Many Mentors on Road to the White House: Meet George & Paul (Part 3)
Anyone who has ever worked with George Stephanopoulos knows that he’s a bona fide “work horse” – a prerequisite for his many high-profile jobs over the years. These positions range from serving as a top advisor to President Bill Clinton, to hosting “This Week” at ABC News and anchoring “Good Morning America” (GMA).
As noted in the prior post (Part 2), I had the privilege of working for George when I was a 20 year-old intern in Congress. Back then, he was the top legislative advisor and “Executive Floor Assistant” to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in the Office of the House Majority Leader.
George was also a magnificent mentor to me, as was Paul Begala (see below). Following are some memories of those early days behind the scenes in the U.S. Capitol and then the White House.
I recall a funny story which helps to exemplify George’s rock solid work ethic:
In addition to assisting him in the office, I would often see George in the cavernous corridors of the U.S. Capitol building around lunch time. He would briskly walk to and from the cafeteria, heading back to the office holding a tray of food. He didn’t have much time to eat due to his heavy workload and the House floor schedule.
The problem for George was that he was often stopped abruptly in the long hallways by staff of other offices seeking his counsel. Therefore, George would have to eat quickly while standing, as he simultaneously advised those who unexpectedly stopped him.
One day, as I witnessed this occurrence, George flagged me over. I beamed with anticipation thinking he probably had an important new assignment for me.
Well, not that time.
Rather, George simply handed me his tray of half finished food as he continued to engage in the serious business of the day. This was the life of an intern in a congressional leadership office.
The job could be both challenging and tedious.
As a mentor, George’s unparalleled work ethic and leadership made a strong impression on me. I learned many invaluable lessons from him at a young age which, in turn, helped to shape my career.
Calm, Cool & Collected
In addition to his admirable work ethic, George (pictured above) always set a great example as a mentor by being cool, calm and collected. He was the proverbial “rock in the storm” -- no matter how critical the crisis at hand.
One late afternoon, after a bruising legislative battle and subsequent victory on the House floor, I was taken aback by what I observed...
Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich, an outspoken political nemesis, had sent George a bottle of champagne with a nice note attached. I wondered to myself:
Why would such an infamous political opponent, like Newt, bother singling out George with a personal gift?
After all, George helped lead the charge in defeating key parts of Newt’s Republican legislative and political agenda. But I soon learned that being an influential “work horse” (like George) even won over the sincere respect and admiration of the most partisan political enemies.
Please Spell That
Another monotonous duty of a congressional intern is helping to field the never-ending front office phone calls which light up the dashboard.
Interestingly enough, it turned out that an unexpected number of callers simply wanted to know how to spell and pronounce George’s last name, for purposes of correspondence, attribution, etc. This was another stark sign of his increasing influence.
But even back in 1990, few people knew that George’s long last name would soon become a household name.
George’s success stemmed from his herculean work ethic, fierce discipline, high intelligence and profound professionalism – not to mention political and legislative genius, of course. He also happens to be an all around nice guy.
This first-hand experience with George made a world of difference in my own professional aspirations and career maturation -- which ultimately led to receiving a coveted political appointment and working in the White House for the Administration of President Bill Clinton (that is, after working on his 1992 presidential campaign and then being assigned to the Presidential Transition Office prior to inauguration; all while receiving very low pay with no guarantee of landing any permanent job after Clinton took office in late January 1993).
- Pictured Below: My parents and I with the President in the Oval Office following a Saturday morning live radio address to the nation.
Our paths would cross again during 1993-1994, when George was a well known senior advisor
and "Assistant to the President." I recall one time with him in the lower press office, which opens up to the White House Briefing Room for reporters. We were watching CNN behind closed doors as then Secretary of State Warren Christopher gave a press conference just a few feet away. Then, after it ended, Secretary Christopher left the podium, opened the sliding door entering the lower press office, and asked us, "How did I do?" George flashed the thumbs up sign.
George was also a pseudo celebrity by then, as part of the public face of the Clinton Administration. Thus, when George walked outside the White House grounds, for instance, he would often be stopped by tourists asking to pose with him for photos. Being courteous and polite, George would always oblige.
His good manners and sense of humility also left a lasting impression.
Laughter = Best Medicine
Another important lesson I learned in those days was maintaining a good sense of humor in a highly stressful and demanding work environment.
In addition to assisting George, I was also privileged to work for another political genius: Paul Begala, one of the closest confidants to presidential campaign manager and advisor, James Carville. In fact, I still recall Paul telling me to keep a look out in the Wall Street Journal for a profile article he had arranged on Carville, whom no one in Washington had really heard of back then. Paul used to joke that Carville "wasn't playing with a full deck, but only I know which cards are missing."
After finding and reading the article, I thought to myself: who the heck is this strange looking political consultant from Louisiana anyway? Carville would later affectionately be known by such monikers as, "The Ragin' Cajun" and "Cue Ball Carville" because of his bald head. Meanwhile, Paul's friends nicknamed him, "The Fetus" due to the apparent facial resemblance.
Paul was a senior speechwriter and shrewd strategist for
Congressman Gephardt and later a top political and policy advisor to
President Clinton. He also happens to be one of the most gregarious people in Washington. You may have seen Paul providing political commentary and analysis on CNN or other TV news programs, like "Meet the Press" (pictured below).
Paul taught me the significance of not taking oneself too seriously all the time; in addition to having some fun at work, if and when possible.
Paul showed me, among other things, that laughter can indeed be the best medicine in stressful situations. This was especially helpful if I had a panic attack due to the magnitude of any given moment – like when a big work project was presented to me.
Jokes and Jabs
Paul’s vibrant personality and cunning wit helped cut through the prevalent pressure of working in Congress and the White House.
His impeccable timing with jokes and jabs made for a better workplace amid the incessant intensity. Paul made the office environment more enjoyable, which equated to higher employee engagement, productivity and morale – all of which are essential elements for any successful team effort.
Paul liked to joke that:“Politics is show business for ugly people”'
This may help to explain how I got these jobs in the first place.
Even in the White House, Paul would often tease me in his Texas twang with witty refrains such as:
- “Grinberg, what are YOU doing here? When did they let you out of Rikers Island?” (he knew I was a native New Yorker, as he noted the infamous high security prison).
- Or Paul might quip: “Grinberg, even YOU could be Vice President…You look good in a suit!”
Paul also taught me the intricate rules of speech writing, political
communication and media relations. He was (and still is) a master
wordsmith and communicator.
Had it not been for George, Paul and many others who helped me
along the way, it’s doubtful I would have made it to the White House in
my early 20s. Thus, in closing this 3-part series, I offer the following advice to today's teens and 20-somethings (Millennials and Gen Z) seeking to get ahead and/or jump start their budding careers:
It often takes many marvelous mentors to achieve big career goals at a young age. No one does it alone.
What do YOU think? Who were some of YOUR mentors that had a lasting impact?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I'm
an independent writer and
strategic communications advisor with over 20 years of experience in the
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NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.