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January 2, 2012

A class act

Filed under: Jody Powell,White House — Peter Arnold

Sheila TateAnyone wondering if remarkable people still rise to the top in Washington, D.C. should take a moment and read the email below. Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan and spokesman for the 1988 George Bush Presidential campaign, is retiring after a remarkable career proving that Alan Alda was half-right when he said, “It’s better to be wise than smart.”  In Sheila’s case, she was both.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Washington intelligensia was rocked with the news that Sheila and former White House press secretary Jody Powell had created an eponymous firm, Powell Tate.  It was the summer of 1991 and the firm quickly established itself as “the” place for corporations in need of crisis help.

Sheila brought me into Powell Tate about six weeks after the company started which only goes to show that her judgment even in those glory years was remarkably fallible.  I had had the privilege of working with her on the 1988 Bush campaign, where she was chief spokesman though it should be noted that I did not write a certain line about the California raisins.

Everyone who ever worked with Sheila has favorite anecdotes and this writer is no exception:

  • At a surprise birthday party for Sheila in 1991, a senior Powell Tate consultant gently ribbed her during a toast about a client problem that happened when the two worked at a different PR shop.  When the toast was over, Sheila smilingly replied, “Michelle, we always hated you back then.”
  • After the first President Bush had an unfortunate stomach incident during a state visit to Japan, Sheila went on CNN and was asked if this represented a “burp” on the Bush Presidency.  Not missing a beat, she replied that “I think it’s more of a ‘yurp’ than a ‘burp.'”
  • My favorite: a photo taken shortly after the rather bitter 1988 Presidential election showing Sheila standing between George H.W. Bush and Mike Dukakis.  As I recall, the incoming Prez wrote underneath it, “To Sheila, Only you could referee this one.”

Sheila, if you’re reading this, there are two things you should know.  First, you and Jody were a remarkable influence on me that I will never forget.  Second, I was underpaid.

As I sit at my computer on a very cold Christmas Eve day, I can’t help think about the fact that when Jody and I started Powell Tate in 1991 we didn’t have computers.  Nor did we have cell phones or blackberries; social media would have sounded like a disease.  Hmm.  Maybe not a bad definition.

Powell Tate started with about 10 employees and far fewer clients.  We were in very cramped quarters in the Metropolitan Square Building.  The great part was we got to design our new space at 700 Thirteenth Street from scratch.  And now, a mere 20 years later, you’re leaving it!

Back in the “early days”, I was an early bird, usually at work about 7:30am.  Jody showed up about 10am.  I left by 6pm and he worked into the evening hours which was great for West Coast clients and a few European clients as well.  We grew rapidly and we all worked as hard as we needed to, even overnight on occasion, and created great memories while doing great work for our clients.

On January 1st I will be erased from the IPG systems and my new address will be: ______.  The company has allowed me to slide slowly into retirement and I now embrace it with enthusiasm!  Before that happens, I need to wish each of you a wonderful Powell Tate experience, a long and rewarding career and great memories.  Don’t lose the essence of our culture where the individual and hard work is valued and the team is valued more; and above all, stay loyal to your clients and give them your very best.  I hope each of you can look back when you are about to retire and know you did your best, you loved your work and you truly admire your colleagues.  And, if you want me to be really happy, vote Republican.

Sheila Tate