February 10, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 10

January was a busy month for Boston College students Robert Orthman '04 (above), who worked on the John Kerry presidential campaign during the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and Christopher Pizzo '06, who began an internship in the White House.

Politics Up Close and Personal

Undergrads get inside look at the White House and campaign trail

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

Roused daily by his alarm clock at 6 a.m., White House intern Christopher Pizzo '06 rarely knew what was in store for him each day, other than that it would be long, hectic and require all of his attention and skill.

A thousand miles away in Iowa, Robert Orthman '04, a campaign worker for US Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), also answered a 6 a.m. wake-up to start equally strenuous days working for a man who hopes to occupy by this time next year the very building in which Pizzo toils.

So went the month of January for the two political science majors from Boston College. While many college students took advantage of their semester breaks to sleep late and relax, Pizzo and Orthman were often up at sunrise or earlier, each getting a unique, inside look at the American political system.

Pizzo, from Parkland, Fla., started off the new year with an internship in the White House. Orthman, a West Roxbury native, spent part of January in the driver's seat of a van as part of the motorcade Kerry used to crisscross Iowa on his way to victory in the Hawkeye State's Jan. 19 presidential caucus. Orthman left the campaign for a few days when the spring semester began, but was on hand to help Kerry capture the New Hampshire primary last week.

With President George W. Bush preparing his reelection bid and Kerry now considered the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, chances are Pizzo and Orthman will find themselves working - albeit in different capacities - for the main rivals in this year's presidential election.

For all the contrasts between their respective job situations, Orthman and Pizzo have found the view of politics and government in action similarly enlightening, eye-opening and sometimes inspiring.

"On the one hand I am in awe by where I am and by the people I work with, and on the other I am consumed by a desire to exceed the expectations placed on me," said Pizzo, whose internship lasts until mid-May, in an e-mail interview.

Pizzo works for Dina Powell, the president's assistant for presidential personnel, assisting in the interview and selection process, as well as the political vetting, of candidates for positions throughout the administration. He says his internship has shown him, among other things, that the misconceptions about working in the White House are vast.

"Now I realize life at the real White House is much different than the life that is portrayed Wednesday nights on NBC," said Pizzo, referring to the popular television series "The West Wing" which chronicles the administration of a fictitious president.

He said the frantic pace of the show and ideologically charged characters are Hollywood fiction.

"While everyone who works here is certainly passionate about their jobs and President Bush's agenda, there is a certain calm and collected presence about work at the White House," said Pizzo.

However frenzied college life might get, Pizzo says there is no comparison to interning at the White House, where there is far less tolerance for error.

"When we first arrived at work we were told that our schedule is dictated by the amount of work on our plate, which means that a 9-to-5 schedule doesn't exist. In other words, there are no excused absences or paper extensions when you are working for the President of the United States."

As in the White House, successful organization and management are essential for success in a campaign like Kerry's, according to Orthman, who previously worked on the campaigns of Boston city councilors and a Massachusetts congressman.

"It was a thrill and an honor to be there," he said.

After driving Kerry to early morning media interviews, Orthman's days were often spent traveling with campaign staff members or media representatives to pancake breakfasts, diners, town hall meetings and other locations to meet voters. Driving as many as two hours between campaign stops, Orthman and his fellow staffers usually worked until 10 p.m. most nights.

"Senator Kerry was going non-stop leading up to the caucus," said Orthman. "He really settled into himself and believed what he was doing was right. In the end, that made all the difference.

"We really had to plan well to make sure we were on time and that everything was set before the event," said Orthman. An apparently simple task like setting up banners and signs to make them visible to TV cameras and crowds attending campaign events took on a whole new magnitude, he said.

"It really made a difference," said Orthman.

For both students, a new understanding of the power and influence of the media has been an unexpected lesson.

"I was surprised by how much the media controlled it," said Orthman, who observed the tactics of reporters as they dealt with Kerry's media relations team. "They have a job to do and I think the campaign was generally happy with the coverage, but they are very influential."

Pizzo, former editor of the campus newspaper The Observer, said his view of the press has been broadened after working inside one of the most scrutinized organizations in the world.

"Making the decision of what to include in a particular story is where people's biases come in, and I think this is present in all media. It's not necessarily a negative thing; it's just the way things are."

For Pizzo and Orthman, working in politics is a matter of principle, not simply professional training. Asked if they could suspend their political and ideological beliefs enough to switch places with one another and perform their tasks with the same devotion, neither one hedged in their reply.

"I have always felt that energy is useless without conviction, and I don't think I could provide a beneficial service to a campaign or elected official whose ideology runs counter to my own," said Pizzo. "This doesn't mean I have to be in agreement with every policy that is adopted by the administration, but the knowledge that my work is playing a part in advancing a positive and worthwhile agenda is essential to my participation."

Said Orthman, "I would not work in the Bush White House because I would have to strongly compromise my political ideals and work towards policies I do not believe in."

But Orthman says he would be willing to do governmental work where ideology is not a factor. "I believe in serving my country," he said.

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