D.C. sharpshooter who doesn't fear the jungle

John Ullyot is not afraid of conflict. When his Harvard colleagues moved on to Wall Street, Ullyot chose the jungles of French Guyana as a Marine. 

His decision to become an intelligence officer prepared him for his next role, as a trusted spokesman and confidant to the powerful in Washington.


Ullyot accompanied Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to endless interviews amid the frenzy of the Clinton impeachment hearings. He was always by Sen. John Warner’s (R-Va.) side when reporters pressed his boss, then chairman of the Armed Services Committee, during crucial moments in the Iraq war debate.

Tension has followed Ullyot to the private sector. Now at 39, he is representing the winner of a controversial defense contract that has Capitol Hill abuzz.

“In performing certain high-speed maneuvers, military jet aircraft thrust their engines into full power using afterburners,” said Warner. “John Ullyot never pulls back the throttle in performing his daily work — [he’s] always at full speed.”

As a media relations and crisis management senior vice president at Hill & Knowlton , Ullyot seems to like the jungle. He advises clients on their Washington strategy, is brought in to temper brewing public-relations and political crises, has been tasked to bring in more defense clients and is registered to lobby. The company has won five defense contracts since he joined the firm last year.

While most of the contracts are confidential, Ullyot earlier this year landed a contract with EADS North America , the American subsidiary of the European defense conglomerate, which has become a magnet for controversy and congressional battles.

EADS, the parent company of Airbus , partnered with Northrop Grumman in a competition for the Air Force’s next generation of refueling tankers. The partnering companies beat out Boeing for the contract, worth up to $40 billion. Now Boeing and its supporters in Congress are fighting to overturn that decision.

Apart from EADS, he also represents the Special Court for Sierra Leone , raising congressional support for and awareness of the Court’s mission. It was set up jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations to try those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

If anyone has had training to deal with crises and intense pressure, it is Ullyot.

He once dreamed of competing in the Olympic biathlon, but, worried he wasn’t good enough and didn’t have the time to train on his own, the Harvard graduate decided to go join the Marine Corps instead.

To Ullyot, the Marine Corps offered the same challenge as the Olympics: It’s physical and team-oriented, and every Marine is a rifleman.

“It was along the lines of something that was more attainable for me,” Ullyot said.

Among that group, Ullyot stood out, leading Marines through the French Foreign Legion’s jungle training in French Guyana. For Ullyot, that not only required stamina, but also the ability to translate from French for several weeks.

When he left the active-duty Marine Corps in 1995, a friend offered him a job as a communications director on a political campaign, helping Republican Rudy Boschwitz challenge Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone.

“For someone who had never worked with the press before, it was a real leap of faith for my friend,” said Ullyot in an interview at his Washington office.

Even though Boschwitz lost, he put Ullyot in touch with Specter’s office. Ullyot became the senator’s spokesman and, later, his deputy chief of staff.

It was on the Hill that Ullyot showed his raw intelligence, loyalty and motivation, according to those who have known him over the years.  

David Urban, Specter’s former chief of staff who now is a managing partner at American Continental Group , said John sees the mission first, and his own role second.

That approach made many on the Hill look beyond Ullyot’s prep-school background and Harvard pedigree to see the Marine.

“You do not meet many guys who go to Harvard and then go to the military,” said Urban. “It is usually Harvard to hedge funds, not Harvard to camouflage.”

During his time with Specter, Ullyot was thrust into a media frenzy as his boss was central in President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonObama, Clinton reflect on Mondale's legacy Polls suggest House Democrats will buck midterm curse and add to their ranks Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones calls on Breyer to retire MORE’s impeachment proceedings. Specter went on more than 50 Sunday talk shows, recalled Ullyot, who went with his boss to all of them during the span of almost three years.

In the summer of 1999, Ullyot left Capitol Hill to become AOL’s vice president for corporate communications in Europe, but by 2003 he was lured back to the Hill to work for a man he had looked up to for years: Warner, a former secretary of the Navy, who during his time in uniform had earned a great deal of respect in the Marine Corps.

Ullyot spent half his time as Warner’s personal communications director and half as the communications director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, which Warner chaired.

Warner and Ullyot developed a close, consultative relationship. Those who know Ullyot say that Ullyot did not have the traditional press secretary role. He played an integral part in seeking consensus on some of Warner’s most important legislation, including a resolution disagreeing with the troop buildup in Iraq early last year.

Until he left late in the summer of 2007 — before his boss announced his retirement — the Senate Armed Services Committee served as a pivot point for defense policy with regards to Iraq and Afghanistan, detainee treatment and major weapons systems contracts.

The Virginia senator was hardly ever seen without Ullyot by his side. And when Warner was at the usual Tuesday policy lunches, Ullyot, with his trademark blond highlights, would hold court with a gaggle of reporters.

“John was not one that flew off the handle,” said Charlie Abell, who was the committee’s staff director until 2006. “He was not one of my Chicken Littles. I could rely on him to be calm in the face of crisis.”

There is no better training for dealing with crises and a fast pace than Congress. But Ullyot also does not discount his biathlon years: reaching the ability to ski-race, but keeping the pulse low and the hand steady to hit the shooting target.