From Political Combat to the Front Lines

Posted April 11, 2003 at 6:25pm

In the past three years Jim Wilkinson has gone from honing the message designed to keep Republicans in control of the House to crafting media strategy for the ongoing war in Iraq.

And now, as the war appears won, rumors have begun to percolate that the Capitol Hill veteran who has emerged as a fixture at military briefings emanating from the Persian Gulf is one of the leading candidates to serve as the communications director for President Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004.

“Nothing I have ever done could prepare me for coordinating message for the most media-covered war in history,” Wilkinson said in a Friday interview from Qatar. “All you do is try to remember the basic lessons you’ve been taught.”

For Wilkinson, 32, now the chief spokesman for Central Command, much of his political education came during the seven years he spent on the Hill.

After interning for former Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) both in the Lone Star State and in Washington, Wilkinson accepted a job in 1993 working under Armey at the House Republican Conference.

During his time with the then-Majority Leader, Wilkinson handled a variety of tasks, from running Armey’s leadership political action committee to handling his press and floor work.

“I look back often and thank my lucky stars that Dick Armey gave me my start,” Wilkinson said.

During that time, Wilkinson joined the Naval Reserves; his brother, a member of the 101st Airborne Division, is currently fighting in Iraq.

After spearheading a budget war room in the late fall of 1999 in an attempt to counter the rhetoric emerging from the Clinton White House, Wilkinson landed a job as communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

With just six seats separating Democrats from reclaiming the majority, most neutral political observers believed Republicans had less than a 50 percent chance of holding the House.

Former Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) said Wilkinson, known as the “admiral” during his time at the NRCC, appealed to him as an “outside-the-box thinker” who “has a press guy’s mind.”

Terry Nelson, NRCC political director in the 2000 cycle and now deputy chief of staff at the Republican National Committee, recalled that “we were a pretty tight team and we had to be because there were a lot of months that we were fighting an uphill battle.”

Dan Mattoon, executive director of the committee at the time, said that Wilkinson constantly reminded him that “when an enemy is rattled they are apt to make more mistakes.”

“Jim sent grenades … across the transom to the DCCC every day,” Mattoon said.

House Republicans lost only two seats in the 2000 election, keeping them narrowly in the majority and setting the stage for the party’s six-seat pickup last cycle.

Steve Schmidt, who followed Wilkinson in the post at the NRCC, called him “a consummate political pro.”

Following the 2000 election, Wilkinson ping-ponged to Florida, where he helped the press effort during the presidential recount, then to the Pentagon, where he served as transition spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and finally to the White House, where he was brought on as deputy communications director.

Drawing on his past Hill experience, Wilkinson was primarily responsible for coordinating the White House’s message with Congress. He also had more recreational duties including the organization of the White House T-ball league, which won him a new nickname: “Commissioner.”

He stayed at the White House through the 2002 elections, though he dedicated several months to organizing the Coalition Information Center, a clearinghouse for information related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent war on terrorism.

A call from Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke had Wilkinson packing his belongings into his car and heading off to Tampa, Fla., to take over as spokesman for Central Command.

In early March, Wilkinson was moved to Qatar. The war officially began on March 19.

Headquartered in Qatar, Wilkinson oversees a total of more than 300 staffers spread across Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan and Cyprus. More than 3,000 reporters are in Qatar and Kuwait alone, he said.

The posting has put him squarely in the path of history. He was, for example, the first person informed by troops in the field of the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital on April 1.

Wilkinson also travels with head of Central Command Gen. Tommy Franks and had just returned from a trip to Afghanistan to visit President Hamid Karzai late last week.

While his role in the conflict has made him a familiar face to television audiences across the country, there is talk that Wilkinson’s next gig could have him in a different line of fire: His name has begun to surface as one of the top candidates to oversee the communications operation in Bush’s re-election bid.

Davis said that Bush “couldn’t do any better” than Wilkinson for that job.

When asked about the possibility, Wilkinson said it was hardly foremost in his mind and noted that he has not had a day off in five months. He did add, however, that “it may be time for a new chapter.”

Wilkinson quickly pivoted, however, making it clear that he would eagerly serve if called: “I will do anything George W. Bush asks me to do because he is one of the greatest leaders in our country’s history.”