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White House topic of program
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Edward Lynch (above), who worked for the White House in the 1980s, addressed Sunday’s meeting of the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society in the Heritage Center & Museum uptown. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Monday, May 19, 2014

By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer

A Hollins University professor gave a glimpse inside the Reagan White House on Sunday.

Edward Lynch worked for the White House in the Old Executive Office Building in the 1980s. He was a consultant in the Office of Public Liaison and as a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for defense and foreign policy.

He now is director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program and a professor of political science at Hollins.

Lynch addressed Sunday’s meeting of the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society in the Heritage Center & Museum uptown. Based on a show of hands among the approximately 30 people at the meeting, many have visited the White House.

He noted that Hollywood generally portrays the White House poorly, with stilted language, among other things.

“The ‘West Wing’ got more right,” he said, referring to the television program that aired from 1999 to 2006.

The West Wing is where the president’s Oval Office and top executive offices are located.

In both the TV show and real life, many important decisions were made by people who were unknown to the public, the pace was fast and officials generally juggled numerous issues at one time, Lynch said.

The program also accurately portrayed the “inflated sense of importance of people working close to power,” Lynch said, illustrating that with a story of how a senior staff member could not talk with a White House intern.

“Pettiness was part of the process of maintaining your turf,” Lynch said.

He added that the White House and Old Executive Office Building nearby were filled with ambitious people. “Everyone was looking for a chance to get into the spotlight” to show what they could do to help the president.

When asked by an audience member what drives that ambition, Lynch paraphrased Alexander Hamilton, saying people go into politics or public service because they have a vision or agenda for America; because they enjoy power for power’s sake; or they want fame, even if it is just within their own family and friends.

Lynch also said if he could change something in government, he would repeal the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct election of U.S. Senators. Before approval of that amendment, senators were elected by each state’s legislature, he said.

Returning to that selection process would ensure states had a place at the bargaining table and probably reduce campaign spending, Lynch said. He added that he worked for four years on the Senate side of Capitol Hill and was more impressed with governors than senators.

He does not support changes in the Electoral College or the enactment of term limits, he added.

“I don’t mind messiness in government,” Lynch said. “Messiness is another entry point where ordinary people can have influence.”

Lynch went to Washington, D.C. after receiving a master’s degree from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1983. He went to work for The Heritage Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., in the summer and fall of that year.

Part of his job was to anticipate emerging issues and research and write papers on those issues so they would be ready when the issues became news, he said.

Lynch’s specialty was Central America, and he wrote a paper on the political situation in Grenada, where pro-Fidel Castro forces had a falling out with pro-Soviet Union forces, he said. The situation became a concern in this country because there were 600 American medical students studying in Grenada at the time, he added.

That was in 1983, two years after the Iranian hostage crisis, which was critical to Reagan’s defeat of incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

“Reagan knew the political damage of dealing with a hostage crisis,” Lynch said.

The story broke on a Sunday, and the following Tuesday U.S. troops landed in Grenada, Lynch said. His paper was published the next day, which impressed the head of the Office of Public Liaison in the White House, he said. He was offered and accepted a job with that office.

His office in the Old Executive Office Building was the furthest possible from the Oval Office in a city where geographic proximity has everything to do with power, he said.

His job was to write papers for the White House Digest explaining some aspect of administration policy. Gathering information and writing the papers was the easy part; getting the papers cleared by appropriate offices and agencies such as the CIA, Department of State and others, was more difficult, he said.

One strategy Lynch used was to, as he put it, “strike while the iron was hot.” That meant calling to check on the status of his papers or suggest they be read after the president had given a major speech mentioning the subject.

In the 15 months Lynch worked in the Office of Public Liaison, he had seven papers published. In response to a question from a man in Sunday’s audience, Lynch said he had no idea how much each of those papers cost to produce.

He also wrote several short speeches given by President Reagan.


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