A Unique Situation Room
A political science class led by Trustee Alan Solomont (A'70) sits Tufts students at the same table as policymakers from the Clinton administration.
At one end of the table, two young presidential aides are giving a briefing on the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, the PowerPoint presentation on the screen behind them displaying gross domestic product figures and personal income graphs. Listening at the other end of the table are former President Bill Clinton, his Director of Communications, Mark Gearan, and a member of Clinton's cabinet, the Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew. Seated on both sides of the table in plush maroon chairs are 20 other aides, leafing through the afternoon's memo and jotting notes.
"The [balanced] budget drafted by our administration was proposed on February 6, 1997, and it was a move that would have been unthinkable only two years previous. It was not lambasted publicly by Republican congressional leadership, but was actually claimed 'alive on arrival,'" one of the presidential aides declares.
As the aide continues to dissect the act, Lew interrupts apologetically. "Well, I'm not sure that's really exactly what happened."
Lew can say that because eight years ago, he was there. On this Thursday afternoon, he is sitting in a classroom on the Medford/Somerville campus. The presidential aides are actually Tufts undergraduates, while President Clinton is played by Alan Solomont (A'70), the Tufts trustee and former finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) who leads this weekly seminar on the Clinton presidency as a senior fellow of the University College of Citizenship and Public Service.
But Lew and Gearan really are the Lew and Gearan; they are two of the high-profile guests Solomont brings in every week who had an actual hand in shaping the course of the nation during the Clinton presidency.
"The purpose of bringing them is partly to give the students this incredibly rich experience with people who were there, but also for them to serve as role models," says Solomont, who also chairs the Board of Overseers of the University College. "Each of them is bright and accomplished and could probably be doing anything with their lives, but they've chosen to devote themselves to public service. To put these people in front of students is one of the great values of doing this."
Gearan is now president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, while Lew is executive vice president of New York University. Other Clinton administration officials who have visited the class include National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, presidential aide and health care plan architect Ira Magaziner and Chief of Staff John Podesta, in addition to major political players like former DNC Chairman Steve Grossman and Newsweek's chief political correspondent, Howard Fineman.
"This is like getting to interview all the dinosaurs before the meteor hit," Fineman joked when he spoke to the class. "Life is lived forward but understood backwards."
Indeed, each week the class travels back in time, as two students brief the class on a particular phase of the presidency – be it welfare reform, healthcare reform, intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, or even impeachment – as if it were a current issue, with Solomont taking on the role of the commander in chief and members of the class debating the proper course of action on that day's issue.
"I love the structure of it," says senior David Baumwoll, former president of the Tufts Community Union Senate and current senior class president. "I love that you are responsible for briefing the president and diving deeply into one aspect of his presidency."
Then comes an incredibly rare opportunity – the chance for students to engage in informal discussion with that week's guest.
While many universities invite such experts to give prepared speeches in large auditoriums, this kind of intimate discussion about a period of history with someone who was integral in making that history is, according to the students, both rare and incredible.
"I think that the discussion is the best part, being able to ask questions of these people who know firsthand what happened, and these are the people who we couldn't normally gain access to," says Baumwoll. "But you do have access, because they're right there at your disposal, and that's unbelievable."
"That's the best part – the informal conversation," agrees junior Kayt Norris, former president of Tufts Democrats and the creator of a new political internship program."We ask our questions, they respond, they infuse our briefs with their knowledge."
"One of the most amazing classes was when we were discussing health care reform Ira Magaziner, who [along with Hillary Clinton] was the architect of the program. He was right there answering our questions," Baumwoll explains. "He wasn't speaking hypothetically; he said 'This is what I proposed, this is what the president said, and this is what went wrong.'"
On this particular week in early November, the table of White House staffers begins debating the direction in which the Clinton administration should go after balancing the budget.
At the head of the table, Solomont – as Clinton – asks whether the administration should keep growing the economy or invest in progressive social programs.
"Use the surplus to invest in education and job training," says Tufts senior and – as dubbed by Solomont – "economics expert" Ben Friedlander, citing the need to counteract growing fiscal conservatism.
"Going forward we have this surplus and there's this greater appreciation of government [because of the 1995-96 government shutdown]," agrees senior Robin Liss. "If we can use this sentiment to our advantage, along with a positive economy, then it's time to get back to those issues which got us here."
"But what would have been the alliance that would have allowed us to move to the left?" Lew challenges. "There is an argument that the presidency isn't all about getting things done, that some of it is about laying the groundwork for ideas for the future. But if it is about governing and getting things done in the short term, you have to play with the hand you're dealt, and if you don't control the Congress, the agenda isn't entirely yours."
From left, Jack Lew, Mark Gearan and Alan Solomont listen to a student's question.
'We all have to care'
Lew's sobering reminder to the students about the political realities of the 1990s illustrates an important fact: coming into the class, most of these students had limited knowledge of this era in American government by virtue of their age.
"The Clinton presidency was in a strange period for us, because we knew he was a political figure but we didn't really understand the intricacies of his presidency," says senior Kate Drizos. "But now I feel like I'm really becoming an expert on these issues. It's by far the most informative class I've taken at Tufts."
"We were old enough to know bits and pieces but this fills in everything," adds Norris. "It's like, here's what I thought I knew, here's what happened. It changes the way I looked at Clinton, both for better and worse. And you don't just learn facts; you learn the process you have to go through to make changes."
These lessons from the recent past are important as more than just history, because they influence the policies and culture of today. A discussion with Sandy Berger on intervention in Kosovo morphs into a class debate about what role the United States should play with regard to the crisis in Darfur. Elaine Kamarck, who created and managed the Clinton administration's National Performance Review policy council, details through studies and polls how Clinton's 1998 impeachment affected 2004 voter blocs.
The ideas and opinions thrown around the table are full of intelligence and idealism, no surprise given that politics is a field in which many in the class are already deeply involved.
"You can understand where things came from and how things happen and go from there, and that's what we're doing in this class," says Drizos, a past intern at The Brookings Institution and Sen. Ted Kennedy's office who is eyeing a career in public policy.
After the class debate with Lew, Gearan discusses the present-day political climate and the divisiveness which dominates it.
"I think it's hard for the current leaders to be in the same room with each other, and that is not a good thing when it comes to making policy," he says. "I think there has been a 'Crossfire-ization' of politics – things are either black or white, and that permeates the news. It's the demands of editors and readers, and we're sort of responsible for this as readers because we want a quick analysis of news."
Gearan notes Clinton's decision not to invade Haiti as the "most vivid portrayal" of this phenomenon.
"A reporter asked me, because I was communications director, 'Mark, is this a stunning act of diplomacy or a failed agreement that can't work? My deadline's at five,'" he recalls, as the class laughs in response. "But when will you know the success of that agreement? They want an instant analysis and so much of public policy takes some time to analyze."
But Gearan hopes that the harshness of partisan rancor will soon abate. "There is a growing frustration in the electorate about not getting things done, which I think could provide the tipping point," he explains.
"I think you can effect change," Lew adds. "The worst thing is when people give up, because the people who definitely won't give up are those on the extreme ends. We all have to vote and we all have to care."
Baumwoll asks how politics became so viciously partisan during the Clinton era, given that most of his successes were compromises.
"Why were they so hostile? I have a theory," Gearan says, turning to the class, "but I'm curious as to yours."
Profile written by Rebecca Dince and Ben Hoffman, Class of 2006
Rebecca Dince, a native of Brooklyn, New York, is a political science major and a communications and media studies minor. She has been a features editor at the Tufts Daily for the past two years, and has written for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Rebecca returned to Tufts this semester, after spending the fall studying at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. She spent the summer interning for NBC News' Political Unit in New York City.
Ben Hoffman, a native of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Ben has been a sports editor at the Tufts Daily for the past two years, and last fall he headed the sports department. He also interned for the Boston Globe in the fall before studying abroad in Prague in the spring.
Class photos by Melody Ko, University Photographer. Clinton photo by Getty Images. White House image from Ablestock.
This story originally ran on Dec. 12, 2005.