For an event sponsored by Northwestern College Democrats and endorsed by College Republicans, the former presidential chief of staff lecture featuring ex-Bill Clinton staffer Leon Panetta and ex-George W. Bush chief Andrew Card was surprisingly light-hearted.
“I know this event is being endorsed by the College Republicans,” Card said. “I think the Democrats are paying for it, though.”
The two former White House higher-ups spoke before a not-quite-full Cahn Auditorium audience Tuesday night. They talked the ins-and-outs of their job, the 2008 elections and the personal pressures of working for the commander-in-chief.
Panetta, chief of staff for then-President Clinton from 1994 to 1997, addressed the crowd first. The former U.S. Representative from California said the chief of staff position is a rather new addition to the Oval Office.
“Most presidents didn’t have a chief of staff,” he said. “Dwight Eisenhower was the first to develop it.”
But still, Panetta said the job requires filling many different roles.
“There has to be total loyalty [between the President and the chief of staff],” he said. “The chief of staff has to serve as a friend, an adviser and a S.O.B.”
He said the job also consumed all of his time, and made relations with his friends and family especially difficult. He said serving the president was a tough enough task on its own.
“You do what the President of the United States wants you to do,” Panetta said. “That’s why he’s elected.”
Panetta also recalled the meeting at Camp David when he found out that President Clinton wanted him for the job.
“I walked into the room, and Hillary, Bill, Tipper Gore and Al Gore were all in there,” he said. “That’s when I knew I was screwed.”
Card said he was just as shocked at being offered the job.
“I never expected to be chief of staff,” the Massachusetts native said. “George W. Bush surrounded himself mostly with Texans.”
Card, who served from 2001 to 2006, said prior experience in the West Wing helped him land the chief of staff job. He also worked within the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations. Card said his time in Washington D.C. taught him a lot about the executive branch.
“I came to realize the White House is a bureaucracy unlike any other in the Capital,” he said.
The ex-chief of staff said his role in the White House was very valuable to the president.
“The President never has the luxury of making an easy decision,” Card said. “He would make his policy decisions with no one else around but me.”
This close relationship also presented problems, he said.
“A good chief of staff has to ignore the temptation of calling the President a friend,” Card said.
Card said he enjoyed his time in the Oval Office, especially the amount of information he received. He said stepping away from the position was tough.
“Anyone who says they want to leave the White House is lying,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave, but I had to leave.”
The two former chiefs of staff also weighed in on the 2008 presidential election. Card said it was far too early to determine who was right for the office, but wasn’t too premature to figure out who had the best chance.
“I don’t think we can know who will be better in the debates this early,” he said. “Right now, it’s all about who can raise the most money.”
Card said the Democratic frontrunners were clearly Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, since they could easily raise the most money for a campaign. But he said the Republican race is wide open.
Panetta agreed with Card’s choices, and said he’s already fed up with early campaigning.
“I’m already tired of it,” he said. “If it’s all about negative campaigning, I think the voters are gonna get sick of the candidates fast.”
Benjamin Sadun, a Weinberg sophomore, said he enjoyed the night’s lecture.
“I was really impressed,” Sadun said. “I was expecting something a lot more political, but it was mainly about common issues.”
Sadun said he would like to see more events featuring both College Democrats and Republicans.
Panetta said he hoped the good turnout was a sign that the youth of America were interested in politics.
“I’m hopeful this reflects an interest in public service,” he said. “Your future is going to involve your participation.”