Hillary’s Hard-Hitting Hipster

MR. CARSON’S INTRODUCTION to Democratic politics came early. His father, a lawyer who now paints professionally, skipped out on his wife’s Lamaze classes to watch Jimmy Carter’s 1976 election returns. When the newly elected President Clinton dropped by his high school to campaign for a local Democrat, Mr. Carson watched with adoration as the president played a saxophone that now sits in the Georgia music hall of fame archives.

“I was like eight feet away,” said Mr. Carson, who has all but lost his Macon accent. “It was a huge deal for me. I felt a lot of kinship with a Southern Democratic governor.”

Mr. Carson attended Columbia University, joined the school’s rowing team, wore his hair to his shoulders and tended bar at the local watering hole 1020. After working in Estonia on a fellowship during the summer after his sophomore year, he won a George Soros–funded grant from the Eurasia Foundation to work with the anticorruption unit of the Republic of Georgia’s parliament.

Back in New York, Mr. Carson hung out downtown, at Spy bar and Don Hill’s, and engaged in what could be called an active social life. (“He’s been known to date a few people,” said Mr. Willimon.)

But his real interest turned out to be politics.

During his junior year at Columbia, he interned as a book researcher for George Stephanopoulos, who in time suggested he work on Mr. Schumer’s first Senate campaign.

Mr. Carson was assigned assorted menial tasks, including service as Mr. Schumer’s driver.

“Jay took to the campaign trail like a duck to water,” Mr. Schumer wrote in an e-mail to The Observer. “It was clear then that Jay was destined to do great things in the political world.”

Mr. Carson remembers Mr. Schumer demanding unerring competence of his aides and that he wanted to make sure his campaign intern “was discreet and an aggressive driver.”

He recalled the time Mr. Schumer, running late, needed to get to Albany. Convinced that if Mr. Carson failed to make a green light near his Park Slope home, he would miss his meeting, he ordered the intern to step on it. (At the restaurant in Las Vegas, Mr. Carson demonstrated the bold maneuver by cutting his BlackBerry off with his cellphone, both of which he kept on the table throughout dinner.)

“Oh, good,” he remembered Mr. Schumer saying after they had made the light. “I bet you didn’t learn that in Georgia.”

The day after graduating from Columbia, Mr. Carson moved to California to work advance for Mr. Bradley’s presidential campaign. After they lost, Anita Dunn, the Bradley campaign’s communications director, helped get him a job with Mr. Daschle. “A very serious trial by fire,” Mr. Carson called it.

Later in 2000, Mr. Daschle loaned him out to work on Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan’s Senate campaign. Mr. Carnahan died in a plane crash before the election, and Mr. Carson was reassigned to Mrs. Clinton’s Senate campaign in New York.

After she won, he returned to the employ of Mr. Daschle, where he was made national press secretary at the age of 25. His second tenure was punctuated by the attacks of Sept.
11 and, shortly afterward, a brush with an anthrax-contaminated envelope mailed to Mr. Daschle’s office.

In the summer of 2003, Mr. Carson signed up with the Dean campaign, where, somewhat ironically given his present employer, he skewered John Kerry for being an establishment politician running a Washington insider campaign. He also had to contend with Mr. Dean’s somewhat unpredictable outbursts.

“Being press secretary for me during that campaign probably wasn’t much fun,” said Dr. Dean. “I was, should we say, a little unscripted.”

Dr. Dean said that Mr. Carson often had to speak with him bluntly, but that he was always honest, sometimes brutally so. He described Mr. Carson as a voice of reason among his more boisterous advisers, one of whom, Joe Trippi, is rumored to be played by Mr. Clooney in the movie.

“He rolled with the punches—he knew who he had,” said Dr. Dean. “My guess is that it prepared him. I have a feeling that the great job he did with us made him very attractive to the Clintons because you were in the fire every day with me, and that really prepares you for the big leagues.”

For his part, Mr. Carson recalled the “meteoric rise” of the Dean campaign with affection, but when asked what went wrong, he turned pensive. “I saw the superior field operations—what Gore had against us with Bradley, I saw the same thing with Dean. People who weren’t as sea-sound—people who hadn’t done it before.”