All the President's Man

Meet Ken Mehlman, the young Republican from Pikesville who’s running President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign.

By Thomas F. Schaller. Photo by David Colwell. - June 2004

Profile on Ken Mehlman

Meet Ken Mehlman, the young Republican from Pikesville who’s running President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign.

By Thomas F. Schaller. Photo by David Colwell. - June 2004

Ken Mehlman bolts from his chair, snatches my mini-cassette recorder, and guides me around his office.

Until asking him for a tour, I had deluded myself into thinking I was somehow in control of my interview with President George W. Bush’s campaign manager. Whether I was or not, the Pikesville native is in charge now.

Mehlman shows me a series of framed photographs and memorabilia arranged along the walls of his office at the campaign’s national headquarters in northern Virginia. There he is, as White House director of political affairs, exiting from the south portico of the White House just steps behind President Bush and his top political adviser, Karl Rove. Here’s a framed replica of the Star-Spangled Banner flag he bought in Austin to remind him of his hometown.

Mounted most prominently is a box-frame photo of the moment that initiated his current assignment: Mehlman and Rove, flanking the president at his Oval Office desk, as Bush signed the official paperwork to file for re-election on May 14, 2003. The frame includes the pen president used. With it, Bush wrote on the photo three words of encouragement to Mehlman: “On to victory.” 

As Mehlman is describing another memento, my recorder clicks to a stop in his hand. We’ve been talking for a half-hour already; the tape has run out. I reach for the recorder.

Waving me off, Mehlman flips the tape over, presses the record button, and continues his monologue. His deputy communications director, Susan Whitson, is standing nearby, and rolls her eyes at me as if to say, pure Ken.

“I got it,” he says.

What Kenneth B. Mehlman’s got is one of the most important jobs in American politics during the next five months. The president has entrusted him, at the tender age of 37, to lead the 173-member staff at the national headquarters—plus another 110 field operatives, in what will eventually constitute the largest presidential campaign staff ever assembled—all while supervising the expenditure of more than a quarter of a billion dollars.

Nobody who knows him well is surprised.

“I would bet, at a pre-college age, if you had asked him what his ambition was, it would be to run a presidential campaign,” says his younger brother, Bruce, a technology industry consultant who works in Washington and lives in Potomac. “It’s what he’s always loved.”

“The interesting thing is there was never a doubt about who was going to do it,” says Rove. “It was a one-man list.”

The Bush/Cheney ’04 headquarters occupy two floors of a tall, non-descript brick office building in Arlington, Virginia. There are no indications, inside or outside, that the president’s re-election effort is located here. Security is naturally tight; inside, there are neatly organized rows of cubicles buzzing with the low hum of a mostly young, quietly efficient contingent of clean-cut staffers. In that sense, the campaign, its offices, and the people who work there are a virtual extension of Mehlman’s own personality—circumspect, businesslike, organized, and utterly focused on the task at hand.

In his crisp blue tie, pressed shirt, and pleated grey-plaid trousers, Mehlman exhibits an almost military-like attention to detail. His long, angular face and short, neatly-trimmed haircut make him seem taller than his 5’9” height. We sit down at the round table in his office, and I feel a pang of self-doubt as I sense him inspecting me. In rushing to get to the interview, have I left a button unbuttoned, or spilled something on my shirt?

We talk about his prior experiences as a lawyer, Capitol Hill aide, and top White House aide. But how he got here, though interesting enough, is not as fascinating as how—and what—he thinks.

What Mehlman doesn’t know is that I saw him deliver a luncheon speech a few weeks earlier at a George Washington University conference on Internet politics, during which he downloaded a litany of statistics to quantify the campaign’s progress thus far: More than 6 million e-mail addresses collected. Contributions from more than 600,000 donors (today, the figure is 833,000). And nearly 300,000 people committed to volunteer.

I ask him if, well, if he’s some sort of numbers geek.

“I’m a believer in metrics,” Mehlman brightens, taking the question as a compliment. “If you want to succeed in whatever you do, you need to measure how you’re doing, and numbers are the only way to measure. . . . Everything we do in this campaign, I get a weekly report. I think the most important thing about managing an organization like this is that you have to focus on outputs, not inputs.”

It is easy to hear, in his analytical discourse, the echo of his father, Art, who for 39 years was an accountant for Peat-Marwick. Mehlman’s dad and mom, Judy—a former teacher who actually voted for Jerry Brown in the 1976 Maryland presidential primary—are now retired, spending summers in Baltimore and winters in Naples, Florida.

Asked to elaborate on his management style, Mehlman—who runs several miles or uses an elliptical workout machine five days a week, and never drinks caffeine—launches into a set of staccato bullet-points worthy of a management textbook-on-tape.

 “You surround yourself with very good people, first,” says Mehlman. “Second, you together develop and agree upon goals. Third, you agree upon metrics to achieve those goals. And then you hold people accountable for achieving those metrics. And in everything you do, you listen and learn.”

Mehlman also, it seems to some who know him, divests himself of everything besides his job. “He has no hobbies, no pets, no outside interests, and just loves to work,” says Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-Texas), for whom Mehlman served as chief of staff for two-and-a-half years in the mid-1990s. “You can never beat him to the office.” 

His brother looks at it another way.

“He would come home and watch C-SPAN at night,” says Bruce, recalling the summer of 1993 when the two brothers lived together in Washington. “Nobody comes home and watches C-SPAN. Politics are his sports, his hobby.

“Not too many people can do their hobby as their job, but he’s one of them.” 

“My vocation is also my avocation,” admits Mehlman, who vacations for a week in Nantucket most summers, though “obviously” not this year. “But what I find more important than my vocation are my friends, family, and faith. . . . I benefit from having a lot of friends in the Washington area that are not in this game. And I’m also fortunate to have a lot of family here, too.”

The story of a person elevated to such a position of immense responsibility is usually a long and circuitous one, filled with missed opportunities, career changes, setbacks, and moments of self-doubt along the way. Not so for Mehlman, for whom the label “meteoric” may have been invented.

As some children show an early gift for science or sports by taking up a microscope or baseball, Mehlman’s talents were revealed with a board game. He spent much of junior high battling all comers in a game about the campaign politics of electing a presidential candidate. Bruce, his brother, was a frequent competitor—and loser. “All I remember is I used to cheat,” Bruce says today, “and he used to win.”

Before he was old enough to drive—much less vote—he was pounding the pavement for a Republican candidate. “I am a full-time political professional because of Ronald Reagan,” says Mehlman, who canvassed door-to-door at the age of 14 for Reagan’s 1980 campaign.

After graduating from Pikesville High School in 1984 and Franklin & Marshall College four years later, Mehlman attended Harvard Law School, where he became heavily involved in Republican politics for the first time. He was an editor of the Journal of Law and Public Policy, published by the libertarian/conservative Federalist Society. “I was part of the right-wing conspiracy before it was cool,” he laughs.

Mehlman graduated from Harvard Law in 1991; his affinity for Reagan pulled him to Washington. He eventually became a litigator for Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, one of Washington’s power firms. (He can hardly be faulted for foregoing a career in state politics, given that Maryland Republicans operated in a near-total power vacuum in the late 1980s.) 

Through connections he made working for the Texas-based Akin Gump, Mehlman heard in 1994 that Republican congressman Lamar Smith needed a legislative director. He got the job, and ditched the legal briefs in favor of the hurly-burly of Capitol Hill, where he now lives.

Two years later, when Granger, another Texas Representative, was hiring a chief of staff, Mehlman applied. “We had narrowed it down to about ten finalists, all of whom had experience as a congressional chief of staff,” Granger remembers. “But Ken was just head-and-shoulders above the rest.”

When Mehlman left three years later to become a regional field director for yet another Texan—George W. Bush—during the presidential primaries, Granger threw Mehlman a going-away party. “I have to admit—and this is a bit awkward for me—that he’s the only person who, when he left, I cried,” says Granger. “I even wrote his parents a letter to tell them how much I respected him.”

During the primaries, Mehlman so impressed Karl Rove that Rove chose him to run the national field campaign for the general election against then-Vice President Al Gore. “He’s a really good picker of talent,” says Rove. “He has a great eye for finding a person who has a lot of potential but maybe not that much on their resume yet.”

During the political autopsies of the 2000 campaign, most observers agree that Mehlman’s counterpart, Democratic strategist Michael Whouley, delivered a late surge that produced a popular-vote win for Gore, which was predicted by almost none of the national polls. The Democrats’ longstanding field advantage had, by 2002, prompted the GOP to develop and implement their now-famous “72-hour program,” a massive last-minute drive to target potential GOP voters. The principal proponent and innovator of the 72-hour program was, naturally, Mehlman.  

But the 2000 campaign was decided during the fateful, 37-day recount during which Mehlman dramatically burnished his reputation.

“I was one of the first six people to fly from Austin to Florida,” recalls Mehlman, adding that his task was essentially to continue serving as the field director of the staff and volunteers doing the recounts. He spent most of his time knee-deep in the recount, from the early missteps to the final legal stages.

“In Florida, I could see Ken grow up before my eyes,” remembers Ed Gillespie, a top Bush adviser who is now chairman of the Republican National Committee. “He was so strong on the ground, organizing our people and the meetings we held every morning at 7:30 to plan strategy.”

Mehlman’s growth was only metaphorical: After 37 days of stress, long hours, and at some points almost 48 hours without food in southern Florida, Mehlman gave new meaning to the South Beach Diet by losing 13 pounds off his already sinewy frame. 

Washington is a town full of climbers, the sort of people who look over your shoulder at cocktail parties to see if somebody more important is nearby, who start thinking about their next job in the first week of their current one. But when Mehlman insists he’s “never been in a position for any job in my life where I was looking around and unhappy,” it’s clear he means it.

“Ken proves that good guys finish first,” says Gillespie. “He’s a blue-collar guy who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves because he doesn’t seek it. He knows he’s good and isn’t a self-promoter.” Which is precisely why he was promoted up the ladder in GOP politics so quickly.

In the spring of 2003, when the time came for the president to choose his re-election campaign manager, there was no need for a search. Rove called, Mehlman accepted—but only, according to Rove, on two conditions.

First, Mehlman insisted on having complete autonomy to hire and fire staff. Second, to send a proper signal to that staff, he asked to be paid $20,000 a year less than Bush’s 2000 campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh. When Rove agreed, Mehlman packed his office up and moved from the glamour of White House meetings to a high-rise in Arlington to begin the job for which he had prepared his entire life. 

Outside his office window, Mehlman can see the full panorama of Washington, including the small, barely visible dot of the White House, to which he plans to return his boss for another four years. Always staying on message, Mehlman says he expects “a tough battle and competitive election,” but that Bush will prevail.

I suggest to him that—given population growth in the past 20 years—with a solid victory, Bush could eclipse the 54.5-million-vote standard set in 1984 by Mehlman’s hero, Ronald Reagan.

For a split second, the calculations churn in his head, and he almost permits himself a grin. Either he’s been too focused on his duties to consider the possibility, or he’s considered the possibility but stops himself before he would ever let on—much less in front of a staff member or reporter—that the thought had crossed his mind. 

“The most important thing I want,” Mehlman says, “is a victory for the President that will afford him the ability to lead the country for another four years.”

If that doesn’t happen, it surely won’t be because Ken Mehlman failed to do his metrics.

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