Curt Viebranz is the president and CEO of Mount Vernon. (Chet Susslin)Treating George Washington's estate like a start-up.
When Curt Viebranz wakes up early to walk his dog, he often gets to experience a bit of what life at Mount Vernon was like when George Washington lived on the estate back in the 1700s. He'll greet the stonemasons repairing the north wall, or check in with the gardeners, before pausing to admire the leafy banks of the Potomac from the old mansion's piazza.
But behind the scenes, the estate would be all-but-unrecognizable to the first president, whose 283rd birthday the nation will honor this week. Indeed, the place feels more like a tech start-up, buzzing with innovation as Viebranz, 62, works to transform it from a historic home, privately owned and managed since 1853 by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, into a cutting-edge center for scholarship on Washington and the Revolutionary era.
When Viebranz took over as president and CEO of Mount Vernon in September 2012, the former Time Inc. and HBO executive had no experience in historic preservation or museum management. And although he has always liked history, he says, he had never been particularly attached to the Colonial era. When asked during the hiring process about Viebranz's expertise on the first president, he tells me, one of his references replied, "Well, I'd imagine you have a lot of Washington scholars at Mount Vernon."
Now, however, as we sit in his office, near a replica of Washington's desk from Federal Hall, Viebranz rattles off facts about the estate's former owner like a pro. One of his favorite tidbits, he says, comes from a letter the Founder sent his wife, Martha, while he was off fighting the Revolutionary War. "You think of Washington sort of being the man on the pedestal. Was he sensitive? Did he have feelings?" Viebranz says. "So we have this letter ... to Martha, and in the letter he said, 'I retain an unalterable affection for you which neither time nor distance will change.' "¦ It's an example of what he really was as a human being, not the man on the quarter or dollar bill."
The museum already had a full-time staff of 500 history lovers, however; what it needed was someone to bring it into the 21st century. Enter Viebranz, who brought with him decades of experience with digital media and Internet start-ups, and a vision of an institution that would reach new and diverse audiences. He has already made tangible progress on both fronts: The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, established to foster scholarship around the former president's life, was completed; it opened in October 2013, with noted colonial-era scholar Doug Bradburn in place as its executive director. The mansion's largest and most elegant room, known for its vibrant turquoise walls, has been reopened to the public after a 14-month restoration. The website has been overhauled, and traffic to it has tripled, Viebranz says. "When you come out here and see what's going," he tells me, "even those who sort of run in the fastest circles, friends of mine who come down from New York, they're, like, blown away: 'Wow, there's a lot going on here.' "
As the father of three college-aged kids, Viebranz says, he spends a lot of time thinking about how he and his institution can capture the attention and imaginations of younger people. "I like that idea of trying to understand the way the millennials and Gen-Xers are thinking, and how you make this message relevant to them," he says.
He wants to install wireless Internet around the estate so visitors can play with new apps his team is developing, including a spy app that would turn Mount Vernon into a treasure hunt for kids. He imagines updating the visitor center to make it more interactive, with touch pads and new videos. This summer, he is also launching a five-week fellows program for college students, centered on leadership lessons from Washington's life. Participants will learn about and discuss the first president — his character, his vision — and hear from guest speakers from both the public and private sectors.
One of the big questions Mount Vernon faced was whether younger generations would continue to visit if the estate remained simply a "shrine to Washington," he says. "What I say to everyone on the estate is, we want to make it a home and not a house." That means stepping away from the marble-bust version of Washington and painting an honest portrait. Try to control the message young people receive, he says, and "we're doomed to failure."
Viebranz says he also hopes that the space can become a retreat destination for public leaders, where they can debate current issues in the style of the Founders — or at least in one that's more reminiscent of the start-up culture he came from. "You study the founding — there was a lot of dissension, and there had to be compromise," he says.
— Laura Ryan
Brian McGuire is Sen. Mitch McConnell's new chief of staff. (Chet Susslin)Mitch McConnell's speechwriter becomes his chief of staff.
As a speechwriter for Sen. Mitch McConnell, Brian McGuire spent eight years penning addresses on everything from Syria to health care; he wrote more than 100 on Obamacare alone, he says. Doing his job well required him to get along with everyone in the office, and to know a little bit about everything, he tells me — perfect training for his new position as the chief of staff in the Kentucky Republican's personal office.
McGuire, 40, now oversees a staff of more than 20 people charged with serving McConnell's home-state constituents. He also acts as the main bridge between McConnell's Senate office and the majority leader's headquarters across the street. He hasn't had much time to reflect on how he got where he is, but he assures me that it wasn't part of some grand scheme: "I don't know whether it's more gratifying to have a job like this when you planned for it or when you haven't planned for it," he says.
McGuire grew up in Albany, New York, where his family shared a driveway with then-Gov. Mario Cuomo's chief of staff, but he wasn't a political junkie. He attended St. John's College in Annapolis, a small school with a curriculum focused on discussing the great writers in the Western canon. When he graduated, he pursued a master's degree — in philosophy. He says he turned to journalism after he realized he didn't want to teach. "Journalism allowed me to do the things I liked to do in college without being a professor," he explains.
After graduating from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, McGuire pictured himself writing for The Wall Street Journal. Instead, he landed in Schenectady, New York, writing about business for a small daily newspaper. In hindsight, he says, that job turned out to be crucial to his career, because it gave him the two skills that helped him thrive as one of McConnell's right-hand men: fearlessness in the face of deadlines and a healthy metabolism for new ideas. As a reporter, "you are just so accustomed about having to meet deadlines that when someone says they need a floor speech in two hours, your only thought is that you'll have to do this in the next two hours," he says. "You don't wring your hands, you just do it."
McGuire became interested in speechwriting after he moved to Washington in 2005 to cover the John Roberts Supreme Court nomination hearings for The New York Sun. McConnell brought him on board in 2006. The two men bonded over baseball, McGuire says — as well as their shared political views.
Although McGuire says he's more comfortable behind the scenes than in the spotlight, I note that he already appears to be at ease in his new role. Like a good chief of staff, he gives his boss the credit. "He's got great equanimity," McGuire says of McConnell. "When the person at the top is calm, it makes it easier for everybody else to be calm."
— Laura Ryan
Abigail Ross Hopper
Abigail Ross Hopper is the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for the Department of the Interior. (Chet Susslin)Oceans and Energy Management gets a new boss.
You're never not a lawyer once you've been one," Abigail Ross Hopper tells me when I meet her at her fifth-floor office at the Interior Department. "I still think in six-minute billing increments."
Last month, Hopper became the new director of the Bureau of Oceans and Energy Management, and it's not hard to see why she was tapped for a job that includes both putting out political fires and drawing up complex agreements. When the former divorce attorney is performing triage on the many demands she faces, she says, there are two operative calculations for her: Who's paying me to do this? and Is this a really good use of my time? "There are many things where I've said, if it takes more than five minutes to do it, don't do it."
Hopper's pragmatism is accompanied by tastes for efficiency and Dunkin Donuts coffee. (She has two large Dunkin Donuts mugs on the shelf above the photos of her kids and her wedding, and she owns a Dunkin Donuts hat.) She eschews gab, telling me that a lot of the position is simply "getting projects accomplished." For now, that means drafting and executing the agency's plan to sell leases for oil and gas development in federal waters from 2017 to 2022 — a matter that became more controversial just as she arrived, when the Interior Department announced its plan to open up vast swaths of the East Coast to oil and gas drilling while protecting parts of the Arctic.
The Prince George's County, Maryland, native, 43, comes from a family of public servants — her parents were both Clinton appointees, and her brother, Justin Ross, served for years as a delegate in the Maryland statehouse. But, at least initially, she didn't follow in their footsteps. "When I went to law school and joined a large law firm," Hopper recalls, "I was pretty sure my parents were going to be mad that I went to work for the private sector."
She worked for roughly a decade in divorce and corporate law, eventually specializing in merger and investment counseling. But after she had her third child, she says, her desire for a better "work-life balance" led her to a job as deputy general counsel to the Maryland Public Service Commission, a post that kick-started her career in government.
Hopper served as the director of the Maryland Energy Administration and as an energy adviser to then-Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley before jumping to the BOEM. The agency she now leads grew out of the Minerals Management Service, which was implicated in numerous scandals, most memorably the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill, after which its duties were divided among three new agencies: the BOEM, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue.
Has that background made gaining public trust a difficult part of her job? To Hopper, the past is, well, past. "We're all very clear about what our roles are," she says of her fellow directors, "and that's been a helpful outcome."
— Lucia Graves
Amanda Greenwold Wise
Amanda Greenwold Wise is the vice president and chief counsel for federal affairs for the American Insurance Association. (Chet Susslin)American Insurance Association
How does a onetime Latin American Studies master's student at UCLA — who wrote papers on topics such as Mesoamerican art, and the 18th-century Bourbon Reforms — become the vice president and chief counsel for federal affairs for the American Insurance Association? "Darned if I know," Amanda Greenwold Wise, 44, says with a laugh. After deciding that she would be "absolutely unemployable" if she stuck out her Ph.D., she headed to Yale Law School and eventually found her way to the General Counsel's office at the Treasury Department. There, she was assigned to help develop the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program — created after the September 11 attacks — and from then on, she was the office's de facto insurance expert, she says. This summer, Wise joined the AIA, where the Washington native lobbies on behalf of the insurance industry on issues including cybersecurity and tax policy.
— Laura Ryan
Massie Ritsch is the executive vice president of public affairs and engagement for Teach for America. (Chet Susslin)Teach for America
Teach for America is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and Massie Ritsch is in charge of spreading the word about the organization's achievements. "That's just a huge opportunity to reintroduce the organization to the country," says Ritsch, TFA's new head of engagement and public affairs. Previously, Ritsch, 38, a Virginia native, headed up communications for the Education Department, but his interest in schools and teaching was born out of his first love: reporting. After graduating from Princeton, Ritsch covered education for the Los Angeles Times, and in that job, he says, he saw firsthand the country's education-inequality problem. One day he might be writing about a classroom full of low-income students with an array of first languages, and the next, he'd be covering a private school that cost "about as much as the most expensive college" in the country. "You wonder what great students are left out" of our top universities, he says.
— Laura Ryan
Amelia Wang is the vice president of industry relations and government affairs for the National Music Publishers Association. (Chet Susslin)National Music Publishers Association
Amelia Wang recently returned from a whirlwind weekend attending Grammy events in Los Angeles. The highlight of her trip? Meeting songwriter BC Jean — who penned "If I Were a Boy" for Beyoncé — at the MusiCares dinner. "It's such a great song," Wang says. It's a fitting sentiment from the new vice president of industry relations and government affairs for the National Music Publishers Association, which represents the unsung heroes of the music industry: publishers and songwriters. Wang, 36, joined the group last month, after leaving her job as chief of staff to Rep. Judy Chu of California. The native Angelino says she always appreciated the music industry, but it wasn't until Chu was assigned to the Intellectual Property Subcommittee that Wang dove into the policies behind it. That experience should come in handy: Wang joins the NMPA as the music industry, tech industry, and Washington spar over the future of copyright law.
— Laura Ryan
AT THE BAR
Peter Miller is senior counsel at Crowell & Moring. (Chet Susslin)Crowell & Moring
Peter Miller loves social media as much as the next person, but he might be bit more attuned to the privacy trade-offs. He tells me he has learned through discussing the subject with friends that "we all have different tolerances for risk" — which seems like a very nice way of saying that some people's tolerance is perhaps a touch higher than it ought to be. The former chief privacy officer for the Federal Trade Commission is now grappling with questions of privacy and risk from a new perspective; the Santa Fe, New Mexico, native recently joined Crowell & Moring as senior counsel, where he'll use his knowledge to advise clients — mostly Fortune 500 companies — on consumer protection issues such as privacy and data security. Miller, 53, worked at the FTC in three different capacities before heading to the private sector. When I ask him why he made the move last month, he says simply, "I'm a big fan of hitting the reset button from time to time."
— Lucia Graves
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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