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Here’s the Deal: A Memoir

Here’s the Deal: A Memoir PDF

Author: Kellyanne Conway

Publisher: Threshold Editions


Publish Date: May 24, 2022

ISBN-10: 1982187344

Pages: 512

File Type: Epub, PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

Born to Run It

By every imaginable metric, I should have been a Democrat.

And a liberal. A feminist. Probably a man-hater, too.

I was raised in a house of al adult women. Four Italian Catholic women. In a

smal town in southern New Jersey between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. The

only male in our al -female household was Pudgy the dog, and he stayed outside.

(The inside dog, Beauty, was a girl.) This was the golden age of the women’s

liberation movement. Roe v. Wade. No-fault divorce. My father left us when I

was three with no child support and no alimony. I was half Irish, half Italian.

The men in my life—uncles, cousins, family friends—were union members.

Al arrows pointed to me growing up at a time and in a way that should have

had me, on January 20, 2017, my ftieth birthday, ironing my pink pussy hat,

printing my protest signs, and joining the “Women’s March” in Washington,

D.C. Instead, I wore a red hat and stood in front of the U.S. Capitol, steps away

from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence as they were

sworn into o ce, and then began my new job in the West Wing as counselor to

the president. I should have been running Hil ary Clinton’s campaign or at least

helping “the nation’s rst female president” nd her way into the same White

House Madonna said she “thought about blowing up” and where I now


By then, I’d spent a quarter century as a ful y recovered attorney, plying my

trade as a pol ster, a political strategist, and a TV talking head. I know al the

reasons why some people become Republicans and other people become

Democrats and a growing number join no party at al . I was a child of 1970s

New Jersey, raised in a hardworking blue-col ar area by a single mom whose

friend sent her copies of Ms. magazine. Do I sound like a future Republican to

you?Yet there I’d been months earlier, on August 12, 2016, on the glittering

twenty-sixth oor of Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, staring across

Donald Trump’s battleship of a desk, on the verge of going to a place no woman

had ever gone before. And I’d be going there with the highest-pro le real estate

developer, reality TV star, and business leader in America, whose immediate

goal was stopping Hil ary Clinton from becoming America’s rst female

president while he became the nation’s rst president with no prior military or

political experience. I had earned my way in, but it was the last place I imagined I

could be.

I was already working on Trump’s 2016 campaign as one of the ve pol sters

and a senior advisor to a thoroughly uninterested Paul Manafort. He literal y fel

asleep during my PowerPoint on how to close the gender gap with Hil ary. (He

must have stil been on Ukraine time.) But the morning of the twelfth, I got a

cal from Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, saying, “Mr. Trump is asking for you.”

The candidate was recording videos for a few events he could not attend in

person. The taping wasn’t going so wel . When I breezed in, there were a dozen

anxious-looking people in the o ce and one hair-and-makeup artist who had

just been told (by Trump) not to go near him. I could tel immediately he was in

a t of pique.

“Look at that,” he said to me, motioning toward a video monitor. “Why am I

pink? Who hired you people? Kel yanne, tel them I look like a pink, three-year-

old baby.”

Oh-kay, I thought to myself. I’ve had babies. I’ve had three-year-olds. They were sorta pink. Let me see what we can do about this. When the taping nal y

wrapped, Trump announced: “I want everybody out of here except Kel yanne.”

“Are you coming on the plane to Pennsylvania?” he demanded as soon as the

room cleared out.

“No, sir, I…”

“Why not? I thought you said you were.”

“It’s a smal er plane, I think. It’s okay. I’l come next time.”

“It’s not okay,” he corrected me. “Why do they keep putting the same people

on the plane?”

“I don’t know how that works,” I answered. “I went on the road yesterday

with Governor Pence. North Carolina looks like Trump country.”

I took advantage of the extended pause. “But what’s real y going on?” I asked.

Something had to be troubling him beyond the camera lighting and the airplane

seating chart.

He leaned back in his huge leather chair and folded his arms. “Everybody tel s

me I’m a better candidate than she is.”

I nodded and smiled. “That is empirical y true.”

“But she’s got the better people.”

“She’s got many more people,” I said. “She has a person whose only job is

Lackawanna County.”

One arched eyebrow.

“We have, like, one person in charge of Pennsylvania and three other states,” I

said. “So, yes, it is di erent.”

That’s when he got to what was real y on his mind.

“Do you actual y think we can do this?” he asked me, which I took to mean

beat Hil ary on November 8, less than three months away.

I didn’t sugarcoat it.

“Yes, you can win, Mr. Trump—but right now we’re losing. You’ve come this

far. It’s been remarkable. Look, she’s too much Hil ary and not enough Clinton.

Bil was the charmer with the everyman appeal. People are skeptical of her. She

rubs people the wrong way. She is seen as direct, but curt and not honest. Right

now, sir, the entire conversation and election are about you.”

“I know.” He cracked a faint smile. “I get the best press coverage.”

“You get the most press coverage,” I retorted. “For you to win, the election

needs to be about her, or at least more about her. The bal ot won’t say

‘TRUMP’ or ‘NOT TRUMP.’ People wil have to actual y suppress how they

feel about her to vote for her.”

“Go on.”

“The pol s are rough right now. And the window is closing. But, of course,

you can win. I’ve been talking about the ‘undercover, hidden Trump voter’ for

weeks now and met international ridicule. Those voters are real, and they wil be

there for you. The question is, are there enough of them? We also need to

convince the fence-sitters, the crossover voters, and the conscientious objectors.

They cal themselves Independents not because they are not focused on politics

but because they are. They don’t like Washington, the career politicians, the

system. They’re on the outside, just like you.”

I stil had the oor.

I kept going, “I don’t know a bil ion things about a bil ion things, sir, but I

know consumers. I know voters. And I know pol s.” Then I dished up a quick

version of the presentation Manafort had dozed through and others in

campaigns past had ignored. “Look,” I said, “women who are running for o ce

usual y have three distinct advantages, and Hil ary can’t claim any of them.”

Trump always liked reviewing Hil ary’s de cits. He perked up at the prospect

of hearing some new ones. “Women candidates are typical y seen as fresh and

new. There’s a reason you’ve never heard of the ‘Old Girls Network.’ There isn’t

one. A couple of years ago, Joni Ernst cleared the primary threshold of fty

percent and then became U.S. senator. Iowa had literal y never sent a woman to

Washington before. The second advantage is that women are seen as less

corruptible, more ethical, beyond reproach. Fairly or unfairly, often after a man

is caught behaving badly in o ce, people immediately say, ‘We need a woman.

We need a woman.’ ”

Trump smiled at that, and I pressed on.

“Nobody sees Hil ary as fresh and new,” I said. “Nobody sees her as ethical

and beyond reproach. In both cases, it’s the opposite.” And then there was the

third advantage that Hil ary lacked. “Women candidates are often viewed as

peacemakers, earnest negotiators, consensus builders, as general y interested in

how they can hammer out a deal with the other side. Who sees Hil ary Clinton

that way?”

“Nobody,” Trump agreed.

As I laid al this out, I could tel I stil had his attention, which was saying

something. “Hil ary’s blue wal is real,” I said nal y. “But if we can break

through it, you wil win.”

Then came the surprise question, the one I wasn’t remotely expecting when

I’d walked in the door. The world-famous dealmaker wanted to make one with

me.“You can do that?” he asked me.

“I can do that.”

“Do you want to run this thing?”

“What do you mean, ‘run this thing’?”

“The campaign.”

“The campaign?”

He was serious. That made me nervous, so I just kept talking. “We need to

focus on the states Obama-Biden carried twice with more than fty percent and

where Hil ary is now pol ing below fty and a Republican governor and/or

senator was elected during the Obama years. We know people aren’t al ergic to

Republican leaders in those states.”

It wasn’t the rst time I had made that pitch, but it was the rst time Trump

had heard it, uninterrupted, and with less than one hundred days to go. He liked

what he heard. Jared and Ivanka were on a cruise on the Danube. Don Jr. was

hunting out west. This was a Friday, so Manafort’s weekend in the Hamptons

had begun a few days earlier.

Donald Trump waited for my response.

I wanted us both to succeed. So getting to yes required a few additional

conditions that I wasn’t even certain I could demand without sounding

disrespectful or dissuaded. There was no use doing this if we couldn’t do it right.

“I’l need direct access to you at al times,” I said. “Given the limited time before

Election Day, we’l need one other new person in the C-suite. And I’l need the

latitude to look at data more granularly, more situational y. Forget the national

pol s about the ction of electability, which portends and pretends who can and

can’t win. The Electoral Col ege is how you do or don’t win.”

Trump agreed to al of it. We had a deal.

“Who do I need to tel , sir? Who else needs to meet with me?”

Trump looked to either side and looked puzzled. “You talk to me. Just me.”

If you’re going to make history, who needs hierarchy?

The political warrior in me was elated. I’d just been handed the opportunity

of a lifetime. I had earned it but never thought I’d achieve it. A man who’d been

o ered that job would have walked out of presidential nominee Donald

Trump’s o ce and immediately leaked the news to a favored reporter or

commanded an impromptu press conference in the Trump Tower lobby. “I’m

the new campaign manager,” he’d have announced to the clicking cameras and

klieg lights, exuding con dence through his jutted jaw and furrowed brow.

“Everything’s di erent now. We’re going to win this thing.” But I didn’t do that.

The political warrior was one thing, but I was also that girl from South Jersey,

raised in a household of loving yet self-denying women, who had a hard time

accepting yes for an answer. I had triumphed over some men but let other men

trample al over me.

“You know what?” I said to Donald Trump. “We’l talk about it again

tomorrow after you get back from Pennsylvania. See if you’ve changed your

mind.” I handed the legend Donald Trump, also my party’s presidential

nominee, a chance to rethink his o er and maybe even renege. What man would

do that?

“Okay, honey,” he said as I reached for the o ce door. “Leave it open, Kel,”

he added, a harbinger of things to come. “This is going to be great.”

I was numb as I walked down the hal way toward the elevator, nodding

goodbye to his trusted assistants Jessica and Rhona. Instead of hitting 14, where

my o ce was, or lobby, where the press were, I re exively hit 24 and changed

elevators on the residence side. Would he tweet it? Had people overheard us?

Would I blurt it out to the thirsty press corps corral ed in the main lobby waiting

for scoops and sound bites? Instead, I went down to the residence lobby and ran

smack into Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

“Hey, Kel yanne, are you coming with us to Altoona?”

“No,” I replied, avoiding eye contact and heading toward the side exit on

56th Street.

“So whadaya think? Can he real y do this? It’s too late—right?—the pol s,

the tweets.”

“Yes, of course he can win this,” I said. “I smel change in the air. Things are

looking up. He’s making some moves.” I was as cryptic as Reince was frantic.

The only person I told that day about Trump’s o er was my husband,

George. “You’re doing this,” he said to me without a whi of equivocation and

with a tear in his eye. “This is your shot. I’ve listened to al these people deny

you, dismiss you, and sel you short for al these years. They never took your

advice, and maybe he wil . You’re going to do this.”

I nodded, knowing George’s support was genuine and unconditional.

“Kel yanne,” George said, “Trump can actual y win with you.”

George was certainly right about the rst part. I’d been cut down and cut o

and cut out by some of the most famous and infamous men in business and

politics. George had been around for plenty of it. He had little regard for the

Republican consultancy that rewarded failure, operated like a walking RICO

violation, and, lately, had never seen Trump and his appeal to a broad coalition

of voters coming.

And so began the wildest adventure of my life, personal y and professional y.

I would certainly be changed by it, and so would America. I had talked my way

into being Donald Trump’s campaign manager. Now we’d see if I could talk him

al the way into the White House. But rst I had to talk myself into believing I

was worthy of the historic moment.

I LIKE TO talk. Then again, that’s not exactly breaking news.

I have spoken mil ions of words in public. On TV. In speeches. At ral y

podiums in front of roaring crowds. Before more modest but no less captive

audiences in converted barns, in fancy living rooms, in hotel bal rooms, in wood-

paneled boardrooms, on rooftops, and on hil tops. But I also like to listen.

That’s what good pol sters (and moms) do. We listen. Careful y.

Perhaps I’ve never had more to say than I do right now. When someone told

me that a book like this one is usual y around one hundred thousand words, my

reaction was perfectly predictable: “Is that al ? I’ve crammed that many into a

single TV appearance.”

Talking is what I love to do. It’s also how I make things happen. It’s a big part

of who I am. I chat up strangers and nd common bonds. I reconnect with old

friends and reveal something new. The world is my focus group. I want to listen.

And laugh. And learn.

Put it like this: I like to talk almost as much as my husband likes to tweet. On

Twitter. About my boss, the president. George loved how I talked about Donald

Trump, until he decided one day he couldn’t stand it and chose to throw our

lives into an uproar. Opposites may attract, but similars endure. I live my life

mostly o ine. George spends a major part of his day online. Then and now.

That may be our greatest divide… and America’s.

I’ve never had much of a lter between my brain and my lips. No notes, no net:

That’s been my MO al along. Announcing exactly how and where and among

whom Donald Trump was going to win the presidency. Cheerful y appearing on

ve Sunday shows. Delivering unscripted speeches that make people ask, “Is she

using a teleprompter? Is someone in her ear?” No, that is not the way I do it.

But, yes, living on a limb like that also has its perils. When the whole world is

listening and you’re out there al alone—too little research, too little sleep—

things don’t always come out artful y or as intended. I made my bones in

traditional media, live television, and ten-minute uninterrupted live radio, which

is much more di cult than sitting around, writing, curating, editing, and

tweaking the perfect tweet.

Alternative facts… remember those?

The jackals sitting on their asses lying in wait to pounce had for years played a

one-way parlor game of parsing a phrase here or there from the mil ions of words

I’ve spoken, hoping to denigrate and castigate me. No matter. They are the ones

who often have thick skul s and thin skin (and marbles in their mouths when

they speak). These elites were never my audience, anyway. The people are. I was

speaking to them and sometimes for them. Rather than lash out and clap back at

every mean post or miserable person, I decided to take the high road and the

long view. That didn’t happen quickly and that hasn’t come easily, but it has

kept me safe and sane, improved my outlook, and al owed me to retain joy on

the journey of life.

I’ve been a little quiet lately, quieter than I usual y am. I even took a long

break from television. I jumped o while so many others were begging to get on.

When I announced on Sunday night, August 23, 2020, that I was leaving the

Trump administration as senior counselor to the president—one of Donald

Trump’s longest-serving senior aides—Election Day was stil a few months away.

I had decided to spend some much-needed time with my four growing children

—ages ten, eleven, fteen, and fteen—and disconnect from Washington for a

while. I’d given at the o ce. It was time to do more giving at home.

I went o the grid just as I’d promised to. George not so much, though he

had vowed to give his poison Trump obsession a much-needed breather. I held

my tongue, stayed out of the media, drove lots of carpools, and started nagging

my children face-to-face again.

That time has been important, for al of us. But you knew I couldn’t sit

quietly forever. This book is cal ed Here’s the Deal for a reason. Rest assured, this

is not one of those al -MAGA-al -the-time titles, packed with obsequious

fawning, written by someone who lacked my daily proximity to or rst-person

perspective on President Donald Trump. This is also not another insu erable

“tel -al ” from an author spinning through a cycle of incredulity who has decided

to place profit over principle, fame over friendship, attitude over gratitude.

Lots of people already know who I am. But not from where I’ve come, what

makes me tick, how I found myself in the middle of incredible opportunities and

wild dramas.

The Jersey girl, raised by independent women, who left home with hope and

passion and strong beliefs. The young entrepreneur who made it to the highest

levels of politics and media and did it on her own terms. The public servant who

began at fty and marveled at how decisions and actions could positively a ect

so many lives. The wife and mother who did her best under excruciating

circumstances, as wives and mothers almost always do. The political professional

who stared down entrenched careerists, petty jealousies, the old boys’ network,

the new boys’ network, lies, personal attacks, and a man the president of the

United States cal ed the “husband from hel .” Who else has had a life like mine?

It’s Quite The Story.

And it al began in a tiny town cal ed Atco.

Image 5

Part I

Jersey Girl

Image 6

Chapter 1

Golden Time

I have an early memory of my father.

The two of us are eating pancakes together, sitting at the kitchen table like

normal families do, acting as if the scene was certain to repeat itself a mil ion

times over. So here’s what’s strange about that father-daughter breakfast: I’m

not sure if it real y happened or if it’s only wishful thinking on my part. But I

cling to that early, early memory of us because it’s the only one I have.

John Kainath Fitzpatrick was his name. I was three when he left for “the

other woman” and “the other child.” He and my two grandfathers had eight

children with their wives and another eight children out of wedlock with their…

nonwives. The men in our family didn’t just have side pieces. They didn’t just

have comares, as we say in Italian. They had side families. And it wasn’t a secret to anyone. They al went o to be with those other families, leaving their original

wives and children to face their own new normals and fend for themselves.

Which is how I came to be raised by a houseful of strong, independent,

wonderful y loving women who were pretty sure the whole world revolved

around me.

I was born Kel yanne Fitzpatrick in Camden, New Jersey, on January 20,

1967. I favored my father’s Irish side, with light skin and bright blue eyes,

quickly becoming a stocky and curious little girl who was bursting with energy

and thought almost everything was fun. My mother, Diane DiNatale

Fitzpatrick, 100 percent Italian, the youngest of four sisters, had expected to

devote her life to raising a big, happy family. Instead she was married at twenty-

one, had me at barely twenty-three, and was divorced at twenty-six, never to

seriously date again. When my father left, she got busy, not mad, ready to do

whatever it took to provide for herself and especial y for me—shielding me from

adult problems and letting me be a kid.

Jobs at her father’s Chrysler-Plymouth auto dealership, the local bank, and

then a higher-paying position as a gaming supervisor at Atlantic City’s Claridge

Casino al owed her the dignity of work and an ability to spoil me by 1970s and

1980s New Jersey standards (read: inexpensively). We moved back in with her

mother and two unmarried sisters at the old homestead, 375 Hendricks Avenue

in tiny Atco, where the four women shared bedrooms so I could have my own.

My grandmother, Antoinette Lombardo DiNatale, was the unquestioned

matriarch of our family. She, like my father’s mother, Claire Muriel (Kainath)

Fitzpatrick, had the sel essness, patience, and poise of a woman who had

trudged through the Great Depression, foreign wars, and battles at home.

Grandmom, as we cal ed my mother’s mother, su ered through a devastating car

crash in her forties that took the life of her sister-in-law and left Grandmom

bedridden for a year. She was told she would never walk again. She heard what

the doctor said, then wil ed her way through it with prayers to St. Jude (the

patron saint of lost causes), a fused hip, the hint of a limp, and zero self-pity.

My father’s mother had crippling arthritis and buried two of her eight

grandchildren, one from leukemia at age eight and another from an automobile

accident at eighteen. Despite my father’s long absence, I maintained loving

relationships with his sisters, Aunt Gail and Aunt Ruth, and their children,

Gail ynn, Tony, Sammy, Diana, A.J., and Jil ese, and later my father’s son Scott.

Grandmothers Antoinette and Claire did nothing for the glory, for the

praise, for the honor, or for the money. Nothing. They were ladies with limited

formal education and endless wisdom. They certainly had plenty to complain

about. But to this day, I never remember either of my grandmothers

complaining about anything. They smiled through their physical pain and

emotional scars. They made our lives easier. And they would remain friends and

travel buddies for decades past their children’s divorce.

They were just spectacular.

That stone rancher at the corner of Route 30 (White Horse Pike) and

Hendricks Avenue was bursting with love. Grandmom and my aunts Rita

(“RoRo”) and Marie (“MiMi”) al took a daily hand in raising me, as did the

aunts’ married sister, GiGi (for Angela, whom we also cal ed Angie), who

stopped by nearly every afternoon with her two children, my rst cousins and

rst friends, Renee and James (“Jay”). Together these vibrant women were

South Jersey’s version of TV’s “Golden Girls,” with housecoats, biting humor,

late-night dessert benders, and life lessons. Grit was practical y a genetic trait

with them, but so was an ability to make everyone feel welcomed, special, and

loved. Our wooden kitchen table was like the town square. Visitors l ed their

bel ies and eased their burdens. Laughter was the theme song.

My mother’s sisters were charitable with their time and modest treasure,

frank in al their attitudes, and, as I can see looking back, way ahead of their

time. Aunt Angie and her husband, Uncle Eddie, owned Mama D’s Italian

Specialties and the Country Farm Market, thirty yards in front of my house.

Aunt Rita had been a technician in a doctor’s o ce for decades and then owned

a “custard” (soft-serve ice cream) shop and mini-golf course with Angie and

Eddie next to the market. MiMi, who’d helped her father run his businesses,

later returned to teaching eighth-grade math. She was known to her students as

strict and mean because she didn’t take excuses for late assignments and didn’t

try to be their friend. Then, years later, when they’d run across her around town,

they’d often remark, “Thank you. You cared about us. You prepared me for high

school. You taught me how to think.”

These women didn’t preach equality. They lived it. Why march in a parade or

label yourself when your back door swings open for al comers, your heart and

home open to al ? My values and compassion for others were instil ed by them,

their careful nudging, our shared Catholic faith and their adherence to the

Golden Rule. They knelt for the Lord and stood for the ag. Their love was

unsparing and unconditional. What al that meant for me was an unshakably

secure upbringing despite whatever circumstances might have pointed the other

way. Whenever I felt awkward or unsure of myself, as al kids do, those women

were right there for me, tel ing me how unique I was, that I could do and be

anything, and that if I changed my mind (or couldn’t cut it in “the real world”),

I could always come home. Most parents and loved ones convey this to their kids. Mine absolutely meant it.

As mil ions of women know, you don’t need to have a child of your own to

love children. We al spoil someone else’s son or daughter at some time. My

aunts Rita and Marie forwent marriage and motherhood and instantly had the

center of gravity in their home shift to the needs of a little one. GiGi found

herself with a niece/third-child combo. Led by Mom and Grandmom, this circle

of sel ess women took al the love they had inside them and lavished it on me.

FROM THE DAY I started talking, I didn’t stop. Probing. Ponti cating. Pol ing

people. Performing every chance I got. Constantly asking questions that started

with “how come…?” I’d line up my dol s and stu ed animals like I was in a

courtroom and they were my jury. They al sat there in stunned silence as I

played judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, and al the witnesses. I loved to mimic

whatever I’d just seen on television, and we certainly watched a ridiculous

amount of it. I had an aptitude for remembering names and numbers, dates and

data. I had zero skil s (stil ) for designing, decorating, or drawing anything. By

the time I was four, everyone agreed I should grow up to be a lawyer.

My formal education got o to a bit of a rocky start when I dropped out of

nursery school (pre-K). I went dutiful y for a few weeks, then decided the whole

thing was stupid and I’d rather hang out at home and get a real education from

Grandmom. We folded clothes, cooked, and crocheted. I helped to rol the

gnocchi and snap the string beans. We watched soap operas, more game shows,

and, every night at six, the Channel 10 news with John Facenda or Channel 6

with Larry Kane and his successor Jim Gardner, the same Philadelphia newscasts

Joe Biden was watching in Delaware. Grandmom would tel me stories about

the old days and o er her perspective on handling di erent people and di erent

situations. She’d sneak in a little crème de menthe or sloe gin. Her lessons seemed

wise at the time, and they stil do. Even as a little girl, I recognized that our family

was di erent. Not di erent-bad, but di erent. When I entered kindergarten at

St. Joseph’s Catholic School in nearby Hammonton, where I would stay for the

next thirteen years, I was the only child of divorce in my class.

We didn’t know what we didn’t know, but our days and lives were constantly

ful . Five nights a week, we played poker, dominoes, pinochle, and Kings in the

Corner at the kitchen table. Lifelong friends and new acquaintances from work

or church slipped in the back door unannounced. It was 30th Street Station in

there. God forbid that anyone thought of cal ing rst. They knew a hot meal and

warm conversation would always be waiting. Maybe they’d stay a night or three.

I realized later that the conversations were contemporary and the content

somewhat controversial. Abortion, divorce, homosexuality/AIDS, alcohol, drug

and gambling addictions, adultery, arrest. The family friend who left his wife

and ve kids for another man. The nun who left the convent to get married. The

local business owner who lost it al at the craps tables. Yet I cannot recal a single

political conversation. Not one. I suppose the women of the house voted for

Democrats, at least until Ronald Reagan came around, and certainly for that

handsome young Catholic, John F. Kennedy. But the pictures that hung on our

wal s weren’t of presidents or politicians. They were the pope and the Last

Supper and my latest artwork from school, along with the cruci xes, scapulars,

and saint statues that loomed in almost every room. I was taught to rely on God,

my family, and myself—not some politician who would never know me…

literal y.

The one exception to the “politics-free” childhood occurred in August 1974.

I was seven years old. The Watergate hearings were on TV. And I was prancing

around the house with homemade “Impeach Nixon” buttons on my cotton

dress. I’d cut them out of a piece of paper and used safety pins. I hardly knew

who Nixon was. I certainly didn’t grasp the concept of impeachment. I’d heard

people saying Nixon should be impeached, and I guess I was fol owing the

crowd, annoyed that these tedious hearings had preempted our regularly

scheduled game shows and soap operas.

My cousins Renee and Jay slept over almost every weekend. The three of us

were less than three years apart, and I was the youngest. They were like siblings

to me. The card players had us empty ashtrays and fetch mixed drinks. Saturday

mornings meant Jay trying to pry me awake so that my nearby sleeping mother

couldn’t hear us, then us dumping an entire box of sugary cereal and the entire

sugar bowl into the biggest Tupperware we could nd, grabbing two ladles, and

watching cartoons for hours before Renee and I would leave for dance school.

Renee guided me through the female rites of passage and gave big-sister, tough-

love advice. We spent countless nights side by side in her canopy bed, dreaming

and scheming, imagining our future husbands, children’s names, and destinies.

Jay, ten months my senior, made me the brother he never had, and I have al the

scars on my knees and elbows to prove it. From sliding into home plate on the

concrete “ eld” to ying o his Hu y bike. From Jay I also got an above-average

knowledge of al things footbal and became a eld hockey fan who’d yel

“Pandemonium!” from the sidelines.

Every winter, Grandmom and Aunt Rita headed to Florida for three months.

Mom and I would move in with Aunt Angie, Uncle Eddie, Jay and Renee, so

there would be someone to look after me while Mom was at work. Uncle Eddie

treated me like one of his own, including me on hunting and shing trips, even

letting me cal him “Uncle Daddy” when I was terri ed to participate in the

Father’s Day celebrations in elementary school.

Once or twice, someone may have suggested show business as a possible

career for me. I took dance and voice classes and did a stint at modeling school.

And my growing repertoire of imitations was vastly expanded by the premiere of

Saturday Night Live. I was al owed to stay up late and watch because my aunts

loved that show. By Sunday afternoon, I was slaying my smal audiences with my

kil er reenactments of Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna and of Dan

Aykroyd and Jane Curtin’s point-counterpoints on “Weekend Update.”

“Dan, you pompous ass.”

“Jane, you ignorant slut.”

Shades of CNN and Fox segments to come, even if I wasn’t entirely sure yet

what al those insults meant. But I had my doubts about showbiz as a career for

me, and a lot of it was how I looked. Until around fth grade, I was tal er than

the boys and chubbier than the girls. Thankful y, nature and hormones did their

thing. I slimmed out, the boys shot up, and al was right with the world again.

The friends I made in those years would stil be my friends decades later,

indeed some of my very closest friends in life. Christine Ordil e and I found each

other in kindergarten. She was the youngest of seven. Her father died when she

was nine. She spent a lot of time with our family, and me with hers. We’d stay in

my room for hours, experimenting with music and makeup and talking to boys

on the phone. So many of us went through K–12 in the same school together:

Linda, the Kathys, Sheri, Patty, Rohna, Francine, Antoinette, Steven, and

Benjamin. My neighbors Jimmy Baker and Todd Ferster have been by my side

for decades.

High school brought more friends and lots of Petrongolos, including

Michaela, with whom I’ve shared life’s biggest, best, saddest and funniest

moments. She was the only person I’d ever met named Michaela, decades before

every third girl seemed to have it, and her friendship came without jealousy or

judgment. Since Michaela was one of ten children and I was one of one, we had

very di erent backgrounds. There were Petrongolos in every grade. Her parents

and siblings are in my life. Her sisters Marina and Angela are among my very

close friends.

Given my father’s disappearing act and the family tradition he was carrying

on, I certainly could have developed an anti-male ethos. But my upbringing

oriented me di erently. Uncles, cousins, and male family friends provided

strength, compassion, and life skil s. And incredibly, the women never spoke il

of the men who had wounded them. The prevailing wisdom was that a family’s

dirty laundry should remain inside the house. What I saw as restraint, grace,

resilience, and self-reliance, others might view as a failure to dump good-for-

nothing jerks who’d refused to honor their wives as equals worthy of respect.

What I got was an education—unspoken but potent—in women’s

empowerment. My mother, grandmother, and aunts made their own way on

their own terms, independently and self-reliantly.

The fact is, I never heard a negative word about my father from any of them.

That helped fortify me when, at age twelve, my father suddenly reappeared,

watching from the back of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church as Jay and I

and other parishioners received the Catholic sacrament of Con rmation. My

mother had run into him somewhere and invited him.

Soon after that, my father asked if the three of us might meet for dinner. I

agreed to go, more for my mom than for me. I was curious, but I could have

gone either way. Then I had to decide whether to invite him into my life.

Christine gave great advice. I said yes, got myself a father and a half brother,

Scott, and learned the value of forgiveness, redemption, and second chances. He

quickly became a cool dad, taking my friends and me to arcades, scary movies,

and Phil ies games, and would stay in my life and grow in my heart for the next

forty years.

Though I wasn’t even a teenager yet, I could see there was a certain unspoken

tragedy to him, just leaving my mother the way he did. He missed out on a great

wife. He stepped back into my life at an age when girls real y need paternal

attention and a ection. When I nal y had children of my own, I’d see no point

in passing on any of that pain or regret to the next generation. We loved having

PopPop John active in our lives.

OUR LITTLE ATCO wasn’t even o cial y a town. It was just a speck on the map in

Waterford Township, Camden County, a part of New Jersey that looks more

toward Philadelphia than to New York. This was a part of New Jersey that

deserved the slogan on the license plates: “Garden State.” I always felt at home

with the wide-open spaces, the solid traditions, and the genuine simplicity. Atco

wasn’t even named for a person or a geographical feature, the way most places

are. It was named for a company. Local lore has it that, in 1904, when the

Atlantic Transport Company of West Virginia placed an order for four large

vessels with a shipbuilder in Camden, the surrounding township became known

as Atco, a sign of appreciation for al the new jobs. To the extent that outsiders

know the place at al anymore, it’s often because of the high-octane Sunday

afternoons at the Atco Dragway, New Jersey’s rst drag strip. My mother’s

father, a short, stocky man ironical y nicknamed “Jimmy the Brute,” had owned

the Atco Speedway, another drag strip, which closed before I was born.

Though our house was only half a block o White Horse Pike, the old Route

30 between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, the scattered subdivisions hadn’t yet

crowded out al the fruit farms and other open spaces around us. I got my rst

summer job at twelve, packing blueberries at a farm just down the Pike in

Hammonton, the self-proclaimed “Blueberry Capital of the World.” The

operation was owned by Bil y DiMeo and his family. Bil y and my mom were

high school classmates and the adult leaders of our parish youth group. They

may have regretted bringing impressionable tweens and teens to see movies like

Grease and Saturday Night Fever. In the early years, my friend Brenda would walk down the path from her grandmother’s house to my grandmother’s house

by seven thirty every morning, and my mother or an aunt would drive us to the

Indian Brand packing shed. For eight solid summers, I would do my best to

uphold Hammonton’s blueberry pride.

Blueberry packers took the pints l ed by blueberry pickers and covered the

containers one by one with cel ophane, using a little square form to make sure

the seal was even and tight, before wrapping everything with a rubber band and

putting the pint into a crate. Each crate held a dozen pints. We were paid sixteen

cents for each crate we l ed, and I was so fast, people would come by to watch

me. My mother stopped by sometimes to help, but we would usual y end up

ring her because she kept eating the blueberries instead of packaging them.

They were delicious, plump, sweet, and warm from the sun.

The blueberry shed is where I learned the meaning of working hard. The

DiMeos, Mike DeLuca, Gina, the Roseannes, Lynnie and Shel ey, Renee, Jay,

and Christine worked there, too. Whatever gifts God gives, I came to

understand, depend on the rocket fuel of hard work. With that, almost anything

is possible.

In our family, money was just a means to an end, not the end itself. My

mother taught me this not only through her own prodigious work ethic but also

by the way she always put her family rst. No matter how much or little we had,

I learned early on that what mattered was to give more than you take and to

work harder than everyone else. If you outwork them, you’l probably outsmart

them. There was so much to learn from my mother. When I got into my teens,

sometimes I would wait up for her to drive home from her night shift, and we

would talk while she ate a late dinner. Even though she was often working, she

was always present and available to me. I cal ed her at work regularly, almost as

often as my kids FaceTime me now. Feeling neglected wasn’t ever an issue as

Diane’s daughter.

Despite her warm and supportive nature, Mom was anything but a pushover.

Her standards and sense of propriety were as plain as the gold cruci x around

her neck. In the fal of 1981, my freshman year of high school, I was sitting on

our powder blue velvet couch with Michaela, watching TV. Something came on

—I can’t remember what it was—that somehow o ended fourteen-year-old me.

God damn it! ” I hissed from the living room couch.

My mother was stirring a pot in the kitchen. I could see her in the distance.

The words had barely come out of my mouth when she came whipping around

the corner and straight toward me. I swear that cruci x was bouncing o her


“What did you say?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “What did I say?”

“I heard you. What did you say?” Her question was even sharper the second

time, and now she was raising the wooden spoon she was gripping in her hand.

Michaela looked terri ed. I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking, Your

mother is going to hit you with that spoon! My mother would never hit me,

though she probably should have sometimes. I could see the sauce dripping from

the spoon. She was steaming mad.


“You took God’s name in vain! Son of a bitch!”

“I just—”

“That’s a commandment. Don’t ever take God’s name in vain again. I don’t

care if you say ‘Motherfucker! To hel with this shit!’ But don’t you ever take

God’s name again.”

It was a classic case: My mother, this loving woman who wore a gold cruci x

and no other jewelry and had this humble, self-denying life, also had a drunken

sailor’s potty mouth. My father was the truck driver, but Mommy actual y spoke

like one.

Decades later, when the pre-K teacher would summon me the day after

Easter to say that my sweet, wel -mannered four-year-old son had acted out of

the ordinary and said, “Son of aaaa BITCH! ” complete with intonation and

hand gestures, I would know exactly where that came from.

“Oh. He was mimicking his mommom. That’s just what my mother said

after Easter Mass yesterday when someone pul ed in front of her in the church

parking lot,” I explained.

“At the church?” the teacher asked me, half amused, half in horror.

“Yes,” I said. “I guess that’s why we go.”

Image 7

Chapter 2

Beltway Bound

You think I’m busy now? You should have seen me in high school.

I sang in the church choir and performed in the school plays. I took dance

classes. I had eld hockey practice from three to six every afternoon. I worked on

the oats for our local parades. I was the homecoming princess for my grade and

a staple of the rst honor rol (al As). High school was a whirlwind. That

doesn’t mean I was particularly excel ent at any of it except for my schoolwork,

but I liked having a lot going on. The idea of skipping school or not having my

work done never even occurred to me. When I turned sixteen, I got my farmer’s

driver’s license, thanks to my stil -roaring career in the blueberry packing shed at

the DiMeos’ farm. Final y, Brenda and I didn’t need my mother to drive us on

summer mornings anymore. We made the trip to Hammonton in my Subaru

BRAT with the open-bed back and two backward-facing plastic seats, and, later

on, in my far sportier Camaro Berlinetta with a T-top. My blueberry triumphs

continued. I was crowned Blueberry Pageant Princess (no swimsuit portion,

merciful y). I won rst prize at the town’s blueberry festival one year for packing

thirty-nine crates and nine pints (477 individual pints) in thirty- ve minutes,

thanks in large part to the supervision and coaching of the DiMeos’ niece and

my lifelong friend, Donna Mortel ite.

The summer of 1984, between my junior and senior years, I attended a

program at Georgetown University, living on campus for three weeks and taking

intermediate French and American government. The girls from Chicago,

Miami, Los Angeles, and South America had style—panache—and designer

goods I’d seen only in magazines. It wasn’t my rst time in Washington, but it

was the rst time I’d spent more than a couple of days there. I like this place, I

thought to myself. Later that summer, our local paper, the Hammonton News,

asked me to write a guest column about the Democratic and Republican

national conventions. I was beyond excited that an Italian Catholic woman,

Geraldine Ferraro, had been chosen to run for vice president on the Democratic

ticket. I couldn’t wait to sit in front of the TV and hear her rousing address to

her party’s convention in San Francisco. I planned to center most of my column

around her speech. But then I watched President Ronald Reagan address the

Republicans in Dal as. A man old enough to be my grandfather. More familiar

with Hol ywood than Hammonton. No common denominators whatsoever

with my young life in South Jersey. And yet he had something I’d never heard

from someone whom people described as a leader. He was aspirational and

accessible. Patriotic. Resolute. It was like he was talking straight to me.

He became the lead in my column.

Then, on September 19, 1984, something amazing occurred. President

Reagan came to Hammonton to campaign. This was a major deal for us. Our

little corner of New Jersey didn’t get a lot of presidents passing through on their

way to the G7. Twenty- ve thousand people packed downtown that Wednesday.

The schools closed so the students could attend. In his speech, the visiting

president even sang the praises of a local hero.

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