Thursday night I got some sad news: My old boss, Conrad Burns, had died at 81. Burns served as U.S. Senator from Montana from 1989 till 2007 and had major influence over telecom policy and increasing domestic energy production. Although he was Senator Burns for 18 years, he was always Conrad to those who knew him.
I had the pleasure of working for him for only one year, his last in the Senate. If I remember correctly, my first day was Jan. 3, 2006. I’d been a health policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation who dabbled in hosting a weekly one-hour streaming radio show. I liked the policy work fine, but I preferred the show because it allowed me to venture outside my normal job description.
When a friend told me he knew a guy in a Senate office looking for a press secretary, I quickly got my resume in order and, for the first time since I was 15, paid for a haircut. Actually, a friend who was in senior management at Heritage paid for it because, she said, “You need to look like you belong working in the Senate.”
The haircut worked. I was offered the job and gladly accepted. I’d always liked the idea of being a press secretary, mostly based on what I’d seen in movies and TV – the guy holding court at the podium, calling on reporters and setting them straight. Of course, the actual job was nothing of the sort.
I remember the excitement of day one – filling out the paperwork, getting my ID badge, being introduced to staff and trying desperately to remember names. I’m not good at names, and even at the end of my time there, I’d still ask friends in the office who various people were.
And I got my first “smartphone,” a Blackberry with a color screen. That may seem laughable now, but it was a big deal at the time – a status symbol in DC, especially at bars. A Blackberry meant you were somebody, or at least somebody with a job important enough to need access to email 24/7. The rest of the pre-iPhone world was stuck in a world of flip phones striving to be thinner and smaller, but the Blackberry was the Cadillac of communications. I couldn’t even afford a flip phone at the time, so this was huge.
It was Sen. Burns who had bestowed this new elevated status on me, and we hadn’t even met. He was in Montana when I was interviewed and still there when I started. A week into the job we had a video conference with him in Billings, Montana. It was the first time I’d laid eyes on the man crazy enough to empower someone to hire me, with zero experience in handling the press, during a year he knew would be one hell of a political fight.
Sen. Burns, who preferred to be called Conrad in private because that’s the name his parents gave him, was ensnared in the Jack Abramoff scandal. The media wouldn’t print his name without hanging Abramoff after it. “He took more money from Abramoff and his associates than any other senator,” they’d all write.
None of it was true, and after the election, which we lost by less than 3,000 votes, and more than a year of investigation, the Justice Department dropped the case.
Over that year, I got to know Conrad the man. In his office, sitting on an end table, was the framed check his father wrote the doctor for delivering him as a baby. It was written for only a few dollars – it was 1935, after all – and he’d joke they overpaid.
That was Conrad. A very funny man who would make himself the butt of jokes more often than anyone else. He loved to play poker and played online during his downtime. His wife of 48 years, Phyllis, was the love of his life, and talking about his children and grandchildren would light him up, even after the stroke he suffered in 2009.
I last saw Conrad last April. He was in town for a gathering of former senators organized by Bob Dole. “When Bob Dole calls, you come,” he told me. He, Phyllis and former staffers gathered at the Monocle, a DC restaurant, for drinks and laughs. Conrad was Conrad, funny, telling semi-dirty jokes, but self-conscious of his stroke-slurred speech. He didn’t need to be, but that was how he was.
When I heard the news I immediately called my old boss, Conrad’s former communications director for more than a decade in the Senate. He told me Conrad went for coffee with friends earlier in the day, had a bunch of laughs, came back and passed peacefully at home. I have no doubt he wouldn't have wanted to waste away or be on machines at the end of his life, so although this wasn't the time he'd have chosen, it undoubtedly was the way.
Conrad Burns was a character, and a good and decent man. Rest in peace, my friend. And thank you.
A couple of extra stories:
On one of my trips to Montana, I visited seven cities following a bus tour for seniors to sign them up for a Medicare prescription drug program. The tour had happened because of Conrad, which made Brian Schweitzer, the Democratic governor at the time, angry.
Schweitzer had lost the 2000 election to Conrad and, rumor had it, was still angry. When the tour pulled into Helena, the state capital, Schweitzer pulled the state employees who were scheduled to man the sign-up tables. He’d claimed the whole event was partisan, designed to prop up Burns in his re-election.
It wasn’t, of course. The program was new and available to the whole country. But Schweitzer wanted to hurt Conrad, and a busted event could do just that. Only I’d been given a memo from the governor outlining this plan a few days earlier and had alerted one of the big reporters in the state ahead of time. So we were ready when the governor attempted to spring his surprise.
“The governor prefers to harm seniors to score political points,” etc., I’d told the press. We went back and forth for about an hour in the morning, before the event started. Conrad called me about five times in that hour, wanting to know the latest (he was in DC).
It was my plan to wait, to hold that memo until the governor announced he’d pulled the workers, rather than release it early to pressure him not to expose himself in the first place. It was a risk, and Conrad would’ve been completely justified in shooting it down. But he didn’t. He trusted my idea and me enough to let me handle it.
Once exposed, the governor backed down quickly, and the state employees showed up to do their jobs. I got a “Good job today, Derek,” from Sen. Burns through what I’m sure were sighs of relief he didn’t release into the phone.
When I started with Conrad, I didn’t know much about the Abramoff scandal. I’d heard of it but had not followed the nuts and bolts. When it looked like indictments might come down, I was asked to write a speech. It wasn’t just any speech, it was a speech laying out a case of betrayal.
To write this speech I was given access to a folder of every communication anyone even tangentially involved had with Conrad’s office. It was all Greek to me. I could have turned it down (I did it on my own time at home), but I wanted to know.
Not understanding what I’d read in that file (it’s not easy to understand emails between people who know each other, especially when most of it is about lunches), I sneaked in and took it when no one was in the office. I took it to a friend of mine who was a lawyer, gave him a small retainer to make him my lawyer, then went through it with him page by page.
I wanted to know if the guy I’d worked for the last couple of months was the corrupt monster the media portrayed him as. If there was anything remotely incriminating in that file, I wanted out immediately. I wouldn’t have the job anymore, but I’d be able to sleep at night.
There wasn’t. There was nothing there. I wrote the speech. It was never needed. No former staffers or friends were ever charged. It was all about nothing. The people charged all worked in the private sector and had defrauded their clients, lied to them about the influence they had over people in government. They were so corrupt they’d even ripped off each other, or their firm, but got nothing more than a lot of money from naïve clients who could’ve done just was well by setting up meetings themselves.
The media never bothered to clarify this. Its mission was accomplished when the Democrats took the Senate in November 2006. Truth be damned.
By the way…
The line, “He took more money from Abramoff and his associates than any other senator,” was not only uttered continually by the media, Harry Reid, leader of the Senate Democrats, parroted it every chance he got. Which was funny because Reid was No.2 on that list, and the only difference was $5,000 or so in donations to Conrad’s campaigns from Abramoff himself.
Reid had received more than $100,000 from “Abramoff associates” (clients of the lobbyist), but hadn’t received anything from the man himself. Reid always moved the goalposts when asked about this, saying he never got a dime from Abramoff (leaving off the associates part) and the media let him get away with it.
I once had to follow Conrad from Kalispell to Missoula, from one event to another. I was in my own rental car, he was in his personal car with Elizabeth Dole and two staffers; one his, one hers. I didn’t tell him I was going to follow him to the next event because I didn’t realize till we’d left that I didn’t know where it was. That fact meant I could not lose him, which I figured would be pretty easy. He was 71 and it was about 2 hours away, should’ve been easy. It should have been.
Montana didn’t have speed limits on their highways at the time thanks to a decision by the state’s Supreme Court, and Conrad Burns took full advantage. The trip from Kalispell to Missoula is a curvy one through the Rockies; lots of drop offs and little shoulder. To put it bluntly, he drove like a lunatic. I don’t know how he could’ve driven differently were he trying to lose me.
He didn’t, I kept up. But I white-knuckled it the whole way. A few times I dropped below 100 mph. I’m not sure he ever slowed down. I’d lay off the gas in some curves and speed to catch up when it was straight. Finally, we arrived at whatever hotel the event we were going to was and I confronted him. “You drive like a lunatic, old man,” I told him.
Surprised, he asked me what I was talking about. After telling him why I’d said that, he laughed and snorted, “*expletive deleted* if I’d known that I would’ve lost you just to make you squirm.”
I made sure to have the name and address of every stop from then on and vowed to never, ever get in a car with Conrad Burns behind the wheel.
Finally, another example of who Conrad was.
I’d written a speech he was going to deliver from the floor of the Senate. It was important, but I don’t recall the topic. He was sitting at his desk on the floor, reading the speech and getting ready to give it.
There was a passage I remember not being happy with. Not so much the message, but the wording. I’d thought of a better way to put it, quickly changed the text and ran to the Capitol to hand it to Sen. Burns.
Having a Senate staffer ID badge is the most incredible gift any employee of Congress gets. It allows you to go just about anywhere in that magnificent building. On Fridays, when the Senate was in recess, I’d wander that place and marvel at its nooks and crannies. But to get on the floor of the Senate, you need to be on the approved list. Can’t have interns wandering around during votes; in spite of how it appears on TV, the room isn’t that big.
I was on the list. I’d go down there sometimes just to watch. Staff had to stay along the walls unless accompanied by a member. You could walk through to go to the cloakroom or sit on benches along the wall. If you had to sit with a senator for whatever reason (mostly to hold posters as they spoke), you had to get a special chair brought out for you.
The Senate has 100 desks and 100 chairs, wooden chairs with armrests. There’s nothing particularly special about them. They’re like dining room chairs, only for senators. They aren’t switched around, senators keep their chairs for as long as thye serve and can even buy them when they leave the Senate. If you are not a Senator your butt is not allowed to sit in one of them on the floor.
I didn’t know this. To me, they were just chairs. So when I got to the floor to give Conrad the new version of his speech I pulled out the chair next to him, sat down and proceeded to point out the newly worded section on the page.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the security staff start to rustle. I also saw Conrad’s face be overtaken by what my parents would call (and I’m cleaning this up here, so use your imagination) a “poop-eating grin.” He looked at me and smirked as I showed him the changes.
A couple minutes later I was done and started to leave. Conrad grabbed my arm and said, “Tell ‘em I said to do it.” Having no idea what he was talking about, I asked him what he meant. “You’ll know in a second,” he replied.
As I started to walk to the door the guards who’d been lurking on the edge of the floor swarmed me. “You can’t sit in a chair with arms!” one said. I honestly had no idea what he was talking about and told him as much. Didn’t matter; rules are rules.
After repeating themselves again and informing me that if I needed to sit on the floor I had to request a chair without arms and one would be brought to me, I remembered what Conrad said. “Senator Burns told me to sit,” I burped. “Well, he knows better, and now so do you. Don’t do it again!” they replied.
And that was it. I’d gotten away with it…so to speak. When I spoke to Conrad after in his hideaway office (an office in the Capital building itself, separate and private from a Senator’s main office with staff), he asked how’d I’d made out. I told him and asked why he didn’t say anything to me while I was sitting there. “Well, you’d already done it. It was too late by then, so why not just stay sitting?” he said. It made sense, sort of. In for a penny, in for a pound and all that.
“Now you’re one of the few people who can say they sat in one of those chairs,” he continued. “But you probably shouldn’t do it again.”
I didn’t do it again, in spite of kind of wanting to. Just being on the floor of the Senate was enough from then on out. But for a moment, about five minutes actually, my butt was planted in a seat of power. It’s a good story and a great memory to have, and I owe it and much else to Conrad Burns.
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