Wadham graduate student Lia Petrose (MSc Statistical Science, 2019) reports on the evening.
Lissa Muscatine, is a woman of many talents and careers. She arrived at Wadham in 1977 to study European politics as part of the first class of female Rhodes scholars. She then returned to the US as a journalist for the Washington Star and the Washington Post, before starting a career as a speechwriter for President and First Lady Clinton. Later, Lissa worked as Director of Speechwriting and Senior Advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Now, with her husband, she owns and runs the Politics and Prose bookstore, a community staple in Washington. The conversation began with questions from the Warden on how exactly one moves, with grace, through such disparate roles.
In 1993, the Clinton administration was looking to fill a newly created role: speechwriter not just to the President but also to the First Lady. Lissa Muscatine, disillusioned with the pretense of objectivity required of journalists, applied for the role just as she learned she was pregnant. After a lengthy selection process (“I was getting bigger and bigger as the pool of candidates was getting smaller and smaller”), she was told she got the job. Crafting the President’s words was an important role, one that required an understanding of the power those words have across the world (“Well, [had] until now,” she jokes). But Lissa liked more the process of writing speeches for the First Lady, as those usually had less oversight and gave her more freedom. A turning point came after the First Lady’s battle for healthcare reform largely failed, and the team faced skepticism as they pivoted to International human rights and women’s rights. In preparing the speech Hillary Clinton was to deliver at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the first lady made clear to Lissa that she wanted to push the envelope as much as possible on global women’s rights, and the speech was a great success.
The hostility the first lady received from the right 20 years ago would have sounded familiar to members of the audience who watched the 2016 general election. Indeed, Lissa traces the right’s vitriolic caricature of the Clintons to their start in Arkansas politics, especially after Bill Clinton assumed the governorship and became a charismatic champion of progressive Democratic politics in the South. Of course, other factors contributed to the outcome of the 2016 election; and when asked, Lissa is optimistic about the future of the Democratic Party, citing demographic changes in its favor. At this point, the audience begins enthusiastically asking about the upcoming Presidential election, and Lissa’s husband and former Washington Post journalist Bradley Graham jokes, “we will tell you who’s going to be President when you tell us what will happen with Brexit!”
After questions on the trade war, the Democrats’ blind spot with the youth, and populist movements, a law student asks Lissa if America is really ready for a female president. “Yes,” she responds soberly, “America already voted for a female President.”