When Bill Kristol joined Ronald Reagan's administration in 1985, 32 years old and fresh from the Ivory Tower at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he was immediately stunned by the sheer "number of players" in Washington.
From the relatively solitary world of academia, Kristol's new job thrust him into the frenzy of conflicting views and agendas pursued by various agency members, lawmakers, reporters and other familiar figures around the capital. The experience taught him that in government, "you're totally dependent on other people to get anything done. You come in with certain plans, which turn out to be far less doable than you thought," he says.
His advice to young people working in the White House today? Stay open-minded and flexible.
"It's important not to get totally swamped by the day-to-day. Keep reading things, keep your eye on the ball, stay in touch with people outside the White House. Otherwise, you can get lost in the bubble pretty quick," he advises.
Kristol came to Washington to serve as chief of staff to Reagan's Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett.
During his job interview at the White House, he was quizzed by Becky Norton Dunlop, special assistant to the president, and a notoriously staunch defender of Reagan and his White House.
When Kristol jokingly mentioned that he had accidentally voted for the Communist candidate against Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill in the 1984 election, assuming the Massachusetts Democrat's opponent would be conservative but unaware that no Republican had entered the race, Dunlop was not amused.
"She said, ‘Bill, you're in the Reagan White House. Voting for a Communist is no laughing matter,'" Kristol recalled at the banquet of the Federalist Society's National Student Symposium. Held at Penn in February, the symposium organized by the Penn Law chapter of the Federal Society brought together scholars from around the country to discuss originalism, or strict reading of the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution.
In a private interview after the symposium, Kristol continued to reminisce about his White House days, and the embattled atmosphere that pervaded the conservative movement throughout the 1980s. A founder and editor of the Weekly Standard, a right-leaning newsmagazine, and a regular commentator on the Fox News Channel, Kristol has the historical perspective and the bona fides to discuss all things conservative.
During the second half of the 1980s, Congress was dominated by Democrats and congressional committees on education were "dominated by liberal Republicans, so we never really had support in Congress for a conservative agenda," Kristol says. "We realized our best bet was not to get legislation passed, but to try to encourage others around the country to fight for education reform in various ways."
Bennett used his position as a "bully pulpit," Kristol recalls, lauding a conservative educational reform agenda in his speeches and lending his support to organizations with similar goals. Kristol had to "learn on the job" how to run the Department of Education, work with Congress and communicate with the executive office.
Amid these challenges, he says, he was delighted by the intellectual caliber of Bennett's staff: "I felt like I kept learning things; that I hadn't had to put my mind on hold to come to Washington."
When Kristol became chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle in George H.W. Bush's administration, the pace of activity increased.
"It's hard to convey how difficult it is, in the rush of events, to plan for things," Kristol says. Even with a definite strategy that he and Quayle had decided on from the start, Kristol found it difficult to keep up with and adapt to each day's new political developments, whether a legislative upset on the Hill or an unexpected meeting conflict. More than anything, Kristol says, the pace of activity kept "our ability to reflect pretty limited."
Moments of reflection must be even rarer for White House employees today, Kristol guesses, because of technological advances and the faster news cycle.
"When the Internet and e-mail didn't exist, the world was obviously much slower," he says. "It was fastpaced then, but it wasn't instant-paced — our news cycle was daily, not hourly, or by the minute."
Kristol thinks the White House would benefit from hiring more individuals with fewer day-to-day responsibilities, who could focus on long-term strategy instead.
Bennett's office had a few such employees on staff, Kristol recalls, who thought "strategically about what we could to do to have an effect six months from now."