POLITICS FUTURE LEADERS

Learning the ropes at the White House.

BEING A White House Fellow, says Joe Linus Barton, 32, of Ennis, Texas, is “just what it’s cracked up to be. The program promises access to the decision-making process at the highest levels of the U.S. government, and that’s just what you get.” For articulate, self-motivated people who “aren’t bashful about their own abilities and accomplishments,” working for a year at the White House or at a cabinet-level federal agency on a White House Fellowship can be the most rewarding event of a young man’s lifetime, according to Barton.

Joe Barton is one of two Texans among the 14 White House fellows who served from September 1981 to August 1982, selected from thousands of applicants nationwide. No Texans are in the new group that went to Washington in September of this year. Energetic, brilliant, deeply involved in community affairs and politically to the right, Barton already has the mark of a man moving upward, and his White House Fellowship will probably help him somewhat in his career – much in the way those solid fuel booster rockets help a NASA payload get into orbit.

Begun in 1964, the President’s Commission on the White House Fellowships, as it is properly called, was the brainchild of John (Common Cause) Gardner and was nursed into existence by staffers of the Johnson administration. The commission’s purpose, according to the statement adopted in 1965, when the first class of fellows came to Washington, was to provide “superbly qualified young Americans” with “some firsthand experience in the process of governing the nation,” in the hopes of bringing a new crop of Jeffer-sons, Washingtons and Madisons out of the professional world’s woodwork and giving them a “sense of personal involvement in the leadership of society, a vision of the greatness of society and a sense of responsibility for bringing that greatness to reality.”

The familiar echo in those phrases is no accident. The White House Fellowships started out as LBJ’s Great Society program for the best and brightest, a kind of Head Start program for overachievers. The fellowships cost taxpayers somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.2 million last year. Most of that (approximately $750,000) was in salaries for the fellows, who earned up to “a hair under $50,000, although some made less,” according to Commission Director James C. Roberts. Those funds came from the budgets of the agencies to which fellows were assigned, Roberts says, as did the approximately $42,000 in travel expenses (up to $3,000 per fellow). The commission itself had an operating budget of approximately $400,000, part of which was spent on the extensive background checks made on each national finalist by investigators from the Office of Personnel Management (which used to be known as the Civil Service Commission). Former fellows pitched-in an additional $30,000 for expenses that go with the fellowships’ educational program- evenings and lunches spent with influential officials, foreign dignitaries and members of Congress, for example.

Is the program worth the money? “Unquestionably,” says Roberts. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for the people chosen to be fellows.” Who wouldn’t like to be certified best-of-show by a presidential commission? Who would mind spending a year near the levers of power, making some great contacts? Tom Johnson was a reporter from Georgia when he was chosen for the first fellowship class. Subsequently, he worked in Dallas as publisher of the Dallas Times Herald; now he’s chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Times.

But is the country getting its money’s worth? With the tide dead against Great Society programs for the poor and disad-vantaged, does the government really need to help the “superbly qualified” get a sense of leadership? It’s hard to say whether or not those new Jeffersons have contracted the hoped-for fervor from the program. But indications are that the program is beginning to pay off, which explains why the fellowships still enjoy broad bipartisan support.

More than 280 fellows have made it through the highly competitive and at times grueling selection process (a sample question from the application: “On a separate sheet of paper write a memorandum of not more than 500 words, for the president, making a specific policy proposal. Explain why you think it is important, what issues it raises and why you think he should support it”). They come from all over the country and from widely varied backgrounds -business, engineering, the military, farming, academia, even the clergy. There has been a sprinkling of women and minority fellows, but most are young white men.

“We get a lot of résumés from people who are in 15 or 20 community service organizations,” says Roberts. “In a way, that’s negative. We’re much more impressed by someone who’s taken a leadership role in one or two organizations. But community work is an important criterion. No one who wants to be a White House Fellow should be so involved with his or her own career that there’s not some time left over for community service.”

To be considered and accepted for a fellowship, a candidate must have demonstrated excellence in his profession and an extraordinary involvement in community affairs. He must also convince a regional panel and a national panel of his potential for leadership. But the emphasis is placed on potential: “We’re not looking for people who’ve peaked out,” says one former fellow who has served as a regional selection panelist.

“You have to tell everything you can remember about yourself, and then you face five or six panelists by yourself while they fire tough philosophical questions at you,” says former fellow Richard Birney, a onetime San Antonio resident. (San Antonio’s mayor, Henry Cisneros, is also a former White House Fellow.) Birney spent his 1981-82 assignment at ACTION and on special assignment to the White House. He is now moving on to upper-level management at the IBM home office in White Plains, New York, but he says he wishes he could move back to Texas.

“It’s not that they’re out to get you to disqualify yourself,” Birney says. “I think they want to see how you handle yourself under pressure, the way you’ll have to when you’re a fellow.”

Fellows and staff from both sides of the political world emphasize that getting chosen for the program is tough, but it is not political. Selection panelists are appointed by the president, and they tend to reflect the ideological bent of the current administration. The national panel, for example, was once dominated by people such as John Gardner and Lady Bird Johnson. Now it is characterized by members of the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation and other true-blue conservatives. Nevertheless, recent White House Fellows have not all been clones of conservative guru Irving Kristol.

“I applied for the program in 1981 because Ronald Reagan was elected president,” says Barton. “I came in believing in the philosophy he espouses. The people at the regional selection level, though, had all been appointed by President Carter, and most of them were recognizably very liberal. I had to decide, when I was faced with issue questions from them, whether to say what I believed or what I thought they might want to hear. I think the caliber of the people on the selection panels is such that regardless of your views, if they see the kind of inner strength in you that they’re looking for, rather than duplicating their own beliefs, they’ll pick you. Various staff people at the White House have tried to politicize the fellowships in the past, but it hasn’t worked, and that’s a good thing.”

“There is a self-selection process the candidates go through,” says Roberts. “Applicants tend to be more liberal in a Democratic administration, and certainly the current group is more conservative than the group a couple of years ago. That’s important in one way -if you as a fellow are going to be given an assignment that involves trust, it’s important that the people you’re assigned to work with trust you. A certain degree of philosophical compatibility is important.”

A White House Fellowship is really a job in government, with an educational process that goes along with it, according to one former fellow. The program starts with a week of intense briefings on many facets of national affairs and continues throughout the year with several-times-per-week meetings with officials and legislators. Most of what the fellows pick up in these sessions is off the record, they say, but general impressions are lasting.

“One of the first things I learned is that most of the people in the top levels of government work extremely hard,” says Birney, who was assigned to work with North-Central Texas’ Tom Pauken, now the head of ACTION. “I had always had the perception of government being slow, lethargic and lazy. But the people making decisions work long hours routinely -and that requires sacrifices in terms of home life and personal wealth.”

“Serving as a fellow, you’re enmeshed in some of the major value conflicts in our society,” says James H. Bockhaus, a fellow who worked at the Post Office Department in 1969-70. Before his fellowship, Bockhaus was a manager at General Electric; later he went to LTV in Dallas, and now he runs his own company, ATEC International Inc., an aerospace components manufacturer in Arlington. “To grow up in one value system and see that there are a lot of competing values systems nationally is eye-opening.”

Is the program a good investment for society at large, if that’s what former fellows say they learned from the experience? Roberts says the White House Fellowships is a vulnerable program to anybody looking to trim a budget. But, he says, the fellows are not just learning, they are also doing, and they accomplish some very important things and can make significant contributions.

Perhaps more important than the contributions made in the fellowship roles are the types of good works that fellows are stimulated to do back in the home communities after they’ve been fired up by a year in Washington. Judging by the work done by some former fellows in the Dallas area, the White House Fellowships program undoubtedly has been an admirable investment.



THE FELLOWS interviewed for this story fell into two groups: those who are so confident of themselves as to think that their selection to the program was a matter of course and those who still sound surprised at the idea. Walter Humann, the first Texan chosen to be a White House Fellow, is in the second group. Currently president and chief executive officer of Hunt Investment Corporation, as well as director and chief operating officer at Hunt Oil Company, Humann came to work for LTV (Ling-Temco-Vought) Aerospace after attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard Business School in the early Sixties. He also started a small specialty-gift business on the side and entered SMU’s evening law school. In the summer of 1966, he saw a notice about the White House Fellowships on a Vought bulletin board.

He won a company-wide competition to select a candidate, followed by selection by regional and national panels. “The people who made the cut were taken immediately to the White House,” Humann says. “I remember it was the first time I was ever on the grounds. All the new fellows were assembled in the south portico of the White House, and there were several cabinet secretaries there and a couple of Supreme Court justices. Then the doors slammed open and there was the president [Lyndon Johnson]. In real life. It was very impressive.”

Humann was assigned to the Post Office Department for his fellowship year. “That doesn’t sound very exciting, except that I was really assigned to work for Larry O’Brien, who spent maybe 10 to 15 percent of his time on post office business and the rest of his time in his other role, which was chief political advisor to the president and chief legislative liaison between Congress and the whole executive branch.”

His second week on the job, Humann says, O’Brien sent him out on an advance trip to California, where Gov. Edmund Brown Sr. was running against an unknown Republican named Ronald Reagan. Soon after that, Humann settled into working on plans to change the post office from a government department to a public corporation, streamlining its operations and removing them from the political spoils system.

“It was an idea that a lot of people – Democratic and Republican – responded to intuitively. You have to remember just how bloated and inefficiently managed the nation’s post office was back then,” Humann says.

The quality of his assignment changed his life, Humann says. “It always has a powerful effect on how you perceive your experience as a fellow and how it affects you in later life. It fired me up.”

Humann has been fired up ever since he returned to Dallas in August 1967. One day, while cutting his lawn, Humann says, he came up with the idea of forming a bipartisan citizens’ action committee to push for postal service reform. The idea was successful, drawing national attention and helping in the final passage of the required legislation.

“I was still tremendously enthused and impressed with the hard-working nature of government officials, and I wanted to do my part,” Humann says.

In 1968 he joined in the group called Goals for Dallas, and in the next several years became deeply involved in a range of projects. He helped generate donations of equipment, counseling and other services to the Dallas Independent School District’s new Skyline Career Development Center, and he served on the Chamber of Commerce committee that examined DISD’s management practices, helping make the district’s first-ever five-year forecast. He worked with other members of a multiracial Chamber of Commerce committee trying to hammer out a settlement to the long-simmering court battle over desegregation. He joined in the formation of the multiracial Dallas Alliance and helped perform the first-ever inventory of social action organizations in Dallas. He is now chairman of the Transportation Task Force, which will play a big role in selling a transit plan to the public next year.

“I went to see John Gardner last year to thank him,” Humann says. “I said, ’Coach, you picked me out of the lineup and put me in the game, and this is what I’ve been doing.’

“There’s no question-I wouldn’t have been aware of what was needed or how to get involved in meaningful activities, if it hadn’t been for the year I spent as a White House Fellow.”

Other current and former White House Fellows agree about the importance of the assignment that a fellow draws. David Vidal, a former New York Times reporter who was a fellow in 1979-1980, finished his year with the U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs cynical about the operations of the government. “The purpose in government is fulfillment of bureaucratic processes,” Vidal wrote in a recent issue of Black Enterprise magazine. “In business, time is money. Not so in government, which seems to work as a series of open-ended beginnings.”

Other former fellows experienced the glacial slowness at which the government and the media seem to move on the most crucial questions. Dr. George Heilmeier, now vice president for research, development and engineering of Texas Instruments in Dallas, was assigned to work for Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird in 1970. Heilmeier says he worked in “net technical assessment” for a time, a process he describes as measuring changes in Soviet war-making capabilities against our own. He discovered, he says, that the Soviets were making huge expenditures for weaponry and making considerable advances in the sophistication of their weapons at the same time.

“It took too long for that information to get across to the public and the Congress,” Heilmeier says.

The effects of the project may be a longtime in developing, Birney says, but the effect on him has been profound: “In termsof creating leaders with a willingness toserve in the community as well as in thefederal government, the fellowship program works. I see myself involved in community service for the rest of my life, and Ithink that’s the way most fellows feel afterparticipating in the program.”

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