Life Lessons Learned Working At The White House


Life Lessons Learned Working At The White House


Merrie Spaeth, President, Spaeth Communications, Inc.

Sarah Huckebee Sanders is leaving and I wish her good luck. There’s one consistent thing about being a White House staffer; at some point you leave. You take with you a featured paragraph in your biography and lessons learned from the Administration in which you served.

Lesson #1: you need to look 12 – 24 months ahead but the temptation is to get sidetracked by the crisis of the day. And realize that not all White House crises involve a major policy issue. When Mrs. Reagan announced the ad campaign showing fried eggs, “This is your brain on drugs,” with President Reagan, Michael Jackson attended and locked himself in Mrs. Reagan’s bathroom, delaying the announcement before 1100 reporters for an hour.

Lesson #2: be creative and willing to take measured risks. My mission in the Media office at the White House was to get around the monopolyon information held by the White House Press Corps. Fortunately, this was the dawn of what became the technology era. (Although my children like to remind me that this actually occurred in the last century.)  ITT Dialcom had pioneered the system where you could dial in via telephone, putting the receiver into rubber cups, and up on your computer monitor came a black screen with white text. Presto! The White House News Service became Number 51 on the menu. Any journalist anywhere could now get access to anything the Press Office handed out to the White House Press Corps.

Next, satellite technology was taking off, and if you could snag time on the satellite, you could hook up someone in D.C. with local anchors in the cities of your choosing around the country. We set up a process where a news station had to interview two Cabinet Secretaries, then they’d get Vice President Bush and then President Reagan. We did five interviews, five minutes each, per session every week.

One reason we had these successes is that the White House chief of staff, James Baker, was willing to take a risk and let me experiment with these new technologies and approach. Next, thanks to President Jimmy Carter, who set up the organizational structure, the Media office was not part of the better known and much more prestigious Press Office. It was completely separate. However, the Press Office could have squashed us in a heartbeat, and the big-name national reporters freaked out when we set up remote interviews with local anchors for the President and Vice President.

Lesson #3: live up to your promises and respect other people’s territory. My next stroke of good luck was the willingness of the Press Secretary, Larry Speakes, to support our efforts. On my first day in the White House, I made an appointment and got down on my knees in front of Larry and promised I would never go behind his back and talk to the national press. When he laughed, I knew we could be friends. And I kept my promise.

Lesson #4: build relationships and treat everyone with respect: what we really needed to accomplish my ambitious plans was a lot more people, and no requests are more controversial or harder to accomplish than personnel. A long-time career secretary took me aside and said she was impressed by how respectful I was to the career employees. She told me that every confirmed officer on the President’s staff could have an unpaid intern, but many offices weren’t using their allotment. Another A-ha moment.  By picking up intern slots from offices like Legal and the National Security Council and others, I doubled the size of my office. The newcomers took over all of the day-to-day tasks.

All of this culminated into my final and most important lesson, which just happens to be President Reagan’s credo: “There’s no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t mind who gets the credit.”

Lessons learned:

President Reagan’s credo: There’s no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t mind who gets the credit.

Look 12 – 24 months ahead and stay focused.

Live up to your promises and respect other people’s territory.

Build relationships.

Remember it’s better to be lucky than smart but the real trick is telling the difference.

Be grateful every day.

Merrie SpaethAbout the Author: Merrie has a unique background in media, government, politics, business and entertainment. She is a thought-leader in communication theory, executive training and coaching. Merrie is acknowledged as one of the most influential communication counselors in the world.

Merrie was a White House Fellow assigned to FBI Director William Webster. She then served two years as director of public affairs for the Federal Trade Commission, and in 1983, President Reagan appointed her as director of media relations at the White House. In 1987, she founded Spaeth Communications, Inc., which provides strategic counseling and communication consulting for a wide range of companies and institutions.

Merrie writes regularly on communication topics, and her columns have been collected into two books, Marketplace Communication and Words Matter. Both books are available You Don’t Say!, her most recent book, is available on Amazon and compiles communication mistakes from her popular monthly BIMBO Memo. She also blogs regularly on

1 Comment

  1. Willy Faivre on at 2:31 PM

    These lessons are good for professionnal to remember and to apply.

    An excellent article.

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