All that said, I did receive a partial scholarship (not for basketball) to attend Duke University and a full-tuition scholarship to attend the University of Chicago Law School. (I needed scholarships; my father worked for the post office, earning a modest salary.) And I did get a job at the well-known New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which was appealing to me because of the presence of prominent individuals who had served in government, like Ted Sorensen, counsel to President Kennedy. As a young lawyer, I had the chance to work with the firm's most senior lawyers, and New York's top business leaders and government officials, when I was assigned to work on the pending bankruptcy of New York City.
I enjoyed that government-related work, and felt that working in government would be more rewarding. The lower compensation was of no real concern, for money held no real interest to me; I had never had much money, and did not honestly aspire to make too much. Politics and public policy were much more alluring.
Had I stayed at Paul, Weiss, I might have developed a specialty, become partner, and remained there for the next forty-plus years, until the forced retirement that such firms now impose on their sixty-five- to seventy-year-old partners. But that platform, enviable perhaps for serious lawyers, would probably not have given me the opportunity to become much of a player in the world of government service or politics. So I left after just two years to chase the dream of working in the federal government and ultimately being a White House staffer and presidential advisor—like Ted Sorensen.
That was a bit of a pipe dream; I had no political contacts or track record, and I was barely out of law school. But I was enamored with politics, public service, and the presidency, and business was the furthest thing from my mind.
That dream probably started when I watched President Kennedy give his eloquent inaugural address on January 20, 1961. He called on the nation to meet the new challenges facing the world, and he inspired a generation to become engaged with government and the public good. The speech was poetry in prose form, and his words about trying to do something for the country stayed with me throughout my youth.
Sometimes lightning strikes for those who take chances.
With the help of a recommendation from Ted Sorensen, I left Paul, Weiss to become chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, which was a long title for being Senator Birch Bayh's legislative assistant on Judiciary Committee matters. But he was running for president, seemed to me qualified for that position, and would surely ask me to join his White House staff after his inevitable election.
Unfortunately, fate intervened: Senator Bayh dropped out of the race (though probably not because of his poor selection of a Judiciary Committee staffer), ending what I thought was my chance to work in the White House. But while working in the Senate, I had a chance to sit on the floor of the Senate and watch the greats of that era—Senators Scoop Jackson, Warren Magnuson, Phil Hart, Jacob Javits, Howard Baker, and Ted Kennedy—show their leadership skills.
As the 1976 primaries were ending, I received a call from someone working for another candidate, the likely nominee, Governor Jimmy Carter, and was invited to interview for a job on his post-nomination policy staff. I thought a peanut farmer's chances of getting elected were modest, but I had nothing better to do. I got the job, moved to Atlanta, and proceeded to do what I could to help Governor Carter's policy leader, Stuart Eizenstat.
When I joined the campaign team, Carter was more than thirty points ahead of the incumbent, President Gerald Ford. After my handiwork, Carter won by one point.
Fortunately, I was not blamed for the decline in his fortunes, and ultimately became a deputy domestic policy assistant to President Carter—a job, needless to say, I was not really qualified to hold. White House jobs are often filled by those who worked on the campaign; it is not necessarily who is best qualified.
I held that position for the entire four years of the Carter administration, and thoroughly relished it. How could someone from a blue-collar background, a first-generation college graduate, not love working in the West Wing, traveling on Air Force One and Marine One, meeting with the president and vice president, and helping my boss, Stuart Eizenstat, run the domestic policy team at the White House, all while in my late twenties and early thirties? Does life get any better?
I am not sure that experience really made me a "leader" in the first third of my career, but I had managed, through lots of luck, to elevate my career over what it might otherwise have been if pure talent, intellect, and leadership qualities were the only criteria.