The crowd at the West Virginia delegation breakfast Tuesday morning was already through their omelets and several speeches when Terry Holt, the Hill veteran-turned-communications director for Bush-Cheney ’04, took the stage.
After a brief hello, Holt leaned forward and in a conspiratorially hushed voice told the audience that he was going to share a secret: “The president loves West Virginia.”
From there, he went into a brief anecdote about a recent trip to the state and then transitioned into a mocking reminder that Democratic nominee John Kerry recently suggested that Hollywood entertainment types were “the heart and soul of America.” Holt even did a halfway-decent Kerry impression before predicting that the race in the Mountaineer State would be a walkover for Bush.
The speech at the Millennium Broadway hotel was Holt’s second of the morning, a minor departure from his usual round of appearances on television and talk radio.
For Holt, whose tenure with then-Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) during the 107th Congress capped off more than a decade on Capitol Hill, the move from behind-the-scenes handler to a campaign’s public face has been surprisingly smooth.
“You always wonder how people will make the transition from doing press secretary work on the Hill,” said Stuart Roy, spokesman for Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). “Terry has exceeded every expectation of most of the folks who knew him on the Hill for his ability to go on TV and hold his own against the Chris Matthews of the world.”
A Different Role
This isn’t Holt’s first stint on the White House campaign trail. An Indiana native, he worked on the 1996 presidential bid of fellow Hoosier, Sen. Dick Lugar (R). Holt also served as the communications director of Victory 2000, the joint effort of the Republican National Committee and the Bush campaign.
While he has plenty of previous campaign experience, Holt believes his time on the Hill was crucial in preparing him for this job, the biggest of his career so far.
“I could not have done this job without serving in Congress as a staffer,” he said.
Like Holt, Ari Fleischer, the 2000 Bush campaign spokesman and eventual White House press secretary, cut his teeth in several different Congressional posts.
Now in the private sector here in New York, Fleischer believes Holt has adapted well to his new job.
“Some people make the mistake of being too punchy and too dramatic,” said Fleischer, praising Holt’s ability to keep his comments clear and to the point, whether he’s dealing with print or broadcast media.
Fleischer said a key challenge for a press staffer leaving Congress is learning to “leave behind the rancor of the minutiae,” remembering to stay focused on larger themes rather than getting caught up in the day-to-day battles that often characterize life on the Hill.
He added that Holt brings one key advantage to the post that helps him in his TV appearances.
“He happens to be a good-looking guy, and that’s something I’m comfortable enough to say,” Fleischer said.
When he’s not getting by on his looks, Holt also depends on the rest of the Bush campaign staff to pick up many of the tasks that wouldn’t suit his talents or his schedule. Another Hill veteran, Steve Schmidt, runs the rapid-response operation, while Scott Stanzel oversees most of the traveling press duties.
Holt’s willingness to delegate predates his move to the Bush campaign.
“He was definitely the big-picture guy; he would hire good people and let them do good things,” said Greg Crist, who served as Holt’s deputy in Armey’s office and now runs the press shop for the House Republican Conference. “He essentially took a hands-off approach as long as you were moving the ball down the field.”
That emphasis on the big picture often comes through during Holt’s appearances on television. When Fleischer was in the job, he sometimes frustrated reporters by refusing to answer a question or repeating the same answer over and over. Holt, according to other Republican press aides, excels at staying on message by answering as though he’d been asked an entirely different question.
Holt had good training for such work, given that Armey was known for blurting out to reporters whatever happened to be on his mind.
Asked in the convention hall Monday if Holt did a good job keeping him on message, Armey, who retired in 2002, laughed and said, “I think you would have a better time asking him if he was ever able to teach me anything — like discipline.”
While he brings ample experience and message discipline to his role with the Bush campaign, Holt also brings a well-known temper.
“Terry’s like a microwave — he can get hot in a hurry,” Crist said.
Crist stressed that Holt’s anger would dissipate just as quickly as it materialized and that he made a point of never taking any professional disputes with colleagues or journalists personally.
Some reporters who have dealt frequently with Holt make the same point, recalling instances when Holt yelled at them and then called back the next day as though the blowup had never happened.
Holt was also known to have run-ins with his fellow Republican staffers on the Hill, and some of those former colleagues wondered initially how his strong personality would mesh with the tightly disciplined Bush team.
But several of Holt’s current and former co-workers said they have been impressed with how well he has sublimated his personal style to that of the larger message operation. The fact that the campaign has to coordinate its activities with a large parallel press shop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue means that communications are even more tightly controlled than they were during Bush’s 2000 campaign effort.
“The incumbent is not as free to take risks as a challenger, so their [campaign] message has to be signed off on by the White House,” said a GOP aide who is close to the Bush campaign. “There’s very little freelancing or shooting from the hip.”
Perhaps because of the White House staff’s constant hovering presence over the campaign’s operations, there has been far less emphasis this year on the personalities of individual aides than there was in 2000, when Karl Rove, Joe Allbaugh, Karen Hughes and Fleischer were all the focus of frequent profiles.
Like his colleagues on the 2004 team, Holt is averse to any publicity that puts undue focus on him personally. But he does make plenty of appearances in the media and, this week especially, on the speech circuit.
A Single Dad
In a dark banquet room before the West Virginia event Tuesday morning, Holt used some Midwestern sports references to break the ice with a crowd of Wisconsin delegates.
“I only come over to your state when the [University of Wisconsin] Badgers and the [Indiana University] Boilermakers are playing,” he said.
After a brief overview of the day’s convention theme — “the compassion of the American people” — Holt gave up the podium to Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten, who made reference to Holt’s other primary responsibility in life.
“Terry as a single dad has the hardest job in America,” Bolten said.
Holt’s son will be 5 years old in November, and he is by all accounts the most important priority in his father’s present and future.
Holt called the move from his post at the Dutko Group to Bush-Cheney ’04 “a totally irrational and personal decision,” but one that has been made easier by the fact that he has a network of friends and family who have helped take care of his son while he is on the road. This week, for example, his son is with Holt’s mother in Indiana.
Largely because of his role as a parent, Holt said he wouldn’t even entertain the thought of returning to government work after November, regardless of whether Bush gets re-elected.
“My only decision is whether I move back to Indiana or try to stay in Washington to work in the private sector,” he said.