Hill Climbers: From Journalist to Press Secretary

Posted July 16, 2010 at 2:36pm

The storied engagement of political power couple John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier was said to take place in a cozy, romantic corner of Georgetown’s Martin’s Tavern; but it wasn’t the only relationship that got its prenuptial kick-start in wooden booth No. 3.

“My husband mentioned that he had a few places in mind for the proposal, but since I’m such a political junky, he chose there,” said Rebecca Neal, a former journalist and current aide to Sen. George Voinovich. “I wanted to be a reporter in Washington since I was very young. Then I accomplished my goal and had to think, ‘What’s next?'”
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What came next for the 26-year-old was a gig working for the Ohio Republican as deputy press secretary. Neal started in April after leaving Federal Times as a Congressional reporter. Prior to the Times, the Charleston, W.Va., native donned myriad hats at the Indianapolis Star working as an intern, general assignment reporter and night editor.

“I was a jack-of-all-trades there,” Neal said. “If anything happened in government, motor sports or disasters, I would cover it.”

Neal, who began working for the Star after her graduation from the University of Kentucky in 2005, cultivated her ability to summarize government and what it means to people. Although this skill is useful in her current role, she found that covering Congress for the Times was a completely different beast.

“You want to talk about a challenging job — I covered the fiscal 2009 and 2010 House and Senate appropriation cycles by myself!” said Neal, who was the only Congressional reporter during her two-year stint with the paper. “I would have killed for someone to help me, but I realized it was a great crash course in how the Hill works.”

Throughout her five-year career as a reporter, Neal, who majored in political science and journalism, has covered everything from the Indianapolis 500 to President Barack Obama’s inauguration. The most humbling experience, however, came when she was loaned out as a reporter for the Lafayette Daily Advertiser in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“People would run at me crying because they wanted news of what happened in their neighborhood,” Neal said. “They were completely cut off, and the newspaper was the only way they found out about anything.”

Neal stayed for nine days in a cramped, stuffy house in Lafayette, La., with 17 other reporters. She would drive to Baton Rouge every day, where she was responsible for daily news coverage and a miniseries of articles on the New Orleans cleanup effort. The National Guard took her on a helicopter tour over the city, which she said looked like a war zone.

“No matter what you see on TV, it was 100 times worse being there,” Neal said. “I remember the captain telling us to take a close look at the Superdome because we would never see it again. I still can’t eat seafood because we smelled so much of it rotting out in the sun.”

Although she mastered her longtime journalism goals, it was hard for Neal to grapple with incessant buyouts, layoffs and furloughs in the industry. She decided it was time to move on and try something else. After learning that Voinovich’s press secretary was leaving, she immediately became interested in the job.

“I could always count on Sen. Voinovich for a lively quote,” Neal said. “Anyone who knows him knows that he speaks his mind. The press office might not always like that, but as a reporter you do. I saw that he had passion and integrity — and a great sense of a humor.”

Neal was excited when she was granted a position with the Senator. She decided to draw on her experience working with press offices to aid her in her new role. For Neal, there wasn’t much of a job transition; she turned in her press badge on a Friday and picked up her new press secretary badge that Monday.

“While I’m not reporting anymore, I feel like I’m using the same set of skills, just on the other side,” Neal said.

Neal has been working for Voinovich’s office for three months, writing press releases, drafting columns and working with reporters. But her next big goal is to expand on speechwriting, which she has done four times already.

“I’ve always been a fan of things like ‘The West Wing,’ and I don’t know any person up here who’s not,” Neal said with a laugh. “You see the process they go through during speechwriting: Write the draft, crumple it up, throw it over your shoulder and start again. I get a kick out of it because it’s pretty accurate for my life now.”

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