Dee Dee Myers on Hollywood, the White House, and having it all
FORTUNE — Dee Dee Myers, best known for her stint as press secretary under president Bill Clinton, announced on Wednesday that she will become executive vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Warner Bros., replacing longtime executive Sue Fleishman. While Washington, D.C. to Hollywood is not the most obvious career path, the political consultant is no stranger to the world of entertainment. After leaving the Clinton Administration, she co-hosted a show on CNBC and advised writer Aaron Sorkin for the White House political drama The West Wing. Yet as Myers moves from Washington to the West Coast for work, she may find her real-life experience in the Oval Office to be more useful than her time in television.
Fortune spoke with Myers about her transition. From dealing with stern phone calls from Alan Greenspan to constantly working through high-stake situations, Myers explains how she plans to use her White House experiences to deal with the pressures of her new role in California. Edited excerpts:
What lessons from working at the White House will you bring to your new role at Warner Bros.?
I sometimes think about my time at the White House as a Ph.D. in crisis. While the businesses of politics and entertainment are different, there is certainly overlap in the culture and in the issues and complexity. There are some transferable skills, but I have a lot to learn. My experience at the White House and in politics more broadly as a consultant over the years has given me a range of experience in the media environment where you have complex issues with a lot of stakeholders with a vigilant press corps and things move fast. I certainly know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a lot of attention when things aren’t going well. I certainly have lived through that more than a couple of times, and you learn what the rhythm of it is and how to keep your head a little bit.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as the first woman to serve as White House press secretary?
There were some challenges related to the fact that I was female and relatively young. 21½ years ago there were just fewer women [in politics], and I was the first woman [press secretary], so I think there is just more scrutiny toward the first anything in a visible job like that. People were not used to seeing someone that looked quite like me standing at the White House podium. Establishing your authority as someone who doesn’t look like the guys that came before was definitely challenging.
There were also the challenges of the job. There is a tremendous amount of issues, the president’s portfolio is always so broad, and there is always something happening. There is always some piece of it that is moving really fast. There was a broad range of complex issues, and of course the stakes were high. There was more than once that I finished a briefing and I’d get a phone call from Alan Greenspan unhappy that I said something that got too close to monetary policy.
You were the inspiration for the White House press secretary role on The West Wing. Are their any fictional figures in popular media today that you aspire to resemble in your new role?
Not that I know of yet, but fictional characters can be great role models. Seeing women succeed in challenging positions in both real life and sometimes in fiction I think is great. C.J. [the character played by Allison Janney on The West Wing] and I had a lot in common in the beginning, but she went on to be a successful White House chief of staff. The writers created a great storyline for her, and it was great to see. She rose up and got herself to the top, and everybody thought that she earned it when she got there, and that is a great story.
What was your biggest missed opportunity in your career?
I passed up an opportunity to be a consultant on the movie Primary Colors with John Travolta playing Bill Clinton. I wish I had done it, I loved the film, [director] Mike Nichols is a legend. I am sure that there were decisions I could have made better that would have taken me in a different direction, but I feel very fortunate that I had a career that I found interesting and challenging. Despite the mistakes I made along the way, which are substantial, I had opportunities to continue to do interesting things with interesting people. I wasn’t looking for this opportunity with Warner Bros., but I thought it was a great opportunity to do something different, but also build on the skills I have been working on for my entire career.
Your husband is still working for Vanity Fair, and you still have two young children at home. What’s your take on the “having it all” debate?
No one can have it all. Any woman or man in the throes of a career with kids at home will tell you, nobody has it all. One of the things that has been accidental is that my husband [editor and writer Todd Purdum] doesn’t travel as much for his job which gives me flexibility to travel more. When I have been busier he has stepped up, and when he has been busier I have stepped up. For him to be at [his previous role at] the New York Times at a daily job covering the White House and for me to work at Warner Bros., that would have been impossible for us. Our family comes first. When [the children] were younger, I worked from home for a lot of years. They are 10 and 14 now, and it is much easier than it was 10 years ago. My career has had chapters, and my husband’s career has had chapters, and we have figured out ways to mesh those in a way that has mostly worked. Sometimes it has worked more smoothly than others. We certainly don’t think we have it all. Taking a moment to be grateful in spite of the challenges can be helpful.
What do you think of all the buzz surrounding Chelsea’s pregnancy affecting Hillary’s potential bid for office in 2016?
I am thrilled for Chelsea and Marc. There is no more joyous occasion than the birth of a baby. I am thrilled for Hillary. She has been hoping for this quietly for years. Every president of a certain age has grandchildren, and no one asks [this question]. I am just not sure that it is a question that would obsess the political world if Hillary Clinton were a man.
What is the best advice you ever received?
By advice and by example, [I learned] setbacks are a part of success. Not everything you do or try is going to be perfect. The most important thing is that when things don’t go the way you want, you pick back up and try again. That is something I try to communicate particularly to young women. I think women take the setbacks a little harder than men at times. I encourage young women to read biographies of people they admire because you don’t have to look too closely to see where they messed up. The defining characteristic of people who stand out is their resilience. Take more risks. Warner Bros. is a bit of risk. I worked on so many losing campaigns when I was young. Know that you are going to be okay, and don’t worry too much on trying to control the future.
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