My Summer Vacation at the White House
By: GARY CARUSO
Thirty years ago this week, I walked out of Lyons Hall for my first stroll across campus as a Notre Dame freshman. Full of confidence and youthful pride, I passed through the Howard arch, made a few turns and promptly got lost. It took me an hour to find Lyons, and it took at least a month to regain my confidence.
Two weeks ago, I walked out of the West Wing of the White House along the Rose Garden during one of my first strolls alone at the Executive Mansion.
Full of confidence and pride of professional accomplishment, I turned left at the residence only to find my usual route closed due to construction. I turned right to proceed around the South Portico, but found that door locked.
With the President’s limousines parked a few feet away, I knew he would soon be leaving the Oval Office, and I wanted out of there fast.
Following a path away from the Oval Office but towards the limousines, I stopped at the end of a maze with hedges on three sides of me. Feeling my neck turn red and beginning to sweat profusely, I asked one of the grounds keepers wearing a Smokey-the-Bear hat for help. It took me three minutes to find a new route, but it will probably take another three weeks to regain my confidence.
The past three summer months have been as glorious a dream for me as the first three weeks of my freshman year in 1969. Meeting presidential advisors who frequently speak on the Sunday morning talk shows is as exciting for me today as was meeting the head football coach thirty years ago. Watching President and Mrs. Clinton enter the South Lawn for his birthday celebration rekindled an overwhelming thrill I first felt the evening the door of Notre Dame President Ted Hesburgh opened before me.
Throughout my professional career, I have shaken the hands of presidents and royalty, movers and shakers in both the public and private sector, as well as with those who simply consider themselves ordinary Americans. During that time it was mostly as a professional affiliated with the U.S. House of Representatives ... the Legislative Branch of government. On each such occasion, my thoughts flashed back to my first week as a Notre Dame freshman.
During my alumnus years, I served as president of the area Notre Dame alumni club and served in several advisory capacities both on campus and with the alumni club. I have attended bowl games when Notre Dame has won the national championship, played games of the century like the 31-30 win over Miami and suffered through embarrassing upsets. Inevitably, some action during those games reminds me of my freshman season of Notre Dame football.
My journey through life has come full circle this summer. I consider myself one of the luckiest persons affiliated with Notre Dame or the Federal government. I enjoy every day of work and appreciate my Notre Dame roots without becoming a senseless sports fanatic. Sometimes I wonder while I am petting the president’s dog, Buddy, that if someone may pinch me, I’ll discover that I really am in a dream world.
Regardless of one’s political or religious beliefs, the institution of the presidency and the Notre Dame institution both hold powerful symbolism. Both have natural opposition, some friendly and loyal while others are mean and vindictive. I find it ironic that my visit to campus this weekend will expose me to confrontations from both types of “natural opponents.”
While visiting a fellow Domer after our graduation, I helped him deliver groceries from his family’s Kansas store, but tomorrow I will be the friendly, loyal opposition to Kansans. Many staunchly loyal Notre Dame Catholics will view me as a “Clinton Cafeteria Catholic,” which I am, and chide me for my affiliation with the President.
Throughout the weekend, as throughout my life, a small part of my freshman experience will shine through my conduct. Thirty years ago this wide-eyed teenager trekked on campus with Woodstock and the landing of a man on the moon fresh from his summer vacation. I fell into the “freshman friendly” mode which lasts the first few weeks of the first semester — namely, being open to strangers regardless of personal beliefs or physical attributes and easily making them a friend.
While the “freshman friendly” attitude fades as the school year progresses, it does rekindle during life. That significant Notre Dame quality has been recharged within me during my first summer at the White House. It is a marvelous characteristic to have, especially if you run into someone from Kansas on campus this weekend.
Gary J. Caruso, ’73, currently is serving in the Clinton administration as a Congressional and Public Affairs Director and worked at the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at Hottline@aol.com.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Friday, August 27, 1999