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Take it from Arne’s former communications chief: Let Trump be Trump

You can’t control a candidate into being something he is not.

The latest iteration of leadership in the Donald Trump campaign is trying to manage him with — mixed results.
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

“He has been a confrontational and aggressive figure, a take-no-prisoners warrior for what he believes in. Along the way he has … infuriated and offended friends and foes alike.”

This is not a description of Donald Trump. This is from a profile of my former boss, Gov. Arne Carlson, written by Dane Smith in the Star Tribune in January 1999, Arne’s last year in office.

Combativeness is a quality than can make a leader but create a nightmare for a political campaign. The latest iteration of leadership in the Trump campaign is trying to manage him — with mixed results. But even if they succeed, they run the risk that their renegade candidate will become the politician he has raged against.

I sympathize. Harnessing Carlson’s particular brand of energy was one of my tasks as I helped manage his 1994 campaign for re-election.

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Although Carlson was hugely popular, the Republican Party did not endorse him for re-election. On the road to the primary, Arne wanted to charge and take charge. He wanted to lash out at the Republicans who endorsed Allen Quist. He wanted to take down the DFL, which promised him an ugly fight in the general election.

Every once in a while, I stood in the way of those outbursts. My goal was not to thwart Carlson’s instincts. He was right — most of the time. But we, including Arne, didn’t want a flash of temper or a misspoken word to undercut the record he was campaigning on. Still, a campaign is a calendar of the unanticipated and unexpected.

For example, one steamy September afternoon, Arne was campaigning in Hutchinson, talking to a group of farmers. One of them complained that the state was still spending too much money and challenged Carlson on his decision to fund the state film board.

With the Twin Cities media in attendance, Arne responded with a heated lecture on budget priorities. I intervened, reminding him how the state’s film industry led to his dinner that year with actress Ann-Margret who was filming in Minnesota.

Arne recovered with a quip about his sex appeal. The farmers chortled. The tension passed. In fact, Arne bonded with all the other Ann-Margret fans in the room.

There was no silver lining to Carlson’s interview with the American Jewish World in which he compared Quist to Hitler. He said Quist represented a “narrow sliver” of Minnesota Republicans but “a narrow sliver has the ability to take over an entire system.” He added, “That clearly is how Hitler started out.”

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Former Gov. Arne Carlson

I wasn’t with him during that interview and even if I were, there was no putting the words back in his mouth. Quist was furious. Even worse, the state Republican Party, with which we were approaching rapprochement, was outraged. Carlson apologized in a written statement.

There were other tests. The occasional protests when Carlson campaigned on the Iron Range. The constant reminding that Arne had to suffer in silence when his ex-wife, Barbara, taunted him with tales of their sex life on her radio show.

But I knew, ultimately, Carlson would prevail. He had a sense of humor. He had great discipline. Remember, this is man who in high school overcame a serious speech impediment by excelling in debate and theater.

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Carlson also had affection and respect for his campaign team.  He listened to us and we to him because he really wanted to serve the people of Minnesota.

So I can commiserate, up to a point, with Trump campaign. But you can’t control a candidate into being something he is not. We let Arne be Arne and he was one of the state’s best governors.

So let Trump be Trump. The voters will decide the rest.