Yesterday at the Summit Club, Tucker Eskew spoke to a luncheon meeting of the local chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. (And OMG, I just committed one of the cardinal sins of Newswriting 101. I just wrote what is termed a “The Ladies Auxiliary met on Wednesday” lede! Which is to say, a lede that tells you a scheduled event occurred, but doesn’t tell you what happened, or why you should care. Well, so what? I don’t have an editor or anyone else to get on me about it. Perhaps you’ve noticed.)
The first thing that interested me about this was how many former staffers from The State were there — Michael Sponhour, Jan Easterling, Jeff Stensland, Preston McLaurin and others, all there to represent their various clients. It was Old Home Week. And I think I was a bit of a curiosity at the gathering, because it was the first time many of them had seen me NOT as an editor at the paper. But perhaps I’m just thinking of myself as the center of the universe again. My wife says I do that.
Anyway, the interesting thing was hearing Tucker ramble about his experiences with the politicos he’s worked for. Some of it was familiar ground — stuff I lived through as well, but experiencing it from a different vantage point — but other parts told me something new. In case you don’t know Tucker, here’s the promo the IABC put out before the event:
High-stakes strategist and high-visibility spokesman Tucker Eskew will share some stories and lessons from his time in the South Carolina State House, the White House, No. 10 Downing Street and his consulting firm, Vianovo. Tucker is a spokesman and strategist whose career began with Ronald Reagan, Lee Atwater and Carroll Campbell. It then continued with George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. Drawing on these experiences, Tucker will reflect on the statecraft and stagecraft he’s witnessed and practiced over 25 years as a communicator. Register now for this inside look into the politics of media and communications from a man who’s been there and done that.
Tucker has come a long way since he was that punk kid we had to joust with when I headed the governmental affairs staff (10 reporters, back in the day) at The State and he was Carroll Campbell’s press secretary. He’s been behind the scenes at a number of interesting moments in history, and I enjoyed hearing his stories about:
His biggest mistake ever. This one made me smile, because it had nothing to do with handling Sarah Palin or anything you might expect. It was when we caught him, the governor’s press secretary, parking in a handicapped space in front of the Capitol Newsstand on Sunday mornings to pick up the papers. As he noted, the item ran in the “Earsay” column, a feature I started as a place to put all those interesting tidbits that reporters always avidly told their colleagues when they got back to the newsroom, but seldom got around to writing for the paper.
The BMW announcement. Probably the high point of the Campbell administration. Tucker sort of lost his temper at the time with reporters who reported cautiously on the announcement rather than playing it as being as big as it would eventually be — reporting just the initial employment, for instance, instead of the likely (and the predictions were borne out over time) economic impact over the long run. Of course, the reporters were just being the kind of healthy skeptics they were trained to be, in keeping with the rule, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” I mean, you certainly don’t give her any points from promising to love you at some point in the misty future. I got the sense Tucker understands that now. But he also takes satisfaction in knowing that BMW was as big a BFD as he maintained at the time.
Then and now. The hardest part of his job in the days before the BMW announcement was keeping the lid on the deal until it could be completed. He said he learned to say “no comment” 150 ways. When it was all done and he met the head guy from BWM, the German said, “So you’re the man who says nothing so much.” He urged us to remember that “This was an era when newspapers were large, well-staffed and aggressive.” That was indeed a long time ago.
The 2000 South Carolina Presidential Primary. This is the one part of his speech I had a real beef with. At some point — I didn’t write down the exact quote — he said something about being proud of the Bush victory. McCain supporter that I was, I would have found such pride distinctly out of place. Tucker had been on the Bush team so long — Campbell had been instrumental in getting Bush pere elected in 1988 — that he could see it no other way, I suppose.
The Long Count in Florida. At the point at which the campaign should have been done, he was asked to pack his bags to spend two or three days in Palm Beach. A week later, his wife mailed him a full suitcase. This was shortly after they had had a baby, and as he and an expectant world stood on one side of a glass wall looking into a room where the chads were being counted and obsessed over, it struck him how like standing outside the hospital nursery the experience was. And all he could think was, “That was one ugly baby” he was looking at in Palm Beach.
September 11, 2001. He was working in the White House press office. As everyone was still reeling from the impact of the first three planes, Whit Ayres called to ask him if he was all right. Sure I am, he said. Ayres said that on TV it looked like his building (the Eisenhower Office Building) was on fire. That was an optical illusion caused by the angle from which a network camera located downtown was shooting the smoke rising from the Pentagon. At around that time, some staffers asked whether they were supposed to be evacuating the building. No sooner had he said “no” than alarms went off. Everyone had been trained to walk, not run, to the exits in an emergency. So they were particularly alarmed to see and hear Secret Service agents yelling at women — including nice, soft-spoken women from South Carolina — to “Take off your shoes and RUN!” That’s because the agents had heard there was another plane headed toward them. Later in the day, he would advocate for the president to come back to the House and be seen leading. And he would write some of the first words released publicly from the administration, by Karen Hughes.
The great missed opportunity. He spoke of how writers right after 9/11 were hailing “the end of irony and cynicism.” Of course, it was just a pause before intensifying, as the partisan bitterness from both sides later exceeded our worst imaginings.
London during the media blitz. It was decided that in the War on Terror, London was the world media center, particularly for the Arabic press. So Tucker was sent there to represent the administration in liaison with Tony Blair’s staff at No. 10. He said it was “the most corrosive, cynical media environment that I’d ever been exposed to.” And he had thought we were bad back in Columbia. At least we didn’t Photoshop pictures of his boss with blood dripping from his fangs. (Tucker urged us to read Tony Blair’s new book. I certainly will, since I just asked for and got it for my birthday.)
Sarah Palin on SNL — In 2008, he was sent from the McCain campaign to become one of the handlers of someone he had known nothing about — the surprise running mate. A high point of that experience was accompanying her backstage when she went on “Saturday Night Live” — something Tucker had urged her to do. He actually had fun for once. But there was work to do as well. He had a role in nixing some bits of the script, such as a line that rhymed “filth” with “MILF.” And the bit that had McCain being “hot for teacher.”
South Carolina’s national image. “We were a shiny piece of trash on the side of the road for awhile,” he said of our time in the “Daily Show” limelight, but he thinks our image is better now. Nevertheless, he knows that South Carolina business people and others who have to travel outside the state pick up on a distinct impression of South Carolina, and “it’s not a good impression.” Someone had asked him whether we just had too many “characters.” He suggested that “it’s not about the characters, but it is about character.” After all, Thurmond and Hollings managed to be characters without reflecting too badly on our state’s character. That is less the case today.
Back in the day, Tucker used to get on my nerves, mostly because he advocated so tenaciously for his boss, whom at the time I saw as more of a partisan warrior than a guy interested in governing. (This was due in part to the fact that he was building his party, and doing so quite successfully. I kept comparing him unfavorably to Lamar Alexander, whom I had covered in Tennessee. Alexander had worked with Democratic lawmakers as full partners and accomplished a lot as a result. Campbell had more of an in-your-face style, doing such things as holding press conferences to rub it in when a Democratic lawmaker switched parties.) Now, I look back on the Campbell administration as halcyon days, a time when a real governor got things done, a state of affairs we haven’t been so fortunate to experience since.
Time matures our perspective. And it’s certainly matured Tucker. My Democratic friends will no doubt see him as anathema because of the names with which he has been associated. But I see him as that brash kid who has grown into a Man of Respect among people who do communications from that side of the wall — the side I’m now on, by the way.
And why is it so easy for me to see him that way now? Because he harks back to a time when we had a governor more interested in governing than posturing. A couple of times he proudly quoted someone — I missed who — calling Campbell an “exemplar of governing conservatism,” with emphasis on the “governing.” Campbell believed in it.
Tucker is too professional to put it this way, but he was obviously appalled at having to work for someone as insubstantial as Sarah Palin — the exemplar of the sort of Republican politician that dominates the scene today. He was at pains to explain her appeal in positive terms, describing her as an unaffected person who causes crowds to think approvingly, “She doesn’t talk down to me.”
He was asked whether he was the one who said Ms. Palin had “gone rogue.” No. But he marveled at being charged with promoting a candidate who was so startling unprepared to run for such a high office. He spoke of the kinds of experience and knowledge that one took for granted in a candidate at that level, and said, “We had never worked with someone who had never done those things.” As far as seasoning experiences were concerned, “Almost none of that had ever transpired.” But he didn’t call her a rogue. “I didn’t say it, but I observed it and was charged with dealing with it.”
And deal with it he must, because, as he realized after a time on the campaign, “She doesn’t have a lot of people who have been around her a long time.”
It was interesting, in light of these observations, to think back on what he had said a few minutes before, in a different context, about how amazing it is to see Nikki Haley “rise, in relative terms, from nowhere…” He had meant it in a good way. But the comparison to Palin is rather unavoidable.
Asked what he thought of the state’s two U.S. senators, he diplomatically spoke of his respect for both, but emphasized that they are very different. DeMint is about the “principle,” and Graham “stands on principle, but still gets things done” — making him another “exemplar of governing conservatism.” With distinct understatement, he noted that “DeMint has made himself a lot of friends around the country, and probably some opponents within” the Senate — the place where one has to work with people to get anything one believes in done.
A longtime Republican operative in the audience asked whether President Reagan could even get elected in today’s political environment. She — Christy Cox, longtime aide to David Wilkins — seemed to doubt it. Tucker said he would hope Ronald “Morning in America” Reagan could “change the climate.”
But the point was made. The climate would indeed have to be changed for the Great Communicator to be successful today.
So that’s why I can appreciate Tucker better today. Once, I saw him as a sort of partisan guerrilla warrior, part of the problem. Now, he joins me in harking back to a time when those who called themselves conservatives ran for, and served as, governor because they believed in governing. And as I said earlier, that was a long time ago…