Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service welcomed three Chiefs of Staff from the Office of the First Lady, along with ABC News contributor Claire Shipman, to discuss the evolving role and challenges faced by the First Lady and her Chief of Staff in the Healey Family Student Center on Wednesday night.
Chief of Staff to first lady Michelle Obama Tina Tchen, former Chief of Staff to first lady Laura Bush Anita McBride and former Chief of Staff to first lady Hillary Clinton Melanne Verveer (SFS ’66, GRD ’69), who also serves as Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, conversed on their separate but similar experiences in the East Wing of the White House.
Verveer began the discussion by reflecting on the close interaction between the President and first lady’s staffs.
“You have no idea on the outside everything that’s involved on the inside,” Verveer said. “We were very well integrated into the overall operations of the White House. We all worked for the president; that was very clear. We might be specifically engaged in the first lady’s office, but first and foremost we worked for the president.”
McBride said she was surprised at how different the realities of the position were from her expectations prior to assuming the role.
“When I was invited by Mrs. Bush to have an interview with her to consider being her Chief of Staff for the second term, I didn’t expect the first words out of her mouth to be, ‘I want to go to Afghanistan,’” McBride said. “And right then I knew that this would be a very different experience and opportunity than what I had envisioned.”
All three women discussed the difficulty of operating with the limited resources allocated to the Office of the First Lady, especially in light of the intense national scrutiny placed on the president’s spouse.
“I think it’s really interesting to think about the position, because there is no job description, there is no salary, there is no appointment, there is no election and everybody in the United States has an opinion of what the first lady should do, and they’re all in contradiction with each other,” Verveer said.
The first lady’s position is unique in that she has the opportunity to determine which issues with which she wishes to engage and which initiatives she plans to push. Each Chief of Staff stressed that agenda-setting and the establishment of the first lady’s authenticity and credibility are crucial.
Shipman noted that, over time, first ladies have set a pattern of concentrating on international women’s issues.
Verveer highlighted the significance of the topics on which first ladies place emphasis, expressing frustration that they often fall by the wayside.
“These are absolutely critical issues,” Melanne Verveer said. “We call them soft issues – they’re often marginalized, but they’re significant issues, and if there isn’t leadership targeted to those issues, it’s not likely they’ll be addressed.”
Giving advice to students who are interested in pursuing a similar career path, the three Chiefs of Staff discussed the importance of being prepared for the unpredictable and the need to pay attention to detail.
McBride pointed to the multiple areas a first lady must take into consideration, including her public appearance.
“The wardrobe memo was as important as some of the speeches, and for us the equivalent of a nuclear football was that makeup bag,” McBride said.
As the floor was opened up to questions, the three women reflected upon how the role could potentially shift if the gender of the president’s spouse changes.
Rachel Morota (SFS ’17), who attended the event, stressed the difference in position for first ladies in the United States as opposed to partners of leaders in other countries.
“I’m an international student, so the way that the first lady’s role is defined in the United States is very different as opposed to the first spouse anywhere else in the world,” Morota said.
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