News & Politics

What Made Me: Alice Rivlin

The former White House budget director on discovering how to shape opinion.

“My mother and her friends showed me you can make a difference not just locally but globally.” Photograph by Tim Coburn.

Early influence: When I was growing up in Indiana in the ’40s, my mother and her friends closed down the segregated elementary school in Bloomington and desegregated the city’s pools. She showed you can make a difference not just locally but globally.

Teachable moment: Enthusiasm about a subject is what good teaching is all about. I was home one summer from Bryn Mawr and decided to take an economics class at Indiana University taught by Reuben Zubrow. He was very exciting. That got me started.

Crucial call: In creating the Congressional Budget Office in the mid-’70s, I knew that the biggest challenge was establishing its credibility. My most important decision was that we would never offer recommendations, only analysis and options. That way, we would never be suspected of favoring one party or the other.

Reframing read: Daniel Yankelovich’s 1991 book, Coming to Public Judgment, changed the way I thought about how public opinion is formed. He showed that our collective judgment changes over time, as we’ve seen on issues such as race and gay marriage.

Best advice: I was chatting with Warren Buffett in Don Graham’s living room when we were both on the Washington Post board. He said: “I’ve often been sorry that I didn’t speak up; I’ve never been sorry that I did.”

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.