Cassandra Pye is a public affairs strategist who was the deputy chief of staff to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before taking part in a Zócalo panel discussion at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo district, titled “Is the Republican Party Dead?” she chatted in the green room about pop-up pools, pragmatic cars, and a book that’s worth re-reading every August.
Do you have a favorite 20th-century American writer?
Toni Morrison. She’s a spiritual writer. I read Song of Solomon before I read The Bluest Eye, and I’ve probably read it six or eight times, but the first time I read it, I re-read it, and that was probably the first time I’d done that with a novel. And as you probably know, you could read that book eight times and still find something that you didn’t know.
Is it still one of those books that you re-read every few years to kind of check in with yourself?
No, I have another one. Every August I read The Wedding by Dorothy West, a Harlem Renaissance writer. She wrote some short stories, started The Wedding in the forties but didn’t finish it until the eighties. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was her editor at Doubleday. She lived on Martha’s Vineyard and much of the story takes place there. But it also takes you back in a very lovely way to the beginnings of the black upper class in this country. I read it every August because the first page says something about a hot summer day in August, the day of the wedding. It’s really, truly one of the best stories you’ll ever read.
What kind of car do you drive?
A Volvo. I’m practical; I have four sons, so we had to drive cars that were safe. And I got in the habit of it. We’re either on our seventh or our eighth [Volvo]. Only one wreck.
What’s your profession in your next life?
Writer. Nonfiction. I would write and speak and coach.
Where and when did you learn to swim?
We just used to splash in the pop-up pool at Aunt Bea’s house, my mother’s sister. I didn’t have access to a lap pool or any of that, coming up. And I’m not a strong swimmer. I go out and play in the water.
Was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you or changed your life?
The first and most important answer is my mother, because my mother was a teacher for 30 years. She taught early childhood education in Baltimore. She had the most important impact on me. And then I had a group of teachers—I won’t list them all by name. But there was always a common theme, and that was that I was smart, and clearly could get the easy “B” [grade] without trying very hard. But why not push yourself and get the “A”? And there was Sister Carola in high school, but also a couple of college professors, who said, “If you apply and really push yourself you can get the ‘A,’ so why not do that?” Sister Carola taught Barbara Mikulski and taught Nancy Pelosi. Sister Carola used to tell me that I reminded her of Barbara Mikulski, which is funny because I’m a Republican.
If you could time travel anywhere, where would you go and when?
The American Revolution. I am fascinated with the Founding Fathers’ ability to form this thing that doesn’t seem, in spite of ourselves, to be destructible. I’m a serial watcher of John Adams; every Fourth of July I watch the series, since it came out. It captures a lot of the emotion and a lot of the rest of the story. But somebody had to be the strategist, somebody had to be sitting around thinking about some of this stuff. And I know some of it was John Locke, and people they had read. That thinking was out there, but they still had to kind of pick and choose. I get grief about this from my family and friends sometimes, because obviously slavery was left off the table, and that impacted a lot of people that look like me. But I’m still probably most fascinated with that era. [I would want to hear] those conversations that none of us will ever know about. I’m involved in politics, and I know those conversations take place, compromise and deals and those kinds of things. That’s what I would want to hear, the stuff that went on behind the scenes. Because that’s where the real action is.