I watched Ronald Reagan’s funeral from a hotel meeting room in Annapolis. All during that week, the tributes to the late president emphasized his optimism and his unquenchable belief that America’s best days are ahead. I shared that day with a group of remarkable young people who, I think, should make us all optimistic about America’s future.
That’s because I was at a session of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. It was the start of the weekend during which my fellow commissioners and I pick next year’s class of fellows from a group of around 30 finalists. This is my third year as a commissioner and it is a wonderful experience, not only because of the outstanding young men and women who are chosen to be fellows. Yes, they get the chance of a lifetime, but the commissioners get the chance to meet a few young people who very well may be tomorrow’s leaders.
Founded in 1964, the program’s goal is to give highly motivated young Americans some experience in government, working in the executive branch. Fellows typically spend a year as paid assistants to the White House staff, or working for the vice president or for Cabinet secretaries.
Puh-lease don’t confuse it with being picked to be a White House intern! The finalists are usually in their mid-twenties to late thirties and already have considerable achievements–the kind of achievements that make you wonder why your own kids didn’t earn their law and medical degrees simultaneously or start a multimillion-dollar Internet company or lead the strike force that subdued northern Iraq. Colin Powell, Wesley Clark, and Elaine Chao were all once White House Fellows.
The commission’s chairwoman is Julie Nixon Eisenhower, a woman of remarkable charm and tact. Last year she opened the session by telling the nervous finalists, “I come from a family that knows a lot about winning and a lot about losing, and just by being a finalist, you are a winner.” And it’s true. The finalists have already been winnowed down by regional panels from as many as 1,000 applicants.
During the course of the weekend, they are interviewed in intense 20-minute sessions by a panel of three commissioners. I’ve heard that the finalists this year considered talk-show host Armstrong Williams and Edith Jones, a no-nonsense appeals-court judge from Houston, the toughest interrogators. I was on the same panel as Armstrong and, believe me, he wasn’t easy, asking probing questions about how the candidate would behave in different situations that might arise. Especially when the situation involved difficult ethical choices.
Some of the finalists are clearly children of privilege, but just as many are not. There are the sons and daughters of immigrants who have won scholarships to Stanford or Harvard, have great jobs, and give time to mentoring others. They know they have fulfilled their parents’ American dream and are touchingly grateful both to their parents and to this country.
A few come from difficult backgrounds but say there was always someone who cared for them when they were growing up, who emphasized the importance of education. In the past, some finalists have told us about their single moms who worked two or three jobs, but who always had time to check their homework and demand they do their very best.
This year a young engineer talked about his grandfather, who earned four dollars a week and on retirement got a turkey, and nothing else. Nevertheless, his grandfather still believed his six children and his many grandchildren could do anything, be anything. And they all–every one of them–have graduated from college and been done well for themselves.
Another finalist, a lawyer, said the person who changed his life was his sixth-grade teacher. It was her first year teaching, and she insisted that he take the entrance exam for the best public school in their city. The boy’s family didn’t care, and he didn’t want to leave his friends and his neighborhood to travel to a school an hour away. But she called him at home every night for three weeks, badgering and cajoling. He passed the test, of course, and now knows going to that school made the difference in his life. He says he has tried to find that teacher, but has never succeeded. He says he thinks about her almost every day.
I always leave my commission meeting inspired by the young people I’ve met and more confident of our nation’s future. As Ronald Reagan once said, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.”