“I did spend some time in the White House working for the speech writing office. I helped do research for Mike Gerson, John McConnell, and Matt Scully. They were the triumvirate of speech writers to President George W. Bush and getting to learn from them was amazing. It was also just really helpful to see politics from the inside. I don’t think you can realize how fast decisions have to be made. It’s always with imperfect information. When our students read about policy decisions, they always read about it from a position of hindsight, whether that’s journalism or going out much further, historical accounts. So it’s hard to get into the head of like, how are the policymakers thinking about it at that particular time and realize just how difficult it is. You’re not thinking about it from here’s option A, which is great and here’s option B, which is not so great.”

That’s Cheryl Miller, this week’s guest on Why Public Service?, discussing her path to finding work in D.C. and eventually at the Hertog Foundation, where they educate students about domestic and foreign policy as well as political philosophy.

(Subscribe to Why Public Service? on Spotify or Apple, by RSS feed or search for it wherever you listen to podcasts.)

Transcript:

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Why Public Service, a podcast of the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, DC. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. In each episode, I speak with an individual who made the choice to participate in governing our nation. Some of my guests have worked for the government. Others have toiled in various private sector organizations, including think tanks, philanthropies, and political groups. All of them share the same goal, however, which is to improve our country through public service. Today’s guest is Cheryl Miller, Director of the Hertog Foundation. It is an organization that offers educational programs for outstanding individuals who seek to influence the intellectual, civic, and political life of the United States. Previously, Cheryl worked in the Executive Office of the President at the New York Times, the American Enterprise Institute, and the America’s Future Foundation. You can learn more about Cheryl by visiting hertogfoundation.org. Cheryl, welcome to the Why Public Service Podcast.

Cheryl Miller:

Thank you. I’m looking forward to it.

Kevin Kosar:

As our listeners have heard, you work for the Hertog Foundation. What does it do?

Cheryl Miller:

Sure. So Kevin, the Hertog Foundation is a private family foundation run, as you might expect by a Mr. Hertog, Roger Hertog and his wife, Susan, and it basically just has two arms, a grant making arm, so traditional philanthropy, and then a programming arm, which I think probably is the most interest to your audience, which I understand is college students, recent grads, young professionals here in DC, people who are interested in public policy. And the programming arm, which is what I originally came to the Hertog Foundation to run, got started back in 2010 and I joined Hertog in 2014. But it sponsors and runs fellowships for college undergraduates, for recent grads, and also for young professionals in politics. And that’s politics broadly understood, so public policy, domestic policy, foreign policy, but also political philosophy.

Cheryl Miller:

We run classes on everything from Aristotle to Plato to Chinese grand strategy, domestic policy, American democratic capitalism. We bring in a really interesting group of instructors. So typically scholar practitioners, people like Yuval Levin at AEI, who I understand has been on this podcast as well, to educate young people who are interested in possibly pursuing a path in public service and what that might look like. So I’ve also gotten more involved in the grant making side, but that’s less exciting and more like reading reports and writing reports.

Kevin Kosar:

What was the career path that led you to the position of Director at the Hertog Foundation?

Cheryl Miller:

I didn’t actually plan to go into public policy or politics. I was an undergrad student at the University of Dallas, a small liberal arts school in Texas, and like a lot of students who come to me and who probably listen to this program, I really love the world of ideas. I love the great books, foundational texts and reading them and discussing them with other people. For me, what seemed like the logical choice was to keep going to school forever basically. So I had started a PhD program at the University of Chicago at the committee on social thought, and that was really the plan was to become an academic. But I was doing a fellowship in California and I met a number of people who were already out in DC doing policy work, and they convinced me to spend a summer interning in DC.

Cheryl Miller:

They just sent my resume around and somebody picked it up. So I ended up interning in DC for a very small foreign policy think tank and knew nothing about foreign policy, no classes in it whatsoever, but got to learn on the job. That really was a huge change, a transformative moment for me that I hadn’t realized. Around the same time I began to have some doubts about whether the academic path was the right path for me. The job market then was terrible. I think now it’s 20 times terrible, and I was also worried about some of the trends I saw in the academy, this tendency towards hyper-specialization, this disdain that some professors had for the idea of teaching, like this was a burden that you had to do as opposed to your research, rather than the core of an education.

Cheryl Miller:

Also disdain for the practical. That’s not true, obviously of everyone in the academy, but it is definitely a very strong undercurrent that some people just think you are focused on the experts in your field and what they do in the real world doesn’t really matter that much. And I had always been a little bit more of a practical-oriented person, so I wanted to see like, how do these ideas that we’re studying match up with real life. Does that matter? What is the relevance? And that wasn’t always a question that my professors necessarily thought that I should be thinking about. So I ended up staying in DC. It wasn’t really quite a choice. I just kept getting new jobs and I got to do a lot of different things and have a variety of different experiences. In the world of politics I worked in think tanks. I worked in journalism. I worked in the white house speech writing office for a while before I ended up ending up at the Hertog Foundation. Eventually I just realized I’m never actually going back and doing the PhD.

Kevin Kosar:

Excellent. What are your responsibilities and what does your average day look like as a director?

Cheryl Miller:

I don’t really have an average day or if I do, it varies by season. We just ended our summer season, which is our most intensive programming season. Sadly, we had to have it virtually via Zoom. We usually bring our college students to Washington, DC for the summer. And I should say for your listeners that this is free. We provide housing. We provide a stipend. We provide all the course materials, so it’s a great deal. Sadly, we weren’t able to offer the full extent of that deal because of the pandemic, but we just finished eight weeks of online programming. That’s 16 two week courses that we had on offer for almost 200 students. Our students call it Politics Bootcamp, and it definitely has that feel to it. But it’s also for me a dream gig, which is I just get to sit in and observe the classes and how they’re going.

Cheryl Miller:

And again, these are classes like we had Bryan Garsten from Yale University. We had Dan Blumenthal from AEI teaching Chinese Grad Strategy. Yuval Levin, as I said. Adam White teaching for our program on domestic policy questions. So taught by these really great instructors. And I get to be an eternal student watching over that and making sure that everything goes as planned. But there’s a lot of prep that goes into these programs. We start planning the next year’s programs basically as soon as we finish the summer program. So no rest for the weary. We finalize a plan. That’s me going back and forth with Mr. Hertog about where we think there are opportunities, where there might be student demand, what kind of topics are under-taught. We go back and forth on that. And then once we get a plan, we start recruitment.

Cheryl Miller:

That’s reaching out to students, reaching out to professors. And then we have this crazy application season where we go through 1,000-plus applications and select our finalists, interview them, and select our class. We also have programs going on outside the summer. So I’ll get started soon on a set of seminars on strategy and national security, looking at different challenges from rival nations for young professionals that we hold in the evening. We also hold short programs for the college students. And then we’re finally, we’re thinking about online programs and what we might have to offer for people who are stuck at home because of the pandemic and maybe are deferring, but would still like to have a learning opportunity. It’s always changing, but I think that’s something that I like about it.

Kevin Kosar:

You’ve had a variety of positions broadly speaking in the public sphere and you’ve described yourself as getting to be a eternal ongoing student. From all of that, what lessons have you taken away about governance?

Cheryl Miller:

I did spend some time in the White House working for the speech writing office. I helped do research for Mike Gerson, John McConnell, and Matt Scully. They were the triumvirate of speech writers to President George W. Bush and getting to learn from them was amazing. It was also just really helpful to see politics from the inside. I don’t think you can realize how fast decisions have to be made. It’s always with imperfect information. When our students read about policy decisions, they always read about it from a position of hindsight, whether that’s journalism or going out much further, historical accounts. So it’s hard to get into the head of like, how are the policymakers thinking about it at that particular time and realize just how difficult it is. You’re not thinking about it from here’s option A, which is great and here’s option B, which is not so great.

Cheryl Miller:

It’s more option A isn’t really terrible and option B is worse. So I think that’s really helpful. It sobers you up, gives you a sense of humility about what is possible and I think a little bit of empathy for policy makers while still having a sense of accountability. So that was one thing and I think it’s really helpful for young people to spend some time in government, whether that’s on the Hill, because unless you live it, you just can’t really know it. And then in terms of the Hertog Foundation, I think one thing I found in my career is that I do a lot of keeping all the plates spinning in the air. I’m trying to coordinate a lot all at one time and overseeing it. And there aren’t a lot of people actually with my particular skillset in DC, or fewer than you would expect, which is a lot of people, especially in the think tank world like to begin the world of ideas, thinking about stuff and then how you actually execute is an afterthought, but that means it’s really hard to get things going.

Cheryl Miller:

So I think if you are interested in getting to DC, realize that everyone has opinions and ideas of the way that things should be, but a skill that’s much in demand is somebody who is actually willing to get their hands dirty and get things done and execute on the plans. Then you can also be of course involved with coming up with the plan as well and have a big hand in that. So I think one thing that students should think about is a little bit of a no job too small attitude, because it can get you to bigger places than you might’ve expected.

Kevin Kosar:

Clearly you love your job at the Hertog Foundation, but what’s the toughest part of it? Is it keeping all the plates spinning? Is it trying to run a program in the middle of COVID-19 or is it something else?

Cheryl Miller:

Yeah. I’ve been thinking about this, which is my job is pretty awesome, so even the tough stuff is actually fun and interesting, a challenge that I always learn from. I think one thing that I’ve been really working hard on is figuring out what students want, what they’re most interested in. Also, how to reach students who don’t already have a taste or have had experience for the kind of learning that we do at the Hertog Foundation. We’re really lucky. We bring in lots of applications every year. We get to pick from a really highly qualified applicant pool. But I know that we’re missing students, that there are a lot of students who just haven’t had the experience of liberal education in the capacious way that we think about politics and how to find them. So that’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. People who aren’t already plugged into politics, but would benefit from this.

Cheryl Miller:

Because I think that’s just a huge pool of college students in America and how we find them is the big question. That’s probably one of the big questions that I keep noodling over and thinking about. I think the other thing is I’m starting to work on the grant making side with Mr. Hertog and he’s been in philanthropy for a very long time, which is great and has a very decided view about what he wants to do, what kind of projects he’d like to fund, his areas of interest. So I get to learn a lot from him and that’s great, but trying to find new and innovative projects again, that can actually get executed, because as I said, a lot of people have really great ideas, but then how do you get them going? So identifying those for him and helping him expand his philanthropy and find new worthwhile projects is also something, a big challenge that I’m about to embark on. But I’m looking forward to that part.

Kevin Kosar:

Let me ask my closing question, why public service?

Cheryl Miller:

So I think maybe this gets back to, again, coming full circle, which is one of the things that I really love about DC and I think my students are always particularly surprised to find out, which is one, there is a lot of exiles from academia here. People who like myself thought they were going to embark on an academic career and then realized for various reasons that that wasn’t going to work out and instead ended up working in policy maybe in fields that they hadn’t previously imagined for themselves. But that means that there is a way to stay seriously engaged with the world of ideas that’s not the academy, which is something that I just didn’t fully realize when I was an undergraduate or a young grad student starting out. That so many of the people you meet here, we bring a lot of really wonderful speakers to meet with our students.

Cheryl Miller:

And so many of them have had a liberal arts education and those books and ideas are really foundational to their way of thinking. One great example is Yuval Levin, a preeminent policy analyst, but so when he studied with Leon Kass, wonderful scholar at the University of Chicago, studied great books with him, and that really does influence the way he thinks. And this is true of policymakers higher up. We have had General Jim Mattis speak to our students before and hearing him talk about Thucydides and the things that he read as an undergraduate, and then later on just his outside reading to deepen his thinking, those things still really matter. So if that’s something that really you care deeply about, there is a way to continue following that passion. And there’s a lot of different ways to do it rather than the one set track that the university has to offer you.

Kevin Kosar:

Cheryl, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.

Cheryl Miller:

Absolutely. Thank you for having me, Kevin.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Why Public Service, a podcast of the R Street Institute. Please subscribe to the podcast and share it with your friends. Even better, rate and review us on iTunes so we can reach more listeners. Tell us what you thought about it and who we should interview next by finding us on Twitter @RSI. If you want to know more about R Street, sign up for our newsletters at www.rstreetorg. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. Thank you to producer William Gray and editor Parker Tent of parkerpodcasting.com.