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Heels in the Arena: Living Purple in a Red/Blue Town

Heels in the Arena: Living Purple in a Red/Blue Town

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Heels in the Arena: Living Purple in a Red/Blue Town

5/5 (1 évaluation)
271 pages
4 heures
Oct 1, 2019


Jamie Brown Hantman was a high-level White House aide, where she spearheaded work with the U.S. Senate to get two U. S. Supreme Court Justices confirmed. She ran Legislative Affairs for the Department of Justice shortly after 9/11, working with people like Bob Mueller and Ted Olson. And earlier in her career, she spent time on Capitol Hill and on the fabled "K Street." Heels In The Arena takes readers on a sometimes-humorous journey through all of it, including how Jamie made it to that first rung on the ladder, with advice on how to succeed in politics illustrated with pull-back-the-curtain stories from some of the most significant political events of the past few decades.

Heels in the Arena is a personal chronicle, a coming of age story, and a tale of finding bipartisan love in a partisan city. For the young people like Jamie who come to Washington with big dreams and high ideals, it is a guided tour inside the sausage factory.
Oct 1, 2019

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Heels in the Arena - Jamie Brown Hantman



Copyright © 2019 Jamie Brown Hantman

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-5445-0512-1

Cover design by Andrea Ho

Illustrations by Alex Fine

Graphic design by Anton Khodakovsky

Author photograph by Tim Coburn


To Emma

















It’s a Friday in November 2005, and I’m at work. Today that means I’m sitting on Air Force One in the office of the President of the United States, who is sitting at his desk across the cabin from me. It’s still hard for me to believe. Almost every White House staffer has secretly had that moment when you assume someone is about to come quietly over, tap you on your right shoulder, and whisper in your ear, There’s been a mistake. We’re not sure how you made it in here, but you’ve got to go. Right. Now.

But, for today, that hasn’t happened. I’m on this plane working for President George W. Bush as a Special Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs. What that means in plain English is that I’m one of the President’s lobbyists to the Senate. Please don’t let that turn you off. Yes, there are some shady lobbyists who represent suboptimal clients like tobacco. I get it. But the good guys have lobbyists too. The American Kennel Club has a lobbyist. The AARP has a whole slew of lobbyists. Sweet little puppies and Nana are well represented in Washington, DC.

One of the core responsibilities for the President’s lobbyists is to be with the President whenever he’s with a Member of Congress. Because guess what happens when we’re not there? Mischief happens. If a Member is alone with the President and then comes out of the room and tells you the President agreed to let the Congressman’s son’s boy scout troop hold a sleepover in the State Dining Room…well you’re going to spend the rest of the day cleaning that up. Because you know he wouldn’t actually agree to that. So, in a nutshell, it’s just better to be there so you’re an eyewitness to what the President actually commits to doing.

One of the coolest places to fulfill this duty is on Air Force One. When the President travels around the country, it’s smart politics to invite the Senators and Members of Congress from the districts the President is visiting. Even jaded Members of Congress get excited about traveling on Air Force One, so it’s a nice perk to provide (one you hope they remember when you’re asking for their support on something). Plus you can use the travel time to help build your personal relationships with them.

Today we’re traveling to Pennsylvania; that means Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the senior senator from the state and the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is on the plane. I’m the White House liaison to the Committee and getting Judge Samuel Alito, the President’s nominee to the Supreme Court, through committee is a top priority. So if Arlen Specter is with the President, then I’m going to be there, too.

When most Members of Congress travel on Air Force One, they spend their time toward the back of the plane in a guest section with nice touches like personalized place cards and presidential M&Ms. The Legislative Affairs liaison will sit with the Members, mostly making small talk. Then at some point during the trip, the President will either come back to the cabin and hang out with the Members for a while, or they’ll be invited up to the President’s office to visit with him.

Like I said, that’s how it goes for most Members. But as anyone who has been around Washington, DC, for a while can tell you, Arlen Specter isn’t like most Members. He is Old School—he rose in the Senate when there was real power involved—the power that comes from appropriations earmarks and rigorous oversight of the Executive branch. Not coincidentally, when the Washington Post would publish the Top Ten Worst Jobs in Washington list around Labor Day, staffer to Senator Specter would sometimes make an appearance. Don’t get me wrong—I actually liked Senator Specter very much, but he’s not what you’d call a low-maintenance public figure.

What does this mean when it comes to Air Force One travel? Unlike most Members, who will excitedly and cooperatively make their way toward the back of the plane to their assigned area, Arlen Specter heads straight into President Bush’s office and makes himself at home. That means I head straight into the President’s office too.

Today the conversation between the President and Senator Specter is focused on the Alito confirmation. The committee process is going well, and the Senator seems pleased to have a positive update for the President. He also manages to sneak in some unsolicited words of advice for the White House team, as he is wont to do. Then he excuses himself to use the restroom. That leaves me alone with President Bush and Karl Rove.

The President starts talking about an arts event he’d hosted at the White House the previous evening. One of their mutual friends from Texas had been in attendance and the President mentioned that the woman had lost a ton of weight. I have no idea what she had looked like prior, but from the way he described it, it sounded like one of those massive Biggest Loser transformations. After he relays this news, he pauses and thinks for a moment, then hesitantly adds, but you know, she looks a lot older now.

Without thinking, I chime in: Well, you know what they say—at a certain point a woman has to choose between her face and her ass.

Silence fills the cabin. The next seconds feel like an eternity to me.

President Bush thinks for a moment and then, mercifully, starts to nod his head in agreement. That’s absolutely right.

Thank you, Jesus.

This is the story of my life. Not every detail, of course—I mean you’re a busy person, plus now I have a daughter who will read this someday. But I want to tell you a story about mothers and daughters, about politics, about getting along with people on the other side of the aisle, about being a woman in some bonkers situations, and about success—the kind of real success I still strive for every day.

I hope my story will entertain and perhaps inspire you, but most of all I hope that it will show anyone interested in government service that there is a path for you to step up and make this country better. You don’t need to be rich or connected, but you do have to work hard.

I’d also like to state at the outset that in spite of the antics of the current president, you don’t need to be a raging jerk to get to the top. I’ve been in The Room Where It Happens enough to see it’s possible to serve the country well while still being a decent human being. The political arena is and always will be an arena, but it’s not just populated with swamp creatures who draw their lifeblood from Twitter owns and cable news hits. Washington is filled with civil, principled people driven by a scrupulous commitment to the rule of law. I know because I’ve been there, and I’ve had the honor of serving under their leadership.

Yes, I’ve been in some rarefied air. I’ve assisted a Senator, served in a high-level position at the Justice Department shortly after 9/11, and landed a dream job working in the White House, where I spearheaded our work with the Senate to confirm two Supreme Court Justices. I’ve dined with Presidents, represented our country in the capitals of Europe, and attended Hollywood movie premieres. Eight-year-old me dreamed about having such experiences, and I hope you’ll find them as interesting to read about as they were for me to live.

My journey to DC’s inner chambers has a humble beginning. My family was not wealthy or connected, but my parents believed that with love, faith, education, and hard work, they could raise my sister and me to go further in this life than they had. My mother, a teacher, pushed me and believed in me. Ultimately, the most important lessons I learned came from her.

I’m not going to proselytize to you in these pages about which policy approach I think is best. The lessons I’ve learned are here for you, whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or Neither of the Above. Nobody has a monopoly on the correct solutions. Some of you will disagree with the work I did when I was in government. That’s OK. My own husband disagrees with some of what I supported. That’s kind of the point—the way out of our current abyss requires an approach to politics and governing that assumes the people with whom you disagree love their country as much as you do and want what is best for it. Most of the time, there is a solution to be found in the middle that will leave everyone happy about some aspects and unhappy about others. That’s the essence of compromise, and compromise shouldn’t be a dirty word.

I’m not setting myself up as a perfect example of this approach. I’ve fallen short many times, but the important thing is I keep trying. I hope by sharing my journey I can provide a spark of encouragement to someone else who wants to make a difference.




I know it goes against every rule of memoir writing to say this, but I had a wonderful, happy childhood. We were a family of four—Mom, Dad, me, and my younger sister, Meredith. I assumed everyone lived the way we did in central Connecticut—parents who were in love, home-cooked meals every night, security, laughter.

There was discipline, too. We were raised on the phrase: Most people do what’s expected of them. Successful people do more. In our house, if you came home and proudly announced that you had gotten a 100 on a test, my Dad would ask if there was any extra credit. To this day, he’s still unapologetically proud of that.

My parents’ goal for us was to go further than they had gone. They met cute in high school and within two years were married college students with a baby on the way. Once I arrived on the scene, it quickly became clear that they couldn’t both continue on their path as two full-time college students getting their degrees. Someone was going to have to make some money to keep a roof over our heads. What would typically happen back in the early 1970s is that the wife would be the one who would of course leave school to earn money and take care of the baby. But my Dad, in very Alan Alda-like fashion, decided he would drop out of school to get a job. He felt it was more important for my Mom to get her degree in case anything happened to him and she was on her own.

After my Mom graduated, she was ready to hit the work world. In the early seventies, a young woman fresh out of college interviewing for jobs had to be ready to answer one very important question: How fast can you type? After a series of very important conversations about her typing skills, she ended up working the checkout of the local Grand Union grocery store, a job for which she was incredibly overqualified. But when your weekly family food budget is $10, you do what you have to do. She used her first paycheck to buy me a Fisher-Price dollhouse.

Once I was old enough to start asking really good questions, my parents made more of an effort to attend church regularly. They joined a small Baptist church in Newington, Connecticut. Soon the beloved elderly head pastor of the church retired, and a dynamic, handsome young pastor, Ralph Wingate, took his place. Pastor Wingate and his wife, Sydney, were roughly the same age as my parents and had two young sons about the same age as Meredith and me. Of course, on their very first Sunday at the church, I managed to make the older one, Ralph, cry in the nursery. But despite that inauspicious start, it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between two families.

A couple years later, the church founded Emmanuel Christian Academy (ECA) and I was in the inaugural first-grade class. It was a teeny little elementary school that met in the basement of the church and had rehabbed hand-me-down desks discarded from a more well-resourced school. It was small and humble, but for a young girl obsessed with the one-room schoolhouse on Little House on the Prairie, I was excited to be there, learning.

Midway through the year, the fifth- and sixth-grade teacher flamed out and my mom took over the class—beginning what would be her lifelong mission as a passionate, dedicated educator. (Typing skills not necessarily required!) It was great to have Mom just down the hall all day. I loved riding to school and back together, regurgitating every detail of my day to her.

After that first year for our new little school, the town of Newington agreed to lease a seventy-year-old empty school building to ECA for the grand total of $1 a year. It was the real estate equivalent of an old couch discarded on the sidewalk outside an apartment building. If Chip and Joanna Gaines were showing the building to a Fixer Upper couple, the four of them would stand outside gazing admiringly at the exterior, commenting on how charming it looks and what great bones the ‘ol girl had. Then they would walk inside, crinkling their noses at the smell, while Joanna would proceed to explain how every wall would be torn down, all new floors put in, and every light and bathroom fixture replaced. The visit would conclude with Chip bravely fighting a live bat.

Unfortunately there was no renovation budget for our little school and no Are y’all ready to see your new school? Fixer Upper reveal for us. Some of the parents went in with buckets of soap and water and some cans of paint and did the best they could. But the bats remained in the attic and the sound of little mice crawling around in the walls accompanied us while we recited our multiplication tables in Mrs. Jones’s second-grade class.

One of the best things about the school was that it was a five-minute walk from the town’s public library, the Lucy Robbins Welles Library. It was the perfect small-town library—housed in a charming old building that looked like a home, it had a great children’s room and a pretty little reading room with hardwood floors and a fireplace flanked by comfy wingback chairs. As you can imagine, a tiny little new school with bats and mice did not have a library collection. So every week, we made the trek down to the Lucy Robbins Welles to check out books. And every week my little girlfriends and I would race into the children’s reading room to see who could get their hands on A Very Young Dancer or A Young Model first. (I know, I know. But no one had published A Young Scientist, so our options were limited.)

Life went along pretty happily over the next couple of years. The school added grades each year until it finally went up to twelfth. As it grew, they added an athletic program and my mom, who was now teaching the high schoolers, was soon the coach for all the girls’ sports—volleyball, basketball, cheerleading, and softball. She loved being so involved with the students in and out of the classroom, and they loved her. She was beautiful, with long brown hair that she curled with hot rollers every morning, a big, bright smile, and an hourglass figure that still looked great even when she put on some weight, which was inevitable given how much she loved to bake. Even though she was five feet seven inches tall, she wore high heels every day. She felt more authoritative when she stood taller, and she was all about being in control of her classroom. More than a few of her students considered her to be something like a second mom, and she and my Dad were 100 percent committed to having a positive impact on all their lives. It was hard sometimes to share my mom with a bunch of teenagers, but the flip side is that it’s very exciting to an eight-year-old when all the big kids from your school come over to your house for something or other.

If this story were a clichéd Hollywood movie, this is the part where a bird would fly into a plate glass window as an omen that things were about to go awry. In the summer of 1979, two wood-paneled family station wagons from Marshalltown, Iowa, rolled into town and deposited a new Headmaster and a new high school Principal, along with their enormous families. When most people think of top Iowa exports, their mind turns to corn, soybeans, and pork. I will forever think of Iowa as bringing me arbitrary rules and judgmentalism.

The new sheriffs from Iowa were very into having lots of rules, watching carefully to see who was complying with the rules, and meting out punishment to the rulebreakers. The rules covered a wide range of topics from the mundane to the impactful, some having to do with how we learned but many more having to do with our behavior and dress.

The Iowa mafia, as we called it, decided that women wearing pants was immodest and wrong. I guess they thought a pant leg could show off the shape of a leg. I really don’t know. I can’t pretend to understand the thinking behind it. But the bottom line was that the girls at the school were no longer allowed to wear pants for any school function.

You’re probably wondering what we were supposed to wear for athletics. Great question. Unfortunately, the answer was—culottes. And these weren’t the semi-cute1 culottes you see nowadays from hip brands like Rag and Bone. These were homemade, twice-as-much-material-as-necessary, fall-below-your-knees culottes. I mean check out these babies (except for the tramp wearing pants in the back row):

Yeah, not super attractive. Us poor ECA girls had to walk around with two tablecloths worth of material swooshing around our lower halves. The grownups at the school who had bought into this random rule would cluck out their approving compliments: Don’t you girls look lovely. So feminine. But we weren’t fooled. We knew we looked like a bunch of weirdos.

The boys didn’t escape scot-free. They had to keep their hair short—it wasn’t allowed to touch their ears and the bangs had to be two finger-widths above their eyes—think Book of Mormon but without the great music.

Up until this point in time, our church and school were happy places where people worshipped God and supported each other in the journey to live lives that glorify Him. I loved going to Sunday School and learning stories from flannelgraph Jesus. Anyone who went to Sunday School back in the ‘70s and ‘80s knows what I’m talking about—those little paper cutouts of Jesus and his disciples and lots of sheep and camels that the teacher would place on a board covered with flannel fabric to tell Bible stories. Even as a grown-ass adult, every Easter I think about the little flannelgraph tomb with the big stone the teacher would roll away at the appropriate point

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