Attorney Cory Todd Wilson has returned from a year he will never forget. He had the privilege of seeing the United States government from the inside, was able to ask questions of world leaders and be a part of policy discussions, and visited 17 states and four continents as part of the prestigious White House Fellows program. “It was quite a year; the biggest year of growth I’ve had since law school,” he said. “I will forever be indebted to the program and will recruit for it. It’s good for people from Mississippi and the South to do it.”
Wilson, who practices with Bradley Arant Rose & White’s litigation and appellate practice groups, was assigned to the Department of Defense as a special assistant to Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He arrived in D.C. three days before Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi last year and got a bird’s eye view of destruction and the national response. As a lawyer, he worked on hearings relating to the storm.
“In some fashion, we all worked on the hurricane, but I saw it from the vantage point of the secretary’s office,” he said. “One of our three policy trips was to Mississippi. It was providential. We took a helicopter ride over the area and it was devastating. It really hit home all the reasons why we serve our country. Unfortunately, my home area was the place we studied.”
The post-Katrina trip to Mississippi was personal to Wilson, a native of Moss Point on the Gulf Coast. “It means a lot more when it’s your state and home area they’re talking about. I have family and friends who lost everything. It was a huge deal,” he said. “I was proud to be from Mississippi.”
The 36-year-old says he got to study leadership in action at all levels, including the differences between the hurricane recovery response in Mississippi and Louisiana. “I was so proud of our state,” he said. “The others in the program were really impressed with our sense of community and attitude of ‘we’re getting it done’.”
That pride of Mississippi was the main reason Wilson and his family wanted to come back. “I was asked how we could come back after a year in the excitement of the big city, but I said how can I not?” he said. “The rest of the country was able to see our leadership and we stack up to everyone.”
One of 12 White House Fellows chosen from hundreds of applicants through a long, rigorous process, Wilson recalls several high points of the year of service. The hurricane trip was one. Another was a trip to North Africa and Italy with Sec. Rumsfeld when they stopped at an American cemetery in Tunisia.
“It was a classic moment of white crosses stretching out before me as I thought about the beauty of America and why we went there,” he said. “We were in a Muslim country with a Christian hymn playing on the loudspeaker. It gave me a perspective of the greatness of America and I’ll never forget that.”
Another stellar event was meeting with President Bush in January. “I got some idea of the burdens of the job, the vision he has and the hard work involved,” Wilson said. “He has all the constraints of a 24-hour day like we all do.”
Seeing the nation’s men and women in uniform made a lasting impression on Wilson, too. “I watched them in action; their commitment and many of them are young kids,” he said. “It was humbling to me and they’ll always be heroes to me.”
An international trip to five countries in Latin America was also an eye opener for Wilson. “We studied general policy areas, how we relate to each country and our perception abroad,” he said. “We met with speakers and various government officials.”
The policy trips and the work in Washington gave the White House Fellows the opportunity to see the fast-paced way senior leaders live their lives. “The big lesson of the year is that they’re all human beings who’re called on to do big jobs,” Wilson said. “I saw people working 12- and 14-hour days. Now I have a better idea of what their lives are like.”
Domestic trips included visits to Boston, San Diego, Los Angeles, New York City, West Point Military Academy and Alaska for looks at different issues. In Alaska, for example, where global warming is being felt more severely, energy policies are a big issue along with native tribes’ relationship to government.
Wilson says he will now look at law practice differently and with a broader perspective. “I will relate to clients and their business practices differently,” he said. “I had exposure to how leaders and executives need lawyers to solve problems. It’s an uplifting thing to see that the system and the fairness designed into it still work. I saw people have access to government and that hammered home the genius of the government we have.”
Although Wilson went to Washington as a Republican and returned a Republican, he feels the country should get away from partisanship. “That’s happening now but the bad things get all the headlines,” he said. “We have a lot of serious problems and those of us as Fellows had a year to look at it without a ‘D’ or ‘R’ by our names. The year definitely made me more aware of other issues, although my core values didn’t change. We have the best government in the world and overall our system works.”
It was also a year of personal growth for Wilson and his wife, Stephanie. Along with their two-year-old son, Webb, they lived the city life, taking the metro and visiting museums and tourist attractions region. They got to do many things, including trips to Mount Vernon and Gettysburg.
“It was good and it’s hard to process the year,” he says. “It was so rich.”
Wilson is settling back into a routine at the law firm where he focuses on the areas of complex business and commercial litigation, antitrust, white collar and direct insurance litigation. The graduate of the University of Mississippi and Yale Law School was admitted to the Mississippi Bar in 1995.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.