The year was 1994, and I was 23 years old and worth my weight in anxiety and 80s power suits inherited from my mother (the suits, not the anxiety). I was working in the White House after having Wizard of Oz’ed my way into the campaign, the transition team, and eventually a staffing role helping create AmeriCorps, the U.S. national service program in which more than a million young people have served, a story I tell quite hilariously with my pal Matthew Kimberly on his podcast How to Get a Grip.
The legislation passed in Congress, was signed by the President, and we spent months getting the program launched, the official start of which would be Bill Clinton swearing in the first class of members live on the South Lawn of White House. We erected a gigantic Jumbotron, and planned to broadcast via satellite to sites across the country. This is the pre-Zoom era, people, be impressed! And, all 125lbs of my anxiety, poured into that powersuit, was the point person.
But, then, at 2:00am, an unexpected tragedy happened, leading to the Secret Service ringing me in the middle of the night.
Me: “Um….. Hello?”
Him: “Miss Gassner, this is Secret Service Agent (name redacted). There has been an incident. We need you to get to the White House right away.”
Me: “Shut up. This isn’t funny.” [hangs up]
Me: “Um….. Hello?”
Him: “Miss Gassner, this is Secret Service Agent (name redacted). As I said, there has been an incident. We need you to get to the White House right away.”
Me: “Come on, man. This isn’t funny. I have a huge day tomorrow.” [hangs up]
To be fair, I thought it was my brother-in-law, who delights in making prank calls.
Me: “Come the fuck on, man, stop this.”
Him (sterner): “Miss Gassner, turn on CNN.”
Me, turning on CNN: “Oh, my apologies, sir. I will be right in.” [hangs up, throws on mismatching shoes, drags hairbrush across teeth and toothbrush across hair, grabs keys and ID badge and runs ten blocks]
A man committed suicide by crashing his Cessna into our Jumbotron. He struggled with mental illness and stole a plane to fly his swan song. It was an unspeakable tragedy.
And yet, we had an event to run.
In just a matter of hours, hundreds of future AmeriCorps members would show up to the South Lawn of the White House. What were we going to do with them? How would we launch this program — this signature program of Bill Clinton’s campaign — when the very location of that launch was now a crime scene?
We moved the event to the North Lawn, the driveway where you see heads of state come meet the President for official state visits. It was a highly unusual use of the North Lawn and it would take hours for the security clearances and paperwork to be processed by the exceptionally tetchy Secret Service. I mean, these men and women are usual pretty uptight, but after a plane crashed two stories below your boss’s bedroom? Sheesh. Next level stress.
Bill Clinton had a busy schedule that day. We didn’t know when he would be able to drop in and do the swearing in. We couldn’t tell the young people to just come later. It would be a hurry up and wait, wait and hurry up sort of day. And that left us with a couple hundred young people in their AmeriCorps t-shirts standing around, cooling their heels, and getting hungrier by the minute.
So me and my hand-me-down power suit, the red and black one with the biggest shoulder pads because it was a power day, sweat bullets calling every McDonalds in the area to get meals delivered. And then I set about finding a representative crew of young people for what would be an historic photo, just like the one of Jack Kennedy swearing in the first Peace Corps members in the Rose Garden three decades earlier.
We changed the entire event on a dime. Success didn’t look like what we expected. But all these years later, it looks pretty damned alright. And it’s a day of which I remain most proud.
But, don’t worry, I eventually tossed that power suit, too.
Was the event a success? If you measure it by the execution of the plan we made? Not even close. If you measure it by the outcome, despite all of the challenges, then possibly. But if you measure it by the outcome, not despite all the challenges but because of the opportunities that the challenges provided, then hell to the yes.
And it was a day that I learned that we are forged more through the lessons we learn in failure than by the victory laps we take in success. (Tweet this.)