Former Reagan White House staffer now writes political thrillers

By Arthur Lightbourn

In an upcoming talk to the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club on March 1, Karna Small Bodman will reveal how she drew on her experience as a White House staffer under President Ronald Reagan for six years to create a new career as a writer of political thrillers — three so far — with a fourth on the way.

Her novels are, of course, fictional and focus on plausible national security threats couched in political intrigue, international complications, bureaucratic in-fighting and romance.

But she’ll also be talking about her real-life experience as White House deputy press secretary on March 30, 1981 — the day President Reagan was wounded in an assassination attempt and her immediate boss, White House Press Secretary Jim Brady, was shot in the head and permanently disabled.

“It’s a day seared into my memory,” she said.

In her talk, Bodman will be describing the behind-the-scenes action in the Situation Room of the White House, as the country reacted to initial reports of the assassination attempt.

We interviewed Bodman by telephone at her long-time residence in Naples, Florida.

She and her husband purchased a home in Rancho Santa Fe about a year ago where they now spend their summers.

Recalling the day of the shooting 69 days into Reagan’s presidency, Bodman said: “I was scheduled to be with the President and Jim that day at the hotel. But there was a lot of work to be done, so at the last minute, it was decided that I would stay back and do a press call and other work.”

Had she accompanied them as scheduled, “I would have been standing right next to Jim” when he was struck in the head by the first of six shots fired by John Hinckley, Jr., in his attempt to kill the president as he and his entourage emerged from the Washington Hilton Hotel following Reagan’s address to an AFL-CIO luncheon.

President Reagan suffered a punctured lung from a shot that ricocheted off the armored side of his limousine; a Secret Service agent and a police officer were also wounded.

Partially recovered, the wheelchair-bound Brady has become a leading advocate for stricter gun controls since the shooting.

“Jim was a wonderful guy and still is,” Bodman said. “He’s just terrific. He and his wife, Sarah, live in Delaware on the shore. He always had just the most fabulous sense of humor. He was known as ‘the Bear,’ kind of like a teddy bear.”

The gunman Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has remained under psychiatric care ever since.

Bodman was born Karna Small in Wilmette, Illinois, on Chicago’s north shore. Her father was a banker for the Harris Trust who later went out on his own as a businessman.

Growing up, she said, she never dreamed she would eventually become a journalist, television news anchor, syndicated radio talk show host, a participant and witness to history in the White House, and now a thriller writer.

If anything, she thought she might become a singer or in some way be involved in music.

“My father, in addition to being a businessman, was an accomplished barbershop quartet singer and my mother, who had a master’s degree in music, taught piano until she was 90. For years, I also sang in barbershop quartets. I don’t sing much now, but just for fun, I do write lyrics for country songs.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from the University of Michigan.

“After college, I moved to San Francisco. I was always interested in news, keeping up, and was known as kind of a news junkie.”

She launched her news career as a television reporter for the NBC affiliate KRON-TV and later joined the ABC station KGO-TV as a news anchor.

“I left San Francisco to anchor the ten o’clock news on Channel 5 in Washington, D.C., and when President Ronald Reagan was elected, I became deputy press secretary under Jim Brady.”

She was later appointed senior director and spokesperson for the National Security Council.

When she left the White House after six years, she was the highest ranking woman on the White House staff.

Writing novels was something she always wanted to do, but never had the time.

And when she finally had the time, she had to revise her way of thinking and writing.

“It was an interesting challenge,” she said, “because throughout my different careers, I did a lot of writing, sure; I was either writing television scripts, policy papers or newspaper articles, and there was always a premium on brevity. But in trying to write a novel, you’ve got to take your ideas and extrapolate them into 400 pages. And you get to page 225 and you say, ‘How do I go on from here?’”

Her first thriller, “Checkmate,” was published in 2007, followed by “Gambit,” “Final Finesse” and the soon-to-be published “Castle Bravo.”

What was extremely helpful to her, she said, was joining a number of writers’ groups, including the Mystery Writers of America, (and after she published her first thriller) the International Thriller Writers.

She is currently working on two other books, a sequel to “Castle Bravo” titled “Trust but Verify,” and a one-off book in a more light-hearted vein called “Affairs of State.”

“I spend a lot of time researching,” she said. “Then I write a character list. I do an extensive outline. Then once I do all to that, I sit down and start writing.”

She can write a book in two to three months, she says, if she really focuses on it.

“Many of my author friends say they will spend 25 percent of their time writing and 75 percent marketing. It’s really true.”

Her marketing consists of doing book tours and speaking to groups. “I’ve done, I think it’s up to, 275 or more speeches and events around the country.”

She is married to entrepreneur businessman and venture capital investor Dick Bodman. They met at a charity ball in Washington, D.C., 24 years ago. They have been married for 22 years and have four sons.

Bodman will be the featured speaker on March 1, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club. Members: $30. Non-members: $45. Price includes wine & cheese, and a complimentary autographed copy of Bodman’s latest thriller, “Final Finesse.” To register, please visit: www.rsfgardenclub.org

Quick Facts

Name:

Karna Small Bodman

Distinction:

Former television anchor, deputy press secretary under President Ronald Reagan and senior director of the National Security Council, Karna Small Bodman is the author of three novels. She will be talking about “Turning White House Experience into Political Thrillers” at the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club on March 1, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Resident of:

Rancho Santa Fe, Naples, Florida, and Washington, D.C.

Born:

Wilmette, Illinois, on the north shore of Chicago

Education:

B.A. in liberal arts from the University of Michigan

Family:

Married 22 years to entrepreneurial businessman and investor Dick Bodman.  They have four sons.

They met at a charity ball in Washington, D.C., 24 years ago.

Interests:

Contemporary news, writing lyrics for country music songs and four-part harmony singing. “I sang in barbershop quartets for years.”

Physical regimen:

Cycling and swimming

Recent reading:

“Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever,” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.  Among her favorite thriller writers, she lists Vince Flynn, Lee Child, Nelson DeMille and Rick Robinson.

Favorite TV:

PBS’s “Downtown Abbey,” the British period drama series, and PBS musical shows.

Recent favorite film:

“Midnight in Paris,” a Woody Allen film starring Owen Wilson

Favorite getaway:

Rancho Santa Fe

Philosophy:

As her father always said, “Treat your finances as if you’ll live forever, but treat your friends as if you’ll die tomorrow.”

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