There is nothing like a tour of the West Wing to introduce students to the substance of life in Washington DC.
For seven years I have brought a group of Stonehill students to Washington DC for two weeks each May to supplement their study of politics on campus with two weeks of seminars with leaders of government, interest groups, media, and academia.
Stonehill’s Politics in Washington is the result of a collaboration between the Martin Institute and a professor of politics at Catholic University, John Kenneth White, who happened to be my undergraduate advisor. John loves politics and the study of politics and works with us to put together a program remarkable for its diversity.
For two weeks I bring the students all over the city to actively listen to the people who make it work. The seminars are quite literally all over the map. Later today, for example, we will start out at the Pew Research Center to discuss the role of religion in American politics. From there we head over to the Heritage Foundation to discuss conservative thinking and public policymaking. Before dinner we will meet the President of the National Association of Broadcasters, Marcellus Alexander, to discuss lobbying. Students will end their day with a tour of the West Wing courtesy of a distinguished Stonehill alum, David Bibo, who is the Director for Preparedness Policy at White House National Security Staff
This course is, hands down, my favorite part of the academic year. In the past we’ve met the White House Chief of Staff in the Roosevelt Room; we were in the National Archives listening to Nixon tapes the same day Mark Felt was uncovered as Deep Throat; Barney Frank walked them through the ladders of his congressional career; Rachel Swarns of The New York Times discussed her research on the First Lady.
Yesterday they were able to openly question Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown before listening to a presentation at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and meeting our alum at the White House. The students bring to these seminars a variety of perspectives on politics and I am always happiest when I learn the group contains liberals, conservatives, moderates, and a few others. We end up with a Green here and there. This year we have a sometimes libertarian. The mix is healthy for our conversations but also because they are rarely confronted with outright partisanship in our seminars. Rather, they meet substantive people who care deeply about what they do. They may well leave more sure of their own politics but not because they are forced fed the partisanship or ideology with which they already agree.
Rarely do the students leave here without enhanced respect for the women and men who make Washington work. We don’t paint a facade or overlook the facts of life here but we leave with a different impression of how politics works and how it doesn’t. In a meeting with the Legislative Director for Senator Pat Toomey, the students were forced to consider how we measure define gridlock and were asked, for example, why we measure the health of Washington by the number of bills Congress passes? A very good question.
They also learn that much happens off the Hill. They’ll meet with Louise Shelley next week to discuss her book Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective. If they leave committed to further study or policy work on that issue, they will likely find themselves back in this city.
Finally, it is a plus to bring to students to Washington from Stonehill and Massachusetts. The Boston-DC axis is an amazing thing and there are times when the accents and Red Sox hats are so prevalent, you wondered if you’re in Southeast DC or South Boston. And that goes beyond the impressive model of the U.S.S. Constitution you see in the West Wing or the fact that the White House photographer, Pete Souza, hails from South Dartmouth and went to BU. Imagine being between 18 and 21 and meeting two U.S. Senators back to back. One is a former presidential candidate and Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and the other became a young Republican superstar who shocked the political world. Both are national names and when each one gives you their time, speaks passionately about their work, and encourages you to find your way back to DC, you are likely to be moved to do just that.