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Clearing the Decks At Gore Headquarters
Campaign Manager Donna Brazile Is Nothing if Not an Activist

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 1999; Page C01

Donna Brazile has the chops of a street preacher. She can quote the Bible with the honey-smooth inflections of her Louisiana roots and then she can cut to it, y'all, with outstretched arms, a snap of her finger and the chest-out, head-up posture of the diva she proclaims herself to be.

Brazile, Vice President Gore's presidential campaign manager, has been called aggressive and mean. Happy to give out a verbal whippin' when necessary. Mention that sort of talk, however, and she tosses out a look as icy as the Arctic and then wraps herself in a blanket of Scripture: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." You're not sure if she's giving you the grown-up equivalent of "Sticks and stones . . ." or subtly advising you to get out of her face.

Gore announced Brazile's appointment from Nashville last month, where he had just relocated to find his roots, his groove, his I-am-not-Clinton message. At a luncheon with about 150 African American leaders in the Jubilee Restaurant, Gore extolled her resume heavy with civil rights credentials, progressive causes, grass-roots organizing and experience in Democratic presidential campaigns. The vice president quoted the Bible, which has virtually become a campaign sourcebook: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."

Then everyone quickly took note that Brazile, 39, is the first black woman to hold such a high post in a major-party national campaign. She'd organized the 20th-anniversary March on Washington, been a founding member of the National Political Congress of Black Women, worked with the Rainbow Coalition, registered black voters, worked in the political campaigns of Jesse Jackson and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Yes, it was a black moment--for better or worse.

"Why do they do this? That whole scene sent shivers through me. Why did they have to do it as a black political event?" says Susan Estrich, who became the first woman to run such a presidential campaign when she worked for Michael Dukakis in 1988. "It should have been a Washington event--that would have been the real way to get credit in the community. Do it as a Washington press event."

This, Estrich says, is an example of precisely "why they need Donna at the table."

'The Honorable Thing to Do' Brazile can spit out the statistics, throw bons mots about her candidate like a pitcher releasing fastballs that slide precisely over the plate. "Four years of Clinton-Gore, four additional years of Clinton-Gore are only the beginning of turning back the tide of Reaganomics," she says. "Al Gore will fight for change. There still are poor people. There still are people struggling to live off $5.15 an hour."

She revels in being tough. Who could blame her? She marched into Nashville slashing budgets and cutting staff. This is a woman who grew up poor in Kenner, La., who received handouts for Christmas and had to eat meat out of a can.

She recovered from being publicly fired in 1988 as deputy field director of Dukakis's campaign after telling the media that George Bush should come clean about his rumored adultery. She stirred up a hornet's nest, and when she got stung, she called her friend Norton.

"Oh my God, she called on the phone and said, 'Guess what?' She recognized she'd crossed over the line," Norton says. "She knew what she had to do. She knew the honorable thing to do."

Of course now everyone can talk easily about what a disastrous campaign that was--frustrating and spirit-killing. "I joked with her, if I could have figured out a way to get fired, I'd have done it, too," Estrich says.

In hindsight, Brazile says she has become more aware of the value of diplomacy. "I was someone who went beyond her paper, her talking points, and decided to take matters into her own hands. I made a mistake," she says. "In this country, if you make a mistake and you're African American, they want you to pay for it the rest of your life. . . . I've moved on."

Paraphrasing poet Maya Angelou, Brazile boasts: She has risen. Brazile has moved from a back office to become the one sending Gore out to debate Bill Bradley with this advice from Psalm 19:

"Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer."

Then the diva adds: "If [Bradley] calls you out and you don't respond, I'm gonna come get you."

A Righteous Cause

Brazile's eyes are red. She has been up since 4 a.m. and now, 17 hours later, she is standing in front of a chalkboard at the University of Maryland at College Park. For three years she has been teaching at the school's Academy of Leadership; this semester's course is "African American Participation in American Politics." Even though Brazile quit her job as chief of staff for Norton and moved to Nashville, she still is planning to keep her commitment to her students.

She has enlisted the aid of friends, the "colored girls," as she calls them: Regena Thomas, national campaign director for the Democratic National Committee, who has driven back from Philadelphia this evening to talk about the Democratic victories on election night. Coming up: Mignon Moore, assistant to the president and director of political affairs.

Brazile arrives with a stack of class papers, two dead cell phones and the loose-limbed body language of the bone-tired. "I'm so tired my feet hurt. I actually have foot pain."

Still, she stands in front of her class, asking for the students' reaction to the recent Democratic and Republican presidential debates in New Hampshire. When the class gets to Gore, she listens with an intensity typically reserved for expensive consultants. The answer to the big question--how to win votes--could just as easily be found here as in the reports from pollsters.

Brazile wasn't that much older than these students when she worked in the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson. For her, it was a transforming experience of political idealism.

"I will go to my grave remembering that run in 1984," Brazile says. "It was not a campaign, it was a movement. . . . Jesse Jackson gave me my soul for this."

For Brazile, the effect is demonstrated in a very public brand of spirituality, a tendency to transform political imperative into biblical paradigm:

The hand of the Lord . . . set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones . . . And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And . . . he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones. . . . So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

Brazile says she and her compatriots were the "dry bones," filled with their vision of fairness and inclusion. "We felt like we could change America," Brazile says. She recalls being sent into communities with a "a bag of buttons and a one-way ticket," forced to rely on her ability to communicate, fund-raise and cajole to get back where she started.

Such naked idealism isn't always a welcome ingredient in Washington political circles, where it can be seen as the sign of a novice who doesn't understand the complexities of agenda-setting and relationship-building.

"There are always critics, there are always people putting you down, people who would deride idealism as naive and that you shouldn't wear it on your sleeve," says House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), on whose 1988 presidential bid Brazile worked. And yet, how could idealism not be there, in the days that last deep into the night and the mornings that come too soon?

"I still believe that there is lots of room for idealism in politics. I think what you have to do is combine idealism with political pragmatism and make that combination work. If you don't have something you fundamentally believe in when you're spending 20 hours at work or 15 hours, you burn out," Moore says.

"The vision has to be more than you. It has to be more than the man but the vision of the man, or more than the woman but the vision of the woman."

Pragmatism is the stabilizing, sobering element.

"I think Donna is an idealist in a modern sense, not like the 18-year-olds I encounter," says Estrich, now a law professor at the University of Southern California. "It's impossible today to believe in the political process as something pure and pristine. You'd have to be blind, deaf and dumb to believe that politics is full of principled people acting in the public interest every step of the way. But you can still believe in the righteousness of a cause."

Perhaps it is revisionist history or simply that all memories--political or otherwise--look particularly warm and appealing in the glow of nostalgia. Whatever the case, when Brazile speaks about the past, about her introduction into the world of politics via the Jackson campaigns and the grand gestures of the civil rights movement, she makes presidential politics seem like the greatest stage of all. It is the perch from which all great missions are launched.

"People sell out too soon," Brazile complains. "They sell out too soon."

Making the Connections

If Al Gore speaks in modulated, cautious sentences, then his campaign manager provides the fervor that he lacks.

The jaw-grinding intensity is jarring because in this campaign, with its middle-of-the-road messages, it is hard to understand precisely what is so captivating about her candidate and her party.

She, after all, admits that "this business has gotten polluted with consultants who are in it for the money. They no longer care about the little people.

"If we don't change the culture of American politics, people are going to give up on democracy, and pretty soon the only people elected will be people with money in their pocket," she says.

When she talks about Gore, she makes the political personal. "I left my home in Washington, D.C., for Al Gore because I know he'll stand up for my family. I know he's a decent and honorable man. You have to like the person because your entire life becomes that person's campaign," she says.

Brazile says her greatest strength is her understanding of how to connect with folks outside of Washington.

"I try to get them to know that you can say things with 5-cent words or 15-cent words and still reach people," Brazile says. "When Gore talks about education and revolutionary changes, what does that mean? I say, 'Break that on down, brother, tell me how that will relate to my kids.' " And she reels off the ways: smaller class sizes, up-to-date books and so on.

"You have to talk to people. You don't conduct polls every day to see what people think," Brazile says. "I want to train people to go to where folks live, eat, shop, play and pray. God knows, if you know that, you know where to go and get them for Election Day."

As Brazile talks, she moves back and forth in her chair, rocking to the rhythm of this speech. Sure, it is speckled with quotations from the Bible, the poet Angelou and Martin Luther King Jr., but Brazile's demeanor keeps it grounded in the reality of bill-paying, child-shuttling and lousy bosses. It's easy to see why she has been so attractive to presidential hopefuls. To borrow a phrase from old folks, Brazile can tell it like it is.

Chef's Choice

In the midst of a conversation about her work and the time it consumes, she talks about cooking a batch of oatmeal cookies that were so good "you wanted to go out and get some vanilla ice cream." Brazile brags about her skill with an etouffe, her versatility with chicken: "I can burn, fry, stew, bake it and bronze it," Brazile says. "I was born with a black kettle."

As with many Southerners, food is love, hospitality, therapy. And out of the conversation about food comes the voice of a black woman--not necessarily the black female campaign manager, but a woman, who hiked up from poverty.

Brazile speaks in the rambling style of a storyteller weaving tales of her own childhood as the third of eight children. Her mother, Jean, was a maid and died just days after Brazile resigned from the Dukakis campaign. Her father, Lionel, had a series of odd jobs and still lives in Louisiana. She speaks of a grandmother to whom she read the newspaper every day. Brazile shopped at Goodwill, clipped coupons and graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in industrial psychology thanks to grants and a student loan.

"I was always about the business of wanting to change things. I wanted to be a revolutionary," she says. "My parents were not political at all. They were what I call docile colored people."

That Brazile is a black woman working for the leading Democratic candidate has been called the "icing on the cake." And she knows that people are quietly asking: Is she really at the table? Is she truly running the campaign?

She is in that perilous and burdensome position of being a "first," and she both fights the symbolism and embraces the position. The last reason Gore chose her, she says, was her race and gender. But the reality is that in this world, the only time race and gender don't matter is . . . never.

"A black female in America is the most invisible object in the world," Brazil says. She will not let the "white boys" win. And that's not a description of "gender or race, it's an attitude. A white-boy attitude is 'I must exclude, denigrate and leave behind,' " Brazile says. "They don't see it or think about it. It's a culture." It is the sense of utter entitlement. And that she will not have.

At her level in politics, being a black woman is "my power." But it also is a minefield. There is the sexual politics of appearance. She calls up the stereotype that anyone who looks like her, with broad shoulders and full breasts, will readily jump in bed at the asking. Brazile is blunt: "I had to decide if I'd be a bitch or a whore. I chose bitch," she says. "I'd have to be strong, tough, abrasive. But I also knew I could be fair."

Also on her resume is her work for gay rights. She helped put together a candlelight vigil in front of the Capitol after the beating death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming. She sat on the board of the Millennium March on Washington--a gay rights event planned for April. Does Brazile bring a third perspective to the table? That of a lesbian?

"The last time I talked about someone's personal life, I got fired. I'm not about to make my personal life public," she says. "I'm single and available. If I had a personal life, I'd have a sexual orientation.

"I have tried, throughout my life, to build coalitions: feminists and civil rights, environmentalists and civil rights. I made a personal decision, as someone fighting openly for the rights of gays, to join the board of the Millennium March on Washington . . . to extend my voice, offer my expertise and my organizing ability.

"I put my energy, voice and spirit into fighting for anybody who wants to speak their voice," she says. "I don't care what the right wing, the left wing or the chicken wing has to say."

Days of Reckoning

Brazile will be 40 on Dec. 15. That's also the day of her students' final exam. She plans to be in College Park for the event. Because after the campaign ends--and she says this is her last--she would like to teach.

The stress of the campaign is frightful, and she has a tendency to grind her teeth when she's under pressure. Norton worries that Brazile needs to be more watchful of her health--she's "healthy as a horse, but her mom left this world at 53."

And then at 40, Brazile will take stock of the politics, the Scriptures and the diva swagger. "I need some time for myself," she says. "I need to find out who I am when I'm in between marches and movements."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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