Wash. U. alum, deputy press secretary talks about White House experiences, offers guidance for job-seeking students
Eric Schultz’s political career began with a series of small, seemingly anonymous steps: planning Washington University’s Residential College Olympics, answering phones in the office of an unknown freshman U.S. senator and following around a campaign opponent, as a self-described “18-year-old punk.”
Now, in one giant leap, the deputy press secretary and Wash. U. alumnus has traded the South 40 for the White House and the Campus Circulator for Air Force One.
His gig in the Obama administration represents the pinnacle of two decades of hard work and networking, Schultz said while visiting campus as a featured speaker Friday. In both his Assembly Series lecture and an interview with Student Life, Schultz emphasized the importance of building relationships and staying positive while working in politics.
The communications job is long in the making, though perhaps inadvertently, he said. As a Wash. U. student, he served as speaker of Congress of the South 40 and lived with a Student Life editor, and the two “would quarrel and argue back then about the paper’s coverage of CS40,” Schultz said. “I had no idea at that time that that would be a signal of things to come.”
Schultz interned for Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) after his freshman year of college and volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s first senatorial campaign the following summer. In the grind of that high-profile race, the stalwart intern focused on opposition research and was offered a full-time position through the November 2000 election.
The decision to accept was a difficult one, Schultz said, because it meant having to give up a prospective semester abroad. Instead, he took that fall off and stayed on with Clinton, who won her election by 12 points.
“I remember calling [Dean of Students] Justin Carroll asking for what he thinks I should do,” Schultz remembered, “and he was like, ‘Eric, on campus, we’ll all still be here when you get back. Go do this once-in-a-lifetime experience.’”
It turns out the experience wasn’t once-in-a-lifetime. In the 14 years since Schultz graduated from Wash. U., he has worked for the failed presidential campaigns of John Kerry (2004) and John Edwards (2008), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and, since spring 2011, for President Barack Obama.
With the 2016 election season in full swing and Wash. U. preparing to host a presidential debate in October, Schultz sees the current environment as especially fruitful for students aspiring to follow his political path. From his own experience, he recommended that anybody interested in working in politics start now, with an internship or an entry-level job on a campaign or in a politician’s office.
“When current undergrads get the advice to go get internships [and] go get pragmatic experience, I think that’s dead on because I think not only are you building skill sets and experiences, but you’re also building relationships, which are pretty fundamental,” Schultz said.
As any college advisor who has proselytized about the importance of networking can attest, those relationships can serve as crucial building blocks for a later career.
In Schultz’s case, that development manifested when he received a position in Schumer’s Washington, D.C., office post-graduation and bounced from there to Kerry’s presidential campaign. His connections were solid, he thinks, because of how seriously he took each assigned task while working low-level jobs.
“Campaigns are true meritocracies,” he said. “What I mean by that is good people, who are talented and do their jobs without a sense of entitlement, always rise to the top.”
A political science major at Wash. U., Schultz also minored in writing, and he added that any students interested in a political career would do well to strengthen their rhetorical skills. But most of all, he said, jobs and opportunities come to those who craft positive relationships—even with partisan opponents or rivals for a certain position.
“You should always remember that there will be another struggle, another fight, another issue to resolve tomorrow, but that your honesty and your credibility and your respect for one another should always rise above all that,” Schultz said. “Your relationships around the table and in the room are going to last much longer than whatever you’re working to resolve at the moment.”
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I admit that my desire to interview Schultz was not entirely borne of journalistic magnanimity. Rather, I wanted to expand on a syracuse.com profile of Schultz that revealed that my favorite television show, “The West Wing,” had partially inspired him to his current position, as the Aaron Sorkin political vehicle aired its first few seasons while Schultz watched attentively from his dorm room on the South 40.
When I asked Schultz about the show whose plots he lives out on a daily basis, he leaned forward and asked, “OK, so can we have a conversation about this? Do people still watch ‘The West Wing’?”
Apparently, yes, because at his Assembly Series lecture later in the day, multiple students asked similar questions about the accuracy of various television depictions of life in the White House.
“I’ve done a couple of sessions today,” Schultz said. “This is the question I keep getting.”
While the show might have taken some liberties with its portrayal of the political process, Schultz said it shines most in its vision of the “esprit de corps of the team working in the White House. You’re with each other sometimes 12, 14, 16 hours a day—and when you’re traveling, you’re with them around the clock, sometimes for over a week—so you learn that we’re a family, and I think that came across in the show as well.”
Schultz’s model character from the show was C.J. Cregg, and he said his visit back to the Danforth Campus was reminiscent of an episode in which C.J. attends a school reunion. But he demurred when asked whether Josh Earnest, real-life White House press secretary, or C.J., his “West Wing” counterpart, is better at the job.
“C.J. was talented,” Schultz said. “Josh is, I think, one of the best press secretaries I’ve ever seen in the White House.”
And although “The West Wing” is off the air and now lives only in Netflix binges and with a robust online fan base, it—and its successors in political television—still serves as a guide to realistic life in D.C.
“There are many moments in a day where sometimes I feel like I’m on a TV show,” Schultz said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it’s more like ‘Veep.’” (Thankfully, Schultz told the Assembly Series audience, his life has never mimicked a “House of Cards” episode).
He offered the example of a senator who recently enacted a slapstick moment that could come straight from the zany comedy’s script. While walking on a sidewalk in D.C., Schultz said, this senator had an unfortunate encounter with a sandwich board sign.
“She’s on the phone, she’s on her Blackberry, she’s doing lots of things and she walks right into the sign,” he said. “The sign collapses. And she’s all taken aback, and she turns to her staff and she’s like, ‘How did you let that happen?’ [She] walked into a sign!”
But don’t worry about how he gets around, Schultz added. After all, for him, “Travel on Air Force One is not as burdensome as regular commutes.”