CRESCENT People: Tucker Eskew (Part 1)

Tucker Eskew addresses media at the Foreign Affairs Center

There’s an old saying. “Write what you know.” When I was a kid, I wanted to be a political spokesman. Before you say anything, no. The dorkiness of that isn’t lost on me.

One of the guys I looked up to was Tucker Eskew. As a news junkie, sometimes I’d see him in the foreground, and others I’d see him in the background. But he was always there. Wherever Governor Campbell was, Tucker would be within reach.

When CRESCENT began to take shape, I asked myself, “Who do I want to kick off this new magazine?” It didn’t take long to come up with a long list of people, but looking at the calendar, I saw we were getting close to the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and remembered that one of South Carolina’s own was in the White House that day.

Tucker sat down and talked about his experiences at the White House, the Statehouse, and even Saturday Night Live.


Lisa and I talk about the fact that it’s now been over 10 years since we left Columbia, but it’s still home in so many ways.

I come home and think invariably about the very first thing I did in politics, of any kind. It was being an office page for Strom Thurmond. God rest his soul. Strom Thurmond employed more South Carolinians than BMW. Many young people passed through that office, and I was one of them, and I learned a few things while I was working for the senator. One of which was he didn’t really know people of my generation by name. Let me correct that. He didn’t know the boys in the office, but there was a little device I learned … to remind him who your parents were because he knew them. So about two months after I finished working an entire summer for him, I saw the senator at an event in Washington and waited patiently because he was speaking to some attractive young ladies, and I said, “Hey, Senator. I’m Tucker Eskew, Rhea Eskew’s son.”

“Why, my goodness. One of his boys used to work for me.”

I said, “Senator, that was me.” He looked back and laughed, “My, how you’ve grown.”

Of course I hadn’t even grown a quarter inch, but was he quick with a comeback. And I can’t help think of that story when I come to Columbia and see state government and see the new buildings and my, how you’ve grown.

I’ve been fortunate enough to watch a lot of history get made. Whether it was backstage with Lee Atwater at the David Letterman show or backstage at Saturday Night Live with Sarah Palin, it’s been quite a ride.

People say that history has a first draft, and it’s the news. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen the rise of social media and the 2.0 version of the Internet, and you can conclude that history is being drawn together, even before a first draft. We’re getting the class notes of thousands of over-caffeinated students who are on the blogosphere. That, together, starts to assemble the first draft of history. I think that has some very positive and some very negative effects.

I’ve always been raised and worked around people who accept the world as it is – try to change it, but acknowledge that if there are bad things, in the blogosphere or on the Internet, the way to deal with that is to drown them out with more good things.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

A pivotal moment in world history. It was for me. I was there (White House). The president was traveling, and was there as initial reports started to appear on our televisions throughout the 18 acres, as the White House is known, and that day I had a call from a fella on Carroll Campbell’s staff. This is an hour and a half or two hours after things had started to transpire.

I was working at my desk and had sent my staff — I was running the Office of Media Affairs at the White House — I’d sent them to start doing research on presidents in times of crisis, and my phone rang. It was Whit Ayres who was in Governor Campbell’s office (with me), and Whit said, “Tucker, are you alright?” He said, “Well, your building’s on fire. Look at your television,” so I turned around. I had it tuned to ABC, and there was an optical illusion of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with smoke and flames pouring out of it. I mean it really looked like it was on fire, but it was the explosion that had just happened at The Pentagon, and ABC’s cameras, from an angle from the top of a building in Downtown Washington made it appear as though we were under attack.

Well, it was one of those ominous moments, and I called my staff together shortly after that for a staff meeting, and the last one to come in said, “Tucker, there are people leaving the building. I see a lot of people leaving the building. Should we leave the building?” I said, “I won’t stop anybody from leaving if you think you should, but I’m gonna wait until an alarm sounds,” and I drew maybe one breath before an alarm sounded and people began leaving that building.

We were all trained to go single-file, so it was pretty eerie to hear Secret Service agents yelling to run. Women were being yelled at, “Take off your shoes and run!” It was an absolutely stunningly traumatic day.

We evacuated and were gone for some time and came back. I was summoned with about four or five people in our office – we were commandeered for a couple of hours – as Secret Service agents escorted us through Downtown Washington back to the White House. The streets, on a sunny beautiful day, were devoid…it was like walking across a back lot at a Hollywood studio, and yet as we drew closer and closer to the White House we began to see the armed guards. As we got closer, we began to see those arms brandished, and you knew we were in a whole new era.

Remembering that day, down in the bunker, with our nation’s leaders on the scene, it was military and civilians working together under the most intense imaginable circumstances. We helped write remarks, the first remarks delivered by a public figure from Washington that day, as Karen Hughes delivered a speech from a secure location at the Justice Department. Then we helped later in the day with the president’s speech.

I was one of those calling for the president to come back (to Washington). If you’ll remember that he went to a series of locations, we found out later, through a report, of a threat to Air Force One. I felt strongly that he had to come back. He had to be seen retaking that citadel of democracy. We could not go through the night without him coming back and reclaiming it, which of course, he did.

It was an enormous privilege to see public servants – non-partisan military and civilian non-partisan and partisan all together in a room trying to do what was best for our country. It was stunning to me to see, that night after the president’s speech, I returned to my office with the air conditioner still blaring and chairs scattered across our office. That scatteredness was reflective, too, of the media initially.

I’m the son of a reporter. The late Rhea Eskew started as a wire service reporter and finished up on the business side of the news business, so I love working with reporters, but I’m also not reluctant to issue a criticism now and then. I felt that the mindset of the White House Press Corps quickly turned to what they knew best, which was campaign politics, processed stories, who’s up, and who’s down. It was not about this existential direction of the country. It was about how George Bush had turned his plane around. To the media’s credit, I’m painting with a broad brush, but they finally got in the thing, and let’s face it. It took George Bush some time to get in the thing.

It was a day or two later when he really hit his stride. I think he took command and history, of course, will be his judge. Now, the blogosphere, the press, history’s first draft, it’s all out there, and I take the stance that it will be a positive judgment.

Immediately after that attack, we all thought, we knew, that there were more attacks coming very quickly, and there were commentators in the public who said, “This is the end of irony and cynicism.” Well, it turned out that it was the opposite. Thanks to George Bush and a lot of great men and women who serve their country, we have had no more attacks.

You know. This is an intense business. Intensity is something that in my career I thrive on and enjoy. I learned it best alongside Lee Atwater – the skills of a relentless fighter – who again, I have to say, “God rest his soul,” to too many of my friends, leaders, and bosses. Lee had his flaws and foibles. They’re documented, and I understand that there’s going to be more documenting soon in a movie that Will Farrell’s production company is making, and I’m sure the Atwater family regrets that.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 of the Feature Next Week.


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