Edelman Vice Chairman of Public Affairs Steve Schmidt Speaks to MACOMM Students
It was standing room only as students, faculty and staff streamed into the Pitt Center Board Room at Sacred Heart University recently to hear Steve Schmidt, vice chairman of Public Affairs at Edelman, the largest public relations firm in the world. Not only is Schmidt known for his role there, but he was also the senior campaign strategist and adviser to the 2008 presidential campaign of Senator John McCain, and he is a regular political analyst featured on MSNBC. Perhaps the general public is most familiar with him as the character portrayed by Woody Harrelson in HBO’s film version of Game Change.
Schmidt said by the time he was interviewed for the book, the writers had interviewed about 185 people and had a lot of details about what had happened. “The book and movie were really accurate, but it was maybe 30 percent crazier in real life,” Schmidt said with a smile.
The event was arranged by Katie Burke, a Sacred Heart master’s in communication (MACOMM) advisory board member who has also been a guest lecturer in the MACOMM program. Burke is currently the global chief of staff at Edelman and worked with Schmidt in the White House under President George W. Bush as director of television news while Schmidt was a member of the administration’s strategic planning group. Schmidt was a key White House strategist during the successful Supreme Court nominations of Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.
Schmidt has been on The Rachel Maddow Show and has had multiple appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher. He is a regular on Morning Joe and was featured recently in The New York Times. His public visibility was not lost on the attendees. “I thought it was great. I enjoyed the Mike Berland presentation a couple weeks ago, and I watch a lot of Morning Joe with my husband, so I’ve seen him on television and it was nice to see him in person,” said Jennifer Johnston, a MACOMM public relations graduate student from Stamford.
An entertaining storyteller, Schmidt shared a number of experiences from his storied career. During his time as manager of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign, Schmidt described going into the Governor’s Santa Monica office, which was a reconstruction of Schwarzenegger’s home in Austria. Along with his colleagues, he presented a plan of actions and behaviors that would increase the Governor’s approval rating. When he finished, Schwarzenegger responded, “I can play that role.”
Schmidt recalled sitting in his basement watching the Democratic National Convention with his two-month-old baby and his dog when he saw coverage of Howard Dean’s ill-advised scream. He immediately realized that the new frontrunner would be John Kerry and began to research accordingly. Schmidt brought the rapt crowd back to the 2008 McCain campaign – from trying to “win an unwinnable election,” to considering Joe Lieberman as the vice presidential candidate, to the final choice of Sarah Palin. He openly discussed the positives and negatives of the team’s choices during the campaign.
“I’m surprised that he is ready and willing to admit what he did wrong in some instances. People usually don’t want to talk about their mistakes. I think honesty is a good direction for people in politics to be going,” Johnston said.
The conversation turned to the necessary qualities in a political candidate today. “The days of electing an inarticulate person are over,” Schmidt said. He admitted that the environment for a successful candidate dictates the necessity of a fusion of politics of entertainment. Schmidt also discussed his belief that people of faith should be welcomed in both parties.
He stressed the importance in politics of turning the other cheek, relating with voters and being as authentic and honest as possible. “We live in a world today that is defined more than anything by the collapse of trust,” he said. With the advanced technology and communication in our world today, a candidate can be ruined with just one misstep that gets videotaped on a smart phone and put up on YouTube. He noted his belief that the 2012 presidential election between President Obama and Governor Romney would have been much closer if some of Romney’s off-the-record comments had not been caught on camera.
Schmidt expressed his hope for the Republican Party to return to its roots. “At its best, the Republican Party is for freedom, liberty, the individual and limited government,” he said, adding that his reason for remaining a loyal Republican is “that there is a bigger truth than the failing of individuals in the present tense. The Republican Party is an institution worth fighting for – it has moved this country forward in profoundly good ways,” he said. Schmidt elaborated by saying that he longs for a restoration of his party through a leader that will “reinvigorate the party much in the same way Clinton did for the Democrats.
“Despite all of the problems and challenges that the country has, you are coming of age and growing up in a time of limitless opportunity that will lead to an age of discovery and innovation,” Schmidt said. He encouraged students in the room to pursue their dreams and to become active members of the political landscape. “The way we effect change is by going to the ballot box, by protesting, by saying we are going to do things differently. Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican or Independent, it’s important to get involved and renew and refresh the system.”
He said he hopes that in this polarized and partisan time, elections can be turned around from “lowest common denominator affairs” into uplifting events, stressing that every four years, we have the opportunity to choose a new direction and that elections matter. Schmidt acknowledged that the United States has come through a challenging 10-year period with wars and the recession, but he believes we are coming into a period of slow economic growth.
“I appreciated his honesty,” said Esther Thomas, a MACOMM public relations student from Branford, adding that after Schmidt’s talk, she has a newfound respect for what goes into running campaigns.
In a final word of encouragement to the students in the room, Schmidt said, “Work hard at everything you do, no matter what it is. Long before I got to go on Air Force One, I lived in a motel and was willing to do any job in politics. You have to be motivated to be the first one at an event and the last one to leave. I truly feel blessed in being able to say that what I do beats working for a living,” he concluded.