July 14, 2020
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Christian Brose '02 served as a speechwriter to Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the Bush administration, then helped to relaunch Foreign Policy magazine, writing for the journal until joining Senator John McCain's staff as his national security advisor. In an interview, he offered some insights about those multiple perspectives.
What were the most striking differences in moving from the executive to the legislative branch?
They work so differently. The Department of State does more direct things—commands embassies, conducts diplomacy, controls the pieces on the board. In Congress, the work is more indirect. We shape the boundaries for the executive branch and then "advise and consent" in their actions. The legislature's work is always, by necessity, more collaborative, building coalitions to get legislation passed.
How does the atmosphere in the Senate compare with the Department of State?
When you walk into the Senate, there's a lot of activity, it feels more energetic and entrepreneurial. The average staffer is in his or her twenties. The State Department, not so much. It is more bureaucratic—necessarily so, because it takes a lot of staff to execute foreign policy.
I'm struck every day that I'm the only one on Senator McCain's immediate personal staff solely responsible for advising him on foreign policy. That goes for the places that are in the headlines—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan—and also for places not often in the headlines, like Burma or Sri Lanka. It's just me advising the Senator on all of this, whereas the Department of State has entire bureaus, dozens and dozens of staff, that advise the Secretary of State on any of these issues. It's extremely humbling for me.
What's the pace like?
In the State Department, you're responding to events in the world in a much more direct way, so the pace and pressure are pretty much constant. But there's a cycle to events in the Congress that revolve around the budget process, so there's more of a predictable rhythm to the year. But of course, it is still a co-equal branch of government, so there are always issues popping up that need to be addressed.
Has anything surprised you in your move to the Senate?
An acute difference: Every member of the Congress has been elected, and you're reminded that every decision made in this country is a political decision. Secretaries of State don't have to stand directly before voters. Policy has real-world implications, but as a speechwriter in the State Department, you are more removed from the horse-trading and pushing and shoving that makes legislation happen. In Congress, policy and politics come together much more viscerally.
At State, I was socked away in my office writing speeches most of the time. My job now is more collaborative. I work constantly with far more people. Now it's much more trying to shape and influence the behavior of an executive branch that's governed by the leader of the other party.
When you worked at Foreign Policy, what were the pleasures and challenges of writing in your own voice after writing in someone else's?
At Foreign Policy, I had the chance to make a little more public name for myself. I could write the way I enjoy, try to be funnier, sarcastic at times, and make my own points in my own way. It was fun, exciting, a nice change. Along with that freedom, though, there's more pressure. You own what you write under your own byline. When you're writing a speech for someone else, no matter how much influence you may have or advice you may give, it's theirs. At the end of the day, it's under their name.