Political controversy feeds Eskew's adrenaline rush

Having risen to the task of playing a key comms role in some of the US' fiercest political tempests, Tucker Eskew is ready to conquer his latest challenge - running his own consultancy.

Having risen to the task of playing a key comms role in some of the US' fiercest political tempests, Tucker Eskew is ready to conquer his latest challenge - running his own consultancy.

Long before the internet, there was Tucker Eskew, a cog in Lee Atwater's personal search engine. As an intern at the White House, he'd work long days scanning books, magazines, and news broadcasts for Ronald Reagan's legendary political strategist. It was summer 1981 and Atwater was constantly on the lookout for "the new new thing." Eskew did most of the actual looking. "Lee was collecting news, information, and political intelligence as voraciously as anyone I've ever witnessed," he remembers. "I'd read a book for him and write up a report. I'd read a stack of magazines and find the things that were culturally and politically relevant." The point to all the searching? "Lee was one of those guys who believed understanding the popular culture was a critical way for Republicans to stay ahead of Democrats," he says. Atwater kept his finger on the national pulse by submerging his staffers in the media. Eskew, then a junior in college, must have been good at it because they made it his job again, three years later, as an assistant press secretary with the 1984 Reagan re-election campaign. "[Tucker] spent the entire day doing by hand what today could probably be done in 18 minutes using the internet," laughs John Buckley, AOL's corporate communications EVP and Eskew's ex-boss in the Reagan campaign. One could easily see how that training might doom a man to a life in PR, but in truth, Eskew was a goner from birth. He was born to an Atlanta newsman, Rhea Eskew, a GM with UPI who later spent 15 years as a publisher at South Carolina's Greenville News. Tucker was reading the afternoon newspaper every day as a child and had such a natural pull toward politics that he was working in Sen. Strom Thurmond's district office by 17. ("He was old then," Eskew notes). Today, after four action-packed years with the George W. Bush team, Eskew is venturing out on his own, launching a PR and political consulting firm he calls Eskew Strategy Group. It's his newest "new new thing," helping advance "high stakes" public policy issues in the media. Clients he's willing to talk about include Verisign and the US pavilion for the next World Expo. Those he won't talk about include one of DC's largest trade groups and a global foundation or two. But his favorite client is surely his old boss, George W. Bush. Eskew is an unofficial (read: unpaid) consultant for the 2004 campaign, though you'd be forgiven for thinking he was on staff. It was hard to miss him during the Democratic National Convention, giving TV interviews, delivering talking points, attacking Kerry, and defending the President. He has a style that separates the great political attack men from the merely good. Boyish good looks, a smooth, even speaking style, and the capacity to attack through smiling lips. "He's got the gift," says Buckley. "He's a natural." All of which makes him uniquely valuable to the Bush effort. "[Tucker] is extremely effective at explaining things, whether they're complicated or simple. Whatever it is, he's able to explain it in a pithy and interesting way," says campaign manager Ken Mehlman. A self-confessed adrenaline junkie, Eskew's penchant for the cutting edge has landed him in some of the century's most contentious political battles. "That campaign adrenaline, that's mighty fine, high-grade stuff," he nods. He was the communications director in South Carolina for the 2000 primary, high noon between Bush and Sen. John McCain for the GOP nod. "It was a tough campaign," he recalls, hunching over and clawing his hands. "Tough by McCain, tough by Bush; foul ball, foul- play stuff. If there were things that weren't fair and square, they didn't have anything to do with our campaign." He was on the ground in Florida within hours of the last ballot being cast, leading a communications team to stop the recounts. "I wore out every single roller-coaster analogy and circus metaphor I had in my political lexicon," he laughs. "Surreal, yet so real." To this day he has hanging on his wall a framed butterfly ballot, signed by the Florida elections supervisor. And he was in the White House on 9/11, ousted from the building and forced to help craft the President's message from a friend's office down the street. All the while separated from his wife and infant child. But war is what brought Eskew onto a global playing field. When the US invaded Afghanistan, it became clear that the White House didn't have the PR arsenal in the Mideast to fight the information war. Anti-US forces dominated Arab media as the White House slept. Reversing that became Eskew's job. He moved to London to work closely with 10 Downing Street, jointly creating the Coalition Information Center (CIC), which allowed no deadline in any time zone to pass without US input. Eskew isn't eager to speak ill of any reporter, but the look on his face makes you wonder which region's scribes caused him greater culture shock: England or the Middle East. After the Taliban's ousting in Afghanistan, Eskew was returned to the US, but not to his old job. He spent his remaining year at the White House making the CIC a permanent part of its PR function. This time they called it The Office of Global Communications. It's the first time the White House had an office dedicated to international communications. And now, a PR firm, in sleepy Old Town Alexandria, miles from the action of Pennsylvania Avenue. Surely this now-father of two can't help but feel a little....bored? Not likely. After leaving the White House, he'd actually accepted a job with a globally established communications firm - until a moment of clarity convinced him otherwise. "I'm entrepreneurial," he says. "I enjoy the mix of responsibility and freedom that comes with building a business. And that's what I'm seeking to do here - build a business, not just have a consultancy." In other words, the search continues. Tucker Eskew 2004 President, Eskew Strategy Group 2002-2003 Director, Office of Global Communications 2000-2001 Director of media affairs, White House 1999-2000 SC comms director, Bush Cheney campaign 1997-1998 President, Eskew Communications Group 1995-1997 Head of marcomms, DART (later Telequest) 1987-1995 Press sec., Gov. Carroll Campbell (R-SC) 1984 Assistant press sec., Reagan-Bush campaign 1981 White House intern

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