Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Jamie Brown Hantman who’s the author of Heels in the Arena: Living Purple in a Red/Blue Town. Jamie has worked at the highest levels of government including at the White House and for the US Department of Justice. In 2008, Politico named her one of the “50 Politicos to Watch.” She currently lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and daughter.

Welcome, Jamie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jamie Brown Hantman: Thank you for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this.

Zibby: Me too. Please tell us, Heels in the Arena: Living Purple in a Red/Blue Town, what is this about? What inspired you to write it?

Jamie: It is my memoir. When people hear Washington memoir, click, they want to go to the next channel. They usually think it’s going to be some sort of self-serving, bloviating, name dropping, very serious sort of book. I wanted to do the opposite of that. The goal was Legally Blonde meets Bossypants. It is a memoir. It’s about my time working in Washington, mostly in government. I tried to do it in a way that’s a little more self-deprecating and hopefully a little bit funny.

Zibby: You started it with this really funny quote when you’re on an airplane with George W Bush. You told him, “At a certain point, a woman has to choose between her face and her ass.” Describe this scene and how that went over.

Jamie: That was not something I thought was going to come out of my mouth. One of the jobs that I had that I loved was I was working in the White House. I was a special assistant to the president for legislative affairs. That means that we were the liaison for the president to congress. One of the most important parts of the job is to be there when members are with the president. You don’t want him off by himself with members because they’ll make up stuff about what he said and promised. One of the best ways to do that, and more fun ways, was flying on Air Force One. When he would invite members, we would be there. We would each take turns flying on Air Force One. The person I was there accompanying that day was Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Senator Specter, for anybody who knows anything about him, is somebody who would not just go to the back of the plane in the guest lounge. He would go right to the president’s office. That was the type of person that he was. May he rest in peace.

I was hanging out in the president’s office. It was the president, Karl Rove, me, and Senator Specter. Senator Specter excused himself, asked to go use the restroom. The president was chatting with Karl about some big event he’d had at the White House the night before. There had been a woman from Texas that they were both friends with who’d been there. The president was going on and on about how much the weight the woman had lost. She just looked great. It was really impressive. It sounded like one of those Biggest Loser transformations, not knowing who the person was. Then he paused. He nodded his head the way we all know and was thinking. Then he goes, “You know, but she looks a lot older now.” Without even thinking about why I was there, who I was, and what was going on, I just blurted out what you said. “They say at a certain point a woman has to choose between her face and her ass.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I’m like, oh, my god. What did I just do? I said it out loud. He thought for a moment and then he said, “You know what? That’s absolutely right.” Very relieved.

Zibby: Wow. That sets the stage for the book and the history of your career in Washington and all of that.

Jamie: How to move forward when putting your foot in your mouth.

Zibby: Exactly. It makes you want to know what else you’ve said by mistake. Things I’ve said by mistake: part two. Let’s go back a little because the book is not just about your time in Washington. It’s also a memoir of your life and growing up and your family and your Christian faith and your upbringing, all of it. One of the things you talked about was being obsessed with books, especially a book like A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz which I was obsessed with too and has been in two books that I’ve read recently, yours and another one. I feel like it’s been on the brain. Talk to me about the role that books played influencing you as a child.

Jamie: As soon as I learned how to read, I was just insatiable, had a book with me everywhere. My mom was a teacher. She encouraged that. Summers, we’d do the weekly trip to the little library in Moodus, Connecticut, that was unairconditioned. It smelled like old books and old wooden floors. That smell is one of my favorite smells in the world still. Sometimes she would read aloud to us. We’d have one book that we’d read together so we could enjoy the story. I just started consuming books and inhaling them. In second grade, we lived way out in the boondocks and had a long commute to school. I would lay in the back of the hatchback with a Little House on the Prairie book.

Zibby: That’s my favorite. Oh, my gosh.

Jamie: I worked my way through the whole series that year without a seatbelt on in the back of a hatchback on the way to school and back.

Zibby: We had a station wagon, same thing.

Jamie: Same thing, exactly. Another one that is still probably my favorite book is Little Women, absolutely loved it. When I was writing my memoir, every woman and gal who’s read Little Women thinks to themselves, “I’m Jo. I’m finally being true to myself and writing my story. It’ll do well,” instead of all her little fanciful tales that she told. I see that there’s a movie coming out again, another remake, which I’m excited to see. Lots of books about strong women and girls just doing things for themselves and getting through it. I’m so grateful that I was in a house that encouraged that.

Zibby: Your mom wasn’t just a teacher. She was also your teacher. I loved the part when you were finally in one of her classes having watched her be with her students forever. She started off wanting you to call her Mrs. Brown. That did not —

Jamie: — That was probably a couple weeks. It was a little school. There were kids who called her Mom. I thought, why should I call you Mrs. Brown when Mom seems to be the standard around here?

Zibby: My grandmother tells a story that she worked for my grandfather in his office for a week. At the beginning he was like, “In this office, you will call me Mr. Philips.” She was like, “I don’t think so.” She walked out and never worked for him again.

Jamie: Good for her.

Zibby: That’s the kind of woman she is. Your mother, she was your teacher. She was the central figure in your life. You wrote about her so beautifully. You ended up later in your life actually having her as a roommate, which I found really interesting. You’re like, “I moved back in with my parents,” but you didn’t make it like, “I’m moving back home.” You were like, “I chose my parents as roommates. Isn’t that cool?”

Jamie: My husband would say weird.

Zibby: No, not weird.

Jamie: I think it’s cool.

Zibby: I wanted to talk about your relationship with her. I don’t want to give anything away in the book. I wanted to touch on your relationship with her and how formative that was. Say something about that. Take it from there.

Jamie: I would love to talk about my mom. I mentioned she was a teacher. She was one of those teachers that her students will, almost to a person, say, “She was my favorite.” She had an unbelievable impact, by the time her career was done, with thousands of students. She cared. She was very passionate about it. To have a front-row seat to that — I was in a little Christian school. We would ride to school and back. She would love to talk about her day because she was just so fired up about it. Then later I had her as a teacher. She was my government teacher, and English and history. It’s not super surprising that I ended up going to law school and being involved in government because I had this great foundation from Mrs. Brown. There, I’ll do a shout-out with her teacher name.

Zibby: I thought it was so great when you got — there was one job you were particularly excited about getting. For her, it wasn’t just her daughter who had accomplished that, but her student.

Jamie: Right. That was the great thing about living with them again. She was teaching at a school in Annapolis near DC. We had a tradition where every year I would go back and talk to her students. With each job that I got in government going up a ladder, you could tell she was more and more excited to introduce me to her students. She was so proud. As a daughter, that is a great, great feeling. The fact that I was able to get a job in the White House, I had her to thank for starting in twelfth grade, making me memorize probably forty or fifty US Supreme Court precedents for the final which was more than I ever had in law school. It shows you how demanding a teacher that she was.

Zibby: I also thought it was interesting what you said about law school. You got to law school and realized this was the one area where you don’t necessarily have to be the top student. It opened you up to other things that were going on. You were at Georgetown. You were in the middle of everything. Maybe classes weren’t the most important, which for an overachiever I’m sure was jarring in a way.

Jamie: Yes. I was one of those Tracy Flick types. It was always about getting the top grades and doing the best that you can. For me, I always had that goal of law school. That was high school. That was college. Then I get to the school “of my dreams.” I was like, uh-oh. I don’t enjoy law school. I don’t want to go to a firm. What did I just do? I’m going to be taking out all these student loans. Uh-oh, this is a mistake. I was on the phone with my dad. He was so adamant that it was really important to stay with it and that it would open doors. He’s in business. He’s like, “People with law degrees, they’re respected even if they’re not practicing law. You just never know what’s going to happen.” I took his advice. The nice thing was that instead of worrying about that Tracy Flick mentality of doing the very best that I could and being top of the class, I viewed it as the first step of my career as opposed to the last step of my education. It took a lot of pressure off, and also just knowing that I wasn’t going to try and go to a big firm.

Zibby: Just the White House. No pressure. I’m just going to work for the president himself.

Jamie: Part of the irony is if you let yourself seek where you fit the best and you’re enjoying what you’re doing, I ended up, as you said, in the White House with a bunch of the lawyers who were top of their class in Ivy League. We were all preparing the same nominee for a Supreme Court hearing. It worked out.

Zibby: What do you attribute your success to? Is it persistence? What do you think?

Jamie: It’s definitely not just one thing. It starts with a foundation of doing your best when you’re young and taking advantage of your education so that you are prepared for that little bit of luck. It’s got to be both. It has to be preparation. Then there is some element of fate, karma, luck, however a person views the world. That has to be a piece of it. For every person who’s working in the White House and highly qualified to do so, there are thirty with the same type of resume who are just not there because of not having a certain relationship or not being in the right place at the right time.

Zibby: You say in your book too, “Sometimes you need to do the thing that scares you the most.”

Jamie: Absolutely.

Zibby: Talk to me about that. What scares you the most now? I’m sure it’s different than back then when you were pioneering and tromping through the halls of the White House.

Jamie: The funny thing is once I had my daughter, the things that scared me about work didn’t really have the same bite anymore. It put a lot of things in perspective. The things that would scare me the most actually are about my daughter and what happens to her. Any mom can appreciate that. Professionally, I’m doing the thing that is scary, putting a book out, and especially a memoir. It was one thing to have it sitting on my laptop for a year and a half as a thing that I worked on and had an editor. Then once it came back and it was in typeface, the layout, it hit you. This is going to be there for anybody to read. You have that moment where you gulp. Nope, we’re doing this. Let’s just see what happens. That’s the scary thing now.

Zibby: What made you take it from the laptop to typeset? What made this into a book that now we’re talking about together?

Jamie: I realized that we are supposed to speak out. We each have a unique thing to contribute to the world. I have these interesting stories, but it isn’t just about telling the stories. I tried to write it in a way where my stories could be helpful to other people, to young women who may want to go into public service in some way. We’re in a time when people are incredibly interested in what’s going on in our government. It’s exciting to see, Women’s March and the students’ March for Our Lives. There’s so much passion. I wanted to provide a little bit of a guidebook for someone who may decide they want to take it to the next level providing the lessons that I learned and pieces of advice. A lot of it applies to DC. Some of it can apply no matter what you do.

Zibby: What was your process like writing it?

Jamie: I am one of those people who can only write a little bit at a time. I would do five hundred to a thousand words a day. If I didn’t get it done in the morning, it wasn’t going to get done. I’m one of those people who’s a morning person. Then my energy depletes as the day goes on. I was nowhere near doing it on a daily basis. When you have the goal and you just keep chopping away at it, it gets done. It took me probably about a year and a half of writing. The thing that really expedited it is having an editor who I owed pages to. Then somehow it got done a lot quicker that way.

Zibby: Accountability helps with basically everything. You talked about having Broadcast News-style breakdowns in the book, which I loved. I have always referred to them as the same thing. For anyone who hasn’t seen Broadcast News which came out in, I don’t know, the eighties and nineties, there was a scene where Holly Hunter’s at her desk. She would unplug her phone back when phones were just landlines, unplug her phone, cry at her desk, dry her eyes, plug her phone back in, and get back to work. You had moments like that. I’m sure we all have. How have you gotten through moments like that in your life?

Jamie: You just keep moving forward and reminding yourself that you’re in the job that you have for a reason. You’re qualified. You have the ability to do it. We’re all human. In the times that I was doing these Broadcast News-style cries, the most was when I went to DOJ. I was in legislative affairs there. After only four months in the department, they promoted me to run legislative affairs for the entire department. I would’ve never raised my hand and said I was ready for it. They thought I was, which was a nice confidence boost. It was really jumping into the deep end. The office that I inherited, I didn’t move into the office, but it had a private bathroom. We were trying to get Attorney General Ashcroft ready for an oversight hearing and a senate judiciary committee, which is probably one of the most stressful things that you have to do in leg affairs at DOJ because the knives are out when he goes up there. I was running the process of getting him ready and making sure that no question would come his way that he wasn’t ready to answer. That was probably the most pressure I’d felt in any sort of work project ever. Sometimes I would excuse myself and go into that nice little private bathroom and close the door and just let it out and wipe my face and go back out. It took a lot of pressure off, actually. It was a nice tool, I would say.

Zibby: Crying can be helpful.

Jamie: Yes.

Zibby: Your sister went into the military. You went into politics. I’m going to go out on a limb and say there was something about your parents’ parenting that encouraged you both to do these mission-driven selfless type careers. What do you think it was?

Jamie: It was probably example. My mom, being a teacher is such a mission-driven type career, giving back to people. My dad was and still is in the computer industry. He did everything that he could to support her. He was there with her for all the extracurriculars. We had kids in our house all the time. They were definitely a team. It wasn’t an overt, “You will do X. You need to X.” I’m thoroughly convinced that people can most impact other people by the way they live as opposed to the words that they say. The lives that they lived, that was what you do. You see the impact that they have. I think that’s what they passed on. They were politically interested people. That was always around in the house, a conversation about what’s going on in the news. That impacted my interests.

Zibby: Speaking of politics, you and your husband are on opposite sides of the aisle. Especially in today’s highly charged divisive political environment, how do you navigate that big difference between the two of you, if it still is as pronounced as it was in the book?

Jamie: It is not as pronounced as it was in the book. During the time that’s covered in the book when I was working for John Ashcroft and George W Bush, he was working for Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer. It wasn’t just working for Ds and Rs. We were working on the same issues but on opposite sides. I was trying to get John Roberts confirmed to the Supreme Court. He was fighting to keep him off the Supreme Court. We really had to figure out a way to be a couple with that sort of work situation. I actually found it really good and helpful, both personally and professionally. On the personal side, DC’s a company town. Most people come home, and they just talk about what they did all day and what’s going on in politics. That wasn’t necessarily going to be a really fruitful good discussion for us. It forced us to talk about books and movies and all the other things that make up normal people’s lives outside of Washington.

The other thing that it did for me that I think translates for people who may not be in that sort of fraught situation themselves but need to get along with people on the other side of the aisle, it actually made me better at what I did. I couldn’t go home and just complain about those crazy people on the other side and what they did to me today and I had to fight against because he was the other side. This is somebody that I loved. It behooved me to listen and try and figure out why he was coming from a different a perspective. He loves his country as much as I do. He wants to serve it and have it succeed. He has some different opinions about how to do that. Approaching it from that way makes a huge difference. I think that’s something that would be helpful for a lot of people to remind themselves about now because things are much, much worse in terms of political divide. My husband and I are not as politically divided at this point. As I talk about in the book, I now consider myself an independent because of the current president that we have.

We’re going into that time of year during holidays when people are going to be sitting around holiday tables with relatives with extremely different opinions about things. One piece of advice that I thought was really great that I heard was — Arthur Brooks wrote a book called Love Your Enemies. He talks about the concept of contempt and how there’s so much contempt and that that is the most dangerous attitude to have towards people with whom you disagree. It is corrosive in terms of how you view them. It’s corrosive for yourself to hold those types of feelings. People need to realize that we are all humans. If you believe in God, we’re all made in his image. Start from that premise and then try and talk to them and figure out why they may feel the way that they do, and maybe not spend quite as much time on Twitter. That’ll help a little bit.

Zibby: That’s probably good advice across the board.

Jamie: It’s for everybody.

Zibby: Was there anything that was really unexpected in the political world? I know you touched in the beginning of your book about not anticipating some of the physical comments people would make about your hair and how this goes back so long. I know that in the newspapers these days people are always talking about such-and-such woman didn’t like how blah, blah, blah. Tell me about that aspect of things and if there was anything else that really threw you off or you weren’t expecting.

Jamie: One of the more comforting but unexpected things that I learned from some of these jobs that I had is that we’re all human. Most people have some level of insecurity even at the highest levels. These people who go on TV, and they’re senators or cabinet secretaries and you think that they’re a master of the universe, the camera cuts off and it’s, “How did I do?” We all have that side to us. I think there’s a lot of imposter syndrome in DC. I talk about it. The first page of the book is I’m sitting on Air Force One and I can’t believe it. You keep expecting somebody to come tap you on the shoulder and say, “There’s a mistake. We’re not sure how you made it in here, but you’ve got to go,” unless you’re completely off the charts arrogant. Of course, DC has its share of those too. Most normal people have that feeling. It helps to know we’re all just doing our best.

Zibby: I tell my kids this too. My daughter was a little nervous about how her Halloween costume would look in kindergarten. I’m like, “Everyone’s thinking about their own costumes. They’re not thinking about yours.” It starts then when you’re first aware of yourself and the differences. Then it goes all the way into the upper ranks of the government.

Jamie: We are all still kindergartens just hoping people like our costume.

Zibby: What are you doing now? You finished — you had this — you tell me. What are you doing now?

Jamie: Once my daughter was born, I hung out a shingle because I wanted to continue to have some sort of work and intellectual stimulation and challenge, but I wanted to be able to carve out my own hours and work smart. All moms know that you can get a lot done in a little bit of time. I started a consulting business doing government relations consulting. Right now, my main client is Everytown for Gun Safety. I’m working on the gun safety issue at the federal level helping them, especially background checks and red flags, trying to get that passed at some point. That keeps me busy.

Zibby: Wow, very timely. I would imagine. It’s such a hot issue at the moment and so important. If you have a consulting firm for government relations, would you take on a client whose mission you didn’t agree with to fight for them?

Jamie: No, I wouldn’t. Surprise, there are lobbyists who will do that kind of thing. I would need to feel, at some level, pretty comfortable with the client’s agenda. You’re never going to agree a hundred percent with a client. As long as there’s a fundamental alignment, it makes all the sense in the world.

Zibby: What is coming next for you now? You have this book out, so exciting. You have your shingle hanging. You have your daughter. Where do you see life taking you?

Jamie: One of the things that’s been exciting about the book coming out is that a lot of the speaking opportunities that I’m getting are in front of audiences of younger people and young women. I’m going to do every single one of those that I can. I want to talk to them about how to do it, if this is what they’re interested in, and how to do it smart and how to do it for the right reasons if they really want to go into public service. We’ll see where that goes. I’m my mother’s daughter. I would love to teach a class at some point. I also would love to have the book do well enough that I can justify spending the time writing a novel. I would like to do that next. Enough talking about myself. That part is over. I want to pivot into fiction.

Zibby: That’d be great. I’m glad you mentioned speaking and giving speeches. You gave great advice in your book about giving impactful speeches. You said, “Every time you give a speech, strive to be interesting and authentic. Never just go through the motions. Each speech is an opportunity. If your lips are moving, you should be thinking about whether what you’re saying rings true to you and if it’s adding value to the people who can hear you.” That is great advice for any conversation, not just a speech. If your lips are moving, what are you doing? What are you adding?

Jamie: When I learned that lesson in a big way, it was when I was at DOJ. I had just gotten that promotion that sort of scared me. Within the first week of having the job they told me I needed to give a presentation to the leadership of the department, so the top thirty people. That included Bob Mueller, Ted Olson, John Ashcroft, that group of leaders. That’s daunting. What am I going to say that’s going to make Bob Mueller’s life a little better? My predecessor sent me his notes. He’s like, “It’s no problem. You just need to talk about what the office does and how it can help them.” I looked at his notes. He is one of my favorite people and a mentor, but they were his notes. They were about our office being a sword and a shield. It was all very masculine metaphors and all that.

I looked that and I thought, that’s Dan’s approach. I am me. I need to do this in a way that is true to me. The framing that I did, I wouldn’t do it today because we’re fifteen years later and times have changed. I used examples that were extremely feminine to make my points about how we worked with the Hill. I got great, great feedback from the leadership of the department. People loved it. They still remember it. I ran into someone at a cocktail party. Fifteen years later he said, “That was great. I still remember.” Each time you’re speaking is an opportunity to make somebody’s life better. Think about what you’re saying. Don’t just go through the motions. Try and make it different each time if you can.

Zibby: Is that your advice to authors too in terms of what they would write? What other advice do you have to aspiring authors?

Jamie: I would say don’t wait for anyone’s permission to do this. If you have something to say, you should be saying it. It’s your gut telling you that you have something unique to put out into the world. Don’t become an influencer first so that you can then take the next step. Write your book. Put it out there. You don’t know what’s going to happen.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you for sharing your time and your expertise and experience with us.

Jamie: It’s been a real pleasure.

Zibby: Thanks, Jamie.