On this day, Mother Nature is not cooperating with Bryan Sanders. The lifelong outdoor enthusiast and transplanted Arkansan requested an interview at Petit Jean State Park with the intention of showing his staff member the sights afterward, but low clouds and a dense fog have foiled those plans. The normally breathtaking vistas, seemingly everywhere you turn here on clear days, are hidden by low clouds and shrouded in a dense fog.
Yonder, Cedar Falls roars largely unseen, the canyon beyond the back porch of Mather Lodge is cloaked in silver and the main view over Petit Jean's gravesite yields only a deep eddy of mist. Even the views onto Lake Bailey through massive windows lining one side of the new visitors center affords little line of sight past about 50 yards.
But while the weather is not cooperating, there's something altogether apropos about meeting Sanders, the state's first first gentleman, in the tranquil environs of its first state park. He's on a quest to visit all 52 parks in 2023, the centennial of Arkansas' state park system, and just being out here speaks to him. After all, such sacred spaces are as much about what stirs the soul as what meets the eye.
"One of the things that I learned very early on working on political campaigns is that you really have to look for that unique selling proposition. What is it that makes you stand apart?" he says. "For Arkansas, as far as I'm concerned, we are The Natural State. We should lean into that unapologetically. We're different from Texas, we're different from Oklahoma, we're different from Louisiana or Mississippi.
"In this region we have access to the best outdoor recreation, beautiful lakes, rivers, mountains. This is a space where we can really compete and win."
Sanders, 39, began his love affair with the outdoors during his formative years in the greater Kansas City area, a love affair that has only ripened with time. His lean, angular build is the yield of untold miles of hiking and mountain biking excursions, things he regards as essential to the state and its people in more ways than one.
"I look at outdoor recreation and it's certainly something that I love and particularly love about Arkansas," he says. "It's important for many reasons; it's not just about quality of life, it's about health. As a dad, it's really important for my kids to be off of screens, video games or social media and outdoors. For physical health, for mental health, there are lot of benefits to it."
Given Sanders' obvious appreciation for and conspicuous consumption of all things outdoors, it came to no one's surprise in January when Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders appointed him head of the new Natural State Advisory Council. The board is part of the Natural State Initiative, which seeks to improve how the state's famed parks, rivers and hunting grounds are promoted in the name of boosting tourism and improving public health.
"Tourism is now ranked number two behind [agriculture] as far as industries go in our state," Sanders says. "There's potential economic development, particularly for smaller rural communities, by really emphasizing outdoor recreation. It's also a tremendously important draw for people moving here, which builds the workforce we need to stay competitive economically.
"I really do think outdoor recreation is an opportunity for Arkansas. The Natural State is our brand and we should be selling it not only when we're advertising our state to visitors, but to businesses that may be thinking about relocating here or expanding here."
"Knowing the people of Arkansas are really focused on and enjoy the outdoors, I can see Bryan taking on a big part of that and making sure that continues to expand," says Whit Potts of Kansas City, a childhood friend. "Take mountain biking, which is one of his hobbies these days. I can see that being a focal point for stuff he tries to get done down there in Arkansas.
"Bryan's very stubborn in his ways and when he puts his mind to something he's going to make sure that it happens."
Sanders grew up in a prototypical middle-class household in greater Kansas City, the eldest of three. He spent much time with his family on his grandfather's nearby ranch, developing a love for nature that continues to this day.
"As a kid, I did a lot of summer Outward Bound trips out west to Colorado and places like that. We did a lot of ski trips and so forth," he says. "I always loved Kansas City but wanted to experience a different part of the country. I went off to college in Maine because I wanted to be somewhere in the mountains where I could ski and have greater access to the outdoors."
Despite his father, a lawyer, once serving as mayor of tiny Mission Woods, Kan., politics wasn't of much interest to Sanders until late in his time at Shawnee Mission East High School.
"Mission Woods, Kan., has a population of about 200 people. Politics was definitely not part of my life," he says. "I'd say politics was something that I just independently developed an interest in taking history and government classes my junior and senior year of high school."
By the time Sanders completed Colby College in Waterville, Maine -- where he majored in government and also studied abroad -- he had formed a resolute political ideology that ran parallel to a deeper spiritual awakening.
"My first internship was for U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, later governor of Kansas," he says. "He was known as conservative and was heavily involved in a lot of human rights challenges around the world, in particular the genocide that was going on in Sudan and Darfur. I was very inspired by his work on that, and I worked on that a lot that summer.
"At the time, I was certainly not a believer. Growing up I went to church on Sundays but didn't really develop a relationship with Christ until much later through my work for [Brownback]. I loved how his faith inspired him to take action and help people around the world who didn't have anybody else speaking out for them or fighting for them. I was motivated not only professionally but in terms of my faith. That certainly was a big turning point in my life."
Sanders described his early political leanings as libertarian until the personalization of his faith began to more closely align with conservatism.
"As I came into faith and a relationship with Christ that certainly influenced my political views," he says. "I generally believe in more freedom and less government control but at the same time I believe that we're put on this earth to help others in need. Therefore, I do think that there is a role for government to play to do a few things; one is keeping the community safe and two is providing access to a quality education."
After a couple of years in Brownback's office where he handled press and communications, Sanders started working in Republican political campaigns where he did everything from campaign management to general consulting, polling, message development and paid media advertising.
"Voters want to know a couple things: Is the candidate qualified? Does that candidate share their values? What issue positions does that candidate take? Do they agree or disagree?" he says. "Ultimately, it comes down to what makes them different, what sets them apart, what's that unique selling proposition.
"That's something I think I became very effective at, identifying through polling, through data, what it is that sets that candidate apart that we can really integrate into a paid advertising campaign. What is compelling and memorable and makes that candidate stand out from the rest of the field?"
Sanders was good at what he did, something he credits to the mission of the work itself, and was widely considered a rising star in Republican circles.
"I loved campaigns. They can be a lot of fun. Every election cycle is different; you're working for different people, different states, different challenges," he says. "I think one of the most important things in life is to do what you love. I'm somebody who is not going to be motivated to do a job and to do it well unless I really love what I do.
"Thankfully, I've been in a position starting with my first job out of college, to really do what I love, which ultimately comes down to service and helping people. That can get lost in politics; you come across a lot of people in government and politics who are very self-serving."
WOOING A FUTURE GOVERNOR
During the course of his career, Sanders estimates he has worked on 100 campaigns, arguably none more essential to his being than former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential bid. While things ultimately didn't go his boss' way, Sanders' unlikely bid for the affection of his future wife won in a landslide.
"Sarah actually had a boyfriend at the time that we first met," he says. "We had become friends and really hit it off and I really liked her, but Sarah was not only my boss, we worked for her dad.
"One night we were out with some friends on the campaign and at the end of the night I had the audacity to say to her, 'This is happening. You need to break up with him.' Next morning, I wasn't sure if I still had a job but sure enough, she broke up with her boyfriend. We started dating by the end of it and I followed her back to Arkansas. The rest is history."
The couple would welcome three children -- Scarlett, Huck and George -- a monumental juggling challenge for any professional couple, let alone when one is cast as one of the most recognizable figures in the world for two years. Sarah's stint as press secretary under President Donald Trump was a major career coup that brought with it intense scrutiny and round-the-clock work demands. Throughout the experience, however, the couple resolutely maintained a closeness in their marriage that stands out to others even today.
"As I've gotten to know them up close and personal, they are incredibly down-to-earth," says Jay McGuirk, a pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock who leads a prayer group that includes the couple. "We know them as a husband, a wife, a mom, a dad and my immediate impression is that they are just incredibly genuine and warm and fun to be around. I've found them to be just about as normal of people as you could ever imagine."
Still, Bryan recalls the difficulties of being in the White House fishbowl, especially as part of such a polarizing administration.
"The experience in Washington, when Sarah was White House press secretary, was challenging at times," he says. "I see my duty and my responsibility is to protect my wife, but when you're in politics, it's an extremely nasty, mean business. Sarah experienced that on a day-to-day basis, and it was hard to not be able to, as her husband, intervene and protect her.
"But in many ways, going through that experience helped prepare our family for everything we're doing now. It certainly has given her an opportunity to run for governor and win and ultimately be successful leading this state. It's also one of those things where, as a family, we've already dealt with intense scrutiny and vicious personal attacks. We've persevered and there's really nothing they can throw at us that's going to faze us."
UNPAID POLITICAL STRATEGIST
Sanders says after his wife stepped down from the White House gig to return home and spend more time with the family there was little doubt in his mind what her next step would ultimately be.
"When Sarah finally made the decision to leave the White House and go back to Arkansas, I'm not sure if she was there yet, but in my mind, it was inevitable she was going to run for governor," he says. "I just knew in her heart that's what she felt called to do. And not just as her husband, but as a political strategist, I knew that she would be great at it. There was no doubt in my mind that she would not only win the campaign but be a very successful governor and leader for Arkansas."
Sanders admits a fuzzy line exists between his perspectives as a political analyst and devoted husband when it comes to his wife, joking, "I've never worked so hard on a campaign for free." From whatever angle, though, he sees in the governor a committed public servant who cares deeply about the people of her home state.
"As far as her strengths are concerned, number one is authenticity," he says. "I've worked for a lot of politicians who walk into a room and they're always looking over your shoulder for a more important person to talk to. Sarah walks into that room and looks for the person in the corner nobody's talking to.
"Sarah actually cares about people; it's not a talking point, it's reality. And I think that authenticity, her heart, shines through and people connect with her and know she is motivated every day to fight for them."
The 2022 gubernatorial election was historic on many levels. Gov. Sanders is the first woman to hold the state's highest elected office, was at the time the youngest governor in the nation and is the first woman in American history to serve as governor of the same state her father once led.
"One thing I've developed around watching Sarah is an appreciation for how challenging it is to be a working mom," Sanders says. "There is a lot of pressure on women now to have it all, to have a career and to be a mom, which is a full-time job.
"With Sarah in the White House and through the campaign and now as governor, it is not lost on me at all how difficult that is for women, but Sarah has handled it really well. She's been tremendously successful in her career but is also a great mom and I'm very proud of her for managing the pressure and taking each of those responsibilities very seriously."
As he turns to the business of promoting Arkansas' great outdoors -- and stumping for other initiatives of the administration, education reform being a priority among them -- the first gentleman allows himself a moment to reflect on the family's journey thus far and the model it sets for future generations.
"I'm the father of a daughter and I think it's really important for girls and for young women to have strong female role models," he says. "I've heard it time and again from women, 'My daughter, my granddaughter now has a role model now to look up to in Sarah.' I think that's important.
"It's not the reason why Sarah ran for governor; she didn't want to be elected to anything because she's the first woman or whatever, she wanted to be elected because she's the best candidate. But it's also not lost on us that it's really important to send the message that a girl can grow up in Arkansas to do anything a man can do. I want my daughter, I want every girl and young woman to know, they can do anything."
FAMILY: Wife Sarah Huckabee Sanders; kids Scarlett (10), Huck (9) and George (7)
MY FAVORITE BOOK IS: "Wild at Heart" by John Eldredge.
MY PERSONAL MOTTO WOULD BE: "No half measures."
THE ONE THING I KNOW TO BE TRUE ABOUT ALL PEOPLE IS: Everyone has value and a purpose.
THE HARDEST PIECE OF ADVICE OR CRITICISM I'VE EVER HAD TO HEAR WAS: Learning to listen.
THE SECRET TO STAYING HAPPILY MARRIED TO SOMEONE IN THE PUBLIC EYE IS: Maintaining humility.
MY GUILTY PLEASURE IS: A good cigar.
MY PROUDEST ACCOMPLISHMENT IS: My family.
THE THREE PEOPLE I'D MOST LIKE TO HAVE DINNER WITH, LIVING OR DEAD INCLUDE: Jesus Christ, C.S. Lewis and Winston Churchill
THE SECRET TO MY HAPPINESS IN LIFE IS: To be who God created me to be.
THE ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: Passionate