Bardella played smart internal politics, getting together with the spokespeople for key Republican Congress members and dutifully following up after the weekly message meetings with leadership staff. Senior press operatives saw potential. “He had been identified early on as someone who had a great deal of talent,” says one former senior GOP communications aide. “But there were always concerns.”
Even as he raised the profiles of the Congress members he served, Bardella earned a troubling reputation. Though he once felt insecure about his lack of formal education, he found that many in Washington were impressed he’d made it to Capitol Hill without a college degree. He came to see his “school of hard knocks” diploma as an asset. While working in Snowe’s office, he often bragged about not having wasted his time in college, according to a Republican press aide.
On Facebook, Bardella trumpeted his professional goal: “Become the Press Secretary to the President of the United States.” Although more than a few political press secretaries share this objective, putting it in writing on the Internet was considered presumptuous. “It’s one thing to be ambitious,” says a former senior GOP spokesman. “It’s quite another thing to publicly state, ‘I have ambition.’ ”
Through his network of Facebook friends, Bardella promoted himself. A typical post might say “at the Senate barber with the Boss and Ralph Nader” or “at CNN with the Boss who is about to go on SitRoom with wolf at 5:28 p.m.”
Also being talked about was Bardella’s enthusiasm for inserting himself into news articles. “He had a sick obsession with needing to see his name in lights,” says a veteran GOP press operative. With the exception of a few leadership positions, congressional press aides are expected to stay behind the scenes. “Members of Congress are trying to get their own names in the media mix and hire press aides to help them accomplish it,” says former House and Senate leadership spokesman Ron Bonjean, now a principal at Singer Bonjean Strategies. “That’s why it’s a golden rule that rank-and-file Hill press staff shall not be read, seen, nor heard in the media.”
Bardella rarely hesitated to go on the record with reporters. “Every day you pick up the paper and there is Bardella again,” says a former House GOP staffer. Bardella’s self-promotion increasingly triggered Capitol Hill chatter. In early 2010, Paula Nowakowski—beloved chief of staff to House minority leader John Boehner—died of an apparent heart attack at age 46. The tragedy hit hard in Republican circles. On the day of Nowakowski’s funeral, Politico ran a story suggesting that Nowakowski’s 24/7 Capitol Hill lifestyle may have contributed to her death. The story included a section on Bardella:
“ ‘I don’t ever stop,’ said Kurt Bardella, the prolific press secretary for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
“Bardella sends out a daily stream of press releases, often getting up at 6 am and working until dark . . ." ‘There are times in any job when you have a crazy week, but on Capitol Hill it’s like that every day,’ he said. ‘For everyone who literally makes this job the centerpiece, it does take its toll.’ ”
GOP staffers weren’t happy. “It rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way that he would use that opportunity to remind everyone how hard he works,” says one Republican communications aide. “It came off as shameless yet not surprising at all.”
Bardella says he was quoted so often because Issa’s busy schedule made it impossible for the congressman to respond to every media inquiry himself, and the office believed it was better to engage the media than to ignore it.
Despite some eye-rolling from colleagues, Bardella’s career steamed ahead. His boss became the senior Republican on the Oversight Committee at just the right time. In the wake of the financial crisis, the federal government had put an unprecedented amount of taxpayer dollars at risk through bailouts and stimulus programs. Many of these initiatives—most notably the $700-billion Troubled Asset Relief Program—were unpopular on Main Street. And Democrats, who controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress, had less political incentive to rifle through these programs for abuse. The forces created an opening for Issa.
Issa’s team of 40 staffers dug into internal documents on the most controversial events: the federal bailout of AIG, Countrywide Financial’s program that extended discounted mortgages to members of Congress, and abuses at the community advocacy group ACORN, among others. Their findings provided a steady flow of news items—candid e-mails, damaging internal reports—that were sure to sizzle on the Internet. Bardella’s role was to identify the items of greatest significance and drop them into the news cycle at the angle most flattering to Issa.
Bardella leaked these items to reporters he knew didn’t have time to ensure they weren’t just printing spin. “You knew you were only getting a piece of the story, but if you didn’t write it, someone else would,” says a reporter who covered the committee. Journalists who passed on Bardella’s leaks risked being scooped by their competitors and dressed down by their editors. “You didn’t have a choice,” says a reporter who covered the committee. “You felt a little bit powerless.” Bardella’s strategy reflected “a recognition that the way the news cycle was evolving had created an artificial frenzy for new content,” Bardella says.
Even reporters who bristled at Bardella’s tactics acknowledge his results. “His skills and approach dovetailed perfectly with the Internet-driven political-media world,” says one.
By 2010, Issa was pitching himself as an anti-waste superhero in a land of big-government televangelists. The congressman bounced from one cable news show to the next, blasting the Obama administration’s handling of the $800-billion stimulus, the BP oil spill, and safety problems at Toyota. A February 2010 Bloomberg Businessweek headline called Issa “Tim Geithner’s Tormentor.” The New York Times anointed him “Obama’s Annoyer-in-Chief.”
Still, Bardella’s status was rising even before he went to work for Issa. At the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, he bumped into George Stephanopoulos.
“Hey, Kurt,” Stephanopoulos said.
The two posed for a photograph that remains on Bardella’s wall today.
Bardella was invited to speak at George Washington University and became a regular at Republican hangouts on Capitol Hill. “I’ll go to Cap Lounge on Thursday night and people are like, ‘Oh, Kurt—what’s going on?’ ” he says.
Attending black-tie events with Issa, he hobnobbed with TV news celebrities. “We’re talking to [ABC News correspondent] Jake Tapper, we’re talking to [CNN’s] Wolf Blitzer,” he recalls.
Before a taping of Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace popped into the greenroom to greet Issa and his staff. “Is Kurt here?” Wallace asked.
The host led Bardella back to his office for some fact-checking assistance. “I think [Issa] was somewhat impressed at that point,” Bardella says.
In 2009, Politico named Bardella one of its 50 political professionals to watch. “Legislation takes time, it takes patience and it takes luck,” he told the publication. “Press is instant gratification.”
Many GOP press operatives cringed as Bardella’s ego inflated. One recalls running into Bardella and Issa before the taping of a cable news program. “Bardella was walking around the greenroom like he was Ari Gold from Entourage—throwing his weight around as if he was a big deal.”