From Wadham to the White House

3rd October 2013

News, Alumni news

Wadham alumna Lissa Muscatine (1977 European Politics), who served as a presidential speechwriter to the Clintons, becoming a long-time speechwriter and advisor to Hillary Clinton, revisited Wadham College on 19 September 2013, and talked about her incredible career so far.

  • Lissa Muscatine

    Lissa Muscatine

...crazy, exhausting, and sad for women who so desperately hoped that we would elect our first woman President

Lissa Muscatine describing the 2008 Democratic Party leadership campaign

When Lissa Muscatine came to Wadham as a Rhodes Scholar in 1977, she was not only one of the USA’s first women to receive a Rhodes Scholarship, she was also one of the first women to be admitted to Wadham.

“Wadham has changed!” she admits. “In 1977 Wadham was new to admitting women, and it was hard not to be self-conscious.” Starting out on a PPE course, Lissa switched to European Politics, but soon realised that being an academic was not her calling. Having worked for a year as a journalist in America’s Deep South, on a newspaper campaigning for civil rights, before joining Wadham, Lissa quickly found herself a job as a stringer at the London bureau of the New York Times. She describes this job as “an incredible opportunity,” allowing her to travel extensively in the UK, and gain first-hand experience. “I was in the bureau on the night of the Iranian Revolution and for the British Parliamentary elections – I learned so much,” she added.

However, after nearly 15 years in journalism, working for a number of publications including The Washington Post and The Washington Star, Lissa was ready for new horizons. “You learn a lot from being a fly on the wall, but I also learned that I was more of an advocate than a neutral observer,” she explained.

When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, Lissa decided the time had come for her to think about a career in public service. She wrote to the President’s Chief speechwriter and, after writing a series of mock speeches, got herself hired. Says Lissa: “My note applying for the job said that I had never written a speech, I had no political affiliation to the Clintons, had made no contributions to the campaign, but that he should hire me anyway. And miraculously he did.”

Early in the presidential speechwriting application process, Lissa discovered she was pregnant. Later, during the try-out process, she discovered that she was expecting twins, so offered to withdraw from the recruitment process. A week later she was offered the job!

“It wasn’t until I had worked in the White House for several years that I learned, almost accidentally from a colleague, that before hiring me there had been a fierce internal debate among the staff.  Hillary Clinton interrupted everyone and said that she wanted the best person for the job - whether the person had twins or not - and if the White House couldn’t get it right for working women, then what hope was there for the rest of the country.”

After a couple of years working as a speechwriter for both Clintons, Lissa was asked if she would be interested in writing exclusively  for the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, a position which hadn’t existed before.

This gave Lissa what she describes as “the opportunity of a lifetime, working for someone who is an inspiration to me.” Lissa worked hard and long, and remembers falling asleep at her desk while working on speeches in the middle of the night; and that was before baby number three came along!

According to Lissa, the 2008 Democratic Party leadership campaign between Obama and Hillary Clinton was “crazy, exhausting, and sad for women who so desperately hoped that we would elect our first woman President. Two such amazing people running against each other was, in a way, an embarrassment of riches and unfortunate timing. For me personally, it was so emotional.  I was in the first class of women who lived in Harvard Yard, and was at Wadham when doors were just opening for women. I was working for the first professional woman to be First Lady of our country and to run for the Presidency in the US. As much as I admire and respect President Obama - and worked in his Administration - it has taken me all these years to get over that Hillary didn’t win.”

After the 2008 campaign, Lissa returned to government as a senior advisor and chief speechwriter for Hillary Clinton when she became Secretary of State. Within a couple of years, Lissa knew  it was time for career change, when she and her husband Bradley Graham had the opportunity of buying Washington’s iconic independent bookshop ‘Politics and Prose’.

Lissa describes the process by which she and her husband were interviewed to determine whether they were ‘suitable’ owners for the institution. “We are devoted to saving this civic treasure of a bookstore that contributes so much to the community and its need for civic discourse.” She believes that there is a much needed niche for the service they offer at ‘Politics and Prose’, where they are able to provide a space and place not only to find great books, but where people can exchange ideas and engage in conversation about the seminal topics of the day.

Lissa also chairs  the Board of Trustees of Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC (a private Quaker school that is also home to President Obama’s daughters and counts Chelsea Clinton as an alumna).

And what next? Would she be tempted to go back into the political arena if Hillary Clinton stands again? “We always joke that once you work for Hillary, you always work for Hillary, and I mean that in a good sense. But honestly, the bookstore takes a lot of time and effort,” says Lissa, smiling broadly.

Play White House