Kurt Bardella launched phase two of his comeback plan on March 17. Early that morning, he banged out a blog post about the earthquake in Japan. Bardella e-mailed the piece to his contact at Politico’s Arena, an online forum for political commentary, where it was soon published.
The exercise felt familiar. From his apartment in Arlington, Bardella wrote at the same desk that—until three weeks earlier—he had often used to blast press releases about his boss. His Fox News Sunday coffee mug remained beside the computer. His photograph with George Stephanopoulos was still on the wall. The complete DVD set of The West Wing was stacked beneath the TV. Only the couch—which now had a pillow and blanket for daytime napping—suggested change.
The loss of his Capitol Hill job had been devastating. “Work for him was his wife, his girlfriend, his mistress—it’s what he lived for,” says former colleague Jenny Spradlin. But for many who witnessed Bardella’s rise, his public implosion wasn’t a shock. “It was like he was driving a Metrobus at full speed while working on his BlackBerry,” says a Republican press operative, who, like many others interviewed for this story, didn’t want his name included.
For three days in late winter, the political news cycle whipped around this 27-year-old press aide. The controversy devolved into a Washington soap opera, ensnaring a press-obsessed congressman and a chorus of brand-name journalists.
Bardella’s firing revealed an essential truth about Washington in 2011. While the 24-hour news cycle has rewritten the playbook for generating media attention in Congress, it has left unchanged the cardinal rule for press aides: Never let yourself become the story.
After he was fired, Bardella approached his mentors for advice. This was survivable, they said; he hadn’t broken any laws. They laid out a strategy: Apologize, disappear for a while, and return with humility. Bardella, however, wasn’t wired to go underground.
Instead he made appearances in congressional offices and Republican hangouts, telling everyone: “The worst part is behind me, and I’ll get through this.” If he kept his message tight, Bardella figured, people would be more likely to repeat it verbatim. After five years of managing congressional reputations, Bardella was now applying his trade to himself.
Next, he measured his level of radioactivity by becoming a regular contributor to Politico’s Arena. When his reappearance generated only a handful of snarky blog posts, Bardella felt he was ready for phase three. He contacted a friendly journalist from a publication far outside the Beltway—Mark Walker of the California-based North County Times, Bardella’s hometown newspaper—and offered an exclusive interview about his demise. If he were ever asked about it, he could refer to that story. “And yes, I did the interview on a Friday and it ran on a Saturday as Congress was going into a recess,” Bardella says.
Next: From South Korea to Capitol Hill