No One Has Hated Campaigning More Than This Man

The sound bites. The fundraising. The phony attacks. Richard Carmona despised all of it.

WASHINGTON -- It took years to convince Richard Carmona to run for office.

As he tells it in the latest episode of "Candidate Confessional," political leaders would often prod him to join their ranks. When he served as surgeon general under President George W. Bush, Republicans came calling to ask him to run for Congress and for governor of Arizona. He always turned them down.

“I had no political aspirations,” Carmona explained. 

But when a Senate seat opened up in Arizona in 2012, Democrats started pressing. Carmona finally decided to listen more closely. Polling data showed a path to victory for him. Top operatives laid out a well-prepped game plan for the general election. President Barack Obama called to encourage him to explore a bid.

The recruitment worked. Carmona took the plunge, running against Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for the seat being vacated by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and setting in motion one of the most embittering years of his adult life.

Of all the candidates we’ve interviewed, Carmona is easily the one most likely to never run for public office again. He’d come into the race an accomplished military veteran, deputy sheriff and surgeon general who was widely respected by both parties. He left the political world jaded and angry, his sterling reputation having endured a few dents along the way.

Carmona was both ill-suited to the role of candidate and also repulsed by the process itself. 

He hated sound bites.

"Every time I did political speak, I always felt bad about it," Carmona said. "I did it because my staff told me [to]. ... It was clear that I didn't have the time to explain when you are given two minutes or five minutes or so on, and so I had to switch my approach. But I could tell you that after every one of those press conferences and discussions, I would always go in and say to them, 'Goddamn, it is more complicated than that.'"

And Carmona was shocked that the very politicians who had praised him in his earlier career, and even encouraged him to run for office, turned on him once he chose a side.

“[John] McCain and Kyl lauded my background as a soldier, as a veteran, as a professor,” Carmona said. “But when I ran on the other ticket, they took out ads saying I was a terrible person and I couldn't be trusted. And they knew better. But it shows how disingenuous the whole process is -- the very people that supported me for national office, and helped me get a confirmation that was unanimous, for the first time in history, for surgeon general, are the ones that took me to task for being a terrible person because I didn't run in their party.”

Despite how awful the experience felt, Carmona still performed pretty well. In a Republican-heavy state, he finished just 3 percentage points behind Flake. When it was all over, he had a strong sense of relief that the campaign was over.

“I felt both disappointed and elated not to have to go and pick up phones and ask people for money,” he said. “And not have to go and talk in sound bites anymore, OK? All of that was gone and I could be myself again.”

Listen to the podcast above, or download it on iTunes. And while you’re there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week’s episode, when our guest will be Anthony Weiner, the former congressman, who discusses his brush with scandal and his campaign for mayor of New York City.

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