Adrienne Kimbro Elrod’s swimming taught her tenacity
It would be easy to distill Adrienne Elrod’s professional life — 25 years backing progressives on various fronts of the political fray — to her formidable strengths as a communicator and conjoiner of people. But ask the Siloam Springs native about the true north of her career longevity, to say nothing of the durability of her spirit, and she’ll lead you away from her education and internships, campaigns and connections.
She’ll take you back home, instead, to a swimming pool.
“When I was 8 years old, my mother came to me and said, ‘OK, we need to get you involved in a sport. You can either play tee ball, or you can join a swim team,'” she says. “I decided to go with swimming.”
“The first year on the swim team was god-awful. I got last place in every single event by 20 seconds. If there were 70 kids, I was 70th. If there were 40 kids in a heat, I was 40th. I would come home every day and cry, ‘I hate this, I just hate this!’ Mom wanted nothing more than for me to just quit because it was heartbreaking for her to have to deal with me every day.”
After a year, however, Elrod started improving, then winning, until in high school she was ranked one of the top swimmers in the state. Time and again in her life, the relevance of that personal morality play has presented itself: Just don’t quit.
“I think that was one of the most informative things in my life; that taught me to never give up, that hard work really pays off,” Elrod says. “I wasn’t one of those kids that popped out and was really good at everything and a natural achiever. That was never me. I’m so eternally grateful to my mother for making me stay at it because it would’ve been so easy for her to just let me give up. It’s something that has stuck with me through the years.”
Elrod admits citing hard work as foundational to success is cliché, but you can’t argue with results. Throughout her life, sheer grit and resolve have set her apart from peers, her indefatigable work ethic a calling card for candidates to national office, members of Congress and sitting presidents.
“I have known Adrienne since she was born. Her parents were friends of Bill’s and mine up in Northwest Arkansas,” says former presidential candidate and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “I have seen Adrienne grow up into this amazing woman who has so much talent and energy and smarts and great organizational ability.
“She is unflappable. She is someone who shoulders whatever responsibility she is given with grace and grit. When you ask her to do something, you know she’s going to literally go to the ends of the earth to get it done and do it right. She has been someone I have followed with great pride and delight for a very long time.”
POLITICS ON THE PLAYGROUND
Elrod was born an only child to lawyers John Elrod and Georgia Harris. Her father attended law school at Georgetown before returning to the family firm, opened by his father, Russell Elrod, who also served decades in the Arkansas Legislature. Hers was the kind of family where the tigers of law, justice and politics were tied at the tail.
“[Being] born to two attorneys, who were also very liberal in a very conservative town, you can imagine that upbringing,” Elrod says. “Being 8 years old in 1984 when Mondale and Ferraro were on the ticket, my mom generously stressed to me what an important, monumental step it was to have a woman on the ticket.
“I remember going in from the playground at recess and somebody made it where if you go through this door you were supporting Reagan and that door with Mondale. There would be like, seven of us that would go through the Mondale door. But that was in a time when politics didn’t define your relationships as much as it does now.”
Elrod enrolled at Texas Christian University where she would graduate in 1998 with a degree in journalism. Though she ultimately looks back on college fondly, it was a difficult cultural transition.
“TCU was hard. There were some kids in my class who had a private interior decorator decorate their dorm room, whereas I went to Walmart and bought $50 worth of stuff,” she says. “It was very obvious early on there were a lot of girls in my sorority pursuing, they call it an MRS: Married Real Soon. It wasn’t the kind of school where political conversations fester and whatnot. It was just completely different. I was totally shell-shocked.”
Easily the high point of college phase — and a major event in her professional life — was landing an internship in Washington between sophomore and junior year. Overnight, she went from searching for a peer group on campus with whom to discuss politics to reporting to the Clinton White House for six life-altering weeks.
“That internship was what hooked me into wanting to move back up here,” she says. “And it is why, by the way, I have no tolerance for young people — interns, fellows or whoever — that don’t do the hard work just because it’s often not glamorous.
“My job was to get all the passports for about 100 White House staff and get them in shape to travel abroad to the G7 Summit. Whether that meant getting their passport renewed, whether that meant getting a new diplomatic passport altogether, whatever it was. There were a lot of people who were like, ‘I can’t believe Adrienne has to do that; she’s running back and forth to the passport office every day. What a pain in the a. What a terrible internship.’ I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
Elrod returned to college more determined than ever to make a career in Washington, specifically in the White House, following graduation. Despite all her networking efforts, interview after job interview failed but the no-quit swimmer didn’t stop kicking.
“I was laser-focused,” she says. “I wasn’t going to go to the Democratic National Committee, I wasn’t going to go to the Hill, I wasn’t going to go to an association. I wanted a job in the White House.”
Ten months into a job with the Office of National Drug Control Policy — a gig she gritted out as the worst of her career — she got just that, as special assistant to the White House head of intergovernmental affairs. Always a doer more than a planner, she didn’t know what lay ahead, only that she was exactly where she wanted to be.
“I’ve always been like, let’s just get the job and then we’ll figure things out,” she says. “I’m not always a good five-year-plan type of person. But I knew after that internship experience, I wanted to move to Washington, D.C. and there was nothing that was going to keep me from moving there.”
Nor, it turned out, would anything stop her once she got there, not even a fire truck that T-boned her car on a D.C. street, breaking her neck in several places and almost causing paralysis. Three months and a halo brace later, she was back on the job and nine months after that, she completed a marathon in San Francisco, her first.
“I was determined to complete that task,” she says with a shrug. “Again, it goes back to the perseverance, determination and work ethic I gained by not quitting the swim team.”
Once George W. Bush took office, Elrod continued to build her resume in political campaigns, the state and national Democratic Party and in the offices of U.S. Representatives Ron Klein of Florida and Mike Ross of Arkansas. In 2007, she worked on Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign, which lost the Democratic nomination to future President Barack Obama. It was a precursor to one of the signature jobs of her career, director of strategic communication for Clinton’s 2016 bid.
“It felt like we had some unfinished business to take care of,” Elrod says. “It was time for us to elect a female president and that person should be Hillary Clinton. There was nothing in the world that was going to keep me from being a part of that campaign.”
Presidential runs are undertakings that can break even the most hardened Type AA personality. Elrod’s first meeting convened at 7 a.m. daily and the last call was 10 p.m. or later depending on circumstances. It was a job fueled by adrenaline, sacrifice and most of all, she says, devotion.
Clinton’s opponent also had a way of galvanizing her troops, but for different reasons.
“In 2016, we knew what was at stake and what was at stake was getting the first female elected president and defeating Donald Trump,” she says flatly. “He ran a completely different campaign than us, a campaign on divisiveness, on tearing our country apart, a campaign on racism, sexism and misogyny.
“That presented a whole bunch of new challenges. How do you deal with him? Do you answer all of the attacks or do you not answer them because they’re so absurd and you don’t want to give them life?”
Elrod’s role also included a new responsibility, mobilizing “surrogates” — celebrities, athletes and various influencers — to stump for the candidate. She quickly developed new communication tactics to keep things on message and on schedule while not fracturing sometimes-fragile egos.
“This is what I will say,” she says of working with the famous. “I have that no-nonsense reputation, you know, we’ve got a finite number of days to get things done and we don’t have time for the B.S. Here’s where we need to send you, here’s what you need to do, here’s the budget. Go.
“Of course, you do have some talent that requires a little more attention. But because of what was at stake the people that we asked to work with us and that volunteered to work with us knew they couldn’t pull any high-maintenance moves. We just didn’t have time for it and they knew it.”
Elrod remembers waking up early on Election Day with a strange mix of confidence and queasiness. She knew the requisite work had been done, but the arc of the campaign threw all conventional wisdom out the window. She wouldn’t close her eyes until 5 a.m. the next morning, shell-shocked over Clinton’s loss.
“Ugh, my God. It was awful,” she says. “I woke up around 7 a.m. the next day to get into the city and watch her concession speech. It was pouring down rain. I didn’t take a shower. I brushed my teeth, but I don’t think I had any makeup on. I didn’t brush my hair. Several of my college friends saw me on TV from a distance and said, ‘God, you look terrible.'”
BIDDING FOR BIDEN
The malaise lasted longer than anything she’d endured in her career. So sure was Elrod over Clinton’s chances, she hadn’t stopped to consider the possibility of losing. Thus, after the election Elrod was left looking for things to do, including paid stints on MSNBC and launching her own consultancy, Elrod Strategies.
“It was a really dark, hard time,” she says. “I turned 40 on the campaign and I thought at least the next four to eight years of my life were figured out. To know [Clinton] was never going to run again was sad and a huge challenge. It forced a lot of us to really dig deep and figure out what we wanted to do.
“Being able to run my own business and control my time and be in command of my client load and the kind of work I wanted to do was really empowering. It helped me get out of my funk.”
As much as she enjoyed that challenge, what she pined for was another shot at defeating Donald Trump. In 2020 she got that opportunity aboard the Biden campaign, once again in charge of surrogates, many of whom readily signed up from the 2016 run.
“Adrienne’s a go-getter, very strong and confident,” says recording artist and friend Katy Perry. “She understands the overlap of artists and politics and how to effectively put artists in a place where they can speak their voice.
“Something that surprises most people about her is she’s incredibly friendly and has no airs about her. She wants to do good in the world and she wants to do it with good people.”
Elrod gained a measure of personal satisfaction helping to elect Joe Biden, but her larger professional accomplishment was yet to unfold. She was brought on for the inauguration and related festivities, specifically to recruit and oversee talent. It would be another career-defining project, a herculean effort that had an organizing window of just 45 days, faced complications related to the pandemic and was nearly derailed by the Capitol incursion of Jan. 6.
“This is significant pressure,” says Stephanie Cutter, former Clinton staff member and executive producer for the inauguration. “Coming after the Capitol insurrection and a very difficult presidential race, we felt a lot of pressure to produce an inaugural that pulled people together and started this presidency off right.
“A lot of the talent took their time to decide whether to participate and many of them came in late. Adrienne handled that with the utmost grace under pressure.”
Elrod deftly compiled a diverse mix of talent for the event, striving to represent different cultural, ethnic and even political subsets of the electorate. And even though some artists — she declines to say who — withdrew out of security concerns, the final roster represented a who’s who of the entertainment world including Lady Gaga, Garth Brooks, Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake, to name a few.
“We wanted to make sure that this rose to the occasion for [Biden], but also that this moment rose to the occasion for our country,” Elrod says. “Part of that difficult challenge was making sure it didn’t seem overly celebratory. But yet, we had a lot to celebrate.
“What we realized is if you make it about the American people and you lift up their voices and you talk about their resilience and you held up those everyday heroes and make them a part of everything you do, then it kind of works itself out. We knew that if we made it about the American people that everything else was going to fall into place.”
Many pundits praised the inaugural’s hopeful tone and Elrod received numerous congratulations on the festivities, including from those with whom she’d gone head-to-head on the campaign trail. She says similar events may well lie in her future, as may a role in the Biden administration at some point. Some campaign, as-yet to be determined, could also lure her back. As she admits, she’s not the best five-year planner there is.
But after a quarter century, Elrod is cognizant of her status as role model to other women in politics and she’s attentive to how her story can be instructive to their own desires to shape history. How success is not always reflected in who’s left standing, but always by who most ferociously refuses to stay down.
“Let me phrase it this way: I don’t want people to think that because my father knew Bill Clinton when he was in high school, that I could get a job that nobody else could get,” she says. “I mean, that did help me; those Arkansas connections helped me get my foot in the door, but just for the first internship. Everything else, I had to work my a off and I had to do on my own.
“I don’t ever want someone to think that they can’t have those opportunities, I don’t care who your family is or where you’re from. If you’re from a small town in Arkansas, like me, you can have these opportunities. You’ve just got to work really hard, make a bunch of phone calls, get to know people. And most of all, you know, don’t quit.”