A Front-Row Seat to History

By Julia Munemo

In 2008, while working at Goldman Sachs, Alan Fitts ’00 began volunteering on the nascent presidential campaign to elect Barack Obama. As the campaign gained steam, Fitts left Wall Street to become a full-time member of the senator’s advance team. He traveled through more than 25 states over the course of the campaign, doing everything from handing out tickets to campaign events to booking venues and stage-managing.

But even after he spent election night in the Obama family tent in Grant Park, he was surprised to get a call asking if he’d like to move to Washington to work at the White House as Michelle Obama’s trip director. “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says.

Alan Fitts ’00, center, briefs Mrs. Obama and staff.

Fitts has since held several roles in the Obama administration, but he says his first job in the White House holds a special place in his heart. He describes his role as a de facto traveling chief of staff. “I was with the First Lady for all events, whether they were in the White House, in Washington, or when she traveled.” As her main point of contact for logistics, briefings, and security, Fitts was responsible for making sure Mrs. Obama knew where she was going, why she was going there, who she was talking to, what she was saying, and where the cameras were.

Fitts traveled to over 30 nations and spent 50 weeks a year with the First Family. He got to roam many great halls of power, accompanying trips to the Kremlin, the Vatican, and Buckingham Palace. And, he says, “I got to know the First Family on a deeper level.” Many of his favorite memories involve the Obamas’ daughters, who often accompanied the First Lady on trips and were frequent visitors to the East Wing. He even took Sasha and Malia trick-or-treating several years—Fitts dressed up as Big Bird, a pirate, and Elvis to accompany the girls. “They are a fabulous family—incredibly close-knit, loving, and genuine—and I felt lucky to play a part in their lives.”

Fitts didn’t want to give up his role working for Mrs. Obama, but when the reelection campaign began in earnest in early 2012, he had a choice to make. “Because First Lady is a role, not a job, her staff—who are paid with taxpayer dollars—can’t work on campaign events,” Fitts explains. If he remained at the White House, he would have had to spend the 2012 campaign at his desk.

So, with the First Lady’s blessing, he moved to Charlotte, N.C., to become the director of stadium operations at the Democratic National Convention. Months later, he was one of a few staffers invited to spend election night with the Obama family as the results came in. “After the election was called, the president came around to each of us and thanked us for our help,” Fitts says. “It was an incredibly emotional moment for me.”

In Obama’s second term, Fitts started out as the White House liaison to the State Department, overseeing the transition between Secretary Hillary Clinton and Secretary John Kerry. One of his roles was to introduce new U.S. ambassadors to the White House, when, he says, “I gave them a who’s who of the administration and introduced them to the folks they would need to know to get things done.”

When Fitts met with Jane Hartley, the new U.S. Ambassador to France, she asked if he would come to Paris to serve as her senior adviser. But, he says, “part of the deal was that I would still travel with the First Lady when needed.” Roughly twice a year, Fitts returns to his role at Mrs. Obama’s side.

On Nov. 13, 2015, Fitts arrived in Normandy for a weekend away when multiple terrorist attacks rocked Paris and his phone started to ring. He got back on the road and—with all the embassy staff—spent the weekend at work. “It was a massive communications effort,” he says now. “I was at the nexus of different lines of communication, between the State Department, the White House, and various contacts in the media world. We were all trying to figure out what had happened, determine the whereabouts of Americans in France, and lend our support to France.”

After the initial crisis, Fitts’ attention turned to the changes they would need to implement for the upcoming Climate Change Summit, which he’d been helping to plan for months. “Many wondered if it would be canceled, but ultimately the French were resolute that the event take place—it was just too important,” Fitts says. President Obama helped kick off the summit, which ultimately ended with a signed international accord.

Fitts will soon have to figure out his next move. As a presidential appointee, he’ll be out of a job come Jan. 20, 2017, when a new president is sworn in. “I don’t think I’ll be returning to investment banking,” says Fitts, who was a Chinese major at Williams. “But I don’t know the next step yet. This path has been entirely unexpected, but at each turn, amazing opportunities have presented themselves. I’ve been very fortunate.”