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The Road to the White House

USC College alumnus Gary Lee retraces his steps to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where he works for President Obama.

USC College alumni Gary Lee ‘07 and Emily Fetting ‘06 stand in front the West Wing of the White House. Lee works for President Barack Obama as a White House liaison. Photo courtesy of Gary Lee.
USC College alumni Gary Lee ‘07 and Emily Fetting ‘06 stand in front the West Wing of the White House. Lee works for President Barack Obama as a White House liaison. Photo courtesy of Gary Lee.

Gary Lee remembered vying for student body president during his senior year in USC College and losing.

Lee, a political science major, took the loss to heart. He went to talk to his former professor, Howard Gillman, who recently had been appointed USC College Dean.

“I can see you’re upset about this,” Lee recalled Gillman telling him. “If you want to be in politics, you can have a heart of gold. But your heart of gold needs to have a protective case of steel.”

Now working for President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., Lee can more clearly see the truth in Gillman’s words. Lee’s Office of Legislative Affairs staff position can be rigorous. And it’s a challenge he embraces.

Lee dove into the world of politics after graduating with his bachelor’s in 2007. Following Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Lee vowed that if the Illinois state senator declared his candidacy, he would work for his presidential campaign.

When the then-U.S. senator visited USC in 2006 and spoke in front of Doheny Memorial Library, Lee had it all mapped out in his mind. He would introduce himself to Obama and tell him that he wanted to work for his campaign should he run for president.

“I ran up to the stage, shook his hand, but no words came out of my mouth; I was awestruck,” Lee said. “I couldn’t say anything. He has a commanding presence.”

But after Obama declared his candidacy, Lee made good on the promise he had made to himself. Hired to work in Obama’s campaign headquarters, Lee moved to Chicago a month after graduation. His minor, political organizing in the digital age, helped prepare him for his job producing campaign e-mail, Web site pages, blogs, video and other social networking tools.

He now works for the 44th president as a White House liaison primarily to members of Congress and their staffs.

“The most challenging part is the pace at which we’re going,” said Lee, 24. “As much as it is an honor to work at the White House, it’s also a sacrifice. There’s no balance between your work and your life. It’s all work and that’s your life.”

The Trojan Family is well represented in the Capital City, where Lee is heartened to have so many friends from USC. He also saw several familiar faces from USC at a recent panel discussion assessing the first 100 days of the Obama administration held at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

He reconnected with Gillman who participated, as well as Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, housed in the College.

Gillman was delighted to run into his former student: “It was a joy having Gary in class.” Lee worked for the Department of Political Science when Gillman was chair and for the Unruh Institute.

“To see him working in the White House is a huge thrill,” Gillman said. “We’re so proud of what he’s accomplished. I’m looking forward to having him show me around his new office!”

Lee counted Gillman as among those who steered him to his current success.

“I had some really good mentors at USC,” Lee said, noting that Ann Crigler, chair and professor of political science; Susan Estrich of the College and the USC Gould School of Law; Amy Johnson of the USC Rossier School of Education, and Warren Bennis, University Professor and Distinguished Professor in USC Marshall School of Business also gave him invaluable guidance while he was a student.

Now, he has an incomparable role model in Obama, whom he called a great leader.

“Ever since I started at USC, I’ve been doing the work that I love,” Lee said. “I love politics and government and working in this realm. It’s a great joy.”