Ken Bone is exactly the person you expect him to be: soft-spoken, authentic, exceedingly pleasant. When he talked with me by phone last night, he thanked me for being a part of the new media. “I don’t know how long newspapers will be around,” he said, “I hope a long time. But what you’re doing with digital is really, really great.”
I hadn’t been expecting Bone’s call. Earlier in the day, Sunday’s debate winner had responded to my interview request by asking me to text his phone, so that he could organize his requests. I assumed I’d get a call from a PR person — some slick operator who’d quickly swooped in to guide Bone through his 15 minutes of fame. Instead, Bone called me from his own cell phone around seven o’clock, politely identified himself, and asked if it was a good time to talk.
Bone is 34, two years older than me, but the way he speaks suggests that he’s somehow not of our generation. Perhaps that’s part of the reason that he — with his iconic red sweater, mustache, and disposable camera — became the breakout star of the second presidential debate: He seems to belong to a kinder, gentler era. Who knows if that era really ever existed, but it’s nice to imagine when our current election cycle has been so very brutal.
Even Bone’s debate question, an already-criticized query about energy policy, was a welcome change in the middle of a 90-minute bloodbath; a single moment in which both candidates were forced to retract their adamantium claws and discuss policy.
Bone’s warmth is legit, and while he’d spent the entire day doing press — ours was the thirtieth phone interview he’d done that day — he took all the time he could with me, answering every question and even saying hello to my friend, who arrived to pick me up for dinner towards the end of our call. Little did my friend know that I was speaking to the man who hundreds of people will write in on their ballots come November 8. (Bone isn’t eligible to win due to his young age, by the way, though he understands that he might appear older because he’s “bald and fat.”)
“Is it okay if I put the phone on speaker so she can say ‘hello’?” I asked. “She’s not going to ask any questions.”
“Put her on,” Bone responded in literally the nicest way possible. “I’ve got a few minutes! What’s her name?”
There’s only thing that Bone won’t tell anyone — who he’s voting for. On all other subjects, from the issues that matter to him to the positives and negatives of his virality, he’s exactly as open and enthusiastic as we’d all dreamed he might be.
Can I ask you the weirdest question before we start?
I love weird questions!
Has anyone asked what you were wearing?
No! But I’m about to tweet about getting out the vote, so I’ve just washed my sweater and put it back on.
How have the last few days been?
It’s been bizarre. I just thought — when the Gallup poll invited me to be a part of the debate — that it’d be a really cool experience, that it’d be a tough day, and that maybe my local paper would want to talk to me; maybe the local TV channels. But I’ve done non-stop media. I just got off the phone with an afternoon radio station in New Zealand. I’ve got a morning radio show in Ireland tonight. It’s literally all over the world. I’m getting a chance to talk to people!
Let’s go back to the beginning: Did you even know you were going to ask a question?
We were invited eight days before and told to prepare two questions. That way, if a lot of them were the same, we wouldn’t run out of material. We each bring two questions, we share them with nobody, and then when we get there that morning, we give them to Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz and their producers. They’re the only ones that get to know about it. They pick the questions they want to ask and in the order that will keep the conversation going. They don’t tell us what the order’s going to be because they can switch depending on what they want to do.
Everybody has a questions to ask, but no one knows when they’re going to be called on.
So you didn’t know until they said your name.
A few seconds earlier, while Anderson was having to interrupt Mr. Trump for the 100th time or so, he started pointing in my direction — “we have a question over here, we a have a question over here!” So when he was pointing at me, I knew that was kind of my cue.
This is your third day of life as a viral sensation.
It’s been fantastic! There are some times it’s not super fun because it’s tiring. I have to go back to work at my regular job at the power plant tomorrow night. I’ve got interviews all day tomorrow, and then I gotta try to get a couple hours of sleep and then go in and work a 12-hour night shift at the power plant. [Bone is a controller at the plant, which he likens to being the producer on a set.]
When do you think this will die down?
People are already wanting to talk to me about the next debate, so I’ve got some appearances and some more interviews leading all the way up to the next debate. Maybe after that it’ll calm down, maybe not. Maybe they’ll still want to talk to me up until the election, which I’m happy to do.
After the election, I don’t see the interest. I don’t see people wanting to talk to me that much. If they do, if media outlets keep calling me and wanting to talk about issues, then I’m happy to. But I’m not gonna be the guy calling and saying “please put me back on the air, I can’t stand not doing it anymore!”
When it’s over, it’s over. I’m not going to be the internet guy that overstays his welcome by trying to push his way back in.
What are your thoughts about the reactions you’ve gotten on social media?
I don’t get a chance to read everybody’s tweets, because there are hundreds of thousands right now. I don’t get to sort through them. I haven’t seen any of the negative ones, and when I do, I just swipe past it because there’s another great one right after it. But mostly it’s been meeting people in person, and every single person I’ve met in real life has been fantastic. They just want a picture to throw on their Facebook, they want to shake my hand and talk to me for a second, and that’s been the highlight.
There’s a picture of you meeting Bill Clinton that’s also gone viral, was that a highlight for you?
Anderson was the highlight of that day, but Bill Clinton — what a great guy! I might have voted for him if I wasn’t 12 years old when he ran. But I really enjoyed talking to him. He’s a well-informed, very charming guy. I didn’t always agree with the policies he put out there. He put some great things out there: He gave us the Family and Medical Leave Act, which benefits women and people with long-term illnesses, which I think is fantastic; and he also gave us things like NAFTA, which I didn’t like very much. But I don’t have to agree with everything he did to like him — I mean, he’s just a likable guy.
I don’t want to take anything away from you guys because you’ve been fantastic, but I think Anderson Cooper is still the gold standard. He’s the nicest guy I’ve met in the process. Awww, man, he’s so great!
People are already boiling you down to your individual parts: your mustache, your glasses, your sweater, which is already sold out at Izod. People are already making Ken Bone Halloween costumes. How do you feel about that?
Sometimes, when you have a limited amount of characters on Twitter, it’s going to be “yeah, I’m going to say something funny about the mustache.” Everybody I’ve actually met and the interviews that I’ve done, they want to make the jokes about the sweater and the mustache and I’m happy to do that. It’s fine. It’s what got me noticed. I’m totally cool with poking fun and having a good time.
But everyone’s wanted to talk to me about the issues, about the energy debate, and about helping young people get registered to vote.
There’s been some suggestion that all of the interest you’ve garnered is a subtler form of playground bullying. What do you think of that?
I have not felt that way at all. Maybe that is going on, but I’m a real thick-skinned guy. If there’s any bullying going on, and I’m just not picking up on it, I guess that’s a shame. Because if I let people do that to me, then that makes them think it’s okay to do it to other people who are noticing it and being hurt by it. If I become conscious of that, I’m going to try to put a stop to it, because I wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone else. But I haven’t noticed any of that at all.
Do you think you’d be able to do that? Put a stop to it?
I don’t actually think I’d be able to do that. The only way I’d be able to put a stop to it is to go back to being a private citizen, which is my prerogative. It’s easy for me to delete Twitter and Facebook, no big deal. It’s not easy for people who are being teased at school or bullied in the workplace. I’m fortunate to not have to deal with it.
Will the transition to being a private citizen be easy?
Once the novelty of me wears off and people don’t want to hear from me anymore, I’m just going to be real careful not to push it and try to get back into it.
I think I’m just going to let it be done when it’s done and let it naturally taper off. I really doubt that the guy who was in the Scumbag Steve picture is getting hundreds of phone calls a day today.
At first the attention is great, and then it’s not. Is that something you’ve had to think about?
I’ve given some thought to it. Having never done this before, I wouldn’t know how to back out. I just have to hope that it’s not going to happen. I didn’t invite this on me. I’m trying to keep it positive, but if that were to happen, what a shame that would be. To do all this work trying to be positive for everyone and then suffer for it. That would be kind of a bummer.
I told a friend that you’re the hero we need right now, but not the one we deserve. There’s already been a call not to “ruin” Ken Bone. Are you at all worried about people digging into your past?
In the digital age, you don’t really know what’s out there about you, and there might be stuff that I might not want people to know about. I can’t think of any off-hand, but everybody’s got stuff they don’t want to talk about.
The part I haven’t liked is people — even well-intentioned people — trying to get ahold of me, calling up my dad and my uncle. I love my dad — we have a great relationship — but let’s pretend that I didn’t… Let’s say me and my dad had a falling out years ago and he was super bitter. That would have been a bad experience, I guess I could see that being tough.
I’m so sorry about that, but congratulations! I haven’t been pushing it too hard, but one of my talking points has been about how we don’t want to step backwards in marriage equality. I’m so glad that you got some of the equal rights that you deserve!
What are your biggest talking points?
The two big things I’m trying to use this platform for are sparking the energy debate and talking about how my industry, fossil power, has a place in our power profile. It can be environmentally friendly. My plant is very environmentally friendly, and others like it can be the same! And then, after that, getting young people registered to vote and trying not to let them get too frustrated by this super negative election cycle, which is the only one they’ve been exposed to.
It’s an election powered by the internet in a way we haven’t seen yet, too.
I don’t know how old you are, but imagine you’re 18 and you saw the last election. There was some mud-slinging, but you weren’t really paying attention, you were 14 years old. And now you’re 18, it’s the first time you’re eligible to vote. You’re a conscientious citizen, you’ve taken Poly Sci 101, and you’re going to get out there!
Now, two years ago, some clowns started running for president and they’ve been dragging each other through the muck ever since. And as far you know, that’s what politics is, because our generation and the generations before have taught you that’s what politics is. And you think that’s what it’s supposed to be, but it’s not. It’s supposed to be positive, so I’m trying to shed that positivity onto it.
Your question at the debate — according to many — was the highlight of a pretty low evening.
That’s been my whole goal: To be something positive in this really negative election cycle. If people don’t feel good, at least a little bit, in this political process, clowns will continue to be your only choice forever. If you don’t demand a better candidate, you’re never going to get one.
Maybe I shouldn’t use the word clowns. I’m going to pick one of these two people, but I almost don’t want to. I’m going to exercise my right to vote, because I think it’s important, but there’s some distaste, either way.
Are you really still undecided?
I am still undecided. I’m not going announcing who I’m going to vote for because I don’t want anyone — whether it is intentional or not — to be influenced. Even if I make a decision, I might not even announce that I’ve made a decision. I might still go ahead and say that I’m still undecided. Just so that people can keep an open mind themselves and vote with their hearts and consciences. I’m not going to release who I’ve voted for after the election, because that’s not something you’re required to do or forced by law, and I want to make sure that people recognize they don’t have to disclose that if they don’t want to. That’s something for me and my friends to talk about.
What’s something about Ken Bone that the internet doesn’t know (that you’d like to share)?
People ask “is he really like that even when he’s off the air?” and I am! At work I’m the same guy. When I’m at work with a bunch of my buddies and it’s all gruff dudes at three in the morning, sometimes it’s maybe not as nice. But overall, I really do my best to be a positive guy.
Considering that, what do you think about Donald Trump’s comments on women?
I’m not going to say “no comment,” but I have heard talk like that from a lot of men. I strive to never say anything like that about women. I don’t think that’s acceptable in any audience. While I don’t think it was fair that he was recorded without his knowledge and that it was released, maybe that’s something that we needed to know about him if he wants to be the most powerful guy on earth. It really is disgusting.
So you hold him accountable?
I am absolutely appalled by those comments. Women deserve better than that from their leadership. That’s something that I’ve had to factor in. I was leaning more Trump at the beginning, and now I’m way closer to the center because of things like this coming out.
Trump is going to represent my economic interests in my industry. He’s going to help me pay my mortgage. But people like you and your husband — you just seem so nice. If Trump gets his Supreme Court way and you lose your equality that you’ve fought for and deserve, how could I live with myself if I voted for that? So I’m looking at my own self interests versus what I believe is best for the community. That’s what’s making it tough.
That’s why I’ve chosen to endorse neither candidate and keep it a secret, because I don’t want to be officially affiliated with any of these people. No matter who I choose to vote for, I don’t think either of them is good enough to deserve the wholehearted backing of a regular guy. I think you have to choose who you like best, but neither are deserving of a 100 percent stamp of approval.
Contact Mark on Twitter.