Journal Journey

Week 8: 21 February 2016

Beating around the Bush.

With John Ellis Bush suspending his presidential campaign, I found myself digging through some of the entries I have from 2002, when I was working for the Bill McBide gubernatorial campaign. JEB! was running for reelection, but when I joined the staff in August, we still needed to win the primary against Janet Reno.

Those days — and nights — were some of the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. There wasn’t a evening where I didn’t flop into bed thinking that with just a few more hours, I could have done a few more things to help win the election. My to-do list was perpetually interminable, and it was unbelievably hard to judge if any of it was paying off.

We squeaked by in the race against Reno, but that just meant that now we got to go head-to-head against another opponent with almost 100% name recognition, an almost unlimited budget, and the power of incumbency. Oh, and the nepotism of the Presidency. With that as the general election backdrop, we restructured almost everything, and headed into our first debate.

27 September 2002
Brian and I are sitting in a Jacksonville hotel room, getting last minute things together for tonight’s debate between John Ellis Bush and William McBride. Obviously, from the date of this entry, it can be deduced that we won the primary. The margin of victory was small, but larger than the final tally between Bush and Gore. The campaign has changed a great deal since the final days of the primary, but most of the staff is the same. Many new staff members are being brought in, some from the Democratic Party of Florida, others from the Reno campaign. They all have interesting tales to tell, I’m sure, but I have yet to get through the stories from the staff we started with. Carrie has finally gotten a paid position with us. She is now the Assistant to the Campaign Manager. Our new Campaign Manager, now that Robin is gone, is Cathy Kelly. In a 16 September staff meeting, we outlined the new direction and structure of the campaign. Cathy introduced herself and relayed her background & qualifications. Her services are a donation from the Florida Education Association, where she has been the Government Relations Director for over 15 years. She has also worked for Bob Graham during his 1st governor’s race. She mentioned in that first meeting that we would have more staff coming on, and she was underselling it by a ton. We are now bloated with Reno’s former Campaign Manager and Policy Director; our Press Secretary is from the F.E.A., his assistant is the Press Secretary from Senator Bill Nelson’s office; etc. We have a “Political Director,” an “Operations Manager,” and an “Earned Media Director,” whatever those are. All of the structural changes have been interesting, but the real intrigue is in the minutiae of the relationships within the office.

We were still spinning coming off the primary. Our strategy and direction were still being clarified, and I felt we were working off the messaging and preparation we had created in order to run against a former Attorney General. I didn’t think we were built for the general election yet. We definitely weren’t firing on all cylinders, and, as a staff, I didn’t think we had given Mr. McBride what he needed to come out of that first debate with a win. But here we were.

On the plane home, I was seated facing Mr. McBride. After getting settled in, he looked at me and asked, “So, how’d I do?” I have no idea how long I sat there in silence, but it felt like an eternity. Do I share what I really thought? Do I mention the talking points that went unspoken? Do I point out the places he sounded rehearsed and the spots where I wished he had gone in a different direction?

“I think you did great,” I said — unconvincingly, probably.

We had two more debates against the governor. Election night was not pleasant. In the post-mortem Time magazine published the next day, a reporter, who promised not to quote me, did exactly that.

“The Republican war chest just buried us in soft money,” said McBride campaign strategist Stephen Fox

It was true that soft money made a big difference, but I still wonder if I could have changed things early on by telling Mr. McBride exactly what I thought. He died of a heart attack a few years ago before I could ever tell him the truth. I still regret that.

Since his death, I’ve tried hard to make sure that I weigh in with exactly what I’m feeling, no matter who’s asking. I learned a great deal in the few months I got to spend around Mr. McBride, but one of the most important lessons was this: Don’t fear the truth, nor sharing it with those in power.

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