Tales from the west wing: Weiss '90

In the west wing

After graduating from Amherst, Weiss spent the next five years working at the Atlantic Monthly, where he rose through the ranks, performing various jobs such as fact-checking, desktop publishing, researching and writing and eventually becoming an editor. But his career path changed the day after the Newt Gingrich Congress was sworn in; Weiss received a phone call from colleague Jim Fallows, who suggested that he contact political consultant James Carville. Carville wanted to write a book that would represent and defend democratic principles in response to a major Republican victory and he hired Weiss as a ghostwriter.

“It was one of the strangest interviews I’d ever been on,” said Weiss. “He’s every bit as unusual and eccentric as he appeared to be on TV. Five minutes into the interview he got up, went to the adjacent bathroom, and without shutting the bathroom door he continued asking me questions while he was pissing-just like LBJ used to do with his aides.”

The interview set the tone for the following eight months. Weiss lived with Carville, his wife and his daughter through most of 1995, in Carville’s Washington, D.C. townhouse and Virginia farmhouse. When they went to the farmhouse, the “real work” was done; once Carville went to bed after a long day of cooking elaborate meals and playing with the dogs, Weiss would sit down and put their humorous conversations into book form.

“We were a quirky odd couple,” said Weiss. “It was a low-key Jewish kid from suburban Maryland and a foul-mouthed crazy Cajun from Louisiana.”

After the book topped The New York Times best-seller list, Weiss was asked to help write Al Gore’s ’96 Chicago convention speech. Gore liked what he saw, and Weiss was asked to come on board as Gore’s campaign speechwriter. “It was my professional Outward Bound experience,” said Weiss.

The job came with all the pressures of high-profile public work. “Any big mistake could get the Vice President and me in a whole mess of trouble, generating exactly the wrong kind of press coverage and taking the campaign off-message,” added Weiss.

After the campaign season, Weiss accepted a job offer to write speeches for President Clinton. Weiss quickly realized that writing a speech for President Clinton was very different from writing a speech for Gore. “Clinton needed a script less than Gore needed,” said Weiss. “He was much more comfortable going extemporaneous � My thought process with the vice president was, ‘I’ve got to get this absolutely right, he’s going to read this in its entirety.'”

The goal of Weiss’ speeches was simple: to bring a “tear to the eye, a nod of the head, a smile to the lips.” At first Weiss tried to write the kind of poetic prose that President Kennedy was most famous for. But he quickly realized that Clinton’s style is “not poetry but personal � he was so gifted at showing audiences that his motivation for proposing a policy or signing a bill came as much from his heart as his head.”

One of Weiss’ primary challenges was writing original material that was fresher than the speeches that Clinton had been giving for 22 years on the same topics. “The president was one of the best speakers of all time; I had to ask myself, how do I rise above what’s been written before? I really had to come up with novel successful ways of expressing these things,” said Weiss.

Weiss wrote over 180 speeches for President Clinton, two of which stand out as his most memorable. The first was given during a trip to the Navajo Nation. “It was the power of watching him [during the speech]. Tears all over, nods, smiles, connected magnificently to a group of people who had never felt a connection to the national government before.”

The other speech that stands out in Weiss’ mind is the one he wrote to mark the completion of the human genome project. “I had a small role in commemorating this enormous day in science � what the genome scientists accomplished was a much larger leap for humankind than Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon � I had had my weekend to do this [write the speech],” he said.

Weiss had a jam-packed four years, but where do you go from being the president’s speechwriter? After a brief stint at voter.com, a political website that has since folded, Weiss now serves as chief of staff at the Morino Institute, a non-profit philanthropic institution based out of Washington, D.C.

“They’re involved in helping to close the digital divide and make sure that technology is used effectively to benefit low-income communities,” said Weiss. The Institute is innovative in its approach to philanthropy-it “applies venture capital strategies to the world of philanthropic giving.” There is currently a fund of about $30 million, with contributions from leaders such as Steve Case and Mike Warner. The fund is used to invest in local D.C. non-profit organizations dedicated to helping children. More important, it offers not only a financial investment that is offered to the non-profits, but also management and leadership training as well.

“It is a different relationship than what they’re used to,” said Weiss.

Liberal arts poster child

As an Amherst undergrad, Weiss was a motivated student and a vocal presence on campus; in both his classes and his activities, he fostered a love of politics that had been mostly dormant through his years growing up outside of Washington, D.C., where he had observed the political scene “from afar.”

One of Weiss’ crowning achievements was his co-founding of the publication Prism, which he started with fellow student (and current Visiting Lecturer in LJST) Roger Berkowitz ’90.  “We were able to launch something that turned out to be significant, drawing contributions from many thoughtful professors and students,” said Weiss. “It included literature, poetry, politics, experiences. It was modeled after some of the really good general interest magazines.”

Weiss and Berkowitz came up with the name Prism because they “wanted to capture all different viewpoints.” Weiss acknowledges, however, a reluctance to publish certain controversial issues. “We had to do some soul-searching when someone wrote a piece saying that homosexuality was wrong,” he said. “I didn’t agree with it, but it was quite philosophical and not overly polemic; in the end, we did publish the piece.”

Working with Berkowitz on the magazine was not only an excellent learning experience for Weiss, but it also provided them with some fun times. “I remember the all-nighters and the food fights in the Prism room,” he said.

Weiss also took advantage of the rich opportunities in the Five-College area. “On Sundays, I would go biking up to Montague Books and spend the day reading there in a big window,” he said. He also would go to the Connecticut River in South Deerfield to jump off a rope swing into the water, and he sometimes went snow camping in mid-winter.

Professorial praise

Academically, Weiss’ professors made a lasting impression on him, especially Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science Austin Sarat (who taught a law seminar), Professor of Russian Stanley Rabinowitz (a Russian literature survey), and Professor of Biology Paul Ewald (a seminar on evolutionary biology).

“All three helped me understand that there were so many ways of looking at the world,” said Weiss. “As I’ve gone through experiences after Amherst, I often find myself thinking, ‘What would Stanley think? What would Austin think? What would Paul think?’ They’ve helped me to think outside the box in such a profound way: to think not just of text, but sub-text.”

Weiss recalls that his class with Rabinowitz was particularly exciting and memorable. “I cracked up to the point of tears at his humor and his ability to enliven and bring a book to life,” he said.  Rabinowitz certainly has not forgotten Weiss, either. “I remember Lowell’s passion about reading and writing, his love for the intellectual challenges of being a student at Amherst,” said Rabinowitz.

Professor and student continue to have a comfortable, good-humored relationship. “We’d-or at least I’d-often joke about the possibility of his becoming a lawyer,” said Rabinowitz. “I predicted that he’d surely become one since so many of his good friends were on the pre-law track, and since Lowell’s father was-and still is-a lawyer, or, as Lowell once said, ‘an attorney.'” Weiss, however, “stuck to his guns,” and pursued the career of writing and journalism that he preferred.

Rabinowitz also remembers an instance in which Weiss’ passion for working superseded his common sense. “A fifteen-page paper was due at the end of exam period of the fall semester, but [Lowell’s] came in a day or two after that, when everything had more or less wound down and the place was virtually deserted,”

said Rabinowitz. “I not only feared for his health, but I remember saying to myself, ‘What an incredible student that guy is! How totally absorbed he’s able to become in his work! How lucky I am to teach what I teach

and whom I teach, but I better be careful. Look what it can do to some people.'”

Sarat recalled similar memories of Weiss. “Lowell has the relatively rare combination of sharp intellect, a cultivated imagination, and a deep and very present sense of decency,” said Sarat. “Any one of those qualities would be enough for anybody,

but combined they made Lowell a powerful presence and a memorable figure.”

For Weiss, the friendships he brought out of Amherst have been the most memorable aspect of his experience. “I was really blessed with

knowing a significant portion of my class-you can only get that at an Amherst,” he said.

For the “fake millennium,” Weiss and several of his Amherst acquaintances spent a week and a half in Brazil, where they were able to catch up on old times and compare their progress.

“Many friends have different interests,” he said. “We don’t play games, we have no secrets. It was the close proximity and the wonderful people that made my time at Amherst so great.”