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What it’s like to work on a presidential campaign

I wake up because it’s nearly 5 a.m. and that’s the time I wake up these days. I check my Sanyo phone for missed calls and my new Blackberry for overnight e-mails. A quick skim of ABC News’ The Note brings me up to speed on today’s politics. An e-mail from Apple informs me that Mac OS X Panther is out today, but I won’t have any time to play with it.

My roommates are still asleep so I sneak out quietly. It’s still dark outside. I’m always self-conscious cranking up my rusted, white Buick Century this early, but the blue velour bench seats comfort me. The campaign is withholding our paychecks again before the fundraising quarter’s end, so I haven’t had any money to fix the fuel injectors. The smell of gas fills up the car after a few miles. If I can make it to my office in the next twenty minutes I should avoid getting a headache from the fumes. First I head to McDonalds.

McGriddle. Check. Large orange juice. Check. Cinnamon melts. Check. Hash brown — just one. Check. It’s important to have a big breakfast and certainly twelve hundred calories will do the trick. At six foot two, I have ballooned by nearly forty pounds in just nine months. I’m Morgan Spurlock but with no movie to sell. This is all before my afternoon Taco Bell, midday venti caramel frappuccino, and late-night pizza. I have let food become the thing that keeps me going through such long hours.

On my morning conference call I review the campaign’s online traction for our satellite headquarters in New Hampshire and Iowa. I love our fancy phones from Cisco, which were left over after they downsized and abandoned the lease. Our Raleigh, North Carolina offices are unlike most campaign headquarters. These are clean, neat, well-organized spaces, save for the refrigerator in the break room. The refrigerator is disgusting. A sign in our research department reminds us the caucus is just days away and we are still dead last, somewhere between Wesley Clark and write-in candidate Bart Simpson.

After the conference call I get to work. My day is kept busy by our blogging community, which has gone from a few dozen members when I launched it to more than ten thousand now. It’s built on some open source software called Slashcode, the same software that powers Internet heavyweight and web server-destroying Slashdot. I send a fundraising newsletters to our half million subscribers, another target no-ask Iowa update to our volunteers, and do impressions of Governor Arnold Schwarzzeneger for my cubicle neighbors. “Vee must fix ze budget and do the hawd tings zat vee don’t want to do but vee must do them any-vay!!!”

Like everyone on the campaign, I work until at least eleven each night. Some people stay overnight in sleeping bags. If we perform as poorly as the polls and media predict, it will all be over very quickly. All the work, the late nights, the sacrificed friendships, the money troubles, the weight gain; none of it will matter. Howard Dean will be the nominee and he will certainly lose to President Bush. Yes, I think to myself, our candidate is so much better. But nobody really cares.

Chances

I’m here because our candidate’s wife had an unhealthy fascination with the Internet and blogs. She was famous for posting comments, often under a pseudonym, on sites like Reddit or Democratic Underground. Earlier in the year I had found her sitting on the floor in our research room. She was hand-signing hundreds of thank you letters to donors while keeping an eye on C-SPAN’s coverage of her husband’s first debate.

“John needs to learn the details of his own health care plan,” she said to herself.

I sat down next to her with my laptop, coding casually as an excuse to make an introduction.

“He’s just got to learn this and take it seriously,” she said, growing agitated. “We spend all this time thinking these programs through, putting together so many details, and it just doesn’t matter to him. People can’t think John is shallow.”

Elizabeth was brilliant and her thoughts her wonderfully disorganized, like my own. She spoke quickly, and it would all seem like a jumble of nonsense if not constrained by her delicate, warm southern accent. She would dart from sentence to sentence, like the way her father, a navy pilot, moved her from base to base as a child. She spent some of her childhood in Japan, but eventually made her way back to North Carolina. She studied law in Chapel Hill, one of North Carolina’s most beautiful towns, and caught the eye of another law student named John Edwards. They married in 1977 and gave birth to a baby boy, Wade, just a couple years later.

We all knew about Wade and knew not to talk about him.

In 1996 Wade, then just sixteen, was driving his Jeep on I-40 heading to see his family in Wilmington. High crosswinds overturned the Jeep and Wade was killed almost instantly, though his friend in the passenger seat survived. Elizabeth once said, “It was like the wind just swept him up and blew him away.”

The tragedy rocked the Edwards family and the community around Raleigh. John Edwards’ partner, David Kirby, took over the law practice that had made them both millionaires.

Elizabeth was known to be harsh, or at least blunt, but I sensed something else. There was an insecurity to her. She obsessed over her husband and the advancement of his career. She cared deeply about people and issues, and felt strongly that the campaign was a vehicle to do good. Elizabeth was as hard working, genuine and forthright as she was crazy, difficult, and impulsive.

She identified, incorrectly as it would turn out, Howard Dean as her husband’s greatest obstacle in the primary. She felt strongly the campaign needed a presence on the Internet. This led to a position in the Internet department, which at the time consisted of a single person. I learned about the opening just a few months after my eighteenth birthday. I hopped in my car, drove ten hours to Raleigh, and submitted by resume to the volunteer coordinator. I was immediately offered an internship, among thirty others, with the understanding that only two would become full-time staffers. One of those people was me.

The day of the Iowa caucus is chaotic in the morning and afternoon. Normally our research team is pouring through transcriptions from the major news networks or viewing hours of campaign footage recorded to VCR tapes. Today most of them are called to phone lines, asking Iowans to head to their local caucus. I’m asked to do this too, but I’m too shy to cold call voters, so instead I hide out in my cubicle and try to coordinate some of our Iowa bloggers.

Our campaign manager Nick Baldick, a lawyer who once famously billed a client more than 24 hours in a single day by taking advantage of the changing time zones on an international flight, is treating ulcer medication like Tic Tacs. One of our fundraisers had been rushed to the hospital after feeling pain in her left arm, but she left the hospital in order to push for more dollars. We are sleep deprived and worried about tonight’s outcome.

A poll shows Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt vying for first place with nearly 35% apiece, while we to stand at around 4%. Dean is racking up major endorsements, including Iowa’s own Tom Harkin. Our spirits lift somewhat when we learn that Wesley Clark’s event coordinator has sent him not to a barn-burning pep rally, but to hand out coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through window.

Surprise

At around 8 o'clock I witness something unnerving at our headquarters: near silence. There just isn’t much to do now but wait for results, so instead we sit around nervously. I move into our research room and call my sister. I run through polling data and explain why we think Dean’s numbers are weak, including a rumor that he has been paying college students to bring friends to his rallies. I tell her that the South Carolina primary, where we should be a shoe-in, is just around the corner. I say we have the enough money to go on. I make excuses and bite my fingernails.

I look around the room and I see young people with authentic, genuine passion for their work. The whole team trusts one another implicitly because we all put the hours in. We never gloat or compete; we just get our work done and move on. I think about what will happen to these people — these friends I’ve made — once it all ends. Some of them will go to Washington to work for PACs or non-profits. Others will head back to school and become lawyers, judges, or politicians themselves. I’m too young to have any idea what I might do.

The results come in and I nearly fall off my chair. We place second with 33% of the vote and just two delegates less than the winner, John Kerry. We pull off a miracle and then we witness Howard Dean’s infamous meltdown on national television.

As much from exhaustion as excitement, we cry at different times. I rub and dry my eyes, and then I go to a bathroom and start crying again. Somehow I have set aside the fact that our work is only just now beginning. In this moment, I feel relieved of some burden and a tremendous sense of pride. I played my little part. I was asked to do a job and I got it done using every piece of me.

We are it. We shock the world. We do the impossible.

Yet if you should forget me for a while

I met John Edwards a few times in person, but he never seemed very engaged. A few months before the caucus, he signed a copy of his book, Four Trials, which was actually written by Elizabeth and an author named John Auchard. Once, during a private fundraising event at the Hilton in downtown Raleigh, I bumped into him as he was leaving the bathroom. Breaking an unspoken staff rule, I said, “Senator, it’s Chris from headquarters. I run your blog!”

In one fluid motion he looked at me, gave me his big, toothy smile, and continued walking past me as he said, “Oh! The blawwwwwwwwwwg!

Of course, John Edwards was not the nominee in 2004 and did not become president. After the excitement of Iowa, we fizzled in New Hampshire and only met expectations by winning our neighboring state. We ran out of money and were promptly destroyed by the Kerry machine on Super Tuesday. We were simply spread too thin. And after eight years of President Clinton, people were, smartly, never truly sold on John Edwards. Months later, we were able to force a vice presidential nomination, but the ticket lost later that fall.

On the last day of the campaign, I saw John Edwards a final time. He came to headquarters with Elizabeth to thank his war-worn staff. We had begun packing up equipment and tapes into brown boxes. Hundreds of manilla folders filled with research were tossed into the car of our research director. There really wasn’t enough work for the entire team, but everyone knew Edwards was coming to talk to us. He arrived in a black SUV, enjoying the last few days of his Secret Service protection. He wore light brown khakis and a light blue dress shirt, the sleeves, as they always were, rolled up to his elbows.

We stood in the research room, huddled in a group. We all expected a heartfelt, inspiring speech, but instead he simply said, “I love you guys. I’m gonna hand it over to Elizabeth.”

Those were the last words John Edwards spoke to most of us. I’m gonna hand it over to Elizabeth.

Remembering

Looking back, that was true of the campaign all along. The story of John Edwards is actually the story of his wife, Elizabeth. She was the brains of the campaign, its emotional core. She helped draft policy. She called my cell phone in the middle of the night to share an idea for the blog. She gave birth to and raised the children. She lost a child, her own, and recovered from it with the help of her daughter Cate. An election cycle later, she fought through cancer to keep the campaign going, then she lied to herself and the media to cover up her husband’s affair. She died in 2010, seven years after I met her, and was the last chapter of her husband’s public life before his trial.

People sometimes ask me what it was like to work on a presidential campaign. I keep it simple and say it was “a lot of fun.” In truth, life on the presidential campaign trail is physically and emotionally exhausting. It will test friendships, put enormous strain on family, empty wallets, and break you down to dull little component pieces. You are left to reconcile the enthusiasm and passion you had for the work with the stunning emptiness you feel when it ends. You think about what it means for the country that your candidate lost and someone else’s candidate won. You wonder whether you’ll ever do it again, and what that will be like.

Every campaign inevitably closes a chapter on you, and you’re left to feel like the wind might sweep you up and blow you away.


Notes

  1. A version of this originally appeared on Medium.
  2. Some the section headers refer to a poem by Christina Rossetti.
  3. The events in this article took place in 2003 and 2004.
 
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