Much like his ex-boss, Karl Rove, J. Scott Jennings recently left his White House post with a mixed legacy of achievement and controversy.
During his two years as a special assistant to the President and as a deputy to Rove, he garnered praise for his work on high-profile campaigns like Supreme Court nominations, but was also dogged with criticism for his role in the firing of US attorneys earlier this year.
Last month, Jennings joined Peritus PR as director of strategic development, leaving behind, for now, a life inside the Beltway. Yet he still recalls the things he learned while working in such a polarized political climate - and the unique perspective it gives him.
"You must deliver a concise message that is understood by most people," Jennings says about political messaging. "I'll undoubtedly put that to work in every job I do."
For instance, when Samuel Alito was nominated for the Supreme Court, he helped build a diverse coalition of Italian Americans to lobby in support. The effort targeted states with large Italian-American populations, urging the communities to push for their senators to support Alito.
"[The coalition members] were so excited about someone sharing their culture and heritage being nominated for the Court," recalls Jennings. "They really went all out and became a leading voice for us in a great many places."
The push enjoyed a hard-fought victory after the Senate confirmed Alito by a relatively close margin.
Other efforts, like President Bush's bid to privatize Social Security, generated media interest and set the nation's political agenda. Jennings helped build coalitions and manage the President's national tour to promote the policy. Though the initiative ultimately failed, it did alter the way Americans talked about Social Security.
"It was a good example of trying to support a policy initiative in a challenging environment," he says.
But trouble started for Jennings this year after he came under some scrutiny for his role in the Justice Department's surprising dismissal of seven US attorneys. Jennings was found to have sent e-mails about the firings using a private Republican National Committee (RNC) account, making the correspondences unavailable to the public. He testified before the Judiciary Committee in August about his role, invoking executive privilege on most questions.
"This thing has taken on a life of its own," says Jennings in maintaining there was no wrongdoing. "[The private e-mail accounts were] set up in an abundance of caution, in an effort to try to follow the law so that no one would accidentally run afoul of it."
The RNC accounts had been set up to prevent White House staff from conducting partisan activities using their government accounts, he adds.
But suddenly Jennings had gone from being the person behind the news to being the story himself. But he was among others who had faced similar ordeals and he learned from their example.
"You didn't live in the eye of the storm without getting your hair messed up a bit," he notes. "[Rove] learned that, and I learned that."
Perhaps the similarities don't end there. Rove, the President's former deputy chief of staff, is known for paring down complicated political issues into simple messages. The seasoned political strategist feels Jennings shares the same talent.
"[He] has a remarkable ability to take complex issues and make them easy to understand," Rove says. "[Jennings] has an agile mind that operates quickly and critically. He is tough, [but] he has integrity and a wonderful sense of humor."
With that ringing endorsement from such an influential DC insider, does Jennings plan to stay involved in politics? Yes, but maybe in a different context, he offers.
"Does that mean I'll return to the staff of a political campaign or the government? Not necessarily," he says. "Certainly, I might look [to] run for office down the road."
J. Scott Jennings
Director of strategic development, Peritus PR
Oct. 2005-Oct. 2007
Special assistant to the President and deputy director of political affairs; Associate director of political affairs for the Southern US
Executive director of Bush/Cheney campaign in New Mexico