A Challenge to Cynics
The White House Fellows Program, begun in 1964, was the product of two powerful ideas - that excellence was a worthy aspiration for those in the public and private sectors, and that the nation needed leaders comfortable in moving between these two worlds. Its design came from a Republican, John Gardner, then Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. A new president, Lyndon Johnson, who had come into office in November the previous year following the tragic events in Dallas, liked the concept and a bipartisan program was born. John Gardner and Lyndon Johnson believed that excellence and service could and should transcend party and the eight presidents who have followed - five Republican and three Democrat - have embraced the program and its idealism.
As a young, aspiring scholar who envisioned a career in academia, I was encouraged by one of my teachers, Doris Kearns, herself a White House Fellow, to apply for it. Little did I realize what a profound effect the fellowship would have on my life. My selection as part of the 10th class of White House Fellows came during a challenging time for the nation, the summer of 1974. By then, the program was well established, had developed a reputation for bipartisanship in its selection process, and was placing fellows for their job assignments alongside senior government officials.
Once they are appointed by the president, White House Fellows interview across the government for their job assignment. I interviewed with then-Vice President Gerald Ford and when he offered me a position on his staff on July 31, Ford requested I come as soon as possible. I arrived the morning of August 9, the day he was sworn as the nation's 38th president. He assigned me to work with his assistant for economic affairs, William Seidman, who mentored and befriended me in countless ways. I was fortunate to return to serve in the White House for nearly another decade under two of Gerald Ford's successors, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as director of the White House office responsible for developing economic and domestic policy. Now, I had the opportunity to help in mentoring eight White House Fellows who served in our office.
Many citizens in our day have become skeptical about the motives and actions of those in government. They believe that decisions are driven by the quest for political advantage and are dominated by short-term considerations. And some decisions are. Having been involved in the selection of White House Fellows as a Commissioner under seven presidents - four Republican and three Democrat - I can affirm that the Commission's selection process is non-partisan, that the emphasis remains on excellence and the potential for leadership, and that those who are chosen retain a commitment to service in its many forms. The fellows who are selected each year find that those with whom they serve in government are hard-working, well-intentioned, and determined to solve problems large and small. They leave their fellowship year as members of a community full of friendship and committed to service.
At this challenging time in our nation's history it is worth celebrating a program that has inspired hundreds to lead a life committed to excellence and service in both the public and private sectors.
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