The Reach of the White House Fellowships

Experiences as a White House Fellow

The White House Fellowship has been operating as a one-year program at the highest levels of the executive branch since the 1960s. It is intended for individuals at mid-career to provide first-hand experiences on how American federal governance works in order to integrate a better understanding of the role of government into their continuing career development outside government. Candidates are selected on a non-partisan basis using three criteria – academic achievements, career successes and civic service impact. Katherine was invited to serve as a White House Fellow in 1979 and worked in the Carter Administration as a Special Assistant to the Director of the Office of Personnel Management. Others in her class worked with other agency heads or key White House offices.

The Fellows came together two or three times a week for a program of meetings with prominent Administration officials, members of Congress, civic and media leaders for off-the-record discussions.

President Carter congratulating Katherine on her White House Fellowship

Numerous field trips took the class to an aircraft carrier in Norfollk, coal mines in West Virginia, nuclear power and research facilities in New Mexico and California and border guards along the border with Mexico – and, most dramatically, to Israel and Egypt to review the Camp David Accords and meet with Israeli and Egyptian officials, most notably President Anwar Sadat.

White House Fellows meeting with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat
Vice President Al Gore welcomes Katherine to the Naval Observatory

The Fellowship continues to be an invaluable and varied network of Fellows who have moved on in an impressive diversity of accomplished careers and in different parts of the country and world.

One of the many reunions of the White House Fellows class of 1979-1980 (along with  Katherine’s daughter Kristina)

An expanding network includes new Fellows from each year. Annual events for all past and current Fellows are held in Washington, DC featuring the latest insights on executive politics and policies. A regional series of events has been oriented to Presidential Libraries, and Katherine is looking forward to the regional gathering at the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta in April 2019.

Lessons Learned about Public Policy

  • Politics is mercurial, subject to the unanticipated twists of events and alignments. President Carter was lost because Senator Kennedy was expected to oust him in the Democratic primary but then showed a weak grasp of the issues and “bombed out”. President Carter won the nomination but then lost anyway, mainly in the last weekend of the Presidential campaign when Iran refused to release the hostages.
  • Political networks are not always visible but can be very powerful and even brutal to outsiders.
  • Outsiders who get elected tend not to trust these networks but can become very isolated without a strong base of their own support to withstand the potency of entrenched networks. President Emmanuel Macron comes to mind on this point.
  • American politics can be very insular. Perhaps this is actually a lesson learned a bit later. Living outside of the United States does provide a broader perspective on the range of political space that a democracy needs – or at least an appreciation for the differences in the range of political space that operate in democracies other than the United States.
  • Public civil servants are generally hard working and dedicated to public service. As a White House Fellow, Katherine worked with many competent, dedicated and efficient public civil servants in the Office of Personnel Management from whom she learned important human resources management skills. The learning served her well in her transition from a civic activist in the NGO and academic world to the large bureaucracies in both the corporate and international worlds.

 

 

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