The life and times of a political consultant
Who in politics is more easily scorned than the political consultant? Consultants are to democracy what lawyers are to justice: opportunistic manipulators, conniving and unprincipled, devoted to winning at all costs. And the costs are pretty high, at least in terms of billable hours.
Yet when people say it’s time to kill all the lawyers, it is understood to be an idle wish. There’s always the chance that, one day, you might need a lawyer. Few of us will ever need a political consultant. And most people think true political leaders shouldn’t depend on consultants, either. Even as seasoned a political observer as Joe Klein wrote this spring in Time magazine that if Democrats hope to win back the White House in 2004, their candidate should “kill the consultants.” Klein faulted Al Gore for running a consultant-driven campaign in 2000, with Gore speaking to narrow constituencies but not showing Presidential vision. What the Democrats need, Klein wrote, is a “candidate talented and fearless enough to meet the public without having to consult a focus group first.”
This is a common sentiment, though the complaint isn’t usually directed at winning candidates. Should George W. Bush have fired Karl Rove and campaigned in 2000 on his own gut instincts? Or is reliance on consultants a problem afflicting only Democrats? Or is it only a hazard for candidates who have no inspiring vision? In that case it isn’t the consultants who are the problem, it’s the candidates.
Klein has seen enough to know that a good consultant can be immensely useful to a good candidate. In the public mind, though, consultants have a lot to answer for. They are the ones who so consistently advise politicians to “go negative.” They are the ones who help flood the airwaves with insulting or misleading or just plain obnoxious advertising during election seasons. Pandering is their line of work. They drive up the cost of campaigns even as they drive down the quality.
Raymond D. Strother, who has had as long a career in political consulting as just about anyone still at it, has absorbed some of the public’s revulsion for his profession. Throughout his memoir of a life spent trying to make politicians look good, he reflects the ambivalence and contradiction suggested by his title, Falling Up. Soon after he left Texas to start a career in Louisiana, he recalls, he was led to a whorehouse by a school board candidate who announced, “You pick, College Boy, I’m buying.” Strother reports declining the offer and then recognizing one of the available girls; she had been in his high school in Port Arthur. “We were both in the process of selling a part of ourselves,” he reflects, “a part that is not always easy to get back.”
Okay! So he recognized right away he was in a service industry. The goal from there was to at least get out of Louisiana and find a higher class of client. This Strother did. He writes about his eventual move to Washington and the work he did for the likes of Senators Russell Long of Louisiana, Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, and John Stennis of Mississippi. He knew that the ultimate prize, the trick of all tricks, the dream of every political consultant, was to get to the White House. And though he did some work early on for Bill Clinton, his real passion was for the wrong man. He believed in former Colorado Senator Gary Hart.
Writing about Hart’s 1984 campaign, when the candidate ran short of money and was overwhelmed in the Democratic primary by Walter Mondale, Strother says, “Voters never got to know this remarkable man in cowboy boots who cared more about his country than any politician I had ever met. When a candidate isn’t properly introduced, he or she becomes known only by what people see in newspapers and on television. I felt strongly that if the voters could see the character and intellect of the man, he would become president. I still hold this belief.”
Hart, of course, tried again in 1987 but was sunk when the monkey business with Donna Rice made it even harder to get the Senator “properly introduced” to the public. All the while, the wily Arkansas boy Clinton was getting in position for his big chance. And by the time Clinton was ready to run for President, Strother was not on board. Instead, Clinton was getting advice from a colorful Cajun who got his start in Louisiana politics when Strother hired him in 1978: James Carville. Strother writes with amusement and affection about Carville’s early days. He is less amused by the fast-talking New York operator Dick Morris, whom he hired the following year as a pollster. He soon came to believe that Morris “was just another hustler who wanted to make a fast buck from my clients.”
Some of Strother’s dishiest material derives from his none-too-subtle resentment that Clinton, Morris, and Carville made it big while Hart didn’t. He quotes Hart sizing up Clinton after a 1987 meeting in Little Rock: “There’s no core. He doesn’t believe in anything.” As for his own experience, “I’m sorry I ever met Bill Clinton,” he writes. “He was a dreamkiller who ended our relationship by damaging my business and adding my body to those he climbed over to reach the White House.” Strother was hired to produce television commercials for Clinton in his 1984 gubernatorial campaign. He admits to being “smitten” at first with Clinton. But as events unfolded, he realized Clinton wasn’t much interested in ads that extolled his own character and ideals: “Clinton’s favorite way of winning was to simply bludgeon his opponent.” Nor did Strother appreciate the candidate’s meddling wife or the “brittle” and “bossy” chief of staff, Betsy Wright. When Strother wrote an opinion article about the double standards that plague female candidates (Geraldine Ferraro was on the ticket for vice-president that year), he got a tongue-lashing on his first meeting with Wright. She apparently feared his “sexist” views would be associated with Clinton. “This bizarre episode demonstrates how controlling and careful the women in Clinton’s life were about his future. They supervised him like a small child who might wander off into the street. And nothing—and no one—would stand in their way.”
Strother was called back to Arkansas in early 1990 as Clinton was trying to decide whether to run for another term as governor, knowing that he wanted to run for President two years later. Clinton decided to go ahead with both races, and Strother went to work making a commercial about welfare reform. After the ad aired a minor controversy erupted and Clinton blamed Strother. When a late night meeting with Clinton, Strother, and Morris grew testy, Strother walked out and announced he was returning to his hotel to get some rest. An hour after he fell asleep his phone rang. It was Morris, weeping. Clinton “beat me up—with his fists,” Morris said. “I tried to do what you did, but when I tried to leave he knocked me down into a table, and Hillary had to pull him off me.” (Morris himself has recently elaborated on this incident, in a letter to Hillary Clinton disputing an account in her new book.) Weeks later, Strother found out Clinton had hired another ad man.
Strother had advised Morris on that teary night to get out of town and end his ties to Clinton—advice not taken. Instead, Morris became an important part of Clinton’s White House operation in the early 1990s, until news broke about the consultant sharing toe-fetish activities, and national secrets, with a prostitute. “I now believe that Dick Morris has been one of the most significant figures in politics and a major influence on political campaigning in America,” Strother sums up. “He symbolizes, in one five-foot-six-inch package of insecurities, everything that has gone wrong with American politics. It was Morris who broke down the rest of the wall between campaigns and governing.”
This is one of the things that Strother says makes him uneasy about political consulting today. “We have become public showmen and entertainers instead of thoughtful back-room advisers. We have let the pollsters out of our labs and they have turned into Frankensteins who are no longer content to tell politicians what the people think. They want to manipulate public opinion to help their candidates—by using their polls and our ads to shape what the politicians say after they are elected… .We have changed from advising people on how to get elected to helping them govern.”
When Strother first clicked with Hart, he writes, “I told him I thought candidates were becoming puppets who said the same things in the same ways. Media producers, I explained, were too important in the process. ‘Media consultants,’ I told him, ‘should be nothing but extensions for the candidates. I will never tell you what to say. But I will help you say it in thirty seconds.”
Like almost every judgment offered by Strother, this one is contradicted by something he writes elsewhere. Does he really think media consultants should play a smaller role? He says “the consultant’s nightmare is a candidate who ignores research and forces the production of television on gut feelings.” As he tells us about the best television commercials he produced, we see that in no case was the creative process a collaborative one with the candidate. Indeed, he says, “Strange as it may seem, politicians themselves seldom know a good media campaign from a bad one. Media campaigns are a necessary form of black magic.” On the one hand, he cautions us not to overestimate the power of the black magic. He could improve a politician’s appearance on TV, “but I have never been able to make a weak person look strong. The viewer is too expert at watching television.” But, he also notes, “a lesser opponent with a huge bank account can overwhelm even a good candidate with a good consultant. Money usually trumps talent.”
Since Strother’s strong suit was image advertising, he casts aspersions on the role of pollsters and the use of focus groups. Still, at every turn he gathered important information from pollsters, and he used focus groups to improve the ads he was making.
It’s true he does not seem to be the type who wants to tell a candidate “what to say.” He’s not ideological in the style of some consultants. But here is how he remembers his work for Martha Layne Collins when she was running for governor of Kentucky: “The campaign would rent a hotel suite in Lexington, and she and I would rehearse for ten or twelve hours before the camera was ever turned on the next day.” Ten or twelve hours! “After Martha Layne memorized the words, we would work on inflections, tone, and hand gestures.” He’s like a demanding Hollywood director. “To be successful, consultants must have control,” he writes.
This is what Strother is referring to when he makes the claim in his subtitle that he “helped invent political consulting.” He was on the early edge, starting in the late 1960s, of helping candidates understand how to use television. He learned about the power of images, and how the wrong image on the picture screen could keep even an eloquent candidate from being heard. The moments he remembers with the most pride in this memoir are the times his advertisements, or “films” as he sometimes calls them, were seen to be effective. Pollsters, strategists, candidates’ wives, and even candidates themselves tend to interfere too much—and the problem is getting worse. “Pace, rhythm, and continuity have been bled from our commercials,” he writes.
None of this is to say that Strother has written a sour or embittered book. He has a lot of good stories. It’s clear he had a pretty good time and made a lot of money. (He’s still active, as president of the Strother, Duffy, Strother firm in Washington, D.C., though he spends some time now at his mountainside home in Montana.) I’d be in favor of requiring every successful spin doctor to atone at some point for a career of image-making, artifice, and half-truths by telling us what really went on behind the scenes. There’s as much useful political education to be gained in books such as Strother’s as in any standard political science textbook.
And yet you can’t look to consultants for a coherent explanation of what’s wrong with electoral politics in America. A survey of top consultants conducted a few years ago found that the pros blame weak candidates, uninformed voters, and a cynical mass media for the state of politics, and that 56 percent rated the quality of their profession as excellent or good. Writing about the poll in Campaign & Elections magazine, James Thurber (director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies) chided campaign consultants “to stop pointing the finger elsewhere and to try to improve the quality of campaigning so that we may have better governance and improve our democracy.”
Strother knows that consultants are implicated. “We run campaigns of such vitriol that neither the candidates nor the electorate can ever quite move on when it’s over.” But he also knows that improving the “quality of campaigning” out of concern for democracy is not at all a goal or priority for someone hired to help win an election. His book opens with the simple statement, “In political consulting winning is everything. There is no good second place.” In his final chapter, recalling (as he does often in this book) his union-member father as the kind of hardworking American who is ill-served by the political system, he writes, “I fear now that I joined a profession that made it difficult to live up to my father’s ideals. I started out badly and slipped.”
Dave Denison is a former editor of The Texas Observer who now writes from Arlington, Massachusetts.