By Marin Cogan, GQ
Hogan Gidley bows his head over three egg whites scrambled dry with cheddar cheese and prays. It's been less than 48 hours since his boss, Rick Santorum, dropped out of the race, and he's had an intense two days, trekking from South Carolina to Washington to New York back to Washington again; enduring the lack of hot water at his Fairfax hotel; yukking it up with Alex Wagner and Michael Steele at the MSNBC studios in New York; and fielding countless calls from the press. Now he's sitting at an unfinished wood table in Le Pain Quotidien in Dupont Circle for brunch. If any of this is wearying, it's not evident in his dress: He is wearing a chambray blue denim Ralph Lauren sport coat, white linen pocket square, monogrammed blue and red striped button down and black silk knot cufflinks; khakis, saddle brown loafers (no socks), also by Ralph Lauren, and a taupe Sea Island cap pulled over his wispy brown hair.
Last week, Hogan had heard rumblings that Newt might drop out of the race, and that Texas might have a winner-take-all primary. But when neither seemed to materialize, he said, Santorum decided to take the pragmatic route and drop out. There was a conference call Monday night, and the next morning Hogan got in his car to drive up from South Carolina. The calls from reporters started coming in at 10 a.m. -- every 20 minutes or so at first, then increasing in pace, so that in the two hours it took him to get from Richmond to the campaign headquarters in Burke he'd received between 60 and 70 calls. "I just hit this button," he says pointing to the power button on his phone, "over and over, until it stopped ringing." He accidentally picked up Chuck Todd's call, stayed on long enough to hear the NBC political director accuse him of being cagey, and then, in his polite Southern way, he hung up the phone.
He made it to headquarters 45 minutes before Santorum went onstage in Gettysburg. Two minutes after the former Pennsylvania senator started speaking, Alex Wagner, who'd had Gidley on her show before, invited him to appear the next day. Gidley was a broadcast journalism major at Ole Miss -- it was only after pitching himself to then Governor Mike Huckabee as a young statehouse reporter in Little Rock that he ended up in politics -- and he says "she runs a good show and I recognize good TV when I see it." Moments later, he was asked to be on Hardball. As a young reporter, Gidley was a huge Chris Matthews fan. "I want this for the record," he says, with a touch of drawl in his voice, "The reason I left TV is because I wanted to go into politics and get back into TV, because I thought, instead of going market to market to market, I could jump out and do politics and then have more knowledge of what I wanted to cover, which was politics," he said. "And the reason I did it was Chris Matthews. The reason I got out of TV to get into politics was because I knew Chris Matthews had worked for Tip O'Neill and he was -- and now I was a Republican -- but he was can't miss TV. Now this was pre-leg thrill, this was pre-thrill leg here, but he was can't miss for me."
So Gidley appeared a few hours later, in a pinstripe blazer and polka dot tie, next to Howard Fineman, where Matthews got him to confess he wasn't sure whether Mitt Romney was a conservative, and that Santorum might consider running in 2016. Matthews gleefully declared that was a sign Santorum's camp didn't think Romney was going to win. But Hogan's TV hits had none of the Ed Rollins-style post-game bridge-burning that political junkies treat like blood sport but earnest flacks abhor. "This campaign's over but Rick's going to be significant," he promises. Because Santorum was always a long-shot candidate, and the campaign was always heavy with a kind of fatalism, none of his advisors seemed particularly wounded this week. There was mostly pride that Santorum managed to hang on as long as he did, given the financial and structural deficits. For Hogan, that pride even extends to difficulty of being the message man for one of the cycle's most off-message candidates. When I asked him about that, he took a long pause and recounted something he'd recently heard on Morning Joe.
The guy said Rick swings at every pitch, and every once and a while he needs to let one bounce off the plate. I told [Santorum] that yesterday and he laughed." Gidley recalled. "He said 'I can hit everything,' and I said, 'Well you think you can, that's for sure.' But it's not off message in the sense that that it's really what he believes, he thinks the message is to answer every question, and a lot of times that's a very good thing.
It's not uncommon for the staff members of a presidential campaign to conform to their candidate's likeness, both in personality and perspective and in dealing with the press. Mitt Romney's press handlers are tight-lipped and hyper-professional; Gingrich's spokesman is feisty, and combative with reporters. And while Gidley shares some similarity his boss -- they're both bad at lying and don't follow rote political scripts -- there are some material ways in which Gidley clearly does not resemble his candidate. Santorum inspired an ironic sweater vest craze among his supporters, and Esquire declared his denim some of the worst they'd ever seen on a presidential candidate. Both burnished his appeal as a blue collar candidate. But Gidley is Santorum's peacock, "the ascot behind the sweater vest," as Wagner once described him: meticulously dressed, fashion obsessed, all too happy to engage in the details and designers of garments. On the trail or in in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, he was an immediately recognizable figure to reporters covering the campaign, tie bar and pocket square always in place. (On a recent Friday, when Gidley popped his trunk, there were issues of Garden & Gun and GQ sticking out of his satchel; in an interview he proudly recalled saving a man from near pink-on-pink fashion disaster at a Polo outlet several years ago.)
His interest in fashion was passed down from his mother, a single parent who spent part of Gidley's youth as an accessories buyer for a clothing company near Dallas. "It's all oil money, so there is a very large high roller contingent in the state of Texas," he says. His mom was working with brands like Yves Saint-Laurent, Carolina Herrera, Gucci. "So I grew up with that kind of stuff. And my mom was only making something like $18,000 a year, with a child, but when she worked at clothing stores she had the ability to get things a lot cheaper." Their fridge was covered with images from W magazine and Town & Country. "I was an outlet for her creativity for some degree, her little paper doll she could dress up. And she had a flair for it," Gidley says.
Another thing that seems to set him apart from his boss, who famously chewed out New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny this cycle: Gidley seems to really love the press. He's not shy about engaging with reporters, be it in the service of his boss, or, on occasion, himself. An hour after Santorum dropped out, he forwarded along a tweet from ABC's Michael Falcone referring to Gidley as a fashion icon. (GQ's professional courtship with Gidley first began as an attempt to get an interview with Santorum. It was a fun, if on occasion maddening quest: someone on our staff would send him a note about an interview; he'd respond with a question about whether he should cuff his tuxedo. But we kept pressing anyway, and when I asked which campaign staffers we should be profiling, he suggested himself as a good subject. This is the sort of thing a reporter usually wants to run away from, but Hogan knows his audience.)
"One of my weaknesses is that I sometimes side with the reporters over my candidates, because I sometimes know what they're going through," he confesses, leaning in as if divulging a secret that flaks aren't supposed to admit. "I do like dealing with reporters. That doesn't mean I like all reporters," he says, just that he's a born extrovert. "I'll forget your name, but I'll know where you're from, I'll know your dad's business, I'll know all about your brothers. I won't know your name -- I'm horrible with names."
They seem to like him back. "Hogan is a ruthless, remorseless, black-hearted South Carolinian operative in the mold of Lee Atwater. He's an aggressive advocate, but he's not pointlessly hostile; unlike so many coldly professional flacks these days, he seems to genuinely like reporters," says The Atlantic's Molly Ball, one of Gidley's journalist fans. "He's witty and original and not afraid to be colorful, in his quotes as well as his dress, which is proudly flamboyant in that way that's totally acceptable for Southern heterosexual men. I swear I have seen him wear a three-piece suit in pink-and-brown plaid. The other day on television, I spotted him in a wide purple-and-green paisley tie, finished with a silver tie clip."
His gregariousness irked some top strategists from both parties, who, Politico's Dylan Byers reported this week, wondered what exactly he was doing on MSNBC. "Standard protocol is at least letting the campaign's body get cold before going on a personal promotion tour," one GOP operative sniffed. The New Yorker's Washington correspondent, Ryan Lizza, who was on Wagner's show with Gidley, points out: "Does anyone who goes on television hate attention? There are two dozen self-proclaimed strategists on TV at any given time. He actually did work on a campaign, unlike some others."
Gidley leans back in his chair, away from the table crowded with plates. "I'm a communications director for a presidential candidate. I probably am going to be on TV a couple of times -- not to mention when you're the news of the day," he says, sounding a little peeved by the criticism. "I wasn't on there with my resume strapped to my chest and I wasn't on there ripping Mitt Romney. I was talking about Rick."
It's not an entirely comfortable note to end the interview on, but I have to get back to work, and he has to make the trip back to South Carolina today. So we head outside, I snap a few photos of him for the blog, and we walk a few blocks down the street. Later, he calls to see if I'm planning on writing a hit piece. I filibuster, because I don't know what I'm going to write yet. He pivots back to the thing he knows best.
"One other thing I just thought of," he tells me over the phone. "I love just a ripped up, really ripped up threadbare Ole Miss T-shirt and jeans. I would wear it every day if I could."