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The White House Goes Purple

A cadre of Northwestern alumni enjoy a prestigious Washington, D.C., office address — 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

by Tim Warren

Purple White House

People hear you work at the White House, and the questions begin:

A) What is he really like?

"I tell people that I've been fortunate to see Barack Obama's maturation as a person and a politician," says Michael Blake (J04), who has watched Obama (H06) operate up close for several years and is now associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and deputy associate director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. "His humility is remarkable. When he won the Iowa caucus, all he wanted to do was thank everybody."

"He may be the smartest guy in the room, but he's still approachable — he wants to know what you have to say," says Cody Keenan (WCAS02), one of Obama's seven speechwriters.

B) No, not him. The other one.

That would be Rahm Emanuel (GC85), Obama's chief of staff and probably the most notorious thumb-in-your-eye political operative in Washington. So here's the take of Elizabeth Sears Smith (KSM97), who has known Emanuel for 20 years and is currently the White House deputy Cabinet secretary: "I know he's a lot of things to a lot of people," Smith says cheerfully. "But to me, at the end of the day, he's very good at what he does. And he's still a friend."

OK, but what do people really, really want to know?

"I tell them that West Wing is just a TV show and has very little to do with what we do," Blake says. "They ask if someone is like this character or that character in the show. And they all seem to think you can see the president anytime you want. People assume a great level of access."

Keenan says: "It would be nice if we were all rubbing elbows with the president every minute and saying meaningful things and solving the problems of the country and the world in 30 minutes. The reality is a little different."

But the reality seems to be just fine for Keenan, Blake, Smith and other Northwestern graduates working in the Obama White House. "The truth is," says Madhuri Kommareddi (WCAS04), director for international economic affairs at the National Security Council, "we're clearly lucky to have this experience on our résumés at such a young age." (In her case, that résumé includes serving as fact-checker for Obama's best-selling book The Audacity of Hope after Kommareddi worked on Obama's Senate staff.)

According to Samir Mayekar (WCAS06), national security director in the Office of Presidential Personnel, there are at least 21 Northwestern graduates now working at the White House — not surprising, perhaps, considering the president is a Chicagoan. Several volunteered for Obama's campaign for Senate and thus got a look at what he was about years before the rest of the country.

Mayekar, for instance, left his job with Marakon Associates, a Chicago consulting firm, to sign on as a budget manager with Obama for America. Mayekar had worked for the presidential campaign of then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (C62) in 2004 and found that the Iowa caucuses were "democracy on the ground level." But leaving a good job to work on a campaign was another matter, so Mayekar turned to Northwestern political science professor Jerry Goldman for advice.

"Obama was coming into his field of vision, and Samir asked me what I thought he should do," says Goldman, who had taught the "very bright" Mayekar in a constitutional law class. "I told him it was a no-brainer. Obama was such a transformational figure, and this was a great opportunity for Samir."

Blake quote

Mayekar stayed with the campaign through the election and then was asked to help the transition team. He thought that was it — "None of us joined the campaign with the idea of working in the White House." But when the call came, he jumped at the offer.

Similarly, Joe Kennedy (SESP07) had worked with the Obama campaign since its early stages, joining it in April 2007. Obama was already a known quantity for him, as Kennedy had spent the previous summer as an intern in his Washington office. Still, he was not prepared for all his new assignment entailed.

"I had never worked on a campaign before," says Kennedy. "I was amazed at the effect Senator Obama had on people. It was something to see that reaction — his ability to interact with all kinds of people."

After the election, the job offer came: a staff assistant in the Office of Public Engagement, responsible for liaison with rural groups, ethnic communities and sports groups. For Kennedy, a former team captain of the Northwestern men's basketball team, the last assignment has its definite perks: If you hear of a championship team that has made a visit to the White House, whether it's the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Los Angeles Lakers, chances are that Joe Kennedy was involved in the planning. "I even got to talk to Kobe Bryant," he says.

For many of the Northwestern alumni who worked on the Obama campaign, the transition to White House jobs has been an adjustment. "Initially, I worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day," says Mayekar. "It's slightly better now. I learned the ability to come home from work and forget about things till the next day."

Most of the staff members interviewed share the commonality of early interests in politics. Smith recalls being stirred by attending the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, when she was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. "I was a volunteer, doing anything that needed to be done," she explains. "I discovered that politics is a great way to make change. A convention is like the Super Bowl of politics. I saw what it was like to erect a platform and create an agenda. I saw the candidates and the delegates up close. And I was hooked."

As a freshman, Kommareddi talked her way into a class — she can't remember the name — taught by David Axelrod, then an adjunct professor in the School of Communication and later one of Obama's most trusted advisers. She took a couple of leaves from her studies at Northwestern to work on various campaigns. "I was always drawn to political campaigns. One of the things I appreciated about Northwestern was that I was allowed to take off school a few times to work on them. I remember with Gore-Bush in 2000, I wasn't as interested in classes as I was in the campaign and the election. Their energy is unbelievable."

Then there was Keenan, who arrived at Northwestern planning to be a surgeon.

But he decided early on that he didn't want to be a premed major, and a foray into international business wasn't appealing either. "Then I realized I was always interested in politics, and so I switched to political science," he says.

That led to a position as a mailroom intern in the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, whose influence Keenan freely acknowledges: "With Kennedy I saw that politics is not just this shoutfest on TV. Politics is about public service."

Later, as a legislative assistant to Kennedy, he got his first taste of speechwriting. "Senator Kennedy needed something written for him to deliver on the Senate floor. My boss asked me if I could take a shot at it, and it worked out. I did a few more for him, and when I joined the Obama campaign in the summer of '07, I did a lot more speechwriting" — after he did his homework on Obama.

"I listened to his books on tape and watched him speak on YouTube. One thing President Obama does very well is tell a story," says Keenan. "All of his best speeches tell a story. Because he's such an effective speaker, you feel like you always have to be at the top of your game. But if you aren't, he'll rescue you anyway."

Keenan says he'll stay on as a speechwriter "as long as the president will have me," but if he were to leave tomorrow, he'd still have an unforgettable legacy. In May 2009, for a mock video for the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, Obama sat down for a friendly chat with Keenan, who had dressed in colorful pirate garb, right down to the eye patch and the hook on his left hand.

"A couple of us [speechwriters] were kicking around what we could do for the dinner," Keenan recalled ruefully. "The president had been criticized for saying he would talk with hostile leaders, so we figured, ‘Why not Captain Hook?'. The other two speechwriters looked at me and said, ‘You're our guy.' "

Most of the six staff members interviewed said they're unsure what direction their careers will take when their White House gig is over. For Smith that's not an issue. She's worked for political consulting groups, in the Commerce Department with the Clinton administration and for Emanuel as chief of staff when he was a congressman. In her current job, she says with a smile, she is "half traffic cop, half concierge. But I love it."

Kommareddi says she may return to Yale Law School, which she left after one year to work for the Obama campaign. Blake jokes that in five to 10 years, "I hope I'll finally get some sleep." But then he turns serious.

In his current job, which includes directing the administration's African American outreach, Blake says he has learned that "you can be socially progressive while still understanding the business and routine of governments. And perhaps it's preparing me to run for office, but I'm not going to rush this moment. I want to tell myself that I got everything I could out of this experience."

Tim Warren is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.

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