ANA SANTOS / THE EAGLE
Although Melanne Verveer served as Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff when she was first lady, she knew Bill first through college.
“We shared a lot of the same interests, and in some ways, we were like policy wonks,” Verveer said of Bill Clinton.
The School of Public Affairs hosted the “Legacy of America’s First Ladies” conference March 1, including a panel of former first ladies’ chiefs of staffs for Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.
Anita McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush and School of Public Affairs professor, said she grew closer to Laura Bush after George W. Bush became the governor of Texas.
Susan Sher, former chief of staff to Michelle Obama, said Michelle worked as her employee for a number of years in Chicago, where they grew close.
“I was always a Michelle person,” Sher said.
In each instance, the first lady asked each woman to be her chief of staff, since a personal staff is necessary to cope with such an influential position.
“You are never prepared for the power of that position,” Verveer said. “It may not be in the Constitution, but it’s an extremely powerful position.”
While the president must deal with the interests of the public, the first lady is free to choose her own issues.
Clinton served as an activist for education and children’s rights while her husband was in office, Verveer said.
But Verveer said the first lady is often forced to put aside her own personal goals to support her husband in the early stages of presidency, especially on foreign trips.
“You’re not really carrying out your own portfolio on those early trips because you’re helping the president,” she said. “You don’t have a portfolio, frankly.”
The chief of staff also helps the first lady create the image she wants to portray to the public.
“Michelle thinks of herself as an average American, even though she’s not since she’s living in the White House,” Sher said.
While a first lady’s typical day in the White House is “demanding,” McBride said the stress and long to-do lists are worth it.
“It’s a 24/7 job,” McBride said. “It’s always a part of you.”
At times, their jobs as chief of staff carried over to their time at home. Verveer said one time Clinton called her on a weeknight simply to talk.
“I remember one day I said, ‘Well, I’m in Safeway grocery shop, something you don’t have to worry about,’” Verveer said. “And her response was ‘you don’t know how much I wouldn’t mind going to a local grocery market.’”