ALPINE, N.J. — Mark “Markie” DeMarco had a problem.
He was obese, tipping the scale at almost 400 pounds, he says. He was also shy, an easy target for bullies on the football team at his south Jersey high school.
No one came to his defense, except a brainy field hockey player who happened to be his cousin, Kellyanne Conway.
As DeMarco tells the story — and Conway, now the protective if slightly gaffe-prone special counsel to President Trump, confirmed — in the mid-1980s she ordered the football team to leave her overweight cousin alone. To DeMarco’s surprise, he never was bullied again.
Today, DeMarco, 50 and a successful business contractor in the Atlantic City area, recalls the story as a barometer of why Conway has emerged as one of Trump’s most trusted advisers and also why she continues to court trouble.
“Kellyanne wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone,” DeMarco said. “To think Kelly is afraid is laughable. Kellyanne, in spirit, can be much bigger than some of the biggest offensive and defensive linemen on the football team. She had force with her words. Her spirit was strong. People listened to her.”
People still are listening, notably President Trump.
Conway, 50, who lives less than 2 miles from the Hudson River in Alpine, N.J., with her husband and four children, is considered one of the most powerful political operatives in the Republican Party. She not only is the first woman in U.S. history to guide a winning presidential campaign, but she also has emerged as one of Trump’s closest advisers — his feisty defender on TV and reportedly one of his most influential voices in private, with a nickname of the “Trump whisperer.”
Conway is also a paradox.
While few doubt her talents as a political strategist, she has become most known now for her penchant for plunging into rhetorical potholes. In the first 50 days of the Trump administration, the litany of Conway missteps has become a staple of late night comedy, notably with the cast of Saturday Night Live.
The string of problems began with her proclamation of “alternative facts” when trying to claim record-setting crowds witnessed Trump’s inaugural when photographs showed the gathering was smaller than other inaugurations. They continued with her false claim of a terrorist massacre by Islamist militants in Bowling Green, Ky., and her ethics-bending proclamation during a TV news interview that people should buy clothes marketed by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.
They continued when photographs appeared of her kneeling on a sofa in the Oval Office as a group of African-American college presidents visited with Trump.
Earlier this week, Conway stirred up yet another controversy that rocketed across the Internet, the TV cable talk shows, late-night comedy sketches and social media.
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In an interview with The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record at her home Sunday, Conway attempted to lend support to Trump’s so-far-unfounded claim that President Obama ordered the wiretapping of Trump’s campaign headquarters in Manhattan during the campaign by suggesting the plot was far more extensive.
Asked if she knew whether Trump Tower was wiretapped, Conway said: “What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other now, unfortunately.”
Conway then suggested that “you can surveil someone through their phones” and “certainly through their television sets” and “any number of different ways and microwaves that turn into cameras.”
The video immediately went viral. Critics seized on the suggestion that microwaves and televisions were used to spy on Trump.
The next day, Conway scrambled to downplay her statement, suggesting it was fake news.
Conway said she pays little attention to criticism. She dismissed many critics as “a bunch of people who still just can't believe that Hilary Clinton lost the election.”
Her admirers, many of them stalwarts in the conservative movement, view such comments gleefully. To them, Conway’s punch-hard barbs are viewed as heroic — just the sort of populist criticism of Democrats and other progressive “elites” that helped propel Trump to victory..
In person, Conway can appear low key and almost professorial, especially when she discusses the mechanics of analyzing polling numbers or running a campaign. But she can just as quickly switch rhetorical gears and fire off the sort of one-liner that is typical of her combative style.
For instance, during the interview Conway said she feels rejected by feminists because of her antiabortion views.
“The sisterhood is fake,” she said.
Too many feminists don't accept conservative, pro-life women, she said.
“They mainly care about what happens from the waist down,” Conway said. "It's an insult. You know, it's for the waist up for me — my eyes, my ears, my head, my heart, my mouth certainly.”
Conway spoke about the calls from critics to her office — admitting that she had listened in on quite a few without telling callers they were speaking to her. Most were opposed to her views on abortion, she said.
She was sharply critical of the women's marches the weekend after the inauguration.
"Some of us are too busy raising our kids instead of raising havoc,” she said.
In The Record interview, she continued to defend one of her most-criticized statements — that the media should consider “alternative facts” in measuring the size of the crowds at Trump’s inaugural.
“Here are some alternative facts for you — partly cloudy, partly sunny; the glass half full, the glass half empty,” she said.
After graduating law school at George Washington University, Conway founded her consulting firm, The Polling Company Inc., whose clients have included American Express and Hasbro.
She became recognized for her polling and political strategies, often appearing on television with other conservative commentators. She co-wrote a book, What Women Really Want, a market analysis of women's attitudes.
Conway has worked for many high-profile Republicans, including Newt Gingrich and Vice President Mike Pence when he was serving in Congress. She had backed Sen.Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for the presidency before Trump hired her in the summer to run his campaign.
Jeffrey Bell, a former staffer in the Nixon and Reagan administrations who has run unsuccessfully several times for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, has known Conway for several decades. He said she brings a sense of calm to her political analysis.
“I don’t think she really loses her cool,” he said. “I’ve never seen her lose her cool, and that’s not that easy to do.”
However, many critics increasingly view Conway as a distraction — a potential embarrassment to the White House and the presidency as an institution.
“The Trump administration seems to be setting a new low standard of professionalism and historical awareness and judgment,” said Kenneth Jackson, a Columbia University history professor. “It’s all about loyalty to Trump, and Kellyanne Conway seems to fit that mold. Her claim to fame seems to be that no matter what Trump says she’ll get in and defend it.”
“She’s made a deal with the devil,” Jackson said. “She’s going to ride that horse all the way.”
Conway’s recent comments about a possible wider surveillance plot sparked some of the most severe criticism of her yet — as well as gales of laughter.
After playing a video clip of Conway's reference to surveillance by TVs and microwaves, Shepherd Smith of Fox News described her as someone “who we really don’t quote anymore because, well, history” and “whose previous words have been up for debate.”
On CNN, Carl Bernstein, whose investigation of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s earned a Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post and forced Nixon to leave the White House, said: “It’s time we stopped taking Kellyanne Conway seriously. She’s not a serious person.”
Conway brushes off such criticism saying she has been misinterpreted — and mistreated.
“I've never been able to understand why people criticize somebody so severely that they don't know,” Conway said.
She went on to claim that she is “a victim of the usual sexist, tasteless jokes, often from women” or others, including a remark in which Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., implied that Conway’s kneeling on the Oval Office couch implied some sort of sexual flirtation.
Richmond later denied he meant any sexual connotation. But women's rights activists criticized him harshly.
Conway, while clearly angry with Richmond’s attempted joke, insisted that such criticism does not sway her.
"You know, they're barking up the wrong tree because it doesn't really bother me,” she said. “It confounds me much more than it bothers me.
“It will hurt girls and women who aren't as tough as I am, or as old as I am, or as seasoned and experienced as I am,” Conway said. “I'm not a very sympathetic target for lots of people because I'm not what they expect a woman to be.”
That sense of being targeted has taken an ominous turn.
In the days leading up to Trump’s inauguration, a letter arrived at Conway’s home here.
Conway’s husband, George, is an influential lawyer that Trump reportedly considered for the post of U.S. solicitor general. He opened the letter to find a mysterious white powder.
Numerous telephone threats followed, she said.
Soon after, a team of Secret Service agents was assigned to protect the Conway family. With her Secret Service bodyguards in tow, Kellyanne Conway, who rents an apartment in Washington near the White House, commutes home on weekends to spend time with her family.
She said her family plans to move to Washington this summer.
Kellyanne Conway’s multifaceted roles of political operative, presidential adviser and wife and mother were on full display Sunday during her interview. Between combing 7-year-old Charlotte’s hair or listening to 12-year-old Claudia practice Somewhere Over the Rainbow on the family’s Steinway baby grand piano, Kellyanne Conway took a call from the White House, confirmed plans with her husband as he walked out the door to chauffeur the children to a party and then sat down on a sofa with a pillow celebrating New Jersey landmarks to discuss her role at the White House.
She concedes that her life is hectic — perhaps too much sometimes. She welcomes it.
“I'm a product of my choices, even the bad choices I made along the way or the wrong turns,” she said. “I don't feel like a victim of my circumstance. You can only feel badly with your own permission.”
Marlena McMahon, 40, of Norwood, N.J., considers Kellyanne Conway to be the equivalent of an older sister. On Christmas Day — McMahon’s birthday — Kellyanne Conway routinely has come to her door with a present, including this past Christmas when the Trump administration counselor took time away from her duties.
“Kellyanne is the type of person, when she loves, she loves with her whole heart,” said McMahon, who first met Kellyanne Conway when the two were class mothers for a kindergarten class at Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood, N.J.
Friends point to Kellyanne Conway’s Catholicism as another key pillar that guides her personality and politics. She regularly attends Mass at her parish, St. Mary’s in Closter, N.J. She also spoke at the Right-to-Life March in Washington.
As her pastor from St. Mary’s, the Rev. Paul Cannariato, watched from the crowd that day in Washington, he said he was struck by how she had “fully integrated her Catholic faith and beliefs into her life.”
“She has a luminous clarity,” Father Cannariato said.
Some observers say Kellyanne Conway’s role as Trump's defender — and her recent missteps — obscures many other talents and has tarnished her long reputation as a pollster and analyst of social trends.
“I don’t think these gaffes are particularly reflective of her overall style,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University and author of the 2016 book, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.
“We’re at a moment here there is so little willingness to cut anyone slack in this political environment,” Greenberg said. “A small gaffe or poor choice of words can explode into being seen as a lie, a fabrication, an alternate reality.”
For her part, Kellyanne Conway said she does not plan to back away from confronting her critics.
She said she is “living proof that if you work really hard and you believe in yourself, and you don't let other people cut you down,” you can succeed.
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But she concedes that luck also played a key role in her success.
“I got my break,” she said. “I got lucky a couple times along the way, but certainly with Donald Trump.”
Follow Mike Kelly, columnist for The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record, on Twitter: @MikeKellyColumn