Ex-Bush flacks find their footing
They represented a controversial president during a time of an unpopular war and a major economic crisis. And now, the former members of George W. Bush’s communications staff are ready for anything. In the six months since Bush left office, ex-White House flacks have landed well — in the corporate world and the athletic world. And yes, the political world too.
Dana Perino, Bush’s third White House press secretary, started out the year with a monthlong trip to Africa. Upon her return, she followed in the footsteps of the first-ever female press secretary, Dee Dee Myers: She’s joined the ranks of cable news commentators.
Perino says she has been approached with many offers since departing the White House. She considered writing, particularly as an opinion columnist, but in the end, she decided to link up with Fox News as a contract analyst. She joined Burson-Marsteller, the public relations firm run by Democratic strategist Mark Penn, as chief issues counselor.
“There are not as many Republican women on television as I would like to see. In the networks’ quest to have a balanced point of views expressed, I think they reached out to me because I was willing and because I stay up on the issues,” Perino says.
Perino and her husband decided to stay in Washington, a move that was recommended by an old political hand. Marlin Fitzwater, the former press secretary for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, advised her not to make any “sudden or drastic decisions” after the White House.
For other alumni of the Bush press shop, the next chapter unfolded outside the Beltway.
Former Counselor to the President Dan Bartlett left the White House in July 2007. That fall, he joined the Austin, Texas-based mega-consultancy, Public Strategies Inc., as a senior strategist.
Bartlett passed on getting involved with the 2008 presidential race, and dug into his new corporate consulting work instead. “My wife was pretty adamant that two presidential cycles was enough, and as you expect, I was pretty burned out on that process,” he says.
Bartlett says he was attracted to Public Strategies because of the company’s growth potential. Little did he know how fast his own rise at the company would be: Six months after signing on, he was bumped up to president.
“His involvement has far exceeded all of my expectations,” says the company’s founder and chairman Jack Martin, long a big player in Texas Democratic circles.
“There’s a handful of senior executives at Public Strategies who’ve been around for 10 to 20 years and we didn’t blink before handing him the baton to lead the firm into the future,” says Mark McKinnon, a vice chairman at the firm who formerly worked with Bartlett in the Bush White House.
Meanwhile, two former Bush message men — Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first White House press secretary, and Kevin Sullivan, who ended the administration as the president’s director of communications — have taken their wares to the world of athletics.
Fleischer, who left the White House in 2003, has since built up a New York-based strategic communications firm with a roster of sports organizations such as the United States Olympic Committee, the Women’s Tennis Association, and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
“What I have discovered is that sports teams are very good handling business on the field,” says Fleischer, “but as soon as it leaves field and becomes a news story they need external help.”
In 2005, Major League Baseball hired Fleischer in the wake of its steroid scandal, and he has also participated in media training with seven National Football League franchises.
Sullivan, by contrast, came to the Bush administration with a background in sports, having worked for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and on the corporate side of NBC’s sporting division.
“Sports is a great training ground for the world of politics,” he says.
Recently, Sullivan has been making his rounds doing media training for NFL teams — interviewing techniques and tactics, as well as dos and don’ts for players participating on social media sites.
At the White House, “I operated several RPM levels above everything I had ever experienced, in terms of pace and workload and also talent,” Sullivan says.
Nevertheless, the work with athletes and coaches has kept him busy these days, as teams prepare to kick off the regular season in less than a month.
Sullivan says he evokes his experience in the White House when trying to relate to pro athletes, though he keeps his examples as current as possible.
“One of the things that is really important in the sports world is that you don’t speculate, don’t make predictions,” Sullivan says. “These guys get asked stuff all the time. When I did this with teams recently, I said, under the heading of ‘don’t speculate,’ that President Obama is probably the greatest communicator in the world, but he speculated for 30 seconds of what happened in Cambridge, Mass., with the police.”
Sullivan added, “I saw quite a few nodding heads when I mentioned that one.”
Scott Stanzel, a deputy press secretary, knew he would head back to Seattle after his time in the White House was over. And come the second week of February, he did just that. He took a meandering drive westward, whereby he spent a week with friends in Chicago and a month skiing in Colorado. Then he trained for the Ironman Switzerland competition. Having now sufficiently decompressed, Stanzel is in the process of building up his own communications firm in Washington state; he recently filed the necessary paperwork and ordered business cards.
“I understand why people stay there and want to continue their career path in D.C.,” Stanzel said, “But I never saw myself as someone who would stay in Washington, D.C., unless I was working in government. I never pursued opportunities to work at a trade association or lobbying firm. That just really didn’t appeal to me.”
Stanzel’s fellow deputy press secretary Tony Fratto is simultaneously building up his own shop in DC, which is focused on international clients in finance, banking and trade. In addition, he does work on global health and development issues in Africa. “It gets me up in the morning,” he says.
Fratto, like Perino, has also taken his wears to the air, serving as a contributor to CNBC while writing regularly for CNBC.com.
Having assumed coordinative efforts of the Bush-Cheney Alumni Association, Fratto started a website recently, www.rooseveltroom.net, where he aggregates the policy writings and musings of the Bush ex-pats.