Donna Brazile is a woman on a mission.
She’s speeding down a Louisiana highway at 70 miles per hour in a rented white Dodge Intrepid en route to New Orleans, chatting to this reporter on her T-Mobile cell phone, as stretches of bayou and swamp fly by. The 44-year-old CNN political commentator and Roll Call columnist is in fine spirits, having just concluded an address extolling the power of voting to Louisiana State University law school’s graduating class.
“Have you ever had the president of the United States serve as your warm-up act?” laughs Brazile, an LSU alumna. (Just the week before her speech last Thursday, President Bush was the keynote speaker at LSU’s undergraduate commencement.)
Now, it’s time for a visit with her beloved family, which, the Bayou State native says, will naturally involve cooking.
“I’m going to make groceries,” Brazile says, meaning she’s off to the supermarket. “I’ll be doing some stirring it up, baby.”
She’ll need the down time. This week, Brazile, the first black woman to manage a major U.S. presidential campaign, kicks off a whirlwind, six-week national book tour in New York City to promote her recently released memoir, “Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics.”
Brazile, the third of nine children whose father worked odd jobs and mother was a maid, appeared destined from her earliest days in then-segregated Kenner, La., to make her political mark. She joined “the movement” at the tender age of 8 when she attended a vigil for slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Not long after that, Brazile began registering voters with the aim of electing a local candidate who supported building a playground in her neighborhood.
“I was a little girl who wanted to run a presidential campaign and put someone in the White House that could help me and my family,” she says of her teenage pledge to one day head such an effort.
Along the way, Brazile grappled with the specter of racism. “When I got on my first public bus, you still had to sit at the back,” she recalls. Later, as one of the first black students to integrate an all-white junior high school in suburban New Orleans, Brazile confronted a fusillade of eggs and tomatoes from enraged white parents on her first day at the school, and she vowed to fight back.
“When I was growing up, ‘white’ was capitalized and ‘black’ was capitalized,” Brazile notes, referring to the sharp divisions of segregation. (To emphasize this point, Brazile made the stylistic decision to uppercase all “black” and “white” references throughout the book.
Brazile’s book goes on to chronicle her frenetic rise in progressive political circles — from her role as director of the national mobilization effort for the 20th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington to her campaign work for Democratic presidential candidates the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Michael Dukakis (from whose campaign she was fired after making impolitic comments regarding then-Vice President George H.W. Bush’s personal life), to her 1999 appointment as then-Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign manager.
“It was the loneliest periods of my life,” Brazile, a former chief of staff and press secretary to D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), says of her years on the hustings. “When you are involved in a campaign you are married to your job.
“I have like 300 kids — they all have different daddies,” Brazile cracks, referring to the young campaign workers she has nurtured along the way.
“Politics is like an addiction,” she adds. “I didn’t know if anyone would ever break the spell.”
But then came the 36-day recount period, the Supreme Court case, and Gore’s eventual electoral defeat by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), despite having won the popular vote by roughly 500,000 votes.
“The 2000 election broke [the spell] and it broke my spirit in turn,” Brazile, a devout Catholic, says simply.
As the title would indicate, throughout the book Brazile — raised in a family that emphasized the salutary effects of good cooking — weaves myriad Southern culinary references.
“Often in politics people use sports as a metaphor,” says Brazile, who believes cooking provides equally fertile ground for political analogies. Accordingly, each chapter is named after a well-known regional specialty, ranging from blackened catfish to oysters Bienville, with brief introductions drawing parallels between a particular dish’s ingredients and the political focus of the chapter. (As an added bonus, Brazile concludes the book with her mother Jean’s 10-step seafood gumbo recipe.)
Brazile, who today chairs the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute and serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, says she’s pleased to have finally stepped off “the roller coaster” and has no specific plans to work on the Kerry campaign, beyond a possible get-out-the-vote role.
Now she says, “my personal mission in life is not to beat the dreams for one candidate or another but to beat the drums for democracy.”
That said, Brazile is considering donating the proceeds from her book’s sales to the 501(c)(3) America’s Families United, to be used for efforts to increase voter education and protect election participation rights.
“I was hoping [Gore] would designate [the money left over from his presidential campaign] for voter education, but he gave it to the party without strings attached,” Brazile says of the $6 million he contributed to three Democratic campaign committees. “There’s no money right now designated inside the party for voter education.”
As for her life outside the political arena, Brazile says she gave short shrift to that aspect in her book because she didn’t want to litter it with inconsequential references to “flings,” which occurred in between intense periods of political work.
“People will not let me have a personal life. Even at the graduation right now, people were telling me what John Kerry should be talking about,” she says, adding that such pressures have carried over into her romantic relationships. “I should date someone from outside the country or an astronaut.”
At the moment, Brazile says, she’s more than happy to spend time with her Pomeranian pooch Chip, her family and the tight-knit group of female friends she dubs “the colored girls,” which include political heavyweights such as Democratic strategists Minyon Moore and Jenny Backus.
“It’s a group of women of all colors of the rainbow who go out and drink wine,” Brazile says.
“Cooking with Grease” will hardly mark her final literary endeavor. Already Brazile has begun work on another book dealing with lessons learned in progressive politics and the rise of the left in America. She also recently completed compiling (along with Andy Hernandez) a minority consultant guide for the DNC that is in the process of being published.
For all her success in Democratic circles, Brazile — who expresses some frustration in the book with the treatment she received from the Dukakis and Gore campaigns — says the party deserves only a “B-plus” when it comes to diversity issues. “The party has selective amnesia,” she says. “Sometimes they forget who brought them to the dance.”
Still, despite the years of low pay, sleepless nights, personal isolation and even political defeat, Brazile says ultimately her journey was worth the sacrifice.
She did, after all, accomplish what no other black woman in U.S. history has achieved.
“I am not going to let the mistakes of 2000 or errors of Florida take away the joy of having managed a presidential campaign,” she says. “I was just short a couple of chads.”
Brazile will be on hand to sign books at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at Capitol Hill’s Trover Shop, located at 221 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.