Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Life’s Backup Singers

The Sing-Off - Season 4In season four of The Sing Off, one of the a cappella finalists was a group from Dallas called Ten, which consisted of 10 background singers. Full of talent and energy, they busted out of the shadows on the show, but many people prefer to remain behind the scenes.

Some people resent being in the shadows. In the movie, The Bodyguard, a jealous sister hires a hit man to kill her superstar singer sibling (played by Whitney Houston).  The sister tearfully confesses her treachery, just before the hit man she anonymously hired accidentally shoots her instead of her sister.

Why do people prefer being out front or hanging out in the back? Is it simply a matter of ego or is there an inner need to shine or recede? Are the people in the shadows, like the background singers in Ten, just waiting for their turn under the lights or are they satisfied by refracted success in the men and women they serve?

You can find examples to prove all points. Carolyn McGreevy, who suggested this topic to me, provided a few interesting case studies.

Former Governor Tom McCall had his own cadre of back-up men, but none was probably closer to him than Ron Schmidt, who nominally was his press secretary. Schmidt was legendary for “clarifying” remarks by his boss on the Capitol steps in late afternoon after sippy time. When Tom McCall was awarded the vanity license plate “1,” Schmidt quickly nailed down the license plate “A.”

Schmidt, who didn’t relinquish the license plate when he left government, went on to co-found a PR-advertising firm in Portland. Never far from the limelight, he always managed to be just off stage.

A more recent wizard behind the curtain is Kerry Tymchuk. He is best known as former Oregon Senator Gordon Smith’s right hand man. But Kerry also was a top aide to Bob Dole and wound up writing two books about presidential humor with the former GOP presidential candidate who was panned for being too dull on the stump.

After Dole’s defeat and retirement from politics, Tymchuk wrote very funny scripts for ads featuring Dole, which made some people wonder why he hadn’t flashed that sense of humor on the campaign trail. There was an obvious answer. Tymchuk had been squeezed out of the top levels of the Dole presidential team.

The late Senator Mark Hatfield had Gerry Frank, who never forgot a name or missed a chance to give a crushing handshake, and President Bill Clinton had James Carville, a gregarious fellow Southerner who charmed people with his pointed, often smile-inducing phrases.

Marla Rae toiled 16 years in the trenches at the Department of Justice for more than one Oregon attorney general. I served in a chief of staff role for Oregon Congressmen Les AuCoin and Ron Wyden.

wingman_garrus_by_kkitty23-d5vbbuoBut aides-de-camp aren’t just a political phenomenon. They exist in business, nonprofits, churches and families. Some people are simply more comfortable shifting the gears of power instead of driving the car.

“There are many of us who, every day, make a living positioning our bosses, company leaders, entrepreneurs, etc. for success out front,” McGreevy says. “We are mostly anonymous. We know who we are, and so do those we serve. We are good wingmen. We are the backup singers.”

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