The Man v. The Brand
The hardest thing for any political operative to admit about political figures is they are two people occupying the same space: the person you see and the person they are. Understandably, people interpret that to mean fake, and in some cases, it does. More often than not, it’s about maintaining a brand.
I don’t want this to sound cynical, but politics is theater. Politicians have a job to do, and they have to play the part: unattached and unemotional. Everyone watches their moves, analyzing everything from whether they hold their spouse’s hand or ignore one of their children to whether they said thank you to every person along the way. It’s just part of the deal. When you work for a politician, you have to work for the brand, not the man or woman. I know people who are friends with their respective bosses, but that came after the lights fell or they moved on in life.
For better or worse, I am forever linked to Mark Sanford, who went from GOP rising star to cautionary tale to comeback kid to 2018 primary victim. I worked on his congressional staff from November 1996 to January 2001, where he gave me the nickname “My Left Brain” because I could spout off how he voted on anything and why. In 2002, I was “the policy guy” for his gubernatorial campaign, an exercise in humility by making ideas real to people. When he became governor, I started in Washington before relocating to Columbia to serve all eight years on staff. For reasons that remain a mystery, I also spent seven months in his congressional office in 2015. So, much of my professional life has been in the Mark Sanford business.
The day his second gubernatorial term ended in January 2011, we sat in the empty room that had been my office, reminisced, and laughed. Just before he would turn the office over to Nikki Haley, we stood up, and he said, “I love you, man,” and hugged me. By nature, I’m not a hugger or an emotional guy, but I felt obliged. Most people never thought he’d make it to that day after the infamous “hiking the Appalachian Trail” adventure that destroyed his ambitious future. That moment is when Mark Sanford, The Man, replaced Mark Sanford, The Brand, in my life.
My role was evident. Whenever Mark Sanford, The Man, showed up, I had to be ready to take him out to protect The Brand. That created a strange dynamic for both of us because I started viewing The Man as a threat, and he was human from time to time. Unfortunately, I’m not equipped to deal with humanity as well as I’d like. This fact was the source of frustration and, at times, anger.
But how did we get there?
The Origin Story
My moment of clarity came on July 24, 1997, when I had to write floor remarks for Sanford on an amendment to eliminate the sugar program. My legislative director managed my expectations, saying Sanford didn’t read prepared remarks, so I shouldn’t take it personally if his speech wasn’t at all like my talking points. I knew the information, the perfect hit points and drafted what I thought was the most important speech of my early career. Here is where I tell you that he would get exactly one minute to deliver remarks on the floor. I gave Sanford the talking points, expecting to go over them and get feedback. He thanked me, shut the door to his office, and proceeded to practice his speech. Only when he delivered the remarks an hour later did I get a sense of whether he liked my work. He gave the speech, hitting the three major points and my stats. I knocked it out of the park!
Later that day, as we walked to a committee hearing, I said, “You did a good job with the sugar speech.” I couldn’t take it anymore; I needed feedback. He stopped and turned to me and said, “Why?”
The question pretty much caught me off guard because I was expecting a simple “Thank you!” or even, “No, YOU did a great job, Scott!” Instead, I got a lesson:
“Well, you made the point that the program cost taxpayers...”
“Did you notice I was leaning on the podium?” he asked.
“Sure, but you also brought up the Fanjul brothers and…”
He stopped me again, “Did you notice I had a pen in my hand and was pointing at people?”
“Look,” he stated, “You’re a smart guy. You know this program and the points I should make. But when I’m leaning on the podium and pointing a pen at people, they stop listening to what I’m saying and start wondering what’s wrong with me. I need you to deliver a good product and then tell me how to do better. No one buys your arguments if they don’t buy you. Got that?”
“Then don’t kiss my ass,” he said, “Tell me what I screwed up and how to fix it. You’ve got to hit me over the head. I can pay some college kid nothing to tell me I’m good, but we’re in the business of making arguments. Any questions?”
I stood there for what seemed like 10 minutes thinking to myself, “Jesus, I just wanted an ‘Atta Boy.'” I shook my head, and he pushed the button to the elevator, and when the door opened, he smiled at the three people on the elevator and said, “Heyhowyou?” like he always does (yes, it is one word when he says it) and we were off. That exchange is the most explicit managerial direction Sanford ever gave me.
For me, I suddenly saw two Mark Sanfords, one driven to fight the national debt, wasteful spending, and for limited, constitutional government, and the other, a socially awkward guy who cared more about The Brand than himself. So, in a hallway in the Longworth Building in 1997, I was enlisted to protect The Brand, even from Mark Sanford, The Man.
How It Looked
In the book, The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by former Sanford speechwriter Barton Swaim, I am identified as “Stewart.” Barton explained it was this represented the House of Stuart, and its origin, Steward, which in the Middle Ages, was a position similar to Governor. In the book, Barton writes,
“His jeremiads were notorious. When an adversary criticized the governor, Stewart would emit long streams of profane and grammatically flawless invective in defense of the administration. By the end, you wondered what reason anyone could have for criticizing policies so obviously reasonable. After a year or so it started to seem improbable that we were so consistently and wholly right about everything, but even then Stewart’s jeremiads offered warm reassurance that we were basically, if not always wholly, in the right.”
For those counting, that’s two jeremiads in a short passage. I prefer the shorter descriptor tirade, but Barton certainly paints a picture, and it’s accurate. I did my best over the years. Sadly, that story didn’t end so well. But we’ll get to that.