Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens, Switzerland, Mississippi, Jon Hinson, and my Lousy Math

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

This post is related to this previous lengthy post, most specifically the last section.

An article by Mitt Romney’s chief strategist Stuart Stevens, “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse” that caused me great puzzlement. The relevant parts of the quote are bolded:

All this changed when I discovered track skiing — Nordic racing. It happened in my late 20s when I was living in Switzerland, where my wife was teaching. I coached the school’s rugby team, but it would be a charitable understatement to say that I had a lot of time on my hands. One of the faculty members had raced cross-country at Middlebury, and he convinced me to tag along to a nearby ski area for a training session.

A year later, my entire life revolved around cross-country skiing. Any pretense of career or nonathletic ambition had been tossed aside for a slavish devotion to training, technique, equipment and racing. Actually, the races were just a small part of the equation. It was the 20-plus hours a week of skiing I craved, the two and sometimes three workouts a day, that blissful, purposeful exhaustion that made staying awake through dinner a legitimate challenge.

As I immersed myself in cross-country skiing, I learned of a circuit of long-distance events called the Worldloppet: 10 races (later it would expand), each in a different country, 8 in Europe and 2 in North America. In my cross-country frenzy, I decided to do all of them in one eight-week season. It was a silly idea, but of course that only increased the appeal. To do all 10 races, I’d have to spend back-to-back weekends flying across the Atlantic, racing on Saturday, then catching an overnight flight to make the start of another race Sunday morning.

I had played sports since I was 3 and had been on a million teams, but racing the Worldloppet was the first time I began to define myself as an athlete. Even though I was mediocre on my best days, my obsession with cross-country skiing gave me an entirely new perspective on life and self.

Then, when the season was over, I told myself it was time to grow up and get serious about pursuits worthy of an adult. Reluctantly, I moved on, working as a writer and as a political consultant, which, if nothing else, served as an outlet for my violent tendencies. But it didn’t take long to realize that my taste of the endurance life had created a hunger that normal life didn’t come close to satisfying.

The relevant points here are these: Stevens, while in his late twenties, lived in Switzerland where his wife taught, coaching rugby. At some point during this period, he became involved in the Worldloppet skiing competition. After this competition, he moved on to become a political consultant.

A brief side note: we have here an example of the money available to Stevens that he assumes is available to everyone. He speaks of competing in the Worldloppet, which would involve travellng to every continent of the world, yet never mentions the scrounging and scraping almost every other person would need for the extraordinary expense of what is frivolous recreational expense. This, however, is a side note.

In the very good piece from December last year, “Building a Better Romney-Bot”, Stevens’ age is listed as 58. I take the late twenties to be between 25 and 29. So, Stevens would be in his late twenties between 1978 and 1982 – though I should emphasize this may be a miscalculation as my math skills are often poor. So, it is between 1978 and 1982 that Stevens is in Switzerland with his wife teaching rugby.

It cannot be before 1978, since 1978 is the year the Worldloppet started, according to the official site:

Worldloppet Ski Federation (Worldloppet) is an international sports federation of cross-country skiing marathons. The federation was founded in 1978 in Uppsala, Sweden.

It is, again, according to the piece written by Stevens, after this period of Switzerland and the Worldloppet that he becomes a political consultant in Mississippi.

The only problem with this theory, and this may, again, be my lousy math skills, is that Stevens is already a media consultant in Mississippi, in 1978, at the age of twenty-five on.

From Mississippi Politics: The Struggle For Power 1976-2008 by Jere Nash and Andy Taggart (relevant portions are available at books.google.com (link), describing the 1978 election of Jon Hinson:

In 1978, Hinson’s family roots were in the southern part of the district; John Hampton Stennis’s home was Hinds County. Hinson won the election with 52 percent of the vote.

Handling the television advertising for Hinson was a young Jacksonian named Stuart Stevens, who over the next thirty years would become one of the premier Republican media consultants in the country. Stevens would end up back in Mississippi in 2003 to coordinate all of the advertising for Haley Barbour’s gubernatorial campaign.

Again, this may be my lousy math skills.

Stevens is still there in 1980, showing up early on in this section, whose details may or may not be contemporary relevance. They detail the fall of Mississippi congressman Jon Hinson, one of those endless line of american figures that are fascinating, heroic, and wrongfully obscure.

I quote it at length; I may edit it later out of respect to the authors; but I do believe it is well written, very insightful, and should be better known, as Mississippian political history, and the persecution some face:

THE TRAGEDY OF JON HINSON

The 1980 general election was shaping up to be an easy reelection for Congressman Jon Hinson. The Democratic nominee, Britt Singletary, was a relatively unknown Jackson lawyer. Even more critical was the independent candidacy of Les McLemore, a Jackson State University political science professor who had roots in the civil rights movement reaching as far back as the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. When asked years later why he ran for Congress, McLemore said: “I got involved through the displeasure of the black community with the elimination of the co-chair of the Democratic party. And when William Winter said there was no need for that, a lot of the black leaders felt very strongly that Aaron [Henry] should be continued as a co-chair. We wanted to show them that blacks could not be taken for granted.”

Then Stuart Stevens got a phone call from his client Jon Hinson. Stevens had produced Hinson’s television commercials in the 1978 campaign and was set to help him again in 1980. Hinson began: “Stuart, there’s something I didn’t tell you back in the ’78 campaign.” Stevens thought to himself: “When a political consultant gets a call from a candidate who says ‘there’s something I didn’t tell you,’ you know he’s not calling to tell you good news.” On Friday, August 8, 1980, Hinson divulged publicly what he had confided to Stevens – in September 1976, he had been arrested in Arlington, Virginia, while committing an obscene act. He had settled the matter by paying a $100 fine. Thirteen months later, he was at an X-rated movie theater in Washington when a fire destroyed the building, killing nine people. Hinson was one of the four survivors, and in early June he had given a deposition to lawyers handling civil suits filed by families of victims of the fire. Hinson’s startling admission: both of these sites were “frequented by homosexuals.”

After hearing the news, Billy Mounger, one of Hinson’s earliest supporters, immediately called the congressman and arranged for a meeting. Mounger asked him point blank: “Are you a homosexual?” Hinson denied he was gay, said his minister was backing him, and convinced the conservative Republicans that it was all part of a troubled past. The meeting broke up with his candidacy intact. Wirt Yeager Jr., another early backer, told the press: “These things took place at a time when he was caught up in emotional problems, before I ever heard of the guy. He had solved the problems and put them behind him by 1978 and he’s done an outstanding job since then.” A week later at another press conference, Hinson, with his wife at his side, explained his reasoning behind the disclosures: he was “sick and tired of worrying they would become public…I was reasonably certain that others had the information, but I didn’t know when it would come out.” And Hinson was compelled to declare flatly: “I am not, never have been, and never will be a homosexual.”

Reporters then began the process they do best: digging and peeling back the layers. Bit by bit they found information Hinson had withheld. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger soon disclosed the theater that burned was more than an X-rated movie house for homosexual films. It was also a club with more than 22,000 members where a “full range of sexual activities [were] conducted in empty rooms adjacent to the viewing area.” A couple of weeks later, the Clarion-Ledger devoted a front-page story to the revelation that Hinson had been to the theater on numerous other occasions. Even more damning: Hinson had delayed the deposition until June 6, three days after the Republican primary.

Then the Jackson Daily News broke the most detailed report yet of Hinson’s 1976 arrest. The “obscene act” – which took place at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, a gathering place for homosexuals – occurred when Hinson exposed himself to an undercover detective. Hinson was immediately arrested. He was photographed and fingerprinted at a local jail and released. A court date was set for September 23, 1976, at which Hinson failed to show. The judge issued a summons for him to appear on October 7, a date he ignored. A third court hearing was set on October 21, and once again there was no Hinson. The judge issued a warrant for his arrest, and only then did Hinson respond. On October 28, he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of creating a public nuisance and was fined $100.

In a campaign, when potentially damaging but truthful information becomes public, the goal becomes simple: discredit the source of the information. To the Hinson campaign and his GOP supporters, the newspaper reports were roundly criticized as “junk journalism” and “journalism of hysteria.” The reluctance of the Republican leaders to give serious consideration to the disclosures may have been explained by Mounger:

You’d think that a man who had acknowledged frequenting a homosexual theater would have been run out of Mississippi. But he’s got a great voting record. He’s been with us conservatives on every issue right down the line. There are folks that think we would rather have a queer conservative than a macho, all-man liberal, and they may be right, but he says he is not and was not a homosexual, and never performed a homosexual act, and I believe him.

On election day, Hinson received only 39 percent of the vote, but it was enough to win with a plurality. McLemore came in second with 30 percent, leading Singletary by 656 votes, who finished third. A relieved Hinson told his supporters on election night: “It’s been a hard three months. The worst three months I’ve spent in my life. I felt like Lazarus, returned from the dead.”

The End

All was well in the Hinson world until the morning of February 4, 1981. Jon Hinson left his office by a private door, walked over to an adjacent congressional office building, to an isolated restroom, and met Harold Moore, a twenty-nine-year-old Library of Congress clerk. Unbeknownst to Hinson, the Capitol Police were watching the restroom through a peephole, following a tip that homosexuals gathered there. A few minutes later, Hinson and Moore were arrested on felony charges of committing oral sodomy. Hinson posted a $2,000 bond and was released from jail at 4:25 P.M. Jackson time. The word, however, had already reached Mississippi. The legislature was still in session, and within five minutes of the news hitting the capitol, the Jon Hinson jokes were making the rounds. His career was over.

There was no forgiveness this time. Party Chairman Mike Retzer announced: “I’m calling for his resignation.” Billy Mounger was distraught: Hinson is “sick…We trusted him and he just didn’t play the game straight with us. I think he should resign.” That afternoon, the Jackson Daily News editorialized, “Jon Hinson has pushed his own self-destruct button.” That evening, ABC News carried the story to the nation: “The voters of the district may have believed Hinson enough to reelected him, but today’s Hinson’s Democratic opponent was saying I told you so.”

By the next day, Hinson was in a psychiatric hospital, ignoring the demands back home for his resignation. The Clarion-Ledger was reporting on its front page that the Hinson arrest was the “talk of Washington.” It took Hinson nearly a month to officially resign from office. Hinson’s minister defended the wait: “I don’t think people realize that an emotional and mental sickness is just like any other sickness. Your mind can’t do some things when you have an emotional sickness…People kept asking him to do something [resign] that he just wasn’t capable of doing.” Several months later, Hinson pleaded no contest to the charges and received a one-year probation.

The Republican transformation of Mississippi was perhaps best captured by a shopper in Hinson’s hometown of Tylertown, the day after his 1981 arrest, who said “he had figured all along that Hinson was gay, but had voted for him just the same because a gay was better than a Democrat.”

The Aftermath

One reason Hinson gave for making public the extraordinary disclosures was the fear that his Democratic opponent – Britt Singletary – knew about them and would use them in the campaign. Hinson alleged that his 1978 Democratic opponent – John Hampton Stennis – had learned about the incidents and had perhaps passed the damaging information along to his law partner, John Holloman, who was serving as Singletary’s campaign manager. The first that Holloman heard about the arrest and fire was from Hinson’s press conference.

At the time of Hinton’s 1976 arrest, he was a member of then Congressman Thad Cochran’s staff. In response to questions about what he knew, Cochran told the Clarion-Ledger that he was campaigning for reelection in, ironically, Hinson’s hometown of Tylertown when Capitol Police called to notify him that a warrant had been issued for Hinson’s arrest: “I knew that it was alleged to have occurred at the Iwo Jima Memorial and that had to create suspicions in my mind, but he told me that it was a mix-up and frankly I gave him the benefit of the doubt,” Cochan said he did not know the original charge was for “an indecent and immoral act,” only that Hinson told him it was for disturbing the peace and that he had been under a lot of emotional strain and pressure. Both Cochran and Hinson were in Tylertown on October 21 for a campaign event, the day of the scheduled third court date.

On New Year’s Day, 1984, Clifton and Lyndell Hinson – Jon Hinson’s parents – were killed in a fire that swept through their house in the early morning hours. Clifton Hinson had recently been reelected to his fourth term as a Walthall County supervisor. Lyndell Hinson was assistant librarian at the Walthall County Library.

Jon Hinson died at the age of fifty-three at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, on July 21, 1995, from respiratory failure associated with AIDS. In a 1993 article he wrote for the Roll Call newspaper in Washington, Hinson said of the 1980 campaign: “I was not yet emotionally ready to confront what on some deeper level I knew I’d eventually have to face – specifically that my sexual orientation is homosexual.” In early 1994, he returned to Mississippi to speak at a fund-raising benefit for a gay community center in Biloxi.

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