In November of 2012 I was invited to the White House as part of a Florida Leadership Work Group. Our task was to discuss and organize grassroots opposition to the Sequester, the Fiscal Cliff, and the impending federal debt default. I will not bore you about the discussion, what we organized, or about ultimate success during a surreal moment of political-economic history. Instead, I thought I would share what it is like to be asked to the White House as a political advocate.
The Invitation is by email.
It is in a forwarded email actually–transitionally sent through someone more important than the ultimate recipient–which requests that an RSVP be made to a third-person, who is also more important. The ultimate invitation is signed by yet a fourth person of consequence, on behalf of his boss who is so consequential she doesn’t even send her own emails. It is she who will be the host and President’s representative at the meeting.
At the time, I was Leon County’s DEC chief, and my invitation was sent courtesy of the Vice Chair of the Florida Democratic Party. I was requested to respond to the ex-director of the President’s Florida Campaign (who was the organizer of the event) and the actual invitation was from the White House Office of Public Engagement. Our host would be Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President of the United States.
Yes, it was impersonal; yes, the date was unfeasible, (the meeting was scheduled for the Monday after Thanksgiving, which was only a few days away); yes, there was a dress code problem (I was visiting family in south Florida and my suits were in Tallahassee)–never-the-less, after rereading the email several times trying to discern whether it might be a prank or I might be misunderstanding something–I excitedly picked up the phone to friends and family: “I’ve been invited to the White House!”
“White House” really means the Eisenhower Executive Building.
“White House,” it turned out, unless you are an ambassador, cabinet member, or medal of honor recipient–means “Eisenhower Executive Building.” They do not tell you this in the invitation or the numerous follow-up emails and conference calls until you are in Washington. (Perhaps an invitation to “White House adjacent” would be less inspiring in getting guests to ditch their families during a holiday and travel last minute at great personal expense to discuss economics with policy wonks.)
Any suggestion, even if done with humor, that the Eisenhower Executive Building is not the White House, will be met with aggressive dissent by staffers who work at the Eisenhower Executive Building but apparently explain to friends and family that they work at the White House.
Indeed, the Presidential standard and crests are everywhere. Our huge meeting room, decorated with photos of more important people in more important meeting rooms, even came stocked with the obligatory dark blue curtain for press conferences and podium, each marked with the White House’s official crest. Our invitation, the agenda, the souvenir “thank you” note casually signed “Barack Obama,” every stick of stationary proudly reads: “The White House.” A high-school projector at the fore illuminates the opening slide with “Welcome to the White House.” A similar greeting awaited at the double-oak door in the form of a large sign accompanying a buoying voice from a government employee.
The signage is necessary.
Like many of our most-protected buildings, the publicly-apparent security apparatus of the EEB is designed primarily to keep unauthorized people out. There are multiple outer-compound checkpoints guarded by very serious, but extremely polite, police and Secret Service. (I suppose politeness is a prerequisite since they know your experience with them is immediately followed by a meeting with a head of government.) But once you are in, you are in. You have a bright green “V” pass and, as long as you don’t do something objectively stupid like open a door marked “National Security Agency Only,” you pretty much have free reign over the place, and aside from subtle markings like “Presidential Council of Economic Advisors” or “Remote Nuclear Command” everything on every floor looks the same.
Getting lost, I had to ask someone who clearly had Jack Bauer’s job to show me to the bathroom. (He was super-nice about it; I swear everyone who works at the EEB must have been sent for customer service training at the Ritz Carlton.)
Before the White House asks for your advice; you are sent to their partisan think-tank to be told what your advice will be.
When you are invited to the White House as part of an issue-specific problem work group, before the “discussion,” you are first diverted for hours of seminars and lectures at their public policy think-tank. They tell you that you are there for lunch, but its really more like accepting the free Disney weekend invitation from a timeshare realtor. It’s not “mandatory,” but seeing as they physically walk you from their downtown building to the EEB Secret Service check-in station, attendance is “highly encouraged.”
The lunch itself was buffet–sandwiches, fruit, salad, fancy lemon water–the sort of nightmare scenario that keeps tea-partiers awake when Fox tells them that the First Lady is conspiring to take over the cafeterias of public schools. I think Michael Bloomberg catered.
The lectures and seminars were presented by some of the top intellectuals in taxation and economics, and since I have relevant post-graduate degrees in what they were explaining, I was very entertained as I watched political operatives try to argue and object to peer-reviewed empirical information. After silently laughing for two hours, in an effort to be productive, I began asking friendly leading questions so the experts were able to connect to the operatives in a language they could understand. I’m a little ashamed to admit that there were a few people in the room who apparently didn’t know such basic things as the difference between “debt” and a “deficit.” The reader might not know either, but the reader probably wasn’t asked to advise the Obama administration on economic matters during a national crisis.
With school over, we were escorted the half mile to the conspicuously guarded entrance to the White House-EEB Complex.
You are divided into geographically overlapping groups, told to disclose your political resources, and collectively come up with a plan.
I was a part of the north Florida group which consisted of two representatives from Jacksonville (an influential banker and the director of the Jacksonville Field Office, I think), the Chair of the Franklin County DEC (representing rural counties), and a God of north Florida fundraising (representing the 2nd Congressional District), and myself. For those who care about such things, of the three women and two men, two were African-American and three were Caucasian, with one representing the GLBTA Community.
To begin, there were warm-up, team-building, nonsense exercises reminiscent of mandatory corporate retreats–where there is a lovely park or golf course but you cannot go because you are too busy falling backward into a colleague you wouldn’t trust to refrain from stabbing you in the back let alone catch you.
Time passed. Once we came up with our plan, we presented it to the group at large for comments and suggestions. Then we listened to the other plans and made comments and suggestions. A part of the plan required the participation of elected officials who, theoretically–very theoretically–would listen to me as the Chair of (and chief fundraiser for) their county’s political executive committee.
This gave rise to the most fun series of phone calls I have ever made in my life.
“Hi, this is Richard. I’m calling from the White House.”
Generally, I don’t have difficultly getting a local or regional elected official to take my call. If they’re very busy they might call back in a few hours or text me that they’re in the middle of something.
But there is a unique urgency implied when you leave a message on their cell phone–or even more fun–with their assistant, that you:
- are calling from the White House;
- after an hours long meeting helmed by the President’s chief advisor; and
- the Leader of the whole freaking Free World, the most powerful person on Earth, a human being so exalted and important that hundreds of people are trained for the full-time employment of dying for him if necessary–he, the President of the United States, is tasking YOU with an assignment.
Public meetings were disrupted, private meetings were abruptly ended, at one point I had a majority of a local commission returning my call at the same time.
Influence and access has never been something I have cared much about, aside from how it effects my ability to advocate, but I have to admit, this was about the most fun you can have while wearing a suit. To add to the ambiance, as I made the calls, I was energetically pacing the outside halls.
It was all very “West Wing.”
Follow-up Meetings and Status Sessions were done telephonically.
Obviously the response I got from various leaders is of the deepest confidentiality, but I think its important to make one broad note: The most accommodating, unhesitating, and helpful, leaders–by far–were those publicly perceived as being very conservative. They made no demands, no nuance, and no complaints. They did their work quietly. They were successful. They asked for no credit.
Perhaps it was because they were retired military, merely out of habit, unconditionally heeding the call to action from the Commander-in-chief.