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.
Bardella was adopted by a young couple in Rochester, New York. His new father worked as a security guard at an office building while his mother pursued a degree in literature at the University of Rochester. When he was three, Bardella’s adoptive parents divorced. Bardella lived with his mother and spent alternating weekends with his father. He attended a Catholic school and served as an altar boy. In second grade, classmates began teasing him for “looking Chinese.”
“I wasn’t hurt; I was just confused,” he says. Bardella’s mother explained why he was different.
While working part-time at a school for special-needs students, his mother met a fellow University of Rochester undergraduate. They married and had two children. When Bardella was ten, his stepfather was admitted to a PhD program in San Diego; the family piled into the minivan for the cross-country move. Leaving his father behind was painful. “I cried all the way to California,” Bardella says.
The family settled in Escondido, a community of 148,000 residents tucked into the valley 30 miles northeast of San Diego. They found a two-bedroom apartment and enrolled the children in public schools. Bardella got comfortable quickly, making friends, earning solid grades, and becoming an LA Lakers fan.
Maintaining a relationship with his father back in Rochester grew difficult. At first, Bardella’s father visited California each year to celebrate his son’s birthday. But birthday visits became birthday phone calls. Eventually, his father stopped calling. Bardella blames his father’s struggle with money. “He ended up being an absentee father—not because he didn’t want to be there but because he didn’t have the means to be there,” he says. It’s been 11 years since they last spoke.
At Escondido High School, Bardella occasionally wore a shirt and tie and was active in classroom discussions. “He would argue with teachers because he thought his way was correct,” says a former classmate.
Reading and writing were his strengths. Susan Crandall, an Escondido High teacher, says Bardella once took part in a speech contest as a member of the school’s academic decathlon team. While his teammates spent weeks rehearsing, Bardella wrote his speech in the car on the way to the competition. He took first place. “He was always good with words,” Crandall says.
In the cafeteria at lunch, Bardella would pull principal Steve Boyle aside to talk politics, a subject that had interested him ever since he wrote a report on Bill Clinton in eighth grade. “He understood things on a different level than most other kids,” Boyle says. Bardella moved easily between social circles, comfortable with bookworms and athletes.
Teachers and administrators could tell he was going places. They nominated him for the Escondido Youth Commission, an advisory board formed partially in response to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. “Of all the students who became involved, [Bardella] was the most enthusiastic,” says Lori Holt Pfeiler, Escondido’s mayor at the time.
Bardella once went before the Escondido City Council to request public funds for a high-school charity event. “He stood out,” says former councilman Jerry Kaufman. “He had a lot of confidence—a little cockiness—but he still made a good impression.” Bardella’s efforts convinced the council to appropriate the money, Kaufman says.
Although Bardella’s parents were liberal, his experience with the Republican-led council pulled his views to the right. As his civic engagement increased, his name began appearing in print. “I don’t disagree with [members of the Escondido City Council] arguing about the issues, but there were personal attacks going on,” Bardella, then 17, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a story about the council’s political dysfunction.
Midway through Bardella’s senior year of high school, his stepfather landed a well-paying job in Tehachapi, a California town about 200 miles north of Escondido. Although the move put Bardella in a new school, Escondido High allowed him to walk with his old classmates on graduation day. When Bardella returned to the school for a visit that spring, students wore paper ties in his honor. “He was such a hard worker and an inspiration to his friends,” says classmate Jon Upson.
Students called it Kurt Bardella Day.