SILVER SPRING TWP. — Who can make 120 Cumberland Valley High School students stay in school after the dismissal bell on a Friday afternoon, not to play a sport or instrument, but rather to learn about government?
Former Director of the United States Office of Management and Budget Jim Nussle can. His list of accomplishments is long — he was also a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 2007 and the 2006 Republican nominee for governor of Iowa — but he doesn’t see himself as an unusually gifted person.
“I’ve done some very special things, but personally, I’m not special,” he told his audience in the high school cafeteria on Friday. “I wasn’t at the top of my class, I wasn’t a star athlete, I wasn’t from a wealthy family or anything like that.”
So how did Nussle advance from average teenager to presidential cabinet member?
His primary advice to students was clear: don’t just sit around thinking about doing something — go do it.
“The important thing is, I decided to show up. I wanted to do something,” he said. “You really do get to decide where you go in your life. You really do get to make choices about the things you study, the things you’re interested in.”
Senior Molly Piper is one of the students who chose to spend her Friday afternoon hearing what Nussle had to say. Molly’s family is often discussing politics, she said, so she wants to learn more about government, especially from an inside perspective.
“I wanted to hear first hand from someone who’s in the government,” she said. “I’m just interested in government because I want to participate in the next election, and I want to have knowledge of what I’m voting for.”
While that might be a good first step, Nussle encouraged students to pursue their involvement with politics even further.
“(Voting) is the easiest thing to do,” he said.
He encouraged students to contact a local branch of a political party or become involved in an upcoming election campaign.
“If you show up and ask to be involved, there’s a good chance you’ll get involved,” he said. “It’s a very worthwhile endeavor. You will find it to be a great experience.”
He also suggested students try different things to learn what interests them, and take time to listen to what both sides of the political spectrum have to say.
“I’m a proud Republican, but that doesn’t mean you should be a Republican,” he said.
In fact, as the conversation ranged from the influence of the Tea Party to gerrymandering, Nussle cited a lack of listening as one of the biggest causes of gridlock among politicians in Washington.
“They’re really good at speaking ... but they don’t really know each other,” he said. “They rarely get together and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We’re all Americans. We all care about the country.’”
While government procedures — how a bill becomes a law, for instance — are important, Nussle thinks they aren’t at the heart of Washington’s problems or solutions. Instead, he compared the real process of turning a bill into a law to ordering a pizza for a group of people: there’s only one pizza, everybody wants different toppings, and finding an acceptable compromise can become a challenge.
“It’s difficult. It isn’t easy,” he said. “Everything you do in life … you’re going to have to figure out how to coexist with everyone else.”
Nussle brought with him a several-inches-thick copy of a federal budget his office developed and two gavels used on the floor of the House of Representatives. He also talked about his time as a member of Bush’s cabinet.
If you don’t remember Nussle’s name from the George W. Bush administration as much as, say, Condoleezza Rice or Donald Rumsfeld, that might be partly because the Office of Budget Management does much of its work out of the public eye, dealing with the unglamorous mathematical minutia of making a budget balance.
But budget directors work hard; in fact, they usually leave after a couple of years because they are burned out from the responsibilities, Nussle said.
“It’s a huge time commitment,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, and a lot of meetings.”
Nussle served in the position under Bush from September 2007 to the end of Bush’s second term in January 2009.
When Bush asked him to fill the position, the decision to accept wasn’t difficult, he said.
“When the president asks you to serve, you’d better have a darn good reason to say ‘no,’” he said. “I was honored to serve.”
Nussle presided over the office during a difficult economic period as the housing crisis peaked and the economic recession began, but a previous experience may have prepared him for the opportunity.
“I used to be a fireman, so I’m used to running into burning buildings rather than out of them,” he quipped.
Teachers and students alike were exited for the opportunity to meet Nussle.
The district likes to emphasize life after high school to its students, said district Social Studies Supervisor Sabrina Lindsay. She sees Nussle’s life as a concrete example of the real‑world possibilities that could lie in students’ futures.
“I think it just brings (the classroom) to life for the students,” she said.
It did for student Joshua Geruntho, who is fascinated by behind-the-scenes looks at the real people whose actions lead to the often simplified snapshots of politics presented to the public.
“I believe the interesting thing about politics is seeing the politician as not just a politician but as a person,” Joshua said.
Student Shawn Weihbrecht was given the honor of introducing Nussle, and also enjoyed the experience.
“I think it was very interesting to hear about politics from a person’s experience,” Shawn said. “He seemed like a very cool guy.”
Nussle said he wanted to speak to the students because he credits his high school days for helping him begin his path.
“I can trace my footsteps back to the meetings like this when I was in high school,” he said. “I hope, in a small way, I can add to that and give back a little bit.”
Email Daniel Walmer at firstname.lastname@example.org