As National Security Council spokesman, Tommy Vietor ’02 had to be ready for anything, from a natural disaster to the slaying of Osama bin Laden
Tommy Vietor ’02 was in the White House for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tsunami in Japan and the earthquake in Haiti, the events of the Arab spring, and the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. He also was there the night Osama bin Laden was killed.
It “was like having a front seat at some historic events,” said Vietor, the former assistant press secretary and National Security Council spokesman. “Working for the president was the privilege and honor of a lifetime. I doubt that I will ever have a job that interesting, exciting, or taxing again.”
The raid that killed bin Laden was particularly dramatic. Vietor suspected that something was up on May 1, 2011, when he was urgently called to the White House and told to go to the Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing. “Hillary was there [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] with a group of people,” Vietor recalled. “Colleagues told me they were pretty sure that bin Laden had been shot and to get ready for a long night.”
As the National Security Council spokesman, Vietor had to move into action minutes after President Obama’s announcement. It was his job, for example, to moderate a conference call for the news media with senior administration officials.
Vietor had boarded the Obama bandwagon just two years out of Kenyon, before the future president burst into the national consciousness with his stirring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Obama was still a little-known Illinois state senator when Vietor joined his successful U.S. Senate campaign in the summer of 2004 as a press office underling. Vietor had turned down a job in the John Kerry 2004 presidential campaign, gambling that he would get hired for Obama’s U.S. Senate run. “People thought I was crazy, but there was something about him [Obama] that was so compelling, authentic, and engaging,” Vietor said.
Vietor rose quickly through the hierarchy as part of the Obama youth movement that powered the 2008 presidential campaign. He worked in the campaign’s Chicago headquarters and was Obama’s Iowa press secretary. Obama’s successful presidential bid landed Vietor in the White House as an assistant press secretary under former press secretary Robert Gibbs. In January 2011, he became the National Security Council spokesman. “The great thing about starting with [Obama] as early as I did was that I got to interact with him a lot. I was by no means a senior advisor, but I got to know him and his family.”
After nearly ten years with the president, Vietor left the White House on March 1 to open a communications consulting firm, Fenway Strategies (named after Fenway Park, home of his beloved Boston Red Sox), with departed Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau. “My plan always was to work through the entire first term, get through the election of 2012, and think about what to do next,” Vietor said. “The White House needs change. It is great to have people who have been there for a while, but it is also great to have new people bring in fresh perspectives.”
Thirty-two and single, Vietor welcomed the return to a more normal lifestyle. “It was nice to know that while I was planning a July 4 vacation and Egypt was imploding, I didn’t have to cancel my vacation plans. The pace of working in the White House can burn you out after four years, let alone eight. You work under the possibility that at any given moment something completely random could happen that turns your world upside down. For instance, after the earthquake in Haiti, I found myself living in the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince for five days. It was a horrific scene.”
A philosophy major, Vietor was inspired by Juan De Pascuale and other professors in the department. “It was a good major, because it pushed me to think critically, write well, and challenge assumptions,” he said. He began his political career as an intern of the office of Senator Edward Kennedy in the summer of 2002, having no idea at the time where it would lead. “I marvel how unbelievably lucky I was to be in the right place at the right time.”