Gordon C. James | Working at the White House, Serving President George H.W. Bush, and Working in Baghdad

John Corcoran 10:54

Yeah, he had it. I don’t know if you’re involved. It wasn’t a supermarket visit at one point with George HW Bush to where he was. He kind of got an unfair shake. But he was I think he was examining how the scanner worked or something. And, and the press said that he was out of touch with regular out and you know, Americans buying the groceries or something like that.

Gordon C James 11:15

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, I, my rule was never to laugh at other advanced teams, foul ups, because the same thing could happen to you just as easily. Yeah. Is very easy, very easy. So I felt sorry for the Dukakis people. If you remember the story. His team recommended he not do it. And he just thought it would be fun to get in a tank and ride around.

John Corcoran 11:41

Yep. And ends up defining a whole campaign. To him, that sort of thing happens. Yeah. I was involved in that a little bit in the 2004 election. And I remember being around Howard Dean. And you know, Howard Dean, probably one of the most energetic energizing speakers I’ve seen, and I’ve seen, you know, Clinton and Obama, and I’ve seen all kinds of amazing speakers. He could light up a room like crazy. And then of course, he’s famous for this scream, which happened in Iowa, after he won africano he came in second or third, I think in the Iowa caucuses. And, you know, part of that might have been because of the sound, you know, a sound issue with a microphone. And so it just ended up sounding nutty. You know? Yeah, yeah.

Gordon C James 12:33

Listen, if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Right. Right. You have to be on the lookout for every possible mistake.

John Corcoran 12:40

See, we’re in the 1988 campaign, of course, a George, President George HW Bush was elected and then you go on to work on the inaugural and what was that like working on the inaugural?

Gordon C James 12:50

Let me give you a tip. When Steve Saturd asked you to be a director of the inaugural in charge of invitations, say no. We, you either got 10 invitations, or you got none. And it was, you know, the technology and creating list and whatnot was not near what it is, say. And

John Corcoran 13:17

no master database keeping track of all the oh yeah, we had

Gordon C James 13:21

all that. But it just wasn’t as sophisticated as it’s today. And, and. And then we had, you know, you didn’t get your ticket. You didn’t have a ticket on your phone. You had a hard copy of a beautiful ticket to the events. And they were stunning. And people really wanted to have them. And we fed extra millions of them out. It seemed like but there was a huge, we’ll call when people showed up in Washington DC and they would come to a hotel and pick up their tickets at we’ll call. And it was a nightmare. I think everybody finally got situated and got their tickets, but I vowed never to be involved in that process again.

John Corcoran 14:09

Well, you were involved in a couple more inaugurals after that just not tickler

Gordon C James 14:12

Yes, but I was a director of events. 

John Corcoran 14:15

And both of you give me a different job please. And I would walk

Gordon C James 14:19

by the person in charge of ticketing and invitations or whatnot. And I go, are you doing all right? I feel so sorry for him.

John Corcoran 14:27

So you found your company? Gordon C. James public relations in 1990. So it’s midway through President George HW Bush’s term. What inspired you to, you know, kind of walk away from politics and start a company?

Gordon C James 14:46

Ah, we needed to get out of the cycle. I was still paying tuition at private colleges, and I needed to have a steady income. Also, my three big kids were no longer living at home. They were on their own and were still in college, and it was just a good time to do it. I actually named it Gordon C. James public relations, not having a clue what that meant, really. I wasn’t sure what the product was that I would be selling. And we were so lucky to get to work for m&m Mars and Snickers brand. They were terrific teachers, and really taught us the commercial communications game.

John Corcoran 15:39

It’s very different, isn’t it? I made the transition myself working in politics, you know, it’s not the same thing, trying to get a picture above the fold of, you know, a president or vice president or senator or governor. And, you know, you have all the press that shows up versus, you know, a private business that’s selling candy or whatever, right. It’s a totally different game in order to get attention for that.

Gordon C James 16:04

And this was before Facebook, and snap was before social media. We were actually faxing to when the teams would come to the National Championship or the regional tournaments. One of our colleagues would fax the results of the scores to their hometown papers. Fax them. I don’t even know if you can find a fax machine today. And vote. And that’s how we got coverage in the local papers. And the big challenge was getting the word Snickers in the story. Snickers us shoes soccer, Western Regional Championship, you know, yeah. But they were just pros. They just can sell. Imagine anywhere in the world where you can’t buy a Snickers bar. It’s just impossible. Right?

John Corcoran 16:58

A good client to have.

Gordon C James 16:59

It was a great client. And we worked for them for 10 years. And yeah, I will. I’m forever grateful for that opportunity.

John Corcoran 17:06

Yeah, you get drawn back into politics, though. It’s one of those kind of like The Godfather once you’re in, or they won’t. What’s the saying? I forget what the saying is, they pull you back in basically. Oh, yeah.

Gordon C James 17:17

And when I was asked to do one of the first events in Iowa for George W. Bush, and the Iowa fairgrounds, and we had a standard pork chop cookout. And when we got done with the event, and we got to the airport, who got me in a headlock and said he is a boy in an hour, right? And I said I’m in sir. That was 1999. And he was governor of Texas. And

John Corcoran 17:44

you know, what was he like, compared to his father?

Gordon C James 17:47

Well, we had been friends all during his dad’s

John Corcoran 17:50

runs, he was involved in his dad’s campaign, I probably knew him. 

Gordon C James 17:53

You know, he was the Enforcer. You know, he was the loyalty Enforcer. And we were great friends. And we just enjoyed each other very much. And first, I was just chomping at the bit to help him on his run. Yeah.

John Corcoran 18:09

Was it unusual? Or was it strange or odd getting back into the game 10 years later, after having run your company all these years?

Gordon C James 18:18

No. And I had continued to work for George W. Bush, HW Bush and had traveled to Vietnam with him and helped him with his speaking engagements all over the country. And so I hadn’t lost my desire to do this kind of work. Yeah, we’re all excited to do it.

John Corcoran 18:42

And then what about the company? So what happened to your company when you started to get involved back in politics? They’ve

Gordon C James 18:49

kept going. And our clients were loyal to us. And I think some of them were anticipating, well, maybe this guy would have some glue and the next administration Sure, and they wanted to stay close. And we were much smaller than employee wise. Our overhead wasn’t too terribly high. Um, a little more flexibility that way, I guess. Little more flexibility. And we were getting paid also.

John Corcoran 19:24

Yeah. By the campaign. Oh, got it. Oh, that makes it easier to so you, then you are involved in both inaugurals that 2002 1004 inaugurals. How was that hopefully that was a better experience than the first scenario.

Gordon C James 19:40

Oh, much better. You know, it was, it was a joy. And we by then, you know, we had senior Bush people that were very experienced, that could jump in and then we had Hargrove which had done inaugural since Harry Truman. So we had our decorators and our sound and light people and, and we had technology to help us. So I think it went a lot smoother, much smoother as far as I was concerned. At least I hope the attendees that came in had a good time. But we have some very experienced people that could jump in and, and devote 60 days straight to putting it on and getting ready for January 20 2000. January 20 2005.

John Corcoran 20:30

Right, did you do advanced trips? After 911?

Gordon C James 20:35

Actually, I was with the president of the UNGA United Nations General Assembly, about three weeks after 911. They went ahead and scheduled their meetings. And I went down to Ground Zero several times. And it was a very moving experience it was every time they would find someone, they would sound a horn, and everything would stop until they had taken that person away. And it was tough. Very tough. It must have been a moving experience.

John Corcoran 21:18

Yeah. Tell me about 2004. In 2004, you spent more than five months in Baghdad, this is shortly after the second Iraq War, which was in 2003, your advanced director for the Coalition Provisional Authority must have been precarious security situation, in retrospect,

Gordon C James 21:46

What was that like? Well, my buddy, Karl Rove came to Phoenix and was complaining about communications coming out of the war, which had already been started months before. He said, Boy, I really need some help. And I said, Well, you know, I’d go and you go while you’re gone. And about three weeks later, we were gone. And Greg Edgar, my business partner, here in Phoenix, we left and we went to Baghdad and set up our operation, just like normal. We tried to set up a White House caliber advance operation for Ambassador Burma. And, then our job was to create events showing the transition back to the Iraqis. The coalition was going to go out of business on July 1. And it was a firm date. We were committed from the minute we got there. By July 1, that was going to be the end of the coalition’s existence, which was 20 some countries and our main partners were the Brits. And it was a unique experience. It’s great to be with our troops on a daily basis. They just do such a terrific job. And it’s different than when I got drafted into the Army in 1969. You know, and I, I just did have no intentions of being involved in the Vietnam War. And I was able to get an A National Guard unit, and it didn’t deploy to Vietnam, but we didn’t wear our uniforms and public. People would, you know, scorn us. Yeah. And these young men and women that were serving during 2004, and they had made a choice to enlist, and in the military, it was they didn’t get drafted. They made a conscious choice. And they were just

John Corcoran 23:49

probably the ones who were there around them. Many of them maybe because of 911 had enlisted perhaps.

Gordon C James 23:56

Oh, for sure. We were there when? When a football player from Arizona? Yeah. When he was killed. Wow. So I will tell you that I depended upon them for my safety. And I appreciated it very much. And we were able to do our job all over the country. We went everywhere. And we were flown by the Arizona Air National Guard helicopter group. That’s who took us around. And I’ve thanked them many times since they’re right around the corner here in Phoenix where I live, and it was a terrific experience. And I think we made a difference. I I don’t know we took a lot of criticism. When I came back. My job was to give speeches around Arizona about what progress we’ve made and I got a lot of people telling me you know, it was stupid that we shouldn’t have been there. that there were no more weapons of mass destruction. And when General Powell passed away the other day, you know the story about him at the UN and, and how he felt terrible about that he felt like he had been misguided by our security team. I will tell you a story about him though. He came to Baghdad, he came to Baghdad for a visit, and the day before he got there, there were two Iraqi news people that had breached the security at the Baghdad International Airport. And they were killed. The coalition forces killed them. They didn’t respond to journalists,

John Corcoran 25:43

to journalists, to journals. Wow.

Gordon C James 25:45

So the NEC and Colin Powell,

John Corcoran 25:47

Was he Secretary of State at the time? 

Gordon C James 25:49

Secretary of State. He arrived in the morning and we had an event and one of the mess halls in the green zone, where he thanked all the people that were there for all the good work they were doing. And then we went over to the convention center and had a massive press conference. Huge. There were press from all over the world there. And right when he took the podium, all of the Iraqi press, which believe me, there weren’t Iraqi press until Saddam Hussein was taken out of power. They didn’t exist. They got up in mass and walked out in protest over what had happened the day before. And of course, we were mortified. And I was mortified. But General Powell, he took control. And he said, Look, that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re here. Freedom of the press. This would never have been allowed under Saddam Hussein, these people would have been imprisoned or worse, executed for what they just did. But that’s why we’re here. Wow. But the whole tone of the thing and you took a very tough situation and turned it into a positive and under forgetting for that. Yeah. What?

John Corcoran 27:08

What did your family say? When you said, I’m going to Baghdad for

Gordon C James 27:13

a few months? Well, I’ve said I’m going to all the places we lost, and I by then had four more children. So we have seven total.

John Corcoran 27:26

Assume you didn’t take them? No.

Gordon C James 27:31

I think my son, one of my sons, was very concerned. And it bothered him more than anybody, but they were used to me leaving and for extended periods of time. It was very selfish on my part, actually. Um, you know, but I, they were used to the scene. 

John Corcoran 27:54

And, um, yeah, I mean, when I just went to a conference for the first time in two years for three days, and I have four kids, and I felt horrendously guilty, leaving my wife taking care of the kids.

Gordon C James 28:07

Well, can you imagine leaving for five months? I know, I couldn’t. Yeah. And we had a terrific phone system there. And I was able to call Lisa every day and, and check in with her and check in with all the kids and, and at night, when we would wind down our operations, we would turn our phones over to the Marines that were there and let them call home. And we really had a great communications system. It was just like being in the States. Wow.

John Corcoran 28:35

That’s impressive. Yeah. Stay in touch. I want to ask you also about a few years later, a year later, February 2005, you were the lead advanced representative when President George HW Bush and President Bill Clinton toured the Maldives, which was affected by a tsunami. And it’s easy to forget, here we are in 2021, you know, political discourse seems hopelessly divided. But it’s easy to forget that President Bush and President Clinton who had a, you know, a very challenging campaign, bitterly fought campaign and at NIH to become good friends and embarked on a number of different humanitarian efforts in the years after they both left office. So tell us about that experience.

Gordon C James 29:25

But it was incredible. We got a call from the State Department actually and they said would you help with this trip? We’re going to do a fundraising trip with President Clinton and President Bush in the Maldives and of course, Maldives suffered the worst in the tsunami. 1000s and 1000s of people drowned and died and so we deployed and I got to go to a resort. Believe it or not, that had opened right away.

John Corcoran 30:03

And what a disconnect to go to this place where there’s horrendous death. And then, you know, I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen pictures I’ve visited, but it’s beautiful. So it’s like heaven on earth.

Gordon C James 30:14

It’s beautiful, but There was debris floating by and there was still a huge operation on trying to identify people and keeping track and letting family members know about their loved ones that they’ve lost. It was a very sad situation. And, of course, there were other parts of the islands. They were in total devastation. And we toured all of that in anticipation of the President’s arrival. They got along just terrifically and President Clinton was so deferential to President Bush, you know, he gave him the there was on the plane that took them, there was a bedroom. And President Clinton stayed up all night and played. He liked to play rummy with his colleagues and friends and, and he played cards all night, and President Bush slept in the bed. So he, but they just got along, they get along perfectly. Just great. Yeah, we’ll tell you that. When we were, we were departing one area going to another by boat, and the two presidents separated. And the Maldivians went, just went nuts over President Clinton, and could hardly give President George HW Bush, the wink of an eye. And the President and I were standing there watching President Clinton with all these people gathered around him, and we just went well. He’s a rock star. And they knew exactly who he was. And they just say, very much. 

John Corcoran 31:46

But in fairness, he hadn’t been out of office for many years. At that point, it was a little bit more recent news. But you know, one of the I did a few advanced trips, you know, both when I was in the White House, and also at when I worked in the governor’s office in California, and one of the cool things about it is you get to be a fly on the wall, behind the scenes, you know, in the green room, and you get these hear these intimate conversations or important conversations. And it’s just amazing. Are there any, you know, that you can share? Of course, are there any, you know, stories or experiences like that, that you can share from that we wouldn’t normally see on CNN, or Fox News or any of those places.

Gordon C James 32:28

I’m gonna let you in on one. We were on a long foreign trip and Secretary Baker, who was president George HW Bush’s best friend. The two of them were on the day we’re together. Secretary Baker was on the trip with us. And we finished a long day. And then there was a suite, two suites, and they had an adjoining living room. And President Bush had one and Secretary Baker had the other nuts. Now President Bush enjoys a glass of vodka every once in a while. And Secretary Baker also did. And I could hear them laughing and talking well into the wee hours of the morning. And we had an extremely early call. The next day, I think 7am or something ridiculous. And I thought these guys are not going to answer the bell. They have been up talking and browsing all night long. And they are just not going to make it.

John Corcoran 33:35

Do you like sleeping down the hall? How did you hear

Gordon C James 33:37

I was sleeping down the hall, but I was roaming the halls, you know, okay. And I could just hear him in

John Corcoran 33:42

there. And he didn’t go knock on the door and say guys go.

Gordon C James 33:45

That would be correct. I did not. I did not go knock on the door. Anyway, they appointed our came and I’m standing in front of the door, and I’m thinking there’s no way and there were both of them. Right eyed, bushy tailed, ready to go present. We had another 12 hour day looking at us in the face, and they just were perfect. So I don’t ever remember hearing them talking about anything classified or anything like that. But I remember just how much fun President Bush had with all his friends and how they enjoyed each other and how he kept them close. All those years. 

John Corcoran 34:30

Did you go skydiving with him? Any of the sky dives?

Gordon C James 34:33

I did. I was with the team.

John Corcoran 34:38

And he’s a by way of background. For those that don’t know, after he left office, President George HW Bush jumped out of a couple airplanes to mark different significant experiences. The first one I believe, was to recreate when he got shot down famously. And I think it was in the Korean War in World War Two and we got shot down. And there was famous video footage of him pulling at him being pulled up or climbing up onto an aircraft carrier would have to be rescued. So apparently, for like 50 years, he wanted to do it again. And finally after he leaves office, he goes and does it again, which I thought was so cool.

Gordon C James 35:21

He did. He went, we went to Yuma to the air station there in Yuma, Arizona. And he was briefed and given about a 15 minute lesson on jumping out of airplanes. And he said to me, Courtney, would you like to go with me? And I went, No, I have no desire to do this. So Mrs. Bush and I were standing on the ground waiting. And so I believe it was the golden angels, Navy team that was willing. And this was the only jump he did where he was not harnessed to. One of the professionals.

John Corcoran 36:01

Was that that first one, he wasn’t harnessed, it was all really wow,

Gordon C James 36:05

he had a hold of him on each side. And then we let him go. And I kept looking up. And here were the Golden Knights coming down, and I could see the canopies. And I looked up and there was this gigantic canopy 20 feet across, and there was the president coming down all by himself. It was actually kind of a trainer canopy. You don’t want to.

John Corcoran 36:33

Yeah, yeah. They actually took extra caution. They’re like we are messing up this one, for sure. And then he did it. I think on his 80th birthday and his 90th birthday, I believe also.

Gordon C James 36:48

He thought that was quite fun. 

John Corcoran 36:50

And if he would if he was still alive today, he probably would go up with Jeff Bezos into space. Yeah. I think

Gordon C James 36:55

he probably had a bit on that trip, for sure. Oh, yeah.

John Corcoran 36:59

I’m sure I could have seen that. Yeah. You told a touching story in the book about James Baker, who was there with President Bush when he passed?

Gordon C James 37:07

Yes. And, you know, Secretary Baker was absolutely the closest friend the President had. And they have known each other since they were in their 20s. And Secretary Baker got a call that the President was close. And he went over and the President said, Jimmy, where are we going? The Secretary said we’re going to have a president. He was rubbing his feet and didn’t pass away.

John Corcoran 37:42

The memorial service for President Bush, though those are always really moving. My grandfather was a B 17 pilot in World War Two. And he’s buried at Arlington now. And he got there like, no one left when he died. And so it was like me and a very small or very small family. It was so moving, they, you know, they, they, you know, the soldiers that were there and gave them a salute and full-on, like, ceremony. As if there were hundreds of people watching. So I can only imagine what President George HW Bush’s, you know, look like?

Gordon C James 38:26

Well, I got to attend the service at the Cathedral in downtown Washington, DC. And the night before we had a big party at the United States Chamber of Commerce building and it was like a family having a whole fraternity reunion. You know, all of our friends were there. And but today of this, of this service it was sad, and we were all pretty down and the service ended and the families walked down the center aisle to depart behind the casket. And George W. Bush was high fiving everybody and yelling out all the names and I was sitting with Ambassador moly and Dorothy moly. And he yelled at Molly. Molly was yelling at him and Kevin, high five Damon. It just changed the whole thing. We all felt like, No, we had some closure. It’s nice, because we were down in the dumps Believe me, and President Bush saved the day?

John Corcoran 39:34

Well, I think I know the answer to my final question, which is, you know, a big fan of gratitude. And if you look around your peers and contemporaries, others in your industry, you know, people who you respect and admire, you know, who would you acknowledge and I can imagine who the answer would be.

Gordon C James 39:51

Well, of course, my mentor was George HW Bush, and he took me when I was at my worst. I was at the end of my rope band. He trusted me and, and taught me how to work. He taught me how to put in a full day’s work. And he taught me respect. He taught me a trade, which I never thought I would, would be 31 years later, she’ll have my agency and she’ll be married

John Corcoran 40:28

seven kids in the respect

Gordon C James 40:29

of my children, and so I owe him my life. For sure. I have one other gentleman, Jim Myers, who I met him when I was living in Iowa, who, who was a mentor, and Coach, when I told him I was going to start my own agency, and go off on my own, he was probably the only person that believed in me, that I could do it. As a matter of fact, on our 20th anniversary, I got a letter from George Herbert Walker Bush that says, Who woulda thunk just for laughs? But Jim Myers was someone who believed in me and was a great help to me in the early years.

John Corcoran 41:18

Yeah, it’s cool to hear the story about a letter having such a big impact because we wrote some of those types of letters when I was at the White House. That’s what my office produced. And you never want to lose sight of the fact of how impactful that is. Just little dishes like that. And that might have come straight off of his stationery. Maybe he wrote it individually. Oh, are you grabbing it off the side here? 

Gordon C James 41:39

Oh, but this is a letter I got from WHO? When I sent him a copy of 41 to 43

John Corcoran 41:44

you’re handling it you got to frame that thing frame that damn sure you got plenty of

Gordon C James 41:49

effect thanked me for sending him a copy. And I have, you know, HW was a terrific letter writer.

John Corcoran 42:03

Yeah, and every four years, the story of the handwritten note that he left for President Clinton in the oval office desk gets passed around, you see that it was so eloquent in that letter. And it’s passed on to the staff so I wrote a letter and put it on my desk when I left. So it’s really cool. And actually became friends with the person who took my desk. So that was really cool. Yeah, yeah, keep in touch. So we’re friends on Facebook now.

Gordon C James 42:33

We’re all friends, all of us that have been involved, or we’re still friends to this day.

John Corcoran 42:37

Gordon, it’s been such a pleasure hearing these stories. Where can people go to learn more about you?

Gordon C James 42:44

So you can go to GC JPR comm Ford and see James public relations.com. And or you can just reach out to me on Facebook or direct message me. I’d love to hear from everybody and, and anybody that we can help. We’re happy to help.

John Corcoran 43:00

In the book. 41 to 43. Thank you for sending me a copy. I love that. Got some great stories in there. Where can people get a copy?

Gordon C James 43:08

It’s not for sale. Just give me a call and I’ll mail you one.

John Corcoran 43:10

Oh, that’s great. All right, Gordon, thanks so much. Thank you, John.

Outro 43:15

Thank you for listening to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast with John Corcoran. Find out more at smartbusinessrevolution.com. And while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast.