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Bohn Touches ‘Nerve Center’

Book looks at how White House operates in a crisis.

Known as the “Sit Room,” the White House Situation Room was created 42 years ago to help the president and his advisors deal with crises.

Now, as the nation builds toward a possible war with Iraq and more and more rests on goings-on inside the Situation Room, Mike Bohn’s book “Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room” gets its release.

Bohn speaks from experience, having served as the director of the Situation Room under President Reagan.

During his time there, he was drawn into the Iran-Contra Affair. So, after two years as the director, he retired from the Navy and started working as a program manager for Booz Allen Hamilton. He worked there for four years, also starting a home remodeling business in 1990.

Bohn knew he wanted to write, but didn’t know how to get started. He told his friend Gene Gibbons, managing editor of stateline.org, that he was trying to do some freelancing for some larger publications. Bohn was frustrated because he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Gibbons said that he had a better chance of getting published if he wrote for local newspapers.

Taking Gibbons’ advice, Bohn submitted an article about the Wellington neighborhood to Marlene Miller, then-editor of the Mount Vernon Gazette. Miller liked the article and asked him to write some more stories.

Thus began the beginning of his writing career. Bohn continued to write for the Gazette, using his keen sense of research to focus on the history of neighborhoods and local families.

“I enjoyed doing that and it emboldened me to think about other writing projects,” said Bohn.

FOLLOWING THE ADVICE of many writers, he decided to “write what you know.”

He knew what kind of things happened in the Situation Room, and felt that he could talk to other directors about their experiences. “I had a lot of stories while I worked there and figured that everybody else would,” said Bohn.

In 1994, he approached the Washington Post about doing an article on the Situation Room; they wanted him to focus on the Iran-Contra Affair, but Bohn wasn’t interested in writing about dirty laundry.

So, he decided to write a book. With little more than an outline in mind, he drafted a proposal and sent it out to a few agents. They weren’t interested, but another friend turned out to be very helpful. Sandy Doyle, senior publications editor for the Naval Historical Center, suggested to Mike that he submit his idea to Brassey’s Inc.

Established in 1886, Brassey's is one of the world's oldest military publishers with titles that analyze and comment on past, present and future events and technology that affect the world. One of Doyle’s former co-workers at the Naval Historical Center, Rick Russell, had recently become the trade publisher for Brassey’s Inc., and invited Bohn to give them a proposal.

BRASSEY’S LIKED the concept, but wanted him update his knowledge of the Situation Room. He started contacting members of the Clinton administration, which resulted in one of his most important breakthroughs: meeting Tony Lake, Clinton’s first national security advisor.

With the information he got from Lake, and others, Bohn was able to submit a sample chapter. By May 2001, he had a contract; his deadline for the book’s completion was November of that same year.

He interviewed as many presidents, past presidents, security advisors and former Sit Room directors as he could. On that list are Robert McNamara, Alexander Haig, Ted Sorensen, John Poindexter, Henry Kissinger and George H.W. Bush; Jimmy Carter was the only president to decline an interview. As he interviewed, he wrote the stories. And then he stitched them all together.

“I didn’t have to force myself into a routine. I would just write until I was stiff and had to get up,” said Bohn. He met his November deadline and then waited for the production process to be completed.

“It takes almost a year to get from draft to the shelf,” said Bohn, not anticipating that production problems would delay the book even longer. Due to be released in August, 2002, it was just released last month.

FOR A BOOK BY A FIRST-TIME AUTHOR, “Nerve Center” is doing very well. Since Bohn worked in the Situation Room when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, he was called by CNN and Fox & Friends to speak when Columbia disintegrated during reentry.

Since then, he has done numerous radio interviews, and may be featured in a column by Helen Thomas, former White House correspondent. Bohn said that local bookstores are having a hard time keeping the book on the shelf. “Politics and Prose sold out of it immediately,” he said.

Brassey’s has already committed to a second printing, and Bohn is hoping for some national coverage soon. He is already working on a second book, “Legacy of Terror: The Achille Lauro Hijacking," a story about two families involved in the October 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship. He has in mind ideas for a third non-fiction book, as well as a plot for a novel.

Bohn continues to turn to his friends and calls on Doyle for writing advice, calling her his “sanity check.”

“What makes the books so engaging is Mike’s use of oral history,” Doyle said of “Situation Room.” “He puts a human face on the Situation Room, and we get a candid look at how former presidents and White House officials responded in times of crises.”

Gibbons hasn’t read the book yet, but said, “I think Mike is to be commended. He worked hard and brought the book to fruition. It’s a very interesting subject by somebody who can write credibly, being on the inside. He has interesting stories to tell; I’m looking forward to reading it.

On Tuesday, March 11, Mike Bohn will be at the Mount Vernon Country Club, 5111 Old Mill Road, at 7 p.m., to talk about his book. He will answer questions and sign copies of his book, which will be for sale that evening. For more information call 207-990-0170.