Front Cover: Bit Player


Bit Player

My Life with Presidents and Ideas

Stephen Hess
Release Date: October 30, 2018

An insightful, often humorous look at how Washington works, or doesn’t

The title “Bit Player” perfectly reflects Stephen Hess’s long and distinguished career as a Washington insider. As a 25-year-old, recently discharged Army private in 1958, he suddenly found himself as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speechwriting team that ultimately helped draft the famed “Farewell Address” warning of the influence of the “military industrial complex.” Then over the next two decades, Hess played bit roles aiding Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan—along the way observing up-close those presidents and many other senior political leaders. During his subsequent four-and-a-half decades at the Brookings Institution, Hess was well-positioned to monitor and comment on the achievements and failures of successive administrations.

This memoir by a certified member of Washington’s old-guard establishment is rich with insight into contemporary American democracy, poignant in its reflections of avoidable missteps by even the best and most experienced leaders, and consistently good-humored in the author’s self-awareness of his own role behind the scenes of political power.

Now in his mid-eighties, still involved at Brookings as a “senior fellow emeritus,” Hess uses this memoir to look back at what he describes as concentric circles of research, travel, advising, writing, and teaching. But more than just a memoir, Bit Player offers deeply informed commentary on the major political actors and seminal events in the nation’s capital over the past six decades.

One of the foremost authorities on media and government in the United States, Stephen Hess is a senior fellow emeritus in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. He first joined Brookings in 1972 and was distinguished research professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University (2004–2009). Hess served on White House staff during the Eisenhower and Nixon presidencies and as advisor to Presidents Ford and Carter.

Praise for Bit Player:

“You’ve seen his name in stories about the White House and media, and on the spines of many influential books. And now Stephen Hess the well-known Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus, has finally written his story. But Bit Player: My Life with Presidents and Ideas vastly underplays the role of the political guru who worked with five presidents and has been the go-to expert for hundreds of reporters.”
—Paul Bedard, Washington Examiner

“For decades Hess has been a go-to scholar for all things related to the U.S. presidency. His political erudition, historical knowledge, and sound judgment are legendary in official Washington. Bit Player is Hess’s first-rate memoir of his years as the Sage of the Brookings Institution. Highly recommended!”
—Douglas Brinkley, Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and professor of history at Rice University; author of Cronkite

“My favorite political question is ‘Who was in the room?’ Since the early years of the Cold War, ‘Steve Hess’ was a good bet for the answer. If his humility has made him an anachronism, this gold mine of a memoir will take him to his much-deserved role in history’s spotlight.”
—Chris Matthews, host, Hardball with Chris Matthews

“Steve Hess has been anything but a ‘bit player’ in American politics over the past 60 years. From Ike to Nixon to Ford to, yes, Jimmy Carter and on to Reagan—Steve was a key player behind the scenes. During that time and ever since, he has been an influential voice for what our politics used to be—and could be again. I met Steve when I was a student at Harvard and he has always been great company. Read Bit Player and you will agree, as he takes you along for a rollicking ride through the twists and turns of Washington over the years.”
—Chris Wallace, host, Fox News Sunday

“There’s a surprise on every page of this delightful tale of a man who’s managed to be at the center of the action in Washington from Eisenhower’s time until now. Steve Hess has led an astonishing life that provides texture and background to the main turning points in the modern American story, and underscores why what happens in Washington matters.”
—Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor, PBS NewsHour


Stephen Hess is the author of numerous award-winning books about politics and the media, including The Presidential Campaign; The Ultimate Insiders: U.S. Senators in the National Media; The Washington Reporters; and Nixon: a Political Portrait, with Earl Mazo. The Brookings Press published Hess’s books The Professor and the President in 2014 and America’s Political Dynasties from Adams to Clinton in 2016.

Media Coverage

Brookings’ Stephen Hess, Washington’s most influential ‘Bit Player’