Picture this. You are 26 years old and have just been elected to the U.S. Congress where you will serve in the House of Representatives as its youngest member. No one in your family has ever held elected office. Your parents call you crazy. But as loving parents often do, they support your quest, regardless of how outlandish it may seem.
Now 27, Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) is the youngest member of the 107th Congress. Hailing from Florida’s 12th congressional district, he graduated from the University Florida in 1995, where he was named Outstanding Male Graduate of the Year. Prior to starting his first term in Congress on Jan. 3, 2001, Putnam served in the Florida legislature.
Putnam is just one of many leaders set to come from our generation. He just happened to get there decades before many of us will have a chance to run successful campaigns or wield any kind of significant power.
A Republican at such a young age, you would think the old saying, “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains,” could represent Putnam. But you would be mistaken, because Putnam has full command of both.
Putnam is a thoroughly impressive man who, in very little time, has managed to get himself elected to the world’s most powerful legislative body of 535 men and women.
Putnam sat down with The Hatchet March 14 to discuss everything from his experience with President George W. Bush the morning of September 11 to life as a Florida Gator.
Hatchet: I understand that on September 11 you were with the president. You were with him at the elementary school, and you were with him on Air Force One. Can you tell us about that?
Putnam: We were in Sarasota waiting for him to arrive at the school. I was on the greeting committee with about six other people. They came to us and said, “You’ve got a phone call from National Security Adviser Condolezza Rice. When he (Bush) arrives, and he’ll be here in a minute, he’s going to walk past you. He’s not being rude; he’s just got to take this phone call.”
So they arrived, and his whole entourage steps out. Then everyone’s cell phones and beepers just start going off; everybody scatters out to have his or her conversation. Well, he comes up and does not go past us. He stops and talks with us, having a good chat with the Teacher of the Year. Then White House Chief of Staff Andy Card called and said, “Mr. President. You have a phone call from National Security Adviser Rice you need to take.”
He (Bush) says OK. Goes on talking with the Teacher of the Year. “I’ll be right there.” Card comes back to him, grabs him by the arm and says: “Mr. President, you need to take this call right now.”
And that was word of the first plane to hit. They certainly thought that it was unusual and likely not an accident. There was really not a whole lot of information at that time, so the schedule didn’t change.
He (Bush) moved on to the second grade class and read to them, then he got word of the second plane hitting with that terrible image we all have. The president was then told America was under attack.
At that point everything changed.
The interesting thing about that day, and I think it says a lot about the country, is that it was Education Day for the president. He was there to speak to 300 fifth graders and tell them what a great job they had done on their standardized tests. He didn’t have his defense folks with him. He didn’t have his intelligence advisers with him. He had his education staff with him.
His staff was saying, “Mr. President, you have got to say something to the nation. This is a huge issue.” This was about three and half minutes after we had gotten word of the attacks.
The media center was already setup, and you have the 300 fifth graders spit and polished just waiting to see the president of the United States.
He stopped, and he said, “I can’t go speak to the world about America being under attack to an audience of 10-and 11-year-olds.”
So they said let’s move things around. Maybe moving the president and the press over to Air Force One and having the announcement there would be a better idea. That’s much more presidential and this kind of stuff.
There ended up being not enough time to relocate everyone across town for the president’s announcement.
His first remarks to the crowd were to the fifth graders. He said, “We’re proud of you. We love you. Your parents love you. We think you did a great job. Your hard work has paid off. And I was looking forward to taking a tour of your school, but there is some other business I have to take care of now.”
This took place not with the backdrop of Air Force One, not in a hangar surrounded by troops, not with a wall of American flags. It took place with fifth-grade handprints, finger paintings and construction paper as the background. I think that says something about the president, and I think that says something about the country.
So anyway, we rushed back to the airport and took off. We were headed back to Washington when we found out about the Pentagon being hit. Then the decision was made to divert the flight to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
He (Bush) was very calm. All of us were pretty rabid. He was angry, understandably, but very much in control, and the whole system worked. The fact that we were going to Shreveport was a big secret. Bush told us, he told members of Congress, but not the press, it was supposed to be top secret.
But the funny thing was, as we were flying into Shreveport, we were able to get their TV signals. The national news was on, then the local news broke in and said, “We have just received word that Air Force One is landing in our town. The president is here.” (Everyone laughs).
That did not make us feel terribly secure. Bush went on to Offut (Air Force Base). There was a backup Air Force One, and we came back to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington.
We landed in Washington at what should have been rush hour and there were not more than 10 cars on the road between Andrews and Washington. The Capitol was just locked down. It was the eeriest part of the day.
Hatchet: If you had your wish, which three bills would you like to see Bush sign?
Putnam: Social security reform. Real reform that acknowledges that the system is not there for people our age.
Medicare reform, which will take a program that was designed before medication had a larger role in people’s lives than just two aspirin every day; reform that acknowledges the involvement of pharmaceuticals in health care. It is a generational issue that they have been fighting about for decades, and nothing has been done. We are rapidly reaching the day of reckoning. I also want to see these issues taken care of so we can use the energy that is being spent on this to focus on new issues.
Those are the top two. The third one would not even matter. Getting those two things achieved would be enough.
Hatchet: What inspired you to, after college, to jump into the political pool?
Putnam: The issues. I interned in Washington my last summer of college, and I loved the work and the policy. I made up my mind that, starting at home in Florida, I would embark on a course of action to really make a difference. Here on the Hill they get more done in two weeks than the average state legislature gets done in years. I felt like that would be more purposeful.
Secondly, no amount of life experience giving you a leg up on the technological revolution. Being 70 was not an advantage on the debate of electronics. In fact, it could be read as a disadvantage. A young person not only has a huge vested interest in the outcome of events, but you have standing and knowledge to shape the debate. Those factors I thought created an environment where a young candidate could make a very credible case for why they were not just capable of getting along in the legislature, but were capable of being a powerful influence on state policy in the legislature.
Hatchet: What did your parents think when you decided to run?
Putnam: They thought I was crazy. I am not from a political family. No one in my family has ever been elected or run for anything.
I told my dad that I was thinking about running for the legislature. He was silent for a few minutes. I said, “Aren’t you going to say something?” He said, “I don’t know what to say. It’s like you just told me you were pregnant or something!” (Everyone laughs).
They were surprised, but they jumped in and were a huge part of the success. My first campaign was a very rag-tag, Norman Rockwell affair. My mom would round up all the volunteers, spread out the maps of the district, get the walk lists and draw out the walking areas to assign them to people. She looked like Norman Schwarzkopf planning the invasion of central Florida on the kitchen table.
My dad put together all of the door hangers, et cetera. When you campaign for office, you have palm cards. If you have any money, you get two sets of palm cards. One set that you just hand to people and another, which is cut like the “Do not disturb” signs in hotels. We did not have enough money to get this special double set. So we just ordered twice as many of the cheaper version, then my dad sat there with a hand hole punch, hours on end, and threaded rubber bands through the holes, so that you could hang the cards.
I brought down my college buddies and their girlfriends on weekends. They would wave signs on the street corners, go door to door, putting up signs and build signs. It was the most rewarding campaign I ran. It was much more rewarding than my congressional campaign.
Hatchet: What about the campaign trail, when you were telling people your age?
Putnam: Every single possession that a person could own, I have heard that they have that which is older than me. “I’ve got underwear older than you.” Or, “I’ve got hats older than you.” Or, “My car’s older than you.” (Everyone laughs).
And everybody thinks that they are the only person who has said that to me. So everybody is cute and clever and has their own little age joke about what they have that is older than I am.
Hatchet: How would you describe yourself as you were in college? What were you like?
Putnam: I was somewhat involved in student activities. I was in the fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho. I did not graduate at the top of my class; I made decent grades but certainly nothing great. I was terrible at math, and now I am on the budget committee, which I get a kick out of.
I majored in natural resource economics, ag(riculture) economics. I had my share of fun. I did things I wouldn’t want my mother to know about, but nothing earth shattering. Just normal college stuff.
Hatchet: What advice would you have for GW students looking to enter politics after they graduate?
Putnam: I think September 11 has rededicated our generation to the idea public service is a noble calling.
Don’t squander the opportunities that going to school in this city offer you. The opportunities to work in an agency, for Congress, for the courts, are so tremendous. This town is run by 20-somethings. This whole town is run by 20-somethings.
Last year we had to cancel the budget vote because the Xerox machine got screwed up with the budget – a 19-year-old messed it up. The bad and good thing about this town is that it is run by young people. A lot of the time we lose sight of how much control we really do have.
-The writer, a senior majoring in business economics and public policy, is Hatchet opinions editor.