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Readorama: Meet a real Advance Man, wizards behind political campaign events

Steven Jacques, author of “Advance Man,” has organized political events for more than 30 years.
Steven Jacques, author of “Advance Man,” has organized political events for more than 30 years.

In October 2008, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois drew about 75,000 supporters to Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial.

It was the kind of high-profile national presidential campaign event that must have been stressful for those tasked with organizing it.

Steven Jacques, the Kansas City resident behind that event, doesn’t remember it that way.

“I was in a good mood that day,” he said. “That was my crowd.”

For that event Jacques served as advance man or, more properly, lead advance.

That’s shorthand for the person with sufficient attention to detail and high-trauma tolerance to make The Candidate — as Obama is referred to in Jacques’ novel, “Advance Man” — look good before heading on to the next event.

The wealth of American political fiction and film contains little about advance work, according to Jacques.

“For such a foundational piece of presidential politics, it has never gotten any press,” he said. “It’s also the most secretive, because advance people don’t talk to the media. It’s like ‘Fight Club.’”

The novel is set during the 2008 presidential campaign; its protagonist, Bix, is an advance veteran who may have been in the job too long. That’s because as exhausting as the work can be, it’s hard to leave behind.

“It is the most challenging thing you can do in politics,” Jacques said. “It’s exciting and thrilling; you are at your most focused and all your antennae are up.”

Jacques’ first campaign was in 1974. “I kept dropping out of college to work on campaigns,” he said.

Graduating from Southwest High School in St. Louis in 1970, Jacques didn’t complete his political science degree from Washington University until 1979 because politics kept calling. In 1978, he didn’t have a college diploma, but he had a White House job, occupying a desk inside the Executive Office Building and helping plan events for Vice President Walter Mondale.

For 36 years, Jacques worked hundreds of advance events for Democratic Party office-holders and candidates.

“The downside of doing advance is that if something goes wrong on your trip, you get the blame,” Jacques said.

One story he tells details a Mexican Independence Day trip to San Jose, Calif., in 1976. While presidential candidate and Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter walked down a long downtown boulevard, no spectators were there to cheer him because they had gathered a mile down the road at the speech site.

Meanwhile, members of the media, who had been loaded onto open cattle trucks driving in front of Carter, began mooing.

Finally, when the trucks got to the speech site, they parked in front of the spectators, blocking their view.

“Jimmy Carter was fuming,” Jacques said. “But I was about the 17th person of an 18-person advance team, so I really didn’t get blamed.”

Jacques will also mention a disappointment from the 2008 Obama campaign.

“For 30 years I wanted to do a Labor Day rally in Cadillac Square in Detroit. Harry Truman went there; John Kennedy went there.

“I got Detroit in 2008, but when I got to Cadillac Square, I found a lot of high-rise buildings, many of them empty, with a lot of open windows.

“From a security standpoint, it was untenable.”

He ended up placing The Candidate at a separate site with a much smaller crowd.

Today Jacques, who has lived in Kansas City since 1993, serves the marketing needs of national nonprofit organizations. And whether he will be a professional political operative with the 2016 presidential campaign is up in the air.

“It depends on who calls,” he said.

For more info about the book, go to stevenjacques.com.

Jacques is scheduled to speak at the summer picnic of the Mainstream Coalition, beginning at 4:30 p.m. Aug. 16 at Tomahawk Ridge Community Center, 11902 Lowell Ave., Overland Park. For information, go to mainstreamcoalition.org.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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