Rest In Peace, Senator Burns

Thursday night I got some sad news: My old boss, Conrad Burns, had died at 81. Burns served as U.S. Senator from Montana from 1989 till 2007 and had major influence over telecom policy and increasing domestic energy production. Although he was Senator Burns for 18 years, he was always Conrad to those who knew him.

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I had the pleasure of working for him for only one year, his last in the Senate. If I remember correctly, my first day was Jan. 3, 2006. I’d been a health policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation who dabbled in hosting a weekly one-hour streaming radio show. I liked the policy work fine, but I preferred the show because it allowed me to venture outside my normal job description.

When a friend told me he knew a guy in a Senate office looking for a press secretary, I quickly got my resume in order and, for the first time since I was 15, paid for a haircut. Actually, a friend who was in senior management at Heritage paid for it because, she said, “You need to look like you belong working in the Senate.”

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The haircut worked. I was offered the job and gladly accepted. I’d always liked the idea of being a press secretary, mostly based on what I’d seen in movies and TV – the guy holding court at the podium, calling on reporters and setting them straight. Of course, the actual job was nothing of the sort.

I remember the excitement of day one – filling out the paperwork, getting my ID badge, being introduced to staff and trying desperately to remember names. I’m not good at names, and even at the end of my time there, I’d still ask friends in the office who various people were.

And I got my first “smartphone,” a Blackberry with a color screen. That may seem laughable now, but it was a big deal at the time – a status symbol in DC, especially at bars. A Blackberry meant you were somebody, or at least somebody with a job important enough to need access to email 24/7. The rest of the pre-iPhone world was stuck in a world of flip phones striving to be thinner and smaller, but the Blackberry was the Cadillac of communications. I couldn’t even afford a flip phone at the time, so this was huge.

It was Sen. Burns who had bestowed this new elevated status on me, and we hadn’t even met. He was in Montana when I was interviewed and still there when I started. A week into the job we had a video conference with him in Billings, Montana. It was the first time I’d laid eyes on the man crazy enough to empower someone to hire me, with zero experience in handling the press, during a year he knew would be one hell of a political fight.

Sen. Burns, who preferred to be called Conrad in private because that’s the name his parents gave him, was ensnared in the Jack Abramoff scandal. The media wouldn’t print his name without hanging Abramoff after it. “He took more money from Abramoff and his associates than any other senator,” they’d all write.

Derek Hunter is Washington, DC based writer, radio host and political strategist. He has previously worked for several prominent conservative non-profits as an analyst in health, education, technology and judicial policies, as well as a press secretary in the US Senate. Additionally, Derek helped found the Daily Caller, where he is a contributor. You can also stalk his thoughts 140 characters at a time on Twitter.

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