By Betsy Rothstein - 09/06/06 12:00 AM EDT
Kevin Madden, spokesman for House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), recently escaped for a week to North Carolina’s Outer Banks with wife, Jaclyn, and 5-month-old son, Riley. For three days, he left his BlackBerry off, didn’t pick up a newspaper and didn’t watch television. He slept soundly for a change, ate well, golfed and went to the beach.
But after three days, he couldn’t take it.
He was rested and restless. It was time to check the BlackBerry. Time to flip on Fox News and CNN. Time to check in with a few reporters and cable news networks calling for interviews with Boehner.
Vacations don’t feel like vacations when you’re a senior Capitol Hill aide. Instead of relaxing, the vacationing aide swiftly moves work from the Hill to a beach house, mountaintop, blueberry field or a snowy trail in Yosemite National Park.
Some offices chide them to take time off, and they do, but reluctantly. Being out of touch feels wrong; most lawmakers are always on call, which means some aides must be as well.
Many aides, especially those working for the most high-profile members of Congress, wouldn’t have it any other way. Being in the loop at all times is self-imposed. Taking a rest isn’t easy or appealing no matter how good it looks from the grind of a 12-14 hour political workday.
Philippe Reines, who is in his fifth year as press secretary for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), has taken only one real vacation in that time, and it wasn’t to a tropical resort. Instead, two summers ago he and three friends flew to the Pacific Northwest to climb Mount Rainier.
The treacherous five-day trek took the climbers to 14,410 feet above sea level and required months of training and preparation. To shave off weight, climbers cut off the handles of their toothbrushes and left other unnecessary items at base camp.
Not Reines. Despite admonishments from guides to not bring anything extraneous, he stashed his BlackBerry in his inner Gortex vest to keep them from seeing it. Fearing that the 10-degree cold at 4 a.m. on the glaciated summit might freeze the device, he wrapped it in a thermal sock to keep it warm.
At the summit, an exhausted Reines lay down. He had not used his BlackBerry for 29 hours, a feat in itself, say his friends. And there, at the summit, he had what he describes as an intense case of shakes for 15 minutes. Was it the altitude and fatigue, or was it lack of communication?
Once the shakes passed, he pulled out his BlackBerry and, over e-mail, he replied to a request from Stephanie Cutter, of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign, that Clinton appear on the Sunday shows to launch the Democratic response to the GOP convention in New York.
Reines doesn’t think his behavior odd. “Peeling him away from his BlackBerry is a constant challenge,” says Raj Shah, one of Reines’s friends on the trip.
“Most people who get to the top are completely physically spent. When we got to the top, Philippe collapsed onto a backpack to rest, and when I looked over he had taken his gloves off and was lying on his back holding the BlackBerry in front of his face, and in the freezing cold was typing away.
“So if you want an example of someone who literally never lets go of his work, Philippe [is] a great example.”
No wonder he is owed six weeks of unspent vacation.
For aides like Madden and Reines, it’s not only that duty calls, it’s that they have become accustomed to the intensity of their jobs, and lulls make them uneasy. Perhaps their dedication, no matter how over the top, is why Quinn, Gillespie & Associates, a public affairs firm, awarded both Madden and Reines their highest “flak jacket” honors last November for being top Hill press secretaries.
After Madden’s three days of relaxation, an antsiness set in and he began fidgeting with the remote control, which led to turning on the BlackBerry. He began writing ideas for strategies, which he e-mailed to himself and colleagues so he wouldn’t forget.
Madden insists his behavior was self-imposed; Boehner was off traveling and not bothering him.
“At the end of session I was a flashing battery,” says Madden. “I was just kind of drained. I went down with the intention of turning [the BlackBerry] off and throwing it away, but then it had a magnetic pull. After about three days my mind had time to recharge. Type A personalities only need three to four days.”
Dr. Alan Marlatt, a psychology professor and addiction specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle, says Type A people have an aggressive work style in which they are always trying to stay ahead. “A lot of them will take their BlackBerry to the beach so they won’t miss out on anything,” he says. “Type A’s have a hard time taking off because they feel like if they are away from all the access they are going to fall behind.”
Recalling his ascent on Mt. Rainier, Reines says, “I didn’t have to stay tethered, but it’s my nature to stay tethered. Only checking [in] once over a 29-hour period is a real improvement from my usual behavior, so I felt like I was making real progress.”
Another friend on the climb, a House aide who has traveled with Reines before, explains the mentality: “At this point, he considers any day that he doesn’t have to shave, put on a suit and tie and read 14 newspapers by 7:30 a.m. a vacation day.
“But he’s gotten much better when he does get away ... Let’s just say it’s rare, but when he does relax, he reaaaally relaxes.”
Last summer, Emile Milne, longtime spokesman for Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), was vacationing with his wife at a beach in Jacksonville, Fla., and from there made calls back to Washington.
“I’m not a workaholic, you know?” he says. “It just so happened I was pulling together events for Mr. Rangel’s annual Congressional Black Caucus conference. I was talking with people from the beach. What the hell? In this day and age it doesn’t matter where you are.”
Milne says he’s not work-obsessed: “I’m not completely crazy. I don’t stay in the loop just to stay in the loop. If I were the AA maybe I’d have to be in the loop all the time, but I’m not.”
Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), stays in the loop at all times, even from a blueberry field in Maine. This August he spent three weeks with his wife and children on Sebago Lake.
“Yes, BlackBerrying amongst the blueberries,” he jokes.
How perfect. “Or perfectly pathetic depending on your perspective. You always need to bring the electronic tether with you. It’s the ethic of the job. My boss is term-limited and at the end of the year I will move on.”
Ueland doesn’t make excuses for his 24/7 work-style: “It’s a function of time and circumstance. Sen. Frist is doing a lot of travel throughout the nation and there’s plenty to be preparing for when Congress comes back to session [this] week.”
Ueland’s workspaces have included the middle of a field, internet cafes, roadside restaurants, a shooting range, an archery range, the middle of a forest, riding a jet ski or wandering along the San Andreas Fault.
Heather Epkins, former spokeswoman for Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.), worked by BlackBerry and cell phone while hiking for two days along snowy trails in Yosemite National Park. “If you’re really dedicated you can’t really take a break,” she says, adding that the intermittent phone service in the park “drove [her] nuts.”
Even so, she is self-aware, saying, “I think twentysomethings can let their lives slip by.”
Jim Manley, press secretary for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), returned the call for this story last week while sitting on the grass in front of Lake Harriet outside Minneapolis, Minn. He was about to go sailing, but didn’t mind returning the call .
“The trick is to have a little discipline,” he says. “I’m not sure at this stage of the session that you can afford to check out all the way.”
With more than 13 years serving lawmakers, including a long stint with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Manley says it takes him a few days on vacation to realize he doesn’t have to answer each message immediately.
But he doesn’t mind. “It’s part of the job.”