How does an Army Officer obtain a political appointment from the White House? The answer is, “not easily.” I have previously mentioned that I retired from the Army to take a political job at the Department of Transportation. What I haven’t mentioned is how unnerving the experience was. I had never been involved in politics and even though I was over 50 years of age, I was a babe in a totally foreign environment.
Major General Jerry Curry had been appointed as the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by the first President Bush. I was his lawyer at V Corps and he called me at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to see if I was interested in being his Chief Counsel. We had been at Fort Leavenworth for a little over four months. The phone call alone had generated anxiety and tension in the Rice household. I had made a few calls to friends back in DC and they had said I would be a fool not to try for the job. As for political credentials, I was told to go out and get an elephant tattooed on my butt.
After a few days, I called General Curry and told him that I felt I needed to come back to Washington and talk to him. He said the first thing I needed to do was put a resume together and send it to him. He would float it around and if it was acceptable, then I could come out for interviews. A resume should be one page, two at the most. I was so clueless that I prepared an eight page resume that included such gems as I had been a legal assistance office at Fort Hood, Texas, 27 years earlier. I suspect no one read the resume, but Curry did call and told me to come out for interviews.
It was to be a one day trip. Interviews in the morning and afternoon and lunch with Curry. I went out and bought a suit (I didn’t own one) and purchased my airline ticket. When I arrived at DOT, I was a little early so I stopped by the DOT Eatery to get something to drink and comb my hair. When I went into the men’s room to spruce up, I discovered a homeless man taking a bath at the sink. While it now seems humorous, at the time, it just confirmed that I was totally out of my element.
The interviews in the morning were with the DOT General Counsel, Phil Brady, and his deputy, Lindy Knapp. They dealt with my legal background and I thought they went well. I had been a regulatory law specialist in the Army and the Chief Counsel’s position required a regulatory law background.
At lunch, General Curry told me that he was concerned about my afternoon interview with the DOT White House Liaison Officer. Then he told me that at the end of the interview I was to ask if I had the job. I thought, “Whoa, I can’t to that!” It just seemed too aggressive. What I didn’t realize was that there was a history between General Curry and my interviewer. If I had asked, he would have been afraid to say no (but, I just wasn’t going to ask).
When I arrived at the Office of the Secretary for my interview, I was told that the White House Liaison Officer was tied up and that I should reschedule for another day. I made it clear that I was from out of town, flew in for the interview and it needed to happen. Eventually the secretary told me to have a seat and they would see if they could work me in. I could just feel everything falling apart.
After waiting for what seemed like hours, I was taken in to see the White House Liaison Officer. It was a small office and the proprietor looked younger than my children. I found myself looking at a kid who had joined the political campaign right out of college and his candidate had won. He was entitled to a position in the Administration. I think this is true regardless of which party wins.
He didn’t apologize for the delay. For the first ten to 15 minutes, he talked with reverence about Secretary Sam Skinner and how fortunate the country was to have him as the Secretary of Transportation. I was satisfied that this young bespectacled lad, with thinning hair, believed every word he was saying. He told me that when Secretary Skinner entered a room the energy level in that room was immediately pumped up. He mentioned an energy level percentage, but I seemed to have misplaced it. I was satisfied his energy level had skyrocketed.
Sort of as an afterthought, he asked me about my qualifications. I started telling him about my career and he interrupted. He wanted to know what I had done to help in the presidential campaign. I told him I had been on active duty and was prohibited form being involved in the campaign. He just shook his head. The interview stumbled along. We were going through the motions. I was trying, but couldn’t pump up the energy level. Finely, he said, “Frankly Jack, it will be an uphill battle taking your file over to the White House.” I responded by saying, “Just knowing that you are willing to recommend me gives me hope.” He immediately said, ” I didn’t say I was recommending you.” I responded, “That’s right, you didn’t.”
We just sat there (the energy level definitely pumped up). He realized that he had tipped his hand and I would be telling General Curry that he was not recommending me. He was really distressed. I had gotten the answer to Curry’s question without asking. Suddenly, the interview started over. He asked questions like when would I be able to start to work, and how much pay did I expect. We had turned a corner.
Later that afternoon, I interviewed at the White House. Guess who had been coaching me on what to say? The interview went well. The White House personnel officer was more interested in whether I could do the job, rather than what I had done in the presidential campaign. I reported back to General Curry and caught my flight home.
I have often reflected on how lucky I had been to get the answer to the question I wasn’t going to ask. If I hadn’t been lucky, I would have understood too late that the question needed to be asked.