When I was in grade school, the first book I took out of the Philadelphia public library, when I got my library card as a first-grader, was a biography of Alexander the Great. I was so interested in heroes and national leaders. All my life, as a kid, I would get a Landmark book — a biography of Lincoln or Jefferson or Washington or Davy Crockett. And I was always [reading] nonfiction when my brother was getting Hardy Boys.
I wanted to do something adventurous and somewhat risky in youth. I think rite of passage is a very important part of growing up. Certainly, all of the heroes did it. I was a volunteer. I certainly was driven to the Peace Corps in Africa with a sense of adventure — going out there alone, out there in the bush, by myself, on a motorcycle. I was in Swaziland. And you’re out there on your own. It was pretty brazen, I’d say.
After I came back from Africa, from the Peace Corps, I came to Washington, and I never really went home to Philadelphia. That was really a critical decision. I love Washington — I really do love the city.
I came to Capitol Hill to look for a job as a legislative assistant, and I couldn’t get a legislative assistant job right away. But I did get a job with a senator from Utah — Frank Moss, a Democrat. He gave me a job working in the office during the day but getting paid by being a police officer at night. It was patronage. And I did that for three months and was a full-time legislative person after that. I was really moonlighting at that job. I had the uniform — the gun and everything — but I was basically working in the office during the day, writing short speeches and answering complicated legislative mail. It worked. It was one way to get in the door. And then Frank Moss helped me get a job with [Ed] Muskie and the Senate Budget Committee. From there, I got a job at the White House, became a speechwriter for President Carter. One thing led to the other.
I’m interested in political leadership and courage and standing up for something. It’s very hard to explain. I was paying attention to the ’52 election, believe it or not, when I was, like, 6. I paid very much attention to the ’60 election.
My grandfather was a local Democratic political figure in Philadelphia — Charlie Shields, a very classic sort of Irishman. And I would talk politics with him all the time. I loved him, and I loved going for walks with him in downtown Philadelphia, the Irish neighborhoods. He may [have been] grumpy to other people, but, to me, he always lit up. And I always lit up when I was with him.