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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Janet Slaughter Eissenstat

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-12

One way to acquire proximity to executive power in Washington is to be part of a successful presidential campaign. Another is to land a White House fellowship.

Janet Slaughter Eissenstat of Oklahoma knows quite a bit about both routes.
"Washington affords unparalleled opportunities not only to be part of government, but also acquire a most extraordinary post doctoral education," the director of the President's Commission on White House Fellowships said. "And when you spend time in Washington as a fellow, you actually become optimistic about America."

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell would certainly agree with her. So would Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. As would Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao; the dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Patrick Harker; a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Margaret McKeown; the former National Security Adviser to President Reagan, Robert McFarlane; and the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, Marshall Carter.

They and some 600 other men and women from all over America were selected for a year-long stint each as White House Fellows over the last four decades. The program was launched in 1964 during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson to help develop young leaders for public service.

Now Ms. Eissenstat is holding nine regional panels to select this year's fellows. The New York contest starts today.

As much as the director, the outcome of the regional panels will be followed by members of the nonpartisan 30-person commission, which is led by renowned author and magazine editor Myrna Blyth. The commissioners seldom attend the regional panels, preferring instead to weigh in when finalists emerge.

"Anywhere from 11 to 19 fellows are selected each year from some 30 finalists," said Ms. Blyth, who has served as commissioner since 2001 and became chairperson earlier this year when Julie Nixon Eisenhower vacated the post. "But several hundred people apply for what is America's most prestigious fellowship for leadership development and public service." (Disclosure: Ms. Blyth has been an editorial contributor to the New York Sun.)

The fellowship is widely viewed as prestigious because recipients gain access to not only to the corridors of power but to the chambers as well. For example, at least two fellows get to occupy offices in the West Wing of the White House, the nerve center of the presidency. Contacts with the president are not uncommon.

They also work with, or near, cabinet secretaries, often preparing documents that the officials find useful in fashioning policy.

They are paid for the effort - each fellow gets an annual salary of about $100,000, plus housing costs. That's the equivalent of the yearly pay received by a federal employee belonging to General Services Grade 14, Step 3. Fellows from the military are paid according to their service grade.

But money isn't the point.

"It's the experience," Ms. Blyth - a longtime editor of Ladies Home Journal, and founding editor of More magazine - said. "It's fair to say that a White House fellowship stands out in a person's resume."

A fellow's resume is also likely to say that part of the assignment is foreign travel. Ms. Eissenstat pointed out that among the countries that her fellows visited in 2005 were India and China. Fellows also get to visit different parts of America. But Washington clearly is the paramount attraction for the fellows.

By the time Ms. Eissenstat became the commission's director in January 2005, she'd become a Washington veteran.

Her journey to the capital began in her native Ardmore, a rural community of a few thousand in Oklahoma.

The youngest of 12 children of an engineer, Elmer Slaughter, and his wife Mickey, Janet Slaughter grew up in a competitive environment. She was inducted into community service at an early age, she said, and her parents "always taught me to give back to society."

The opportunity to give back on a wider scale came after she'd obtained an MBA from the University of Oklahoma.

That's when Ms. Slaughter became an organizational director for the Republican Party in Texas. As she worked on behalf of the party in the state's 254 countries, she came into contact with trusted Bush associates such as Karen Hughes and Karl Rove.

Those contacts proved useful when Governor Bush ran for the presidency in 2000. Ms. Slaughter had actually moved to Washington in 1993 after her marriage to Everett Eissenstat, now the U.S. Assistant Trade Representative for the Americas. She burnished her resume with stints at Spaeth Communications, and as the spokesperson for the American Bankers Association.

After Mr. Bush's victory, Ms. Eissenstat, among other things, became assistant chief of protocol at the State Department.

She became commission director last year when her predecessor, Jocelyn White, left the post after a lengthy tenure.

"I saw this as an opportunity to identify America's future leaders," Ms. Eissenstat said, noting that White House fellows are typically between 27 and 39 years of age.

In order to become fellows, applicants need to qualify through regional contests. The 30 finalists are then invited to a three-day retreat in Annapolis at which they are interviewed by the commission. The chairperson - currently Ms. Blyth - encourages socializing as much as brainstorming.

One would think that several hundred applications annually for about 19 fellowships is a sturdy ratio.

But Ms. Blyth - who's writing a new book, "How To Raise An American" - isn't quite happy about it.

"We need to get the word out more," she said. "This is an extraordinary program, and I want more young Americans to know about it - to know what an exquisite opportunity this is to learn about our governments and its leaders."

Ms. Eissenstat added:

"After all, these young people are themselves going to be our leaders in the not too distant future."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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