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White House Insiders [The Baylor Line]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
The Baylor Line
Fall 2001
Photo here of Nancy Dorn © Katherine Lambert

GEORGE W. BUSH OBVIOUSLY BELIEVES IN CONTINUITY. During his years as the governor of Texas, he tapped several Baylor alumni to hold key positions on his staff. And when he became the forty-third President of the United States in 2001, a handful of them were among those selected to follow him to Washington, D.C.

What is it like to work in the White House? Pin on your security pass and prepare yourself for a tour of the executive branch’s corridors as these Baylor alums share their stories.

It’s environmental: John Howard, Class of 1985

One of the first Baylor grads to get word he’d be making the move from Texas to the White House was John Howard ’85, the new senior associate director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Howard, who had spent the last four years as Bush’s natural resources policy advisor in Texas, says he was thrilled to have been chosen.

“Working for Mr. Bush in the governor’s office was great, but working in the administration in Washington has been unbelievably exciting,” says Howard, who is no stranger to the Washington metropolitan area. He worked in D.C. as an environmental attorney from 1988 to 1994.

Today, he spends his days on the third floor of the Old Executive Building, where most White House staffers have offices, just around the corner from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. From a three-room suite, he coordinates federal environmental efforts.

It’s a big job. The CEQ, established by Congress in 1969 in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, advises the president on such critical issues as determining allowable arsenic levels in drinking water, disposing of nuclear waste, and re-introducing grizzly bears in parts of Idaho. The CEQ also reports annually on the state of the environment, ensures that all federal agencies conduct required studies of potential environmental impact before making policy decisions, and acts as a referee when agencies disagree over environmental assessments.

The CEQ eventually will employ 24 full-time staffers. But prior to June 25, when D.C. environmental attorney Jim Connaughton was confirmed by the U.S. Congress and sworn in as the council’s chair, the office had a staff of only eight—with Howard at the helm.

“My life is still in a box,” says Howard, apologizing for the spare trappings in his temporary quarters. Even if the council’s office situation were final, it’s not likely Howard would have time to decorate. Beginning his day just after dawn Howard usually fills the next ten hours with meetings. It’s usually late in the evening, after a dinner meeting or an official reception, when Howard returns to the Arlington, Virginia, home he shares with his wife, Ann, and their three children, ages ten, eight, and six.

It’s a grueling schedule, Howard admits, but what makes his job demanding is the magnitude of the issues he works on daily.

“We’re dealing with some big, hairy problems, and no single issue has a simple answer,” he says. “But President Bush is very results-oriented. We are constantly trying to come up with constructive, creative strategies that will help ease or solve any given problem.”

Bush’s environmental policies have been a magnet for controversy and criticism. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush faced accusations that, as governor of Texas, he had allowed his state to fall behind the nation in terms of environmental standards and pollution control. Further criticism was hurled at the new administration when Christine Todd Whitman, the new EPA administrator and a former New Jersey governor, announced that Bush would with draw the U.S. signature on the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

In addition, an investigative report from the Center for Public Integrity noted in March that “the composition of the team that advised Bush on policies during his transition to the presidency signals a new era of a weakening federal role and a bias toward free-market solutions in complying with environmental regulations.

The center further criticized Bush’s transition team for having undue influence on Whitman. Howard, who was part of that
transition team, says their j ob was simply to prepare Whitman for her confirmation hearing and to identify the key issues she would likely face during her initial days as head of the EPA.

“We did that and nothing more,” he counters. The general criticism of Bush, Howard says, is born of a lack of understanding combined with misinformation, and he contends that the public and media simply don’t understand the common-sense goals Bush is trying to achieve with his environmental policies. “In time, when we have more bodies to staff this office, we’ll do a much better job of explaining exactly what we are doing and why,” offers Howard, admitting there are days when addressing hot-button issues can be very stressful.

But dealing with stress on the job is nothing new for Howard, who has spent much of his career trying to blend environmental law with corporate desires and common sense. After getting his law degree from the University of Texas in 1988, he worked at the law firm of Bracewell and Patterson as counsel to industries, financial institutions, and local governments. There, he developed a reputation for being smart, hard working, and fair.
That reputation caught the attention of the Bush administration. Not long after he’d helped establish a new environmental department in Bracewell and Patterson’s Austin office, Howard received a call from the governor’s office asking if he’d be interested in being policy director of the environment and natural resources department.

“I don’t have a political bone in my body,” says Howard, who at the time was a registered Democrat (albeit a conservative one). “But when the governor calls, it is hard to say no. “In 1996 he took the job and spent the remainder of the decade developing policy and legislative initiatives for the state of Texas.

When Bush started his bid for the presidency, Howard found himself defending Bush’s Texas environmental record, which he says included such unheralded achievements as the signing of tough clean air and clean water legislation. Howard also prepared the Republican National Committee’s platform on natural resources, the environment, and energy.

Paul Fox, managing partner of the Austin office of Bracewell and Patterson and Howard’s former boss, says he always knew Howard would accomplish great things.

“John has more integrity than just about anyone I’ve ever met,” says Fox. “He’s a real solid citizen and a credit to Baylor. He assumed a position of importance with Governor Bush at an early age and did so well that he’s now got a very important leadership position with the administration in Washington, D.C.”

The remarkable nature of the opportunity isn’t lost on Howard. “This has been a tremendous adventure,” he says. “Granted, this job is a lot of work. I deal with so many different issues every day that by nightfall my brain hurts. But working in the White House is something I wouldn’t have missed for anything.”

At Cheney’s Side: Nancy Dorn, Class of 1981

The Baylor grad to have landed the highest-ranking White House staff job is Nancy Dorn ’81, one of the six people who work directly for Vice President Richard Cheney. As the head of his legislative affairs staff, she is responsible for handling foreign policy and defense issues, as well as key domestic matters.

It’s a job she knows well. Dorn was special assistant for legislative affairs to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush. Dorn has also known Cheney for years, since he served under the elder Bush as defense secretary. Additionally, Cheney was in the U.S. House of Representatives when Dorn landed her first federal government job working for Texas Congressman Tom Loeffler.

Dorr’s career reached new heights in 1991 when the Lubbock native was appointed assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. Then 33, she was the youngest person and the first woman nominated by the president, and then confirmed by the U.S. Senate, to hold the position.

“It was an incredible job,” says Dorn, who was responsible for the management and policy direction of the Army Corps of Engineers—a $3.9 billion program that includes domestic flood control, navigation and environmental projects, and support for a number of federal, state, and local agencies, as well as foreign governments.

She became famous for her “chutzpah”—at least, that’s how she was described in a 1993 Armed Forces journal “Darts and Laurels” column. It gave her a laurel for playing a “key role in convincing congressional oversight committees of the need to reorganize and shrink the Army Corps of Engineers, whose water projects have long been synonymous with congressional pork.”

It turned out that Congress had refused to fund previous restructuring plans drafted by the Corps. Dorn developed a new plan-one that eliminated 2,600 of the Corps’ 33,000 jobs and closed five of eleven division offices-which won congressional support.

In 1993, shortly after President Bill Clinton took office, Dorn left the government and established The Nancy Dorn Company, an independent consulting firm specializing in public affairs and government relation’s strategies for corporate and public service enterprises.

She had an 8-year-old daughter, Caroline, and a son, Patrick, 6. From 1996 to 2000, she went to work at the D.C. consulting firm Hooper, Hooper, Owen, and Gould. There, she took on another government role in 1997 when President Clinton appointed her as a member of the board of directors of the Inter-American Foundation, an independent agency that works with private, regional, and international organizations to strengthen the bonds between Latin America and the Caribbean.

When Dick Cheney called and asked her to help with the 2000 presidential campaign, Dorn figured she’d give the White House another whirl. Now several months into her new position, she says things are going well. “It’s good to be back in the middle of things,” says Dorn, taking sips from one of two cans of Diet Coke on her desk. “I’m tired and busy, busy, busy. But, as you can imagine, working here is very exciting.”

One of the best parts of the job, she says, is working closely with the vice president. “It is a real treat to be on his team,” notes Dorn. “He is a quiet, low-key man who knows his stuff and works very well with the president. We feel we will really be able to get a lot of things done so long as we build a consensus around the important issues that the president wants to tackle.”

Topping the list was the $1.35 trillion tax break that will come over the next decade, which won approval from the U.S. House and Senate on May 25. “It was a giant accomplishment,” says Dorn. In fact, it’s the largest tax cut in two decades-a package that, among other things, reduced top income tax rates and provided for a late-summer refund check of approximately $300 for individuals and $600 for families.

Dorn’s new job has presented a few challenges, too, including the defection of James Jeffords, the Vermont senator who announced the day before the tax cut passed that he was leaving the Republican party to become an independent-thereby shifting the power in the Senate from a Republican majority to a Democratic one and reducing the president’s clout. The Washington Post called it “the most glaring example of the difficulties facing the Republican Party in its struggle to hold together a fragile coalition under a party leadership dominated by conservative white southern men.”

Dom simply shrugs off such opinions. “After working closely with two other administrations, I have a different perspective than most people,” she says. “I’ve seen the pitfalls and problems that can arise.”

Dorn admits that, this time around the White House, her world is a little different than it was when she was a twenty-something working for Reagan and the senior Bush. “I have two kids now, and the most quality time I spend with them during the school year is when I drive them to Holy Trinity [ a private school in Georgetown],” she says. “They go to bed at 8:30 P.m., and I often don’t get home until long after that.”

Still, she believes it is a sacrifice worth making. “I’ll be here for the foreseeable future,” says Dorn.

Officially speaking: Tom Pratt, Class of 1981

From a small, brightly lit room in the White House Office of Lettered Messages, Tom Pratt ’81 spends much of his day speaking for the president.

That is, he drafts presidential messages, letters to constituents to be signed by the president, and proclamations-such as the one President Bush read on May 3, 2001, the National Day of Prayer.

“Turning to prayer in times of joy and celebration, strife and tragedy is an integral part of our national heritage,” Pratt wrote for Bush last spring. “When the first settlers landed on the rocky shores of the New World, they celebrated with prayer, and the practice has continued through our history.”

Pratt admits it isn’t always easy to marry Bush’s informal style with the more formal speeches the president needs to make. “President Bush doesn’t like flowery language at all,” says Pratt, a native of New Orleans who graduated from Baylor with a degree in journalism. “But at a national event, you can’t be informal. I usually have to write several drafts before coming up with the right wording.”

Pratt notes, however, that he is happy to write as many drafts as necessary, for he considers Bush to be “the best boss anyone could hope for. He’s a great leader, was a good governor, and is already a very good president.”

Bush was instrumental in transforming Pratt from a newspaper reporter to a White House staff member. It was while working as a reporter in Tyler in 1988 that Pratt met Bush, who was on the campaign trail for his father. They met again when Bush was running for governor.

In December 1997, the governor’s office called Pratt and asked him to apply for a position in the correspondence office. Though he inter-viewed for the job, he didn’t get it. A few months later, though, Pratt was covering a political event and Bush showed up. “I went up to him to say hello, and he not only remembered who I was but knew I had applied for a job in his office,” says Pratt. “He told me not to give up, that a slot could open up.”

Several months later, one did. This time Pratt got the job. He moved to Austin in October 1998, and in 2000 he was happy to support Bush in his run for commander-in-chief.

“It’s not every day your boss runs for president,” says Pratt, who recalls being amazed at the rush for information about Bush from the media and organizations around the world. “Every day, we received thousands of requests. It was all very exciting. It seemed that the world revolved around Austin. “

Pratt’s investigative reporting skills came in handy last December when he tracked down an Internet-based rumor that Bush had led a teen to Christ. The story surfaced shortly after a banquet was held for his campaign staff. Bush was said to have met a 16-year-old boy at the event and to have witnessed to him for thirty minutes before leading him in a conversion prayer. Pratt looked into the allegation and found that reports of the incident were a hoax.

Despite his service to Bush, Pratt wasn’t sure if he’d be selected to be part of the D.C. team when Bush was officially declared president. “I prayed about it and thought about it a lot,” recalls Pratt, who on February 2 received an official phone call. He had been chosen, but he needed to show up for the new job in four days.

]“I came to Washington with two suitcases and lived on a friend’s sofa until I found an apartment,” ‘says Pratt, who eventually rented one in Alexandria, Virginia. “It has been a whirlwind, but I’m having the time of my life.”

Based on faith: Don Willett, Class of 1988

Don Willett is in a hurry. As special assistant to the president and director of law and policy for the newly formed White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI), he is working on H.R. 7, the Community Solutions Act of 2001.

Willett has his work cut out for him. Described in an OFBCI briefing memo as “a bipartisan, consensus law that widens options for needy Americans, safeguards the vitality of faith-based charities, and protects the rights of beneficiaries,” the bill includes several tax incentives to promote private charitable giving and has broad support.
But one of the bill’s provisions, called Charitable Choice, has generated controversy for enabling religious community charities to compete against secular service groups for federal dollars. Consequently, the 34-year-old lawyer makes several runs daily between his large office in the Old Executive Building and Capitol Hill, trying to convince legislators that the bill is worth passing.

“It’s an agenda very prone to demagoguery, caricature, and distortion,” Willett says, “but President Bush is determined to assist the heroic good Samaritans across America who are serving the least, the last, and the lost. He ranks this agenda as his most distinctive, signature domestic policy initiative.”

Willett says it’s important for government to be results –oriented and to dismantle unfair obstacles that have blocked effective, faith-based organizations from linking with government, whether financially or not, to tackle various social ills.

“We are trying to get a faith-friendly agenda deeply embedded across government to ensure we prize performance over process,” says Willett, finally seated back at his large oak desk after a recent trip to Constitution Avenue.

“There is no substitute for having people in the Cabinet who can aggressively drive the president’s agenda,” he says, referring to the White House’s new five Cabinet departments to complement Bush’s faith-based initiative. “You can pass innumerable laws on Capitol Hill and have fancy Rose Garden signing ceremonies, but it can be a hollow victory unless you have Cabinet-level staff committed to implementing those laws.”

Willett grew up in the small Texas town of Forney and has been dedicated to helping George W Bush drive his agendas forward since April 1996, when he was chosen to be director of research and special projects in the governor’s office. The job enabled him to be a versatile jack-of-all-trades.

“Every other policy advisor in the office had a specific portfolio and niche, I was able to be an all-around utility infielder, fielding whatever hot grounder came my way,” explains Willett, who advised Bush on issues ranging from tort reform and education to crime and health care. “It was
a new adventure from e-mad to e-mail and phone call to phone call.”

The job was extremely satisfying for Willett, who seems to work best when juggling several things. The first from his family to attend college, he was a triple major, graduating from Baylor in economics, public administration, and finance. He then earned a law degree, as well as a master’s in political science, from Duke University.
After Duke, he wasn’t sure which type of law he wanted to pursue.

Fortunately, he had already landed a prestigious judicial clerkship with judge Jerre Williams on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where he could dabble in dozens of different areas. After spending a year drafting judicial opinions, preparing bench memoranda, and screening appeals on constitutional, criminal, and civil cases, he decided he wanted to practice employment and labor law.
In 1993, he joined the Austin office of Haynes and Boone, a large Texas law firm that was opening an employment law section on Congress Avenue. At night he’d often come home and write articles for legal and policy journals about aspects of Texas law he felt needed fixing. It was a paper he wrote as a senior fellow for the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) about the Texas criminal justice system that changed his professional trajectory.

“I sent an advance copy of it to Governor Bush’s policy director, Vance McMahan, who had recently spoken at a TPPF board meeting about Governor Bush’s policy shop,” Willett explains. “Vance had mentioned that they were looking to add depth to Mr. Bush’s policy bench. In the cover letter, I mentioned that if there was anything I could do to help Governor Bush to let me know.”

McMahan was evidently so impressed with the paper that he invited Willett to lunch. “The lunch went well,” Willett remembers. “He never mentioned a job, but I got the impression that I was being sized up.” It wasn’t long before Willett received a formal call from McMahan inviting him to join the governor’s staff.

Margaret Wilson, who worked as Bush’s general counsel and is now deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce, remembers Willett’s contributions to the governor’s team. She was impressed by his work then, and she says he is excelling in his new role at the White House.

“Don is a star at everything he does,” Wilson says. “He is highly intelligent and committed to his cause no matter what it is. Plus, he’s a good listener, and I think he learns a lot that way. Also, he has the ability to establish an instant rapport with everyone he meets. Combine all that, and he’s bound to be successful.”

Those characteristics also sound like the makings of a future politician. “In my life I’ve experienced so many undreamed-of twists, that I’ve found it best not to peer too far over the horizon,” says Willett, who last October married another current White House staffer, Tiffany Mahaffe, just three weeks before the election. “I am addicted to the world of ideas and to public policy. After I leave the White House, I plan to remain engaged in big-picture issues. I definitely will be launching a campaign any time soon, but three words to always keep handy are ‘never say never.”’


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