Trump's troubles?Jeffrey Lord's got the answer

CAMP HILL, Pa. — Before he dusts off his portrait of Ronald Reagan, fires up Skype, and prepares to defend Donald Trump to the death on national television, Jeffrey Lord has to stop at the cleaners.

He’s waiting for his suits when the owner, ringing up another guy at the register, points a proud finger in Lord’s direction. “Jeff,” he tells the customer, “has the fun of sitting with Anderson Cooper on a weekly basis.”

The man turns. “Oh – you’re on CNN, right?” A pause. “They beat you up there!”

Lord just laughs.

The guy isn’t wrong. Since Lord and his unshakable support for the then-long-shot candidate debuted on the network in 2015 – often from a tight office in the central Pennsylvania home where he cares for his 97-year-old mother – he’s made a living of it.  Throughout a presidency under siege, amid every controversial health-care bill, budget cut, or twist in the Russian-meddling probe, Lord has resolutely clung to the ship, firing up Skype and hitting the cable airwaves.

In the hours after what may have been Trump’s lowest moment yet — Thursday’s damaging public testimony by James Comey – there was Lord back on CNN, blasting the fired FBI director as “a walking one-man swamp” whose behavior “is just beyond belief.”

For Trump supporters, he’s their man in the trenches, saying what almost no one else on CNN will. For liberals, he’s the die-hard in the heartland who fiddles as Washington burns.

He spurred a YouTube cottage industry of pundits dressing him down, and websites now catalog his most outrageous on-air comments — like the time he called the Ku Klux Klan the “military arm of the Democratic Party.” Or when he described Trump as “the Martin Luther King Jr. of health care.”

Last month, Lord even got the normally unflappable Anderson Cooper to sound off in exasperation: “If  [Trump] took a dump on his desk, you’d defend him,” Cooper told him during a broadcast. Lord just laughed. (Cooper later apologized.)

Lord brushes it all off as if it’s just a routine chapter in partisan American politics. Now 66 with a shock of white hair, he was a White House aide back when President Ronald Reagan faced perhaps his most challenging crisis, over the sale of arms to Iran.

“I remember well the steady drumbeat, that Reagan should be impeached or resign, and on and on. And he weathered the storm,” Lord said Thursday, as Comey’s takedown dominated the news cycle. “I think that this is going to be a battle which the president will survive.”

Camp Hill to the White House

CNN president Jeff Zucker has described his nightly lineup of pundits as “characters in a drama.” Lord has been playing his part for a very long time.

Massachusetts-born, he and his parents settled in Camp Hill – just outside Harrisburg — right before he left for nearby Franklin & Marshall College in 1969. Growing up, he was a fan of the Kennedys but followed his parents into the Republican Party.

A failed state Senate run at 24 got him noticed by the powers-that-be in Washington, and former Montgomery County politico Drew Lewis found him a spot in the Reagan White House. After a stint in the first Bush administration, Lord tried to make it as a writer (his novels didn’t sell) and an actor (he was in a Budweiser commercial and an extra in a few films).

Out of money by 2004, he moved home to care for his ailing parents. In their first-floor duplex on a quiet residential street, Lord started writing political columns online.

One, published in 2013 in the conservative magazine American Spectatorwas called “Never Ignore Donald Trump.” In it, Lord argued Trump’s fame as a successful businessman, his flamboyance, and braggadocio might well make him president. The piece’s subject, as he is wont to do, found Lord’s home phone number and called to compliment him. “I told him, ‘Donald, you didn’t have to call,’ ” Lord recalled.

By 2015, Lord had made it onto CNN, complete with a personal recommendation from then-candidate Trump. (CNN has said it was considering hiring him anyway.)

“At first,” said Van Jones, a fellow CNN commentator and former Obama staffer frequently paired against Lord, “he was sort of like a comic-relief character, because the Trump candidacy was so absurd in the eyes of most of the media commentariat.”

But as Trump’s star rose, so did Lord’s.

“I did think Trump could win, right from the get-go,” Lord recalled during an interview last month. “But certainly I didn’t predict the CNN side of this. I didn’t see that coming at all.”

Now he gets recognized around town, at the local Giant, and, yes, at the dry cleaners.

He does most of his TV spots from the family duplex, where he cares for his mother, Kathleen, who struggles with dementia. (His father died in 2007.) His office there is packed with memorabilia from the campaign trail and bookcases that stretch to the ceiling. There’s a CNN-produced book on the 2016 campaign signed like a yearbook. “Thank you for your intellect, your debating skills, and your love of history — but most of all, your friendship and kindness!” Cooper scrawled in the book.

Every other night, Lord joins the CNN broadcast from the office with his mother watching from the living-room couch. On intervening nights, the network sends a car from New York, and Lord hires private nurses or asks church members to sit with his mother until he arrives home in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes she recognizes her son on TV; sometimes she doesn’t. Lord won’t disclose his salary, for contractual reasons; the salary website Glassdoor.com says the average for a political analyst is $84,000.

Outside of the studio and caring for his mother, Lord said, he doesn’t have much of a personal life.

“I love doing it — periodically, I’m exhausted — but I love doing it,” Lord said. “My primary thing was to take care of my mom, and all of this helps.”

‘The casting has been brilliant’

A Wednesday in late May offered a glance at the routine. A few minutes before Lord went on air, he flicked on the special LED light CNN sent to mimic studio lighting, moved his printer from its shelf to the floor, and carefully placed a portrait of Reagan in its place. (The portrait, a parting gift from the White House, has become something of a hallmark.)

For the next half hour or so, he waited and watched as Cooper chatted with other guests. Finally, Lord joined the broadcast for a five-minute segment about climate change. Then it was more waiting – this time for an hour – until Cooper brought him back to debate David Priess, a political historian, who scoffed at Lord’s attempt to compare Trump’s son-in-law and aide Jared Kushner to Robert Kennedy.

“Apples and oranges,” said Priess.

Lord was serenely unconvinced. Just like Kushner, he reminded Priess, Robert Kennedy was considered inexperienced for the job at the time, too.

As much as he may exasperate them, Lord’s coworkers insist he’s a true believer.

Jones has frequently clashed with him on race, most notably when Lord connected the Ku Klux Klan to the Democratic Party. (Lord says he grew up admiring Martin Luther King Jr. and described a formative moment when his father, a hotel manager, lost a business when he hired an African American manager in the 1950s South. But his views on race boil down to the belief that identity politics — talking about a person’s race at all, even — are divisive and racist themselves.)

“Jeffrey says outrageously ill-informed things about race. But he also says incredibly well-informed things about the way a very large section of America feels about the coastal elite and the establishment in both parties,” Jones explained last week. “And he says what he says on air, in the commercial break, in the men’s room, in the parking lot, in the Uber back to the hotel. What I will say about CNN is that if we’re all characters, then the casting has been brilliant.”

Both came to national attention during the campaign and remain friendly off-air, bonding over caring for their aging mothers and through late nights at hotel bars on the campaign trail. “You can disagree with someone without disliking them and without disrespecting them,” Jones said. “I think Jeffrey Lord has a genius that is worthy of a better cause than defending every burp that comes out of Donald’s mouth.”

Fellow commentator Symone Sanders was on air with him when Lord made the comment about health care and King. “Oh, Jeffrey,” she responded, a slogan she has since had mass-reproduced on T-shirts (including one she gave to Lord).

But the ensuing sparring about whether we truly live in a postracial America was important, Sanders said last week. “These are good conversations to have, because we’re not having enough of them,” she said.

Michael Smerconish, the Philly-based talk-show host who moonlights on CNN and writes an Inquirer column, said he’s not sure Jeffrey Lord would have become Jeffrey Lord in a different political climate.

“Passion sells,” Smerconish said. “So perhaps a more nuanced version of Jeffrey would not have been attractive. But I always say, the only people that I know who see the world entirely through liberal or conservative lenses are talk-radio hosts and cable-television presenters.”

After Lord finished his spots on CNN that night in May, he returned to his mother on the living-room couch. “I missed you, Jeffrey,” she said.

The next day, it was another three-hour commute to the network’s studio.

“I’ll do it probably until I can’t,” Lord said late last week. “I mean, life moves on, but I love to write, and this was why I wanted to become a writer: to do this, and do other things in the media if possible. You’re on TV, and then you’re not. The main thing is to stay focused. And I could not possibly have predicted this in my wildest imagination.”