Some times crisis can be borne of tremendous good news – a chance of a lifetime; or put another way, when the dog finally catches the car. As one of my political heroes, President John F. Kennedy, once noted, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.”
I’m living testament to that principle. A childhood dream almost literally was dumped in my lap. It was an extraordinary opportunity. But it came with considerable responsibilities and posed some serious challenges.
And I learned a powerful lesson for all forms of crisis management: Keep your head and sense of humor when all around you are losing theirs.
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In July 2010, I was a 36-year-old attorney, recently returned to private practice after an incredible four-year stint as General Counsel to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin. Then, West Virginians were saddened to learn of the passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd – one of the true lions of the Senate and West Virginia’s most beloved public servant.
Governor Manchin had a strong interest in serving in the Senate (and ultimately, he would run for and win the seat); but as a man who believed in the sacred rites of our democracy, he did not want to appoint himself to the vacancy: He’d let the voters decide if they wanted to give him the honor of federal office.
But he also recognized that the people of West Virginia needed representation during the four months before a special election could be held. And much to my incredible honor, Governor Manchin appointed me to serve as West Virginia’s junior U.S. Senator.
Senator Byrd cast quite a long shadow, and it was daunting to contemplate being appointed to fill the seat previously occupied by the longest serving legislative member in the history of the United States. I could not begin to replace Senator Byrd or ever hope to fill his enormous shoes, but what I could do was emulate his work ethic and commitment to West Virginia – which is precisely what I strove to do during my four months in Washington, a town ruled by Congress, Blackberries and Members-only elevators; and a place where fame (and infamy) can come and go in a matter of hours.
(Side note: Years before, former Oklahoma standout and Chicago Bulls forward Stacey King saw limited action in an NBA game, hitting a single free throw. That same night, his teammate Michael Jordan poured in 69 points. Afterwards, King joked that he would always remember that game as the night that he and Jordan “combined for 70 points.” Similarly, rather that describing my term as “four months,” I usually characterize it by saying that Senator Byrd and I combined to serve over 52 years in the United States Senate.)
Within days of my arrival, men and women I had studied in law school were introducing themselves to me, welcoming me as one of their own, then asking for my vote in the same sentence. And I wasn’t alone; I was immediately put at the helm of a full Senate staff – many of whom had served for decades under Senator Byrd. I was given a personal secretary and press secretary – no longer would I be the one answering the phone in my own office. However, I declined the offer of a personal driver and walked myself to work.
In fact, as the august body’s youngest member – and one who had never stood before the voters – I found it especially important to strongly resist all temptation to allow any of the unusual attention get to my head. Maintaining humility was critical, but also approaching the extraordinary opportunity with a healthy sense of humor would be a necessary prerequisite.
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