Mentors on Road to White House: Inside Congress (Part 2)
I've always been a big believer in the philosophy of "no risk, no reward."
In that sense, my perseverance and faith at a young age helped propel me to secure a coveted internship at the pinnacle of
power in the United States Congress. This singular work experience was the springboard on my improbable journey from a journalism student at the University of Maryland to landing a White House political appointment at age 23.
I was also very fortunate that the intangible factors of good luck and
timing worked in my favor -- in addition to persistence and hard work (see Part I of this series). As I noted, trying to secure this high-level internship within the Office of the House Majority Leader in the U.S. Capitol building was a long shot, to say the least.
No one thought I stood a chance -- expect me, of course.
But sometimes life has an unexpected way of unlocking doors when you aim high for a big goal and set your mind on achieving it, despite the overwhelming odds and naysayers along the way. Sometimes the "stars align" and everything appears to magically fall into place, as it did for me on my road to the White House.
Foot in the Door
As I pointed out in the prior post, many people on campus wondered aloud why one of the most powerful offices in Congress would want me?
As I explained, this was a good question for several reasons:
- Congressman Richard A. Gephardt represented St. Louis, Missouri, whereas I'm a native New Yorker who had no ties whatsoever to the so-called Show Me State.
- Neither my family nor I were active party members or donors.
- I had no connections on Capitol Hill at that time.
- I did not attend an Ivy League college.
In short, I took a long leap of faith and plowed ahead undeterred. I took comfort in knowing that sometimes long shots come in when least expected. I was also mindful of the adage, "If you never try, you will never succeed." Furthermore, I maintained a completely positive mindset and visualized the success I sought.
As luck would have it, unknown to me, the Congressman's senior administrative aide and decision maker for hiring interns (Bobby) was a University of Maryland (UMD) graduate. In fact, he had a degree in government and politics. This was my minor as an undergrad and part of the internship program in the Department of Political Science that led me to this point.Therefore, Bobby was far more familiar than most people with the national reputation of the award-winning student newspaper where I had worked, in addition to the highly rated College of Journalism at UMD. And, while I still have no definitive proof, I'm almost certain these unknown factors carried the extra weight which tipped the scale for me.
The internship involved my working several days a week from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (or later) as a "confidential assistant" to senior staff. I did this while juggling a full course load and continuing to write weekly op-eds for the student newspaper.
In hindsight, this single internship would be the catalyst for my future career path, which ultimately led to working in the White House
for President Clinton when he first took office in January 1993. That was the big goal.
Looking back now, it seems like a lifetime ago.
However, I still vividly recall my alarm clock ringing at 5:30 a.m. as I proceeded to warily make my way downstairs of the off-campus townhouse to gulp down several cups of coffee before getting dressed and heading out. In fact, some mornings my roommates were still awake partying from the previous night. Other times, they were crashed out on the couch with the TV or stereo still on -- along with countless empty beer cans and cigarette butts littering the living room.
Men Behind the Curtain
It was within the cavernous confines of the U.S. Capitol that I had the privilege of closely working with George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala, who were then Capitol Hill veterans and served as my mentors. These political pros were the "movers and shakers" in the House of Representatives.
At the time, George was the top legislative advisor and "Executive Floor Assistant” to Congressman Gephardt, accompanying him on the House floor during debates and voting. Paul was the speechwriter and master of messaging. Most people outside Washington never knew their names back then, as they operated as the proverbial men behind the curtain.
What I learned working side-by-side with George and Paul was more valuable than all of my political science classes combined.
This was because, as
the saying goes, "The best experience for life is life." In fact, this seminal work experience was a
game changer in my fledgling career and helped to ultimately obtain a gig at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (where the White House is located).
George and Paul not only taught me invaluable lessons about government, politics and the press, but also some of the fundamental life lessons of career success for anyone in any field. These included:
- A strong work ethic and tenacious discipline,
- Professionalism and organizational loyalty,
- Maintaining a sense of humor during tough times, and
- Displaying "grace under pressure" -- which the great American novelist Ernest Hemingway equated with "courage" and used as a common literary theme for character development.
Show Horse vs. Work Horse
The opportunity to intern in any Congressional office always involves working your tail off. This strong work ethic was exemplified by my mentors in the Office of the Majority Leader.
George, for example, was a wonderful role model. He usually worked 12-hour days, and sometimes that was the exception. His job, like that of other senior staff, demanded working from sunrise to sunset and often into the late evening hours. George's schedule depended on the Congressman’s schedule which, among other things, was influenced by the legislative, political and media circumstances on any given day or week.
Throughout my daily interactions with George and Paul, I quickly learned the legislative process from the inside-out. Moreover, I quickly learned the
difference between a “show horse” and a “work horse.” The former of which were all too noticeable on Capitol Hill, while the latter were barely noticed outside of Congress.
One of my early morning duties was opening the office by 7:00 a.m. The only person who arrived before me was George (pictured on right). He diligently prepared for the day ahead as the sun rose over the dome of the U.S. Capitol, illuminating it in a golden haze.
George personified some of the age-old wisdom of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. In this case, "The early bird catches the worm." And George caught many worms, so to speak.
I brought George the morning newspapers, which he quickly perused while planning political and communication strategy. Despite how busy they were, George and Paul graciously took the time to teach me about the important and often misunderstood interplay of government, politics and the news media.
One of lessons I learned was how the mainstream news media molded public opinion and influenced the legislative process.
While this was something
one could certainly study in school books, it wasn’t nearly the same as
having the first-hand experience.
In essence, George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala were critically important mentors who helped expand my career horizons and break new ground going forward.
Who were the mentors who helped shape YOUR career?
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.