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Bush aide from Cape builds influential network

Monday, May 17, 2004

ARLINGTON, Va. -- There's a photograph on the wall of Jack Oliver's office, a black-and-white image of a 7-year-old boy staring up at John C. Danforth in 1976, the year he was first elected to the U.S. Senate.

The boy was Oliver, and the occasion was a fund-raiser at his parents' home in Cape Girardeau. The office where the photo hangs is in President Bush's re-election headquarters, where Oliver is national finance vice chairman for the campaign.

Oliver, now 35, has built a network of influential Bush supporters that crisscrosses the country. His connections are particularly strong in Missouri, where friends and family expect Oliver to run for governor someday.

In this job, and as Bush's national finance director in 2000, Oliver has assembled an unprecedented network of backers who don't just give money; they raise it, too.

Of the record-setting $185 million Bush brought in through March, $50 million was collected by so-called Rangers, Pioneers and Mavericks, who have committed to raise at least $200,000, $100,000 or $50,000, respectively. One reason they work hard is because Oliver makes them feel they are part of the campaign, said Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager.

"The job for him is as much about the mission at hand as it is about friendship," he said. "He really builds personal connections to folks who are important to the campaign and makes them feel like part of the family, which they are."

Oliver keeps contributors up to speed and frequently seeks their advice, Mehlman said.

Case in point: Sam Fox, a St. Louis businessman and top Republican contributor.

"Many times when he comes into town, he'll call to see if he can come over -- he'll just sit here and talk, talk through things," said Fox, a Ranger who serves as Missouri finance chairman for Bush.

Oliver said the concept was to take individual transactions with donors and turn them into relationships that would endure from 1999 through the midterm elections to now.

"They understood it was going to be a two-way relationship people were going to be engaged in for a longer period of time than just one simple election," Oliver said.

Oliver works hard to listen to donors and talk to them about things beyond politics: "It's simple things -- it's saying, 'Thank you,' it's returning calls, it's remembering it's not about you, it's about him."

From mailroom to deputy

Even as an intern fresh out of college, Oliver understood this aspect of politics, said longtime friend Annie Presley. Presley met him when, as finance director for Sen. Kit Bond in 1992, she flew with the senator to Cape Girardeau for an event.

There was Oliver on the tarmac, wearing a suit, starched white shirt, suspenders and cowboy boots. Hours before, Oliver had graduated from Vanderbilt University and driven home to work for Bond.

"I said to the senator, 'Is the FBI here?' He said, 'No, that's Jack Oliver,"' she said.

Presley recognized potential and soon moved Oliver from the mailroom to a job as her deputy. When she and Oliver weren't driving in a car with Bond, they were outside on the senator's 22-acre property, Oliver handing Bond the phone as he planted trees and weeded.

It was the beginning of a lasting relationship. Oliver's friends say he views the senator as something of a father figure; Bond was best man at Oliver's wedding in 2002.

In an interview, Bond chuckled at Oliver's tenseness.

"He would make coffee nervous," Bond said. "He's wound pretty tightly."

Bond said Oliver was, and remains, "very much a self-starter, very bright, very aggressive," but also deferential.

Like Bond, many of Oliver's close friends are older than he.

"He has very able parents, but there was something about him that he liked being accepted by the people who'd already made it," Presley said. "It was part of the fun, being with those folks, hanging around, learning from them, doing what they did."

'Have to wait and see'

Friends and family have always thought Oliver might run for governor or some other office.

His mother, Rosemary, said Oliver often has quoted Bond and Attorney General John Ashcroft as saying the most good they did for people was as governor. Bond himself expects Oliver to run for office and has suggested some possibilities.

Asked about running someday, Oliver pauses to think for a moment.

"I have always thought about how am I going to make an impact, and that is clearly one potential opportunity to do it," he said. "But I always say my best-laid plans are God's greatest jokes. So we'll just have to wait and see."

While he's worked behind the scenes so far, his career tracks the same direction as Bond and Ashcroft, who both worked for Danforth when he was Missouri attorney general, and other politicians.

His bosses represent a Who's Who of Missouri Republican politics: Danforth; the late Rep. Bill Emerson; Bond; state Sen. Peter Kinder; Ashcroft, who hired Oliver as his fund raiser for the 1994 Senate race and later to head up his exploratory presidential bid; and Republican Jim Talent.

Oliver moved to Texas in 1999 to work for Bush's campaign when a phone call came from Karl Rove, whom he'd known working for Bond and Ashcroft. In between presidential campaigns, he was deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee.

His career has not been controversy-free; Oliver has drawn criticism for a tactic of Ashcroft's fund-raising that drew Federal Election Commission fines for the committees. Oliver said he considers such criticism to be inevitable.

Oliver grew up in Cape Girardeau, although he moved to St. Louis when his mother moved there after his parents divorced. His family is political and includes five generations of lawyers, including his father.

Even his courtship and marriage have a storybook quality. His third date with his wife, Rachel, was Bush's inauguration, and six months later, he dropped to one knee and proposed at that very spot on the Capitol grounds. Rachel went to church with Oliver's mother, and the two had spent three summers in Ukraine working with children there.

The couple married in 2002; their daughter, Kate, was born earlier this year.

'Just a big guy'

As a child, Oliver didn't know why he idolized Danforth.

"He was just a big guy -- he used to come to town, and we'd go around to see people, and if I was lucky, they'd come get me out of school at lunch to go have lunch with him," Oliver recalled.

The day of the fund-raiser in the photograph, Oliver called to entreat his grandparents -- longtime Democrats -- to attend the fund-raiser in the photograph. His grandmother, who had nicknamed her grandson "happy Jack" as a toddler, gently refused.


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