NELLIGAN: A Golden Rule In The Swamp — Accept Blame

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Jeff Nelligan Contributor
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I’ve spent nearly three decades working in the Swamp, – yes, that Swamp, Washington, D.C., the breeding ground of all the cunning and shadows and maneuvering that defines American politics. My various jobs — a low-profile staffer, a discreet special assistant, a quiet campaign operative, a Fixer — gave me a unique if humble vantage point on what I believe are the five habits of successful politicians. One of the most rare and thus priceless political reflexes is self-control.

Truly steady politicians rarely say what first comes to mind. They good-naturedly or stoically absorb whatever glancing or deeper verbal blows might come their way. They know the power of silence and most important, they are forthright in acknowledging shortcomings or outright failure and accepting blame. Here’s a tale on how that works:

The U.S. House of Representatives has 435 Members, of which 20 are Committee Chairman. That’s a minuscule 4.7 percent of some of the most ruthless individuals in the Swamp. Being a Chairman is ascension to rarefied air and I was privileged to get a few breaths in a job as a Committee staffer.

One late afternoon, we had a high-stakes House Committee vote on a railway labor matter and my Chairman lost. It was as surprising as it was devastating. No Chairmen call for a committee vote unless they know they’re going to win it – Politics 101. Nonetheless, three members on our side had crossed the aisle at the last moment and voted the wrong way. What’s more, these guys had been personally selected by my boss to be on the panel when it was formed. My boss assumed the trio would stay with him, even though he knew it was a tough vote to take home to their districts. Wrong assumption.

Of course, gleeful reporters – addicted to divisiveness and jacking up the Majority – were going to have tough questions, so I asked my boss, what do I tell them?

Publically embarrassed and privately livid, I knew from experience that virtually every other politician in this kind of predicament would have responded to the press with outrage – “very disappointed … disloyal … reevaluate their positions …” But my boss, even after an all-day committee markup, weary and defeated sitting there in his Committee office, looked at me and smiled ruefully. “Give ’em this: ‘All three remain highly valued Members of my committee.’” And then my favorite line, “It’s my fault these guys weren’t with me today.”

Talk about the ultimate exhibition of self-control. Talk about authenticity. No threats, no yelling, no excuses. But I wasn’t surprised – the man was a class act, which is one reason he was a Chairman. When I passed this statement on to the cool kids club of reporters, they were noticeably deflated. The Chairman knew what we all knew – he’d blundered. He’d asked for too much loyalty, placing these guys at risk in the next election. So instead of an ascent into public rage fueled by self-pity, he faced the truth. And in the eyes of everyone, including that sometimes feckless press, he looked strong.

I saw this habitual fortitude again and again with my various bosses in the rare moments they experienced serious defeat. At their level, successful and respected, they knew the best way to handle failure was to accept the blame, and to be momentarily comfortable with discomfort.

This example, and numerous others from my more than a dozen political bosses, taught me an invaluable lesson.

In one of my stints as a campaign advance man, I worked on a presidential contest and nine hours after the final moments of Election Day I arrived at Columbus (Ohio) International Airport. My guy had lost the state by 270,000 votes. Which wasn’t as bad as him losing the Electoral College vote 375 to 173.

Early for my flight, unshaven and wearing a wrinkled suit and tie, with my “lucky” camo Army rucksack at my feet, I was sitting outside the aptly named “Departure” terminal with a cup of coffee and a pack of Marlboros, blowing smoke rings and pondering my future. Oh, it looked great. My Schedule C appointment was about to become unscheduled and my job was now going to vanish like my first-hand smoke, leaving me hustling the streets of a town dominated by the other political party. I knew how well that was going to work out. I’d been through the exact same drill 16 years earlier as a younger and less savvy presidential appointee serving on another doomed campaign. Unemployment is the cruelest, most despairing, and most deserved aspect of the Swamp.

Then it happened. A bus pulled up at the curb, the door opened, and the place swirled with excited young campaign workers wearing Levis and sweatshirts, jabbering with glee and mockingly thrusting campaign posters at each other like swords.

Hope and Change engulfed the air, choking the Marlboro man. In all the horseplay and bustle, a stack of Obama/Biden placards fell against my leg and ruck and a young woman, who had no idea that I was the vanquished force of evil, says, “I’m so sorry, sir.” Oh man, if you only knew. If there was ever a moment to lose my self-control and lash out, this was it. But I’d been trained by the best and I knew what I had to say.  “No worries. Hey, heckuva win for you guys.”

Wins and losses are a daily part of life in the Swamp, where there is no way to neither hide failure nor outrun the heat. Truly successful politicians never try.

Nelligan worked for three Members of the U.S. Congress; was twice a Presidential Appointee serving senior Cabinet officials; and, operated as an advance man on municipal, Congressional, and Presidential campaigns. The above is an excerpt from his book, Tales From the Swamp: Five Habits of Successful Politicians – Notes of a Fixer (Amazon 2020).