‘And then the phone rang…’
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‘And then the phone rang…’

Wyckoff man's adventures in politics and public service

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Joshua Gottheimer wrote speeches for this hero, President Bill Clinton, when he was only 23 years old. “It’s a whole other level of awe.”

Okay. Let’s start with this amazing and unavoidable thing first.

Joshua Gottheimer of Wyckoff was a speechwriter for the president of the United States when he was 23 years old.

There. We have to deal with it. Neither I nor any of you will ever be able to say that, and the odds are steep that neither our children nor our grandchildren will be able to either.

Now that we’ve all taken a minute to get over it, let’s meet Mr. Gottheimer, whose work with Bill Clinton was not a fluke but a logical step in a variegated career. He is a lawyer, and has enough technical expertise in communications to be almost a geek; he’s also a writer, policy analyst, and public speaker. Now, he works for Microsoft.

Mr. Gottheimer spent many years living in Washington, but his roots are deep in New Jersey soil, and not the transplant-from-the-Lower-East-Side kind either. He’s from West Orange, his father’s father had a store in Newark, and his stepfather’s father had one in Jersey City. (That’s serious MetroWest yichus; when he moved to Bergen County, “it felt like I needed a passport,” he joked.)

Mr. Gottheimer’s interest in government work began early; when he was 16, in 1991, he was a Senate page for then Senator Frank Lautenberg. He got the job through a family friend. He wanted it not only for the cachet but also because “back then, people believed in service, and that by working there you could bring change.” Pages could work either during the school year or, as he did, during the summer.

“You’d help the senator, getting an easel, a cup of coffee, whatever they wanted, and you’d also get exposure to the Senate. I fell in love with the process.”He both admired and respected Mr. Lautenberg, the Paterson-born Democrat who ran for public office after having made a fortune in a private company, Automatic Data Processing. “He was a wonderful model,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “My father was a small businessman, and he started working when he was 8 years old. I had a deep respect for the entrepreneurial system.”

Mr. Gottheimer spent his high school and college summers at various internships in Washington, working for the secretary of the Senate and a former House Speaker, Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.), among others. One summer, as an intern, he worked with C-Span to figure out the then-startlingly-new idea of closed caption television broadcasts, not as a coder but as a project manager, “which is sort of still what I do now,” he said. “I still don’t know how to code, but I do know how to talk to coders.”

Mr. Foley became a mentor to Mr. Gottheimer, and his idea that government service truly is service – that is, that it is a very real and direct way to improve lives – grew.

“It was a crazy idea, but I really felt that even at a very young age I could really help people,” he said. “That’s what drives you in service, that you can directly make a difference in people’s lives. The cliché is that you can pick up a phone and help fix potholes and find lost Social Security checks.

“It’s true. It is very rewarding.

“It goes back to what my parents taught me, and what I learned in Hebrew school. If you have, you should give back.” (His Hebrew school was at Temple Shalom of West Essex in Cedar Grove.)

That ideal is changing now, he said, and he mourns that change as a very real loss.

Mr. Gottheimer earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where he also joined the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Phi, but his heart was not in Philadelphia but in Washington.

“Bill Clinton was my Jack Kennedy,” he said. Back in West Essex High School, he had played his idol in a mock debate. “I thundered on stage,” he said, in what was a very conservative neighborhood and a fairly Republican town. He worked in Clinton’s first campaign, stuffing envelopes.

So in 1995, when he was tapped to join President Clinton’s re-election campaign, “I was over the moon,” he said. He was on “the rapid response team,” he explained. “We spent our days tracking Bob Dole” – Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas was the Republican presidential nominee – “and responding to him.

“I stayed on the campaign during my senior year in college, and commuted back and forth to Penn.

“It was my dream. I was commuting on Amtrak, with no money and a huge credit card bill. I went to Costco for baked beans. The person who owned SlimFast was a huge donor – Danny Abraham – and he donated a large skid of slims and shakes.”

It was pure heaven for him, but it was also “a dietary low point.”

After he graduated from college, with Bill Clinton back in the White House, Mr. Gottheimer went to Oxford University for a year – he’d received the Thouron award from Penn, which gave him the right to do so. Perhaps ironically, given the ancient, very beautiful, and very English surroundings, he studied modern American history.

“I was very interested in the intersection of women’s rights and American civil rights,” he said. “It was hilarious. They consider modern history as starting in the 1500s.” His mentor was Mary Francis Berry, the African-American social activist for whom he later would work and with whom he would later edit a book.

After his Oxford year, Mr. Gottheimer came back to Washington, where he continued to work on his research – it was to have been a doctoral dissertation. He supported himself by scooping ice cream at a Ben & Jerry’s in Georgetown. “And then I got a call,” he said.

“A speechwriting job at the White House.

“It was really what I wanted to do, so I put down my scoop and picked up my pen.”

As so often is true when Mr. Gottheimer talks, there was a story. “Two days later, my manager at Ben & Jerry’s called and said ‘Josh, you’re in big trouble. There was a guy from the Secret Service here, asking a lot of questions.’

“I said, ‘It’s okay. I got a new job.'”

Mr. Gottheimer found that speechwriting for President Clinton was “the greatest experience I have ever had. He is my political hero.

“I was 23,” he said. “There were eight speechwriters; I did a combination of getting my boss’s dry-cleaning and writing for the president.

“I was in the Oval Office several days a week,” he continued. “I will never forget the first day I was in the Oval” – yes, that’s the august space’s nickname – “and it was my first speech for the president.” Policy advisers would be there to answer technical questions, but it was the speechwriter who had the job of explaining, defending, and refining his work. He was it.

“I don’t remember a thing about it. The office was spinning around, and I was sweating. You’re just … it’s one thing working in the White House – holy cow! – but then you’re actually seeing the president.

“It’s a whole other level of awe.”

The more he got to know President Clinton, the more awed Mr. Gottheimer became. “Arguably, no president in our memory is as smart and has a better understanding of policy and politics and communications and how they all come together,” he said. “He also cared deeply about the staff. He was a remarkable mentor.

“I think what I learned as a speechwriter was how to think quickly,” he continued. “You are the last stop before the president’s desk. You bring it all together. And you are handing it to someone you have to impress.

“You can’t hand over a B product to the leader of the free world.”

The intellectual, emotional, and even physical intensity of his experiences will remain with him for the rest of his life, Mr. Gottheimer believes.

He continued working for Mr. Clinton until after the extraordinarily contested presidential election that narrowly ushered George W. Bush into office. He went to Florida to work on the investigation of Katherine Harris, the secretary of state who oversaw the contentious vote that eventually gave both the state and the White House to the Republicans.

Next, Mr. Gottheimer went to work for his mentor, Mary Frances Berry, on the federal Civil Rights Commission, and then he began law school at Harvard.

Just before law school and into his first year, the clearly hyperactive and extraordinary driven young man also worked on a compilation of great civil rights speeches; he read thousands to choose the few hundred that made it to print, and he also wrote the explanatory copy. The book, called “Ripples of Hope,” looks at the movements for civil rights for women, African Americans, Hispanics, and the LGBT community, among others. Then, “in my third year of law school, Wesley Clark was running for president, and a friend of mine called me from Arkansas and said, ‘Come here and set up a speechwriting operation for him.” (Some context – Gen. Wesley Clark ran in the 2004 presidential election; after a few months, he withdrew and threw his support to the eventual Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry.)

“I went – and I didn’t leave,” Mr. Gottheimer said. What about law school? “I was sending papers back and forth. I was showing up for exams and doing my work.”

Meanwhile, back in campaign headquarters, “it was wild,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “He’d never done this before. He’d never run for dogcatcher. But he got in too late – it was too much too quickly.

“I really admire him,” he continued. “I really respected his military service. I am a conservative Democrat.”

“It was a great experience,” he summarized.

The campaign over, Mr. Gottheimer went back to Cambridge, where now Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan was an adviser.

“And then I finished a paper, and then the woman who ran John Kerry’s campaign called me,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “They were looking for a new speechwriter to travel with him.

“I said, ‘I can’t. I have to finish law school.’ She said, ‘come here for just a week.’ I said, ‘I can’t. I’ve seen this movie before.'” So he finished law school – and then he joined the Kerry campaign.

After Kerry lost, Mr. Gottheimer said, he decided “I need a break from all this. Losing stinks. I need to win. So I went to work for Ford Motor Company.”

Mr. Gottheimer, then 28, took a senior post and worked on messaging. “I loved it,” he said. “I got to bring what I knew – message discipline and lighting-quick nimble pace – to a company that needed it.

“I realize that people are much better in the public sector after they already have been in the private sector,” he said. “It is important for people in government to have worked with people who know how things really work.”

After his stint at Ford, and one at the giant PR firm Burson-Marsteller, “I felt I could better relate to where businesses are coming from, and also be much smarter about policy solutions to real challenges in the private sector,” he said.

“It was going from the abstract ideal to dealing with real issues. It makes you a better public servant.”

Mr. Gottheimer always had nursed an interest in technology, so he re-entered public life as a senior counselor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. (Coincidentally and parenthetically, that chairman, Julius Genachowski, is a first cousin to Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, who is both CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division and the recent author of “Letters to President Clinton.”)

At the FCC, Mr. Gottheimer focused on such issues as broadband; he worked on net neutrality and, he said, was depressed with the recent court rulings against it.

“I started the first office of public/private initiatives, which goes back to my theory about the public and private sectors working together to unleash solutions that are not regulatory,” he said. “We looked for anything that you could get away with not regulating.”

He also worked again with his old mentor, Ms. Berry, on another book, “Power in Words,” an exploration of the stories behind President Obama’s speeches.

About a year or so ago, Mr. Gottheimer and his family moved back to New Jersey. He had left the FCC because it was time to settle in a place where the children can have the space to run and thrive, and to be closer to his family. And then, after he had made the decision to become a tech consultant, his phone rang.

It was Microsoft.

So now Mr. Gottheimer works for Microsoft; he spends half his time in his office in Ridgewood and the other half in the company’s Washington State headquarters.

He is back to his roots in many ways. He is an active member of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. He is married to another lawyer, Marla Tusk, “who is a total rock star,” he said. She was a federal prosecutor who did counterterrorism work in Virginia; she now works locally. Mr. Gottheimer and Ms. Tusk have two children – Ellie, 4, “with crazy red hair and a personality to match,” and 2-year-old Ben.

In a recent talk at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Mr. Gottheimer talked about the problems posed by the partisanship now on flamboyant display in Washington. The situation is not new, he said, but it has reached toxic levels. “What do we have to do to repair the breach?” he asked. This is from the talk that he gave:

“According to my rabbi, years ago there was a debate among the sages, captured in the Talmud, about the right way to position a mezuzah on your door. Should it be positioned upright or lying flat?

“After a lengthy debate, they reached a compromise: The mezuzah should be fastened diagonally.

“Why? Because every time we enter or exit a door, we should be reminded that there are things that we just can’t be certain about.

“That’s why we should remember to maintain peace and stay open-minded,” he said.

So a meteoric career, zooming between public service and private sector work, heading ever upward, always influenced by Jewish values as he rose, not only brought Mr. Gottheimer home to New Jersey but also gave him a clear understanding of the importance of balance and fair-mindedness, career and home. Surprisingly, he is not cynical about the world around him.

It is likely that we will hear much more from him.

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