Colgate Alums React to Presidential Transition

Chris Neefus

Before a whirlwind week that included strategic bombings in Waziristan, disputes with Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and a shaky start for new White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States before a massive crowd in Washington, D.C. It signaled an end to George W. Bush’s eight turbulent years in the Presidency, but also to what’s been hailed as one of the smoothest transitions ever.

At the nearby Multi-Agency Communications Center (MACC), where the Secret Service was coordinating the efforts of federal, state and local agencies on Inauguration Day, a Colgate alumnus was watching over the day’s events. Gus Coldebella ’91 was General Counsel for Department of Homeland Security during the Bush years and would stay on duty with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff until midnight of that Tuesday, to allow the incoming Secretary time to enjoy the day. Coldebella is one of many Colgate alumni who have left a significant policy imprint in Washington during the last administration.

“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our special responsibility as the Department of Homeland Security, because it’s the place where every American expects the lights to be on and the store to be minded throughout the presidential transition,” Coldebella said.

“I started this role in October 2005, essentially one month after Hurricane Katrina,” Cordebella said, noting that it was a critical time in the department’s early stages. The fledgling cabinet department has learned from past mistakes and grown with Coldebella’s counsel.

“One example of the department’s maturation is [the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s] evolution,” Coldebella said. “You can read about how FEMA has handled the wildfires in California and the floods in the Midwest over the past year or two. This is a different organization than [during] Katrina or immediately post-Katrina.”

Amy Dudley, President of the Colgate Alumni Club of Washington, D.C., points out that in addition to serving in the administration, Colgate graduates have been particularly influential in shaping the policy debate through journalism.

“Howard Fineman [’70] of Newsweek/MSNBC and Gloria Borger [’74] of CNN, to name a few, were at the center of the ’08 election,” Dudley said. Borger also is a contributing editor of U.S. News and World Report, while Fineman, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa, released his first book last year, The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country. Other notable alumni in political journalism include Andy Rooney ’42, Nixon biographer Monica Crowley ’90 and 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager ’77.

Regarding the presidential transition, Dudley said that it is only the beginning of a long process.

“It will take at least six months for everything to shake out,” Dudley said, in which time Colgate grads will move from their Bush administration posts to law, consulting or elsewhere. But Dudley said the typical exodus from government to the private sector that accompanies a transition could be stemmed somewhat by the decidedly unique air of possibility that hangs in Washington in the days after Obama’s swearing in.

“Rather than shifting to the private sector, I’m hearing more about D.C. folks shifting back into government for reasons ranging from a desire to work under the current majority in power to the overall historical significance,” Dudley said.

A common assumption is that along with this lengthy transition will also come a wholesale change in legal policy under Obama, reversing much of the work done by Colgate grads and others. Coldebella, however, disagrees. While some of Bush’s policies have been controversial to say the least, Coldebella contended that the policies will endure.

“When legal analysis is done well, it is nonpartisan and non-ideological — it’s simply lawyerly,” Coldebella said.

As Obama’s team has gotten underway, it does indeed seem that much of his security policy will remain continuous with Bush’s, at least for the time being.

“During the transition, I haven’t detected a heck of a lot of areas of disagreement on legal matters between the current administration and the next,” Coldebella said.

Instead, attention will likely shift to other areas as Obama lines up his priorities.

“As with everything, there’s going to be a revisiting of policy — I can imagine some areas such as how vigorously the new team will pursue worksite immigration enforcement, for example — and I suppose those changes in emphasis will become apparent over the next weeks and months,” Coldebella said.

In the interim, Colgate alumni are using the best resource out there to figure out what’s next — other ‘Gate grads. Dudley said the D.C. chapter of the Alumni Club is one of the most robust in the nation. The 1,600-strong association “enjoys wide alumni involvement that spans generations of ‘Gate grads,” according to Dudley.

“In addition to acting as fantastic networking opportunities, our events and activities serve as outlets for alums to connect on common interests,” Dudley said.

Coldebella echoed that sentiment, adding that he enjoys coordinating with Colgate students as well.

“My favorite part of my Council responsibilities is interacting with students — at events like Real World and others — to try to help figure out what’s next for them.”

At the same time, Coldebella is like a multitude of alumni from the outgoing Bush administration — figuring out what’s next for himself.

“Whether I’m in D.C. or not, I know there will be a strong Colgate presence wherever…I end up, because, almost without exception, they exist all across the country,” Coldebella said.

And in the meantime, as the new administration builds its policies and message from the ground up, all manner of thinkers will be needed to step up to the plate.

“Innovative thinking and tenacity — typical ‘Gate grad qualities — will be in high demand for sure,” Dudley said. “While political science majors have often been the ones to head to the nation’s capital post-graduation, a re-assessment of policies across the board will require more. Come biology and geology majors, come Arabic and computer science minors!”