The Go-To Guy

When you’re in charge of the message, it helps to have a relationship with the messenger(s).

Shortly after the two-term Secretary of State was elected Governor of Kansas in ‘94, the task of hiring and firing the public information officers for the Executive Branch (Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu’s caps) agencies that report to the Governor, fell to me.

It was a series of delicate, carefully triangulated doh-si-doh’s, involving the Governor’s press secretary (moi), the individual cabinet agency secretary and an in-house head hunter.

A scant few months after abandoning a journalism career for something as iffy as a political campaign, I did what any self-respecting, fledgling political operative would do when faced with similar circumstances.

I hired a lot of my friends.

The skill set for an effective government agency spokesperson is not complicated: Loyalty to the Governor, the ability to string together two or more coherent sentences and something I would only come to fully appreciate a few years into the gig.

Savviness.

Gained only through practical experience, it’s a knack for understanding what motivates people, ability to recognize opportunities and avoid land mines.

My friends (mostly reporters) would be loyal to me and by extension, the Governor. I knew they could write and I just kinda figured we’d all learn savviness on the job.

One résumé kept popping up.

In the campaign, he'd served as our Leavenworth County chair and had quickly established himself as the go-to guy for pretty much anything north of Johnson County.

He’d recently retired from the U.S. Army as a Lieutenant Colonel after a distinguished and highly-decorated career capped by a stint managing the Desert Storm message for one Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Hooah.

Any savviness here, ya think?

His last active post was Fort Leavenworth. He and his wife liked it so much, they decided to stay. Happens a lot (at Forts Leavenworth and Riley).

Pat yourselves on the back, Kansans. You’re just so likable.

 (L-R) The Colonel, his better half, me, mine, at the 1999 Inaugural in Topeka.

(L-R) The Colonel, his better half, me, mine, at the 1999 Inaugural in Topeka.

Back then he was approaching his precipice. The guy coulda retired comfortably on his military pension. But he still had something to offer. All I had to do was be smart enough to hire him and humble enough to realize he was strong where I was weak.

We landed the Colonel in an Executive Branch agency whose permanent bureaucracy had developed a reputation for hijacking Governors’ agendas.

He quickly became my go-to guy for savvy.

From the Colonel, I learned about leaning forward, that shrewdness and a confrontational edge need not be negative. And that those with the loudest voices very often have the least of substance to say.

At the end of the working day, he’d stop by my Statehouse office. We’d swap intel, compare notes. Invariably, on his way out, he’d stand in the doorway, smile and reflect.

“Matson, this sh-t’s easy.”

The Colonel was the kind of guy who was really good at offering advice without consciously telegraphing that he was offering advice.

On this Veteran's Day, I think of the Colonel, his service to our nation and loyalty to causes he believed in. Upon reflection, I am so appreciative of what he did for me, even if I didn’t express it during the moment.

He took me under his wing and my life is richer because of it.