"It's better to be single while you're in the White House," cautioned Jay Footlik, 40, who from 1994 to 1997 served as a special assistant to Clinton. He recalled many weekends interrupted by a job that placed him on call 24 hours a day; perhaps that's why an average stint as a White House staffer lasts just 18 months.
Footlik spoke alongside Noam Neusner at the University City event, co-sponsored by the Penn Israel Coalition, Penn Democrats and College Republicans. Although neither speaker attended the Ivy League university, the organizers titled the talk "From Penn to the West Wing," in the hope that some student in the audience might aspire to a national political position.
In his comments, Neusner – who from 2002 to 2005 served as a speechwriter and liaison to the Jewish community for the Bush administration – clarified Footlik's assessment by pointing out that it was possible to have a family life outside of the White House, just not easy.
Contrary to Washington life depicted on the television series "The West Wing," where "everyone's life is completely centered around their jobs," said Neusner, "people do have families."
Continuing on the topic of the TV drama, Neusner admitted that he often heard the show's patriotic-sounding theme playing in his head as he showed up at the White House, even though life was not always as exciting as portrayed on the program. He revealed that while he considered his work potentially of historic importance, many of the meetings he had to sit through were long and boring.
Neusner, 36, got his start at the Baltimore Jewish Times after graduating from Johns Hopkins University. He was tapped to craft economic-policy speeches for Bush while a reporter for U.S. News & World Report.
"I remember feeling incredibly intimidated," he said. "But there comes a point when you really feel like you understand what's going on."
Over the past seven months, the pair have taken time out from their respective consulting businesses to appear together in similar question-and-answer format events around the country.
Footlik told the students that volunteering for a campaign – stuffing envelopes and canvassing neighborhoods – is the best way to gain experience in politics. He said he abandoned law school in 1992 and headed to Little Rock, Ark., to volunteer for the campaign of a little-known governor, much to the chagrin of his mother.
"Just make sure you work for somebody you like and respect," chimed-in Neusner.
Footlik said that the Oct. 26, 1994, peace agreement between Israel and Jordan was the most memorable day of his tenure. That trip to the Middle East was his first, but not his last. After leaving the White House, he lived in Israel for four years, only to return stateside to work for Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), and then the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
When an audience member asked a question about U.S. foreign policy, both speakers said that the U.S.-Israel relationship will remain strong no matter who occupies the Oval Office.
"Throughout the cold war," said Footlik, pointing to the Jewish state, "we had one stable ally in all the Middle East."
Neusner added: "Israel is a great friend. In the global war on terror, Israel has lessons to teach and intelligence to share."