Let me tell you about one of the best things that is happening in Washington, D.C., this week: A new class of White House Fellows is reporting for work on September 1.
The White House Fellowship program gives a dozen or more young people a chance to work for a year in the executive branch of government. There are 14 in this year’s class. These aren’t kids at the intern stage, but men and women, usually between the ages of 25 and 40. They often have outstanding scholastic backgrounds and are in early stages of building impressive careers.
The program, which is strictly non-partisan, was started by LBJ in 1964. Its goal is to give gifted young people a better understanding of how our government functions; at the same time it gives them some first-hand experience in governing the nation. It also tries to expose them to our nation’s leaders as a way to further develop their leadership skills. Past White House fellows have included Doris Kearns Goodwin, Colin Powell, Elaine Chao, Wesley Clark, Tim Wirth, Paul Gigot, Sam Brownback, and a score of educators, military officers, lawyers, and CEOs.
And let me tell you why I am so especially enthusiastic about the program: I have been on the president’s commission that picks the fellows for the past four years and am currently its chairman.
In order to be a fellow, one must fill out a long but interesting application and then make it through a selection by a regional panel About 30 finalists spend a weekend in early June being interviewed by the commissioners, who then select the new class.
I have found it a great opportunity to meet and talk with a group of fantastic young people. The only downside is that these finalists are often so accomplished that you inevitably go home and yell at your kids for being layabouts, even if they are not!
The fellows earn a good salary, almost $100,000, and are placed in jobs with considerable responsibility, often working closely with a cabinet secretary, department head, or their chief of staff. They take a foreign trip and a couple of domestic trips during their tenure and also have an education program with weekly speakers. In July, for example, they heard from Laura Bush — who gave them a tour of the private quarters of the White House — as well as from Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and Colin Powell. They have also spent time with the president, and the last speaker for the 2005-2006 class was Condoleezza Rice, who spent an hour and a half with the fellows. “She talked about the people who had been the greatest influence in her life and about leadership and decision-making,” said Janet Eissenstat, the program’s executive director. “She was just fantastic.”
“The program super-exceeded my expectations. It was off the charts, ” Steve Parker told me. Steve, a major in the Army and West Point graduate worked in the White House in the First Lady’s office on the Helping America’s Youth Initiative. “My job assignment was great. The education program was great and the third part that makes it so terrific is the relationship with the other fellows. We are really close.”
Cory Wilson, a lawyer from Jackson, Mississippi, who worked at the Department of Defense, agreed: “We learned so much on so many different levels. I am just beginning to process it all. It was remarkable to be at the Department, to view up close how hard we are working to defend our country, to keep us safe and free.”
As a commissioner I have learned a lot, too, from the applicants. I have learned that the Armed Forces are a true meritocracy, finding talented young people from different backgrounds, often educating them in the best schools in the world, then challenging them and giving them a chance at leadership. I’ve learned as well that the American dream is still vibrant. Over the years, several of the finalists have been the sons or daughters of immigrants whose parents have sacrificed so that their children can make the most of the opportunity our country offers.
I’ve also learned that young people need at least one adult in their lives who helps them along. In a single parent household it is often the mother, who insists on the importance of education and demands the very best of her children. It can also be a grand parent or a teacher who recognizes someone’s ability and encourages achievement.
And I’ve learned a lot from my fellow commissioners as well. The panel is bipartisan, so I’ve listened to Lindy Boggs, a former commissioner, describe her meetings with Eleanor Roosevelt; I had the chance to get to know Senator Paul Simon; and I have been enormously impressed each year by Judge Edith Jones, a tough questioner of candidates and an insightful judge of their potential. Julie Nixon Eisenhower was the former commission chair and is still a commissioner. Once she told the finalists at the beginning of selection weekend, “I come from a family that knows a lot about winning and a lot about losing — and you are all winners.” She is a woman of enormous charm and grace.
Colin Powell has said, “What I learned as a White House Fellow was the key to the opportunities that came my way.” The Fellowship is America’s most prestigious program for leadership and public service, and yes, it should be better known. If you know someone you think should apply , please encourage them to do so at http://www.whitehouse.gov/fellows. They could benefit so much — and so could America.
— Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.