Belle: Do you remember when you were offered the job as Gov. Mark Warner's director of communications?
Qualls: I took about one breath and thought about my salary compared to what [Gov.] Gilmore's press secretary was making. I was interested in Warner. I was a Democrat. I had covered Gilmore and [former Gov. George] Allen [for television and radio] and knew a little bit about how to package a successful governor.
While working for Warner, you had to handle a crisis similar to the one at Virginia Tech this year.
Appalachian School of Law happened on day three. They had a shooting. That was the first instance of crisis communication, and I ended up getting subpoenaed for saying on CNN that the shooter had a history of mental health issues.
Much more educational for me was Hurricane Isabel. Something like Tech ends, there's a finite end, but during Isabel or the sniper crisis, we had weeks of expectations that we had to frame for the public.
Do you have a communications hero?
I've always looked up to [former Clinton press secretary] Mike McCurry from afar − not just because he handled the White House press corps with grace and humor − but because he found a way to keep his credibility intact when his boss was impeached, by simply walling himself off from the president on questions about Monica Lewinsky. I'm also a huge fan of Helen Thomas, the longtime White House reporter.
Did you watch "The West Wing"?
OK, so I loved "West Wing," and C.J. rocked. Especially when she became the chief of staff.
How does Speaker Pelosi operate? What have you noticed that fascinates you?
The speaker has taken the approach that we have some very tough challenges that we're facing as a nation, and these problems have gone unaddressed for years. So she has some sense of urgency to build consensus around solutions.
So the short answer is, she is persuasive behind the scenes, counts votes and picks her battles, and then is a passionate and well-spoken public advocate.
As she's the country's first female speaker of the House, there's been some media coverage of her clothes. Is that fair?
There's all kinds of writers. I have no problem with any public figure's personality being written up in public; her staff occasionally feels underdressed. And certainly Nancy Pelosi's appearance is a facet of her brand as much as Warner's reputation for falling off his bike.
Do you think Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton have different leadership styles than their male counterparts?
There might be more of an effort to persuade than lead by dictum. The speaker is not in this role because she's a woman, though, but because she had a vision and developed relationships that had this power.
How are you helping Nancy Pelosi succeed?
How I am of use to her most may be something that I learned from Governor Warner: People have more confidence in your leadership when you remind them of what you've done well − so you have to put scores on the board that matter to people and then remind them of your record.
Why don't you leverage the fact that Nancy Pelosi is a woman more directly?
That is, as they say, self-evident.