Washington Whirl William Clyburn, legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb,.wasn't hired as a "yes man' By Tom Nugent
lumnus William Clyburn Jr., has had some "obstacles" to overcome en route to his current post as a top legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va., but one of the most memorable was his introduction to William "The Refrigerator" Perry. It happened in the summer of 1980, when Clyburn—then a freshman at Aiken (S.C.) Senior High School—showed up for his first day of football practice. "I weighed exactly 113 pounds," the affable and easygoing senatorial assistant recalls, "and Mr. Perry [later a star lineman for the Chicago Bears] weighed about 290. And there was one other difference between us: Perry was faster than I was." He paused for a moment, remembering how The Fridge flattened him during the practice session, leaving him "looking up at the blue sky." The 30-year-old attorney then breaks into his signature laugh: a mellow baritone, the mirth of a man who has learned to roll with the punches, political or otherwise. "You don't need a Georgia Tech engineering degree to understand what happens when 290 pounds hits 113." As commerce counsel to Robb, Virginia's two-term junior senator (who gained national fame nearly three decades ago when he married President Lyndon B. Johnson's daughter, Lynda Bird), Clyburn, CerE '89, has grown accustomed to "overcoming obstacles" and "facing up to challenges." He zooms through a daily 12-hour work schedule that would leave even
GEORGIA TECH • Fall 1996
Congressional Aide William Clyburn tackles Capitol Hill's 'grunt work' with confidence and a sense of humor.
The Fridge gasping for breath. For Clyburn, who lives in a "bachelor pad" near Capitol Hill and loves the "Washington social whirl," the concept of public service began at Georgia Tech, during his days as an Omega Psi Phi fraternity Big Brother volunteer in the innercity Techwood neighborhood. "Many of the kids in Techwood didn't have the same things we had growing up," Clyburn recalls. "I did my best to inspire them. I told them they could accomplish their dreams—and you should have seen their faces light up." Armed with both his Georgia Tech degree and a law degree from the University of South Carolina, Clyburn has spent the past three years zipping around Capitol Hill, where he is charged with keeping his senator up to speed on all matters affecting commerce. Whether he's doing legal research on a new bill designed to tighten regulations in the trucking industry (a recent assignment), sitting down with Robb to outline
the possible implications of a new tariff measure, or meeting with a peeved lobbyist, Clyburn walks the taut political highwire that is life on Capitol Hill for a legislative assistant. Like the hundreds of Congressional aides who do most of the daily "grunt work" on The Hill, the gregarious Clyburn must "keep a hundred different things going at once." Clyburn doesn't feel intimidated, and he doesn't worry about disagreeing with his boss. "Senator Robb did not hire me as a 'yes man,'" Clyburn says. "I just tell it like it is, and let the chips fall where they may. After all, he's the elected official who must make the decisions. My job is to give him the facts, period." Wearing a swirly-patterned tie and glittering silver suspenders, Clyburn exudes self-confidence. But should he ever feel overwhelmed, he has some resources on which to draw: "I am the son of Bill and Beverly Clyburn [two highly regarded teachers in Aiken]. And No. 2,1 did graduate from Georgia Tech. And No. 3,1 say my prayers every night, and I ask for help." He breaks into laughter again. It is easy to see that Clyburn loves his job. "It's very meaningful work. I'm doing my best each day to help Senator Robb represent the people of Virginia and the people of the United States to the very best of his ability. We've got enormous problems in this country, and this is the best way I can find to help." GT Tom Nugent is a Washington-based freelance writer.