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Five Questions with Commencement Speaker Ed O’Keefe

On May 21, SPA will welcome back 2020 and 2021 graduates for a special in-person commencement ceremony. President Burwell and other AU leaders will join SPA alumnus and CBS News Senior White House and Political Correspondent Ed O’Keefe, who will address the graduates at 10:00 AM. O’Keefe, who earned his BA in Interdisciplinary Studies: Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government (CLEG) in 2005, sat down with SPA to chat about the school, his career path, and current national challenges.

What skills or knowledge did you learn at SPA that prepared you for your career? What professors or courses made a particular impact?
I remember visiting AU as a high schooler and learning about CLEG. I thought to myself, ‘you're telling me I can learn about all four of these at the same time and walk away with that?’ It is like getting a major in how to work in politics. It gave an understanding of the basics of government, economics, and law, and how it all gets explained to people through political communication. Over time, it made clear to me that . . . I wanted to end up covering those things and not necessarily participating in them directly.

Richard Bennett taught my entry-level criminal justice courses, and I remember engaging courses with Steven Taylor and Gregg Ivers. Carol Whitney taught my public speaking class. My Political Science 101 class freshman year had a handful of people I still run into around town, either on the Hill or in journalism. I actually got my first internship through that first class, which made me realize that I didn't want to be in politics––I wanted to be in journalism. Yet that's part of the importance of these kinds of experiences, right? How to take what you've learned and then just adapt it to something else.

Why did you accept the invitation to speak at this special AU Commencement?
For one thing, I think it's important for AU students and parents to get a sense of how their hard work could pay off, to see somebody who's been down a similar path and where they've ended up. AU has plenty of these alums, here in D.C. or across the country, who are willing to come back and help students and parents realize that. But in my case, I've never really left town, and everything about what I do now and who I am is based on those four years, from the jobs I got right away to the girlfriend who became my wife.

Also, throughout the pandemic, I was concerned for how college kids were learning. Graduation is an accomplishment in itself; doing it in the midst of such an incredible and unexpected disruption, and not knowing week to week where and how and whether you're going to be able to learn, must have been a tremendous burden for them. Now, as they adjust to life after college, it's got to be just as daunting and scary. So, I want to come and say, ‘You know, this is a big accomplishment, and you're gonna help teach the rest of us how it can be done in this virtual way.’

In speaking with these graduates, I've learned that while they feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride, this may not be the typical joyful day, because there is sense of what they didn't get to do. They have also expressed a great appreciation for time, using time wisely, and taking advantage of what is in front of you. What I think is harder for them to appreciate right now, that they will come to understand over time, is that a lot of the adjusting and uncertainty will help them a lot in the coming years.

Can you share which journalists inspired you the most at the beginning of your career?
I can remember admiring Bob Schieffer when I was in college. That's kind of a cliche answer where I work, but it's also the truth. He’s an example of somebody who covered the four big beats in Washington: The White House, Congress, the State Department, and the Pentagon. And, like me, he started in newspapers before switching to television. Schieffer wasn't a flash-in-the-pan guy. He put in his time [across mediums], which is the kind of journalist I had emulated and still do. The fact that I then got to work with him was just an unexpected and great treat.

My other early inspiration was Tim Russert, another cliche answer for D.C. journalists of a certain age. When I was a student, he had just come from government and campaign work, but [adjusted] pretty seamlessly and became a reputable, serious journalist after a career in public service. I figured if he could do it, maybe it is doable.

You’ve covered some of the biggest political stories of the past century. What is the biggest story of the 2022 midterm elections? Which of the stories that you've covered are you most likely to write a book about when you retire?
Both parties are having an identity crisis. They're both led by older men who may not have a solid understanding of what members of their party really think and believe, sitting atop heaps of really ambitious people. In the next few years, they are in for some real transformational and generational change, for better or worse. As of now, I don't think either party's going to run away with the midterms in a dramatic fashion. We are still a 50/50 country. Neither party has been able to convince more Americans to come to their side. We think the results in November will continue to reflect that.

I’ve been doing campaigns and elections for a while, so there may be [a book] there. The other [possibility], which would make for a good academic or political science study, is whether and how we'd ever have a president who is Latino, and what that person would look like . . . As a Latino myself, I have always been naturally curious about [that]. . . It would certainly make for a great political textbook or political study; whether it would have mass appeal, I don't know, but I think people who study at SPA would appreciate it for sure.

Journalism has changed a lot over the course of your career, from print, to TV, to blogs and podcasts, and now social media, particularly Twitter. Do you have any thoughts on your experience with that transition, or what might come next?
I think the industry is adjusting to [consumers having] so many options: your audience is going to be probably narrower or smaller than you might have had a few years back. I think [that] will be a challenge from a business perspective. But for anyone who wants to be a straight journalist, as long as you keep to the fundamentals, you succeed, no matter the platform. You have to be good at writing. You have to be naturally curious. You've got to be able to call balls and strikes as an unbiased [observer], and not let the noise or criticism of social media distract from what ultimately is your job, to seek and report the truth. As long as you can do that, and find a place to do it, you'll be fine.

The days of any one program having 15 million viewers are pretty much over, and that's okay, because you may actually reach 15 million people in all, across TV, radio, streaming, and social media. It just won't all be at one time and through one device.

Final thoughts?
Whether it's been in the halls of the Capitol, at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, in newsrooms across the country, or in state capitals, you run into AU grads just about everywhere. Most of the ones I meet have gone through SPA, which is a sign that it's still a valuable experience in terms of power, influence, and the position that they want to be in. Good on SPA for that.