The hardest thing for politicos to admit is political figures are really 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. Usually, it’s more like when your parents take you out to a sit-down dinner. The whole time, you’re reminded that your behavior is how the entire world sees your family. It’s a lot of pressure.
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 a crying child to whether they said thank you to each and every person along the way. It’s just part of the deal. When you work for a politician, you have to work for The Enterprise, not the man or woman. I know politicos who are friends with their respective boss, but that came after the lights went down or life moved on.
Good or bad, I am forever linked to Mark Sanford, who went from GOP rising star to cautionary tale to comeback kid. I joined his congressional staff in November 1996, went through a gubernatorial campaign in 2002 and served all eight years when he was governor. For reasons that remain a mystery to most people, I also spent seven months in his congressional office in 2015. So, most of my professional life.
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 episode is when Mark Sanford, the Man, replaced Mark Sanford, the Enterprise, in my life.
My role in The Enterprise was clear. I was Spock to his Kirk. Whenever Mark Sanford, the Man, came aboard, I had to be ready with the Vulcan Nerve Pinch to take him down to save The Enterprise. That creates a strange dynamic for both of us because I start viewing The Man as a threat and, from time to time, he needed to be human. Unfortunately, as a political Vulcan, I’m not really equipped to deal with humanity as well as I’d like. 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 delivered 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 some kind of direct feedback. He stopped and turned to me and said, “Why?”
This 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.
“Well no, 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 started, “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 good product and then tell me how I can 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 clearest managerial direction Sanford ever gave me. For me, I suddenly saw two Mark Sanfords, one who was 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 Enterprise than himself. So, in a hallway in the Longworth Building in 1997, I was enlisted to protect The Enterprise, even from Mark Sanford, himself. Sadly, that story didn’t end so well. But we’ll get to that another day.