The Festival of Ideas week kicked off Monday, Jan. 28, with a conversation about politics, presidents and the role Jennifer Palmieri has had in it all.
People gathered at the Millennium Center to listen to Palmieri, who was the former White House Director of Communications and currently a New York Times best-selling author.
“I have a unique perspective because I have been privileged to work for two presidents,” Palmieri said. “I spent 12 years working in the West Wing. I have more West Wing experience than anyone but the ushers.”
Palmieri relayed her experience working in the White House through three moments she has had in her 20 years of working in politics, giving a glimpse behind the curtain into the world and thoughts of powerful politicians.
“I’ve decided to tell you about three specific days,” Palmieri said. “One working for President Obama, one working for President Clinton and one working for Hillary Clinton on her campaign that tell the story of how leaders wrestle with power, responsibility and the role that they play in American life.”
Palmieri told the audience about an interaction she had with former President Barack Obama. Through this interaction, she was enlightened on what it personally meant for Obama to be the first black president and how this factored into the way he spoke for the American people.
“We had a moment where he wrestled with who he needed to be for the American people today,” Palmieri said. “That moment was after the trial of Trayvon Martin.”
Palmieri explained that Obama wanted to affectively address the situation and the African American community. When she asked him if he thought he needed to speak to them, his answer was not what she expected.
“He said, ‘No. I think I need to speak for them,’” Palmieri said. “That’s something I would not have thought of. That’s something he brought to the job.”
She also recounted a moment she had working with former President Bill Clinton in the wake of his impending impeachment.
While dealing with the problems that came along with this hectic day, Palmieri remembers a team of people sitting in what is known as the “Roosevelt Room” in the White House, working on Clinton’s state of the union speech for the following year.
“That is how you make it through the turmoil of a presidency,” Palmieri said. “You focus on the job that you were brought there to do. That was about surviving the day. I learned that watching Clinton.”
In her final story, Palmieri discussed what a president looks like, particularly when you are a woman.
While working on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016, Palmieri noticed something that she found revelatory in the way people perceived Clinton.
“It occurred to me that what he had done was turned Hillary into a female facsimile of the qualities that we look for in a male president,” Palmieri said. “I thought, ‘No wonder people think she’s inauthentic.’”
Because of the country’s total inexperience with having a woman as president, Palmieri believes this is a barrier that will be hard to break down but necessary for the future.
“I have no idea what it would look like to run a woman for president in her own image,” Palmieri said. “It’s been less than 100 years that woman have had the right to vote. We’re pushing against all of human history and what we have always recognized as rules for women and men and what leaders look like.”
Palmieri was asked during the Q&A portion of the evening what advice she would give to young women who are interested in running for some sort of office. Her answer was simple.
“Run,” Palmieri said. “You should run. You think you can do it now, and you can.”