Thank you, Amy, for inviting me to guest post on your site. I appreciated your questions very much. To start off, you asked about what I learned personally and professionally from working in the White House.
I think it all comes down to power. As we learned in school, so much of presidential power is the ability to persuade, to use the bully pulpit to set the national agenda and convince us that the president’s way is the best way forward. He can negotiate with individual lawmakers. Or, he can appeal directly to the public. If he makes his case well enough, the public will in turn push their representatives to support his agenda.
I majored in Political Communication at The George Washington University, with my freshman dorm literally three blocks away from the White House complex. It was heady stuff to study the history of White House institutional power, and then go to my internship and see the current practitioners at work. I watched them wrangle with Congress over health care reform, balanced budgets, NAFTA, and all kinds of other issues. As they did so, they spent their sweat and brainpower crafting messages that they hoped would sway the public. Meeting after meeting was devoted to fine-tuning ideas and crafting the language to sell them. Communication was key. My bosses attended meetings for long-term message, short-term message, and message of the day. Again, if they could just convince enough Americans that what we wanted to do was best, with the help of their phone calls and letters to their representatives, we could pass our legislation.
There was power in the collective, for sure. The president could multiply his will in the world through the work of his staff and much of his administration. But the power I enjoyed watching the most belonged to the man himself. Nothing made me happier than seeing the president at his best.
One moment stands out most in my mind, and I write about in the book. We were in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2001. The President was now “former” but he was still formidable, and he was attending an AIDS conference. A teenaged boy began to speak. He shared details of his life with the HIV virus. He spoke of how members of his community, of his own family, wouldn’t touch him for fear of his disease. He spoke of how painful his life has been, and how despite this, he persevered. He refused to give up. He remained happy and hopeful. I wiped away tears as he finished, and I know I wasn’t the only one. While the audience applauded him, the president, unplanned, walked right out on stage and hugged him, and hugged him hard. I could feel the click, click, click from the audience as picture after picture was taken. I was moved because I knew that the next day, that picture would be run in newspapers all over the country. With one action, and one image, the President would make people not just think, but feel: if one of the most powerful men in the world could touch this young man with ease, why were they so afraid? It was a mighty thing to witness the President use his personal power for good, and I treasure each time I was able to do so.
You also asked me how my White House work changed me as a woman. That’s a tough question to answer. Let’s try it this way. My first year there, I aspired to be the smartest shadow in the room. I wanted to anticipate every need and to never be a problem. While I loved my work, I lived in fear of disappointing my bosses, believing that one mistake could sour how a senior staffer saw me and ruin my career in politics. That was a lot of pressure for a young woman, but that’s how I lived. I think if I had stayed on for longer, I could have grown out of this by virtue of being given more managerial responsibility and being pushed to be a boss and not support. But I was an assistant when I left in 1998. It would take leaving the White House to learn how assert myself as a whole person at work, and in my writing. It’s taken subsequent years to grow into someone who deeply respects others’ guidance and opinions, but doesn’t need everyone’s approval in order to act. I hope that the person I am today is not as afraid as the person I was before, that I know in my heart that even in the deepest crisis “this too shall pass.” In politics, where failure can be both shameful and spectacular, it’s easy to forget that.
Thank you again, Amy, for reading GOVERNMENT GIRL and for allowing me to visit with you on your site.
For more information: visit Stacy Parker Aab’s website.
This post is part of the TLC Book Tour.