McKenna has front row seat to history
August 27, 2009
In early August, John McKenna was eating dinner with his son, Matt McKenna, a 1995 graduate of Bozeman High School who moved back to town in March. John McKenna has enjoyed seeing his son more, but this time it was different, his dad said. Matt McKenna usually has a cell phone by his side, but that night the calls and e-mails were coming in more regularly. Even more unusual, Matt was taking them. "He's usually really good about just turning it off, or monitoring it very closely," John said last week. "But this time, he was stepping off into another room ... . It was almost becoming like, 'This is irritating.'" What Matt McKenna couldn't tell his family, nor the press that was hounding him, was that his boss, former President Bill Clinton, was preparing to land in North Korea to broker the release of two American journalists who had been convicted of sneaking into the republic and sentenced to years of hard labor. As Clinton's spokesman, McKenna was the media's point man. But as he told his father that night, the secrecy surrounding Clinton's visit was tight. "He told me, 'This might be one of the times if I told you I really would have to shoot you,'" John McKenna said. "'You'll find out when everyone else does.'" "Six a.m. the next morning, the president was stepping off the plane in North Korea." Matt McKenna, eating lunch at a local restaurant a week after the president's successful trip, still won't say much about the meeting between Clinton and Kim Jong-Il, only to say it's just another example of why he loves his job. "It has been an absolute honor and privilege to work for him particularly during weeks like last week," he said. "There's really no such thing as a typical day." McKenna got his chops in Democratic politics after graduating in political science from Montana State University in 1999, working on western campaigns before Democrats began their Rocky Mountain winning streak. He worked on Brian Schweitzer's unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000, then Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles' losing campaign against Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska in 2004. In 2002 he worked on a campaign in Georgia. By 2006, McKenna was back in Montana, working for the Democratic Party, when John Morrison and Jon Tester competed for the chance to run against Burns, up for re-election and battling against accusations of association with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff While Abramoff would play a big role in the 2006 senatorial race, McKenna early on wanted the Democrats to stock up on the ammunition they had relied upon in past attempts to unseat Burns: public gaffes. So as Burns began stumping in the state, McKenna dispatched a staffer with a camcorder to catch what political observers now call "You Tube moments." (That project would produce a video of Burns nodding off during a public meeting that would show up in attack ads at the end of the campaign.) After working on Tester's campaign against Burns, he joined on as his spokesman, forcing him out of the West and into Washington, D.C. But McKenna would not be off the campaign trail long. Not long after a former roommate asked if he would be interested in working as Clinton's spokesman, McKenna had joined on with the former president in New York City. And while Clinton is engaged in humanitarian work around the globe, the focus in his office in December 2007 was the upcoming Iowa caucus, in which Clinton's wife Hillary Clinton was vying against presidential hopefuls like Joe Biden and Barack Obama. The long primary fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton that would stretch all the way to the final primaries in South Dakota and Montana took McKenna through 40 states and countless high school gyms ("a high school gym is a high school gym is a high school gym," McKenna philosophized). When it did end, McKenna returned to working on the former president's humanitarian work. In March, he and his girlfriend moved back to Bozeman. They missed being able to mountain bike and get outdoors. He still handles the press calls, which come in at all hours when the story is of a global scale like the North Korea trip. He also works as an occasional pundit on Montana politics, getting quoted by the New York Times recently as a "Democratic operative." Despite Schweitzer's subsequent victory over Bob Brown for governor in 2004 and Tester's win over Burns, McKenna still calls Montana red. Successful Democrats "run as individuals," not as Democrats, he said. "The chatter you hear from the West and East coast, they don't understand," he said. "The Obama camp ran a perfect campaign in Montana. They staffed up early and ramped up at the end." He even visited the state, but John McCain still took Montana's electoral votes. "My word of caution to Democrats is this keep working, keep fighting," he said. "We are not the majority in this state."