JACKSON, Tenn. – Oct. 24, 2007 – Life in the White House is intense and pressure-packed, but nothing at all like the hit television series “The West Wing,” according to Leon Panetta.
“Watching ‘The West Wing’ on television is like looking at the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas,” Panetta said. “It looks real, feels real, but isn’t real.”
Panetta, who served as chief of staff for President Clinton, and Andrew Card, former chief of staff for President George W. Bush, were the keynote speakers Oct. 23 for Union University’s 11th annual Scholarship Banquet and provided an insider’s look at White House operations.
The event drew 1,700 people and raised $500,000 for student scholarships. The banquet proceeds pushed the university’s “Union 2010” capital campaign to more than $98 million toward the goal of $110 million.
“The 11th annual Scholarship Banquet was a memorable time for all in attendance,” Union President David S. Dockery said. “Both speakers provided insightful commentary on the work of the White House and the challenges facing our nation and our world. It was a wonderful opportunity through the various presentations throughout the evening to affirm and communicate the distinctive mission of Union University.
“For the generosity of our friends and the support of the community for this event we are most grateful.”
In his address, Card recounted the defining moment of his tenure as chief of staff – the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He recalled getting the first word about a plane slamming into the World Trade Center, and the analysis that it was only an accident. When word came a few moments later that another plane had hit the second tower, Card knew he had to inform the president.
“A second plane hit the second tower,” Card whispered into Bush’s ear as he was reading to a class of elementary school students. “America is under attack.”
Card explained how difficult the president’s job is, and said that no decision that ever reaches the Oval Office is an easy decision. The chief of staff’s job, Card said, is to make sure the president is prepared to make the tough decisions.
For Bush, that meant talking to good advisers, as well as reading history and policy papers, Card said.
“But most importantly, I found, was seeking counsel from a higher power, and I witnessed the president seek that counsel many, many times,” Card said.
Card described the duties of a White House chief of staff as falling into three categories: taking care of the president, policy formulation and communication.
“The burden of being president is an unbelievable burden, and the chief of staff’s job is to help the president carry the burden,” he said.
Panetta said the ingredients to success in the White House are hard work, dedication, sacrifice and loyalty.
“We govern in our democracy either through leadership or through crisis,” Panetta said. “If leadership is there, hopefully we can avoid crisis. But if leadership is not there, then crisis drives policy. The challenge of chief of staff is to help serve the president so that crisis alone does not drive policy in this country.”
Panetta described President Clinton as “the most unique and complex political figure” that he ever met in 30 years of politics. Clinton was one part “good old boy,” one part Yale student and Oxford scholar and one part consummate politician, Panetta said.
“I had the good fortune to serve him as chief of staff in his first four years,” Panetta said. “And I’ve always thanked the guardian angel who told me it was time to get out of Washington at the end of those first four years.”
Panetta also urged those in attendance to be active participants in the U.S. democracy.
“Our forefathers had it right. Power in our system of government really does not rest with the president, or the vice president, or the chief of staff, or the Congress, or the courts,” he said. “It does rest with the people. With all of you. …
“I urge you to be citizen soldiers and to fight for what you believe is important in our democratic process.”