Presidential Aide Liza Wright Discusses White House Hiring and "Cronyism" at DePauw Discourse 2005
September 16, 2005
September 16, 2005, Greencastle, Ind. - [Download Audio: "Dispelling Myths" - 142kb] "When you hear the terms like cronyism and things like that, you know, I know what goes into the process of hiring people," Liza Wright, assistant to the president for presidential personnel at the White House, told DePauw Discourse 2005 this afternoon. Wright is responsible for recruiting executives to serve in senior leadership positions in the Bush administration, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose embattled administrator, Michael Brown, resigned this week. Wright told the crowd that gathered for the lunch session in the Memorial Student Union building that she came from Washington D.C. to Greencastle to discuss how top government officials are recruited, interviewed and selected, and in turn, "dispel some of the rumors and the myths about how we select our people."
Since questions began being raised about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, media reports focused on Brown,accusing him of lacking the credentials to head FEMA and procuring the job because of a friendship within the Bush administration. While she didn't mention Brown -- or any other government appointee -- by name, Wright called the accusations of cronyism "disappointing because there's a very strategic and very methodical process that we go about [in] searching for people."
Of Katrina, Wright stated, [Download Audio: "Going Forward" - 208kb] "As the president said in his speech last night, the first responders -- the Coast Guard, the folks who were on the ground immediately -- did a phenomenal job down in the affected regions. But clearly I think we've all learned that at the local, state and federal level there was kind of a breakdown in communication. So I think, first and foremost, we recognize that and we've all learned that we need to place a huge amount of resources and focus on that going forward."
In a discussion with Lisa Hollander, vice president for development and alumni relations at DePauw, Wright described her regular meetings with President Bush to make recommendations for key positions that require Senate confirmation. [Download Audio: "Looking Him in the Eye" - 64kb] "It's my office that has to go in front of the president every two weeks and look him in the eye and say, 'Sir, this person is the best person for this position and here's why.'"
She describes the president as "decisive," a "delegator," and an "excellent leader," and noted that Bush's sense of humor, and the camaraderie he shares with Vice President Dick Cheney "trickles down" to offices throughout the White House. [Download Audio: "Hands-On" - 168kb] 'I have not worked in prior White Houses, but I can tell you anecdotally and from talking to people who have, President Bush is more involved in the personnel process than any other president in recent history."
Finding the most qualified candidates, and hiring persons who are racially, ethnically and geographically diverse are things the president stresses, Wright told the alumni, students, faculty members and others in attendance. "And then we're also looking at diversity of background -- making sure that not all of our candidates are coming from Capitol Hill or private industry, but from all over."
Wright, whose office handles 4-thousand positions within the government, came to the White House from an executive search firm, and says the government operates in much the same way. [Download Audio: "The Rumors" - 171kb] "I hear a lot of rumor and speculation about how our process works and how we select our people. I can't tell you... if I had a dime for every time someone asked me, 'Do you have to contribute to the campaign to be considered for a position in the government,' or, 'I didn't put up yard signs, is that gonna be a problem?' And I can tell you that that's not part of our criteria. The bottom line is, our criteria is finding the best people, the most competent people."
An increasingly important part of Wright's job is to ask probing and often very personal questions of potential appointees: Have they ever not paid taxes on a nanny? What is their history of drug and alcohol use? Are their embarrassing issues the FBI will uncover in a background check that extends 17 years into a person's past?
[Download Audio: "The Tough Questions" - 184kb] "There are a lot of gray areas to this and that's why it's kind of a difficult situation to kind of broach with people. But there are a lot of different things that can come up in people's backgrounds... I think some people don't genuinely know whether it's going to be problematic. And so they'll be very honest and tell me and then we'll be able to nip it in the bud. If it's really problematic, we can find out at that point, because we'd much rather find out [then] than once we've announced them and they're already in the Senate confirmation process -- that's all public information at that point."
Wright added, [Download Audio: "Raising the Bar" - 285kb] "I think in kind of the post-Watergate environment, the hurdles every single year are getting higher and higher and higher. I think there are some issues pertaining to ethics, relating to integrity and scandals and things, where obviously there should be a high bar. But I've seen some cases -- and I can't talk about specifics -- where it's really unfortunate that a candidate didn't know they had a problem, they went back and fixed it, but the Senate still wouldn't confirm them. In some cases, the bar is too high, but I would say that's probably for a smaller amount of cases."
In the end, Wright says, [Download Audio: "Instilling Trust" - 107kb] "Part of our job is putting people in place that are going to instill the public trust... and confidence. And if there's any appearance issue out there that could potentially affect that, then we have to be really cognizant of that."
Before long, Wright will begin the task of finding a person to fill the shoes of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who plans to retire in January. [Download Audio: "A Big Challenge" - 175kb] "I handle a lot of very senior and important positions -- cabinet members and ambassadors who are representing our country -- and certainly the chairman of the Federal Reserve is incredibly important. So yes, there is a lot of pressure, but it all boils back down to I have confidence that -- because of the way we work our process -- that we'll come out with the best candidate."
DePauw Discourse 2005, continues through Saturday. Paul Volcker, chairman of the Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Program and former chairman of the Federal Reserve (who spoke last night) is honorary co-chair of the event along with civil rights legend and former president adviser, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. '57 (who speaks Saturday morning). Later this evening, you're invited to enjoy "An Evening with Thomas Jefferson, featuring Clay S. Jenkinson, humanities scholar, author and award-winning historical impersonator. Learn more, and access a complete schedule of events and biographies of the guests, at the event's official Web site.Back