PROFILE: James follows political passion - from Iowa to Iraq

Gordon James' political-advance career began by working with the first President Bush. His skills eventually led him to start his own firm and, most recently, help the CPA's efforts in Iraq.

Gordon James' political-advance career began by working with the first President Bush. His skills eventually led him to start his own firm and, most recently, help the CPA's efforts in Iraq.

The Iowa caucuses have launched a thousand love affairs. Campaigning is deeply personal in the Hawkeye State, where candidates give speeches in family rooms and kiss babies not on a rope line, but in their cribs. So it's not unusual for personal bonds to form between Iowans and presidential hopefuls. Most people simply don't make a career of it. Gordon James was first bitten by the George H.W. Bush bug in 1978. At the time, the future Vice President was still known as Ambassador Bush and he was hardly a star in caucus country. But something sparked between the former CIA director and James, who was still a political novice, to say the least. "I was living in Des Moines, IA, [and] in the real-estate management business," James recalls. "We used to make money off renting space to presidential candidates in town for the caucuses. "At the time, Ambassador Bush rented space from us in '78," James adds, "and I just fell in love." Plenty of candidates had come and gone in James' life, but something between him and Bush "just clicked." So as the years wore on, they stayed in touch. James remained a loyal friend. And as anyone who follows the Bushes knows, no single trait is so greatly treasured as loyalty. James admits that he was noticeably lacking in qualifications for a life in politics. Still, when the '88 campaign rolled around and Bush sought to succeed his boss, departing President Ronald Reagan, he pulled James aboard the campaign as an advance man. "I didn't know a stage from an outhouse," he confides. "I learned all this just from doing it - and I'm still faking it after all these years," he jokes. For anyone not familiar with the finer points of campaign work, it's the job of the advance team to make sure that when the candidate shows up to make a speech, there's a stage for him to stand on. Not to mention a podium, a PA system, an audience of adoring fans, a camera-ready background, reporters, and, these days, no obvious security threats. It's a job with very small margins for error, James quickly discovered. "I learned more in my first five months than I have in all my years since because I just had to do it myself," says James. "There was no Home Depot to go to, no sound and light guy to go to. We just had a grip kit with the basics that we lugged all over the country." Despite his relative inexperience, James was tasked with the advance job again once the campaign ended - first for the '88 inaugural, then on a permanent basis inside the White House as lead advance representative. Since those auspicious beginnings, James has had a steady life in advance work. His association and ongoing relationship with the senior Bush yielded a lifetime's worth of government and political opportunities. (James worked with the current President years before anyone foresaw his meteoric political rise.) It also earned him the independence to open his own venture in 1990, Gordon C. James Public Relations, a self-described full-service media relations, event management, and government affairs firm based in Phoenix, AZ. Talk to him about his work these days, however, and you're likely to hear about one thing: Iraq. James and two agency associates, Greg Edgar and Christina Estrada, recently traded the friendly sands of Arizona for the harsh deserts of Iraq. All took a leave of absence in order to put in their time overseas. There, James did the work he's been perfecting since his Iowa days - advance work and event management - for an unusual client, The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). "We were highlighting Ambassador [Paul] Bremer's work, trying to get a positive media spin out of what he was doing," James recalls. As one can imagine, there's nothing easy about staging a peaceful event that will get noticed in a war zone. "It was very rough work," he admits. "Five little kids at a school handing the ambassador roses was not much of a picture compared to the chaos you'd find elsewhere in the country on almost any given day." It was not, however, without its rewarding moments. "We got to produce some big events," James says. "We helped Iraqis with the signing of the Tal, their Declaration of Independence." He also helped set up "100 Days to Sovereignty," the event that began the countdown to the transfer of power and the June unveiling of Iraq's official interim government. "And on June 28, that was really history," he reflects. "That was when Ambassador Bremer was able to hand over sovereignty," in a secret ceremony that James helped organize and attended. "Then we took him to the airport, came back, and did the swearing-in ceremonies," he continues. "That was a great day. That's what we were working toward the whole time." Brian McCormick, former special assistant to Bremer, worked closely with James in Baghdad. He says conditions in that battle-scarred and still very dangerous country made James' job a particularly difficult one. "It was like starting at square one," he says. "From an advance/events perspective, there wasn't really much to work with. We had to create a lot of what we used, and Gordon brought an authoritative and guiding perspective to that." Not surprisingly, James says it was his early work on the Bush campaign that informed his work in Baghdad. Once again, he was attempting to stage massive events designed to grab world attention, but with very few resources and lots of camera-ready competition. "It was important for the Iraqi people and everyone to see that this was a new Iraqi government, [one that's] not hiding behind the wall of the security tent or the [militarily secured] Green Zone," says McCormick. "You must have somebody on point who knows how to move the logistics and make sure all the requirements are in place, so not only does the event come off, but people around the world know it. That's what Gordon and his team did," McCormick adds. And though it might seem tame by comparison, James has been working on key whistle stops for the Bush/Cheney campaign since his return. He also played a key set-up role in the third Bush-Kerry debate held at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ, on October 13. And in his immediate future is election night, for which he is staging the President's event, win or lose. It's the kind of assignment some might find intimidating. James, however, says, "It's just a place where people come to watch returns and the candidate makes a statement. That's easy." Spoken just like a man who's plied his craft in a war zone. Or at least Iowa. Gordon James
1990-present Gordon C. James Public Relations, owner 1989-1990 The White House, Office of Presidential Advance 1969-1987 Graham Investment Co., Des Moines, IA

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