Alward-Biery
Cleaver Staff Writer
Copyright Clare County Cleaver
HARRISON – As a high school junior, Brent Chinery moved to Vassar, Mich., where his father had been hired as the high school principal. In December 2016, Chinery retired from a nearly 27-year career; a retirement which led he and his wife, Kim, to move into a charming, woodsy new home in the Harrison area.
Last week, Chinery took some time with the Cleaver to speak about the truly fascinating journey that led him from his 1980 graduation from Vassar High School through his career as a Secret Service officer protecting four administrations in the White House, and ultimately to the Chinerys becoming two of Harrison’s most recent residents.
After high school, Chinery enrolled at Saginaw Valley State College [now Saginaw Valley State University] where he played some football - Go, Cardinals! – and earned his bachelor’s degree, graduating in 1985.
“Then I had several jobs,” Chinery said. “I worked in the Vassar Police Department part time for five or six years. I also worked at the school. At that time they had what was called The Dungeon – alternative education for kids who got kicked out of school. I was like the warden there.”
That was when Chinery started applying to different federal agencies, which at the time was not the simple online task it is today. His mother was working at the library, so she started researching books and agencies. That led to learning how to apply with the Secret Service, which was hiring at that time. Chinery said after applying it took several months before he received a response. That was followed by going to Detroit to take the written test, which was followed the next day by an interview, which was followed by “Wait to hear from us.”
After another two-month wait, Chinery was summoned back to Detroit for a polygraph test and to start filling out the paperwork for his background investigation.
“The whole process took over a year before I got hired – 14 months,” he said.
Chinery said his inclination to pursue employment with the Secret Service was spurred by the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.
“I watched it on the news,” he said. “And it intrigued me - watching the agents and how they responded. That kind of sparked an interest.”
Chinery said he also looked at it as an opportunity to get out of his small town and see the world a bit. He was hired and his career began in 1990 under George H. W. Bush.
“I spent all 27 years at the White House,” he said. “Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr. and Obama.”
Chinery said later in his career he worked for one year at the agency’s training facility in Beltsville, Md.
“Then when we had the fence-jumper,” he said. “I told Kim that somehow, some way this is going to affect me.”
Chinery was correct, and was told that his 20-some years of experience were needed, and he was transferred back down to the White House.
Chinery said the majority of his White House duty was in the West Wing and describes his duty post as being just inside the entry door where the Marine sentry stands guard.
“Anyone going back to see the president had to come through me,” he said. “Then they would come from the Oval Office, and [the visitor would] be escorted back to see the president from my post.”
Chinery said visitors were fairly well-vetted by the time they reached his post, and the written schedule of visitors helped in determining if someone was out of place. He laughed as he posed the example: “Like, what are these tourists doing inside the West Wing?”
Chinery said long days were the norm and he was there eight to 12 hours a day, and that those long shifts afforded lots of interaction with the West Wing staff.
“So I got to know people very personally,” he said.
Experiencing multiple administrations also enabled Chinery to view how the people in power interacted with others in the White House: not only fellow politicians, but also various staff members, and in particular those who were employed to serve them.
Asked who was his favorite president to work for, Chinery easily replied “Bush Sr.,” whom he described as very down-to-earth.
“He talked to everybody,” Chinery said. “He didn’t care who you were. You could be a GSA cleaner or a Park Service guy – he stopped and talked to everybody.”
Chinery said the Park Service and Paint Department had horseshoe teams, and the president let everybody come play his son Marvin’s horseshoe team at the horseshoe pit near the White House pool. Afterwards, he said there would be a barbecue for participants.
“He wanted everybody to have a chance to play them,” Chinery said. “He knew all the Park Service guys that worked on the grounds by first names, and he’d stop and give them a hard time every day. And his wife [Barbara Bush] was the same way. She would go swimming every day, an hour just doing laps back and forth in the pool.”
Chinery said she would walk around from post to post, asking the men stationed out there how they were doing and asking after their families.
“She’d take an interest, and she would talk to everybody,” he said.
“By contrast, when the Clintons were there on the South Grounds, they didn’t want to see you,” Chinery said. “You had to stand behind trees, dress up like a Park Service guy, whatever you had to do. They didn’t want to see you; they didn’t want any police presence around. They didn’t want to see our SWAT team guys at all. Hide in the fountain, go here, whatever.”
On the heels of describing George H.W. Bush as a man of great integrity and even-handed treatment of everyone he encountered, and agreeing Bush was the last of the “old school” presidents, Chinery said when Clinton came in it was a whole different world.
When asked what was the most daunting aspect of his job, Chinery pointed to the relentless work hours which were the result of being short on staff.
“There’s a lot of turnover in the Secret Service,” Chinery said, adding that during his tenure at the White House he had worked with a couple thousand people, and that only 22 percent of people actually retire from that job. He said people could jump to other departments, and that after 9/11 the Service lost 500 people who left to join the Sky Marshall program.
“They went to Congress and said ‘Stop hiring our people,’” he said. “It didn’t work. People get burned out; the divorce rate is over 70 percent. When you’re not home, you’re working 12-hour shifts six of seven days a week.”
He said that time drain was exacerbated by the multi-hour drive to and from work, and also spoke of the disappointment of children when plans are changed at the last minute due to increased work demands.
On the flip side, he said the most rewarding part of his job was the traveling, noting he got to see the world, including Ireland, Australia and Germany.
“You get to see things you’d never get to see as a private citizen,” Chinery said. “I feel very blessed in that way.”
Chinery travelled with the president quite a bit, and for him that meant traveling in a C-17 or C-5 with the limousines used by the president and his entourage.
When Clinton was on the campaign trail, Chinery said he would be away for a month at a time, come home for a couple days, then go out for another month.
Chinery said he knew Clinton’s speech word-for-word, having heard it so many times.
“And he was always late for his events,” he said. “There’d be people standing out in the heat, passing out, and he’d be two or three hours late – he didn’t care. But when you met him one-on-one, he made you feel like he was there just for you.”
Kim Chinery said President Obama had that political skill as well, citing the occasion of a Christmas party where they lined up with others for a photos with the president and first lady.
“We stood with him there for not even a minute,” she said. “But when he greeted you, you felt like he showed up there just to see you that day. They really all kind of have that knack.”
Chinery cited other memorable people he had worked with over the years, particularly butlers and residence staff who are career employees.
“They stay no matter what, and being there 27 years, I knew these people,” he said. “Just watching them talk about the president and the stuff going on – it was hilarious.”
He recalled in particular one long-serving butler, the late James Ramsey.
“President Bush Jr. just loved him – loved him,” Chinery said. “And those two would go back and forth every day.’
Bush, who would be in the office by 6 a.m. every day taking briefings, was all business. Chinery said Ramsey would wait each morning for the president to come down on the elevator.
“They would go back and forth – not even ‘good morning’,” he said. “Ramsey would say ‘Are you going to get anything done today? Are we going to get a little progress out of you today?’ And Bush would come right back at him with ‘I’m going to do more today than you’ll ever do. I’m going to need to see your paycheck, because I’m going to make some deductions from it.’ President Bush was very quick, and if he liked you, he was on you.”
Chinery said he had experienced that once, when he [a very tall man] was standing post under a low ceiling with a light above his head.
“He looked at me and said ‘You’d better watch it; you’re going to burn the rest of your hair off your head.’ He just laughed and kept on going.”
People who have had lengthy careers often are asked if they have advice or words of wisdom for those considering entering that line of work. Chinery had this response:
“It’s a sacrifice,” he said. “Know what you’re getting into, you’ll be working a lot of hours; there’s a lot of travel involved and you sacrifice your family time. I would say there’s a lot of sacrifice involved. You give up a lot of going to your kids’ events.”
Despite all that sacrifice, Chinery said when he came home at the end of the day, he was glad he had worked.
“You get to see stuff people only dream about,” he said. “I’m standing next to President Bush Jr. and Putin, and they’re having a conversation in front of me. And I’m thinking to myself ‘How many people in the world can see this?’”
He said that conversation took place at the time when a Soviet submarine had blown up or sank.
“Bush said to him: ‘Putin, I don’t want to have to rescue another one of your submarines’ and Putin looked at him. Then Bush said ‘I’m not coming to rescue you next time’ and gave him a bump on his shoulder and kind of laughed. Putin kind of smiled.
“Those are the kinds of things you see that people don’t normally get to hear about and see,” Chinery said. “And getting to see how the presidents interact with their families behind the scenes – everyday problems that we all have with our children.”
Chinery said the Obama daughters were “a handful,” and noted their grandmother, Mrs. Robinson, actually raised them.
“She ruled with an iron fist,” he said. “She ran the show.”
Brent and Kim Recall Sept. 11, 2001:
Retired Secret Service officer Brent Chinery and his wife, Kim, recalled Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly all citizens of this country and many others know precisely where they were when the passenger jets waged their deadly assaults on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon, as well as when the sinister mission of the hijackers of Flight 93, believed to be headed to the White House, was thwarted by courageous passengers – ending when it crashed in a field near Indian Lake and Shanksville, Pa., northwest of Washington, D.C.
Kim Chinery had just gotten to work that morning, when the first plane hit the tower.
“I was in the parking lot, and a girl from my office came running out saying a plane just hit the tower – where’s Brent?” she said. “I said he’s at home, and I walked in and they had the TVs on. And, of course, like all Americans I was watching this in awe. I ran over to the phone and called and woke him up and said you’ve got to turn the TV on.”
That’s when Brent Chinery said he had to go in to work, and that as he got closer to Washington he could see the Pentagon burning.
“I could see all the smoke,” he said. “And they had all the roads blocked off, and at every checkpoint I’d show them my I.D. They gave me an MP5 machine gun and said ‘You’re going to go stand on 17th Street,’ and we pushed the perimeter back almost two miles from the White House.”
Chinery said he stood out there all night, and when he came in the next night President Bush was back in the White House.
“They had a plane on radar, but they couldn’t identify it,” he said. “So they had to move President Bush down into the tunnel.”
Chinery said the first thing the president did was ask where his dogs were, and then refused to go into the tunnel until his two Scottish terriers [Barney and Miss Beazely] were rounded up to go with him.
“It was funny down in the shelter,” he said. “They didn’t do anything with it for years and it was in pretty bad shape. He came down there and said ‘This place is a dump!’ The next day the contractors were scrambling and there was construction going on.”
After the events of 9/11, when President Bush was really down, Chinery said Karl Rove came up with an idea. He said Rove went out to the Park Service and borrowed a uniform. Then, while the president was in the Oval Office working, Rove donned that Park Service uniform and began washing the window of the Oval Office – something Chinery said is never done.
“President Bush kept looking, wondering what’s that guy doing?” Chinery said. “He kept looking, and finally he realized it was Karl Rove, opened the door and busted out laughing. Karl Rove said ‘I gotcha – I got a smile on your face.’”
Chinery said he also enjoyed a teasing give-and-take relationship with Rove.
“He was a very personable guy, always a smile on his face and upbeat,” Chinery said.
Rove was Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff with the George W. Bush administration until his resignation Aug. 31, 2007. Chinery then pointed to a framed composition which had been sent by Rove when he left White House service.
The framed composition contains a photo stated to be the earliest known photograph of the White House and a personal message from Karl Rove, dated Aug. 29, 2007. It began with “Thanks for all your many kindnesses to me over those years we’ve worked together in the White House” and closed with “Thank you for your service to our nation.” – Karl Rove
Chinery said he’s thankful for his Secret Service career, because he got to see things from a different perspective than most of Americans.
“On the media you see the Democrats and Republicans are all fighting back and forth, but behind the scenes they’re all friends,” he said. “It’s a lot of show.”
He spoke of arrogant congressmen and senators who would enter the White House and never bother to speak to or look at him or the staff, and the next day would be on the news for being involved in some sort of scandal.
“And I’d think: You can’t even bother to say hi to me, and you’re involved with this?” he said. “I mean, come on.”
Kim Chinery remarked that Brent had always been very disciplined in his behavior and commitments, which in retirement has led to a need to go outside and do something daily to feel productive.
“I think after retiring, he’s had a hard time turning that off and relaxing,” she said.
Part of that longtime grueling schedule was the home-to-work commute.
“We lived north of Baltimore, so it was a 70-mile drive one way,” he said. “It would take me three hours some days to make the commute, with traffic, after working 12-hour shifts.”
Having been reminded that retirement is more than mowing the lawn and cutting down a few trees, Chinery said he had been considering writing a book, and had received offers to do so. Fellow Secret Service officer Gary Byrne wrote the best-selling book “Crisis of Character,” which was released in 2016. Chinery said Byrne is working on a second book and calls to ask him about things. Chinery has been approached by Byrne’s ghostwriter about writing a book with him. Kim said David Custer, who interviewed Brent for WNEM-TV, also had expressed interest.
“So I have given thought to that, about writing a book,” Chinery said. “Not to be political, but like what goes on inside the White House. Gary’s book was more political, because he was after the Clintons because of the way they treated him. I don’t want to write a book like that.”
Chinery said he wants to write about how the presidents interacted with their families: the little stuff that people don’t get to hear about or see every day.
“How a small town guy from Vassar is standing between President Bush and Putin while they’re having a conversation,” he said. “And going to the federal courthouse to testify.”
Chinery also said he was one of the first ones to stand up in Vince Foster’s office after he committed suicide.
“I saw a couple things that happened after that,” he said. “I had to testify on all that, too.”
Chinery agreed that such circumstances are interesting and intriguing, but that it also put him on the spot as he was questioned in detail about what had been taken out of Foster’s office. He said it was frustrating listening to media reports saying nothing had been taken.
“It’s like when Clinton was on TV was saying ‘I did not have sex with that woman,’” Chinery said. “I’m standing on the other side of the Roosevelt door while he’s giving that speech, about biting my tongue off.”
It turned out, Chinery said, that a member of Clinton’s staff [an attorney Chinery recognized as having come into the West Wing a few times] was sitting in on the investigation interviews, and reporting back to the president what the Secret Service officers knew.
“So then he decided: Think I’d better fess up,” Chinery said.
He also spoke to the arrogance of power embraced by Clinton, and the way he responded to a severe admonition to transfer Lewinsky to the Pentagon, with Clinton saying he didn’t care who knew what, because nobody would talk.
Chinery said it was funny when the officers took a departure photo with Clinton, after which the president wanted to shake hands with everyone in line.
“He knew who I was, and what I testified to,” Chinery said. “Here I was the last person in line, and I’m thinking ‘How’s this gonna go?
“He kind of stuck out his hand, and I’m thinking somebody get a picture of this for the cover of my book,” he said. “He finally shook my hand – mumbled ‘Thanks for your service’ – and kept on walking.”
When asked about memorabilia from his time at the White House, Chinery focused on photos, including one of himself standing in the Oval Office along with Susan Rice, former U.S. National Security Advisor.
Kim Chinery said one of her favorite items of memorabilia is a letter signed by the president for Mother’s Day, and a collection of the huge White House Christmas cards, which the couple received nearly every year.
“The Christmas cards are really cool,” Kim said.
“We stopped getting those when Obama came into office,” Brent said. “That was it, no more Christmas cards.”
He went on to say that under President Bush Sr., staff could bring their families onto the South Grounds for Independence Day to watch the fireworks, but that stopped when Clinton came in.
A new life:
Obviously, the Cleaver’s chat with Brent Chinery was not only informative, but also revealing of the mindset required to succeed in the highly demanding careers of those who serve as guardians of the White House, its staff and residents. It also speaks to the stalwart nature of the family members who stand in support of those officers.
The Chinerys are pleased with their choice to move to the Harrison area, and generous in sharing their experiences. Brent Chinery said his parents have a place at Houghton Lake where his own family would vacation, so he knew retirement would bring them to this area. For a couple years, they checked out listings from Houghton Lake down to Clare, and after looking at many homes, their real estate agent said he had one more place for them to check out.
“We walked into this house and we both looked at each other and said ‘This is the place,’” Chinery said. “This is the one.”
They particularly enjoy the home’s relative isolation, something they had desired.
The Chinerys are parents to three sons and one daughter, ranging in age from 24 to 29. Travis, 24, is serving in the Navy and is currently on deployment. Their daughter, Alexis, moved from Maryland to Michigan a couple years ago and resides in Birch Run.
The Chinerys said they have found the Harrison community to be very friendly.
“That’s an adjustment for us,” Brent said. “When I go into a store I’ll ask somebody for help and they’ll walk you over and show you; back in Maryland they’ll blow you off. We’re not used to people actually helping you.”
Kim, who previously had only ever lived in Maryland, said it’s a whole different culture from Maryland to Northern Michigan, with its slower pace with less stress.
“Everybody we’ve met has been so friendly,” she said.
Kim went on to describe their interactions with an electrician and well driller, remarking how wonderfully welcoming they had been, both professionally and socially. The couple also has been surprised to find payment expected upon completion of work or on delivery, rather than having to pay a deposit up front.
“In Maryland, they want all your money right now,” Brent said.
He said the only obstacle he has encountered in Harrison is in getting his concealed weapons permit, saying that despite having a card from Homeland Security saying he can carry anywhere in the United States, the clerk told him he had to take the class. He said he did not have to take the class, but the clerk was insistent that the class was not waived for anyone.
“I wasn’t going to argue with her, and left,” he said. “I called back to the D.C. legal department, and they said ‘You don’t have to take the class, Brent. That’s why you have the card.’”
It seems doubtful the Chinerys’ assimilation into the community could suffer from such a minor glitch. They are resilient people who bring with them a wealth of experience and a profound willingness to be part of their “something new.”
Celebrity Sightings at the White House
By Dianne Alward-Biery
Cleaver Staff Writer
HARRISON – Far more people than politicians make their way to the White House, and retired Secret Service officer Brent Chinery mentioned a few during his interview with the Cleaver.
“I met a lot of celebrities,” Chinery said. “When the Queen of England was visiting, and Peyton Manning came in. Kim asked ‘Did you see the queen?’ and I said, No, I got to see Peyton Manning – I’m talking to Peyton Manning.”
Chinery also spoke of a time the on-duty usher was not at her post when Reba McEntyre came to visit President Bush, and McEntyre attempted to hand Chinery her umbrella. Fortunately, the usher returned at that moment.
Chinery also recalled a birthday party for President Obama, held just prior to Chinery’s retirement.
“I wasn’t supposed to work it, because I had a different assignment,” he said. Chinery verified his schedule and thought ‘Good, I don’t have to work the birthday party tonight.’ But a call later on notified him that he was indeed working the birthday party in the residence. It turned out Chinery’s supervisor had manipulated the schedule to ensure his attendance.
“So the place is just jam-packed,” he said, and described his position as standing at the bottom of the stairs which lead up to the residence. “Standing next to me is Paul McCartney and his wife [Nancy Shevell] and Ellen [Degeneres] and her wife [Portia DiRossi] standing on the other side of me having a conversation across me.”
Another enjoyable encounter with people of note included an exchange with former wrestling celebrity and then Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. [It should be noted here that both Ventura and Chinery are men of imposing stature, and neither is encumbered by head hair.]
“He came in for the Governors’ Dinner,” Chinery said. “He came in and he looks at me, and I’m looking at him. He walked over to me and shook my hand and he said, ‘You are one good looking guy.’ And I said ‘Right back at ya,’ and he started laughing. He said ‘I appreciate your service,’ then [as he was leaving] turned around and said ‘Good lookin’ guy.’”