Pam Pryor is a senior adviser in the Office of Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights under the Trump Administration. She began her political career by working for Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts. Later, she began working alongside Sarah Palin and became her top aide throughout her campaign.
“My grandparents, all four, came from Italy. There were precious things about growing up in an Italian household still that close to the motherland. Food is important. Faith is important. Family’s important.”
Karen Floyd. What is your role at the State Department?
Pam Pryor. I am a senior adviser in something called The J Branch. The exact title is the Office of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. Under that, there are nine different bureaus; everything from counterterrorism, trafficking in persons, international religious freedom, global women’s initiative, international and narcotics in law enforcement, and global criminal justice, which deals with atrocities. It can be an ugly world, and I thank God for the United States of America. I just spent a week in Geneva for talks regarding migration and immigration. There are tremendous numbers of people without homes, and I am proud that we have a government that cares about other people. I also love the fact that we finally have a president to say it really does need to be America first. You need to put on your oxygen mask before you take care of somebody else. I believe there is a balance needed, and I think we are doing it.
Q. Tell me about your mother and father.
A. Oh, hard to do without tears. They’re both gone. I love when people say, “I’m sorry you lost your parents.” I know exactly where they are right now. My mother’s a saint. My mom is in Heaven. They were funny people, and we laughed a lot. I used to tell people my mother gave me the greatest gifts. She loved God, and she loved me, and she taught me to love him. My father worked two jobs up until six weeks before he died. He taught me to work. I will always know what purpose is in my life, and I’ll always know how to work. They were both Italian immigrants. I am a second generation American. My grandparents, all four, came from Italy. There were precious things about growing up in an Italian household still that close to the motherland. Food is important. Faith is important. Family’s important. They had feet of clay. My dad had some challenges, but we grew closer and closer as he got older.
Q. Congressman J.C. Watts was one of your life cornerstones. Can you tell us about that journey?
A. Oh, absolutely. Journey – that’s an appropriate word. It’s a story that’s too long, how I got there, but I’ll never forget when he asked me to come to work for him. I had just started at another PR firm here in Washington, and I thought, “Oh, I’m too old to go to the Hill. I don’t want to work –” you know, blah, blah, blah.
Q. How old were you?
A. I think I was 38, but everybody on the Hill was like in their twenties, and this is before millennials. I remember it was about the first of December, and he said, “Would you come to work for me,” and I had all these objections. Then he just leaned back, and he said, “Well, will you just pray about it?” And I thought, “Oh, that is a kiss of death. Now, I know I’m going to have to do that.” By the end of December, I knew, as sure as I’m sitting here, that it was the right thing to do. It was eight of the hardest and best years of my life. He is a man of great depth, and he’s a person that a lot of people will tend to underestimate because he’s kind. I think one of the sins of Washington, D.C. is they sometimes conflate kindness with a weakness. J.C. used to say, “Do not confuse my kindness with weakness.” He’s a very strong man, he’s a very smart man, and he’s a man full of a lot of heart. We, basically, our office, all lived together for eight years, and that was during 9/11.
Q. Is politics worse now than before?
A. I think – two things. One, I think it is more talked about now. Before the 24-hour news cycle, there was still this polarization going on. Two, when Republicans were very much in the minority, it was easy to have bipartisanship because, remember, before Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution, there was always a 40-seat margin. That was at the low point. I mean it was sometimes a hundred seats difference. They never thought Republicans would get the majority. I will never forget watching, in 1994, before I even knew I was going to work for J.C., Dan Rather sweating, going, “Dear God above, the Republicans have just taken over the House.” He said it as though the world was going to end as we knew it. So, I think the very close margins, the fact that the partisan divide is so close all the time, that does create a more pronounced tension, different from earlier years.
Q. I have heard the expression that politics, in the 21st century, is tribal in nature. If a member of congress deviates from the party line, then, “your head is handed to you.” Do you think that’s true or not?
A. I think sometimes it is true. My thing is how people handle things. With the start of the Obama Administration, there was a lot of fiat by executive order. I know that we are continuing that and somewhere along the line it got very hard to pass things. Couple that with the 24-hour cycle news media, and you have 21st century politics. I don’t want to be that person that castigates the media as the reason for everything. Years ago, we used to time our news releases to come out at a certain time of day to get the best pickup by the evening news and then by the morning paper. Now, there’s an update and a refresh on the Internet every 20 minutes. I do think that the microscope has gotten more focused, and I think the lights are shinier now on everything. I think we’re all watching a lot more than we used to and are aware of a lot more, which ultimately makes it difficult to veer from traditional party lines.
Q. When did you meet Sarah Palin, Governor Palin?
A. I met her in the bathroom of the McCain campaign. I remember she wore Mary Kay makeup. And, by the way, my dad was my Mary Kay lady. He thought, if he had four daughters that were all using Mary Kay makeup, he should get us a cut, which I loved about him. He was always looking for a bargain. I remember she was just larger than life, and I was so sad because I did not get to see her in the campaign office. For some reason, we both ended up in the bathroom. We were the only two people. I turned to her and I went, “I wear Mary Kay makeup too.” That is the only thing I said to that woman. I could have said a thousand things, but that was it. Anyway, then of course, we knew her during the campaign.
Q. You eventually worked with her?
A. In 2008, when John McCain lost to President Obama, I really thought I’d never work in this town again. I really did. I mean it was a resounding defeat. But Sarah has “it.” There was something about her. I remember going to my friend, John Coale, Greta Van Susteren’s husband. He was so taken with her too, and I said, “She needs a PAC. She needs to have a voice still.” I don’t want to overplay the fact though that she is her own person. Sarah Palin is very independent and was probably the most maligned political person we had had up until her time. Now, I believe that Donald Trump is more than her. But, she was very maligned by everybody.
A. I think a couple of things. I think, first of all, pro-life women have a tougher go of it, and she was very pro-life. She was a woman of faith. Remember, she was a governor that nobody was paying attention to for a lot of time. But I think the fact that she was a woman of faith, a mother, a mother of a special needs child, and pro-life all at the same time, didn’t always fit that feminine view of what we should be.
Q. Wasn’t her demise, ostensibly, because of her lack of experience or incompetence?
A. Lack of experience, and then we elected a man who had been a community organizer. I will tell you this. J.C. Watts was an incredible communicator. However, I would have never allowed him to spend three unfettered days with anybody in the media. He’s his own man. But I’m just saying, as a communications person, I would have never suggested that.
Q. Why did they allow that?
A. I don’t know. I remember one of the things they got on her about was what did she read. She stumbled on that. It was like everybody must read The New York Times, or you are a nobody. Please, people. Most of this country, with all due respect, most of these people do not read The New York Times. They went after her on not having a passport, that she just got her passport. Only 30 percent of America has a passport.
Q. Was she maligned because she was a woman, or the fact that she did not fit a mold?
A. I think it was not fitting a mold. As much as we talk about independence and wanting everybody to be their own person, we still love to pigeon hole people. We even do it to ourselves. When we try to describe who we are, don’t we, in a sense, pigeonhole ourselves? But I think she was such an independent person. She was such a maverick. Remember during the campaign when she was “going rogue,” and then that became a phrase because she is an independent? She’s a fierce, independent lady.
Q. How long did you work on the PAC after the McCain/Palin presidential bid?
A. Almost seven years, until the PAC started to wind down. If you are not in the news every day, it is hard to keep that political star shining. As discussions about trying to close the PAC were under way, I did some consulting work for Philanthropy Roundtable, and it just was the two were not going to mesh well. When I finally went directly to work for the campaign, for the Trump campaign, it was not a good lineup of ethics to be there.
Q. When did you first meet Donald Trump?
A. September of 2015. Sarah Palin was here for a rally. I think it was on the Iran deal. It was 115 degrees out, and she is a tiny little thing. She is breathtakingly beautiful in pictures. She’s even more so in person. But I will never forget, she sweated through everything. It was that hot. It was one of those days in Washington where the weather changes on September 1; it was horrible. One of the reasons I was there was that I had been asked to help her find Jeff Sessions’ hideaway in the Capitol, and those hideaways are hard on the Senate side. So, here I am, and by the way, this is 2015. Now consider how long this has been since the campaign. Mobbed. Anytime we were with her, it was always like, you look like one of those little weebles. You know, you kind of wobble, but you don’t fall down, and it is because the crowd was so heavy. So, we went through the Capitol and into a room where it was Donald Trump, Corey Lewandowski, Jason Recker, Sarah Palin, and me, and that was the first time I met him. He would never remember that, by the way. He and Sarah went over in a corner, and I think that’s really where they cemented her support of his candidacy.
“If I could give anything to people, I want to give them the gift of knowing who they are.”
Q. Do you love her?
Q. And you love J.C. Watts?
A. Yes. A different kind of love. I was able to know J.C. better than I ever really got to know Sarah Palin because she is very private. I could still call her and share things, but it’s a different relationship.
Q. Can women truly have both? A calling, a desire to make world change, while also leading a traditional life?
A. I think you need to have your North Star. I think you can have it all if it is God’s will for your life. I think the women that make that distinction of having it all, I don’t even know what that means anymore. Can you be gone from your family all the time and raise children? Probably not. Can you have a career and raise children? Yes, but there will be tradeoffs.
Q. What do you want to be remembered for?
A. I want to be remembered as a woman who was after God’s own heart but was also his hands and feet on this Earth. I am a sinner saved by grace. I am a hypocrite of the highest degree. I yearn to share that peace that passes understanding. I looked for love and satisfaction in so many other things. Whether it was position, or men, or whatever the next new thing was, and I just want people to know that they are okay like they are. If I could give anything to people, I want to give them the gift of knowing who they are.