First ladies' top aides share their stories
© Sophie K. Goldmacher

Current and former chiefs of staff to the first lady sat down Wednesday night and provided a glimpse into their unique job in the East Wing of the White House.

Tina Tchen, chief of staff to first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama: We raise men to feel 'entitled' Michelle Obama: 'Don't tweet every thought' Michelle Obama, Prince Harry visit public school in Chicago MORE, was joined by Anita McBride, who served Laura Bush, and Melanne Verveer, who worked for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Papadopoulos was in regular contact with Stephen Miller, helped edit Trump speech: report Bannon jokes Clinton got her ‘ass kicked’ in 2016 election MORE, for a panel discussion at Georgetown University led by ABC News's Claire Shipman.

Despite party differences, the three women said they were proud to be part of "a very small club." And they shared the reality checks they experienced in a job few on the outside can understand.

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For Tchen, the first thing she noticed was the stark difference between the real White House and the one portrayed on ABC's "Scandal."

"The physical size of the building is quite small; the resources of the building is quite limited," Tchen commented. "The budget of the White House has gotten increasingly smaller. Congress has not been generous to the White House."

For McBride, her reality check came when she sat down for an interview and the first words she heard from her future boss were: "I want to go to Afghanistan."

"It was busy and it was exciting and it was terrific," McBride said of her world travels with first lady Bush.

According to the three chiefs, the first ladies choose to work on the issues they are most passionate about.

"You really do have to do something that is true to yourself," Tchen said. "You want it to be something you can make a difference with."

Verveer also said first ladies always found their own way to contribute. She said Nancy Reagan didn't come from a public service background and "was in many ways controversial."

"But she also made enormous contributions in that period," Verveer added.

The panel also discussed the possibility of a "first man" in the White House, if the nation elects a woman president.

Asked about the possibility of a first man who also has a job away from the White House, McBride said: "If the presidential spouse comes in and has a job outside of the home, it will be the most superb balancing act that anyone could possibly imagine."

The former chiefs also discussed the first ladies' wardrobe memos, with McBride joking that "the equivalent of the nuclear football was that makeup bag."

All three shared the stresses of the job, with many things keeping them up at night. "It used to be, what detail of an event have we missed? Now what keeps me up at night is what's left undone," said Tchen.

Verveer pointed out they also had to remember that only one person in the White House was elected by the American people and that all of their efforts were to support the president.

But through it all, they said they kept their perspective and treasured the experience.

McBride said the best advice she ever received was from former chief of staff Andi Ball, who worked for Laura Bush.

"Just remember," Ball told her on her way out of the White House. "Even on your worst day, remember where you are."

 

Photo courtesy of Sophie K. Goldmacher.