After a morning Alumni-Faculty forum on bipartisanship, the ‘Prince’ sat down with Bruce Reed ’82, the chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and an assistant to the President, to discuss his two tours in the White House, his career aspirations as a Princeton student and "surviving your 20s."
Q: What’s a day in the life?
A: My day starts at 7:30 a.m. I go into a senior staff meeting with Jack Lew, the [President’s] chief of staff, and other senior advisers to the President. We digest that news and make our plan for the day, then do a staff meeting with my staff; the Vice President’s staff is about 50. Then usually the Vice President goes into the President’s office where they have an intelligence briefing at about 9:30 in the morning.
Every day is different depending on where we are in the year. Starting the year I did a lot of work working on policy for the State of the Union. Last summer I was deep in the middle of the debt-ceiling battle. This summer my boss is out on the campaign trail quite a bit, and my day usually ends with another senior staff meeting at the end of the day, and I usually get out of there at about 9 p.m. or so, which is not the worst time in Washington.
Q: Speaking of being in Washington, you’re quite a veteran after being in the White House twice.
A: Yeah, so when I left Princeton I spent a couple of years in England, got a master’s degree in English literature, so I was singularly unemployable. Thought I would become a journalist, but magazine business was on hard times, so I went to Washington to see what it was like. I had grown up around politics, so that was a family business I could fall back on. Went to go work for Al Gore because I thought he was going places. He was a freshman senator,sp and I was his first speechwriter, and I worked with him in the Senate for a few years, worked on his 1998 presidential campaign. We didn’t do that well, but I became totally addicted to the idea of presidential politics.
I left him to go to the Democratic Leadership Council where [former President Bill] Clinton was chairman, and I was in charge of policy on the Clinton campaign and, to my surprise, having grown up in Idaho where I never want to campaign, we won the 1992 campaign, and I spent the next eight years in the White House. My wife is also from out west; we thought we would stay in Washington then head back out west, but there aren’t a lot of jobs for Democrats in my home state.
But politics is a very cyclical business; it has a lot of highs and some lows, and sometimes a lot gets done, and sometimes it’s excruciatingly difficult to get things done. But I’m a big believer in public service, and it’s the kind of work where you never have to wonder if it matters. Some days you do better than others, but at least you know you’re in the arena.
Q: What’s it been like over your two times in the White House?
A: I love the White House; the President sets the agenda. They have the ability to put ideas [out there] and the ability to lead the nation. So in that way it’s always a fascinating place to be — even in the darkest days of the 1990s where the Republican Congress was trying to impeach my boss — because it’s such a privilege. If you tune out the noise, there’s so much a president can do — from the stroke of a pen to a speech from a pulpit to help people’s lives and inspire greatness.
Q: Looking back at yourself when you were at Princeton, what did you want to do for your career?
I always wanted to be a writer when I was here, I took a class with [journalism professor] John McPhee when he was here, and I majored in English. One of the benefits of the jobs I’ve had in politics is the chance to write a lot. When Republicans were in power I wrote a book, I wrote magazine articles, was a blogger. I had a great time trying to make sense of politics, and I think the tension for any writer is having the ability to form a story from what you are writing about. A true journalist can write about anything, and that’s what John McPhee has done during his career.
I felt that when I was young I didn’t know that much about how the world worked. I thought I did, but I didn’t — so having a host of experiences, some great and others just memorable, has been really enriching. The most satisfying part has being able to do something to make a difference.
Q: What did you wish you knew while you were a student at Princeton?
A: When I was running the Bowles-Simpson commission and working with Alan Simpson and [Erskine] Bowles, Alan Simpson would always ask, “What do you love, what really matters to you in life?” That’s such an unusual question for someone who’s spent their entire career in politics, and he’s 80 now, and yet he’s still reflecting on that question. A lot of people go through life not doing what they like, not choosing their path because they aren’t sure, because there are so many imperatives and temptations in life: somewhere you want to live, someone you want to be with, a living you have to make, and it's very easy to spend your life doing what you need to do without taking into account what you want to do or where you feel you can make the most difference.
That’s the hardest part of growing up — surviving your 20s. What do you want to do with your life, what do you want to get done with the privileges you’ve been given and what do you want to be.
The best advice I ever got at Princeton was from John McPhee: “Survive your 20s with your dreams alive.” The crushing fate for many writers is giving up on it over the course of their 20s where it’s so hard to make a living, to get a foot in the door, so hard to make a name for yourself. He said the worst thing is that your dreams have been crushed by circumstance. If you can get through your 20s and have that not happen, then you’ll be happy in life.
I never imagined when I was very young that I’d be here. I had fantasies of being a Major League Baseball player and being a politician. But those two dreams died when I couldn’t hit a baseball and came from a state where very few people agreed with me. But I never imagined that I’d be working at the White House working on domestic and economic policy, but it’s been an incredible privilege. You need to find a way to use the other dreams that were nurtured here at Princeton to keep at it. Princeton students are so talented, so driven, and have so many options that it’s often hard to remember that finding a way to do what you love is the real goal, and a place like this makes it a lot easier to achieve that goal.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/06/01/31004/