Maggie Williams is a scholar and political leader who served as Director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, Director of Communications for the Children’s Defense Fund, Deputy Press Secretary of the Democratic National Committee, and Congressional aid to Morris Udall. From 1993-1997, Williams worked as President Clinton’s assistant, and was then named First Lady Clinton’s Chief of Staff, becoming the first person to hold both positions concurrently. Williams went on to become the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. After leaving the White House, Williams took on the role of President for Fenton Communications, becoming the highest ranked Black woman in an American public relations firm at the time. Williams is now a partner at consulting firm Griffin Williams, as well as a director of the Scholastic Publishing Corporation, a director of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, a trustee of the Rhode Island School of Design, and a US Commissioner for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Amelia Spalter: You’ve spoken with great passion, on multiple occasions, about the importance of voting. What ignites that passion?
Maggie Williams: You get to determine the answers to the most important questions in the nation when you exercise your right to vote. “What’s important?” “What is the character of our country?” “Who do we want to be?” People who don’t vote should be put in prison. Even when you don’t like what you have to vote for, or the choices seem too narrow, it is really important that you vote. Not only that you vote, but that you get other people to vote. When you go to the movies, you don’t want to go alone, you call a couple friends and organize a group to go with you. If you can rouse that much passion and persistence to go watch Avengers, then at a bare minimum, you can do the same when tasked with selecting the next President.
AS: What is your biggest concern about the government’s relationship to the American people?
MW: I don’t think people understand what the government does. I know grown, adult people, who didn’t know that the government gave them their social security check. There is a lot of ignorance about what the government actually does, unless there’s something that you need from the government and manage to get. Otherwise, why would you know the breadth and the bandwidth that the government actually has in terms of services, or what it does in schools, what it does in this, in that, in the other thing? There needs to be clear and transparent education about what the government actually does and how it does it.
We can name the three branches of the government, but can we articulate what they do and how doing it works? People don’t realize how much of their life government touches. The FDA regulates the quality of your food and monitors the safety and efficacy of your medications. The FDA is the government. The DMV issues your driver’s license and determines who is allowed to be on the road with you and your family. The DMV is the government. If we started to think about it that way, maybe people would be more galvanized to assume civic responsibility and really understand how the government operates and why it does it that way.
AS: What was it like seeing President Obama for the first time after the 2008 election?
MW: I was at an event, I believe just after Hillary had become Secretary of State. I had been Hillary’s campaign manager, so Barack and I knew each other, but this was the first time I was seeing him in person post-election. He came over, looked me in the eye, and the first thing he said was, “So, you didn’t want me to be President, Maggie? Huh?” I was speechless, just thinking “Oh my God, what do I say to that?” But then he just started laughing at me and my reaction, so I could exhale knowing we were ok. He’s pretty fabulous. With the election then over, it was a moment I could really cheer for him.
AS: What do you think must be done to get politics back on track to working for the people?
MW: My easy out is that everybody young takes over. I’ve been trying to figure out how to expedite that. Sometimes I think we should lower the ages of participation, the age to vote, the age to run for office, if we should just bring everything down a few years.
All the hope is in the next generation. This might be a bit old fashioned, but I believe in the Constitution, and I believe in the Bible, and both say that we are all created equally. We can’t waste any more time trying to persuade those who have chosen to isolate themselves in a box and be brainwashed not to believe that, yes, really, all men are created equal. So I’m not in the business of trying to persuade anyone of that anymore. I don’t think it’s an effective use of time.
The only people that we must ensure understand this concept is your generation and all the next generations. They already understand this concept more, so this is where all of my hope is put. After a certain age, it’s hard for people to make changes in how they see the world. So, I don’t know what we can do for the many people of certain generations who were not taught this concept. I don’t know what we can do, except to, as my mother would say, pray for them.
AS: Are you optimistic about the potential for climate action from officials within our current administration?
MW: Overall, some are better than others. I personally know people in this administration and can attest that there are some good people in this administration. I don’t agree with them all the time ideologically, but do I believe that there are people in this administration who work like dogs, who are good at what they do, and care about the American people? Yes, I know them. I talk to them. And part of why I know them is because I worked in politics where, as I always say, you cannot get anything done without encountering people who hold opinions that differ from yours.
AS: What will have to happen politically for you to feel as though we’ve reached the future?
MW: The future is now. I see it, I see people, institutions, and laws that have begun to do this work for us. Take, for example, the fact that I can walk into any restaurant I want. My niece cannot even comprehend the idea that Black people couldn’t even walk inside of certain restaurants, it’s a foreign concept to her. But to my mother, who just turned 93, it is a lived experience.
Within a single lifetime there is, on the one hand, my mother. She remembers, really knows, what opportunities were taken from her because of her race. She knows what it means to not have choice. Then on the other hand, there’s my niece, a Harvard graduate and a professional soccer player. She can do both of those things because she is free to make those choices. That’s progress, that is the future, that is a thing to be protected. We have to be vigilant. You didn’t get to desegregation of the schools by people standing around singing Kumbaya. You got to it because it was forced. We are in the United States, where we’ve got everything we need to keep the country aware and alert, but we have to diligently police it to make the changes stick. Some of the things my mother experienced could easily resurge. Racism is mostly about people needing to feel other people are doing worse than they are in order for them to feel okay about themselves.
AS: What is our most powerful tool to combat racism at present?
MW: The ground floor of leveling the playing field is education. Without Brown v. Board of Education, we’d be going nowhere. But once isn’t enough, the field must be leveled and releveled continually over time as new issues arise. For example, our schools are integrated, but now we’ve got to do something about the high cost of education. What’s the point of opening your doors to all students if the students then can’t afford to walk through them?
AS: What is the most radical shift you’ve noticed in the political landscape since you entered it?
MW: Early in my life, I worked for Mo Udall. What I remember most from those days was a different political chemistry from that which we are experiencing today. The woman across the hall from me worked for a Republican Congressman, and when she had to go to lunch, I could see her desk from where I sat and I watched it for her until she got back. It went both ways. If she went to get a soda, she’d always bring me one. Red or blue, people talked with each other, people partied together, and while it was not ever lost on us that we had dramatically different views on the issues, it was also never lost on us that we were in the government of the same country. That basic understanding is something we’ve got to return to.
AS: It sometimes seems as though the country is more politically polarized now than at any time in recent history. Do you feel there is reason to be concerned?
MW: The American people have pretty good eyes. We’ve always had ideological differences in this country. That’s what makes it great, that’s what makes it a democracy. Everyone can go vote about anything that effects their community. Anything from selecting the Commander in Chief to whether or not to add a basketball court to the local park. You can vote about anything in this country, which means you have a say about anything in this country. But, at the end of the day, your allegiance is to the common good.
Maybe I hold this perspective because I worked for someone like Mo Udall. I always saw him reaching out to his fellow representatives, because there was always a chance that they’d do a deal together sooner or later. There is supposed to be an ongoing debate, more than that, there is supposed to be an intense argument, because we’re talking about decisions that directly impact people’s lives. But there is not supposed to be any, “I’m on this side, you’re on that side, and never the two shall meet.” We’re on the same side. We are shifting away from that and it does make me nervous about the future.
AS: What policy issues do you feel have not yet received adequate attention in this election cycle?
MW: The environment is pretty serious. You can have all the aspirational talk in the world, but if that’s all you have, eventually you won’t be able to talk anymore, because we won’t be able to breathe anymore, because we’ll have no clean air. People poo-poo the climate crisis in favor of a short-term focus on the economy, saying, “The economy matters most because people need to eat every day.” I agree, people do need to eat, that’s why I’m concerned about the environment. You can’t eat if you can’t breathe.
The environment goes back to education for me as well, though. Because it’s clear that in order to get a piece of meat in today’s economy, let alone solve the climate crisis, you need much better than a seventh-grade education. In fact, you probably need a college education. Sometimes you need more than a college education, or you need specialized training in an area that allows you to be able to compete just so you can live, let alone get a job that affects change. We really have to think about better access to all forms of education. I’ve always said, we are a country of inventors. We were able to invent this whole country, so we should be able to reinvent it.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.