The star of tomorrow: Temptation and a career in politics reporting

The star of tomorrow: Temptation and a career in politics reporting
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With political reporting harder during a Pandemic, the old standbys seem more appealing: the young politician to watch pays the futures market.

Nearly a half century ago, that temptation almost sidetracked my professional career — an opportunity to cover two “can't miss” young politicians: John B. Kelly, Jr., and Tom Gola. If you don't recognize them, they missed. More on that in a moment.

For many years I've worked that old saw about the potential politics stars of tomorrow. In the early in 1970s, I profiled a Republican congressman Barber Conable, who went on to become the party's most influential legislator and later was president of the World Bank.

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In 1978 I predicted a new Senate candidate and political neophyte, basketball star Bill Bradley, would be a significant figure in the Senate. Likewise, in 2002, I predicted that Rahm Emanuel in his first House race, a contested primary, would be a future political powerhouse — he went on to serve in Congress, as President Obama's chief of staff and as Mayor of Chicago. As a bonus on that one, I won a bet — a drink — with top Chicago Sun Times political columnist Steve Neal.

There've also been some clinkers.

At a 1974 lunch at Washington's Hawk and Dove restaurant, I was dazzled when a young Georgia congressional aspirant talked about his party embracing the moderation of Nelson Rockefeller, rather than follow Ronald Reagan on the environment and civil rights. That was Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE.

Twenty years later I wrote that Kathleen Brown, the daughter and sister of California governors, would capture the state House on the way to national stardom. Instead, she had the ill fortune to run in an awful year for most candidates with a D beside their name, losing to her immigration-bashing opponent, Pete Wilson.

Now back to that temptation, I went to work for the Wall Street Journal out of college and later was transferred to Washington. But I was a junior economics reporter and wanted to cover politics.

The Philadelphia Bulletin, the country's largest evening newspaper — and where I had interned — offered me a political reporting job. Pennsylvania hadn't had a prominent national politician since infamous President James Buchanan before the civil war.

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But Tom Gola and John B. Kelly, Jr., had future written all over them.

Gola was the local basketball legend, winning championships at his neighborhood high school, going on to LaSalle College, rejecting Kentucky, and leading the Explorers to a NCAA title. They were denied a repeat only by a Bill Russell-led team. Gola then helped lead the Philadelphia Warriors to an NBA title.

The son of a Polish-American cop, the tall handsome young Republican won a state House seat and then beat the Philadelphia Democratic machine to become City Comptroller at 36.

John B. Kelly, Jr., was a rowing champion and four-time Olympian, following in his father's footsteps as an Olympian and in the construction business. In the 1950s and 60s, it seemed every Philadelphia construction site had a “Kelly for Brickwork” sign. 

A Democrat, he won the at large city council seat in 1967. With Kennedyesque looks — his sister was Grace Kelly, the stunning Hollywood actress who married the Prince of Monaco — his future seemed equally bright.

Maybe the Keystone state could overcome the Buchanan legacy, perhaps even a Gola-Kelly race someday.

It wasn't to be.

Gola lost his reelection race, and Kelly dropped out of politics.

“Both these guys should have gone far,” says Ed Rendell, Mr. Philadelphia, a former mayor and Governor. “But they were decent guys without that burning desire, that passion, to succeed in politics.”

Burning desire is a requisite to get to the top of most endeavors. That was dramatically seen in the ten-part ESPN series, the "Last Dance" about Michael Jordan. To the point of personal brutality, Jordan simply wouldn't tolerate losing. In politics, the closest thing to Jordan may have been Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe four China strategies Trump or Biden will need to consider Largest Democratic PAC portrays Trump as strongman in bilingual Florida ad Larry Hogan's hopes MORE, with a diametrically different outward demeanor, laid-back cool as opposed to burning hot. But a young African American with a funny name who thinks he can be president and blow away the establishment burns desire.

Somewhere out there this political season there is a future Obama, though probably not any Michael Jordans. There also are Tom Golas and Jack Kellys.

I'll take a pass for figuring that out.

As for me, I turned down the Bulletin, which later folded. I soon became a political reporter for the paper I loved; it worked out ok.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.