“You can start tomorrow” were the words that Marshall Cobleigh spoke to me that kicked off my professional career as an intern in Congressman Bill Zeliff’s office in Washington, DC on October 1, 1991.
Marshall was an old-fashioned New Hampshire pol who had held many posts in that state, including Speaker of the House and governor’s chief of staff. On one occasion, he famously ran for Congress while touring the state with a pound of hamburger in an effort to highlight the substance of his economic message during the trying times of the late 1970’s. You might say he was a bit of a character.
I first met Marshall when I rather brazenly walked into Congressman Zeliff’s office, without an appointment, and announced to the receptionist that I wanted to talk with someone about a possible internship. At the time, I had been at American University for less than a month and was barely 18. But I knew I wanted to be involved in politics, not just in the classroom.
After a rather cursory interview that began with Marshall saying that they had just discussed starting an intern program that day at lunch, it concluded with that job offer. Talk about right place, right time.
As Legislative Director in Congressman Zeliff’s freshman office, Marshall put a lot of faith in all of the young people working for him. But to this day, I’m not sure what exactly it was that caused him to put his faith in me after less than 5 minutes of conversation. My first assignment that Tuesday afternoon was to write a 1 minute speech for Zeliff about passive loss rules (something I still only vaguely understand and couldn’t really comprehend as I wrote it). My recollection is that it was inserted into the Congressional Record without being read aloud (a common practice), but still it was a good feeling to have some sort of accomplishment on my first day — something far beyond the usual photocopying one might entrust to a very green college student.
For several years, I worked very closely with Marshall, often working with him to turn his ideas into something usable in a speech or letter. You see, Marshall wasn’t very fond of the “dumb terminals” we used in the office back then (we had no real computers back in 1991 in our office, just amber screened monitors with keyboards that talked back to a central computer). He was much more at home with pen and paper than with a keyboard. OK, that’s not exactly true either. Anyone who worked with him during that period will no doubt remember that some of his greatest work came in the form of vaguely legible notes scrawled on paper napkins from a nearby watering hold called Bullfeathers.
I would often sit with Marshall and work with him to type up his thoughts since passing around paper napkins isn’t the most effective communications technique — especially when they were out of order or perhaps one napkin was acciedentally deployed for its intended use!
It was during one of these writing sessions that I caught a big break that undoubtedly accelerated my career success. During the budget debates of the early Clinton Administration in 1993, Marshall came up with the idea of some simple spending cuts legislation that would enable Members of Congress to offer up amendments to pare back specific programs — something then (as now) was not easy to do, especially in the House where the rules are such that the minority is unable to offer many (or sometimes any) amendments.
Of course, this program needed a snappy moniker — something like his hamburger schtick from 1980. In this case, he decided to capitalize on the anything goes nature of the proposed process and the fact that the Congressman had a name starting with the letter Z. Hence, he decided it should be called “A to Z Spending Cuts.”
Alas, there was one problem. He needed an “A” to pair with Bill’s “Z.” And he wanted it to be a bipartisan effort. So out came the list of representatives to find a suitable person to approach. The best bet appeared to be Rob Andrews of New Jersey, so Marshall got Bill to arrange a meeting. Andrews immediately bought in and the plan was birthed.
Things started to happen very quickly at that point and Marshall wanted to get a “Dear Colleague” letter circulating quickly to get signatures from other members backing the plan. The legislative assistant in the office who would normally handle budget issues was out of the office for lunch, so Marshall asked me to help write it and get it launched. The lunch turned out to be an extended one, so I ended up helping to write the letter and start getting it circulated and promoted.
At that point, Marshall decided I could keep working on the issue — something very unusual for an intern, even one like me who was working well over 40 hours a week.
In the course of working with Marshall on A-Z, I got to meet many people who would be influential in my career growth. I had access to people and meetings that few interns would ever be a part of.
Later when I decided it was time to move on from Bill Zeliff’s office after 3 years, Marshall was extremely supportive. Throughout the time I worked with him he would always go out of his way to give me credit (often more than was due) for the work I did. He once even arranged for a local paper in New Hampshire to write about my work on a particular issue that I had been involved with for many years — before I even came to Washington.
Over the years, I saw him less and less, though I would occasionally run into him at various local political events or other activities. So I was surprised a few years ago when he published his memoirs and he singled out me and our office press secretary, Barbara Riley, for our work on A-Z. I was even more surprised, though, when Marshall sent me a nice note last fall after my grandfather died at the age of 100. The fact that he made the connection probably shouldn’t have surprised me since he had a knack for focusing on details like that.
During the past decade Marshall faced a number of health challenges, and sometimes when I saw him he was having better days than others. But he always demonstrated a passion for politics and a concern for others.
Marshall Cobleigh passed away this weekend at the age of 78, and he would no doubt have been pleased with the coverage of his life and career in New Hamphsire newspapers. If he could, he’d probably send out some nice notes acknowledging the stories.
I owe Marshall a debt of gratitude for jumpstarting my career and teaching me a lot about politics. Two of my colleagues from that first congressional office experience are now my very good friends and business partners in several ventures. And I still apply the lessons I learned in those first three years in the work I do today.