It turns out, politicians are human, too.
Watching seasoned politicians at work, it’s difficult to imagine that they ever suffered from self-doubt. But in 60 hours of oral history interviews, men and women who now shape government policy revealed disappointments, exhilarations, vulnerabilities and humbling moments from their first political campaigns — campaigns that formed the foundation of their public careers.
They ran for different reasons. Some first ran because they felt strongly about an issue. Others were recruited by party elders. Many said they never dreamed of a life in politics, and acknowledged that, deep down, they were unsure that anyone would actually vote for them.
On their inaugural paths, these leaders often surprised themselves with hidden reserves of stamina, quick thinking and grit. Despite the risks to family, finances, career and reputation, they soldiered on, impelled by wary optimism, pride and the hopes of a first official title.
Here are some of their memories.
65, chairman, Cerberus Global Investments. First campaign: Congress, 1976, age 29; won. Highest office, 44th vice president.
I was thinking about running for state Senate or state representative, and the county chairman from Fort Wayne [Ind.] came down and said I should run for Congress. I said, “Well, there’s a lot of other people that are ahead of me,” and I mentioned a few of their names and he says, “Yeah, they’re ahead of you but they’re not going to run.” I said, “What do you think? I’m going to be the sacrificial lamb on this?” He said, “Oh, no, I think you could win...we’ll get behind you.” I said, “Okay, I want two things. I don’t want a primary opposition, and I want you to raise money for me.” He says, “That’s not a problem. You’re not going to have any primary opposition, and we will raise all of the money you need.” Those were the first two, shall we say, fabrications that were told to me in my political life...
70, senior counsel, Patton Boggs. First campaign: Congress, 1972, age 31; won. Highest office, Senate majority leader.
The interesting part for my wife and me was that we really concluded by then that we were Republicans, even though I’d been working for [Rep. Bill Colmer] as a Democrat. He was a conservative Democrat, and I just didn’t feel comfortable running as a Democrat, so I went in and told him I was planning on running and that I would run as a Republican. And he paused, he thought about that — very thoughtful, wonderful old gentleman — he said, “Well, I admire your courage and I understand your decision, but I fear you’re embarking on a hopeless crusade.” Well, I was 31 years old, my heart sank, I had a young family.
I just felt like I’d be a fraud if I ran as a Democrat when I had learned after 3 1 / 2 years in Washington that I really was not a Democrat, and I realized that most of the people in south Mississippi would not identify with the Democrats in Washington.
I remember calling [my mother], too, saying, “Mother, I’m going to run for Congress.” She said, “Oh, great, I’ll get my friends in the library and B&PW [Business & Professional Women] club, and we’ll get out there and work.” I said, “Mother, I’m going to run as a Republican.” She said, “Oh, my God!”
53, host, “Viewpoint With Eliot Spitzer.” First campaign: attorney general, 1994, age 35; lost. Highest office, New York governor.
A great friend, Tom Schwarz, who is now president of SUNY Purchase, he was head of the litigation department at Skadden, and I walked into his office one day and said, “Tom, I’m running for attorney general.” He said, “You’re absolutely nuts. What is wrong with you?”...
I think I probably believed I had a better shot than I really did, and you need as a candidate to think you can win.
After the radio ads went up, I expected everybody to suddenly say, “Ah-ha, we have our candidate.” It didn’t happen. TV ads went up, I expected everybody to say “Oh, look at this. This is great.” Didn’t happen. So there’s a sense of frustration What’s going on? Why isn’t this working?
The only moment when I actually felt the sort of adrenaline of potential victory was two days before the primary, maybe it was three days before, the Friday before the Tuesday primary, when the New York Post endorsed me.... Then the next day, the Daily News endorsed me so I said, “Oh my goodness, suddenly out of nowhere the two tabloids that are read in aggregate by a couple million people every day have endorsed me and maybe this will affect voters if there’s some degree of uncertainty.” Didn’t happen obviously, but those last 48, 72 hours I think I probably felt some degree of “My gosh, this might happen.”
44, lieutenant governor of California. First campaign: San Francisco Board of Supervisors, 1998, age 31; won. Highest office, lieutenant governor.
And I remember going in, Willie Brown, mayor at the time, I said, “What the hell do I do?” He says, “Well, you need a consultant.” “Where do you get a consultant? I don’t know any of these people.” I didn’t know how to raise money. I didn’t know who to raise money from. I didn’t know how to open an account. I didn’t know you needed a treasurer for the account. I didn’t even know where you got the forms. I didn’t even know how you put your name on the ballot. ...
Yeah, they said, “you need an issue. You know people need to find you. ... You’ve got to really stand up on an issue. So, what do you hear? What’s your number one issue?” And they were all small-ball issues, I mean, they were all sort of neighborhoody-based issues. They said, “You need a bigger issue. You need. ...” And so, Willie Brown ... he sort of thrust me into a defining issue for my first campaign by inviting me to a big Town Hall [meeting] around taxicab issues. And in San Francisco, it’s still the case: You can’t get cabs.
I was clueless. Never done this. San Francisco politics, they talk about sharp knives. Everyone there has an opinion, and here I was pissing off, excuse my language, the one constituency you need the most, and those are the people that pick up more people than anyone else. And that’s not just bus drivers, but it’s taxi drivers that talk to their passengers. And they were telling everybody who’d get in a cab: “That’s the biggest jerk in San Francisco, that supervisor. We’re doing everything we can to end his campaign.” So, it was very anxiety-inducing.
People talk about you as if they’ve known you forever. They talk about your motivations and have never even met you. And you’re reading these things, and you’re like, “What?” And you want to respond. I remember, I wanted to respond to everything that was written. I was literally trying to write things, I mean, crazy. I can’t believe the amount of time I must have spent just to ... explain, no, they don’t know me, I’m not that person.
Well, I’ll tell you what, the most indelible memory is shaking the hand with one of my opponents, and my hand was so soaking wet that he went, “Dude, are you all right? Wow, what’s wrong?” I’m like, “Oh, no, I was just running or something.” I was that nervous. I will never forget that the rest of my life.
54, U.S. secretary of labor. First campaign: Board of Trustees, Rio Hondo Community College District, Los Angeles County, 1985, age 28; won. Highest office, Cabinet secretary.
Some neighborhoods were not safe, and I was told that ahead of time. So, I usually walked with a group of people or other folks to make sure we had teams. And it was, you know, it’s, how could I say, a bit uncomfortable going into someone’s front yard, knocking on their door and not knowing what to expect because you would get all sorts of people. You get people who wouldn’t even open the door and assume that I was passing out religious material. And some people who just looked at me and just ... I actually had someone say, “We don’t vote for your kind.” And that was ... just was very disappointing to hear that. But, you know, there’s a lot of folks that don’t always understand what this is all about, so that was also hard.
I’d put a little Post-it — not even a Post-it because they didn’t have Post-its at that time — and I’d write, “Sorry I missed you, Hilda Solis. Call me if you have any questions.” And you’d be surprised, some people ... would come running out of their house afterward saying: “Did you leave this at my house? Is this you? Can I talk to you?” And then we’d start a conversation. And it was just amazing how people would tell me ... “You’re the first candidate to ever come knocking on my door.” And to this day, I still see people back in that city who tell me, “I remember voting for you, Solis. You were the first person I voted for.” That’s pretty empowering.
63, U.S. senator from Oregon. First campaign: Congress, 1980, age 31; won. Highest office, senator.
There were so many moments [that] were highs and lows. My father’s mother was in Portland for the race right toward the end of it because we were all campaigning sort of around the clock. When I came back one night and we were all talking about what to do, I said, “My eyes are just itching, just out on my feet, allergies.” She said, “I’ve got some wonderful drops.” And she said, “Just lay on the floor, I’ll put the drops in your eyes” — and they were denture cream, and I couldn’t open my eyes, so I had to be raced over to the local hospital, which fortunately wasn’t far, and my eyes were cleaned out, and all was well in a couple of days. But I just remember lots of those kinds of things.
74, U.S. senator from Mississippi. First campaign: Congress, 1972, age 34; won. Highest office, senator.
I asked my wife what would she think about being married to a U.S. congressman, and she said, “I don’t know, which one?” And that was a line I had started using because people laughed, but it really happened. That was a conversation I had with her, and she said, “Well, you don’t want to do that; what if you win?”
Finances. I was worried about the money because the congressman didn’t make much money, at least compared to a successful lawyer, and I was just on the brink of getting into the position of making enough money so that my family would be comfortable and school tuition would be affordable and that kind of thing. Then, all of a sudden, to realize what I was trying to decide between was a life of austerity, poverty, whatever. ... So, my wife went to work. She started working for the welfare department and doing some occasional substitute teaching and that kind of thing. And my father-in-law — her parents were better off financially than my parents — so he was helping out. Were it not for that kind of access to additional financial support, I would not have run for Congress. I didn’t want to deny my children opportunities to go to good schools and that kind of thing because of my personal ambitions.
So, I ended up just driving myself into a little town, parking my car at one end of the main street, and just getting little handout cards and start going through stores and stopping people on the street handing them my card, telling them my name, “I’m Thad Cochran. I’m a candidate for Congress. I hope you’ll vote for me.”And, you know, if they didn’t have a question, some of them just looked at the card and looked at me and said, “Oh, all right” and moved on. But some people asked me a question or two or wanted to talk or ask me where did I live, where was I from and get involved in conversations.
And you end up just having a pleasant exchange, leave the card with them and move on. But I’d get back in the car and I’d write down the names. I would remember that person’s name, as many people as I could remember, and if it was a store owner or if I found out the person identified themselves as what they did or owned the store or whatever, I’d write that down. Anyway, then I’d get back home and I would write handwritten notes to everybody I could remember the name of in that town, thank them for whatever they said, complimentary if they said something. And it had to be a surprise, and I would run into them again in the campaign because this was months, several months of primary and general election. The primary was in June, the general election in November. So, I did this for a good six months; it was kind of amazing. Then, I would start getting invited to speak to groups, to civic clubs and that kind of thing, and I would do that and I would try to remember the names of everybody that I met and write them all down.
43, mayor, Newark. First campaign: Newark Municipal Council, 1998, age 29; won. Highest office, mayor.
[My opponent] George Branch, we call him Buddy Gee, was just a beloved guy in senior communities. He himself was 40 years older than me, a fixture in many ways in the city of Newark, but everybody sort of knew that he was just a good old boy. I have a lot more reverence for him now that years have passed, but at that time I think I really saw him as a guy who wasn’t sharply focused and aggressively working on the community’s problems, a guy who was part of the establishment, a guy who wasn’t bringing creativity to the problems, so it was tough because taking on him meant taking on the entire sort of establishment.
I’ll never forget the moment I figured that out, was when I was standing at some rally and the mayor was speaking, and he pointed me out in the audience, and I’ll never forget how he said — and this is when it sort of struck me that You’re in for a lot more than you think — and he said, “They got this Cory Booker boy coming here, they sent him here into our city to run against Buddy Gee, to run against our Buddy Gee.” And then he said, “I don’t know who sent him but I know it must have been, I don’t know where he comes from but I know it must have been the devil that sent him here.”
And I just remember a big rally where everyone is looking at me and I’m just standing in the audience. It was a shocking moment and a great example of what was to come.
We had tires on my car slashed, windows smashed, hate literature: Ya know, I was a KKK member, I was a tool of the Jews, I was part of the CIA conspiracy to bring drugs into our community. You name the outrageous stuff, I would see fliers out about it littering senior citizen buildings and others.
Look, when you have a goal, a burning goal, you must force every doubt or belief that you are going to lose out of your mind. You must become so focused on your victory that it motivates you through those moments. When you really want a thing bad enough, you’ll give up sleep for it, you’ll give up food for it, you’ll give up comforts — and I believed in my heart that this effort was going to lead to big changes in the city.
90, historian. First campaign: Congress from South Dakota, 1956, age 34; won. Highest office, senator.
One of the things I always found hard to take was when at the end of the day I would be confronted with somebody, maybe at the State Fair, maybe some other place, somebody would come up, and I was just about ready to close my eyes and get a little sleep, and say, “You know, George, you want to know what’s wrong with this country?” I’d always say, “I’d be interested in your view.” “The international monetary situation. Let me tell you about the international monetary situation.”
You’re tempted to say, “I don’t give a damn about the international monetary situation; I don’t understand it, and I don’t want to understand it.” That’s what you’re tempted to say.
But I’d always try to listen; but, God, they’d go on or they’d give me books to read or they’d give me articles. I found that hard to take, particularly late at night.
Another thing sometimes brings me to the verge of strangulation: You might meet in the course of five or six days, you might meet and actually shake hands with thirty-five or forty thousand people. Some guy comes up and says, “I bet you don’t know who I am. You should because we’ve met here and we’ve met here, but I bet you don’t know who I am.” You know, your temptation is to say, “No and I don’t give a damn,” but I don’t do that, of course. So I say, “Well, your face is familiar; now where did we meet?” “Out at Joe Smith’s picnic, remember out in his barn we had that barnyard?” “Oh, yes, I do remember that.”
That kind of thing, trying to convince people you remember them. Gaylord Nelson, the senator from Wisconsin, once told me, “George, we both got defeated and we’ve only got a couple of months left in the Senate. You know what I’m going to do first when I get finally out of here? I’m going to go back, and if some son of a bitch comes up to me and says, ‘I bet you don’t know who I am,’ I’m going to say, ‘No, you silly bastard, I don’t know who you are and I don’t give a s---.’ ” Anyway, that was his dream, which of course he never did.
49, governor of Maryland. First campaign: Maryland State Senate, 1990, age 27; lost. Highest office, governor.
When you set out to run and to be a candidate, you have to accept the fact that you are intentionally making yourself very, very vulnerable. And because you are making yourself vulnerable, your mind, if you’re a thinking person, starts creating reasons why you shouldn’t do it: “Oh, you won’t be able to raise the money. You won’t be able to appeal to people that you didn’t grow up with.” You know, name every excuse. Your mind starts creating these sorts of reasons for you to take the exit ramp rather than going down this road of making yourself vulnerable and offering yourself ... as a candidate with all of the slings and arrows that happen in that arena of competition.
So, I think there are kind of two things that come together; I mean you work to rationally, you know, remove those excuses or overcome those barriers, but at the same time, you’re also working to confront your own fear of making yourself vulnerable. And I think it was Muhammad Ali that said, “It’s not the height of the mountain that stops you, it’s the pebble in your shoe.” So, early on, there’s a lot of interior work that has to happen in order to remove the pebble in a metaphorical way from your own shoe.
58, governor of Virginia. First campaign: Virginia House of Delegates, 1991, age 37; won. Highest office, governor.
The emcee at the victory party was my boss, Bob Humphreys, who was the commonwealth’s attorney at the time, and he said, “I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, you won. The bad news is, you’re fired!” Because I was working for him, and of course I had to resign anyway, because you couldn’t be in both the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office and the legislature by statute, so I remember him firing me on the spot, which was funny — but I went out to practice law privately after that.
That was a little disconcerting, honestly, as I thought, “Boy, I’ve got this great job, but now I’ve got five kids under age 7, twin boys. ... Now I gotta go find another job where people don’t mind me being gone for two months a year and then going to all these committee meetings and doing all the political things.”
Sharon Pratt (formerly Kelly)
68, founder, Pratt Consulting. First campaign: mayor of Washington, 1990, age 46; won. Highest office, mayor.
Even though we knew we had more wind at our back, people were still saying we weren’t going to make it just because how do you put together a political operation in a few days to cover all those precincts, to get out the vote, to do what you have to do. ... I just remember my own — searching my own thoughts and soul about struggling to pay these folks. I just felt responsible.
These were young people, my daughters’ age — I just felt like a mother toward them. It just pained me that I was struggling to pay them, and they were falling behind in their bills and I didn’t give voice to it a lot. ... So, actually my daughters were shocked to discover I had ever any doubts when I shared that I had years later. No, I really slipped into a very sort of dark and lonely kind of space where I just thought, “What do I do? How do I work my way out of this? How do I help these kids repair their lives after they’ve given so much?” I can remember that quite clearly.
70, U.S. senator from Connecticut. First campaign: Connecticut senate, 1970, age 28; won. Highest office, senator.
The district was a fascinating district. It was kind of — one big part was Yale; one big part was the African American community; one big part was the Jewish community; and then over the other part, about 20 percent was a kind of mixture of working class, Catholic ethnics, you know, Irish, Polish, Italian. I just felt like people were, had lost touch with Ed Marcus. So, I declared for his seat. I thought, “You know what? Maybe this is an opportunity.”
First lesson I learned, looking back, although I always say I was too young to be sensible about it — if I was sensible, I wouldn’t have run — was that really the biggest steps forward in my career have been when I took the biggest risks. Now, that doesn’t always work when you take a risk — you can fail! ... Some of the easiest things that I did, the things that were supposed to be sure shots, like I ran for Congress in 1980 because the seat opened up, and I thought I’d been in the state senate long enough, I lost!
56, U.S. senator from Louisiana. First campaign: Louisiana house, 1979, age 23; won. Highest office, senator.
It was so funny. I mean, what gave me the idea to have a baby blue sign? But baby blue was my favorite color. Now, no consultant would recommend that I would emphasize the fact that I was only 23, but my signs were baby blue, white and black. ... They were all handmade, because we had no money. ... So, when my opponent came home in July from the legislature, we had 500 of these baby blue signs all over the district, and thinking about it just makes me laugh. I mean, I should have used a stronger color. I should have tried to pretend or try to hide the fact that I was only 23, but that was my favorite color, that’s what I used. I wouldn’t certainly recommend that today.
80, author and founder, Rumsfeld Foundation. First campaign: Congress from Illinois, 1962; age 30; won. Highest office, secretary of defense.
I knew when I stood up there and talked, and then went into the questions and answers, someone in that audience would be a world’s leading expert on almost any subject that I would be asked, and that gives one pause and I certainly recognized that. Boy, when you use the phrase “I don’t know” as often as you should, it’s quite often and I had to find my way.
I had a wonderful friend from high school named John Robson, who later went on to become deputy secretary of Treasury and chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board and dean of the Emory School of Business and was my chief operating officer years later when I was chief executive of G.D. Searle & Co. And John would help me in the campaign when an issue would come up in the press in the morning and there would be some problem in the Congo or wherever in the world, Colombia. By noon, I would have a one- or two-page paper that he would pull together telling me the history, what that issue’s evolution had been and what the principal arguments on various aspects of it were, and I would be able to read it and think about it and then develop a view on it by the time I was giving a talk that afternoon or that evening.
49, governor of New Jersey. First campaign: Morris County Board of Freeholders, 1994, age 32; won. Highest office, governor.
The incumbents, I think, were ill-prepared for the intensity of the challenge we brought. We campaigned very hard. We raised a good amount of money. I think on that race back in 1994, we wound up spending over 100,000 dollars in the primary. And we were on cable TV, we did cable TV advertising, we did radio advertising and we did mail. And interestingly just by happenstance, that year, 1994, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup and the Knicks made it to the NBA Finals.
And the reason that was important was you had going deep into May, opportunities to buy stuff on cable television that lots of people were going to watch. And so, you could buy these sporting events on local cable and it had ... I think the TV, the cable TV buy had a disproportionate impact that year, because of the fact that the Rangers and the Knicks went that deep into the playoffs. So, it was kind of an interesting phenomenon just for that particular year, because the games that were on during the week were on cable. On the weekends, they were on national television, but during the week they were on cable, and you’d get to watch, buy a lot of those playoff games leading up to the finals.
73, U.S. representative from Maryland; House minority whip. First campaign: Maryland senate, 1966, age 27; won. Highest office, House majority leader.
Primary Day was huge, because there were 19 candidates for the state Senate in my district for two seats. ... I had knocked on doors in the African American community, probably the first white politician to do so in Prince George’s County, and I can remember getting some pretty surprised answering of the door. Here’s this skinny little kid essentially, looking younger than the 27 years that I had then attained. People seemed to be surprised, but they were very pleased. And I didn’t try to take a lot of their time, I just wanted to introduce myself and ask them for their consideration. That election was a very, very long election. The polls didn’t close until, like, 12:30 or 1 o’clock in the morning, because the lines were so long. ... There’s never an election like your first election, particularly your first victory, particularly when no one expected you at the beginning to win.
54, U.S. secretary of homeland security. First campaign: Arizona attorney general, 1998, age 40; won. Highest office, Cabinet secretary.
One of the first events I went to was a golf cart parade in Sun City. There were 400 golf carts, but it was, like, in June, which is ... it’s hot in Arizona in June. A lot of people in Sun City don’t live there in the summer; they live there in the winter. So, we were in this golf cart parade, and I’m waving and everything. There was nobody on the parade route, zero, nobody. So, we’re going up and down these streets, and I’m waving basically to houses that are closed up for the summer, and I’m thinking to myself, “Okay, I was my college valedictorian, Truman Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa, U.S. attorney, but here I am. ...” And, you know, you just have to laugh sometimes. You just go, “What the heck.”
Jeffrey H. Brodsky, an oral historian at Columbia University’s Center for Social Sciences, is chronicling the history of first campaigns. To comment on this story, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.