Statement by John D. Podesta
I have been working in political campaigns for a very long time. And it’s a funny thing about presidential campaigns, in particular, that the intensity, the insanity and the stakes seem to be just the right crucible for forging lifelong friendships. That was certainly true for me and Eli Segal.
Our paths crossed a few times during the late 1960s, but I really got to know and admire Eli during the McGovern presidential campaign when I worked for him during the California primary. When Eli spoke, his self-effacing but serious and direct nature had a way of convincing all the young staff in the campaign, including me, that the cause was worth the candle and that we might actually win with hard work and dedication alone. More than that, he convinced us that we could shape the course of our country if we stayed true to our convictions and fought for public policies that reflected them. And for the next 34 years, I had the pleasure of watching him do the same for thousands of other young Americans.
Eli helped steer one of our generation, and one of our friends from those days, Bill Clinton, into the White House. He was one of the Clinton administration’s most important, intelligent and accomplished advisors. He almost single-handedly crafted legislation, oversaw its passage and then ran the Corporation for National and Community Service and its flagship program AmeriCorps. Today, thanks to Eli’s vision, commitment and heart — over 400,000 volunteers have served their communities through AmeriCorps by tutoring kids, building new homes, aiding victims of domestic violence and responding to natural disasters.
We will miss Eli, but his passion for making the world a better place lives on in all of those young people he so inspired.
Statement by Robert Gordon
I first met Eli in Little Rock in 1992, when he was the Clinton campaign’s chief of staff and I was a grunt. Eli learned the grunts’ names. He said hello in the hallways. When we stayed up all night and he ran into us at 6 a.m., he said thank you. Candidate Clinton would tell the country that, “We are all in this together.” Eli made sure the staff felt exactly the same way.
In 1993, I went to work for Eli on the President’s national service initiative. Eli was the perfect person for that job. He could be in a meeting with a big shot and turn to a kid and say, “What do you think?” Partly this was because the subject was service, but mostly it was because of Eli’s character. Eli was a leader who listened to young people and loved them. And he was so comfortable with himself that he never had to lord his authority or success over anyone.
In later years, Eli remained a trusted advisor not just to the President of the United States but also to dozens of young people who worked with him on national service. Like the rest of us, I would periodically call him for advice. He would get on the phone and let me know how happy he was to hear from me. And then when I asked about a decision, he would offer such insights – not about what the world would say, but about what made sense given who I was. The group of us who worked with Eli back then have gone our separate ways; we now include writers and rock musicians, law professors and law partners, service stars and policy wonks. But we remain bonded by those wonderful years.
Eli loved to tell a handful of stories. Like any good politician, he told them too often. One of those stories came from Fannie Lou Hamer. It went something like this: A teenager who thought he was very smart wanted to embarrass an old lady. So he grabbed a little bird and held it behind his back. And he said to her, “Is this bird alive or dead?” If she said the bird was dead, he planned to let it go. If she said the bird was alive, he planned to crush it. Either way, he’d make a fool of her.
So he asked his question. And she said, “It’s in your hands.”
When Eli Segal held the world in his hands, he enabled thousands of Americans to serve our country and helped thousands more achieve the dignity of work. He helped win a presidential election and had a fine time losing a whole lot more. And he was a wonderful leader, mentor, and friend. He led a life that lives on.
Please join the family and friends of Eli Segal at a memorial service in Washington, DC this Sunday, April 9th at 11:00am in the Lisner Auditorium at 721 21st St NW (on the campus of George Washington University).