But for all my desire to be one of the guys, I still wanted to excel --and it wouldn't be as an athlete. Columbia University spoke to my ambition in a different way. It was in New York City. It offered a distinctive core curriculum based on the great books, music, and art of Western civilization, and no one from my high school had gone there in decades.
I thrived at Columbia, and junior year I had my first taste of Washington life, as a summer intern for our congresswoman, a Democrat named Mary Rose Oakar. The big legislative debate that summer was about Reagan's budget. I helped write speeches explaining how it would hurt Oakar's constituents in the working-class ethnic enclaves of Cleveland. Before that experience, I had considered volunteering for George Bush in 1979 and voted for John Anderson in 1980. But working against Reagan's budget made me a Democrat. I didn't think supply-side economics would work, and I didn't believe it was fair. Perhaps it wouldn't have happened had I had a different summer job, but unlike the millions of Democrats whom Reagan inspired to vote Republican, I was a Republican he pushed the other way.
By 1982, my senior year, I still didn't know what I would do with my life. Law school seemed like the natural choice: finishing school for ambitious liberal arts majors who didn't know exactly what they wanted to do. It would also meet the Greek standard for achievement. The only problem with law school was that when it was over I would be in real danger of becoming a lawyer.
I almost leaped in a completely different direction. As a volunteer Big Brother whose major was international politics, I was drawn to the Peace Corps and applied one day on an impulse. Around eight the next morning, I got a call from the on-campus recruiter: "George, you're in. We've got a spot, but you have to say yes right now." I did, and went back to sleep. An hour later, I made a pot of coffee and wondered what I had done. Teaching English in Tunisia seemed like good work, but it didn't speak to the part of me that wanted to play on a bigger stage, in a world where a single act could affect the lives of millions. It didn't satisfy my drive for secular success. After my second cup, I called back and said no.
I wanted to do good and do well. Returning to Washington offered the promise of both. At Columbia's work-study office, I saw an announcement for internships at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and won a job where I wrote book reviews and helped draft speeches about nuclear arms control, the subject of my senior thesis. The only problem was that the stipend ran out after six months. Unless I found something else, I had promised my parents that I would spend the next six months as a paralegal in Cleveland before starting law school in the fall.
I couldn't have planned what came next. Everyone needs a break or two to get ahead. Mine came the night Norman Mayer was shot.
Norman Mayer was an older man with a deep tan who wandered the streets of Washington in a nylon windbreaker, sunglasses, and a golf cap, looking like the caddie master at a country club gone to seed. He too was working on disarmament, but in his own peculiar way. If he caught your eye on the street, he would hand over a pamphlet that promised ten thousand dollars to anyone who could actually prove that nuclear weapons prevent nuclear war --a pretty lucid point for a deranged person. Occasionally, Mayer walked into our offices off Dupont Circle to lobby for his proposal. Since I was the lowest person on the totem pole, he was my responsibility. I'd offer him a sandwich, and we'd chat uncomfortably until I could find a reason to excuse myself and usher him out the door. Not exactly what I had in mind when I imagined Washington power lunches, but Norman seemed harmless enough. Until December 8, 1982.
© 1999 by George Stephanopoulos. Published by permission of the publisher, Little Brown.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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