A Running Start

HKS Magazine | Winter 2016 A Running Start
Teaching

A Running Start

Midway through fall semester, Steve Jarding, lecturer in public policy, stands in front of his class commenting on the recent one-on-one media training sessions that by now almost all his students have completed. On a 20-point scale, most of the on-camera interviews and speeches given by students rate an 11 or 12, he says, noting quickly that most politicians rarely rate much higher than that. He gives the 2004 Democratic convention speech that helped launch then-State Senator Barack Obama to the presidency a 17 on a 20-point scale—an extremely good score.

“When you watch yourself on screen,” Jarding says, “you’ll see you underutilize emotion. All human beings connect with passion.” Preparing the students in his class The Making of a Politician for the podium speeches they will be delivering post midterm, he rattles off techniques they should employ: Feet should be four to five inches apart with one foot ahead of the other, allowing for a five-inch pivot from side to side. “Do that in the beginning and don’t change it,” he says. Arms should be parallel to the ground and move within the “gesture box”—the space from waist to chin. “Hand gestures coupled with facial expressions and passion in your voice are what really connect with the audience,” he says.

The students in Jarding’s class are here to learn the nuts and bolts of running for office. Many plan to run—or are toying with the idea of running—for elected office someday. Others are simply curious, but may—years down the road—use the lessons learned to seek office. At whatever stage in their careers they decide to run or to work in politics, Jarding’s course is part of the school’s overall curriculum that will help prepare them—if and when the opportunity arises.

Who will someday make that leap isn’t obvious, according to David King, a senior lecturer in public policy who teaches classes on Congress and U.S. public policy. “If I tried to predict, I would almost always be wrong, because you don’t know what’s happening inside somebody’s heart and how vulnerable they’re willing to be, and running for office is the ultimate exercise in vulnerability,” King says. “There are some people here now who are going to run, but they have no idea they’re going to run, and we don’t know they are going to run, but at some point the light goes on.”

For Massachusetts State Representative Lori Ehrlich MC/MPA 2005, the light went on soon after graduation. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and activist on clean energy issues, Ehrlich entered the Kennedy School wanting to dig deeper into energy matters so that she could work more effectively with elected officials. Toward that end, she studied energy policy and sought out the Women and Public Policy Program’s From Harvard Square to the Oval Office program—an initiative that supports women in the electoral process—so that she could help candidates she supported run for office.

“It never crossed my mind that I would be that person,” Ehrlich says. “I was that mild-mannered CPA.” But the Oval Office program helped demystify the process. She recalls learning how to fundraise—to shake hands and “ask for something that’s uncomfortable to ask for.” When her state representative moved on, she was the first to throw her hat in the ring. “Never having run for office before, it was the skills and confidence I gained at the school that propelled me to victory, and my energy policy skills have made me an effective representative.” 

A remark made on the first day of Jarding’s The Making of a Politician opened Justin Hartley’s eyes to the possibility of a run for office. “He made the point that Bill Gates [at the time the world’s richest man] can make a difference like few people; but in Congress, the equivalent of Gates’s entire wealth is spent every few days,” says Hartley MC/MPA 2015. “A good legislator has the potential to have the greatest impact of all. It transformed my thinking.” When the time is right, he plans to run in his native country of Australia.

“Everyone who leaves the school should be thought of as walking away with a tool kit, and the tools in that kit should include economics, management skills, and the ability to analyze political situations,” says King. “For some, if they want to do the work they were meant to do, they have to open that tool kit and run for office.”

As a freshman congressman, Seth Moulton MPP/MBA 2011 (D-Massachusetts) uses the tools he learned at the Kennedy School in elected office. His negotiation course, he says, has probably been his most useful. “You negotiate every day of your life, all day long. It was a science I had never used before. I had never been taught the practice and the science of negotiating.”

Moulton, who as a Marine served four tours of duty in Iraq, never considered running for office when he was a student. “I was saddled with student debt, no politics in my family, but when this opportunity came my way, it certainly helped knowing I had this Kennedy School network—people whom I could ask for advice.” He turned to the school to learn more about polling, and as an elected official, he has sought out his transportation and national security professors for advice. And his course with Jarding on how to run an effective campaign suddenly became pertinent. “When the time came, I knew what a campaign manager was supposed to do,” he says.

Those already in office also have much to gain from attending the Kennedy School, according to Massachusetts State Representative Marjorie Decker MC/MPA 2007, who was serving on the Cambridge City Council when she entered the Mid-Career program. “My time at the Kennedy School gave me the opportunity to step back and dig deeper into issues,” Decker says. “Elected officials are juggling so many balls in different arenas, and to have experts and peers who can help you think through issues at your fingertips is wonderful.”

For Drazen Komarica MC/MPA 2012, who plans to run in the near future for a seat in the European Union parliament representing Croatia, the lessons he learned in Jarding’s class have already proved invaluable. As president of the Zrinski Institute for Peace, a social change organization he co-founded, Komarica helped organize a summit in 2013 in the Republic of Srpska that brought together the leaders of parliament from the former Yugoslavia. Komarica credits techniques he picked up in The Making of a Politician for helping him deliver his message and welcome summit participants.

“When I walked up to the podium in front of political and religious leaders from all over Eastern Europe and the diplomatic community, my knees were shaking, but Steve’s techniques were running through my head: ‘When you come up to the podium, stop, look out, and look what’s going on around you. Hold it for as long as you can.’ I was freaking out, but I remembered: ‘Whatever you do, don’t stand parallel, one foot forward. Don’t grab the podium.’ All this clicked: when to pause, when to raise my voice; his techniques were so anchoring. And worked in practice.”

Photo of David King by Martha Stewart

Home >> Next article >>