Michael Steele’s first prediction as the new Republican chairman reflected his sunny side. In a buzzing downtown DC ballroom, as Steele’s upset victory in the party-leadership race was being announced, he leaned over to his sister, Monica. “We’re going to have some fun,” he whispered.
What came next was anything but.
The Republican National Committee had turned to Steele last winter out of desperation. The race for chairman had come down, on the sixth and final ballot, to a tough choice: Steele, an outsider, versus a South Carolina party hack whose membership in an all-white country club was already generating bad publicity.
Less than two weeks earlier, Barack Obama had been inaugurated as the nation’s first African-American President. Electing the first black Republican chairman had upside potential. It could help change the image of a party whose failure to attract minority votes was a big problem. Steele’s supporters in the room that day were convinced that his experience as a Fox News commentator was a guarantee he’d be an articulate spokesman.
But a string of verbal blunders quickly made Steele, and the party, an easy mark for ridicule. In May, a Time cover story asking if the Republicans were going extinct said “it can be comical to watch Republican National Committee gaffe machine Michael Steele riff on his hip-hop vision for the party.”
Steele’s challenge had been to take his talents as a TV pundit—where the trick is often to spout the first thought that comes to mind—and transfer them to his new job as party spokesman.
Slow to recognize his problem, Steele tried to talk his way out of it. He claimed that his early mistakes—which included a blowup with Rush Limbaugh that turned into a damaging debate about who really spoke for Republicans—were part of a deliberate plan. “There’s a rationale, there’s a logic behind it,” he said on CNN. “It’s all strategic.”
It didn’t help that Steele had called abortion “an individual choice” in a GQ interview. His words flew in the face of decades of party doctrine and forced him to clarify his own anti-abortion views as a devout Catholic who once studied for the priesthood.
Steele’s amateurish performance shocked many in the party. Questions were raised about whether he should step down. The old guard found a nit to pick in the $18,500 that Steele spent redecorating his office at national headquarters. (The old decor, he told GQ, was “way too male for me.”) Some party elders wanted controls placed on his access to the party purse.
Democrats embraced Steele as the Republican they loved to lambaste. Seated before a wall of TV monitors at Democratic headquarters, members of the rapid-response team eagerly tracked Steele’s frequent cable appearances. Any howler they missed was quickly spotted by an army of liberal bloggers and launched into cyberspace.
His first year as chairman, troubling as it’s been at times for Steele and his party, fits a pattern. The man whose climb to national prominence began in a rowhouse in DC’s Petworth neighborhood has lived a roller-coaster life. His story is a series of personal successes followed by defeats, both political and personal. But in the end, he has always wound up back on top.
As this election year got under way, Steele was riding high again—too high, in the view of his detractors.
There were gripes that Steele was putting his own interests above the party’s, with paid speaking gigs as well as a new book and book tour that took congressional leaders by surprise. Veteran insiders fretted about the “burn rate” of RNC spending and worried about a fundraising falloff.
And yet, with financial help from Steele’s operation in Washington, Republican candidates took the biggest prizes of 2009 away from the Democrats—the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey. Donations flooded in, with more than 370,000 new donors and $81 million in contributions, according to the party.
Today, every indicator points to significant gains for Republicans in the coming mid-term elections. Campaign handicappers give them a chance of regaining control of at least one house of Congress.
As the national chairman of the Grand Old Party might say, what’s up with that?
Looking back from the vantage point of his Capitol Hill office, under the gaze of a Frederick Douglass portrait, the 51-year-old Steele says it’s a mistake to think that progress, in life or a political career, always follows a steady, upward course.
“There are a lot of folks who are blessed with that,” he says. “Barack Obama is one. He got on the track—next thing you know, he’s President. The rest of us do it the old-fashioned way. Trial and error. You make mistakes. You learn from those mistakes.”
For Steele, the first big mistake came early. In a precursor to what would occur more than three decades later, he let himself get carried away with his success.
It was the fall of 1977, and Steele had just entered Johns Hopkins on a partial scholarship. He was fresh out of then-all-male Archbishop Carroll High, a parochial school in Northeast DC where he’d been student-council president. Steele put his gifts as a politician to the test in his new environment.
“I knew most of my classmates by the end of my first week of school,” Steele recalled to a group of inner-city high-school students in DC last May. “I just networked the heck out of that bad boy. I was grooving. I was having a ball!”
He was elected president of the Hopkins freshman class, then let his academics slide. “I partied my behind off,” he says. “I heard there were classes, and some people told me I really should go. But I was having a good time.”
The next June, a letter arrived at his home in DC, advising him that he’d been expelled. He went downstairs to tell his mother, a sharecropper’s daughter who worked a minimum-wage job at Sterling laundry to send him and his sister to college. Through a Catholic charity, she had adopted Steele, born at Andrews Air Force Base in 1958, as an infant. Her first husband, William Steele, died when Michael was four, and she remarried a few years later to Defense Department truck driver John Turner. But as Steele likes to say, it was his mother who ruled the household.