Tag Archives: Mitt Romney

Dishonorable Disclosures: A Refutation

Any attempt to disprove the claims of this twenty minute attack ad is, at this point, perhaps unnecessary: it has been a dud grenade, leaving everyone, except the movie’s participants, completely scratchless. Peter Bergen has already defanged the film’s most poisonous claims in “Are ‘Swift Boat’ attacks on Obama bogus?”, while Ken Dilian’s “Group attacking Obama for security leaks includes past talkers” goes into the pasts of the film’s participants, who have happily engaged with the press when it was to their convenience, and now condemn such contacts when it is to their convenience as well. What follows leans heavily on these two articles, a try at a simple, exhaustive, point by point look at this film, an effort to drop this failed grenade deep into the water so that it is certain to do no harm. Essential supporting quotes are placed in the text, the rest in footnotes.

A good chunk of the film establishes the fact that military intelligence matters. Most people would probably know this, but it insists on telling us anyway. It’s a little like an action movie that has an opening ten minute monologue, explaining: “This is a gun, bullets come out of it, and they can kill you. Bang, bang.” What took place with this current administration, the movie then declares, was an unprecedented breach in the nation’s veneration for secrecy.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

NARRATOR
From our earliest days, we have recognized those who have led our fight for freedom. Throughout our history, these brave men and women have put their lives on the line for us, our families, and our future. They made a pledge to fight for us, and for the freedoms and liberties that define us as a nation.

Next is Debbie Lee, whose son embodies the principles that have been violated by this president’s tenure.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

DEBBIE LEE
My name’s Debbie Lee, and I’m the very proud mother of Mark Allen Lee, who was the first Navy SEAL that was killed in Iraq in August 2006. He willingly gave his life so they could live. And so that we could experience the freedoms that we have here and our founding fathers intended for us to have. I miss that young man so much. But I know where he is. He was re-deployed to heaven, and I will see him again.

I have no desire to dwell on this, but will only point out that it is possible for a mother to lose what might be greatest to her, and be wrong about an issue as well, and that Ms. Lee, having been involved in demonstrations to counter those led by Cindy Sheehan, apparently believes so too.

Back to the narration. Secrets are secret. Important secrets are important.

NARRATOR
We honor their service, their sacrifice. Their victories in combat were not cheap, they certainly were not automatic. And virtually without exception, success depended on having the right intelligence where, when, and how best to strike.

DAVE LAMORTE
All military operations depend entirely on intelligence.

Except maybe those involving you. I’M KIDDING, DAVE.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

DAVE LAMORTE
No one commits troops blindly in the field. Hasn’t been done since the days of Napoleon, and even then, intellligence was necessary. Intelligence nowadays is crucial, just to get authorization to do the most minor operation.

You learn a lot watching this piece. Military intelligence has been of great importance since the time of Napoleon, and before that as well.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

SIMON
You need intelligence to be able to identify your target. The capabilities of your enemy. And to determine how you’re going to operate against the enemy. It’s the foundation of everything.

What follows next is the mildly intense Ben Smith, an example of what happens when you tell Joan Crawford to play Val Kilmer in a military role, but not in her usual understated way.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

BENJAMIN SMITH
Good intelligence is the difference between wasting lives on a mission, or getting a mission done to the exact specification as ordered, to achieve. [sic]

BENJAMIN SMITH
The intelligence is…the paramount. [sic]

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

BILL COWAN
Intellignece is key to ensuring your operation is gonna be a successful one. If you don’t have good intelligence, you’re probably not going to succeed.

Again: I’m learning so much.

NARRATOR
Techniques and technology have changed through the years. But two things have remained constant. First, human intelligence, penetrating the plans and operations of the enemy with real people, not just equipment, is central and critical.

DAVE LAMORTE
It all starts with human intelligence…who said what to who, what’s that lead, uh, and following one person, sometimes for years, till they lead you to where you want to go.

Yes, but suppose I really want to go to Quiznos: do I actually need Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to take me by the hand?

SIMON
Human intelligence is the most important kind of intelligence, because it is the only intelligence that can provide you with the thinking of leadership. All the technical intelligence you have out there, is not going to be able to give you what’s in the minds of the leaders and enemies. That can only come from human intelligence.

The great emphasis on human intelligence here has only a small pay-off: what is alleged to be the betrayal of Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who worked with American forces in the killing of Bin Laden, through wanton leaking.

NARRATOR
Keeping secrets matters. It’s called operational security, or OPSEC, for short. Never let the enemy know of your intentions, your operations. Maintaining OPSEC means the difference between a successful mission and failure. And when OPSEC is violated, our enemies gain the upper hand.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

Clearly, an homage to the opening scene of The Naked Gun.

DAVE KING
As soon as you let anyone know what you have, they change their tactic if they use a certain tactic, or, uh, change what direction they were heading.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

I thought they were going to Quiznos this way, but since he decided to take the tunnel, I guess we’re not going to Quiznos.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

The quote that appears at this point, from FBI director Robert Mueller III, has nothing to do with any of the issues brought up in the ad – Stuxnet, the Bin Laden killing, drones – but with the Yemen underwear bomber, whose cell leader was revealed to be a double agent. There is, I think, a good reason why this case is not brought up in the ad, though Mueller’s quote is used in the context of the loss of human intelligence and the arrest of Shakil Afridi – the investigation into the leak involving the underwear bomber (yes, I’m sure you’ve thought of a few funny jokes by now) was initiated the day after the revelation, very much on the initiative of the White House – not a leak made from the top for political gain or purpose, but one made lower down, out of indiscretion.

From “FBI Investigates Media Leaks in Yemen Bomb Plot”:

“We have initiated an investigation into this leak,” Mueller testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. “Leaks such as this threaten ongoing operations, puts at risk the lives of sources, makes it much more difficult to recruit sources, and damages our relationships with our foreign partners.”

The investigation is likely being run by the Justice Department’s counterespionage section and agents from the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

Justice Department officials and an FBI spokesman declined to comment on the nature of the investigation. The CIA also declined comment.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is also conducting a review with the DNI’s general counsel to see if the leaks originated in any of the 16 agencies that DNI director James Clapper oversees.

NARRATOR
There’s a cost for our leaders grabbing for glory. Politics should never come before national security.

Well, it’s a good thing that’s never happened before.

DAVE LAMORTE
Every time you leak intelligence like that, you lose assets. Some assets are no longer usable. Some assets are found by our enemy, and eliminated.

Others end up at a local yard sale. You paid two dollars, and now you have The Time Traveler’s Wife, a vomit green patio chair, and a CIA asset.

NARRATOR
These are the experts on the subject. The people who have spent much of their lives in military and intelligence operations. They know what they are talking about. And they have had enough. They’ve come together to make sure that americans understand what’s going on, and what’s at stake. Protecting operational security. Their mission: stop the politicians from politically capitalizing on U.S. national security operations and secrets.

The first accusations deal with the exploitation of Bin Laden’s death for political gain and leaks around the killing.

NARRATOR
Remember May 2, 2011: Americans learned that Osama Bin Laden had been eliminated. How did we learn about it?

From Dwayne Johnson. No? That’s not the answer we were looking for?

PRESIDENT OBAMA
Tonight, I can report to the American people, and to the world, the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama Bin Laden…I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of Bin Laden our top priority in the war against Al-Qaeda…I met repeatedly with my national security team…I determined that we had enough intelligence…at my direction…I directed I directed I directed etc.

DAVE LAMORTE
That was kind of infuriating to a lot of folks, especially those who had been in a fight. Uh…they didn’t…this administration didn’t capture, or kill, or eliminate Bin Laden, or anybody else. There’s a whole lot of folks in the military and the intelligence community that have been working on this for a very long time.

A transcript of the president’s remarks on that night can be found here. The excerpt below has the text featured in “Dishonorable” italicized, while the non-italicized text is that which is left out. I bold the most significant text unexcerpted. Obviously, much of what is left out is where the President gives great credit to those in intelligence and on the ground for their work.

Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda [the "I directed" fragment here is what's repeated over and over again at the end], even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

The American people did not choose this fight. It came to our shores, and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens. After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war. These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded.

So Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.

Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counter-terrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice.

We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.

Finally, let me say to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 that we have never forgotten your loss, nor wavered in our commitment to see that we do whatever it takes to prevent another attack on our shores.

Ben Smith, shortly before winning his third Academy Award for Mommy Dearest, shows up to give us his sane and reasonable view:

BEN SMITH
Mister President, you did not kill Osama Bin Laden. America did. The work the American military has done, killed Osama Bin Laden. You did not.

Next:

BRIAN GOULD
So for someone to sit around in a support position and say, “We killed Osama Bin Laden”: No, you didn’t. You had nothing to do with it. There was a finite number of people who can make that claim, and that’s the guys who were on the target.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

That these segments are back to back gives you some idea of the hyper-competence at work in this piece. Ben Smith says America killed Bin Laden. Brian Gould then shows up and says only those on the ground can say they killed Bin Laden, no one else can say so, not even someone who’s president, or, as Brian Gould calls it, in “a support position”. Well, who’s right? Can we just say that Ben Smith is right, so everyone, except the president, gets to put “I killed Bin Laden” on their résumé?

The refutation here is obvious, and I throw it to Bergen:

As to the notion that Obama has taken too much credit for the bin Laden raid, well he is commander-in-chief, and it was entirely his decision to launch the risky raid on Abbottabad based on the only fragmentary intelligence that bin Laden might be there.

As Adm. William McRaven, who was the military commander of the bin Laden raid, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last month, “at the end of the day, make no mistake about it, it was the president of the United States that shouldered the burden for this operation, that made the hard decisions, that was instrumental in the planning process, because I pitched every plan to him.”

The raid decision was opposed by Vice President Joe Biden, who had run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency against Obama. If Biden had won the White House in 2008, Osama bin Laden might still be alive.

And the decision to do the raid was also opposed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who had served every president going back to Richard Nixon. Gates was concerned about some kind of replay of the 1980 Iran hostage rescue debacle, which helped to turn President Jimmy Carter into a one-term president.

The notion that the decision to greenlight the risky raid was made by anyone other than Obama is just plain silly, and it was a decision he made against the advice of both his vice president and his secretary of defense.

It should also be mentioned that Ben Smith already made this accusation in May, accusing the president of profiting from his role and not giving due credit to those who had performed the actual act. It was knocked down with ease by Snopes:

President Barack Hussein Obama – STOP using the Navy SEALS as a campaign ploy. Because with all due respect, (what little I have for you), you do NOT speak for me

You Sir are trying to take the credit for what the American People have achieved in killing Bin Laden. Your use of the SEALs accomplishment as a campaign slogan is nothing less than despicable. I, as a former Navy SEAL do not accept your taking credit for Osama Bin Laden’s death. The American Military accomplished that feat.

This item attributed to a former Navy SEAL named Benjamin Smith is long on invective about the author’s dislike for President Barack Obama but short on presenting a factual basis justifying that opinion.

The show goes on:

NARRATOR
And the politicians just don’t get it. That serving our country is above politics.

I’ll note the obvious irony of this quote in a film made entirely for political gain, featuring members of intelligence and military whose service is designed to buttress a bunch of spurious allegations and false claims for the purpose of defeating the president.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

JAMIE WILLIAMSON
I was appalled, first: to hear secrets I’ve been spent over twenty-five years protecting, cover name of a unit, the actual name of a special mission unit, and the location of a special mission unit, all reported in the same sentence. Not only did they identify the special mission unit, we had tactics, techniques, procedures that were compromised, we even knew the name of the dog that was on the operation.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

FRED RUSTMANN
The raid on Osama Bin Laden was a very complicated event. It entailed a lot of very, very sensitive methods. I mean, there’s no helicopter. All of this was compromised. And in this particular case, it was done deliberately. I mean, moments after the raid, it was announced.

NARRATOR
Killing Bind Laden had been a goal for years. But the politicians turned this victory into an intelligence disaster.

Let’s just emphasize the hyperbole for what comes next: this is not a case of a mistake, or damage done, but an intelligence disaster.

BILL COWAN
I think we were all glad to hear that Osama Bin Laden was killed. But I think many of us would step [sic] and say why didn’t we wait a week, or two weeks, or wait some amount of time to exploit the intelligence you got out of that compound.

SIMON
The question that surfaced shortly after the announcement was: should it have been announced when it was? Now the bad guys knew we got Bin Laden, so it wouldn’t take long for that information to get out. But unfortunately, the early announcement that also defeated our ability to exploit the intelligence we might have gathered in Bin Laden’s compound. Computer files, paper files, any of a number of things might have been found there. So, as soon as the word got out that we had a bunch of rats scurrying to hide. And we might have had a little bit more opportunity to get some more had that announcement been held for a day or two.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

SCOTT TAYLOR
I think the disclosure of specific details of the raid, how we got there, how many people we used, what the tactics were to conduct the mission itself, and what we did afterwards…I believe a ten year old would be able to understand that if you disclose how we got there, how we took down the building, how many people were there, it’s gonna hinder future operations, and certainly hurt the success of those future operations for DOD, for military, for intelligence community as a whole.

This accusation, that the news of Bin Laden’s death should have been held for further tactical gain, but was released for political purposes, was made in the days after the killing by Jonah Goldberg, editor of National Review, noted incompetent, who sometimes, mistakenly, professes too great a love for children1. Goldberg’s name is not often associated with intelligence, and it has never been associated with any intelligence agency. His point is a purely political one, designed to eke out a political victory in what was a huge achievement for the president. I think it helps to quote it, to make clear that we have a republican talking point, passed from hand to hand, rather than a concern native to the intelligence community.

From the Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2011:

I’m no expert on such matters — though I’ve talked to several about this — but even a casual World War II buff can understand that the shelf life of actionable intelligence would be extended if we hadn’t told the whole world, and Al Qaeda in particular, that we had it.

It’s a bit like racing to the microphones to announce you’ve stolen the other team’s playbook even before you’ve had a chance to use the information in the big game.

But that’s exactly what President Obama did. He raced to spill the beans. The man couldn’t even wait until morning. At just after 9:45 p.m., the White House communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, informed the media: “POTUS to address the nation tonight at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time.”

The announcement came less than three hours after Obama had been informed that there was a “high probability” Bin Laden was dead and that the Navy SEAL helicopters had returned to Afghanistan.

In other words, it seems that from the get-go the White House planned to announce the news as quickly as possible. Why? Nobody I’ve talked to can think of a reason that doesn’t have to do with politics.

The allegations made in the film, that information should have been held for greater intelligence gains, and that vital secrets regarding the operation were revealed, such as the name of the unit involved in the mission, were both ably knocked down by Bergen. After making clear how tightly held secrets were kept, and that while researching his book Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden, no classified information was ever revealed to him, Bergen establishes why the announcement of the killing could not be delayed:

What precipitated the operation going public was not Obama’s announcement of the raid but the crash of one of the Black Hawk choppers used in the raid, which turned what had hitherto been a covert operation into a very public event.

Pakistani journalists started arriving at bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound soon after the helicopter crashed and started filing stories about the mysterious helicopter and its oddly shaped tail rotor. An Abbottabad resident even tweeted about the unusual sound of helicopters flying over the city in the middle of the night.

It wasn’t much of a leap for reporters to ascertain that these helicopters had particular features that had prevented them from being detected by Pakistani radar.

Soon after the SEALs had raided the Abbottabad command, Pakistani officials on the ground were interrogating bin Laden’s wives and children at the compound who told them that bin Laden had just been killed. None of this was going to stay secret for long.

Indeed, it was Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s top military officer, who sped up the Obama administration’s announcement of the raid. A few hours after the raid, Kayani told his American counterpart, Adm. Mike Mullen, “Our people need to understand what happened here. We’re not going to be able to manage the Pakistani media without you confirming this. You can explain it to them. They need to understand that this was bin Laden and not just some ordinary U.S. operation.”

With regard to the naming of the SEAL team, Bergen makes an equally strong refutation:

During his speech to the nation and world, Obama did not divulge the name of SEAL Team Six, saying only that a “small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability.”

It quickly leaked that SEAL Team Six had executed the raid, but this was hardly surprising as the SEALs are the principal Special Operations Forces in the Afghanistan/Pakistan theater, something that has been discussed in multiple news stories over the past several years and in bestselling books such as “Lone Survivor” by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.

And the SEALs have hardly kept a low profile of late, cooperating in a movie “Act of Valor” that was released in theaters this year, which actually featured real SEALs playing the parts of the heroes of the movie.

Perhaps if you had absolutely no knowledge of the U.S. military, or indeed access to Wikipedia where SEAL Team Six has had an entry since 2004, it would be news to you that SEAL Team Six, along with the Army’s Delta Force, are America’s premier counterterrorism units. Obviously, a mission to take out bin Laden would not be entrusted to any other than these elite units.

No, the movie hasn’t ended yet:

NARRATOR
And what about the people who put their lives on the line to help us eliminate Osama Bin Laden? What happened when the administration made it public? Who was on our side?

JAMIE WILLIAMSON
We’ve had enough difficulty…recruiting sources is never an easy thing to begin with, particularly in today’s environment. But one of the most important things that any intelligence operator must do is protect that source. And with wanton disregard this administration leaked information deliberately or otherwise that led to the identification of the Pakistani doctor that helped us in achieving our goals in killing Bin Laden. That makes it almost impossible to recruit other human sources.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

PAUL VALLELY
Worse than ever are leaks coming out of the White House. I’m not sure we have anybody in senior leadership today that understands the propriety and how risky it is on leaks. [sic] As a result of the recent leaks, just in the last year, we’ve had a Pakistani doctor who gave us information on Bin Laden…thirty-three years in prison.

That Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor, was arrested not as a result of any leak by the President, but as a result of Pakistan’s own investigation, is obvious in both Bergen’s piece, and a linked Guardian item, “CIA organised fake vaccination drive to get Osama bin Laden’s family DNA”, which was the first to report the doctor’s arrest in the western media.

It is just plain wrong that anyone in the U.S. government leaked the name of the CIA asset in Pakistan, Dr Shakil Afridi, who was recruited by the agency in its quest to find bin Laden. This information first surfaced in a story in the Guardian newspaper in July 2011 after Afridi was arrested by the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI. It is obvious that this information was leaked not by the Americans but the Pakistanis who have done their own investigation of the bin Laden raid, which embarrassed them considerably.

From the Guardian piece:

Pakistani intelligence became aware of the doctor’s activities during the investigation into the US raid in which Bin Laden was killed on the top floor of the Abbottabad house. Islamabad refused to comment officially on Afridi’s arrest, but one senior official said: “Wouldn’t any country detain people for working for a foreign spy service?”

TED RUSTMANN
What was done was stupid. But it was more than stupid, because it was done with malice aforethought. It was done for political purpose. And that’s what I find terrible.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

This might be a good time to bring up a point made in Ken Dilian’s “Group attacking Obama for security leaks includes past talkers”, which brings up Rustmann’s involvement in attempts to diminish the importance of the White House leaking the name of Valerie Plame. Rustmann’s tone here is outrage, over a leak, that of Shakil Afridi, that never took place. With regard to the Plame leak, which was most likely done for political purpose and with malice aforethought, he had no outrage whatsoever, but was happy to give succor.

From an interview on “Sean Hannity: Time Wasted With Morons”, July 15, 2005:

HANNITY: You were an agent from 1966 to 1990, and you said that in the Washington Times today she made no bones about the fact that she was an agency employee. Her husband was a diplomat. Quote: “Her friends knew this. Her friends knew this. They told them.” In other words, this was not a secret of anybody that they knew.

I mean, actually he describes in his book how, after a make-out session on like the third or fourth date, that she told him. But putting that aside, everybody knew?

RUSTMANN: Well, I don’t know that everybody knew. I do know that her cover began to erode the moment she started dating Joe Wilson. The thing that I said was that, you know, when you walk like a duck, and quack like a duck, and look like a duck, you’re probably a duck.

And at the point in time that this all broke, Valerie Plame had been working at headquarters for a long time, several years. She went to work every day to headquarters. She was married to a high-profile former ambassador. She had a couple of kids, she was living around the beltway.

HANNITY: Well let me ask you this…

RUSTMANN: She looked like an overt employee.

He is asked about the consequences of Plame’s cover being blown:

COLMES: Also, the fact that her cover was blown — doesn’t this expose every asset? Doesn’t it expose other people, every operation that she might have been involved with, and possibly put lives at risk?

RUSTMANN: No, I don’t think so. I think she had official cover for the first part of her career, when she was overseas in an official capacity. She came back to headquarters for a while, and then they sent her out on a light non-official cover.

She was out there. She was collecting information under that cover. She came back to headquarters. They probably then reverted her back to her official cover. In other words, so she wouldn’t — her W-2′s would not say…

COLMES: So she went back into cover. But for example, didn’t they expose a front operation that she helped run, Brewster-Jennings & Associates, this made-up company. And wasn’t that exposed as a result of all this, and can’t this damage intelligence operations and our security?

RUSTMANN: Well, actually, no, because it isn’t a big deal. It was a light non-official cover. There was, you know, a phone. There was very little backstopping to that company. It wasn’t like she was working for a major multi-national American company or foreign company where there could be some severe blowback if that were to come to…

COLMES: Are you saying there are no repercussions of this? There’s no repercussions of her having been exposed as a covert CIA agent, even though she was non-covert at one point?

RUSTMANN: There are no major repercussions to the cover mechanism, no. To her — the question again gets down to whether somebody did this with malice or forethought. Then it’s a crime, and that person goes to jail.

COLMES: But isn’t the question whether any damage was done because of the revelation? Whether lives were harmed, whether anyone was harmed, or security was harmed?

RUSTMANN: Yes, I don’t think so. I think, if she were out there in that capacity, in that non-official capacity, and if she was handling agents — she was handling agents in another alias — we have different layers of cover that work.

Rustmann not only did ths interview, but was an on the record source for the Washington Times‘s “Rove Fight Escalates”, which buttressed a same day Times editorial, “Knifing Rove, Whitewashing Wilson-Plame” which placed the entire shameful burden on the agent, and gave relief to White House leakers. Here is Rustmann in the “Escalates” piece, dismissing the issue of leaked cover, and putting the blame on agency cover staff, rather than with those in the executive.

“She made no bones about the fact that she was an agency employee and her husband was a diplomat,” Fred Rustmann, a covert agent from 1966 to 1990, told The Washington Times.

“Her neighbors knew this, her friends knew this, his friends knew this. A lot of blame could be put on to central cover staff and the agency because they weren’t minding the store here. … The agency never changed her cover status.”

So, Rustmann’s outrage is something of a dressy tie, that can be worn or not worn, according to the occasion. This incredibly sincere anger continues, with the film’s next issue, the fact that director Kathryn Bigelow received some briefings in preparation for her movie on the Bin Laden raid, Zero Dark Thirty:

TED RUSTMANN
Days after the raid, Hollywood was invited into the White House…so they could receive a briefing on exactly how the raid took place. What kind of sources we had, what kind of methods we used. All for the purpose of making a Hollywood movie.

The briefings Bigelow received were given coverage both by the Huffington Post, “Obama Officials Gave Hollywood Filmmaker Access To Team That Killed Bin Laden, Records Show” by Andrea Stone, and Glen Greenwald of Salon, with the meeting records obtained by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, with an overview on their site. Bigelow and her screenwriter met with top officials not days after the raid, but a month after. Though they met with these officials, but there is no mention in any document or its summary of classified material being shared or a concealed approach or technique being revealed. The information that Bigelow and her writer appear to have been looking for were details in attitude and mindset, so that such moments would have a versimilitude in the film, with the White House having some influence in the production, that their commanders be portrayed as sympathetically as possible. One can question whether such collaborations are beneficial to a democracy, whether they inevitably end up as a worship of force, but as to the distinct and separate issue of classified material being revealed to Bigelow, I see no evidence of this in the Judicial Watch records, nor any hint of it.

A talking head re-iterates the point that the current administration does not take these secrets seriously enough:

BILL COWAN
Somewhere in this administration, perhaps at the highest levels, there are people who don’t udnerstand what the requirements are that are put on everybody else. When we divulge national security information, such as the identity, the organization that killed Osama Bin Laden, we have now put all of those men, all of their families, everyone around them at some sort of risk. And when is that payback going to come? Well, it didn’t come immediately, it might not come this week, it might not come next year. But be assured we have a lot of enemies out there.

Bergen has already been quoted clearly stating that the SEAL team information was not revealed by the executive branch, and that the name of the unit was a reasonable, obvious guess. However, one may contrast this anger over possible payback for agency work that might not take place immediately, but years afterwards, is entirely absent from Rustmann’s discussion of the Plame leak.

NARRATOR
Not content to go for political gain at the time, the administration decided to double down a year later. To take a victory lap, to try and get more political advantages, and airing a campaign commercial about the raid.

BEN SMITH
We have become a political weapon. We are not. Our job is to be silent professionals. We do not seek recognition. We do not seek popularity.

Dishonest Disclosures Refutation

Now might be an apt time to bring up the political writings of Joan Crawford’s niece, Ben Smith. He has done much political writing on-line, with the writer’s bio always including this: “Former Navy SEAL, Benjamin Smith took an oath to defend our Constitution from enemies both foreign and domestic. As an author, speaker, political strategist and ardent Constitutionalist, Benjamin Smith continues to battle tyranny and defend the freedoms that enabled American exceptionalism.” Smith appears happy to use the fact that he is a former Navy SEAL as a political weapon, connecting in a disturbing fashion the fight between those fought in battle in Iraq with political disputes back home, happy to use military service as a cudgel in politics, as long as it is to his purpose. Here is a video of a Tea Party rally, with Debbie Lee, where the death of her late son in battle is used without compunction for political gain. The issue Lee brings up again and again at that rally is that Harry Reid called those in the military “losers”, and betrayed them thus – though there is no record of Reid doing anything of the kind.

Smith’s other writings demonstrate an animus toward the current administration that is not centered on leaks, but seems to view them as inherently hostile to american values. One post begins: “You are at war. Your way of life is under siege. Lose this war, and your family will be slaves.”2; that same post compares the administration to Lenin and Stalin, in their attempts to indoctrinate the people through their children3; Smith likens the Iraqi militias to Saul Alinsky4; in another post, he compares the Obama campaign slogan, “Forward”, to the Hitler slogan, “Vorwarts”5; another compares opposition to the Tea Party to Hitler burning books6; other posts at the radiopatriot blog, not by Smith, are also of interest7. A short addendum: while writing this, Foreign Policy published a brief piece, “In Facebook postings, OPSEC spokesman rips ‘Communist-in-Chief Hussein Mao-bama’”, on some of the more unsettling, and frankly, racist, postings of Smith; within is a link to whoisformernavysealbenjaminsmith.com, a site that catalogs his more controversial statements.

A post on the Bin Laden raid, “Navy SEAL Hands Obama his Arse” (defeating the president in argument, I think, not Smith offering his own up for ass play), which echoes the theme of “Dishonorable Disclosures”, that Obama had only an incidental role in the Bin Laden killing, and presents the president as an anti-american, entirely alien figure:

You do not speak for me or any American military man because though you may now be Commander in Chief, you are not the man to whom we can point our sons and say “This is the American dream, this is American exceptionalism, this is what I wish for your future”, because you Sir are NONE of these things. You Sir, are the antithesis of American Exceptionalism. Your idols are Saul Alinksi and Karl Marx and your revolutionary dreams and anti-American ideals poison your every policy. Your every action betrays the fact that in your soul you do not understand what it is to be an American, not what America truly is. Your agenda from the beginning has been to get rid of and kill everything that is and ever was American. You who so easily dismisses America’s greatness and bows to foreigners… YOU DO NOT SPEAK FOR ME.

Though a small detail, it might be of great relevance that Smith’s post on creeping progressivism is prefaced by the note that he is reading Cleon Skousen’s The Naked Communist. I find it notable, not because Skousen, a fool heavily promoted by Glenn Beck, was a crank and a fraud, but that one of the main allegations made in the book was that Roosevelt Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins gave fissile material to Russia8. Smith is struck by the similarity between what he sees now, and what’s portrayed in Skousen’s book, an insight into how he sees the current administration, as a traitorous force, in league with America’s enemies.

I laugh at this man, but that should not understate the possibility of potential danger here. Smith looks about him and sees fellow citizens with diminished means and diminished dignity, and is angry about it. This anger is directed at an all-seeing, controlling progressive elite, cynically channeled by various conservative groups who maintain the same policies that have brought so many around Smith into want. The blame for this wanton condition will always be shifted to a non-christian alien other, because this is the enemy the conservative elite wants Smith to have, and because this is the enemy that Smith would prefer to have as well. That this man is a Navy SEAL, an instrument of force, is not incidental to the equation. It is through the potential exercise of force, and the connection to that force, that many find the only dignity they have. The impoverished of any ghetto find some brief power in the fear anyone inside or outside the ghetto feels towards them. This, I think, is not unconnected to the significance of a soldier to a community in decline, or to the significance of military power. It might be said that when Barack Obama is president, the connection of a stagnant white community to this power, this dignity is lost. Those who think men and women like Smith can simply be manipulated for electoral outcomes, are playing with fire. They think this lightning can be bottled, when it cannot. That Smith is often a ridiculous man does not make his alienated attitude, and his connection to lethal force, any less disturbing.

Back to the show:

SIMON
I feel really badly for our U.S. Navy SEALs. In particular, SEAL team six, who conducted the Bin Laden raid. They were identified. And now you can believe that we have enemies that are trying to identify them. It has placed them, and their families, at risk. And anybody, that thinks it hasn’t, is being naive.

Again, Bergen ably dismissed this.

Next part of the ad is devoted to the joint project Stuxnet, which successfully disabled a number of Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

NARRATOR
But the leaks did not end with the Bin Laden raid. A recent series of intelligence leaks has been bombarding the airwaves. Even the president’s political friends know this is not right. One recent leak exposed a joint intelligence operation of the United States and Israel to develop a computer worm, known as the Stuxnet worm. A very powerful program capable of shutting down sophisticated computer systems. And we made good use of it, stopping the Iranians, and setting their operations back by years.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

TED RUSTMANN
The Stuxnet thing, it worked, it was a good thing. It may have denied the Iranians from getting their nuclear capability for a year or two years, or whatever it is. It worked. It was a good deal. It was a good operation. Why the hell talk about it?

NARRATOR
This administration willfully leaked the existence of Stuxnet, allowing our enemies to learn more of our secrets, and our operations.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

Why would anyone do this? What is the cost of trading national secrets for political capital?

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

BILL COWAN
When we stand up and admit that we were part of putting Stuxnet together with out Israeli friends, we really undermined our ability, one: to have the Israelis or anyone else work with us on the technology side, and secondly, we’ve made it very clear to the Iranians: who did it and who they need to be coming back to pay back.

Bergen counters this neatly in his own article, pointing out that Stuxnet was a well-known quantity by the time the New York Times wrote their articles, “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran” by David E. Sanger, and “Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay” by William J. Broad, John Markoff and David E. Sanger, on Olympic Games, the clandestine program to sabotage the Iranian nuclear facilities. From “How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History” from August 2011, by Kim Zetter, we learn the following: the centrifuge failures were first observed by the IAEA in January 20109; Stuxnet was discovered by researchers outside Iran, and successfully taken apart and re-engineered, their findings published in August 201010; various details of the malware made clear that its focus was on industrial controls locathe ted within Iran11; in November of that same year, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization accused the west of infecting his country’s nuclear facilities12. In January 2011, before “Israeli Test on Worm” article, Meir Dagan, head of Israel’s Mossad, announced that Iran’s nuclear program had been set back by several years, an announcement that took place within days by Hilary Clinton’s statement declaring the same thing13.

I mention all this to make obvious that the idea that Stuxnet was “revealed” through leaks by the administration is a reckless and stupid assertion. The secrets of the Stuxnet worm had already been exposed and revealed a year before by coders unconnected with the government, and the Iranians had already pointed an accusing finger toward Israel and the United States. A further point: the Times article “U.S. Rejects Aid for Israeli Raid on Nuclear Site”, from January 11, 2009, details the Bush administration’s efforts to derail the Iranian nuclear program through non-traditional means, sourced partly by off-the-record interviews with former Bush administration officials. What the article describes is the beginning of Olympic Games, the program continued under the Obama administration – written about the clandestine attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear program before the Stuxnet virus had even been discovered and reverse engineered. Somehow, the current executive is condemned for articles sourced from leaks, but the previous executive is not.

It should also be emphasized that Senator Dianne Feinstein’s concern was not with leaks coming from the top of the White House, but often with outside consultants. This is explicit in the interview (the transcript for CNN’s Situation Room is here) from which the film extracts its quotes.

BLITZER: But it looks like the Republicans, at least, are accusing the White House, the Obama administration, of deliberately leaking some of this information to score political points in the reelection campaign.

I assume you’re not willing to go that far?

FEINSTEIN: Well, that’s correct. I don’t believe any of this came directly out of the top ranks of the White House. I think one of the problems is information is not closely held sufficiently.

BLITZER: But what about the journalists and the news organizations who published this information?

FEINSTEIN: Well, this is a big problem, because what you have are very sophisticated journalists. David Sanger is one of the best. I spoke — he came into my office. He saw me. You know, we’ve worked together at the Aspen Strategy Institute. He assured me that what he was publishing, he had worked out with various agencies and he didn’t believe that anything was revealed that wasn’t known already.

Well, I read “The New York Times” article and my heart dropped, because he wove a tapestry which has an impact that’s beyond any single one thing. And he’s very good at what he does. And he spent a year figuring it all out. And he’s just one. And this is a problem.

It’s also a problem that we have people consulting. They live their life with classified information. They then get a consultancy with your show or cer — your station or some other station and they’re talking, inadvertently, I think, about information that should not be talked about.

We have to take a look at all of this. We have to take a look at the oath of non-disclosure that people take. We have to strengthen that.

Also: Blitzer, not a talking head noted for his skepticism, questions whether Feinstein is correct in her assertion over the number of unauthorized disclosures:

BLITZER: I’ve got to tell you, we’re going to leave it on this note, Senator. I’ve been hearing these allegations for 30 plus years that I’ve been in Washington, going back to the Frank Church committee, one of your predecessors on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and, yes, occasionally these leaks do cause some serious problems for the U.S. National security apparatus. But the business continues and the U.S. Manages to go along the way. I’m not denying that some of these leaks cause major, major problems for the US. But this is not a new phenomenon. I’ve been hearing about these problems for many, many years.

FEINSTEIN: Well, I’ve been on the Intelligence Committee for 11 years and I have never seen it worse, I can tell you that.

BLITZER: All right. That’s fair enough.

The next, and final, focus is on kill lists and drone technology, which are treated as secrets that were suddenly revealed by the current administration.

NARRATOR
We live in a dangerous world. But does it do us any good when it becomes public that the president of the United States has a kill list? That he, personally, is approving firing drone missiles?

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

BEN SMITH
Kill lists, I mean, that’s part of the whole giving out of things that are again secret and quiet, things you don’t talk about. But is in to make things public…is…wrong! [sic]

SCOTT TAYLOR
We have divulged to the world that we’re using drone technology, and conducting strikes inside of different countries. We’ve also divulged to the world via this administration at a very high level obviously, the president himself has a kill list, and he’s making a decision as to who will be killed by these drones. Drones aren’t like nuclear weapons, in the sense that they’re difficult to hide. The proliferation of drone technology is very easy…it’s easy to do. Other countries have drones, other countries are building drones. So, I think we set a profoundly bad precedent by making these decisions and leaking the information that the president himself is using drone technology and deciding who will die.

That drones were a well-known matter for years is almost self-evident, without requirement of proof. Richard Clarke in Against All Enemies from 2004, describes the test-piloting a drone14. Predator by Matt J. Martin and Charles W. Sasser, from 2010, is a first-hand account of a drone pilot. Here (PDF) is a news account from The Dalles Chronicle April 10, 2010 reporting on a pro-drone rally which featured Debbie Lee, one of this film’s participants, among its speakers15. Kill lists, called “hit lists”, were mentioned, along with many other details in Daily Beast‘s “Inside The Killing Machine”, an interview by Tara McKelvey with former CIA acting counsel John A. Rizzo, from February 2011. Many of these stories are all easily found, taken from a cursory look at the exhaustive “The Rise of the Killer Drones” by Michael Hastings, all stories published long before the movie’s targeted piece, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will”, by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, which came out in May of this year. It should also be noted that Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, is quoted on the record for this article, and is quoted praising the president’s record. So this article, which is cited as an example of dangerous leaking, features an on the record quote by a former CIA head; it should also be noted that Hayden is currently a foreign policy adviser for Mitt Romney, whom this ad hopes to try to elect.

There is also something that should be noted about Scott Taylor; Dilanian’s story mentions Taylor as chairman of OPSEC, the organization behind this ad, as well as a participant in a 2011 Discovery channel documentary, “Secrets of Seal Team Six”, a documentary which supposedly divulged secrets of the military unit, and which stressed that the military had urged SEAL members not to participate in the project. This is notable in light of a post by Navy SEAL / Joan Crawford medium Ben Smith, who writes the following in “Loose Lips Will Sink Ships”, a post which encapsulates all the concerns of this film, employing much of the same language and a few of the same patriotic images:

Apparently, the greatest generation is a dying breed. Ask anyone that you know who lived through the times of World War 2 on the home front and they will tell you of the secrecy that was involved with day to day life knowing that the enemy could be listening. The civilians and more importantly the military, government and media knew that “Loose Lips Sink Ships” a phrase often seen on posters hung in public places. This was called OPSEC, (Operational Security), which simply means that there were things that you DID NOT TALK ABOUT.

But the leaks coming out of this Administration are not limited to the Osama Bin Laden raid. In this past year there have been books and movies produced which describe the secret Special Forces unit tactics.

So, Smith’s reaction to this flux of books and movies which revealed the secrets of the SEAL division is paradoxical: he joins a group to produce an ad attacking such leaks, a group headed by a man complicit in making one of the movies that has made him so angry. As always in an election season, there are many funny moments. As always in an election season, almost all are unintentional.

The concluding notes:

NARRATOR
These experts, these heroes who have served their country, risked their lives have had enough. They know the time to act, is now.

BEN SMITH
As a citizen, it is my civic duty to tell the president to stop leaking information to the enemy. It will get Americans killed.

SCOTT TAYLOR
The accumulation of all the…and the consistency of very high level leaks, again, really number one: puts our military members, potentially their families, other civilians, their support personnel at risk. Of safety, and potentially, of death. These leaks. On top of that, you have folks from other countries understand and would move and change their tactics to combat our tactics based on these leaks that were disclosed. It’s just not the way the military does business. I believe at the very highest levels they should be held accountable for it.

FRED RUSTMANN
I don’t get it. I mean, I don’t come from that culture. I’m not a political guy. I don’t come from that culture. I don’t see…why, anybody, would purposely put lives in jeopardy.

I think it’s apt to quote again from Rustmann’s interview with Sean Hannity, about the breaking of Valerie Plame’s cover.

COLMES: Didn’t they expose a front operation that she helped run, Brewster-Jennings & Associates, this made-up company. And wasn’t that exposed as a result of all this, and can’t this damage intelligence operations and our security?

RUSTMANN: Well, actually, no, because it isn’t a big deal. It was a light non-official cover. There was, you know, a phone. There was very little backstopping to that company. It wasn’t like she was working for a major multi-national American company or foreign company where there could be some severe blowback if that were to come to…

COLMES: Are you saying there are no repercussions of this? There’s no repercussions of her having been exposed as a covert CIA agent, even though she was non-covert at one point?

RUSTMANN: There are no major repercussions to the cover mechanism, no. To her — the question again gets down to whether somebody did this with malice or forethought. Then it’s a crime, and that person goes to jail.

This interview, along with an interview given to the Washington Times making similar sentiments, was done at the very moment when White House operator Karl Rove suddenly found himself in great trouble over the fact that he himself may have leaked. Then, Rustmann played defense, now, he plays offense. Rustmann claims not to be a political animal, but this fish appears to crawl on land better than he thinks.

NARRATOR
Protecting military secrets has been paramount to our country from its earliest time. The leaks by this administration have violated the trust established over the last two hundred years.

Dishonorable Disclosures Refutation

The quote is from a Bob Kerrey editorial in the New York Daily News:

By describing certain methods — the name of the unit involved, the kinds of equipment employed, the nature of intelligence collected and techniques of insertion and extraction used in the operation — the President violated a key rule of clandestine work.

Soon after the operation, the U.S. made it clear it had identified Bin Laden’s body using DNA. Not long thereafter, Pakistani intelligence had arrested an apparent CIA informant, a doctor named Shakil Afridi, who allegedly helped run a fake vaccine program in Abbotabad designed to confirm Bin Laden’s presence by collecting DNA samples. Was the revelation connected to this man’s apprehension?

By June 2011, Pakistan’s military spy agency had arrested a handful of informants who had allegedly helped make the CIA raid possible. Would they have been identified if the White House had been more tight-lipped from the start? We will never know.

In addition, by shining a celebratory spotlight on one branch of special ops at the expense of others, we undercut the camaraderie of inter-service collaboration that has been the hallmark of this command since 1986.

Perhaps most important, because of the way the President rushed to tell the American people about the raid, I believe he made the already difficult relationship with Pakistan, an important ally of NATO in Afghanistan’s fight against the Taliban, even more difficult.

I believe all points raised in this editorial – that the announcement should have been delayed, that it should have been done with co-ordination with Pakistan, the arrest of Shakil Afridi – have all been dealt with, and refuted, by Bergen. I also note a closing passage in the editorial, relevant given this ad’s attempt to take credit away from the President in this victory:

President Obama deserves full credit for the decision to authorize this operation. The risks of failure were great. The benefits of success are large.

The last notes, which I quote without interruption, as they carry no claims, simple renewed assertions that secrets have been betrayed, and action must be taken.

BILL COWAN
Mister President, to you and those close to you who hold some of the nation’s highest secrets – please: be quiet about it.

PAUL VALLELY
With all due respect, Mister President, we need you to close your lips, and to shut up when it comes to operational security regarding our armed forces. It’s critical for you as a leader to understand that, and what the SEALs say, we do it, we don’t talk about it.

JAMIE WILLIAMSON
I was recently at…a military installation. Speaking with former colleagues, and told them what we were doing, and what our goals were…to maintain a standing watch-dog organization that would prevent any politician from exploiting military gains for political secrets [sic]. And they all said, you’ve got to do this. You’ve got to speak, because we can’t.

SIMON
We have thousands, tens of thousands. If not, hundreds of thousands of people, both in the intelligence community and our military. They deserve to have us speak on their behalf. They can’t. They are prohibited from doing it. They might even get fired. It’s one of the reasons I’m appearing anonymously here. Because I still have friends and associates that are working within the intelligence community, and I still have activities that I support with the military. I risk jeopardizing those things, and my friends. And the people I care about. That are doing their best to protect this country. That’s the reason I’m appearing in this way.

NARRATOR
Duty. Honor. Country. Values fought for by our heroes selflessly, and without thoughts of glory or recognition, while protecting the freedoms that make America the guiding light around the world.

PAUL VALLELY
We gotta stand up. This is our country, this is our constitution. And we have to speak out. Finally, we have to speak out and say we will not take this any more, enough is enough.

BILL COWAN
If I had one piece of advice for this administration, it would be the same thing former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said: Shut the *beep* [what, oh what, word could it be?] up!

I note only one final theme in this movie, which I think is there because of only one personal detail of the current president. I list the quotes from the film that underscore the theme. I bold one part of one quote which especially emphasizes it:

SCOTT TAYLOR
I think the disclosure of specific details of the raid, how we got there, how many people we used, what the tactics were to conduct the mission itself, and what we did afterwards…I believe a ten year old would be able to understand that if you disclose how we got there, how we took down the building, how many people were there, it’s gonna hinder future operations, and certainly hurt the success of those future operations for DOD, for military, for intelligence community as a whole.

BILL COWAN
Mister President, to you and those close to you who hold some of the nation’s highest secrets – please: be quiet about it.

PAUL VALLELY
With all due respect, Mister President, we need you to close your lips, and to shut up when it comes to operational security regarding our armed forces. It’s critical for you as a leader to understand that, and what the SEALs say, we do it, we don’t talk about it.

BILL COWAN
If I had one piece of advice for this administration, it would be the same thing former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said: Shut the *beep* [what, oh what, word could it be?] up!

The attitude expressed here, is not simply contempt or exasperation. It is, significantly, contempt with a man, a president of the United States, who is treated as a child. He does not even know as much as a ten year old. He needs to be lectured on keeping quiet. That he must keep his lips closed. That he must shut the fuck up. This, I think, is very different from the attitude agency and military personnel might have had to his exasperating predecessor, an ignorant incompetent, who might have had the emotional maturity and patience of a spoiled child, but was at all times addressed as a man – his maturity falling short of what is expected of a man. That this particular attitude is provoked by one personal detail, a man’s race, I consider an obvious point, and don’t think I need to dwell on it. That this condescending attitude comes from a group of men who, based on this documentary, are either dishonest or hopelessly incompetent, unable to read a simple newspaper before condemning a man for disloyalty, only makes the attitude more nettlesome, and fills me with such bile, that I have no appetite to dwell on it either.

1 An explanation for this joke is here.

2 The opening paragraphs of the post:

You are at war. Your way of life is under siege. Lose this war, and your family will be slaves.

A very nasty dictator once said, “Politics is war without bloodshed, and war is politics with bloodshed.” That was Chairman Mao Tse Tung, mass murderer of millions, Marxist dictator of China, and the unsmiling Asian guy in the stylized posters that is the hero of our present government.

America’s present political leadership ascended to power under the name “Progressive”. Let’s spend some time today finding out what that label really means, and how America is at war without bloodshed.

3 The indoctrination of children:

Progressives know that the battle of ideas cannot be won head to head, so clandestine warfare is their logical choice. They are careful to subvert rather than overthrow institutions, leaving ordinary Americans “fat and happy” while the termites nibble the floor out from under them.

And as Lenin and Stalin knew, schools are the key to the future of their ideology, and the left’s education strategy is in high gear. How many children do you know who are sure that Marxism and socialism are bad news, not the right path for America ? These days, American children parrot the alleged VIRTUES of those ideologies. The ancient Roman Empire had the official government youth organization called “Juventus”, where they were taught to worship their emperor and be loyal to Rome unto death. 20th Century equivalents include brown shirt “Hitler Youth”. Our educational system has systematically been taken over by leftists, and the history they leave OUT of our kids’ education could fill a thousand books.

4 From Iran: A Navy SEAL sums up the situation:

SCIRI, Badr corps, al-Quds, Madhi Malitia, Sadr and a bunch of other groups are all people that I have been exposed to in Iraq and it is my belief that these guys really mean what they are saying and doing (These are groups funded by the Iranian Gov). They are evil. They are so efficient and heartless because they feel they are benevolent and instructed by God to purvey their treachery. These are not people that you can have a cordial conversation with or even negotiate with. Their way is Saul Alinski [sic] without conscience and ordained by God because the ends are the same as the means, Righteous.

5 From the opening paragraph of “It’s About the Constitution, Stupid”:

As people are looking for the reason of why the court decision came down in the way it did from the supreme court justice that seemed to have the most stringent constitutional sense look to the progressive play book. As we have seen the progressive scourge take on the mantra of “fundamentally changing the United States of America” it has not been the old adage of “One step back and two steps forward” it has been more of the Blitzkrieg strategy of Go Go Go! Turning the saying into “3-5 steps forward then take a step back if you have to”. As there campaign slogan says itself “Vorwarts”…. Oh wait a second, that is the German Socialists party slogan from early 1940’s under HITLER only now translated into English as FORWARD.

6 From “Ben Smith, US Navy SEAL, speaks out Veterans Day”:

I do not see the Tea Party Express as an event like a wedding or a bar mitzvah or a bridge tournament. If you think so, I respectfully disagree.

This is not just a bus trip across a pretty landscape during which we listen to some nice music and peddle our wares and listen to the people’s applause and feel special for a little bit until the event is over. WRONG!!!

The people who would wish us to not succeed are the ones who would burn every bit of evidence that we ever existed. Our philosophies, our thoughts, our constitution, our books, our history would all be destroyed. Literally this happened in the past on numerous occasions, most recently Hitler’s burning of the books. It was to get rid of an opposing ideology.

7 One post has a poem referring to Sandra Fluke: “This is the maiden in a Georgetown dorm / That milked the taxpayers for the condoms and porn”; “Friedman’s Laws of History” states that “Wherever and whenever Muslims reach a certain critical mass, they attempt to subjugate the adjacent non-Muslim community, using violence when necessary. It is an article of faith. A random walk through today’s world conflicts proves that beyond a reasonable doubt.”; “Coming Soon: The Romney / Ryan typhoon” praises the billboard which had as a slogan “The Navy SEALs removed one threat to America, voters must remove another”, referring to Osama Bin Ladan and Barack Obama, respectively, as the billboard of the year; “Marco Rubio simply is not Constitutionally eligible. And he knows it.” explains that neither Marco Rubio, nor Bobby Jindal, nor Barack Obama are eligible to be president, as they all had one parent who was not a U.S citizen at the time of their birth; the post “Rumor has it Shemp Smith prefers sausage” – that Fox News’s Shepard Smith has a hankering for metaphorical sausage and this affects his view on gay marriage – appears, without intentional irony, right after the post “Dumb Clucks – damaged by the left” – which argues that one can be against gay marriage without having any prejudice against gays. It would seem that having a preference for this metaphorical sausage would be irrelvant to consideration of one’s political views; certainly there are women who have a preference for this metaphorical sausage and their views are still, occasionally, considered without this preference brought up. Rush Limbaugh, who appears to have a preference for non-metaphorical sausage, is quoted approvingly by the blog.

8 From the preface to US Navy SEAL Ben Smith: “Take a stand!”:

Ben [Smith] called me today to tell me that he’s currently reading Cleon Skousen’s book The Naked Communist, and was struck by the similarity of message to this post he wrote a year and a half ago.

From Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance by Alexander Zaitchik:

Willard Cleon Skousen was born in 1913 to American parents in a small Mormon frontier town in Alberta, Canada. When he was ten, his family moved to California, where he remained until he shipped off to England and Ireland for two years of Mormon missionary work. In 1935, after graduating from a California junior college, the twenty – three – year – old Skousen moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked briefly for a New Deal farm agency. He then began a fi fteen – year career with the FBI and earned a law degree from George Washington University in 1940. His posts at the FBI were administrative and clerical in nature, first in Washington and later in Kansas City.

After retiring from the FBI in 1951, Skousen joined the faculty of Brigham Young University in Utah. His life as a religion professor was suspended in 1956, when he began a tumultuous four years as chief of police in Salt Lake City.

While serving as police chief, Skousen had begun laying the groundwork for a career as an anticommunist speaker. In 1958, Skousen published an exposé – cum – history of the global communist movement, The Naked Communist. A work of laughably shoddy scholarship, the book went unnoticed by professional historians except those in Skousen’s Utah backyard. His résumé to that point — failed chief of police, part – time BYU religion professor, FBI paper pusher — was not that of a scholar.

“Skousen had never read a word of Marx and didn’t know what he was talking about,” says Louis Midgley, a historian and a former colleague of Skousen’s at BYU. “The faculty was embarrassed that he was even allowed on the staff as an instructor of theology.”

Skousen was more than just another anticommunist opportunist; he was a fraud. Although Skousen claimed that his years with the FBI had exposed him to inside information, his employment records show that his work at the bureau was largely secretarial in nature.

“Skousen never worked in the domestic intelligence division, and he never had signifi cant exposure to data concerning communist matters,” says Ernie Lazar, an independent researcher who has studied the internal documentation of Skousen’s FBI employment history.

Along with touting his imagined exposure to highly classified FBI business, Skousen trumpeted the expertise he claimed to have gained while researching The Naked Communist. But this research was even shakier than his résumé . Among the stories in Skousen’s fantastical arsenal was the alleged treason of FDR adviser Harry Hopkins. According to Skousen, Hopkins gave the Soviets “50 suitcases” worth of information on the Manhattan Project and nearly half of the nation’s supply of enriched uranium.

9 From Zetter’s article:

It was January 2010, and investigators with the International Atomic Energy Agency had just completed an inspection at the uranium enrichment plant outside Natanz in central Iran, when they realized that something was off within the cascade rooms where thousands of centrifuges were enriching uranium.

Normally Iran replaced up to 10 percent of its centrifuges a year, due to material defects and other issues. With about 8,700 centrifuges installed at Natanz at the time, it would have been normal to decommission about 800 over the course of the year.

But when the IAEA later reviewed footage from surveillance cameras installed outside the cascade rooms to monitor Iran’s enrichment program, they were stunned as they counted the numbers. The workers had been replacing the units at an incredible rate — later estimates would indicate between 1,000 and 2,000 centrifuges were swapped out over a few months.

10 Zetter’s article:

Experts determined that the virus was designed to target Simatic WinCC Step7 software, an industrial control system made by the German conglomerate Siemens that was used to program controllers that drive motors, valves and switches in everything from food factories and automobile assembly lines to gas pipelines and water treatment plants.

On Aug. 6, Symantec published a blog post saying that Stuxnet was a targeted attack aimed at hijacking the Programmable Logic Controller in a Siemens control system by injecting malicious code.

The fact that Stuxnet was injecting commands into the PLC [Programmable Logic Controller, an interface for controlling industrial processes such as a centrifuge] and masking that it was doing so was evidence that it was designed, not for espionage as everyone had believed, but for physical sabotage. The researchers were stunned. It was the first time anyone had seen digital code in the wild being used to physically destroy something in the real world.

11 Zetter’s article:

As [technical director of Symantec Security Response] [Eric] Chien and [Symantec Security Response manager of operations] O Murchu mapped the geographical location of the infections, a strange pattern emerged. Out of the initial 38,000 infections, about 22,000 were in Iran. Indonesia was a distant second, with about 6,700 infections, followed by India with about 3,700 infections. The United States had fewer than 400. Only a small number of machines had Siemens Step 7 software installed – just 217 machines reporting in from Iran and 16 in the United States.

The infection numbers were way out of sync with previous patterns of worldwide infections — such as what occurred with the prolific Conficker worm — in which Iran never placed high, if at all, in infection stats. South Korea and the United States were always at the top of charts in massive outbreaks, which wasn’t a surprise since they had the highest numbers of internet users. But even in outbreaks centered in the Middle East or Central Asia, Iran never figured high in the numbers. It was clear the Islamic Republic was at the center of the Stuxnet infection.

The sophistication of the code, plus the fraudulent certificates, and now Iran at the center of the fallout made it look like Stuxnet could be the work of a government cyberarmy — maybe even a United States cyberarmy.

This made Symantec’s sinkhole an audacious move. In intercepting data the attackers were expecting to receive, the researchers risked tampering with a covert U.S. government operation.

The attackers were ruthlessly intent on spreading their malware, but in a strangely limited way. Unlike most malware that used e-mail or malicious websites to infect masses of victims at once, none of Stuxnet’s exploits leveraged the internet; they all spread via local area networks. There was one primary way Stuxnet would spread from one facility to another, and that was on an infected USB thumb drive smuggled into the facility in someone’s pocket.

It appeared the attackers were targeting systems they knew were not connected to the internet. And given that they were using four zero-days to do it, the targets had to be high-value.

It took three weeks to reach a startling conclusion — Stuxnet wasn’t just aimed at attacking a specific type of Siemens controller, it was a precision weapon bent on sabotaging a specific facility. Embedded in Stuxnet’s code was a dossier detailing the specific technical configuration of the facility it sought. Any system that didn’t match precisely this configuration would go unharmed: Stuxnet would shut itself down and move on to the next system until it found its victim. It was clear to Langner that Stuxnet was the product of a well-resourced government with precise inside knowledge of the target it was seeking.

Although the exact facility in Stuxnet’s sights wasn’t spelled out, [security expert] [Ralph] Langner had no doubts. “This is about taking out Bushehr,” he announced to Rosen and Tim one day, referring to a nuclear power plant in Iran that had been scheduled to begin operation in August 2010 but had been delayed. Langner’s colleagues stared at him dumbfounded. They weren’t eager to follow him down a path of state-sponsored cyberwarfare that seemed likely to lead to Israel and the United States, and possibly even Germany, as the suspected aggressors behind Stuxnet.

The malware would sit quietly on the system doing reconnaissance for about two weeks, then launch its attack swiftly and quietly, increasing the frequency of the converters to 1,410Hz for 15 minutes, before restoring them to a normal frequency of 1,064Hz. The frequency would remain at this level for 27 days, before Stuxnet would kick in again and drop the frequency down to 2Hz for 50 minutes.

Chien did a search online and discovered that frequency converters that operated at 600Hz and above were regulated for export in the United States by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“We realized, wait a second, these things, at this frequency, could be used for uranium enrichment,” Chien recalls. Langner had gone out on a limb in asserting that Stuxnet was targeting centrifuges at a nuclear plant, but now Symantec had strong evidence to back it up.

David Albright at the Institute for Science and International Security, which closely monitors Iran’s nuclear program, supplied a crucial bit of information linking Natanz and Stuxnet.

After reading the reports from Langner and the Symantec team, Albright revealed in December that the nominal frequency at which Natanz’s centrifuges operated was 1,064Hz — the exact frequency Stuxnet restored converters to after drastically increasing and decreasing it during the malware’s attack. Albright found one other correlation. Data in Stuxnet indicated that it was targeting devices configured in groups of 164; Albright noted that each of Natanz’s cascades had 164 centrifuges.

12 Zetter’s article:

Then, on Nov. 23, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, provided what appeared to be the first acknowledgement that the worm had hit Iran’s nuclear facilities. “One year and several months ago, Westerners sent a virus to [our] country’s nuclear sites,” he told Iranian reporters, without mentioning the virus by name. He downplayed the virus’s success, however, asserting that vigilant workers had swiftly discovered the malware at its point of entry and prevented it from harming equipment.

In a press conference [November 30th], Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to reference the virus Salehi had mentioned, and contradict him when he said that “enemies” of the state had indeed sabotaged Iran’s centrifuges with a malicious software program. “They succeeded in creating problems for a limited number of our centrifuges with the software they had installed in electronic parts,” he said, without naming Stuxnet or the facility that was attacked.

13 From “Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay” by Broad, Markoff, and Sanger:

In recent days, the retiring chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton separately announced that they believed Iran’s efforts had been set back by several years. Mrs. Clinton cited American-led sanctions, which have hurt Iran’s ability to buy components and do business around the world.

The gruff Mr. Dagan, whose organization has been accused by Iran of being behind the deaths of several Iranian scientists, told the Israeli Knesset in recent days that Iran had run into technological difficulties that could delay a bomb until 2015. That represented a sharp reversal from Israel’s long-held argument that Iran was on the cusp of success.

14 From Clarke’s Enemies:

[Richard Clarke's Deputy] Roger Cressey and I made midnight trips to watch Kandahar on a giant video screen in northern Virginia. A small team sat at their consoles, not quite believing that what they were seeing was happening right then on the other side of the globe. This sort of intelligence capability was something we had seen only in Hollywood movies.

The bird flew quietly over a known terrorist camp and, as it did, a Land Rover was headed toward the gate. “Follow that car,” the mission controller called out to the “pilot” seated in front of him in the darkened Virginia room. He then turned to me and Cressey and with a big grin said, “I always wanted to say that.” The pilot kept the Land Rover on-screen as it moved through market squares and in and out of a tunnel. FInally it pulled up in front of a villa and those in the vehicle went inside. “Well, we now know that villa is al Qaeda-related.”

Predators flew in September and October of 2000. One Predator was damaged during takeoff, setting off a bureaucratic fight over who would pay the few hundred thousand dollars to repair it. On another flight, the Taliban’s radar detected the Predator and an ancient MiG fighter was launched. The Predator’s camera watched as the fighter plane lumbered into the air, climbed, and began a big circle that ended with the fighter about two miles from the Predator, aimed right at it. The image of the MiG grew from a speck to en enormous object hurtling at the camera. “Holy shit, it’s going to hit us!” the controller yelled, as half the people in the control room dove under their desks. Ten thousand miles away, the MiG flew right by the Predator, apparently unable to see it.

15 An excerpt:

Troop supporters cheer war drones
War veteran and Gold Star mother lead pro-drone event

by Ben McCarty
Hood River News

Standing before a crowd in front of Overlook Park in Hood River, retired Air Force Col. Lynn Guenther made his reason for appearing before them simple and clear: “We are here because we care,” the Vietnam POW said.

With a conference on the use of robotic drones and warfare going on two blocks away at Riverside Community Church, about 150 people gathered in front of the park, waving American flags and signs with slogans like “God Bless our troops” and “Drones save lives” to present a different view.

Joining Guenther on the podium were U.S. Navy Seal Benjamin Smith and Debbie Lee, the mother of Marc Lee, who grew up in Hood River and was the first Seal killed in action in Iraq in 2006.

(All images and script quotes copyright OPSEC productions.)

(Since initial posting, a number of edits have been made, adding supporting footnotes from Wired magazine, some additional images for clarity, sections on the Kerrey and Mueller quotes, and some small changes for aesthetics, grammar, and spelling. A small typo made it appear that Richard Clarke claimed to have once test-piloted a drone, when he had only observed this piloting.)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Satanic Bible and Ayn Rand

Anton LaVey was a carnie, a brilliant musician, a photographer of crime scenes, lover of Marilyn Monroe when she was a stripper, and the lover of Jayne Mansfield when she was a star. These were all claims he was to make throughout his life, though none of them were the reason for the larger world knowing his name. His infamy began in the 1960s, a time of upheaval and spiritual unease, as the lord of a new church, a founder of an american satanism and a creator of its bible.

LaVey is a fascinating american character, a man almost entirely a self-creation, his life story a tapestry of deceptions and lies. Lawrence Wright’s “Sympathy for the Devil” is most likely the definitive account, one that is detailed, sympathetic, and skeptical. LaVey says he was born in Chicago, 1930; but there is no one by that name in Cook County records, only a Howard Stanton Levey. He has claimed his musical gifts were great enough that he played oboe in the San Francisco ballet orchestra; no such orchestra existed at the time, the ballet employed the local symphony, and the symphony had no players by the name of LaVey or Levey. He then ran off to the circus, the Clyde Beatty circus, where he played calliope; the route books of the Beatty circus, available at the Circus World Museum at Baraboo, Wisconsin list no musician by the name of Lavey or Levey. He went on to play at a strip club where Monroe was dancing, and the two had a brief two week affair. After, he studied criminology at San Francisco City College, and joined the police force as a photographer, where the gory carwrecks and manslaughters caused him to lose all faith in a benevolent god. These are his claims: Wright finds no record that LaVey / Levey enrolled at the college, the police department has no record of his employment, and the strip club owner is certain Monroe never worked for him, and neither did LaVey1.

It is only after this that LaVey has his actual achievement, whatever the truth of what came before. He was spending time in Frisco sometimes driving around in a coroner’s van as a psychic investigator, sometimes walking with Zoltan, his black panther, always holding meetings every Friday night for discussions of the occult. These meetings would develop into his church, with LaVey shaving off all his hair on April 30th, 1966, the most holy day of the devil’s calendar, and declaring the onset of the age of satan. He gained much press attention and many followers, performing weddings and other rituals, wearing black clothes and horns2. At the height of the church’s notoriety, LaVey published The Satanic Bible (available here in pdf, though whether with permisson of the copyright holders, I am uncertain), the impetus for this post.

The satanism presented in this bible is not anarchism, or a devotion to violence for its own sake. It is a practical manual on how to approach life, and its perspective is simple: that there are weak and strong in this world, the weak should not be allowed to leech off the strong, and that the weak should rightly be dominated by the strong. There is a simple primal order, and it should not be interfered with. Though a large chunk of the book is devoted to occult ritual, what is notable, and especially topical at this point in the election, is that the intellectual spine of this infamous book is derived from the writings of Ayn Rand, the very writings cited as an influence by congressman Paul Ryan.

The connection between objectivism, Rand’s philosophy, and the satanic bible is not an accusation made by critics against LaVey or Rand; it is freely admitted by LaVey and his followers. The only question is whether LaVey gave sufficient credit to Rand, with some arguing that he plagiarised her work, while others state that he always gave her due credit. The underlying ideas of the work, however, has never been in doubt.

Before going to the links between Rand’s objectivism and this infernal book, I would like to emphasize again that much of it is devoted to the occult. What follows is a small example of this, one of the many “Enochian Keys” in this bible, appeals to the satanic power written in Enochian, a synthetic language created by the mystic John Dee.

THE THIRD KEY

The Third Enochian Key establishes the leadership of the earth upon the hands of those great Satanic magicians who throughout the successive ages have held dominion over the peoples of the world.

(Enochian)

Micama! goho Pe-IAD! zodir com-selahe azodien biabe os-lon-dohe. Norezodacahisa otahila Gigipahe; vaunid-el-cahisa ta-pu-ime qo-mos-pelehe telocahe; qui-i-inu toltoregi cahisa i cahisaji em ozodien; dasata beregida od torezodul! Ili e-Ol balazodareji, od aala tahilanu-os netaabe: daluga vaomesareji elonusa cape-mi-ali varoesa cala homila; cocasabe fafenu izodizodope, od miinoagi de ginetaabe: vaunu na-na-e-el: panupire malapireji caosaji. Pilada noanu vaunalahe balata od-vaoan. Do-o-i-ape mada: goholore, gohus, amiranu! Micama! Yehusozod ca-ca-com, od do-o-a-inu noari micaolazoda a-ai-om. Casarameji gohia: Zodacare! Vaunigilaji! od im-ua-mar pugo pelapeli Ananael Qo-a-an.

(English)

Behold!, saith Satan, I am a circle on whose hands stand the Twelve Kingdoms. Six are the seats of living breath, the rest are as sharp as sickles, or the Horns of Death. Therein the creatures of Earth are and are not, except in mine own hands which sleep and shall rise!
In the first I made ye stewards and placed ye in the Twelve seats of government, giving unto every one of you power successively over the Nine true ages of time, so that from the highest vessels and the corners of your governments you might work my power, pouring down the fires of life and increase continually on the Earth. Thus you are become the skirts of justice and truth. In Satan’s name, rise up! Show yourselves! Behold!, his mercies flourish, and his name is become mighty among us. In whom we say: Move!, Ascend!, and apply yourselves unto us as the partakers of His secret wisdom in your creation!

So, as said earlier, that this book has its source in Rand’s writings is not obscure or contested, but openly admitted by LaVey, as can be read in Raising The Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and The Media, by Bill Ellis. The mention on Rand’s influence is in a section on the Manson murders and various lunatics bringing unwanted infamy to LaVey’s sect (my bolds give the emphasis):

Exasperated by this unwanted notoriety, Anton LaVey held an interview with a Los Angeles Times reporter, who described the head of the Church of Satan as being “as American as crabapple pie.” The cases of the past year were “damned sickening,” LaVey said, and called Manson a “mad-dog killer” who should be drawn and quartered on Pershing Square. He continued:

I’d like to set the record straight…if someone waltzes up to our front door and says “Lucifer told me to come,” he gets the bum’s rush, you’d better believe it. This is really an elitist movement and we’re very fussy who is coming in and whom we traffic with. We have to guard ourselves against the creeps, and we’ve screened out a lot of people who turned out to be bad apples. Mostly they turned out to be people who were disappointed when they didn’t get the orgies and all the nefarious activities they’d been looking forward to.

In fact, LaVey called his operation mainly “showmanship…nine parts outrage and one part respectability” that allowed participants to channel their demons into “a ritualized hatred that finally absorbs the hate itself, rather than turning it loose in such meaningless, antisocial outbursts as the Tate massacre.” As for his “religion,” he called it “just Ayn Rand’s philosophy, with ceremony and ritual added,” and he actually looked forward to the arrival of a “benign police state.”

Here is a piece, Satanism and Objectivism, from the Church of Satan itself outlining similarities and differences in the two. Differences include satanism’s emphasis on carnal pleasure, the satanic creed’s greater emphasis on doubt, and the creed’s encouragement of a divine within oneself; the similarities between the two, however, the writer believes to be overwhelming.

Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, is an acknowledged source for some of the Satanic philosophy as outlined in The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey. Ayn Rand was a brilliant and insightful author and philosopher and her best-selling novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead continue to attract deserved attention for a new generation of readers. I am a strong admirer of Ayn Rand but I am an even stronger admirer of Anton LaVey for the vital differences between the philosophies of Objectivism and Satanism.

Let me conclude this brief overview by adding that Satanism has far more in common with Objectivism than with any other religion or philosophy. Objectivists endorse reason, selfishness, greed and atheism. Objectivism sees Christianity, Islam and Judaism as anti-human and evil. The writings of Ayn Rand are inspiring and powerful. If the reader has not yet experienced her power, try her novelette Anthem for a taste. You will almost certainly come back for more.

“Satanism and Objectivism” can also be found in the appendices of the satanic bible describing its sources. A second essay establishing the link between objectivism and satanism, also among the appendices, is “The Hidden Source of the Satanic Philosophy” by George C. Smith:

Reading through past issues of the Scroll of Set [a Satanism newsletter], I came across a statement by Susan Wylie (March/April XVI: “The Devil’s Game”): “One should remember that, prior to I AES [F. Fred Palakon: I'm unsure - I guess an international satanic organization of some kind], there had never been any organization or belief structure similar to the Church of Satan.” Although this was written several years ago, I must reach across the years and address this serious error. The implications for those of us in the Temple today are no less severe.

I know that I am challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years.The speaker was not Anton LaVey. The speaker was a novelist, playwright, and philosopher, Ayn Rand. From the springboard of her famous, bestselling novels (The Fountainhead in 1943 and Atlas Shrugged in 1957) was created the philosophy of Objectivism, which attracted thousands of persons – myself included – who were more than “openly honest regarding what they believed” but studied, wrote, taught, and practiced what they held to be the highest expression of living.

Although like others I now have some obvious points of philosophical disagreement with Objectivism, the legacy of this enormous Satanic break with the past remains a fact of history that is of prime importance to Setians everywhere. To imply or state that the Church of Satan was the first to clearly state the Satanic ethic is to ignore the continuing impact of Ayn Rand and individualists influenced by her work such as Nathaniel Branden [The Psychology of SelfEsteem and Honoring the Self] and Harry Browne [How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World]. It would instead benefit us to enrich our understanding of what the Gift of Set has meant and does mean to others who preceded I AES.

What follows is an an analysis by Smith of the links between the satanic bible’s “Nine Satanic Statements”, which serve as the spine of the work, and points in John Galt’s speech at the end of Atlas Shrugged. It is this very speech that vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan cited when he spoke at the Atlas Society (my bolds):

It’s so important that we go back to our roots to look at Ayn Rand’s vision, her writings, to see what our girding, under-grounding [sic] principles are. I always go back to, you know, Francisco d’Anconia’s speech (at Bill Taggart’s wedding) on money when I think about monetary policy. And then I go to the 64-page John Galt speech, you know, on the radio at the end, and go back to a lot of other things that she did, to try and make sure that I can check my premises so that I know that what I’m believing and doing and advancing are square with the key principles of individualism…

So, here is Smith’s in-depth exegesis. Again, this is not made by a critic of satanism, or a critic of objectivism trying to link the philosophy to satanism, it is an examination by a satanist, pointing to the roots of a philosophy he passionately espouses (my bolds):

To illustrate this historical precedent, let us examine the Nine Satanic Statements in view of the Rand work Atlas Shrugged. In Galt’s speech (pages #936-993) is the written source of most of the philosophical ideas expressed in the Satanic Bible. Here are the first clear, contemporary statements which led to the glorification of man’s pride and the denouncing of the life-killing concept called altruism. Here also is a vindication of rationality and the inevitable cause of the failure of the Church of Satan to encompass the needs of intelligent and curious minds.

Note that the sequential order of these Atlas Shrugged quotations parallels the order of the Nine Satanic Statements.

1. LaVey: Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence.
Rand: A doctrine that gives you, as an ideal, the role of a sacrificial animal seeking slaughter on the altars of others, is giving you death as your standard. By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man – every man – is an end in himself. He exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose. (page 940)

2. LaVey: Satan represents vital existence instead of spiritual pipe dreams.
Rand: My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists – and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these. (page 944)

3. LaVey: Satan represents undefiled wisdom instead of hypocritical self-deceit.
Rand: Honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others. (page 945)

4. LaVey: Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates.
Rand: To withhold your contempt from men’s vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement. (page 946)

5. LaVey: Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek.
Rand: When a man attempts to deal with me by force, I answer him by force. (page 950)

6. LaVey: Satan represents responsibility to the responsible instead of concern for psychic vampires.
Rand: You have been using fear as your weapon, and have been bringing death to man as his punishment for rejecting your morality. We offer him life as his reward for accepting ours. (page 950)

7. LaVey: Satan represents man as just another animal – sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours – who, because of his “divine spiritual and intellectual development”, has become the most vicious animal of all.
Rand: Damnation is the start of your morality; destruction is its purpose, means, and end. Your code begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice. It demands, as his first proof of virtue, that he accept his own depravity without proof. It demands that he start not with a standard of value but with a standard of evil, which is himself, by means of which he is then to define the good; the good is that which he is not. (page 951)

8. LaVey: Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification.
Rand: What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge – he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil; he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor; he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire; he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy – all the cardinal values of his existence. (page 951)

9. LaVey: Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had, as he has kept it in business all these years.
Rand: And as he now crawls through the wreckage, groping blindly for a way to live, your teachers offer him the help of a morality that proclaims that he’ll find no solution and must seek no fulfillment on Earth. Real existence, they tell him, is that which he cannot perceive, true consciousness is the faculty of perceiving the non-existent – and if he is unable to understand it, that is the proof that his existence is evil and his consciousness impotent. (page 952)

I think that most careful examinations of the Satanic Bible will show how the Nine Satanic Statements acted as an outline for the “Book of Lucifer” essays.

Anton LaVey is the Magus of the Age of Satan, and did Utter a Word and cause a magical restructuring of the universe. As the instrument of the creation of that Age, he is immortalized. At the same time, credit for the source of the philosophy which he espoused must be given to Ayn Rand.

Please understand that I was an Objectivist prior to joining the Church of Satan. It was the intellectual rigor demanded by Objectivism which enabled me to appreciate the full meaning of the Satanic Bible. At the same time I first completed reading it, I said that here I had found Objectivism with an open mind concerning paranormal phenomena.

This leaves us in an uncanny situation, for it is usually the enemies of secular liberalism who have happily indicted us as allies of lucifer. Yet here is the man on the republican presidential ticket, a man looked on with pride and admiration by the party as their best and brightest, who has been formed by the very principles of the superior maker versus his leeching inferiors, that form the bedrock of this baphometian testament. The calm, rational analysis is that the very principles espoused by this ticket, absent their patriotic finery, are indistinguishable from the self-serving ones of the luciferean cult.

Another possibility I entertain, which I give no credence to, but which makes for a more exciting plot, is that we are seeing the Mephisophelean candidate, a presidential ticket with the backing of the fallen one, just as the nominee of the Manchurian Candidate had the backing of the red china leadership. Here is a ticket, the top of which received initial funding for his business, Bain Capital, from families behind the killing of noble catholic archbishop Oscar Romero3, and whose pick for vice president gets foreign policy advice from the same man who covered up that same killing4, as well as the massacre in El Mozote. These men champion an economic plan, formed by the same ideas which serve as the foundation of american satanism, which will cut to the bone those in poverty and want, children, the elderly, the sick, and those veterans seeking safe haven after surviving hell overseas, so that a fortunate fraction may have more horse stables and cadillacs. They seek a cheap pile of votes by demanding that some men and women be starved into submission until they leave the country, while urging on wars with Iran and North Korea that their own families will never serve in. Were one to approach this mosaic with the same imagination as Tim LaHaye or Glenn Beck, would one not see here a presidential ticket backed by the prince of the lake of fire? Mitt Romney, who appears happy to welcome discussion on whether the president was born in the United States, and on the loyalty of Huma Abedin, will no doubt welcome discussion on this as well.

But I don’t seriously consider this possibility, except as one of exciting dramatic potential. I only note the irony that those brave warriors of the christian right who have always so happily fought satan as a force outside themselves and their party, have now satanism within. They appear possessed, and they are happily indifferent to it.

1 Wright, the author of the essential The Looming Tower and “Lives of the Saints”, a great overview of Mormon history, catches all these lies, but misses two small ones: Jayne Mansfield’s intimate relationship with LaVey goes unquestioned, and there is LaVey’s ridiculous suggestion that when cutting something in his scrapbook, the scissors accidentally cut into a Mansfield photo, triggering her decapitation. Ridiculous in and of itself, but more so since Mansfield wasn’t decapitated.

2 An article covering the first wedding administered by LaVey, Associated Press, February 1st, 1967:

Rites “Conceived in Hell”

Asking the blessings of Satan, a couple was married last night in San Francisco by a lion-tamer-turned-sorceror who pronounced the match “conceived in hell.”

Through the dark rite, a 500-pound lion on the back porch grumbled throatily and bashed the bars of his cage with his paws.

The bride was black-gowned Judith Case, 26, graduate of Goucher College and daughter of Edward Haile Case, former member of the New York Power Authority. The bridegroom was John Raymond, 35, who described himself as “a member of society.”

Anton Szandor LaVey wore devil horns while performing his first wedding in the Victorian living room of his black-walled Satanist Church. About 30 disciples of the self-styled priest of the Prince of Darkness witnessed the wedding, plus an equal number of reporters.

3 From Mitt Romney Started Bain Capital With Money From Families Tied To Death Squads by Cole Stangler and Ryan Grim:

“I owe a great deal to Americans of Latin American descent,” [Mitt Romney] said at a dinner in Miami in 2007. “When I was starting my business, I came to Miami to find partners that would believe in me and that would finance my enterprise. My partners were Ricardo Poma, Miguel Dueñas, Pancho Soler, Frank Kardonski, and Diego Ribadeneira.”

Romney could also have thanked investors from two other wealthy and powerful Central American clans — the de Sola and Salaverria families, who the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe have reported were founding investors in Bain Capital.

The Salaverria family, whose fortune came from producing cotton and coffee, had deep connections to the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), a political party that death-squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson founded in the fall of 1981. The year before, El Salvador’s government had pushed through land reforms and nationalized the coffee trade, moves that threatened a ruling class whose financial and political dominance was built in large part on growing coffee. ARENA controlled and directed death squads during its early years.

On March 24, 1980, Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador and an advocate of the poor, was celebrating Mass at a chapel in a small hospital when he was assassinated on D’Aubuisson’s orders, according to a person involved in the murder who later came forward.

The day before, Romero, an immensely popular figure, had called on the country’s soldiers to refuse the government’s orders to attack fellow Salvadorans.

“Before another killing order is given,” he advised in his sermon, “the law of God must prevail: Thou shalt not kill.”

4 From The Daily Beast:

In recent months, Ryan has been receiving briefings from Elliott Abrams, George W. Bush’s former Middle East director at the National Security Council, and Fred Kagan, one of the architects of the military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, as first reported by Weekly Standard reporter Stephen Hayes on Twitter.

From “Scandal? What Scandal” by Terry J. Allen, at FAIR, among many of those involved in Iran-Contra, including Abrams:

News reporting on Elliott Abrams has been so sparse and pallid as to give hope to war criminals everywhere. Like Negroponte, Abrams maintains ignorance when not boasting that his policy was a “fabulous achievement” (Washington Post, 3/21/93).

A few outlets have written strong editorials, particularly the Philadelphia Inquirer’s scorched-earth description (7/11/01) of Abrams as a “deceitful, scheming coddler of Latin American tyrants,” and “uncontrite peddler of lies.”

Most news stories, however, have simply noted the appointment and mentioned Abrams convictions for withholding evidence from Congress–as if he were a minor player haunted by sins of omission. They’ve ignored his cover-ups of the Salvadoran army’s massacre at El Mozote and assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Except for reporting in The Nation (7/2/01) and a piece by this reporter in In These Times (8/6/01), few publications have reprised Abrams’ role in Iran-Contra.

On February 8, 1982, Abrams told a Senate committee that the reports of hundreds of deaths at El Mozote “were not credible,” and that “it appears to be an incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.”

It’s not as if hard evidence and gruesome details of Abrams’ knowledge and culpability are difficult to find. The man was convicted in open hearings and remains brazenly unrepentant. He called his prosecutors “filthy bastards,” the proceedings against him “Kafkaesque” and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee “pious clowns,” according to an article in Legal Times (5/30/94). Raymond Bonner broke the story of the El Mozote massacre in the New York Times (1/27/82). The story also ran in the Washington Post (3/5/82). Post reporters Guy Gugliotta and Douglas Farah (3/21/93) further documented Abrams’ role in El Salvador in a 1993 story.

Both links come via the always valuable Charles Pierce.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Noam Scheiber’s Stuart Stevens Profile: A Small Reply

I very much enjoyed Noam Scheiber’s profile of Stuart Stevens, “The Square and the Flair”, a profile whose theses, that these men are more alike than you might think, and that these likenesses are detrimental to their campaign, I am in much agreement with, and for which the piece makes a convincing argument. That the essay does not take the more scathing approach I often take here, and avoids some matters I bring up here, I do not consider a failing, but simply a choice of focus. What follows are two small corrections, and a few supplemental observations. This post makes frequent reference to previous looks at Stevens’ work; a good overview of all this can be found in “He Hates You: A Profile of Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s Media Assassin”, which might be considered an acid-tinged bookend to the Scheiber piece.

The first correction is small, but crucial. The piece opens with the following paragraph, I bold the key detail:

BEFORE HE EARNED his reputation as one of the best ad men in politics, before he wrote for several major television shows, and long before he became Mitt Romney’s top campaign strategist, Stuart Stevens found himself in Cameroon, face to face with a machine-gun-wielding soldier looking to shake him down. It was 1988, and a few weeks earlier, Stevens had deposited himself in the nearby Central African Republic to pick up a friend’s Land Rover and drive it back to France. But the trip was a disaster from the get-go. Local officials confiscated the car and refused to release it. Weeks passed before he could find a roadworthy replacement. By the time Stevens finally got moving, he discovered that his maps were unreliable, the roads nearly impassable, and the local bureaucrats inhospitable. Distances drivable within a few hours in the United States gobbled up days.

It was not 1988, it was 1987. It’s very clearly established that the book takes place in 1987, through a number of details, among them that he arrives in Niger just after a coup has taken place in Burkina Faso, where a charismatic guitar-playing young leader has just been overthrown.

Niger, though, was a security-mad country with roadblocks and police checks every twenty or thirty miles. The routine of paranoia had been accelerated by a coup a few days earlier in neighboring Burkina Faso. Like virtually every West African leader, the president of Niger had catapulted himself to power in a similar coup and no doubt viewed the events in Burkina Faso as intimations of his own mortality. (The Burkina Faso president, an exceptionally charismatic guitar-playing young leader, was gunned down in his residence, as is the custom.)

All of this meant it was impossible to travel a mile in Niger without immaculately ordered papers, including insurance.

burkina faso coup pt one burkina faso coup pt two

This is Thomas Sankara, overthrown and killed October 15 1987. This date is very important, because Stevens speaks of the coup taking place a few days before, when he is in Niger in late November or early December: so how is it that the coup took place only days ago? These, and other details, point to the possibility, and I emphasize that it is a possibility, of fabulism. This is a serious charge, and not one I have made lightly: there are simply discrepancies in Malaria Dreams that I cannot understand or account for, detailed in my examination of strange flaws in currency and chronology in the book.

There is another possible correction, and it involves his first political campaign. Here is where it’s mentioned in Mr. Scheiber’s article:

Stevens’s political career began as a bit of a lark. In the mid-’70s, he interned in the congressional office of Thad Cochran and became friendly with Cochran’s chief of staff, Jon Hinson. When Hinson later ran for Congress, he enlisted Stevens to make his ads. Other than the internship, Stevens had little political experience to speak of.

Hinson’s winning race is in 1978. However, Night Train to Turkistan Stevens remembering his involvement in a different political campaign in 1975. The trip in Turkistan takes place in 1986, and he writes of a man accompanying him who worked with him on a gubernatorial campaign in Mississippi a decade before:

I’d met David ten years before when we both worked for the same gubernatorial candidate in Mississippi. We lost. David was quiet and very smart, with a stoic sort of love for the physical punishment of eighteen-hour campaign days in Mississippi’s 100 degree heat.

Turkistan David Governor underlined

If Stevens is interning with Thad Cochran, than I assume the candidate he works for in that year is a republican, and not his hero, democrat William Winter, defeated in the democratic primary of that same year1. If this is the case, then it puts an interesting nuance on this current election, because the democratic gubernatorial candidate, Cliff Finch, ran a campaign notable for its populist appeal2. There is additional interest in the fact that the republican opponent was Gil Carmichael, who, in 1976, would go on to support Ford over Reagan at the convention, the last menshevik victory before the bolsheviks triumphed completely3.

My supplementary observations deal with key similarities of these two men, Stevens and Romney, similarities that I think are obvious, but unnoted in this piece, one of which flows out of the correction just made. This particular shared detail is their utter opacity. With regard to the candidate, this has involved a large existential question, “Who is Mitt Romney?”, as well as small practical ones, such as, “How did he get such a huge stash in his IRA?”, and, “What’s hidden in his taxes?” That the simple detail of what the first political campaign Stevens worked on is an open question points to the veiled aspects of this consultant’s life.

In other posts, I have pointed to areas of Stevens’ life which, for a public figure, I find baffling in their mystery. I am grateful to a kindly reader who assures me that Stevens is very much married and that she has met his wife, the figure forever obscure, off-stage, and occasionally unmentioned in his books. I take the reader at their word, and consider this a private matter, though Stevens’ campaign considers many of such private matters, whether it be contraception, abortion, or same sex marriage, to be public ones. I remain, however, puzzled by his education, even more so after Mr. Scheiber’s piece. Looking again at all his statements of where he went to school, Stevens went to a college in the United States4, Oxford as an undergrad5, Oxford as a graduate6, and two film schools, one of which is UCLA7. He is eighteen going on nineteen in 1972 (birthday October 22)8. He writes in Big Enchilada of joining Hinson’s campaign in 1978, after the two film schools, and that from then on, he devoted himself entirely to his work as political consultant9. So, he goes to five schools (yes, I count Oxford undergrad and grad as separate schools) in six years. At the same time, Mr. Scheiber reports him interning for Thad Cochran, in Mississippi in the mid-seventies, and he himself says he worked on a Mississippi governor’s campaign in 1975. I am puzzled over how he’s interning in Mississippi, while going to school in California or England. For that matter, if he is working for a Mississippi gubernatorial candidate in an election during the fall of 1975, how is he going to school in a different state, or another country? There may well be a simple answer to this; but the mystery over the mundane issue of a man’s education, which should be a simple set of facts, neatly interlaced through his writings, instead suggests the same murky water of his client’s finances.

There is another quality which links both men, very much a part of this veil, and that is their protean amorphability. The collected statements of Stevens are something like a series of flipped quarters, each flip having no impact or consequence on the next. Though Lee Iacocca is compared venomously with Mao Tse Tung in Turkistan10, Stevens is deeply moved by the tears of George W. Bush in an utterly saccharine moment in Enchilada11. He makes fun of mormons in Feeding Frenzy12, and, well, look who his client is now. In 2000, his campaign to elect Bush involved tax relief for the least well-off and dealing with income inequality13. This current campaign is built around “broadening the tax base”, making sure those same people given relief then start paying more now, while providing even more tax cuts for the most well-off, such as Mitt Romney and Stuart Stevens14. Most writers are happy to mention how they predicted a particular event; his novel, Scorched Earth, ends in a tied election that most certainly anticipates the chaos of 200015. Stevens makes no mention of the novel, or its impasse, in his Bush campaign memoir, Enchilada16. A key issue in this election is health care, against which Stevens designs screechy ads for his client, who is currently against such a program as well. On the other hand, an episode of “Commander in Chief”, which he co-wrote, implies that national health insurance would be a very sound idea17. Scorched Earth stated bluntly that trying to keep PACs and campaigns from co-ordinating was like trying to keep teens from having sex18; in a 2008 interview, he declared there was no such co-ordination between PACs and the Bush campaign19. In 2009, he made fun of muslim-baiting, his current campaign happily abides it. Stevens used to defend Newt Gingrich on charges of corruption while house leader20, this past primary, he destroyed Gingrich on charges of corruption while house leader21. He sneers at fellow southerner Al Gore naming his dog Shiloh, after a battle in which the south suffered such a devastating loss, though a few years earlier, Scorched Earth, a novel he wrote, featured one of its most sympathetic characters claiming that the poor of Mississippi deserved to be so because of their state’s part in the confederacy22. The republican nominee who has abided the Huma Abedin witch hunt, and met last week with many of its most enthusiastic proponents, has a chief strategist who writes of meeting with a member of the PLO in Malaria Dreams, where this member of the PLO is described sympathetically23.

I end with one final trait of the two men, and I think it is their most fatal flaw in this election. Both seem to lack anything like basic intuition of how their actions might be perceived. The cruel humor in Stevens’ books, where he’ll, say, threaten to choke one woman with a gas hose24, or his hero will threaten to tear out the vocal cords of another25, has no sense that it might be heard by others not as everyday metaphors of annoyance, but psychotic episodes. These jokes are unfunny for the same reason that the much blander humor of his client isn’t exactly a laugh riot either, that neither of these men have much idea of basic human internals. Mitt Romney asks random people if they’re french. Stuart Stevens writes books where the joke is, over and over again, some variation on person A threatening to hit, or actually hitting, person B26. These are the methods in which these alien overlords have been instructed to ingratiate themselves with the people of earth. This blindness blends with their own hubris, as Romney appears suddenly surprised that people might actually want to know more about complex tax schemes involving Swiss accounts, and business funding from families that backed Salvadoran death squads. This same arrogance may also have blinded Stevens, who appears not to have considered the possibility that someone might actually read all of his books, in an effort to discern the men behind the curtain who elect our political leaders, and helpfully point out the details of those books of greatest awkwardness to his campaign.

Mr. Scheiber writes of the holy warriors of the internet, of which Stevens was caught so unawares, of which Mr. Scheiber may or may not include myself, and here is one more small difference with which I have with the piece. Mr. Scheiber portrays the contrast of this election and that of twelve years ago a little too much as a difference of social networks, without emphasis on a country wrecked by financial pillaging, with the best of men and women maimed or dead in two wars. The anger arising from all these wasted lives is not some petty liberal petulance, but a white hot anger of a kind Stuart Stevens has never felt, an anger at being treated as simple playpieces in the games of others. To make as clear as possible who this man is, what he has said and done in the past, so he might not shape-shift away from it again, however, isn’t jihad. It’s simple accountability.

Other pieces that look at the life and career of political consultant Stuart Stevens include “He Hates You: A Profile of Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s Meda Assassin”, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, The Big Enchilada, his memoir of working in the George W. 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, Stevens and Jon Hinson, 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.

1 William Winter is mentioned as a politician who Stevens first met as a youth, and greatly admired. Though he writes of his attempts at election, he makes no mention of helping any of these attempts.

So I fell in love with politics. Who wouldn’t? It had all the fun of combat but nobody died, or at least not very often. (No one shot Winter [Winter was at the time a segregationist, but considered insufficiently devoted to the issue, and marked for death by some extremists], but he lost, ran again and lost, and then finally was elected and turned out to be the best governor Mississippi had in fifty years.)

William Winter underlined

On Finch winning over Winter, from The Florence Times, August 27, 1975:

Finch Triumphs in Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – Attorney Cliff Finch packed a record gubernatorial victory into his campaign lunchpail today and proclaimed the Democratic runoff triumph “the American dream come true.”

Finch, who aimed a vigorous campaign at the working man, watched his margin over Lt. Gov. William Winter, the first primary leader, pass 110,000 votes, the largest margin in Mississippi political history.

2 From the Press-Courier:

Finch, a former district attorney, has campaigned by performing manual labor to demonstrate friendship with workers, using a metal lunchbox as campaign symbol. His jobs have included bulldozer operator, pulpwood cutter, shrimp boat worker, oilfield roughneck, diesel mechanic, butcher and grocery bagger.

3 From The Fredericksburg Free Lance Star:

Pressure tactics by Ford partisans are angering Mississippi Republicans

By Jonathan Wolman, Associated Press Writer

The chairman of the Mississippi Republican party, angered by the tactics of President Ford’s partisans, says their efforts to woo delegates in the state may have backfired and reduced support for Ford.

Criticizing the efforts on Ford’s behalf, Clarke Reed said Thursday that Ford may have less support in the delegation today than he did just two days ago.

Reed said pressure from Ford backers included suggestions that Ronald Reagan would settle for a vie presidential nomination.

Reagan telephoned Ford campaigner Gil Carmichael of Meridianm, Miss., on Thursday and told him to stop telling delegates that Reagan is considering a vice presidential position.

Carmichael said that in four days of heavy telephone lobbying he and other Ford supporters told delegates only that they believed a Ford-Reagan ticket was possible. But Reed said Carmichael had been telling delegates a Ford-Reagan ticket was sanctioned by Reagan.

Reagan told Carmichael that he would not consider a FordReagan ticket “under any circumstances,” according to the Mississippian.

4 From “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens, on cross country skiing:

I’d tried it once in college when an exceptionally gorgeous girl of a Nordic type suggested a trip up Pikes Peak in Colorado as something of a first date. (That sort of squeaky-clean approach was popular at that time and place, a phase I hope has passed for those still dating in Colorado.)

5 From Feeding Frenzy:

We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide. She was a few years older, an American, but she had lived in France for a while, which seemed very impressive and somehow important. It was late March and not far away there were almost nude women lying on rocks they called a beach.

oxford

6 From “My Secret Life As A Muslim” by Stuart Stevens:

From my formative years as a grad student at Oxford, where there were many Muslims, there exist photographs of me attending a lecture entitled, “The History of Islam.” I was spotted many times riding my motorcycle in the vicinity of the Mosque on Bath Road. That I was visiting a girlfriend who lived nearby may only have been a clever deep cover deception. As proof of my success as a Muslim organizer, there are now four Mosques in Oxford, where there was only one when I was a student.

7 From The Big Enchilada:

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it. I explained that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make commercials and when he protested that I had just been to two of the fanciest film schools in the country, I tried to tell him that mostly what I did was watch old films and write little essays and listen to people like Vincente Minnelli tell us how it used to be. (Minnelli wore a blazer the color of a canary yellow Post-it note. Perfect.)

film school part one film school part two

That one of the schools should be UCLA comes from its mention in an early Stevens profile, “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”:

This free-form approach reflects the philosophy of the 40-year-old Mr. Stevens. Unlike most political consultants who rose from campaign ranks, he went to film school at the University of California at Los Angeles and has published fiction.

8 From Malaria Dreams:

It was my birthday, the twenty-second of October.

birthday 22 october

From Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot, by Robert Draper, published November 30, 2011.

Stevens, a 58-year old Mississippi native (whom I have known for over a decade), is as wry, eclectic and mussed in appearance as his boss is earnest and buttoned up.

9 The excerpt on finishing film schools is at footnote 7.

That the election between John Hampton Stennis and Jon Hinson took place in 1978 can be found in the wikipedia entry for John C. Stennis, Hampton’s father.

[John C.] Stennis married Coy Hines, and together, they had two children, John Hampton and Margaret Jane. His son, John Hampton Stennis (born ca. 1935), an attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, ran unsuccessfully in 1978 for the United States House of Representatives, having been defeated by the Republican Jon C. Hinson, then the aide to U.S. Representative Thad Cochran, who ran successfully to succeed James O. Eastland for the other Mississippi seat in the U.S. Senate.

After the film schools, he becomes a media consultant:

It wasn’t as though I had a lot of offers after film school, and I had to admit it did sound like fun. So I went back to Mississippi and somehow we stumbled our way to victory in what was seen as a major upset. Then I discovered other people would pay me money to make commercials for them.

So I became a media consultant.

Why not? It’s a profession of charlatans. You want to be a media consultant, just say you’re one. To drive a cab in New York, at least you have to take a test, know how to get to Kennedy. But media consulting? No way.

became a media consultant part one underlined became a media consultant part two underlined

10 In Turkistan, Stevens speaks to a chinese man about the popularity of Iacocca’s autobiography in China.

“Can you buy Iacocca’s book in China?” [asked Stevens]

“Every day in the People’s Daily, two pages of the I-Coke-ah book is run.” [answered Lu Wei Hong]

“That’s almost the whole paper.”

“Yes. This is very important.”

Startling as the idea was, it did make a certain amount of sense that Iacocca would go over big in a country molded by Mao. The two had a lot in common: both were megalomaniacs, and both had a special knack for what might be called Succeeding Through Failure. Mao realized that he was losing his grip in 1965, so he launched the Cultural Revolution and reestablished himself as the dominant figure in China. Iacocca was fired at Ford, landed a job as head of a bankrupt company that made terrible cars, had to beg Congress for a billion dollars – all the sort of stuff that would have made any normal person embarrassed to appear in public. And yet he had the gall to strut around on national television in commercials, becoming a folk hero in the process.

Both were also fashion arbiters in their own right – Mao, the blue jackets and cap; Iacocca, the shirts with contrasting collars and cuffs. And both had been trading for years on one impressive achievement: Mao had pulled off the Long March, and Iacocca had overseen the creation of the Mustang.

iacocca

11 When shooting George W. Bush for a campaign spot:

[Mark McKinnon, a fellow consultant] started out with some general questions about growing up in Midland. We weren’t sure how we would use this, but it was familiar terrain and a way to start a conversation. Bush loved Midland and you could see his eyes soften and his whole body relax when he talked about what it was like to grow up in a place with few trees and a ton of oil wells.

They moved on to the standard issues, tax cuts and then the military. When talking about how important it was for America to be respected around the world, his tone shifted and he looked off camera for a moment and for a beat I thought he might tear up. It surprised me. What was he thinking, feeling?

“You know,” he said, “everywhere I go in America, everywhere I’ve gone on this fantastic journey so far, people walk up to me with pictures of their children and say, ‘Governor, I want my child to look at the White House and be proud of what he or she sees.’”

Then he stopped and a hint of tears did come. The room was utterly silent, with only the faint hum of the 35-millimeter film running through the camera.

In the editing room a week later, we used what he said in a spot we called “Pictures.” It was always my favorite.

george w bush in tears

12 In Feeding Frenzy:

Living in New York, I had long ago developed a psychological defense to absurd restaurant prices based on specious rationalizations along the lines of “Well, it’s cheaper than a car” or “Mormons pay this much every couple of months to feed the average family of fifteen.” It helped, sort of.

mormons joke

13 From Enchilada, George W. Bush going through the copy of a campaign ad:

He read the final line of the script. “‘I believe we ought to cut tax rates to continue economic growth and prosperity.’ We should change this. It makes it sound like all I want to do is continue what Clinton has done. We can do better than that and we ought to say it. The whole idea of the tax plan will be to eliminate taxes for people at the bottom of the spectrum.”

eliminate taxes bottom spectrum underlined

14 From ThinkProgress, “Like Romney’s Tax Plan, House Republican ‘Tax Reform’ Would Mean A Major Middle-Class Tax Increase”

A study from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center revealed yesterday, Romney’s plan would raise taxes on middle-class families with children by an average of $2,000 and raise taxes on all taxpayers with incomes under $200,000 by an average of $500. (Those estimates are conservative: In filling in missing details, TPC bent over backwards to make Romney’s plan as kind to the middle class as possible, given the hard promises he has made on tax cuts for the rich and corporations.)

A middle-class tax increase is inevitable under Romney’s plan because it’s impossible to pay for Romney’s tax cuts for the rich by reducing their tax breaks. As a result, the TPC study finds, Romney’s plan “mathematically necessitates a shift in the tax burden of at least $86 billion away from high-income taxpayers onto lower- and middle-income taxpayers.”

15 An excerpt from Scorched Earth, dealing with the possibility that clerks on the ground will steal votes:

Solomon Jawinski, even after being governor for seven years, had never been accepted by many in the local courthouse crowd – the county clerks and the supervisors – and they were the ones most likely to steal votes. The way things were these days, it was hard for them to steal big time, but they could definitely tilt an election that was less than half a percent. The courthouse crowd loved nothing more in the world than a close election. The state, like all southern states, was still under the jurisdiction of the federal Voting Rights Act, and it required Justice Department approval to strike a single name from the voting rolls. Few county clerks wanted to go to the trouble of dealing with Washington just because somebody had moved or died, so as a result there were more people on the voting rolls dead than alive. That made it very easy to steal.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

On the importance of the campaign controlling vote inspection and tallying:

Everywhere on the ground floor of the mansion, people were screaming into telephones. No fewer than ten cellular phones were in use, and every line of the mansion’s thirteen line system was lit by a manic voice intent on securing a not insignificant prize – six years in the U.S. Senate. The noise was elaborate. A desperate, loud noise:

“What do you mean those boxes are ‘okay’? We’ll decide if they’re okay or not, not some damn county clerk wanting to kiss Luke Bonney’s ass. Hell, yes, I want ‘em impounded now!”

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

The importance of making sure you’re perceived as the winner during a close election:

Charlie Song, talking into two telephones, winked at Matt. He flashed a thumbs-up, not very convincingly. He was still in a very Charlie Song suit that did not look as if he had slept in it, as Matt knew he had. If he had slept at all. Theirs would have been an all-night vigil, with lawyers rousted in the middle of night. The finest legal aides available in the state turned out of bed like a bunch of Parris Island recruits heading for a midnight march through the swamps.

A television was on in the corner, and Luke Bonney was standing before a podium expressing his supreme confidence that the recount would put him where the people of this great state clearly wanted him – in the United States Senate. Matt could just make out the faded Sun and Sand logo on the podium.

“Dream on, slime sucker!” Ruthie hissed, turning to give Matt a quick kiss on the cheek. Her eyes glowed with the heat of the hunt. “Banana republic stuff, Matt,” she whispered fiercely, “we hold on to the lead long enough, we got it. Bring out the tanks! Put those damn planes in the air!”

Matt agreed sophisticated armaments might come in handy.

Scorched Earth 031n Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

An emphasis on violence, on military power, on force, to establish that you are the true leader in a close vote:

The Solomon Jawinski postelection press conference was held on the steps of the mansion. The location had been Matt’s idea and had been chosen to project as much credible force as possible. It was the sort of thing best done while standing on top of a tank surrounding by a whole bunch of ferocious-looking guys with nasty weapons. The message was clear: I am mean. I am strong. Do not mess with me, or you shall die.

Instead of tanks, Jawinski had to settle for the somewhat imposing white columns of the mansion and in place of armed men, civility dictated he rely on a bunch of tired-looking lawyers. It suffered in the translation, but Solomon Jawinski seemed delighted by the world. Matt couldn’t remember seeing him this happy.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

16 The section of Enchilada dealing with the recount is a small part of the book, going from page 280 to 298. Nothing of Scorched Earth is ever mentioned, here, or at any part of the book. Two fragments covey an idea of the tone of those twenty pages, one of helplessness and ennui.

We though it would all be over in a matter of days. There would be a machine recount of all the ballots, our lead would expand or stay about the same and Gore would accept defeat and concede graciously. Had anybody suggested that this thing would go on for another thirty-five days, we would have laughed hysterically, then probably thrown the person out of the window. Thirty-five days for a simple recount? No way.

But for the next thirty-five days, I would wake up every morning to the growing realization that whether we won or lost, the race for the presidency was going to have little to do with anything we did in Austin that day. For all our posturing in front of the television cameras, this was now an election that would be decided in the courtroom by lawyers. They were the soldiers now and I was just another well-intentioned civilian.

beginning of recount underlined

17 The episode focuses on a soldier whose wife is very sick, and lacking the insurance to pay for her medication, he threatens to blow up Air Force One in an attempt to get her the help she needs. His wife can’t get the insurance she needs because of her pre-existing condition. A script excerpt; HENDRICKS is the soldier’s doctor, ALLEN is the president, GARDNER the vice-president.

HENDRICKS
A tank backed into him.

ALLEN
A tank?

HENDRICKS
Damaged his left leg. But he worked like hell in therapy and did all the right things.

GARDNER
He improved, so he was reclassifed as only 30 percent disabled.

HENDRICKS
Which dropped him out of priority one coverage and he lost his insurance.

ROD CALLOWAY [The president's husband]
Doesn’t his current job come with health insurance?

ALLEN
For him. But not his wife because of her pre-existing condition.

Though the president will not negotiate with this man, she is sympathetic to his plight, and concedes that the fact that he lacks insurance is an issue of the federal government not serving him well.

ALLEN
Mr. Terzano, you have not served your country very well today. But there is reason to believe…that you have not been well-served by your country, either. If your country is at fault I promise to take the necessary steps…

The episode ends with the medication for the soldier’s wife paid for through donations from others throughout the country. Is this not something like insurance? A full examination of the episode is here.

18 A front group PAC is set up to help elect the protaganist’s candidate. Farkas is a member of the campaign, Byron Timmons heads the ostensibly independent PAC. The narrator brings up the obvious issue that it’s illegal for there to be any co-ordination between the PAC and the campaign, and the fact that such co-ordination is inevitable.

“Can Farkas be traced?” Matt asked, ignoring her and trying to focus. “Will anyone prove he was involved with Byron?”

“No,” Charlie answered, though he wasn’t really sure of this at all. It was what he had spent the afternoon trying to decide. Some people knew that Farkas was a friend of Byron Timmons’s [sic], but that couldn’t be called a crime, though by all rights it should have been.

The question at hand involved a violation of FEC – Federal Election Commission – law. It was illegal for there to be any contact or coordination between an independent group like Citizens for Good Government and a federal campaign. This was because the independent groups were exempt from the fund-raising limitations and reporting requirements imposed on congressional and senatorial campaigns. Nine times out of ten, however, this was a sham. It was like trying to keep teenagers from having sex. The very notion of stopping two groups with the same goal from trading information and plotting together sub rosa was preposterous.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

19 Originally, this interview appeared on the site Buying of the President, which appears to be off-line at the moment. A copy of the relevant text is below, with the most important parts bolded; screenshots of the page itself, with this relevant fragment are listed afterwards.

How do you feel about both the independent-expenditure committees and 527s, in terms of losing control of your own campaign?

I hate it.

Talk a little about that.

Like the Swift Boats. I remember when the whole Swift Boat thing, everybody in the [George W.] Bush world was furious, and sort of stunned. People don’t believe this, but it’s true.

So it’s not enough to be able to say, “Hey, that wasn’t ours, and we had nothing to do with it — we didn’t talk to anybody.” You are getting nailed with it anyway? Is that the problem?

Oh, yeah. People do nail you with it. And most of the time they screw it up, in the sense that they don’t do what you want to do. And I remember in the Swift Boat thing, I had been working on this ad, just kind of noodling on my own, where it was very straightforward. “John Kerry came back from Vietnam and he said this.” And then I had just a clip of it. It said, “What do you think?” That was it. And then the Swift Boat people came in.

But it didn’t go after the element of his service in Vietnam?

No. And they entered the argument on the medals issue, which I always felt was the worst way to argue that. Like should he have gotten two medals instead of three? It’s just insane. And so I felt that by entering the argument at that point, they had discredited the argument. And the one thing you could say about someone like Karl [Rove], Karl likes to control things. Not in a bad way, but in a “we don’t like stuff just to happen.” And all of us, I think, were like, “What?” I certainly didn’t know anything. I don’t think anybody knew anything about it. It’s just kind of you wake up one morning, and it’s like, “What?” I remember the phone ringing, one of the 6 a.m. phone calls, you know whatever it’s going to be it’s not going to be good. It’s like, “Have you seen this?” And so, I mean, people say the Swift Boat thing hurt Kerry. Maybe. Maybe the way they handled it hurt him. But I thought the “Ashley” ad that was done mainly in Ohio by the 527s, you see that where Bush is embracing this girl whose mother had died in 9/11. He did the Willie Horton ads, Larry [McCarthy]; he did it. I thought it was a very good ad, fabulous ad.

buying of the president part one buying of the president part two

20 A transcript of Stevens defending Gingrich at the time on “Charlie Rose”. The page also features a link to the episode.

21 The ad “History Lesson”:

22 From Enchilada:

As a Mississippian, I was mildly amused that the dog’s name was Shiloh; what kind of Southerner named his dog after a battle which turned into a Southern slaughter? It would be like a German naming a dog Stalingrad. Maybe a focus group had liked it.

Shiloh underlined

From Scorched Earth, governor Solomon Jawinski during an interview, on the problem with germans and the people of Mississippi:

“They still have this horrible sense of thwarted destiny. Lookit,” he took off his glasses and rubbed the dark circles surrounding his eyes like bruises, “one hundred years ago, this was the richest part of the country. Man, we were rich rich rich. But then we went and did a stupid violent thing called secession. In five years we became the poorest part of the country, and one hundred years later, it’s still that way. And maybe that’s not so bad.”

“It’s good to be poor?” Dawn looked genuinely shocked.

“It’s good to have some kind of reminder of what happens when people do something horrible – like rebellion.”

poor of Mississippi underlined

23 From Malaria Dreams, the entrance of Habib, the palestinian:

Habib woke me up. “Can I help you?” he asked politely, like a steward on a cruise ship at teatime. He was a portly fellow wearing a tweed jacket and rep tie with a scarf thrown over his neck. His accent was English, his manner that of an amiable Oxford don.

Habib was a Palestinian, a teacher by profession, forced to Algeria with his family after 1948. With little prompting, he launched into an astoundingly intricate analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. At regular intervals he interrupted the erudite lecture to grasp my arm, encrusted with a grimy layer of oil and sand, imploring, “You see? You must help us?”

Eventually I realized that he meant the United States government, rather than myself. I nodded vaguely, trying to come up with words befitting my new dipomatic status.

habib palestinian resolution 242

A man who, it turns out, is a member of the PLO:

“It was a very smart hiding place,” Cheik-ben said thoughtfully. I must remember it the next time I go to France.”

“But why would you take a tent to France?” Habib, the scholar asked. “The hotels in France are excellent. After the 1986 PLO council meeting in Tangiers, the old man and I traveled to Saint-Tropez.”

new council meeting

24 From Feeding Frenzy:

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

“We could stop and siphon out the old gas and put in new.”

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

“A hose would probably be best, don’t you think?”

I thought about killing her, maybe with a hose wrapped around her neck.

choking rachel

25 From Scorched Earth, the hero political consultant, Matt Bonney, talks to two women.

“Look, let’s face it,” Ruthie said, “My sister on television is strictly a T and A kind of thing regardless of what she is doing. She’s a T and A kind of girl.”

“Oh,” Lisa said, “unlike being an anchorwoman like my sister. T and A has nothing to do with that, of course not. That’s strictly a matter of superior intellect. That’s why they hired Dawn. I mean, she’s just talking about plastic surgery now because it will make her smarter.”

Dawn! Matt’s vision went a little blurry around the edges.

“Plastic surgery?” Ruthie giggled. “She is not.”

Lisa laughed, and Ruthie turned to Matt. “Dawn doesn’t need any surgery, does she?” Ruthie asked. “Neck, eyes, cheeks?”

Matt wanted to reach across the table and bite her vocal cords right out of her throat.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Matt Bonney, in conversation with one of the women again:

Ruthie suddenly smiled. It was a huge smile that lit up her entire face. “We’re going to win,” she murmured, almost breathlessly. “This will do it for sure. Luke is finished!” She thought for a moment. “We ought to still do that spot you came up with, the one with Luke on vacation with those lobbyist sleazebags. Have you been able to get that tape yet?”

Her Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and Matt thought very hard for an instant about biting it and ripping it from her throat with his teeth.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

26 Matt Bonney, hero political consultant, versus pollster Walter Farkas in Scorched Earth:

Walter Farkas was standing there gawking when Matt hit him in the stomach. Tired as he was, Matt’s punch was not particularly powerful, but it was close enough to bump Farkas into Lionel, who was just entering the kitchen door behind Farkas with a tray full of plates. Flailing about for a handhold, Lionel grabbed hold of Farkas’s shirt. For a moment, the two hung together in some perfect symmetry before all those good pompano dinners Lionel had consumed over the years edged his center balance toward the floor, and together, linked like an awkward train, the two of them cascaded backward through the door into the restaurant. The tray full of dishes followed closely thereafter, its astounding crash serving as period to Farkas’ strangled cry: “Crackers! All crackers!”

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Matt Bonney, hero political consultant, versus his brother.

Luke shrugged, and Matt thought he looked incredibly smug for a fellow who had just been accused of waking up next to transvestites. Matt thought about this for a bit, then he stood up and, almost as an afterthought, hit his brother very hard right in his nose.

“Right,” Matt repeated when Luke fell, sputtering to the floor, blood exploding all over his gray pinstripes and Ruthie’s Oriental rug.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Stuart Stevens runs into an old woman in Belgium when his car has car troubles.

“Can you recommend a hotel?” I asked an elderly woman walking her tiny Pekingese pup.

“You have a problem,” she said.

Immediately I felt like strangling the woman. A problem? A problem? Just because I’m riding around in a car with no brakes in a city with man-eating tunnels and I’ve got a dog on the back seat who is just dying to eat your silly little dog and, besides, I’m about to be late for dinner at Comme Chez Soi, you think I’ve got a problem? PROBLEM?!

maybe it would kill some germans

Stuart Stevens in Feeding Frenzy, dealing with an acquaintance after car problems:

Through a rising cloud of thick smoke, I pulled the car over, crushing a long line of the wildflowers I’d been admiring.

“Where’s your fire extinguisher?” Carl demanded, reverting to his years of military training.

“I don’t have a damn fire extinguisher,” I shot back. “Who carries a fire extinguisher, for cryin’ out loud?”

“People who don’t want their old Mustangs to burn,” Carl said.

If I’d had a fire extinguisher, I would have definitely used it to slide the nozzle down his throat. Then a little squeeze of the handle…It was a delicious notion.

From “Let’s All Chill”, an article for Outside magazine, about an arctic journey.

No matter how many gloves I put on, or what kind, they would not stay warm. By the second night on the ice, my fingers had started to blister.

“How did this happen?” I asked Børge, staring at them.

“You are in the Arctic,” he shrugged.

“Børge,” I sighed. “I think I’m going to kill you.”

Tony, an englishman, in Feeding Frenzy.

I’d met Tony through politics, when he had wanted to cover a “real American campaign” and had talked me into letting him report on a race I was working on in South Dakota. My misguided effort to be helpful resulted in four long days of Tony at my side murmuring, “The vastness, oh, the vastness,” every few minutes. He actually wore a Savile Row bespoke suit; I’m not making this up, he really did. And brand-new cowboy boots fashioned from the skin of some unidentified endangered species. He also wore bow ties and was fond of quoting Kevin Costner from Dances with Wolves. We spent four days in South Dakota, and had we spent a fifth, I’m confident he would have been sent back to Brighton in a box, disemboweled by some disgruntled South Dakotan who couldn’t take another word from this bow-tied, Savile-suit-wearing dandy in iridescent cowboy boots.

south dakota man

From “Brains, Know How, and Native Intelligence”, a “Northern Exposure” episode written by Stevens:

Northern Exposure

Tagged , , , , , , ,

He Hates You: A Profile Of Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s Media Assassin

The final part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, The Big Enchilada, his memoir of working in the George W. 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, Stevens and Jon Hinson, 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.

(Supporting quotes are placed in the footnotes, to make for easier readability.)

This is an attempt at a summary of what I’ve learned in reading the books of Stuart Stevens, one of Mitt Romney’s top strategists in this election (Stevens began as Romney’s chief strategist; whether he still holds the same title or whether the title holds the same meaning is a question I leave to other Mittologists): he supervises many aspects of the campaign, and is most heavily involved in their ad creation. The profile sketched in Draper’s “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” and Parker’s “An Unconventional Strategist” is of an almost bohemian figure, a cutthroat tactician, but also a sharp dresser, an accomplished athlete, a gourmet, a man who has written travel books and television screenplays. The image given is of a man who is a successful participant in this blood-sport, but also beyond it, a man congenial to us, lacking the stodgy and visor shaded thinking of the typical politico’s analysts and legbreakers.

The impression that I formed from his books is entirely different: that this is a highly intelligent, very well-read man whose work is unimpeded by any kindred feeling for any man or woman outside himself. It is not just that he is often bileful, but that he seems to lack any compass of how this bile is perceived by others. He does seem to dislike, if not despise, almost everyone: the irish can’t govern themselves1, the belgians are pretentious cowards2, the english have too many teeth and too much fat3, and he really, really hates the germans4. The south is full of people who are annoyingly, incessantly sweet5. He fantasizes about strangling a woman with a gas hose6. The political consultant hero of his novel, Scorched Earth, imagines himself tearing out a woman’s vocal cords with his teeth7. The governor of that same novel, easily one of its most sympathetic characters, declares that the people of Mississippi deserve their lasting poverty for taking part in the confederacy8. In the same scene, this most sympathetic character calls the japanese a racist, narrow minded people. Stevens compares capitalist icon Lee Iacocca to the genocidal Mao Tse-Tung9. The cause of polish solidarity, which Mitt Romney will celebrate this week, stirred the hearts of many – not me, sniffs Stevens10. Those who feel guilt about making fun of Romney’s faith may take some comfort: Stuart Stevens has joked about mormons as well11.

Stevens describes his own early violent desires as seemingly like those of an emerging psychopath12, and I think this is truer than he might realize. The very qualities, however, that limit him as a writer are a perfect fit for this profession of political consultant, which is attack, attack, attack, the only meaning to the process in the attack itself, the object of the attack or the underlying idea of the attack of no consequence.

For this is the other revelation of these books, that this long-time republican consultant seems to have no ideology whatsoever. Neither his Bush campaign memoir, The Big Enchilada, nor his novel about a Mississippi senatorial race, Scorched Earth contain any political ideas he is in favor or against, these books being entirely about process, the effects necessary for a convention speech, or the methods to destroy an opponent. In 1995, Stevens passionately defended the conduct of Newt Gingrich, and this past primary season he helped end his career13. This should only be surprising if one expects any political convictions or ideals from such a man. If anything, he has the markers of the urban progressive, reviled so often by the right as the enemy of the nation. He considers Calvin Trillin one of his heroes, he makes various noises that Reagan was an absurd choice for president14, and that Reagan’s appointees were idiots15. He prefers living in New York City to anywhere else16, and he believes in quality, organic food17, just as Michelle Obama does.

Elections, since they have nothing to do with ideas for this man, appear to be only exercises in contempt, contempt for the opponent, but also the voter. He makes clear in Enchilada that he does not expect any politician to keep their promises18, in his novel Scorched the consultant and a reporter commiserate on how indifferent they are to the poor of Mississippi19, this same consultant dislikes any contact with voters20, this same consultant makes gleeful fun of various idiot proto-Tea Party candidates21, this same consultant doesn’t care what happens after the election22. The results of a senatorial election of Scorched are over-ridden so that a segregationist governor might be given the post23: this man, by the way, is easily the most sympathetic character of the book24. The only other purpose elections have for Stevens is as a source of wealth. Like his current candidate, he has so much money that he no longer has a sense of those who have little or none. He spends his days in Feeding Frenzy eating in expensive restaurants and working out25. He then goes, without any need to save anything, on a thirty day trip to Europe where he gorges on multi-course meals26.

There is another possible characteristic shown in these books that might make Stevens especially suited for political work. It is hinted at in Parker’s “Unconventional Strategist”, when fellow consultant Mike Murphy describes him as “a slippery character”. Reading his various books and articles, it appears that he attended five schools in six years; he is eighteen in 1972, and in 1978 starts work on his first congressional campaign. There is a college in the United States27, then he’s an Oxford undergrad28, an Oxford graduate29, then attending two of the best film schools in the United States30, one of them being UCLA31. I assume he received a degree as an Oxford undergrad in order to attend Oxford graduate school, and he states that he received a degree at one of his film schools; an extraordinary achievement in six years, yet one which he is strangely modest about. Oxford is never mentioned in an early profile which cites his attendance at UCLA32, Oxford is never mentioned on any of the books’ author profiles, though publishers are annoyingly insistent on putting such credentials there33, Oxford is not mentioned in Enchilada though the film schools are34. These omissions are not just restricted to Stevens: though he has written and produced for television, UCLA does not name him among their alumni35.

This characteristic may also involve a wife. This marriage, at this point, has lasted almost thirty years. She arrives to meet him, but remains forever off-screen in his book Malaria Dreams36. She is mentioned, but never actually appears, in Enchilada; by the end of the book, Stevens appears to have forgotten that he’s married37. The wife goes unmentioned in his tour of China, Night Train To Turkistan. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens tours Europe with a beautiful former model on their way to meet her fiancé and a wife is never mentioned. When he promotes the book on “Charlie Rose”, Rose mentions that he’s married, then makes vicious fun of his traveling through Europe with a model instead of his wedded companion38. He writes of a pre-consulting career, teaching rugby in Switzerland at the same school where his wife taught: but he appears to have already begun his consulting work long before this39. He has written five books, but does not appear to have dedicated a single one to his wife40. Another small idiosyncrasy: he was a guest on eight episodes of “Charlie Rose” over ten years, but never wore a wedding ring41. I leave the deductions to others, but believe the case of Jon Hinson might carry some insight42. I do not like venturing into such territory, and I have made my defenses elsewhere.

This same trait may well be on display in one of his travel memoirs. What may, may, be fabulism makes Malaria Dreams his most interesting book. It is a trip taken by him, accompanied again by a beautiful woman, from the Central African Republic to Algeria. He is enlisted in this trip by a friend who is a diamond smuggler, and the purpose of the trip is to transport a vehicle, most likely loaded with diamonds, from the C.A.R., up Africa, through the Sahara, back to Europe43. There are a number of details which make you question whether this trip takes place as described, beyond the unbelievability of a man driving through the Sahara, on his own, with no previous experience in this whatever, with a companion equally inexperienced. He arrives in the C.A.R. in early October of that year, mentions getting travel papers beforehand in London, where they had the worst storm of the century, placing him in England on October 16th and 17th. So, in mid-October, he is somehow in both Africa and London at once44. He goes to Cameroon in November, and witneses a Unification Day celebration, which traditionally takes place on October 1st45. He travels through Chad, and writes of the on-going war with Libya, though a ceasefire had been effect since September46. He goes to Burkina Faso in late November or early December, where he writes of seeing the military on high alert because of a coup that took place days earlier. This coup did take place, but in mid-October47. The U.S. dollar was collapsing in value versus the french franc, but his rate of exchange stays the same throughout, a rate of exchange that seems to have no parallel with what the dollar was trading for at any point around that time48. He later remembers a part of the trip in Feeding Frenzy, catching a fish in the river Niger that cannot be found there, from a fish family that cannot be found in Africa, but can be found in his native Mississippi49. He travels through the Sahara, and arrives at Adrar, an incredibly hot place, with a summer heat in December. After the heat of the desert, and the heat of this town, he waits by lying on the hood of his vehicle, without suffering any burns at all, or even taking note of the hot metal50. During the trip, he reads The Conquest of the Sahara, which features a man, Cheik-Ben Bou Djemaa, a double agent who led a group of french forces to their doom. When Stevens is in Adrar, he meets a man with this very same name, with the writer without comment of whether it is a pseudonym, coincidence, ironic joke, or what: is the name invented, or the entire character?51

The book’s possible inventioning has an interesting relevance given the current witch-hunt against Huma Abedin, backed by Romney adviser John Bolton52. For this book, which begins with the writer enlisted in a diamond smuggling enterprise, continues on through episodes that appear to have false qualities, ends with the writer smuggling money into Algeria53 and with him meeting a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, at the time still on the U.S. watchlist of terrorist groups. The man is treated sympathetically, and is entirely innocuous54. It does, however, further raise the question of what elements are true and false in this account. I do not think there is any sinister secret hidden here, but I do wonder: how temperate do you think the Romney campaign would be if their opponent, or a target that might garner them a few votes, had written such a book? Because I think a book which begins with a diamond smuggling scheme, ends with a meeting with a PLO member, carries events that appear to be fabrications, written by a man whose education appears slightly ersatz, could most certainly be constructed into something sinister by a malicious soul: a man who oversaw a smuggled diamond sale, then brought the money into Algeria for the PLO, with this book written as a handy cover for his activities. Do I think this is what took place? Absolutely not. I cannot guess what the true events of this book are, but I don’t think this ridiculous episode is the heart of any terror network. In doing so, I’ve been more merciful, more restrained than John Bolton in the campaign against Abedin, more so that Matt Drudge or the various Breitbart sites in publishing every possible rumor about the president, from his birth certificate to the possibility he was a CIA agent55.

Were all these goons, dunces, and wastrels so concerned with national security that they find meaning in every scrap or whisper, they no doubt would demand an investigative look into the trip of this Romney adviser, that began with diamond smuggling and ended with a meeting with someone in the PLO. No doubt if it were a democratic candidate, or one of their aides, they would call for such a persecution. But these games have nothing to do with security, it is entirely about political advantage, tossing a life to the rabid mob for petty gain. It is a game Stuart Stevens knows very well, plays very well, and we allow him to play it. He is not the first cause of our dysfunctional politics, only a bileful creature who has found a very friendly ecosystem. Stuart Stevens elects candidates, apparently indifferent to whatever comes after, whatever the devastating effects for the rest of us. These posts might serve as a reminder that elections have consequences, even for him.

Simone Weil, in “The Iliad, or The Poem of Foce”, writes of the way force transforms a man into a thing: “He is alive; he has a soul; and yet – he is a thing.”56 It is this which takes place in an election, between opponents, you reduce them to a thing, and the tactician who sees man as only things has an advantage over the rest of us. Turning a man into a thing is what I’ve done in these posts, and any pleasure I might take would only be the same sordid joy Stuart Stevens takes in his work.

1 From The Big Enchilada, on trying to find music for the Republican National Convention:

Nobody had actually asked Elton John (who probably hated Republicans more than he hated growing old) or U2 (who, despite the fact they come from a country that can’t govern itself, seemed to have quite a few opinions on how to perfect the world) whether they would love nothing more than to perform in front of a few thousand Republican yahoos in Philadelphia for free. These conference calls were like talking to people on hallucinogenic drugs, only they didn’t realize they were on drugs.

ungovernable ireland

2 From Feeding Frenzy:

Brussels is a place that likes to take itself seriously. It’s a culture based on international trade and diplomacy, endeavors that make a virtue of blandness and neutrality. It’s probably a preview of how all of Europe will end up if this crazed rush to European unity continues: big bland cities without cultural distinction. The Belgians pretend to love all of this and actually act as if it’s important that they are the home of the E.U. – the European Union.

It probably makes sense that the Belgians have embraced with great fervor the concept of eradicating national distinctions, since they have never been very good at establishing a national distinction in the first place. A country for only a little over 150 years, they’ve tried to cobble together a national identity from bits of France and Holland, never with great success.

Having been twice conquered in their brief history tends to focus a nation on unoffensive tasks, like making money. The Swiss have done this deliberately and have at least managed to preserve some national dignity with the notion that they are in control of their own destiny, intentionally neutral, backed by a civilian army of great, if untested, repute.

It’s clear the Belgians never should have tried to be important. When your own king – Leopold II – sums up the national character as “Petit pays, petit gens” (“Small country, small people”), this is hardly a call to national greatness. Perhaps out of boredom, Leopold tried to convince his country that they should play a role on the world stage, and certain delusions of grandeur were inevitable. But a colony or two can not obliterate a national culture, so when the Germans set up field kitchens in the Grand Palai in the central square of Brussels – as they’ve done twice so far this century – the Belgians reverted to form and did not take to their modest forests with pledges of eternal struggle. Yes, there were heroes and, even more prominently, heroines, like Gabrielle Petit, but these were no mujahideen. They mostly decided to act as if they just didn’t care and called it passive resistance, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

belgium hatred part one brussels passive resistance

On the difficult to navigate tunnels of Brussels:

As some sort of man-made anti-invasion defense, the tunnels would have worked ingeniously – sinister, hideous diversions intended to swallow whole tank divisions and spit them up miles from their intended destination…Of course, that presumed the Belgians must actually have been willing to fight instead of rolling over and playing dead – a trait they have seldom evidenced this century.

belgians rolling over and surrendering

3 A crowd in an english restaurant:

The crowd was Typical English Country – which is to say, a mostly unattractive bunch with too many teeth and a consistently thick subcutaneous layer of fat that wasn’t going to be decreasing by the evening’s end. But this was a little world that had been designed to hold these people, and just as a basically disagreeable piece of furniture can look inviting if surrounded by complementary pieces, the clientele seemed perfectly appropriate.

english country crowd part one english country crowd part two

4 He encounters a german family during his European trip in Feeding Frenzy:

[He] was German. They were all German. Which was very troubling when I quickly realized what a likable, genuinely friendly person he was. It always troubles me when I come across Germans I like. It makes maintaining my rabid anti-German fervor all the more difficult, which, naturally, I resent terribly.

but they were germans

A three-star restaurant in Germany:

Life is an ironic business. Why else would it be that my faith in three-star greatness would be revitalized in Germany. Germany? I’m not making this up.

You see there’s a three-star that lurks just over the border from Strasbourg in the Black Forest. “The sport hotel and health clinic Traube-Tonach…which is internationally renowned.” That`s how their charming propaganda read. It was the “internationally renowned” that I liked. Ah yes, internationally renowned. But what? The hotel? The Black Forest? And more importantly, renowned for what?

This is Germany after all.

They have problems with their Mustang.

We had gone about a kilometer down the road when cars behind us started honking their horns. This, naturally I ignored. If there was something about my driving that was troubling to some BMW-driving German in a hurry to get to their bunker in the Black Forest, this was not a bad thing.

germany

His companion, Rachel Kelly, proposes abandoning the Mustang, and going with a rental.

“And leave the Mustang! Just like that?” [says Stevens]

“Yes. With any luck at all, some German will steal it and be driven mad with frustration.”

She knew I disliked Germans. The idea did have some appeal.

A few cars, not many, had passed us without stopping.

“A German wouldn’t know the brakes were bad. They might get in and drive away and plow right into a tree.” This enjoyable scenario began to unfold in my head.

“Or maybe a big tanker truck. Lots of flames.”

“But that would snuff the truck driver too,” I cautioned.

“He would be German as well.”

“Ahhh…” It was a delightful notion.

maybe it would kill some germans

Stevens puts unleaded fuel into the car on a trip through Europe, causing it to spout a toxic gas. He and his companion, Rachel Kelly, discuss what they can do next:

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

“We could stop and siphon out the old gas and put in new.”

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

“A hose would probably be best, don’t you think?”

I thought about killing her, maybe with a hose wrapped around her neck.

“Just a thought,” she added, when she saw my look.

We were driving up a long incline, heading into steep hills.

Suddenly I started to laugh.

“Yes?” Rat asked.

An insane image had crowded into my brain, that here we were plunging into Germany and were actively going about the business of gassing Germans! I giggled maniacally and tried to nurse the very sick Mustang over the foothills of the western Black Forest.

“Tell me!” Rat demanded, laughing. “Tell me!”

gassing germans

5 A restaurant owner:

The proprietor was a woman somewhere in her forties or fifties; she had the stylishness of the French that masked her age well…It was a manner that reminded me of certain Southerners, without the sugary, over-the-top, incessantly cheerful quality that could make Southerners so annoying.

southerners

6 He and his companion, Rachel Kelly, when they have car problems.

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

“We could stop and siphon out the old gas and put in new.”

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

“A hose would probably be best, don’t you think?”

I thought about killing her, maybe with a hose wrapped around her neck.

choking rachel

7 The consultant, Matt Bonney, talks to two women.

“Look, let’s face it,” Ruthie said, “My sister on television is strictly a T and A kind of thing regardless of what she is doing. She’s a T and A kind of girl.”

“Oh,” Lisa said, “unlike being an anchorwoman like my sister. T and A has nothing to do with that, of course not. That’s strictly a matter of superior intellect. That’s why they hired Dawn. I mean, she’s just talking about plastic surgery now because it will make her smarter.”

Dawn! Matt’s vision went a little blurry around the edges.

“Plastic surgery?” Ruthie giggled. “She is not.”

Lisa laughed, and Ruthie turned to Matt. “Dawn doesn’t need any surgery, does she?” Ruthie asked. “Neck, eyes, cheeks?”

Matt wanted to reach across the table and bite her vocal cords right out of her throat.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Matt Bonney, in conversation with one of the women again:

Ruthie suddenly smiled. It was a huge smile that lit up her entire face. “We’re going to win,” she murmured, almost breathlessly. “This will do it for sure. Luke is finished!” She thought for a moment. “We ought to still do that spot you came up with, the one with Luke on vacation with those lobbyist sleazebags. Have you been able to get that tape yet?”

Her Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and Matt thought very hard for an instant about biting it and ripping it from her throat with his teeth.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

8 Solomon Jawinski, the sympathetic governor, during an interview:

“Everybody worries about the Japanese, and, to be sure, they’re terrible people-”

“They are?”

“Of course! Look we might think of them now as smiling, camera toting technocrats, but let’s don’t forget, not too long ago they were a nation of sun-worshipping lunatics trying desperately to take over the world. They’re racist, narrow-minded people.” He shrugged. “We just don’t have the same values.”

“But the Japanese don’t worry you?”

“Not really. When it comes down to it, they’d rather be rich than powerful. But the Germans-”

“They’re worse?”

“Ab-so-lutely!” Down came the hand, up went the cigarette. “They still have this horrible sense of thwarted destiny. Lookit,” he took off his glasses and rubbed the dark circles surrounding his eyes like bruises, “one hundred years ago, this was the richest part of the country. Man, we were rich, rich, rich. But then we went and did a stupid, violent thing called secession. In five years we became the poorest part of the country, and one hundred years later, it’s still that way. And maybe that’s not so bad.

“It’s good to be poor?” Dawn looked genuinely shocked.

It’s good to have some kind of reminder of what happens when people do something horrible – like rebellion. The Germans, all those damn cars, the money – amnesia!” Slap! Jawinski’s big hand crashed down on his knee. “Amnesia! That’s where being rich like that does to you! Losing the war made us better people! Don’t you get it?”

“We’re gonna miss that man,” [TV station manager] Tom Riddell said gravely. “When you got a man crazy enough to actually speak his mind, it’s a real crime to let him go.”

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

9 Stevens speaking to a chinese man about the popularity of Iacocca’s autobiography in China.

“Can you buy Iacocca’s book in China?” [asked Stevens]

“Every day in the People’s Daily, two pages of the I-Coke-ah book is run.” [answered Lu Wei Hong]

“That’s almost the whole paper.”

“Yes. This is very important.”

Startling as the idea was, it did make a certain amount of sense that Iacocca would go over big in a country molded by Mao. The two had a lot in common: both were megalomaniacs, and both had a special knack for what might be called Succeeding Through Failure. Mao realized that he was losing his grip in 1965, so he launched the Cultural Revolution and reestablished himself as the dominant figure in China. Iacocca was fired at Ford, landed a job as head of a bankrupt company that made terrible cars, had to beg Congress for a billion dollars – all the sort of stuff that would have made any normal person embarrassed to appear in public. And yet he had the gall to strut around on national television in commercials, becoming a folk hero in the process.

Both were also fashion arbiters in their own right – Mao, the blue jackets and cap; Iacocca, the shirts with contrasting collars and cuffs. And both had been trading for years on one impressive achievement: Mao had pulled off the Long March, and Iacocca had overseen the creation of the Mustang.

iacocca

10 In Malaria Dreams, while waiting for spare parts to repair their car:

So we waited until help arrived, and from a most unlikely source: Polish auto smugglers.

“We sell cars and give the money to Solidarity!” the couple boasted to Ann and me, expecting all Americans to have a soft spot for Lech Walesa and company.

polish solidarity

11 In Feeding Frenzy:

Living in New York, I had long ago developed a psychological defense to absurd restaurant prices based on specious rationalizations along the lines of “Well, it’s cheaper than a car” or “Mormons pay this much every couple of months to feed the average family of fifteen.” It helped, sort of.

mormons joke

12 From “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse”, by Stuart Stevens:

So I played football and rugby, boxed and wrestled, none of it particularly well. I tried basketball but always got into fights, mostly as a way to cover for the fact that I never could master that dribbling thing. This all works well enough through high school and college, but at a certain point you look up and the options for participating in sports as a socially accepted way to commit pleasurable acts of violence have narrowed. When most peers are focused on building a career and starting a family, it becomes problematic to admit that what you most enjoy in life is lining up and knocking the snot out of somebody, or vice versa. What once made you seem fun-loving and enthusiastic – so well-rounded! – now begins to paint a darker portrait of an emerging psychopath with serious developmental issues. You’re not just the aging lifeguard whose friends have all left the beach – you’re the aging lifeguard with a little serial killer practice on the side.

13 A transcript of this episode of “Charlie Rose” can be found here.

14 From Turkistan, when a chinese man invites Stevens and his traveling companion, Mark Salzman, to his family home:

“We would all have to come feast with my family in Korla,” Ali declared. “We celebrate Ark [the way Ali pronounces Mark Salzman`s first name] as the next President of the United States!”

President?

“They think I look like an actor,” Mark explained. “And since Reagan is an actor and an American they figure I should be President too.”

I remember thinking that there was something disturbing about the amount of sense that made.

reagan as president pt1 reagan as president pt2

15 In Malaria, meeting the U.S. ambassador to the Central African Republic.

The American ambassador. Our meeting had been unsettling. Not that he wasn’t pleasant or forthcoming; in truth he’d proven a delightful, intriguing man, a Foreign Service pro (as opposed to a Reagan appointee dunce) with twenty years in Africa.

reagan dunce

16 Rat is Rachel Kelly, his travelling companion through Europe in Frenzy:

These are people who have given up pretending that food hasn’t taken an inordinate place in their lives or that they aren’t hopeless snobs when it comes to restaurants.

People like Rat and me, in other words. Which was probably the main reason we found it hard not to live in New York.

polish solidarity

17 In Frenzy, discussing the poor quality of food in the contemporary U.S.:

In America, there seem to be two competing forces. First, there is the negative pull of mass-produced food tugging everything down to a tasteless mediocrity. Waverly Root and Richard De Rochemont sum it up this way in Eating in America:

“Were it possible to envisage in one great glob the totality of what is now eaten in a single day by our fellow-citizens, whether at home, in institutions, in fast-food joints or in expensive restaurants, and to judge it in the light of what the country has produced in the past, and what it might produce again, the word ‘garbage’ would rise inevitably to mind and gorge.”

John and Karen Hess, in their brilliant attack on American food, The Taste of America lay much of the blame on the rise of mechanized farming and the spread of huge agricultural corporations:

The taste of the seasons is gone; it has been replaced by “carrying quality.” More and more of the produce grown in those far-off factories of the soil is harvested by machine. It is bred for rough handling, which it gets. A chemical is sprayed on trees to force all the fruit to “ripen” – that is, change color – at once, in time for a monster harvester to strike the tree and catch the fruit in its canvas maw.

polish solidarity

18 On first joining the George W. Bush campaign:

As I settled into the Bush world, I was astonished to realize that there was an assumption throughout the campaign that the policy would actually be used to govern once Bush was elected. This struck me as highly admirable and terribly unnecessary. For a while I tried to point out to Josh and his crew that once a candidate was elected nobody really expected that campaign policy proposals would be used to govern any more than promises made in a courtship were expected to be the guiding principles of a marriage when suddenly both partners are working and kids are running around the house.

candidates keep their promises part one underlin candidates keep their promises part two underlin

19 The consultant, Matt Bonney, and the reporter, Robert Newsome, enter a restaurant to eat. The significant parts receive my bolds:

Newsome stiffened as soon as he and Matt walked in the door.

“You always bring me to the nicest places,” he mumbled as Matt led him to a stool at the counter in the rear near the all-Chinese section. Newsome carefully wiped the counter with his paper napkin. His red face appeared to have been drenched with a garden hose.

“Who bothers you the most?” Matt leaned over to whisper in Newsome’s ear, “the niggers, the ‘necks, or the chinks?”

A frightened smile tried to fight its way onto Newsome’s face.

“Don’t forget I’ve been to your house in Washington, Bonney. I know how you live. Your stereo cost more than the per capita income of this god forsaken country.”

Matt started strenuously to object but then, calculating quickly in his head, realized with some embarrassment that Newsome was literally correct. But it was a wonderful stereo. “I live in a very middle-class neighborhood, you know that, Newsome. I’m not out there in Bethesda with all you rich white folks.”

Thank God there’s still some place for us. Jesus, I’ve been poor. Poor is boring. It sucks.”

“Look, Nuisance, I just brought you here so you could interview average voters three days before the election. I’m just trying to help you out, pal.” Matt beamed and ordered two cups of coffee from the girl, perhaps ten years old, behind the counter. She had the face of a Han Chinese, with skin that looked almost transparent.

“You don’t think I’ll do it?” Newsome challenged. He turned around on the stool and stared out at the crowd, his eyes flitting between the gruff Chinese men, the rambunctious black kids, the tired, middle-aged white men with the sullen quiet of the defeated. The fans droned overhead. Outside, it was already ninety degrees, the street glaring through the half-drawn shades like some exotic ray gun programmed to stun.

Newsome took a long look and turned around. He shook his head, staring straight ahead. “There was a time,” he began.

“Ah, yes,” Matt said.

“A time when I would have been dying to know just what every one of those unique souls was thinking. What made ‘em tick. Were they going to vote? For whom? Why?” He shrugged and drank from his coffee cup. “Now, now, I think I just don’t care. I don’t want to be a part of their world and, God knows, I don’t want ‘em part of mine. Jesus.”

“Yeah,” Matt said, watching their reflection in the mirror behind the counter. “Me, too.”

20 The consultant, Matt Bonney, and his wife, a congresswoman, who is equally contemptful of the peons who put her into office:

When Matt got back to his townhouse on G Street, Southeast, Lisa was on the phone. “That’s just wonderful. Fine. Good.”

She had the mindlessly happy, I’m-not-really-listening tone she usually adopted when talking to one of her constituents. Matt figured it was probably someone on the Farm Bureau or maybe the Rotary Club president of Arcadia looking for a speaker. “Why, Matt just walked in.”

Matt frowned. Lisa knew – everyone knew – that it was dangerous to put Matt in contact with average voters. It was the surest way to guarantee a difficult situation.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

21 Matt Bonney, the political consultant, and his congresswoman wife laugh at the candidate he managed and his opponent.

“Nautical flags?” Lisa asked. “What do you know about nautical flags?”

“When I did Ted Larsen’s race in Texas. He was always having these meetings on his yacht. It was the only book on board. I think I memorized it.”

“Ted does not strike me as a big reader,” Lisa agreed.

Ted Larsen, a former baseball pitcher of legendary status and a weekend rancher, was now a U.S. senator from Texas.

“Reader? I asked him once why he never read, and he said that his fingers were too tired after pitching so he never got in the habit.”

“How could you work for somebody like that?” Lisa hooted. Her voice carried across the still river.

“Be quiet,” Matt warned. “And don’t forget, Ted was the intellectual in that race.”

Lisa thought for a moment. “Oh, that’s right. Jim Armstrong.”

Matt nodded. Jim Armstrong had been Ted Larsens opponent, a man who argued welfare moms should be sterilized after one child. At the time, it seemed a loony idea; but it was one that more and more people were supporting. It astounded Matt how easily people looked to government to do all sorts of things they themselves would never do.

proto tea party candidates

22 Matt Bonney, of Feeding Frenzy contrasting himself with his congresswoman wife, Lisa:

It was said by some that political consultants had too much influence on the governmental process, but Matt was yet to know a consultant who really gave half-a-damn about government. Government was that thing done by other people, the folks who actually wrote those reports that Lisa and her colleagues consumed like so much cotton candy. What Matt and his kind did were elections. That was as different from government as playing tuba in the high school band was from playing halfback on the team.

political consultants influence underlined

23 Solomon Jawinski and his opponent Luke Bonney agree to have Powell Bonney appointed senator by the governor.

“And let’s not kid ourselves that when it came down to it, there weren’t many people in this state who were happy with the choices before them.” [said Jawinski] He looked over at Luke with a wry grin. “Just about everybody hated us both and hated the fact that they had to choose between us. Something is wrong.”

Standing at the side of Jawinski, Luke Bonney nodded. The governor motioned for Luke to join him at the microphone.

“Both of us,” Jawinski continued, “believe the people deserve better. And instead of just complaining about it, we’re going to do something about it.”

“I,” Jawinski continued, “will, of course, no longer be governor. Lieutenant Governor Jack Tangent will be sworn in as the new governor. But it will be my-” he stopped here and rolled the word around delightfully, “recommendation that the new governor appoint Governor Powell Bonney to fill the remainder of the term.”

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

24 A good overview of his character can be found in the excerpt of Scorched Earth here.

25 Working out at the gym with his travelling companion, Rachel “Rat” Kelly before they leave on their trip:

Anyway, we were working on incline presses and she put it something like this: “What if we went to Europe and ate. Ate a lot.”

“Europe?” I asked her how, as we changed weights ferociously.

“I think we should go,” she said decisively. “Just to eat.” She said this last bit because I was looking sort of skeptical.

We liked to eat and did it a lot. It was really all we did together, go to restaurants and the gym, which made, I suppose, for an appallingly shallow sort of New York nineties-styled friendship. This never bothered me at all. Rat was an inspiration in the gym and a pleasure around the dinner table and neither one of us cared to ask a lot of difficult questions.

26 A sample menu, eleven courses

1. Sautéed perch with pine nuts, served warm.
2. Clams with carrots and assorted vegetables, minced finely, with a slice of very creamy regional chèvre.
3. Toast with a thick anchovy paste, warmed.
4. Clear tomato gelée with pureed artichoke, served cool.
5. Cool cannelloni stuffed with spinach, with a tomato confit on the side and a red curry sauce.
6. Mille-feuille shell with shredded radishes with an onion confit.
7. Gnocchi with crabmeat and scallops over a layer of white truffles.
8. Omble, a fish from Lake Leman, with frogs legs in a rich brown sauce (of cream, fish stock, and chives), along with a pea sauce with shelled peas and cream splattered around.
9. A baked tomato with girolles, carrots, and a beet-juice sauce.
10. Dorade royale with cracked wheat, shredded cabbage with beurre montée, a fried cabbage leaf on top.
11. And for dessert, peach juice with rose-petal liquor.

The Tuscan menu of L’Enoteca Pinchiorri, eight courses:

Coccoli col pesto toscano (deep-fried pasta with basil, pine nuts, and anchovies)
Triglie in Bianco e frittura d’erbe (red mullet fillets flavored with lemon and garlic)
Gamberoni allo spiedo e passato di gran farro (big shrimps wrapped into pancetta slices and served with bean and pearl-barley cream)
Bavette al ragno (homemade fettuccine, with sea bass, tomato, and hot pepper)
Tortelli di Altopascio (ricotta and spinach tortelli, with pecorino and cinnamon)
Faraona in tegame (guinea fowl, vegetable, and potato stew)
Tortino di riso allo zafferano, salsa Morellino (rice and saffron tart, tuscan sweet wine sauce)
Biscotti di Prato e piccola pasticceria

The Tuscan menu seemed like far too much, too many courses, too many tastes. So naturally, I ordered it. I had to.

tuscan menu part one tuscan menu part two

27 We can tell Stevens’ age in 1972, from what’s given us in various sources. From Malaria Dreams:

It was my birthday, the twenty-second of October.

birthday 22 october

From Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot, by Robert Draper, published November 30, 2011.

Stevens, a 58-year old Mississippi native (whom I have known for over a decade), is as wry, eclectic and mussed in appearance as his boss is earnest and buttoned up.

The mention of a college is from “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens.

I’d tried it once in college when an exceptionally gorgeous girl of a Nordic type suggested a trip up Pikes Peak in Colorado as something of a first date. (That sort of squeaky-clean approach was popular at that time and place, a phase I hope has passed for those still dating in Colorado.)

28 From Feeding Frenzy:

We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide. She was a few years older, an American, but she had lived in France for a while, which seemed very impressive and somehow important. It was late March and not far away there were almost nude women lying on rocks they called a beach.

oxford

29 From “My Secret Life As A Muslim” by Stuart Stevens:

From my formative years as a grad student at Oxford, where there were many Muslims, there exist photographs of me attending a lecture entitled, “The History of Islam.” I was spotted many times riding my motorcycle in the vicinity of the Mosque on Bath Road. That I was visiting a girlfriend who lived nearby may only have been a clever deep cover deception. As proof of my success as a Muslim organizer, there are now four Mosques in Oxford, where there was only one when I was a student.

30 From The Big Enchilada:

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it. I explained that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make commercials and when he protested that I had just been to two of the fanciest film schools in the country, I tried to tell him that mostly what I did was watch old films and write little essays and listen to people like Vincente Minnelli tell us how it used to be. (Minelli wore a blazer the color of a canary yellow Post-it note. Perfect.)

film school part one film school part two

This race is in 1978, between Jon Hinson, the republican victor, and John Hampton Stennis.

From a wikipedia entry on Hampton’s father, John C. Stennis:

[John C.] Stennis married Coy Hines, and together, they had two children, John Hampton and Margaret Jane. His son, John Hampton Stennis (born ca. 1935), an attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, ran unsuccessfully in 1978 for the United States House of Representatives, having been defeated by the Republican Jon C. Hinson, then the aide to U.S. Representative Thad Cochran, who ran successfully to succeed James O. Eastland for the other Mississippi seat in the U.S. Senate.

31 From “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”:

This free-form approach reflects the philosophy of the 40-year-old Mr. Stevens. Unlike most political consultants who rose from campaign ranks, he went to film school at the University of California at Los Angeles and has published fiction.

32 See above.

33 The profile for Turkistan

night train to turkistan bio

Malaria Dreams:

malaria dreams bio

Scorched Earth:

scorched earth profile

Feeding Frenzy:

profile

Big Enchilada:

enchilada bio

34 See footnote 30.

35 The UCLA alumni lists for writers, producers, and documentary film-makers.

36 The first mention that he’ll be meeting his wife, who is flying in to Tamanrasset.

And Tamanrasset was a place I had to be – by the twenty-second of December. That was when my wife was arriving from America. Air Algerie promised – though I was dubious in the extreme – that it was possible to fly to Tamanrasset from Algiers; one flight a week but it could be done.

flight of wife

A brief mention on where he met his wife, in a discussion with a staff member at a mission where he is staying:

Danny Beck was one of the few nonclergy members at the mission and, except for a nun from New Orleans, the only American. She was a small, cheerful woman in her late thirties who belonged to the Ursuline order. I liked her right off when we fell into a detailed discussion of New Orleans’s better bars and she offered a superb comparative analysis of the Maple Leaf Bar versus Tipitinas, a famed dance club. She seemed touched when I told her I’d met my wife at Tipitinas. “How romantic,” she said, and then asked if Dr. John had played that night. “Or was it the Wild Tchoupitoulas Indians?”

tipitinas bar

The reader expects to meet the wife at the end of the book, but no: her flight has been delayed.

There is a strike in Algiers! That is why we could not get a circuit. A big strike!”

“I see.” I started to fall asleep.

“But this is very good news for your wife!”

“It is?”

“The airport is closed! Her flight from America will be delayed. You will have time to finish your car repairs and drive to Algiers. Everything will be happy!”

wife and algiers strike

37 These are the references to Stevens’ wife in Big Enchilada.

He quotes his wife’s praise for Karl Rove’s fountain pens:

With one of his elegant fountain pens – Karl had better taste in pens and paper than any man she knew, my wife maintained – Karl diagrammed the campaign structure.

taste in pens and paper

This is her, just out of reach, in Austin, on the night of the 2000 election after which the electoral result was held suspended for weeks.

But when I walked out on Congress Street I realized I didn’t have my car after all, that my wife had taken it home around 1 A.M., a lifetime ago. I walked down Congress Street in the rain looking for a cab.

my wife had taken it home

The forgetting of a wife takes place in the movement from “our” apartment to “my” apartment in New York City. A brief scene with Yvette, a helper on the Bush 2000 campaign:

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

our house

Here is Stevens leaving Austin. We are not told of his wife leaving before him. Again, my bold.

I left Austin right after the certification, thinking it was all over. The lease was up on our little limestone cottage and it seemed silly to move into a hotel. The truth was, I had come to hate the recount period, hated the way it made me feel like some kind of hanger-on. Karl was starting to focus on the first hundred days of the new administration, but that wasn’t what I did. I was a campaign guy and no matter what Bill Daley said, the campaign had ended on November 7, 2000.

our place in austin

Next page, now he’s back in New York. My bolded emphasis.

The night it finally ended, Wednesday, December 13, I watched the speeches on television just like everybody else. I was back in my apartment in New York, ready to resume my life, but still held in some kind of suspended animation by this horrible, tedious process. But now, yes, it was over.

my apartment

38 A transcript of the Charlie Rose piece is here.

39 From “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens.

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.

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.

This is already the early eighties; but Stevens’ first race was running Jon Hinson’s campaign for a congressional seat in Mississippi, in 1978.

40 The dedications.

Turkistan:

“To my family, intrepid travelers in their own way, and C.A.N.”

night train to turkistan dedication

Malaria Dreams:

“In memory of Tom Hairston, Cooper Neill, Bruce Studders – old friends.”

malaria dreams dedication

Scorched Earth:

“In memory of Kendall Willson, who rarely missed the shot, and never the joke”

scorched earth dedication

Feeding Frenzy:

“For Paul Cubeta, who taught me how to read, and J.P. Cosnard, who tried to teach me how to eat.”

feeding frenzy dedication

The Big Enchilada, dedication:

“For Karl and Darby, Mark and Annie, for doing so much to make us feel at home”

Karl is Karl Rove, Darby was his then wife; Mark and Annie are Mark MacKinnon, another consultant on Bush 2000, and his wife.

echilada dedication

The Big Enchilada, acknowledgements:

“A most special thanks goes to Brian Selfon, Davi Humphries, MatthewSchuerman, Martha Sutro, Doreen Eliott and Rachel Abrams. Rachel Klayman was an extraordinary help and Peter Matson, as always, the best.”

enchilada acknowledgements

41 From the various episodes:

42 A brief explanation might be found here.

43 In the meeting with Lucien which initiates the African trip:

“I spent a good bit of time in the CAR last year,” Lucien explained.

I nodded, methodically working my way through a bundle of saté skewers. Lucien was always going off to obscure corners of America. No one seemed to know what he did or why, though supposedly it had something to do with gold and diamonds.

“What I was wondering is” – he leaned forward and cocked an eyebrow – “if perhaps you would be interested in driving my vehicle back to Paris.”

lucien was involved in diamonds

In a talk with a Central African Republic local about why the truck is being held:

“I have been thinking about your Land Rover,” Henri [a local acquaintance] began unexpectedly. For the first time since arriving in Africa, the Land Rover did not, at the moment anyway, seem very important.

“What I cannot understand, if all Lucien has done wrong is not pay this fee on time, why do they make such a mess? Is that how you say, a mess?”

[a lawyer for the local government] Knepper thinks the minister [of mines] or Follope, the capitaine in the Brigade Minerale, is angry at Lucien. Maybe both.”

“I think,” Henri finally decided, “that the minister thought he was going to make some money out of Lucien and our friend Lucien did not allow this to happen. Money must be involved somewhere.”

lucien money must be involved somewhere

A conversation with the minister of mines on why the government won’t release the vehicle, as well as highlighting that the rover is expected to be used for smuggling, and the improbability of the whole venture:

“Tell me,” the minister began, “just what is your relationship with Lucien?” Then he smiled.

Alarms rang inside my head. The minister’s voice reminded me of the best sort of prosecutor: low-keyed, friendly, with traps set at the end of each seemingly harmless sentence.

“Relationship?”

“He is a friend?”

I plunged boldly ahead. “Sort of.”

A knowing smile. And you are here doing his business?”

“Oh, no.” Then I explained how I had come to be in the Central African Republic.

“Let me understand,” the minister queried patiently, “you were having dinner with your friend Lucien and he asked you to go to Africa to transport his vehicle and you said yes. This is what really happened?”

It suddenly sounded like the most preposterous thing I’d ever heard. “Well, tes. That’s pretty much what happened.”
The minister and the capitaine exchanged bemused looks. “And how long have you been involved in buisness with your friend Lucien?”

“I’m not. He’s just a friend.”

The looks came again. “And you come all the way to Africa to pick up a vehicle just for a friend?”

I said in a voice that sounded very tiny, “I thought it would be fun.”

minister of mines dialogue part one minister of mines dialogue part two

A visit to where Lucien bought his diamonds.

“It’s close to here that Lucien looked for his diamonds,” Henri said, leaning against the Renault and watching a teenager work the hand pump drawing gas from a fifty-gallon drum. “This is diamond country. That is one of the reasons,” he grinned, “you see Muslims driving cars like that.” He nodded to a newish Toyota Land Cruiser behind us waiting for gas.

“You mean they find diamonds?” I asked.

“I mean they buy diamonds from Africans. But mostly they smuggle.”

Just outside Yaloke, beyond the twin rows of poplars planted fifty years ago by the French that make the road, if only for an instant, look like Avignon, a police roadblock stopped all traffic.

A soldier returned with Joseph and peered into the car, shining a light – it was almost dark – in each of our faces. Then abruptly he shook hands with Henri and waved us on.

“Diamonds,” Henri muttered, just as the first owl burst skyward under our headlights.

where lucien looked for diamonds

44 This is Stevens writing of his arrival in Africa, my bolds:

I had been in Bangui less than ten minutes when I was robbed for the first time. This proved to be very fortunate. Muggings, rape and murder, I quickly discovered, were the pillars of conversation among the white community, and my introductory theft gave me something to talk about on the party circuit.

It was early October. The season was a factor in the robbery as it had been cold and rainy in Europe and I had arrived at the Bangui airport carrying a heavy raincoat. It was a new coat, recently purchased in England. I liked it.

early october

This is Stevens writing of the carnet, a letter of passage, needed to travel through most African countries to avoid paying entrance duties to that country.

Actually, I had a carnet. Warned that travel by car in Africa was impossible without one, I’d gone to considerable trouble and expense to acquire one from the Automobile Association in England. Unfortunately, my visit to England coincided with the worst hurricane to hit the country in a century, silencing all telephones, littering the streets with uprooted trees and knocking out the rail line from London to the Dover ferry. My life had not been made easier by the fact that I was hauling around enough Land Rover parts to launch a dealership, plus assorted camping gear – though my stove and lantern did come in handy in my hotel when the electricity died for two days.

carnet england storm

What’s referred to here must be the massive storm which hit England in 1987, easily considered the worst storm of the century for the area, and featuring hurricane winds, and which took place over October 16th and 17th.

45 The trip starts in the Central African Republic, which they stay in past Stevens’ birthday on October 22. After, they leave for Cameroon, where they run into a national celebration in Bertoua.

On thie Sunday afternoon, a raucous crowd spilled out of the bar dancing to the music blaring from a stand selling cassettes and records.

Three pickup trucks filled with young men waving Cameroon flags roared up from the direction of town. They shouted slogans, and when the bar throng responded tepidly, they yelled louder. Several jumped off the truck and ran about the market brandishing flags; the scene reminded me of male cheerleaders taking the field before a football game.

Pierre when I asked, explained that this was a Cameroonian national holiday, Independence Day, he believed.

cameroon national holiday

Again, this scene takes place after Stevens’ birthday on October 22. Cameroon’s unification day is October 1st.

46 When they are about to enter Chad, we get this description:

Cloaked in a perpetual layer of dust, the town still resembles what it was for years: a battlefield.

But war-zone capitals of a winning side are usually graced with an infectious optimism difficult to resist. And Chad definitely feels it is winning. After years of watching Libya annex its northern territory, Chad finally put aside internal feuds and struck back. In a series of blitzkrieg assaults, Chadian forces overran Libyian desert bases previously though impenetrable. Their attack methods quickly qualified as the stuff of legends.

The American government aids Chad in its war with Libya and this helps create a benevolent attitude toward Americans in N’Djamena.

war zone capitals of a winning side

All this suggests a war with ongoing fighting. These descriptions correspond to either later October and mid-November, or early November and late November, respectively. Yet this was at least a month and a half into a ceasefire between Libya and Chad with no outbreak of hostilities.

That this all takes place months after the ceasefire is made clear, though indirectly, in this scene with a member of the US embassy staff in Chad:

Tim Whitset worked for the U.S. embassy. A big man in his early thirties, he’d lived in Africa for over a decade and relished matching wits with the local bureaucracy. His office in the newly fortified embassy compound was, in essence, a large vault with a heavy combination on the door. From this windowless crypt, he launched his rescue missions in the complicated bureaucratic wars that raged through the Chadian government. On his desk, he had a souvenir of a more traditional war.

“It’s a piece of a Libyan plane, actually,” he responded to my question about the charred piece of twisted metal. “It was shot down a few months ago over town. Poor suckers flew all the way from Libya to drop a few bombs in a mud flat outside of town and then got blown to hell and back. A U.S. missile operated by the French. A true United Nations effort.”

fragment of shot down plane

This was actually a well-reported incident, “Libyan Warplane Is Downed In Chad By French Forces” which took place on September 8th, 1987 and one that may have helped trigger the ceasefire.

47 A description of the security measures:

Niger, though, was a security-mad country with roadblocks and police checks every twenty or thirty miles. The routine of paranoia had been accelerated by a coup a few days earlier in neighboring Burkina Faso. Like virtually every West African leader, the president of Niger had catapulted himself to power in a similar coup and no doubt viewed the events in Burkina Faso as intimations of his own mortality. (The Burkina Faso president, an exceptionally charismatic guitar-playing young leader, was gunned down in his residence, as is the custom.)

All of this meant it was impossible to travel a mile in Niger without immaculately ordered papers, including insurance.

burkina faso coup pt one burkina faso coup pt two

This takes place after Thanksgiving, either at the very end of November, or early December. The coup in Burkina Faso is spoken of as having taken place a few days earlier. The coup in Burkina Faso was against the very charismatic, guitar playing Thomas Sankara, who was killed. The coup took place on the 16th of October and he was executed on the 17th, 1987.

48 The following is a lengthy excerpt from the full post on Malaria Dreams.

Money and the rate of exchange is mentioned often in the book. Stevens often complains about how incredibly expensive it is to travel and eat in Africa, given that it is, his words, a third world place. US dollars are exchanged for the Franc of Central Africa. The value of the Central African franc was tied directly to that of the french franc – one french franc was worth fifty francs of central africa. This relation was fixed and did not fluctuate. A brief overview of the history of the franc of central africa can be found here. The rate of exchange for US dollars to francs did fluctuate, with this rate affecting the number of french francs a dollar was worth, which in turn affected the number of central african francs a dollar was worth.

The exchange rate between french francs and US dollars is crucial for what’s very off in the events in the book.

Stevens and Ann Bradley arrive in the Central Republic of Africa in early October 1987.

I had been in Bangui less than ten minutes when I was robbed for the first time. This proved to be very fortunate. Muggings, rape and murder, I quickly discovered, were the pillars of conversation among the white community, and my introductory theft gave me something to talk about on the party circuit.

It was early October. The season was a factor in the robbery as it had been cold and rainy in Europe and I had arrived at the Bangui airport carrying a heavy raincoat. It was a new coat, recently purchased in England. I liked it.

early october

Their initial mission is for Stevens to retrieve the Land Rover of his friend, Lucien. In order to do so, they need to pay a sizable bribe to a government official.

The problem with the Land Rover was really quite simple, Capitaine Follope – whom Kneeper addressed as “mon capitaine” – explained. There were some fees that had not been paid on mineral leases Lucien had acquired from the government. The vehicle had been seized as collateral against future payment.

“The amount in question is very small,” Follope said reassuringly.

“How much?”

“Half a million Central African francs.”

It sounded like a lot of money to me. I tried to calculate quickly: 270 Central African francs, or CFA to the dollar. It was a little less than $2000. Not a small amount but certainly cheaper than buying a new car. Lucien, I figured, would gladly pay if he understood it was the only way to see his Land Rover again.

270 francs

Shortly after this, it is Stevens’ birthday.

It was my birthday, the twenty-second of October.

birthday 22 october

After this date, Stevens contacts Lucien to approve the bribe.

“You’ve got to understand, nothing is working!” I enumerated our efforts to free the Land Rover, the frustrations of this person being out of town, that person out of touch, everyone promising everything, and nothing, ultimately, happening.

“Yes, that’s how it is,” he answered pleasantly. “It just takes time.”

This occasioned an outburst on my part as to the limits of my time. Then I moved to present my case. “You’ve got to come down here yourself. It’s a must; or let me throw some money around for a bribe. That might help.”

“I don’t think my flying there is a very good idea,” Lucien said, his voice, for the first time, sounding serious. “How much money?”

We finally agreed upon half a million CFA – about two thousand dollars. It seemed a reasonable sum to offer as a bribe.

lucien half a million bribe

The bribe in CFA francs has stayed the same, and the bribe in US dollars has apparently stayed the same – almost or about two thousand dollars. No mention is made of any urgency regarding the rate of exchange. Again, this is a book where the narrator is concerned about the expense of things, and often mentions the price of an item in US dollars after giving the price in CFA francs.

However, during October, the rate of exchange of the dollar versus other currencies drops drastically, a possible cause, of many, for the crash of markets, which took place October 19th, three days before Stevens’ birthday, the crash perpetuating this decline. After the October 19th crash, the dollar continued its decline against the franc, losing ten percent of its value over two months.

A graph generated by the very helpful Economagic website illustrates this.

franc dollar graph cropped more

Yet somehow the bribe paid out in US dollars remains the same, whether early or late in October.

This rapid fall in the dollar’s value vis a vis the franc is something that one would expect as an obvious mention, that even as the travelers got closer and closer to their destination, prices kept climbing because of the loss of value.
?
For that matter, perhaps I am miscalculating, but the rate of exchange used in the book seems to have no relation with the exchange rate at the time.

The bribe at the beginning of October is 500 000 CFA francs, which Stevens calculates is worth about $2000 US dollars. 500 000 CFA francs is 10 000 french francs, so one US dollar is worth about five french francs in the book. Stevens gives an exchange of 270 CFA francs per US dollar, or 5.4 francs per dollar, so this might be because the bribe in US dollars isn’t quite $2000, perhaps a little less. However, as can be seen in the graph, the US dollar was trading above six francs for the first half of October, far above an exchange rate of either 5 or 5.4. Then it falls, so around the beginning of November, when Stevens calls Lucien, it’s at 5.70. In the book, however, the rate of exchange has remained entirely frozen at what it was at the beginning of October, stock still at five francs or five point four francs. This is still, a worse rate of exchange as shown in the graph, even with the start of the dollar’s value drop, five or five point four in the book, compared to 5.7 in currency exchange records.

After Stevens’ birthday, but before the call to Lucien, he has to buy some gas:

I spotted a metal jerrican for sale at nineteen thousand CFA – seventy dollars; to make the trip north, I needed at least fifteen.

jerrican seventy dollars

19 000 CFA francs is 380 french francs. If seventy US dollars buys 380 french francs, the rate of exchange is 5.428. It has either stayed level at the previous 5.4, or slightly improved from 5: either way, it is still lower than what was available around that month at any currency exchange.

A bribe is paid in Cameroon, at some point in the first three weeks of November.

Three thousand CFA, about eleven dollars, was the standard amount Pierre turned over. Once a motorcycle patrol demanded more.

three thousand cfa about eleven dollars

Three thousand CFA is sixty french francs, so now the exchange rate is 5.45. Again, if the exchange in the book in October is taken, it is level. It is also weaker than it ever was, at any exchange, as shown on the graph, and shows none of the rapid devaluation taking place.

We are told at one point that it is thanksgiving, which, in 1987, would be November 26.

It was Fernando who reminded us it was Thanksgiving. He mentioned it in an offhand way while we stood at the head of the long buffet marveling at the pasta, the veal, the pastries. “An untraditional thanksgiving, no?” he said. Ann and I looked at each other, not understanding what he meant, and then we both looked up at a wall calendar featuring a nude girl riding a tractor. He was right, it was thanksgiving.

thanksgiving

Shortly before this, we are given a last price quoted both in CFA francs and US dollars, the cost of fixing their car.

The volunteer mechanic requested tools, and I brought out the odd-fitting nonmetric set I’d stolen from Lucien. He grunted and went to work with a set of pliers. After a few minutes of messing about, he rose and said, simply, “Fifty thousand.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked, not understanding.

“Fifty thousand CFA to fix the car.”

That was almost two hundred dollars.

fifty thousand cfa

Fifty thousand CFA francs is a thousand french francs, so a dollar is now worth five francs. During the period in which the dollar weakened versus the franc, in this book, during the same time period, the dollar either gains in value, then drops back to what it was, to a weaker value than it actually was on the world’s currency exchange, somewhere above 5.60 in the period right before thanksgiving. Or it stays rock solid same throughout this period of rapid falling value.

In fact, the price given for car repair here is the same as a ransom asked for before Stevens’ birthday in October. It is a price demanded for information on Stevens’ stolen coat.

“Yes, but first we must discuss price.”

It was, apparently, a ransom situation. “How much do they want?” I asked.

“Fifty thousand CFA.”

That was almost two hundred dollars, far too much. We negotiated for some time. Finally we agreed on five thousand CFA.

fifty thousand cfa first time

Here, fifty thousand CFA is equal to two hundred dollars, the same exchange as it is after November 26. Given that the calculation for the exchange in some amounts is close to 5.4, and Stevens gives an exchange rate of 270 CFA francs per dollar for the October amounts, or a 5.4 rate, there appears the possibility that the exchange rate throughout the story is 5.4, as an exchange rate, please excuse my lapse into italics, might be conveniently set in a fiction. So there is some strange discrepancy in what the actual exchange rate should be, beyond the dramatic absence of any sense of a dollar plummeting in value, losing ten percent of its value over the course of the trip in relation to the native currency in an already expensive continent.

I add as well that at no point does Stevens write of carrying around a large amount of money that he has already exchanged and that the amounts needed on the trip are sometimes very, very large, such as paying two thousand dollar bribes or buying a new vehicle. It is also important that before Stevens says he left for this trip, in early October or late September, the dollar franc exchange had been holding steady for a long while, trading above six francs a dollar, nowhere close to the 5.4 rate ubiquitous in the book.

49 A meal recalled in Feeding Frenzy:

I described a meal I’d cooked once by the River Niger. The centerpiece was an oversized gar I’d caught, the only fish longer than six inches I’d ever caught in Africa. It was a bony prehistoric-looking thing about as appetizing as a display in a natural history museum. I filleted it, which was the only thing I could imagine doing, wrapped the fillet in tin foil with bits of onions and some old garlic cloves I’d bought in the Timbuktu market, and buried it in the coals of a driftwood fire. It was shockingly good, moist and sweet. I ate it with half a can of peaches and a mix of fried yams and onions, which was about all the shelves of Timbuktu’s largest grocery had to offer.

oversized gar

The habitats of the gar are listed in this brief National Geographic summary. The gar is from the Lepisosteidae family, none of which can be found in Africa. Here is a partial list of fish to be found in the Niger river; lepisosteida are easily recognizable by their snub nose; none of the fish species in this list seem to have this identifier.

50 The excerpt from Malaria Dreams:

Well now, I thought, this is just great. Ann is probably headed for the auction block in Tangiers, I’m here with a dead car in a closed town, and my wife arrives in forty-eight hours. This is just swell.

But in truth I found it pleasant to lie back on the hood of the Cruiser with nothing to do. My body still tingled with the jolts of the desert crossing. In a vague way I thought about what I would need to do if Ann did not return shortly: make inquiries in Cheik-ben’s store, look for Yusuf (if Yusuf really existed), find a policeman. I drifted to sleep.

adrar heat

A description of Adrar’s searing heat can be found in William Langewiesche’s “The World in its Extreme”:

Outdoors the temperature was 124 degrees Fahrenheit. During my walk the air had been still, the sky milky with dust. There was no shade. The streets were deserted. The heat hit hard, a physical assault, burning skin, eyes, and lungs. I felt threatened and disoriented. I had drunk my fill beforehand, but an hour without water was all I could stand.

The Sahara is hot because it is sunny. In Adrar out of some 4,400 hours of annual daylight there are 3,978 hours of direct sun, on average. (Paris, home of the great Saharan colonizers, gets 1,728 hours of sun.) Elsewhere in the desert the count is equally high. And this is steep-angle sunlight, powerful stuff. In the winter, air temperatures can drop to freezing at night and rise to 90 degrees by noon; soil temperatures can fluctuate so brutally that rocks split, a process called insolation weathering. In the summer the Sahara is the hottest place on earth. The record, 136 degrees. Fahrenheit, is held by al Azizia, Libya. Airborne dust makes things worse. It traps heat radiated by the hot soil, and is why in Adrar the desert does not cool much on summer nights.

A listing of Adrar’s temperature during December of 1987 can be found here; the maximum temperature I assume to be recorded at noon. Stevens arrives in the town in mid-afternoon, a few days before December 22nd.

51 Here is Stevens reading Conquest of the Sahara by Douglas Porch:

In the mornings, I rose at first light and, while it was still cool enough to concentrate, read The Conquest of the Sahara, Douglas Porch’s account of French colonial folly in the deserts of Africa. It is a story full of exaggerated expectations, of careers staked on preposterous expeditions to claim vast areas of sand and scrub that proved worthless to the politicians and accountants back home.

conquest sahara

The character enters the scene:

That’s how Cheik-ben Bou Djemaa found us: waiting, parked in front of the big metal doors to Yusuf’s garage. A gregarious fellow in his mid-thirties, Cheik-ben was short with a big belly and a scraggly black beard. His jewelry store adjoined the closed garage.

Bou Djemaa

One might look at the character side by side on Google books. Here he is in Malaria Dreams, here he is in Douglas Porch’s Conquest of the Sahara.

52 A short piece on this can be found at ThinkProgress.

53 From Malaria Dreams:

Yusuf wanted French francs, not Algerian dinars. “Our money,” he said cheerfully, “it is no good.”

“There is a thriving black market both inside and outside the country,” explains the Lonely Planet guide.

“If you’re taking in black market money, you’ll need to hide it well. If they find the money it will be confiscated.”

Ever the good student, I followed this advice with enthusiasm. Convinced my cleverness would win me a place in the Smuggler’s Hall of Fame, I secreted a small fortune in French francs inside the hollow aluminum poles of my mountain tent.

But what had seemed so brilliant on conception had one resounding difficulty: I couldn’t get the money out.

I discovered this after Yusuf and I negotiated a price for the new clutch, payment to be made in francs. While he worked in the empty cavity of the engine compartment, I unfolded the tent on the garage floor and set about to retrieve my artfully hidden funds.

smuggling money into algeria

54 An entrance and a refreshingly sympathetic description:

Habib woke me up. “Can I help you?” he asked politely, like a steward on a cruise ship at teatime. He was a portly fellow wearing a tweed jacket and rep tie with a scarf thrown over his neck. His accent was English, his manner that of an amiable Oxford don.

Habib was a Palestinian, a teacher by profession, forced to Algeria with his family after 1948. With little prompting, he launched into an astoundingly intricate analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. At regular intervals he interrupted the erudite lecture to grasp my arm, encrusted with a grimy layer of oil and sand, imploring, “You see? You must help us?”

Eventually I realized that he meant the United States government, rather than myself. I nodded vaguely, trying to come up with words befitting my new diplomatic status.

Just as Habib was demanding I explain the true relevance of UN Resolution 242, Ann and Cheik-ben returned with Yusuf in tow.

habib palestinian resolution 242

Cheik-ben considers the tent an excellent method for smuggling money into France.

“It was a very smart hiding place,” Cheik-ben said thoughtfully. I must remember it the next time I go to France.”

“But why would you take a tent to France?” Habib, the scholar asked. “The hotels in France are excellent. After the 1986 PLO council meeting in Tangiers, the old man and I traveled to Saint-Tropez.”

new council meeting

55 ThinkProgress has covered this in several posts: the support the Druge Report gives to such conspiracy theories as Andrew Breitbart being assassinated by the president, the Druge Report pushing the idea that Obama was a CIA agent, and the explicit support the Romney campaign has given to both the Drudge and Breitbart sites.

56 From Simone Weil’s “The Illiad, or The Poem of Force”:

How much more varied in its processes, how much more surprising in its effects is the other force, the force that does not kill, i.e., that does not kill just yet. It will surely kill, it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs, poised and ready, over the head of the creature it can kill, at any moment, which is to say at every moment. In whatever aspect, its effect is the same: it turns a man into a stone. From its first property (the ability to turn a human being into a thing by the simple method of killing him) flows another, quite prodigious too in its own way, the ability to turn a human being into a thing hile he is still alive. He is alive; he has a soul; and yet – he is a thing. An extraordinary entity this – a thing that has a soul. And as for the soul, what an extraordinary house it finds itself in! Who can say what it costs it, moment by moment, to accomodate itself to this residence, how much writhing and bending, folding and pleating are required of it? It was not made to live inside a thing; if it does so, under pressure of necessity, there is not a single element of its nature to which violence is not done.

(Images courtesy Rose productions.)

(This post has received mild edits since publication on July 30th for grammar, spelling, aesthetics; the scans illustrating issues related to dedications were added after initial publication.)

Tagged , , , , , ,

Night Train To Turkistan by Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s Media Assassin

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, his memoir of working in the George W. 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, Stevens and Jon Hinson, 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.

The first published book by Stuart Stevens, it is well-written in many parts, without the distractions of possible fabulisms or small spittles of vitriol. His temperament is either held in check because this book is his first, or by the company of the very good writer Mark Salzman. It is an account of a trip with Salzman, reprising the route of Peter Fleming (Ian’s brother) and his companion, Ella Maillart, through north-west China. I give a few brief notes now, perhaps to be returned to later.

Turkistan gives an overall impression of China as primitive, dirty, and brutal, a combination of state dysfunctionality and rabid humanity. I am uncertain if the book’s pervasive sense of squalor is because of the conditions themselves, or the writer being unable to perceive the vivid human life, human life that requires no sentiment for it to be seen as against, above, and transcendent such conditions of misery – that even in the worst of times, the worst of places, hope dies last.

I make few notes at this moment, only pointing out a few small significant details. This is a book notable for being written by a republican political consultant, yet one that looks at conservative idols with an attitude that would now mark him as an apostate.

Stevens and Salzman have dinner with a Uighur family, when Ali, one of the family, tells of what he promises will happen when they eat with him at home, in Korla:

“We would all have to come feast with my family in Korla,” Ali declared. “We celebrate Ark [the way Ali pronounces Mark Salzman`s first name] as the next President of the United States!”

President?

“They think I look like an actor,” Mark explained. “And since Reagan is an actor and an American they figure I should be President too.”

I remember thinking that there was something disturbing about the amount of sense that made.

reagan as president pt1 reagan as president pt2

More striking is the opinion he gives of Lee Iacocca, in 1987, a capitalist icon and possible future presidential candidate. Here is Stevens speaking to a chinese man about the popularity of Iacocca’s autobiography in the country. Stevens’ attitude towards this figure can be safely described as contemptful:

“Can you buy Iacocca’s book in China?” [asked Stevens]

“Every day in the People’s Daily, two pages of the I-Coke-ah book is run.” [answered Lu Wei Hong]

“That’s almost the whole paper.”

“Yes. This is very important.”

Startling as the idea was, it did make a certain amount of sense that Iacocca would go over big in a country molded by Mao. The two had a lot in common: both were megalomaniacs, and both had a special knack for what might be called Succeeding Through Failure. Mao realized that he was losing his grip in 1965, so he launched the Cultural Revolution and reestablished himself as the dominant figure in China. Iacocca was fired at Ford, landed a job as head of a bankrupt company that made terrible cars, had to beg Congress for a billion dollars – all the sort of stuff that would have made any normal person embarrassed to appear in public. And yet he had the gall to strut around on national television in commercials, becoming a folk hero in the process.

Both were also fashion arbiters in their own right – Mao, the blue jackets and cap; Iacocca, the shirts with contrasting collars and cuffs. And both had been trading for years on one impressive achievement: Mao had pulled off the Long March, and Iacocca had overseen the creation of the Mustang.

iacocca

Stevens does not reveal what mass murderer he thinks George Romney is comparable to.

I now quote a short excerpt with an attempt to contrast two styles, to demonstrate something essential that is missing in Stevens’ writing, even his best writing. What follows is a finely detailed, well observed description from Turkistan of a peasant woman on a rickety country bus, one limited to her externals, some very grim, ultimately employed only for the purpose of cruel laughter. She sleeps in piss; one cannot even tell if it’s a he or a she; she is toothless; she eats disgusting lard; she shrieks helplessly like a child; she falls out of the bus, onto the ground, her sack falling on top of her for extra comic effect.

Not long after lunch, we stopped to pick up a peasant standing by the road. We were miles from any semblance of civilization, but no one appeared surprised to come upon this old man wearing rags and carrying a huge burlap bag and two buckets balanced on a pole, coolie-style on his shoulders. He struggled through the door and collapsed in my former position in the stairwell (I had moved to a seat to avoid the liquid hazards.)

Hours later, the peasant took off his tattered PLA hat to reveal a pigtail. I pondered for a long time whether this meant that he was a woman, or just an old-fashioned male peasant. But when the doors swung open, as was their want, and the peasant screeched at the driver in a high voice, I decided it was a female.

Hovering in the doorway, holding on to a seat brace with one hand, the woman pulled a bent spoon out of her ripped Mao jacket and began to eat something out of one of the buckets. It was a grayish-white gel, and it took me a while to realize she was eating lard. She had no teeth but worked her gums actively to ingest the fat.

Later, on the outskirts of Dunhuang, she began to shriek at the driver. Apparently she wanted him to stop before driving into the center of town. Everyone laughed as her pleas escalated to screams. She shook the railing by the steps and rocked back and forth like an angry child.

The driver did finally stop but only briefly and when he pulled away she was halfway out the door, pulling hard on her massive burlap sack, the buckets carried on her shoulder banging wildly against her face. She tumbled backward onto the road as the bus pulled away, her sack landing on top of her.

The bus moved into Dunhuang.

peasant pt1 peasant pt2

Though I am not well-read enough to find an ideal profile in contrast, one of equivalent scale, yet of greater depth, this description by Isaac Bashevis Singer of a washerwoman of his childhood may provide some sense of what’s missing: an attempt to show that in those of the most impoverished and wretched condition, beats the same heart as our own, and they may carry qualities that we can only call noble.

So, these are excerpts form Singer’s description of a washwoman employed by his family in Warsaw over several years, as the woman ages, slowly losing her abilities, and, finally, her life. I emphasize that the contrast I wish to establish is not one of simple aesthetic technique, but between a writer with a sense of empathy and one with little or none at all.

I find this example useful as well since I can leave out the washwoman’s personal details, and she retains her humanity in Singer’s simple description of her doing her work. A final small note: she is christian, while Singer’s family is jewish. This, however, never causes Singer to write of her as an other, an object of scorn or vile mirth. The full story, appropriately called “The Washwoman”, can be found in his memoir In My Father’s Court.

She was a small woman, old and wrinkled. When she started washing for us she was already past seventy. Most Jewish women of her age were sickly, weak, broken in body. All the old women in our street had bent backs and leaned on sticks when they walked. But this washwoman, small and thin as she was, possessed a strength that came from generations of peasant forebears. Mother would count out to her a bundle of laundry that had accumulated over several weeks. She would lift the unwieldy pack, load it on her narrow shoulders, and carry it the long way home.

Laundering was not easy in those days. The old woman had no faucet where she lived but had to bring in the water from a pump. For the linens to come out so clean, they had to be scrubbed thoroughly in a washtub, rinsed with washing soda, soaked, boiled in an enormous pot, starched, ironed. Every piece was handled ten times or more. And the drying! It could not be done outside because thieves would steal the laundry.

A later description, on the day of a harsh winter.

Mother gave her a pot of tea to warm herself, as well as some bread. The old woman sat on a kitchen chair trembling and shaking, and warmed her hands against the teapot. Her fingers were gnarled from work, and perhaps from arthritis too. Her fingernails were strangely white. These hands spoke of the stubbornness of mankind, of the will to work not only as one’s strength permits but beyond the limits of one’s power.

The bundle was big, bigger than usual. When the woman placed it on her shoulders, it covered her completely. At first she swayed, as though she were about to fall under the load. But an inner obstinacy seemed to call out: No, you may not fall. A donkey may permit himself to fall under his burden, but not a human being, the crown of creation.

It was fearful to watch the old woman staggering out with the enormous pack, out into the frost, where the snow was dry as salt and the air was filled with dusty white whirlwinds, like goblins dancing in the cold.

She takes this bundle, but falls sick, returning with their laundry only months later.

One evening, while Mother was sitting near the kerosene lamp mending a shirt, the door opened and a small puff of steam, followed by a gigantic bundle, entered. Under the bundle tottered the old woman, her face as white as a linen sheet. A few wisps of white hair straggled out from beneath her shawl. Mother uttered a half-choked cry. It was as though a corpse had entered the room. I ran toward the old woman and helped her unload her pack. She was even thinner now, more bent. Her face had become more gaunt, and her head shook from side to side as though she were saying no. She could not utter a clear word, but mumbled something with her sunken mouth and pale lips.

The old woman leaves, promising to return for more wash, but never does. I have already selected too much; but the closing paragraphs describe her dignity so very eloquently, how can I leave them out?

The wash she had returned was her last effort on this earth. She had been driven by an indomitable will to return the property to its rightful owners, to fulfill the task she had undertaken.

And now at last the body, which had long been no more than a broken shard supported only by the force of honesty and duty, had fallen. The soul passed into those spheres where all holy souls meet, regardless of the roles they played on this earth, in whatever tongue, of whatever creed. I cannot imagine Eden without this washerwoman. I cannot even conceive of a world where there is no recompense for such effort.

I hope that these excerpts provide evidence of an absence.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

George Romney, Success Destroying Socialist

I post what follows with some hesitation; I feel I should say something considering the tragic events of yesterday, but I have nothing. I do think there is genius in succinctness, the lasting kiss of a short brief work, and perhaps the briefest phrase is no words at all. I cannot attempt genius, but I can at least attempt silence, and the dead of yesterday can now be given nothing but that.

So, the following is a simple context, strangely unremarked by reporters, to a speech given by Mitt Romney chastising his president for his un-american attitude. A transcript, accompanied by the approving whoops of partisans, can be found here. Analysis I found valuable, though it does not deal with the context I address here, are “How ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Violated Conservative P.C.”, by Jonathan Chait and “How The ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Canard Went From Right-Wing Blogs To Mitt Romney’s Mouth” by David Taintor.

I quote two notable fragments:

I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think anyone could have said what he said who had actually started a business or been in a business. And my own view is that what the President said was both startling and revealing. I find it extraordinary that a philosophy of that nature would be spoken by a President of the United States. It goes to something that I have spoken about from the beginning of the campaign. That this election is, to a great degree, about the soul of America. Do we believe in an America that is great because of government or do we believe in an America that is great because of free people allowed to pursue their dreams and build our future?

In the past, people of both parties understood that encouraging achievement, encouraging success, encouraging people to lift themselves as high as they can, encouraging entrepreneurs, celebrating success instead of attacking it and denigrating, makes America strong. That’s the right course for this country. His course is extraordinarily foreign.

So, Romney makes very clear that government is detrimental to success, and government involving itself in business is “extraordinarily foreign”. I find this approach rather strange, given testimony his father, George Romney, gave before the Senate Antitrust subcommittee, February 7th, 1958. His father, I think everyone will acknowledge, was a very successful businessman. It is thanks to his father’s extraordinary business acumen that Mitt Romney was born to such a privileged and wealthy place. It may also be said with little dispute that, unlike his son, his business concentrated on creating and keeping jobs in the United States, rather than exclusively on profit, with jobs of secondary or no importance at all.

Here now is this testimony before the subcommittee. There are many sources, but I have taken my quotes from a contemporary article in The Charleston Daily Mail. It is titled: “Competitor Asks Split of GM, Ford”. This was George Romney, asking the government to take apart the two largest companies, GM and Ford, as well as any company that exceeded a 35% share of the market. Though partisans might seize on the fact that this was partly due to unions having a greater bargaining advantage with a small number of competitors in a market, which they could play off each other, this was not the sole reason at all. George Romney felt that an outsize position was detrimental to customers, shareholders, all parties.

I cannot quote the article in its entirety, but unlike Mitt Romney, I do not quote someone out of context; those who read the piece in full at the link will find the quotes retain the same meaning.

The president of American Motors Corp. today urged Congress to break up General Motors and Ford into smaller companies and split the bargaining forces of the United Auto Workers.

[George] Romney, whose company is one of the two comparatively small independent producers surviving, declared that “economic power in the automobile industry should be limited and divided.”

Romney suggested that any company which approached a dominant place in a basic industry be compelled to split itself.

The breakup point, he suggested, should come when a firm exceeds 35 per cent of the total sales of an industry: or, if it is engaged in more than one basic industry, 25 per cent.

After crossing the 35 per cent line, Romney explained, the company would be obliged to submit to the government a plan for splitting off part of its operations as a new and going concern.

Romney said, “General Motors and Ford stockholders, executives, employees and customers could reasonably be expected to benefit.”

So, it does appear that George Romney actively sought out the government’s help to break apart his competitors, that he believed their very success at achieving a market share of over 35% merited the state intervening. My humble mind observes a man of the past, attacking success, denigrating success, rather than celebrating it. The president has made the simple point that government builds and supports infrastructure which helps create a healthy environment for business. This simple idea, Mitt Romney has called un-american. Mitt Romney’s father made a demand that went far further than this idea, asking for the government to come in and diminish his corporate fellows. It seems that Mitt Romney’s father, by his own son’s terms, is far more un-american, far more foreign, in his approach to capitalism than his opponent. Yet somehow this un-american, extraordinarily foreign man managed to create more long-term jobs in the United States than his son has done, or ever will.

The great maw of the state turned down the request of this decent, extraordinarily foreign man.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

No, You Didn’t Ask For This: A Bain Romney Downfall Parody

This was brought up on Talking Points Memo, and I’m sure at least twelve have already been made. I went with bigger rather than smaller subs for readability, since everyone’s seen the underlying clip, oh, maybe once or twice. The language gets very raw, and is not safe for work.

Tagged ,

The Big Enchilada by Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens

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, 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, Stevens and Jon Hinson, 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 is a revision of an earlier overview of the book, the first attempt too shrill and venomous. Some writers must work very little to avoid descending into gracelessness, while I must work very hard to keep an adequate deftness. This draft contains a look at more material from The Big Enchilada, a look maintained with a cooler eye, where the previous overview had the tenor of a member of the Committee For Public Safety. Some may read this blog and think I am a radical, when I believe I am nothing of the kind. I do not believe that financial casinos, which produce nothing, barely provide the primary purpose of investment capital, should control so many of the political and economic levers of the country, and for that, I am a radical. I do not believe people should be starved into submission until they are forced to leave the country. That, at the present time, is a radical position. That women's biology should not be placed on the table every few years for a pile of cheap, rabid votes is my position: again, supposedly, a radical one. That marriage contracts should be indifferent to the gender of the parties: a radical one, now. The vast poverty of children, the labeling of such poverty as deserving, that this labeling is mostly by those who have known nothing but gilded lives: this revulsion to all this makes you radical. That science, reason, rationalism are not flimsy things to be taken up and dropped at one's convenience: these simple ideas make you Emma Goldman, now. This review is in large part non-ideological, first and foremost an attempt to glean information on how the process is seen by one of the process makers, a perspective very different from those on the other side of the curtain. Reading this man's books, has aroused a contempt in me for him, but it is contempt untied to ideology, a contempt I do not want or take pride in, a contempt that poisons me, a contempt for a man richly rewarded for treating something as a joyful challenging game, a game whose consequences this man does not feel at all, yet whose consequences the rest of us will pay for with every quality of our lives, and sometimes life itself. I do not want this contempt, but I will take it: that I feel such anger when the suffering of others is only granted opportunism and exploitation, this anger sometimes makes me feel more human than I've ever felt. The original analysis of this book is appended at the end of its successor.)

The Big Enchilada is the story of the 2000 Bush campaign for the presidency, up to election night and the contested re-count, told from the perspective of one of its key participants, Stuart Stevens, current media strategist for the Mitt Romney campaign, then media strategist for George W. Bush, the man primarily responsible for all attack ads, promotional material, convention planning, and debate prep. It is has the interest of all stories of this kind, whether it be John Gardner’s Grendel or Gregory Maguire’s Wicked of giving the villains’ perspective. Yet its primary interest is providing an angle unknown and ignored to us, a consultant’s view unmediated by any attempt to accommodate a common voter’s perspective. It is something like falling into a dog’s world where everything is determined by scent, where you might have assumed that the world was ruled by sight. More germanely, the difference between this book and a journalist’s account of an election is the distinction between the perspectives of a movie’s producer and its critics: those discussing the film will talk about its characters and plot, or lack thereof. The producer’s perspective will be what financing will be available, what stunt people and cars can be secured and which can be blown up, what buxom actress can take her top off and what will be the payment, etc. – all decisions where one might think in terms of immediate revenue impact. Plot and character can be built around these elements. It is similar in this book: those things that one thinks of crucial importance in an election, which are mentioned again and again – the issues – are not important at all.

I begin with what is the most stunning moment in the book for a naif such as myself: that the goal of this consultant is simply to elect the man to office, that promises will be made in an effort to achieve that goal, and the expectation is that those promises will be broken. This time it will be different, according to others on the campaign team, a point that Stevens considers “terribly unnecessary”:

candidates keep their promises part one underlin candidates keep their promises part two underlin

As I settled into the Bush world, I was astonished to realize that there was an assumption throughout the campaign that the policy would actually be used to govern once Bush was elected. This struck me as highly admirable and terribly unnecessary. For a while I tried to point out to Josh and his crew that once a candidate was elected nobody really expected that campaign policy proposals would be used to govern any more than promises made in a courtship were expected to be the guiding principles of a marriage when suddenly both partners are working and kids are running around the house.

Supporters of Mitt Romney can now take heed: one of the top men attempting to elect him as president fully expects him to break any and all of the election promises he makes, and he does not expect you to mind.

The book then, is an account, more of less of an advertising campaign, an advertisement for a man. This point is made explicit early on, when discussing ways to write a tax cut proposal as a pithy pitch for a TV ad. Given that this is a presidential candidate, I give bolds to the most striking parts:

convention speech underlined

[George W. Bush] read the final line of the script. “‘I believe we ought to cut tax rates to continue economic growth and prosperity.’ We should change this. It makes it sound like all I want to do is continue what Clinton has done. We can do better than that and we ought to say it. The whole idea of the tax plan will be to eliminate taxes for people at the bottom of the spectrum.”

In a thirty-second spot, you can comfortably get in seventy-five to eighty words, depending on the speaker’s natural cadence and accent. That’s it. There’s a terrible tyranny and a forced efficiency to trying to convey complicated ideas with so few words. It was both a discipline and an art, a form of poetry if executed properly. There’s a reason great copywriters make a gazillion dollars a year and end up in the Copywriters Hall of Fame – which actually exists and is not the punch line to a nasty joke about failed writers. So what if the spot is about mouthwash or deodorant, that’s not the point any more than, say, tennis is about hitting a little white ball over pieces of string or chess is about hitting little stick figures on a checkerboard. The demands of the process – arbitrary, difficult, without meaning – are what make it admirable, and, ultimately, if you get it right, rewarding.

That policy must be shaped in a way that it fits a thirty-second spot no doubt shapes policy; yet this a game of no consequence to the book’s writer. It is simply an abstract challenge, like Sudoku, of fitting the proper numbers in a pattern. That it remains an abstract challenge, an attempt to sell one product, a president, rather than another, like mouthwash or deodorant, is in part due to the writer himself; he is a very wealthy man. When you are that far up the tax bracket, you have the luxury of being indifferent to what policies are shaped in advertising or which promises are broken.

Here is the scene which outlines the coming campaign. It has nothing to do with any urgent or pressing issue, only what can be sold in an advertising campaign which can help to win the presidency.

bullet points part one underlined bullet points part two underlined

We’d been kicking ideas around for fifteen minutes when Karl [Rove] got to the point and simply asked “What are the basic goals we want these first ads to accomplish?” He then proceeded to outline the foundation of an entire campaign’s worth of spots. Mark wrote it down on a sheet of poster board hanging on an easel that we had set up to make it look like a real meeting. The goals read something like this:

  • Future not past. Focus more on what he will do than what he’s done in Texas.
  • Build Credentials. Bush = successful, big-state governor. Leader.
  • Win Education. Capture Bush passion. Make education a defining issue.
  • Win Taxes. Appeal to economic conservative base; use taxes to define compassionate conservative approach.
  • Rebuild military
  • Change the tone in Washington.
  • Social Security reform. Back up the Bush plan once announced.

I do not exaggerate the emphasis on advertising for shock value, it is made clear in the description of the process itself. Here is a group session with Jim Ferguson, former creative director of Young and Rubicam, at the time one of the top names in the advertising world, and Janet Kraus, a copywriter for Y & R, coming up with various ad pitches, no different than voiceovers for movie ads or sneakers, only much less hip and far more sentimental. The excerpt is lengthy to make obvious the similarities to any other ad campaign:

ad campaign part one ad campaign part two

Janet and Fergie both came up with scripts while we were in Kennebunkport. Janet had written three spots taken from her “now’s the time to do the hard things” theorem, one on education, one on Social Security and one that she called an “anthem” for the campaign.

“An anthem?” I asked her. “Really?”

We were having breakfast before the shoot at the terribly cute inn in Kennebunkport where we were staying. Janet was smoking and looking a lot more chic than anyone else in Kennebunkport.

“Yeah, you know. Anthem.” She shrugged. “Do you think I’m not supposed to smoke in here?” she asked.

I loved these guys. They knew how to package everything. We would have called it just another spot, but when you styled an ad as an “anthem,” it automatically sounded grander, more powerful.

“Don’t you call big theme spots anthems?” she asked.

“I will now,” I promised.

Janet’s scripts were neatly printed out; somewhere she had found a printer to hook up to her computer. She handed them to me.

GOVERNOR BUSH on Camera; TV 30;

“Hard Things – Education”

How come the hard things don’t get done?

Because they’re hard.

If we really want to make sure no child gets left behind in America, we need the courage to do some tough things.

We need to raise standards in our schools.

We need more accountability, more discipline.

And we need to stop promoting failing kids to the next grade because we’ve given up on them.

It’s easy to spend more.

Let’s start by expecting more.

GOVERNOR BUSH on Camera; TV 30;

“Not Afraid”

Social Security.

For too long, too many politicians have been afraid to touch it.

I’m not.

Because we need to strengthen it, right now.

We need to give people more choices in how they build their nest eggs.

I have a plan.

Protect the benefits of retirees and near-retirees.

You earned it. You get it. No change. Period.

And if you’re part of the next generation, you should have the choice to put some of your Social Security in a personal retirement account you control.

It’s time to make Social Security more secure.

GOVERNOR BUSH on Camera; TV 30;

“Moment in History”

There aren’t many moments in history when you have the chance to focus on the tough problems.

We’re in a moment like that now.

But to make schools better for all children – it takes fresh ideas.

To strengthen Social Security – it takes the courage to try something different.

It’s not always popular to say, “Our kids can’t read.”

“Social Security isn’t doing all it could.”

“We have a budget surplus and a deficit in values.”

But those are the right things to say.

And the right way to make America better for everyone is to be bold and decisive, to unite instead of divide.

Now is the time to do the hard things.

A few moments later Fergie handed us his place mat.

“Here’s mine,” he said. At the top, he’d scribbled “Something’s Missing.” It went like this:

Something’s missing in America.

Something’s just not quite right.

It’s hard to say exactly what. But Americans know it…deep down.

Our wallets are full but our hearts are empty.

It’s a time of peace but we’re not at peace.

Our national symbols are no longer symbols of pride.

It’s time we put the heart back into America.

Time to take accountability in our actions.

Time to make Social Security secure again.

Time to educate our children.

Time to be proud again.

Now’s the time to elect George W. Bush President of the United States.

I read it over. I loved it. “Is the governor talking?” I asked.

“Are you nuts? It’s an announcer, for Chrissake. Can I get sausage here?”

By the end of the terms of the man Stevens helped elect, then re-elect, the budget surplus was gone, the vile deceitful actions of a president and vice-president had put national symbols in disgrace, the military, through opportunistic and profligate use, had been shredded to pieces, and americans were buried in debt to fund tax cuts for Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney, and George W. Bush. Promises were a joke, promises were broken, more people felt misery than had felt it in decades, but: Stuart Stevens remained a happy, wealthy man. The life promised to others in advertising is always there for the lucky few in the topmost incomes.

The man at the center of this campaign, George W. Bush, has those qualities suitable for a low-rent pitchman. He is affable, jokey, twinkly eyed, warm hearted bullshit artist. That he lacks anything like vital life experience, a business position earned through merit rather than family association, or anything like in-depth knowledge of political policy or history is irrelevant. Those qualities may well be an impediment rather than an asset for an ad campaign, just as a brilliant actor may make a worse spokesman than a glib mediocrity. The quality that Bush can project, and felt by some, is friendly warmth, and this a powerful asset in an ad campaign.

I make a useful digression to George W.S. Trow’s Within The Context Of No-context, the striking note-form analysis of television in culture, still relevant in the campaign of twelve years ago, still relevant now.

The product as celebrity.

The most successful celebrities are products. Consider the real role in American life of Coca-Cola. Is any man as well loved as this soft drink is?

On the impact of television.

Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life – a shimmer of national life – and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening.

Because the distance between the grids was so great, there was less in the way of comfort. The middle distance had been a comfort. But the middle distance had fallen away. The grid of national life was very large now, but the space in which one man felt at home shrank. It shrank to intimacy.

So, there is this great loneliness because of television. The very antidote for this loneliness will be through products that will provide comfort, brief, fleeting comfort, that compels one to seek more products that give such warmth. A presidential candidate, therefore, should ideally be a product that conveys this comfort and warmth:

Things very distant came powerfully close, but just for a minute. It was a comfort. And useful to men who wished to enforce childish agreements, because the progress of the advertisement is toward the destruction of distance between the product and the person who might consume the product.

A product consumed by a man alone in a room exists in the grid of one, alone, and in the grid of two hundred million. To the man alone, it is a comfort. But just for a minute.

What is sought is this intimacy, intimacy with someone or something great. For this intimacy to have consequence, it cannot simply be warmth from anyone, but must be an individual with an aura of grandeur about them, a grandeur of fame. Daniel Boorstin, in The Image points to the utter inconsequentiality of most celebrities, that they are very much like others, unmarked by distinction or achievement, and George W. Bush can be said to belong to this group. He is markedly unsuccessful in just about every field, his only distinctions a prominent father and, just like Paris Hilton, vast wealth. These details, however, are enough to make him “prominent” and “important”. The sight of tears of a slum dweller or an overwhelmed stranger are an unwanted intimacy. The tears of a man “prominent” and “important”, though his prominence and importance has nothing to do with anything he’s done, are an intimacy sought, they are important tears for the same reason the tears of any Kardashian are more worthy of attention than yours:

george w bush in tears underlined

Mark [McKinnon] started out with some general questions about growing up in Midland. We weren’t sure how we would use this, but it was familiar terrain and a way to start a conversation. Bush loved Midland and you could see his eyes soften and his whole body relax when he talked about what it was like to grow up in a place with few trees and a ton of oil wells.

They moved on to the standard issues, tax cuts and then the military. When talking about how important it was for America to be respected around the world, his tone shifted and he looked off camera for a moment and for a beat I thought he might tear up. It surprised me. What was he thinking, feeling?

“You know,” he said, “everywhere I go in America, everywhere I’ve gone on this fantastic journey so far, people walk up to me with pictures of their children and say, ‘Governor, I want my child to look at the White House and be proud of what he or she sees.’”

Then he stopped and a hint of tears did come. The room was utterly silent, with only the faint hum of the 35-millimeter film running through the camera.

In the editing room a week later, we used what he said in a spot we called “Pictures.” It was always my favorite.

When I read that the public was told that George W. Bush was more “likable” than Al Gore, I am reminded of this note from No Context:

No one, now, minds a con man. But no one likes a con man who doesn’t know what we think we want.

That these images are false, in discordance with how these men may act, is an obvious possibility. That the images presented have nothing to do with actual policies necessary and helpful to people, the very thing that should be most crucial to voters, is obvious as well.

Here are two brief assessments by Stevens of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, assessments so utterly wrong, through blindness willful or not, as to be grimly, grimly funny. The first is a contrast between Bush and the democratic nominee Al Gore, stressing Bush’s calmer, more rational qualities:

lets bomb some country

The [Gore campaign] loved to make fun of Bush as a slacker, but in truth, I bet Gore’s hyperkinetic, meddlesome nature drove them nuts. Here was a guy who woke his staff up at 4 A.M. to insist they make the spot he just wrote on a nuclear arms treaty right now. This is quality that is amusing in poets but downright dangerous in a president. Hey guys, wake up, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s bomb some country!

Here is a passage on the impossibility of Dick Cheney being hated:

dick cheney part one dick cheney part two

They had two lines of attack – trying to paint Dick Cheney as a rabid right-winger and going after Bush’s Texas record.

The Cheney attacks, we were convinced, were a total waste. The notion that somehow they were going to turn the low-key amiable Dick Cheney into a hated figure was preposterous. It wasn’t going to work. The guy you saw on television on Meet the Press came across as eminently reasonable; plus, the press liked Cheney. They weren’t going to participate in some feeding frenzy to demonize him. The attacks were based on votes Cheney had cast years earlier as a congressman and as attacks go, they were awfully weak stuff. First, nobody outside of Wyoming even knew that Dick Cheney had been a congressman. To the extent he had a public profile, it was as defense secretary during the Gulf War. So, first the Dems had to educate people that he had been a congressman, then convince people he had done terrible things as a congressman, then try to establish why this mattered fifteen years later and, by the way, forget about the Dick Cheney you came to respect and admire during the Gulf War.

A final few notes from No Context, concerning game shows, but applicable to a presidential contest:

Art requires a context: the power of this moment, the moment of the events in the foreground, seen against the accumulation of other moments. The moment in the foreground adheres to the accumulation or rejects it briefly before joining it. How do the manipulators of television deal with this necessity?

By the use of ad-hoc contexts. Just for the moment. We’re here together, in a little house. It makes such good sense. But just a moment. We’re playing “Password”!

Game shows have come to admit that they refer only to themselves. (“For ten thousand dollars and a chance to join the one-hundred-thousand-dollar playoff, according to what you just said, what did you say?”)

A presidential campaign, is sometimes seen by many of its participants as an entirely self-contained game, and to view it as such does not mean you will be unsuccessful at this game. When the president says the simple sentence that the private sector is doing fine, it is considered a mistake that will count, “Obama’s political gaffe will be fodder in general election”. What connection does this small sentence have to do with the condition of the economy and the various blocked plans to do anything for relief? Nothing. Why must it count? Because Chris Cillizza says it will count. A similar event takes place with the point of the “war on women”, the various attempts to block abortion, contraception, and equal pay. Why was it over? Because Hilary Rosen declared a “war on moms”, so now women have nothing to worry about: “The “War on Women” Is Over”. But have things improved in any of these areas for women? No. The war on women is over because the referees say it is over. The war on women can also be redefined as almost exclusively about abortion, as Conor Friedersdorf does in “In Defense of Stay-at-Home Moms”. Is this mis-statement a gaffe? No, silly. The referees can say whatever they want. If you find this whole closed loop utterly meaningless, as Joan Didion did in “Insider Baseball”, then you might be told with rolled eyes, “You don’t get how game shows work.” A hopeful sign is that the game show format is rapidly losing its appeal.

The advertising for the campaign, it should be stressed again, is not used as an attempt to present the policy which the president is in favour of. The advertising exists in and of itself, to elect the president, with the policy incidental, and only to be made clear after the election. Here is a discussion of tax policy and budgets for a Bush ad. The budget impact of massive tax cuts goes unmentioned. What is crucial for an ad is that taxes being cut, social programs for the elderly, a key Republican constituency, be preserved, and national defense spending, always a red meat issue for conservatives, be kept intact. The rest, are just numbers to be settled later, after November. Whether it all adds up is unimportant for the ad.

whether it adds up underlined

“I believe that once top priorities have been funded, we should pass money back to the taxpayers,” he continued to read. “That’s what I’ve done in Texas. I signed the two largest tax cuts in Texas history.” He paused. “Lot of Texas in here.” He made some notes and tried it again. “I signed the two largest tax cuts in our state’s history.”

“Does it bother anybody that it sounds like that if it’s not Medicare, Social Security or defense, it won’t get funded?” I asked.

“I thought that was the point,” Mark said.

“What are you worried about?” Bush asked.

I shrugged. “That it makes you sound like that if you’re president you’ll pay for these three or four things but that’s it.”

“Republicans love this stuff, don’t they?” Mark said. “Isn’t that what they want?”

Bush laughed.

“Are people going to think that you won’t pay for roads or airports or-”

“Roads?” Bush teased. “You want roads in here?”

“No, I mean-”

“You want some roads, we can put some roads. ‘As your president, I promise to finish I-Thirty-five, so help me God.’”

“You know what i mean.”

“Don’t count on it.” Then Bush continued, “It’s an ad, not a budget. We can write the budget later.”

In “Making Mitt Romney: How to Fabricate a Conservative” by Ken Silverstein, there is a parenthetical aside on confetti services, highlighting the absurdity of the heightened importance for this frivolous effect, for what should essentially be a contest of different policy approaches1. These effects, such as the confetti, from the perspective of a consultant like Stevens are not inessential at all, but entirely the essence of the process. Here he is watching a McCain rally with a fellow consultant:

confetti underlined

“You know what bothers me the most about McCain?” I said to [Mark McKinnon, another Bush political consultant].

“I don’t want to hear this.”

“His confetti. This guy has the best confetti I’ve ever seen.”

We watched in silence for a while, brooding.

“That is great confetti,” Mark said.

The confetti was shooting out in great cannon loads, exploding at just the right arc, showering McCain and his wife in a blizzard of bright paper.

“If we had confetti like that this race would be over,” I said.

“This is a character test,” Mark said. “Anybody can win with great confetti. It takes a genius to win with so-so confetti.”

This could be taken as a joke. However, when we arrive at a central point of a campaign, the nominee’s speech, whose text is supposedly of primary importance as a guideline for the identity of the candidate and what his presidency might be like, its content goes entirely unmentioned. Only the effects surrounding the speech are spoken of, the words themselves of no importance. A lengthy excerpt, with the candidate entering a dark stage while his campaign film ends:

speech part one speech part two

I was so involved in the last frames of the film that I almost missed seeing Bush walk out onstage. It went perfectly – the crowd didn’t notice him until the film ended and the back lights came up, highlighting him, just as we had planned. The hall exploded.

In the theater, there’s a phrase directors use called “holding the moment.” It means knowing how to work with the audience’s attention, not hurrying it, playing off the crowd but not overplaying your hand. Not many untrained actors do it well, and often Bush seemed a touch embarrassed by the adulation of large crowds and either hurried through the moment or sort of hammed it up in some fashio, laughing and joking around.

But that night he held the moment. He looked happy but serious, without the boyish “aw shucks” quality that was part of his charm. If I had been a Gore guy, hoping that Bush would boot the speech, I would have given up any hope right then. He was going to give the best speech of his life – you could just smell it. Jim Ferguson and Janet Kraus were up in the lighting booth with me and Fergie leaned down and yelled over the applause, “He’s gonna goddamn slay ‘em.”

We had decided to keep the convention hall dark during Bush’s speech. The idea was to increase the drama of the moment and to make it difficult for the network cameras to focus on anything but the guy who was standing on the stage. Normally the convention hall remains well lit and it enables to cameras to roam at will, looking for the best reaction shot. Or what the networks think is the best reaction shot – it could be someone crying, but it could just as easily be someone looking bored or distracted. That was the problem with staging a convention – you couldn’t cast the damn thing. If we could have filled the hall with actors, I wouldn’t have been so worried. But real people, well, they were unpredictable and this was not a moment to leave anything to chance.

Bill Klages was the convention lighting designer, the winner of seven Emmys. I was standing next to him with a text of the speech, trying to cue him when to expect the crowd to react so that he could trigger a starburst light effect that would sweep the convention hall with flashing, staccato lights, which invariably made the crowd roar even louder. It’s the sort of thing they do at rock concerts all the time and was borderline inappropriate for this kind of speech, a bit like using a disco ball at church and spinning it during the really good parts of the sermon. But the speech was going to be an hour long and it was better to use every trick in the book to keep the level of excitement high than to run the risk of having reporters sense that the crowd’s interest had lagged.

We were five minutes into the speech when the networks started phoning, raising hell about the hall being too dark for their reaction shots.

“What do you think we should tell them?” Klages asked me, covering the phone with his hand.

“I think it looks great,” I said.

“So do I,” he nodded, then, into the phone, “We thought about it and we’ve decided you can go screw yourself. Okay?” He hung up the phone. “What’s our next cue?” he asked.

When the speech was over and the first balloon drop was coming down and the fireworks were starting to go off inside the hall – that was one of [long-time Republican National convention organizer] David Nash’s little tricks, using fireworks inside the hall, which had not pleased the Secret Service – Bush stepped back and the podium dropped down.

We see here a process conducted entirely in images, and in an augury of what would take place under the Bush presidency, the maintenance of an iron grip on these images. That the process consists only of images is not viewed by Stevens as a liability. He does not think the scrutiny of newspapers and reporters as a good thing, but a detriment to the electoral process. This point is made in his novel “Scorched Earth”2, as well as this memoir. The relevant sections are bolded.

organization rather than paid media part one organization rather than paid media part two

He [George W Bush] gave a speech to a lunch crowd of about four hundred people and afterward, I ran into Davis Yepsen, the Des Moines Register‘s lead political reporter. Every four years Yepsen becomes a familiar face on television, being generally recognized as the guy who knows more about the Iowa Caucuses than anyone else alive. Which might even be true.

“So what did you think?” I asked him outside the small auditorium.

Yepsen has that permanently rumpled look that reporters probably think makes them look like Dustin Hoffman playing Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men.

“I just don’t know if Bush has the organization to win big.” Ahhh…I knew it would come down to this. Organization. Yepsen was obsessed with the notion that organization rather than paid media was the key to winning the Iowa Caucuses. This had become the conventional wisdom ever since Jimmy Carter put the Iowa Caucus on the map by outworking and outorganizing the field in 1976.

Essential to this view of the world was the idea that paid media – television an radio – would not carry a candidate to caucus victory. If anybody was ever able to rely more on media than organization and pull off an Iowa victory, it would go a long way toward reducing the value on an insider like David Yepsen. Then the Iowa Caucuses would become just like any other big statewide race, with the likely outcome determined by media buys and easily digestible polls. The voodoo of the caucus systems would be exposed as, well, voodoo.

The campaign which makes the most media buys, the wealthiest campaign is the one that should win. This is Stevens’ vision. Media is not intended to transmit one’s policies, but only to elect an individual, and actual policy positions may endanger the goal of electing the candidate. Again, we have election as a closed process, like a gameshow, nothing outside or after touching it:

media consultants and policy wonks

In most campaigns, there is a gulf between strategy/tactics/media and policy, with each side viewing the other as a necessary evil. Media guys like me tended to look on policy as that stuff you had to have a little of to be credible but too much was either distracting, consuming valuable time and resources without attracting votes or highly dangerous, exposing the candidate needlessly to positions that might alienate potential voters. Policy wonks see media consultants and campaign operatives as nasty and brutish tools regrettably required to get through that awkward stage of actually getting elected so that the world can embrace their brilliant ideas.

PERSONAL DETAILS

I end with two mysterious aspects of Stuart Stevens that reccur in his books. The first deals with his education. He is eighteen in 1972, and in 1978 starts work on his first congressional campaign, putting the length of his education at six years. Based on his writings, during these six years, he attended five schools: a college in the United States3, Oxford as an undergrad student4, Oxford as a graduate student5, two film schools6, including UCLA7. However, these are entirely his own statements: the only time UCLA is mentioned as a school is in an old profile, “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”, in the New York Times, with Oxford unnamed, and Oxford never named in any book jacket of his five books. His Oxford education is not mentioned at all in The Big Enchilada. These details, rightly or wrongly, tend to cause my antennae to buzz that there may be something false in this account. I have already written here in this analysis of Stevens’ book Malaria Dreams that I think there is some basis that parts of it are manufactured.

The other recurrent detail is his wife. Stevens has been married to this woman for at least thirty years, meeting her in the New Orleans club Tipitina’s, and is with her in Switzerland during the early ’80s where he coaches rugby while she teaches8. Since then, he writes five books (Night Train To Turkmenistan, Malaria Dreams, Feeding Frenzy, Scorched Earth, and The Big Enchilada), none of which carry a dedication to a wife. In two of those books, Malaria Dreams and Feeding Frenzy he travels, respectively, through Africa and Europe with a beautiful, open-minded woman, his wife not even mentioned in Frenzy, his wife, always off-screen, racing to meet him at the end of Malaria. The Big Enchilada continues this tradition, with his wife accompanying him to Austin, Texas for the purposes of the campaign, but almost entirely unmentioned, except for her admiration for Karl Rove’s pens9. At the very end of the book, Stevens briefly seems to forget that he’s married10.

A relevant life for this last detail is Jon Hinson, a good friend of Stevens, on whose campaign Stevens does his first work as a political consultant. Jon Hinson led a fascinating and sometimes brave life, some of whose details are mentioned here. That this life may have provided a lesson to others, including Stevens, goes without saying. Those who read this and are able to make the obvious deductions, might ask: do you not feel vile bringing this up? And the answer is, yes, I do.

But I will ask in turn: why have we arrived at this point? Why do men like Jon Hinson need to live like hunted animals? Is it the policies of Stevens’ candidates or mine? Stevens’ attitude toward the electoral process is that it is total war, a case of fight, fight, fight, no stone unthrown, no arrow unflown. Then it should be expected that people who are fighting for their lives, not their political lives, but their lives, will fight back in turn, will fight back hard. Stuart Stevens may think the lives of those outside the process are worthless chaff, but we will make clear by how hard we fight for our lives that they have the same value of Stevens or any potentate he works for.

1 From the Harper’s piece:

Romney has employed a number of firms to stage his campaign events, among them Political Productions, which was paid $20,800 to help choreograph his announcement ceremony in February. The firm is headed by David Grossman, who has handled rallies for President Bush, produced and designed the 2001 inaugural parade, and helped prepare the Desert Storm victory celebration in Washington during the term of George H.W. Bush. (Political Productions is also, according to its website, “the leader in confetti services for the political production market,” and its team of professional confetti-releasers assures that a “synchronized event” will come off flawlessly “with all elements occurring on cue when and where you want. With only 20 to 30 seconds following each speech available for a headline photo opportunity or a video lead-in clip, why chance your production to anyone but the leader in political production?”)

2 From the novel Scorched Earth, a meeting between the protaganist consultant and a reporter, Robert Newsome:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You know what it is about you reporters, Newsome?” Matt asked. Newsome was busy scrubbing furiously at his suit pants with a wet towel. “You’re fundamentally conflicted about this campaign stuff.”

“Conflicted?” Newsome muttered.

“You guys talk all the time about how you hate dull campaigns and spend God knows how much energy trying to get two candidates to bash each other’s brains out-”

“What other fun is there?”

“Exactly. And then if a campaign should finally catch fire and start exploding on you, all of a sudden you start to condescend and rip into us for lack of decorum. Decorum. Hah!” Matt laughed loudly. Heads turned. “On the one hand, you want democracy to be a great popular sport, everybody involved and cheering wildly. But as soon as it starts to happen, you’re horrified. It’s like you want everybody to come to the party but only if they dress just so. You complain about how nobody votes anymore. Big deal! Ninety percent of the people in Italy vote. You want a country like that? And all this BS about how television ads are ruining campaigns! You know why editorial writers don’t like television spots? Because they take power out of their hands! They want a few dinky debates, a polite campaign, and then for everybody to sit at home on Sunday waiting for the editorials to know which way to vote. Instead, some jerk like me can muck things up! You want twenty percent of the people to vote instead of fifty! Just take campaign commercials off the air. You’ll bore everybody to death!”

3 From “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens.

I’d tried it once in college when an exceptionally gorgeous girl of a Nordic type suggested a trip up Pikes Peak in Colorado as something of a first date. (That sort of squeaky-clean approach was popular at that time and place, a phase I hope has passed for those still dating in Colorado.)

4 From Feeding Frenzy:

oxford

We were in a little restaurant on the side of a cliff in a town called Eze, wedged between Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Monte Carlo. I was nineteen, I think, and on one of the many interminable vacations that Oxford likes to provide. She was a few years older, an American, but she had lived in France for a while, which seemed very impressive and somehow important. It was late March and not far away there were almost nude women lying on rocks they called a beach.

5 From “My Secret Life As A Muslim” by Stuart Stevens:

From my formative years as a grad student at Oxford, where there were many Muslims, there exist photographs of me attending a lecture entitled, “The History of Islam.” I was spotted many times riding my motorcycle in the vicinity of the Mosque on Bath Road. That I was visiting a girlfriend who lived nearby may only have been a clever deep cover deception. As proof of my success as a Muslim organizer, there are now four Mosques in Oxford, where there was only one when I was a student.

6 From The Big Enchilada:

film school part one film school part two

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it. I explained that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make commercials and when he protested that I had just been to two of the fanciest film schools in the country, I tried to tell him that mostly what I did was watch old films and write little essays and listen to people like Vincente Minnelli tell us how it used to be. (Minelli wore a blazer the color of a canary yellow Post-it note. Perfect.)

7 From “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate”. Stevens has done writing and producing work for television; he is unmentioned among UCLA alumni of writers, producers, or documentary film-makers.

This free-form approach reflects the philosophy of the 40-year-old Mr. Stevens. Unlike most political consultants who rose from campaign ranks, he went to film school at the University of California at Los Angeles and has published fiction.

8 From “Thank God, This Will Only Get Worse” by Stuart Stevens.

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.

9 These are the references to Stevens’ wife in Big Enchilada:

taste in pens and paper

With one of his elegant fountain pens – Karl had better taste in pens and paper than any man she knew, my wife maintained – Karl diagrammed the campaign structure.

A reference to a shared domiciles in a brief scene with Yvette, a campaign worker:

our house

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

This is her, just out of reach, in Austin, on the night of the 2000 election after which the electoral result was held suspended for weeks.

my wife had taken it home

But when I walked out on Congress Street I realized I didn’t have my car after all, that my wife had taken it home around 1 A.M., a lifetime ago. I walked down Congress Street in the rain looking for a cab.

10 The forgetting of a wife takes place in the movement from “our” apartment to “my” apartment in New York City. A brief scene with Yvette, a helper on the campaign:

our house

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

Here is Stevens leaving Austin. We are not told of his wife leaving before him. Again, my bold.

our place in austin

I left Austin right after the certification, thinking it was all over. The lease was up on our little limestone cottage and it seemed silly to move into a hotel. The truth was, I had come to hate the recount period, hated the way it made me feel like some kind of hanger-on. Karl was starting to focus on the first hundred days of the new administration, but that wasn’t what I did. I was a campaign guy and no matter what Bill Daley said, the campaign had ended on November 7, 2000.

Next page, now he’s back in New York. My bolded emphasis.

my apartment

The night it finally ended, Wednesday, December 13, I watched the speeches on television just like everybody else. I was back in my apartment in New York, ready to resume my life, but still held in some kind of suspended animation by this horrible, tedious process. But now, yes, it was over.

“Our” apartment is now “my” apartment.

(Small edits have been made to this post for aesthetics, grammar, and spelling since its original publication. On April 24th, 2013, I noticed that, through some error, some scanned images of Enchilada were blurry and not underlined; I replaced them with clearer, underlined scans.)

(What follows is the original post on this book.)

The Big Enchilada is an account of Stevens’ time in the campaign to elect George W. Bush in 2000, published in 2001, after the re-count, before the September 11 attacks. This entry is brief and unfinished.

OXFORD AND JON HINSON

When you read a Dashiell Hammett story, you wait in suspense over who’ll die first and when someone will have the first drink. In a book by Stuart Stevens, you’re held taut on whether he’ll mention going to Oxford and when. He writes of attending as an undergraduate in Feeding Frenzy, as a graduate in this Atlantic piece, and general attendance is mentioned in Malaria Dreams.

In The Big Enchilada, we get an overview of his post secondary education. Two of the best film schools, nothing else. He helps out a friend in a congressional race in 1978, when he is twenty five, no further education is cited. I bold what might be a significant sentence.

film school part one film school part two

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it. I explained that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to make commercials and when he protested that I had just been to two of the fanciest film schools in the country, I tried to tell him that mostly what I did was watch old films and write little essays and listen to people like Vincente Minnelli tell us how it used to be. (Minelli wore a blazer the color of a canary yellow Post-it note. Perfect.)

But my friend was insistent.

The congressman from Jackson, my hometown, was Thad Cochran and he was running for the Senate, opening up the seat my friend was trying to win.

It wasn’t as though I had a lot of offers after film school and I had to admit it did sound like fun. So I went back to Mississippi and somehow we stumbled our way to victory in what was seen as a major upset. Then I discovered other people would pay me money to make commercials for them.

So I became a media consultant.

Why not? It’s a profession of charlatans. You want to be a media consultant, just say you’re one.

Oxford is mentioned once, in discussing a location for a campaign ad:

oxford not ames iowa

The whole building felt more like Oxford than Ames, Iowa, with lots of high arches, flared valence lighting and windows with heavy ironwork dividing the panes.

You would think a building that looks like the school one attended in one’s youth might trigger a reminiscence, some anecdote of some kind, but there’s nothing. Gee, I wonder why.

So, if these mentions of Oxford attendance in two books and an article are deceptions, I wonder if this is to be the Romney campaign’s solution to the problem of student debt: that students should not spend money to attend schools, but simply state that they went to those schools anyway. To act like…what’s the word? Oh, yes: charlatans.

I do not stress this point out of any great devotion to an alma mater. Like Shakespeare, perhaps like Stevens, I’m a non-Oxfordian. I only wonder at what point the rules that apply to each one of us finally apply to the same chattering class which happily tosses these rules down on us. For if I were asked why Stevens thinks he can state that he went to Oxford when he did not, which, if it were the case, is a lie, and why he thinks he can write a memoir like Malaria Dreams with a timeline so scrambled that, outside other possible explanations, suggests a series of lies, I believe the answer is that he has enough contacts within this chattering class that any deep scrutiny can be avoided. While those of us outside this chattering class will have our smallest shortcomings punished with financial austerity, Stevens is given grace, because he knows people we do not.

In fact, I wonder if I might be able to find somewhere in Enchilada where we see Stevens in close, incestuous contact with someone who might render judgment, but also someone who praised the Paul Ryan austerity budget, an intertwining of the politico-media class that Stevens will describe as incestuous. Why, yes, I believe, my humble brain can find such a thing.

jacob weisberg

Jacob Weisberg, who writes for Slate magazine, was with me. He’d heard through the incestuous grapevine of journalists and political operatives that I was planning to sneak away for a few hours on election morning and asked if he could come along.

“I was on the Yale cross-country ski team,” Jacob told me, then added, “We were terrible, don’t be impressed.”

Driving up, Jacob started telling me about the first time he had met John McCain. “It was at Michael Lewis’s wedding,” he explained. “At my house.”

Jacob Weisberg is now chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate. Here he is praising the Ryan budget as “brave, radical, smart”. I think he’s a good writer and a good editor. If I feel revulsion at all this, it is not at him but at a distance which exists between those who struggle for the simplest things, and those who apart, seemingly hear only themselves talk. Those who would suffer most under the Ryan budget will not be on the Yale ski team, they will not be at the wedding of Michael Lewis, they will not get to ski with Weisberg and Stevens. They will never get to explain their mistakes, their difficulties, their lives. They are not like others, who have networks, have contacts, have ins.

I return to a point from the lengthy excerpt on Stevens’ education and his beginning in politics.

Then a friend called just as I was finishing film school. He was running for Congress in Mississippi against Senator John Stennis’s son and couldn’t afford to hire anybody to make ads for him. So he asked me to do it.

The congressman from Jackson, my hometown, was Thad Cochran and he was running for the Senate, opening up the seat my friend was trying to win.

It wasn’t as though I had a lot of offers after film school and I had to admit it did sound like fun. So I went back to Mississippi and somehow we stumbled our way to victory in what was seen as a major upset.

For whatever reason, Stevens leaves this friend unnamed. He names the man who first got him into politics, William Winter, a former segregationist who became a force for racial reconciliation in Mississippi, described by Stevens as the best governor the state had in thirty years, but this next man, the subject of his first campaign, goes unnamed, though he can easily be looked up. It’s Jon Hinson, some of whose brave, tragic life is described in this post. And for whatever reason, almost all the significant details of that life are omitted in his brief unnamed mention in Enchilada. It is a life that may have some especial significance on this day1.

That both characters, Winter and Hinson, are given brief emphasis back to back in this book, makes an overspeculative man like me speculate that perhaps two characters in Stevens’ novel, Scorched Earth, about Mississippi born political consultant Matt Bonney, are in fact based on these two. Powell Bonney, the political consultant’s father, a former segregationist who goes on to be an excellent governor, with Luke Bonney as the consultant’s brother, a man just like the consultant, his near twin in fact, whose first campaign was managed by Matt Bonney.

INCIDENTAL NOTES

Observations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from 2000 that fill me with grim laughter. Here is Stevens comparing the temperament of Al Gore unfavourably to that of Bush:

lets bomb some country

The Gore people loved to make fun of Bush as a slacker, but in truth, I bet Gores hyperkinetic, meddlesome nature drove them nuts. Here was a guy who woke his staff up at 4 A.M. to insist they make the spot he just wrote on a nuclear arms treaty right now. This is quality that is amusing in poets but downright dangerous in a president. Hey guys, wake up, I’ve got a great idea! Let’s bomb some country!

Well, it’s a good thing Bush got elected, and not some guy who decided to make a rash and utterly baseless decision to go to war with another country.

Here is Stevens ridiculing various attempts by democrats to defame the potential vice president. I bold the part I laughed hardest.

dick cheney part one dick cheney part two

They had two lines of attack – trying to paint Dick Cheney as a rabid right-winger and going after Bush’s Texas record.

The Cheney attacks, we were convinced, were a total waste. The notion that somehow they were going to turn the low-key amiable Dick Cheney into a hated figure was preposterous. It wasn’t going to work. The guy you saw on television on Meet the Press came across as eminently reasonable; plus, the press liked Cheney. They weren’t going to participate in some feeding frenzy to demonize him. The attacks were based on votes Cheney had cast years earlier as a congressman and as attacks go, they were awfully weak stuff. First, nobody outside of Wyoming even knew that Dick Cheney had been a congressman. To the extent he had a public profile, it was as defense secretary during the Gulf War. So, first the Dems had to educate people that he had been a congressman, then convince people he had done terrible things as a congressman, then try to establish why this mattered fifteen years later and, by the way, forget about the Dick Cheney you came to respect and admire during the Gulf War.

No doubt that will be Dick Cheney’s lasting impression, a low-key amiable man. Stuart Stevens, the oracle of Delphi.

In an otherwise funny passage on trying to book musical acts for a republican convention, Stevens trips up and unleashes a little malice, letting us know that he thinks Ireland is a country that can’t govern itself – this was said during the celtic tiger era, so he perhaps is talking about some deeper issue of independent rule, away from a mother nation.

ungovernable ireland

Nobody had actually asked Elton John (who probably hated Republicans more than he hated growing old) or U2 (who, despite the fact they come from a country that can’t govern itself, seemed to have quite a few opinions on how to perfect the world) whether they would love nothing more than to perform in front of a few thousand Republican yahoos in Philadelphia for free. These conference calls were like talking to people on hallucinogenic drugs, only they didn’t realize they were on drugs.

On the identity of the republican party at the time, and the limits of its appeal.

We had to face reality: The Democrats had been wildly successful in painting the Republican Party as a natural home for right-wing lunatics and nutballs of all stripes. And the party hadn’t helped itself with antics like shutting down the government or failing to denounce the wackos who were busy circulating pictures of Clinton behind the grassy knoll in Dallas. “Compassionate conservative” was the shorthand that would signal to the world that Bush was different. We wanted people to hear it and think that yes, Bush was a conservative, but he cared about education, cared about the poor and lower-middle class, cared about finding new solutions to vexing problems of inequality. There had been a lot of back and forth over who actually coined the term but there’s no question it was Rove and Bush who had latched onto it and wrapped the Bush candidacy around the concept. If it worked, compassionate conservatism would be the way to cut the Gordian knot that was holding back the Republican party. Like the Democrats in the 1980s, the Republican party’s growth was bounded by its extremes.

In regard to this attempt to transform the republican party from a haven for lunatics and nutballs of all stripes, I think it is apt to quote Stevens’ former boss, and say: “Mission Accomplished.”

A relevant excerpt on Republican candidates:

four slots

So driving back, I explained to Chuck what I called McInturff’s Law. It was named after one of the smartest pollsters in America, Bill McInturff, and it went like this: The Republican party has basically four slots for a candidate to fit into. There’s the Establishment slot, the Economic Conservative slot, the pro-life/Christian Conservative slot, and the Businessman/Outsider slot. To win the Republican nomination, you had to fit into at least three of those slots. Bush fit into all four. McCain? He really only fit one – the Businessman/Outsider slot. That limited his appeal such that he could never really get traction.

It seems that Mitt Romney fits only in one slot as well, that of Businessman/Outsider, with his two most formidable challengers, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, fitting into all three, hence the lack of enthusiasm for this nominee.

In Stevens’ view, the enthusiasm of supporters and their ability to organize is irrelevant. The great importance is ultimately media buys, and whoever has the most media buys, wins. An unspoken corollary is here also: it is the campaign with the most available money for media buys that will always win.

This perspective is given here, in a conversation with an Iowa journalist. I bold the significant parts:

organization rather than paid media part one organization rather than paid media part two

He [George W Bush] gave a speech to a lunch crowd of about four hundred people and afterward, I ran into Davis Yepsen, the Des Moines Register‘s lead political reporter. Every four years Yepsen becomes a familiar face on television, being generally recognized as the guy who knows more about the Iowa Caucuses than anyone else alive. Which might even be true.

“So what did you think?” I asked him outside the small auditorium.

Yepsen has that permanently rumpled look that reporters probably think makes them look like Dustin Hoffman playing Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men.

“I just don’t know if Bush has the organization to win big.” Ahhh…I knew it would come down to this. Organization. Yepsen was obsessed with the notion that organization rather than paid media was the key to winning the Iowa Caucuses. This had become the conventional wisdom ever since Jimmy Carter put the Iowa Caucus on the map by outworking and outorganizing the field in 1976.

Essential to this view of the world was the idea that paid media – television an radio – would not carry a candidate to caucus victory. If anybody was ever able to rely more on media than organization and pull off an Iowa victory, it would go a long way toward reducing the value on an insider like David Yepsen. Then the Iowa Caucuses would become just like any other big statewide race, with the likely outcome determined by media buys and easily digestible polls. The voodoo of the caucus systems would be exposed as, well, voodoo.

This is entirely the same opinion given in Scorched Earth, Stevens’ novel about a senate race in Mississippi. A conversation between a political consultant, Matt Bonney, and a journalist, Robert Newsome:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You know what it is about you reporters, Newsome?” Matt asked. Newsome was busy scrubbing furiously at his suit pants with a wet towel. “You’re fundamentally conflicted about this campaign stuff.”

“Conflicted?” Newsome muttered.

“You guys talk all the time about how you hate dull campaigns and spend God knows how much energy trying to get two candidates to bash each other’s brains out-”

“What other fun is there?”

“Exactly. And then if a campaign should finally catch fire and start exploding on you, all of a sudden you start to condescend and rip into us for lack of decorum. Decorum. Hah!” Matt laughed loudly. Heads turned. “On the one hand, you want democracy to be a great popular sport, everybody involved and cheering wildly. But as soon as it starts to happen, you’re horrified. It’s like you want everybody to come to the party but only if they dress just so. You complain about how nobody votes anymore. Big deal! Ninety percent of the people in Italy vote. You want a country like that? And all this BS about how television ads are ruining campaigns! You know why editorial writers don’t like television spots? Because they take power out of their hands! They want a few dinky debates, a polite campaign, and then for everybody to sit at home on Sunday waiting for the editorials to know which way to vote. Instead, some jerk like me can muck things up! You want twenty percent of the people to vote instead of fifty! Just take campaign commercials off the air. You’ll bore everybody to death!”

We see some of the flaws with this approach in the current race. The very well financed Romney campaign appears to be threatened by the very, very well organized Ron Paul supporters who have taken advantage of every edge in the caucus rule book to obtain a winners’ share of the delegates in Iowa and elsewhere, so they might hiss up as a poisonous asp in the elysium of the GOP convention.

That media buys are essential to a campaign dovetails with Stevens’ later observations on the distinctions between policy and media in the course of a campaign. Karl, of course is, well, you can guess who Karl is.

media consultants and policy wonks

In most campaigns, there is a gulf between strategy/tactics/media and policy, with each side viewing the other as a necessary evil. Media guys like me tended to look on policy as that stuff you had to have a little of to be credible but too much was either distracting, consuming valuable time and resources without attracting votes or highly dangerous, exposing the candidate needlessly to positions that might alienate potential voters. Policy wonks see media consultants and campaign operatives as nasty and brutish tools regrettably required to get through that awkward stage of actually getting elected so that the world can embrace their brilliant ideas.

In the Bush campaign world, Karl bridged the gap. He was actually interested in the details of policy, a trait which I might have found suspect if I didn’t know that he was also completely committed to the messy business of getting elected.

Since media is essential to a winning campaign, it would seem that policy would be secondary, if not inessential to a political race. The median that Karl Rove represents is not quite the one that Stevens intends here, a man expert in both worlds who shapes media expertly in presentation of policy, but something else: a man who shapes policy entirely for its presentation in visual media.

A critical look of Al Gore by Stevens, which is of great interest for the current campaign.

he will say anything to get elected

The key here was credibility. We weren’t going to win this race just by making the case that Al Gore was saying the wrong things and had the wrong plans. Sure, that was part of it, but we had to raise doubts so that when voters heard stuff from Gore they liked, they still would pause before accepting it. You could do it with large-scale failed promises, like his vow to fix health care in 1992, a debacle people still remembered, or with the little stuff that drove people nuts about Gore – the “I invented the Internet, I was the model for Love Story, I discovered the Love Canal” stuff.

He really will say anything to get elected.

As far as I can tell, Stevens thinks that a candidate who would say anything to get elected, and take credit for all manner of things they had nothing to do with, should not be elected. Someone, say, who takes credit for an auto bailout he was dead set against, someone who was for a path to citizenship, then changed his mind, someone who was independent during Reagan-Bush, until he decided two decades later that Reagan was one of his heroes, someone who didn’t own a gun until he owned a gun, someone who was for same sex marriage until he was against it, someone whose favorite book was Battlefield Earth until it was Huckleberry Finn, someone who was pro-choice until he was pro-life…well, we could be here all day. As far as I can tell, Stevens believes a person who constantly changes his position on every issue, who will say anything to be elected, should not, under any circumstances, be voted for. Advice taken, Mr. Stevens.

From what I’ve heard, the relationship between a consultant and their candidate is something like a marriage. If that’s the case, it must be great to have Mitt Romney as a client. It must be like sleeping with a different girl every night. That is, if you sleep with girls.

And what red-blooded male doesn’t? After all, marriage is between a man and a woman, right?

An interesting take on Al Gore during one of the debates.

the kind of kid you beat up

Gore was coming across as a petulant know-it-all, the kind of kid you draw straws with your buddies in high school for the right to beat up this week.

There’s a great benefit to a beatdown, beyond the pleasure of the beatdown itself, a pleasure, of course, exclusive to the perpetrator: you have the joy of knowing you’re not the victim. You belong, and the victim does not.

A last point on this book, on the subject of Stevens’ wife. In the books of some writers, their wives are sensually ever present, their smell and light in every page. The wife of Stevens is something like a benevolent god of another man’s faith, never seen, never described, entirely unknown, its markings few and obscure to the reader. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens travels through Europe with a gorgeous former model and we’re never told he’s even married. Malaria Dreams has Stevens traveling alone through Africa with another beautiful woman while racing to meet his wife, forever unseen and unheard, in an Algerian city.

Stevens’ wife is in Enchilada the way the vast fortune of a slightly disreputable businessman in a Buenos Aires café is most certainly there: the money exists, but it is always out of reach, never to have a substantial withdrawal on that day.

This is the wife giving her approval of Karl Rove’s tastes:

taste in pens and paper

With one of his elegant fountain pens – Karl had better taste in pens and paper than any man she knew, my wife maintained – Karl diagrammed the campaign structure.

Here she is, indirectly, as a fellow tenant in domiciles of Austin and New York:

our house

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

This is her, just out of reach, in Austin, on the night of the 2000 election after which the electoral result was held suspended for weeks.

my wife had taken it home

But when I walked out on Congress Street I realized I didn’t have my car after all, that my wife had taken it home around 1 A.M., a lifetime ago. I walked down Congress Street in the rain looking for a cab.

And those are all the signs by which you shall know her. There is a strange conclusion to all this. After this last quoted fragment, Stevens is in Austin, waiting through a few days as the post-election stasis of recounts and adjudication sets in. We are never told of Stevens’ wife leaving Austin. Long before the supreme court finally weighs in, allowing a glorious reign of peace and prosperity to unfurl, Stevens goes home, back to New York City.

I re-quote one fragment, with bolded emphasis before getting to this closing return.

I loved Yvette. She was funny and wicked smart and was always a calming presence, which is invaluable in a campaign world where it’s easy to believe that death and destruction lurk around every corner. She had stayed in our apartment in New York on a weekend trip to see the Yankees – she was a fanatical baseball fan – and stayed in our house in Austin to take care of our cats whenever we went out of town.

Here is Stevens leaving Austin. We are not told of his wife leaving before him. Again, my bold.

our place in austin

I left Austin right after the certification, thinking it was all over. The lease was up on our little limestone cottage and it seemed silly to move into a hotel. The truth was, I had come to hate the recount period, hated the way it made me feel like some kind of hanger-on. Karl was starting to focus on the first hundred days of the new administration, but that wasn’t what I did. I was a campaign guy and no matter what Bill Daley said, the campaign had ended on November 7, 2000.

Next page, now he’s back in New York. My bolded emphasis.

my apartment

The night it finally ended, Wednesday, December 13, I watched the speeches on television just like everybody else. I was back in my apartment in New York, ready to resume my life, but still held in some kind of suspended animation by this horrible, tedious process. But now, yes, it was over.

“Our” apartment is now “my” apartment. It would seem two lives would continue on in “our” place, but it appears there’s now only one life, “my” life in “my” apartment. It’s always helpful in the illusion of verisimilitude to make sure that a left-handed character on page 218 stays left-handed on page 298. When you’re in character, try and remember that your character is married, and don’t slip up.

I end on an obscure note, with a fragment from an earlier book of Stevens, Feeding Frenzy.

the conformist

She had the classic good looks I associated with Parisian women of twenty-five years ago, an image driven home by European cinema: Catherine Deneuve in Belle du Jour, Dominique Sanda in The Conformist.

The Conformist. Bernardo Bertolucci. Good movie. Interesting movie. Fitting movie.

1 This post was written on the day president Obama gave his public support for same-sex marriage.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Malaria Dreams by Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens

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, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, 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.

Malaria Dreams Stuart Stevens

THE UNSUBMISSIBLE PLACE

Malaria Dreams is a travel memoir following Stevens and a companion, Ann Bradley, as they voyage from the Central African Republic up to Algeria, traveling through, among other places, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and the Sahara. It is the best book of his that I have read because either through his own restraint, or the efforts of an editor, Stevens does not give in to his desire for malice or imagined violence. In other books, he or his proxy hero might imagine strangling a woman or ripping her vocal chords out with his teeth. Here, he simply groans. At the same time, the african setting makes his flaws even more poisonous. Though it’s the best book of his I’ve read so far, it’s also the most distasteful, and the ill taste of its worst moments endures. There is another, rather unusual aspect to this memoir, but I’ll get to that after.

Perhaps more than any place, Africa does not submit itself to anyone in writing. Ultimately, the writer must submit themselves to the continent. It is this resistance to submission which destroys Stevens’ book. It attempts to be a comedy travelogue, two bumbling adventurers passing through sights picturesque and horrific, the two travelers unchanged and apart from the landscape. The essence of what they observe, however, only hinted at in the writing, seems too rich, too complex to be contained in such a frivolous structure, and it makes this writing seem rancid.

I give two examples early on that stay with me. The first is a very vivid moment in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, which should contain the materials of something multi-faceted, the pathos and ridiculousness of poverty, yet which is made into something simpler, the comedy and horror of a man of the first world beset by the downtrodden of the third (I include a scan of the book pages to accompany all quotes, to make clear the quote is not distorted or taken out of context):

beggars

Bangui, like New York, has a hidden population of homeless and infirm who emerge after dark dominating the streets. Driving to and from expensive restaurants in Henri’s car, I’d noted with curiousity the swarming wheelchairs, unlike any I’d seen – ingenious devices powered by hand cranks mounted like handlebars. Outfitted with wide tires suitable for Bangui’s rubbled streets, the chairs could move with extreme speed and dexterity.

This I discovered while sulking back to the Novotel. On a side street near the main traffic circle, I suddenly found myself surrounded by wheelchairs. It seemed, at first, an amiable coincidence. I nodded and kept walking. Two chairs wheeled in to block my route. This is ridiculous, I thought, and turned, trying to be ever so casual, down a side alley leading to a main street. A chair manned by a person missing a chin filled the narrow walkway. He gave me a horrible, skeletal grin.

The encircling chairs began to move forward, tightening the noose. I can run, I thought, run past them, knock them over. Then a flashing knife made me think otherwise.

As they drew nearer, I reached into my pocket for a handful of coins. Shaking them alluringly like dice, I scattered the money in the street.

The wheelchairs instantly broke ranks, scrambling for the flashes of silver. I bolted for the hotel.

Ann was waiting for me in the lobby. “Did you get mugged?” I asked her, panting a bit.

“Of course not. Don’t be paranoid.”

Another scene, this one in a bar, again in Bangui:

does he beat you

At the bar there was a young, very pretty white woman we’d seen on the flight from France. She’d been carrying a black baby, and I asked Henri and Françoise if they knew her.

“Oh, yes,” Françoise said, “everyone knows everyone in Bangui. She met her husband while he was a student in Paris. They fell in love, married and came back here to live. He beats her regularly.”

This was delivered not in a catty, gossipy way but as a simple statement of fact, like “The pizza is good.”

“It’s very common,” Henri assured Ann and me. I suppose we looked as if we needed assuring.

“I do not even think,” Françoise said, “that it has anything to do with meanness or anger. It is always done, so they do it.”

“How quaint,” Ann observed.

Henri looked over at the woman at the bar. “The white wives of Africans do not strike me as the happiest people in the world.”

Later:

Ann and I talked with the tall, attractive woman bartender. She was not, to our surprise, French. “Russian,” she insisted, but when we looked unconvinced, she relented. “Czechoslovakian,” she admitted, as if that would make her presence completely logical. “I married an African student studying at university.”

“Does he beat you?” Ann asked.

I looked over at her, trying to recall how much Beaujolais she’d downed at dinner.

“What?” the Czech bartender asked. The music roared.

“Does he beat you?” Ann yelled, slapping the bar a few times for effect.

“What?”

Beat you!”

The bartender laughed. “We are divorced now,” she cried. “I am a free woman in Bangui!”

After:

On the edge of the city center, where the houses disappeared and the shacks began, it was jammed with white men dancing with black women.

“The pride of France!” Henri exclaimed, gesturing out over the steamy club floor. The men all had short hair and wore the preppy outfits that apparently were the norm for French men in Africa; topsiders and bright Lacoste shirts, khaki pants and alligator belts.

“This is what the men in Beau Geste were fighting for,” Henri said. “Vive l’Afrique!” He ordered another bottle of champagne.

They run into some american marines, including one named Ernie. Stevens buys beers.

aids man

With a familiar feeling of fiscal panic, I frantically tried to calculate it in dollars. Ernie took a look and said flatly, “About sixty-five dollars. I tried to warn you.”

“No problem,” I mumbled, thinking back fondly to the bargain price of living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“The only cheap thing in this country,” Ernie told me while we worked our way back over to the main huddle, “is women, but then you got to figure most of them come with the gift that keeps on giving.”

“What?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

“AIDS, man.” He slapped me on the back. “You join the Marine Corps, you flat learn about that stuff. What you got here” – he gestured out over the dance floor crowded with white men and black woman – “is one great hunk of AIDS. Right here is where it all started.”

“Some of these French guys,” another marine pronounced, “I think they might have got it on with that first monkey started all this stuff.”

“Hey.” Ernie wrapped his big arm around my shoulder. “This girl Ann, she your girlfriend, or what?”

Later we went outside to watch two French soldiers in a desultory fight. The marines were unimpressed. “For the love of God, will you look at those fairies. Are they in love or fighting?”

The ranking marine, a sergeant who, in his late twenties, was the oldest of the group, steered his men toward a Land Cruiser where a black chauffeur was asleep. “Leaving E. Club,” the sergeant barked into his crackling radio.

“Hey, look,” Ernie told Ann and me, though mostly he was looking at Ann, “you guys got to come over to the marine house. We got a great cook.”

“You have a cook?” Ann asked. She had a great interest in all things culinary.

“Hell, yes. Chauffeur too. Ain’t life great?”

Ann agreed and asked if she should dress for dinner.

That there is an ugliness, a squalor, in the contrast between the rich and the poor in Africa, in the difference in lives between the colonials and the citizens, in the ravages of disease, there is no doubt. Faced with it, I think the best writers can only find some all encompassing vision, not one that is sentimental, one that must be necessarily unsentimental, but one where all the characters and the details of their lives come through. The other approach, is one of nihilism, of finding the wretched in every man or woman, and necessarily, in oneself. The first approach can be found in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. The second can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

A coward takes neither approach, and uses the background for simple frissons – AIDS is rampant, the french are corrupt, the africans often poor and desperate, though the writer’s targets in the book, as seen above, are always selective. The opportunism and exploitation of the french is skewered, but never that of american corporations. The best embassies, in Chad and Niger, are built with american funds for reasons of military alliance. The most unequivocal heroic portrayal is Chad’s military fight, backed by the US, against Libya. I do not doubt the bravery of those involved in the fight, only find it striking that it is nearly the sole heroism to be found on the continent, and I think here we see the same Stevens that’s found in Scorched Earth: a man who liked to fight, a man who can only find meaning in a fight. This is not to suggest that there are not africans who are viewed with kindness in the book, only that no one emerges as themselves, the way the best characters do, seemingly warping the book through their life. The characters of this book are finally only effects, of sentimentality, garishness, horror, fear.

Here are a few short excerpts, showing three recurring motifs of the book: the french are opportunists, development aligned with US military needs is the best infrastructure in Africa, and foreign non-military aid helps no one. I have no issue with the first critique, but find it questionable when the scathingness halts when it comes to the imperial policies of one’s own nation, and disturbing when the only overseas support that is valued is martial.

A brief meeting with a young frenchman:

young frenchman

He wore penny loafers, khaki pants and a Lacoste shirt. With his short dark hair and intense manner, he reminded me of the civil rights workers who came to Mississippi in the mid-sixties from colleges like Bowdoin and Swarthmore. I expected him to hum Peter, Paul and Mary songs at any moment. Jean-Marc was his name. He had traveled across America by bus, evolving an elaborate rating system for bus stations along the way.

After Jean-Marc finished his bus station critique, he explained why his country continued to “be involved” with former West African colonies like the CAR, Cameroon, and Chad.

“I tell you, my friend,” he said twirling a coat hanger meat skewer, “they may talk about the prestige, the sentimental attachment, but it is money! Yes, money! Okay my government pours a lot of francs into these countries but they get more out. The trade agreements, the minerals, the timber. How you say? Money talks, bullshit walks?”

The embassy compound in Niger:

magnificent bacon cheeseburgers fugitive invasions

The peace corps workers in Zinder had given us a most valuable tip: the American Recreation Center in Niamey. It was an extraordinarily pleasant compound full of trees and tennis courts and a snack bar that served bacon cheeseburgers. Magnificent bacon cheeseburgers. Also thick, rich milk shakes and French fries – all the food I never ate in America. But after weeks of canned hash and ravioli, it tasted wonderful, the stuff of gustatory dreams. And, unlike every restaurant we’d encountered in West Africa, the snack bar was cheap.

That there were enough Americans in Niamey to merit (if that’s the right word) a recreation center was, to me, a confounding surprise. Like Chad, though, Niger was an American beachhead in West Africa. A gleaming new embassy sat on the far outskirts of town, part of a compound that included a new ambassador’s residence. There were sufficient American military advisers and marines to field a potent side in the local rugby league.

A contrast to what Stevens thinks non-military foreign aid contributes to Africa:

The Peace Corps training center for Africa (which included 60 percent of the entire Peace Corps) was in Niamey, and the years of drought in the Sahel had created a small army of advisers, World Bank types and UN “experts.”

Since 1928, of course, the “wretched state” of the region has only worsened and it’s an open question whether the army of relief professionals has slowed or accelerated the process. As British journalist Patrick Marnham wrote in his superb collection of essays on West Africa, Fantastic Invasion: “For all the difference it made to the people of the Sahel, it might not have mattered if the relief planes had flown out over the Atlantic and dumped the grain into the sea. Much of it was never distributed beyond the main reception centres until more than one year after the drought had ended, by which time local food supplies had been restored.”

But traveling in 1977, four years after the drought of 1973, Marnham saw “the terrible after-effects of the relief operation….On the promise of free assistance thousands of people abandoned their traditional resources….There is nothing for them to do, their economy has been destroyed, and there are no schemes to rebuild it. They are refugees in their own country.”

Foreign aid in the Central African Republic:

foreign aid like cocaine

It had not rained for some time and red dust floated in the air with every passing Land Cruiser or Land Rover. These big vehicles belong to the myriad of foreign organizations working in Bangui. They cruise the streets like a benevolent occupying army. It is difficult to comprehend, but in this small country of about two and a half million, there are American, French, German, Dutch, Japanese, even Chinese – agencies toiling, in theory at least, to improve the life of Central Africans. With an annual per capita income of under three hundred dollars and an average life expectancy of only forty-four years, the challenge is formidable.

Many of the aid projects work with one particular agency of the government and – the relationship is more than coincidental – the government of the CAR has a staggering number of agencies. Foreign aid is to the CAR what cocaine is to Columbia.

One last, unambiguous, metaphor:

only west relief org part one only west relief org part two

The tin garage housed in a concrete grease pit. That figured. Only a Western relief organization would go to the trouble to construct something as solid and enduring as a concrete grease pit.

That Stevens values military over more benevolent aid is not because of hard-line ideological partisanship, not for anything at all, but because, as he made clear in Scorched Earth, there is something in him that simply enjoys fighting. His aloofness to Cold War partisanship can be found late in the book, when a group of polish car smugglers try to solicit funds for Solidarity, the labor union led by Lech Walesa which was a crucial player in the struggle against the Soviet Union, fighting for greater democracy against the military rulers of the communist Polish state.

polish solidarity

So we waited until help arrived, and from a most unlikely source: Polish auto smugglers.

“We sell cars and give the money to Solidarity!” the couple boasted to Ann and me, expecting all Americans to have a soft spot for Lech Walesa and company.

Were I to be confronted by such grifters, I might have made clear that I wished to make to make sure my funds made it to worthy fighters, rather than lowly thieves, or moved to anger that this pair smeared a noble group by associating themselves with their cause. Stevens does otherwise, rolling his eyes with disdain at the anti-communists themselves.

More importantly, there is this scene in the US embassy of the Central African Republic:

reagan dunce

The American ambassador. Our meeting had been unsettling. Not that he wasn’t pleasant or forthcoming; in truth he’d proven a delightful, intriguing man, a Foreign Service pro (as opposed to a Reagan appointee dunce) with twenty years in Africa.

The ambassador at this time was David Fields. He was, in fact, a Reagan appointee, but I understand Stevens’ point: that this man was someone of considerable experience, and not an incompetent dropped into the slot for reasons of favorable ideology, as Reagan’s often appointments often were. The toenails, hair, and jellybeans of Ronald Reagan are now seen among the faithful as a divinity’s relics; Stevens happily blasphemes the messiah when he walked the earth and ruled the greatest land of the world, making stark that he is a simple pragmatist, no fiery eyed believer. He’s a republican principally for the lower taxes on the wealthy, and most likely looks on Reagan zealots and Tea Party irregulars the same way the United States viewed the Afghanistan mujahideen, a bunch of primitive fools useful for achieving a strategic end.

A final note on the lack of substantial characters: I do not believe it is racial, or having anything to do with Africa itself, but stems from Stevens’ basic dislike of people. In Scorched Earth, he writes of a political consultant, perhaps much like himself, who must organize people into voting for his candidate, yet who clearly looks on these voters as poor, ridiculous fools who he wants nothing to do with. It is possible to be a good writer and be indifferent to those around you in your daily life, but as a writer, one must have a deep attentive sense of others. Isaac Bashevis Singer has a story when a woman tells a writer, “To write, you need a good brain.” The writer replies “Better a good eye.” And a good ear.

Stevens’ aversion for people is embodied best, for me, in this brief moment in Cameroon.

this is why i had come to africa

A night at the mission would have been comfortable – any insect-free environment had appeal – but I longed for the feel, the texture, of an African evening.

And that night I found it: under a baobab tree near a Muslim village a few miles north of Garoua. Across the stretch of fields, a red band of fire swept down a hillside. In the soft light of the day’s last moments, the wailing call to prayers floated from the village mosque. Waves of hear shimmered from the dry ground, the earth giving up some of the burning it had received that day.

This, I thought before nodding away, was why I had come to Africa.

It is this moment Stevens has been waiting for during his travels on the continent. An Africa without Africans. This antipathy for people, so that all his characters are at a distance, and never really characters at all, overlaps with the next point, the shaping of this narrative and the false notes in Stevens’ work.

FALSE NOTES

For the small, small number who have read both Feeding Frenzy by Stuart Stevens, and Malaria Dreams, what’s striking is the uncanniness in the shared structure, as if both come from the same template, a National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Europe and National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Africa, respectively.

In Frenzy, Stevens travels through Europe with a very beautiful former model named Rachel Kelly in a Mustang with the intent to sell it somewhere in Europe. The car suffers many problems during the trip, and they race to a meeting point with Kelly’s fiancé, a former special forces guy. Kelly is a mix of street-wise sass, but also well-read, and knowledgeable in upscale fashion and cuisine. She’s originally from Wyoming. Though attractive and occasionally mistaken as Stevens’ girlfriend, no romantic entanglement takes place, no sexual tension is even hinted at.

The plotline for Dreams is almost from the same blueprint. Stevens travels to Africa to pick up a Land Rover in the Central African Republic, which he must transport to Algeria, so it can be brought to Europe. The reason for this is either because the car can be obtained more cheaply in Africa, or because it carries diamonds which can be smuggled out. His companion is Ann Bradley, a woman from a military family who is well-read, carries around a five pound copy of Italian Vogue, knows cooking and clothes, and has a boyfriend in the military, this time in the air force. She is sassy, streetwise, tough, but also well-read. She’s from Oklahoma.

Here is the first appearance of Ann Bradley, well-read, stylish, but with roots in Oklahoma and expertise in mechanics:

ann bradley

Across the aisle my “team” was engrossed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She was twenty-three years old, 5’5″”, 110 pounds, and possibly the only person ever to transfer from Bryn Mawr to the University of Oklahoma. In all likelihood Ann knew more about mechanics than I did, but I doubt I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t. She was nibbling from a can of pheasant pâté. She’d acquired this treat at the airport in Marseilles when I had suggested she buy us some sandwiches while I held our place in the check-in line. She’d returned some time later quite pleased.

Here is Rachel Kelly eating paté by hand in France.

rat with pate underlined

I found Rat eating a can of paté in the herb garden of the convent. She was wearing a bright white sun hat that she’d bought in Paris, black jeans, and a black tee shirt with a small, very discrete Harley-Davidson logo. Henry was perched at her feet and she was eating with a her fingers the local paté straight from the tin.

Another of the first descriptions of Ann, in a stylish bathing suit, a five pound copy of Vogue, and a mention of a boyfriend fighter pilot:

jaguars are fighter pilots

I found Ann in back of the Sofitel by the pool. It was on a jetty jutting out into the Ubangi. She wore a bathing suit with a large number 7 on it and was reading a five-pound Italian Vogue, another Marseilles acquisition, surrounded by a half dozen very pale young men.

“They’re Jaguar pilots,” she told me. Somewhere behind her sunglasses and the red St. Louis Cardinals hat pulled down low, I caught a trace of a smile.

“Jaguars are French fighter planes,” Ann explained peevishly.

“Oh. Fighter jocks.” Now it was my turn to smile. Ann’s boyfriend back in Oklahoma was a fighter pilot. “A generic preference?” I inquired.

This is the first appearance of Rachel Kelly, in a gym, wearing a stylish bathing suit:

Malaria Dreams

Rat was wearing a black one-piece suit that looked like the sort of thing bathing beauties wore on the Riviera in the twenties. There’s a picture around of Zelda trying to look sexy and she’s wearing something similar.

She was an ex-model who worked for a fashion designer and could explain quite movingly why some grades of wool make you look like a million dollars and others, you were better off cutting a few holes in a big plastic garbage sack and heading out the door. Call it a flair for fashion.

This is Carl, Rachel’s boyfriend, who used to be Special Forces:

“I was SOG – Special Operations Group. We were the black-arts guys. In country, no uniforms, Laos, Cambodia.”

“Got to tell you, man, I loved it. Nasty, nasty but I loved it.”
“What did you do?” [asks Stevens] It was a stupid question.
“Jumped out of helicopters and shot a lot of people. Great time.”
“Sure”, I said.

Though neither Rachel or Ann is ever quoted as speaking at length in french, they both occasionally break into it.

This is Ann:

liberte egalite

One flag bearer caught sight of Ann and stopped suddenly, kicking up a flurry of dust. Ann smiled and saluted with her beer. She wore shorts and a tee shirt featuring a picture of oversized sunglasses at a rakish angle. The young Cameroonian patriot looked confused, uncertain whether to smile or scowl. Finally he thrust his flag toward Ann and shouted, “Liberté!”

“Liberté!” Ann yelled.

This is Rachel:

cest impossible

“No!” Rat finally exclaimed after an appropriate dramatic silence. “Do you really think?”

I glanced at her, trying to tell if she was truly shocked or just pretending.

The German shrugged.

C’est impossible!” Rat exclaimed.

C’est impossible! I stared at her. Who was this woman from Wyoming trying to kid?

Ann has mechanical aptitude, and so does Rachel:

automotive skills

“My theory is that you might have put in unleaded fuel and 1965 V-8s probably need all the lead they can get.” [said Rachel]

She was right, of course. Rat had an annoying way of being right about things automotive. It was her Wyoming cowgirl roots.

Rachel Kelly adopts a dog for their trip in Europe. Ann Bradley adopts a stray gazelle.

Here is Ann with the gazelle:

thompson gazelle

Ann appeared from behind the chief’s hit. Cradled in her arms was a small, catlike creature with a sharp snout.

“This is Thompson,” she announced. “Thompson the gazelle.”

Our procession had the look of a fable: Joseph in the lead carrying the wicket picnic basket packed with French cheese and sausage, Henri in his Guccis flipping through Paris Match, Ann nuzzling with the gazelle, and myself lugging a pack with the unlikely label “Himalayas.”

That night in Berbérati, we watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek to cheek on Henri’s VCR, powered by his personal generator. Afterwards, Henri played Cole Porter songs on his piano – “the only one in all this part of Africa” – while Ann fed Thompson drops of milk and I read James Hadley Chase.

Here is Rachel with the dog:

henry the dog

She walked over to the far corner of the garden, where a little iron gate led out onto Queen’s Walk and, just beyond that, St. James’s Park.

She pointed to a contented-looking golden retriever tied to the fence.

“What’s that?” I asked, a sense of dread cascading rapidly through my being.

“That’s Henry and he’s ours!”

“His name is Henry. I’m keeping him for a family that was going to take him to America for a year but found that he would have to be quarantined for two months and it would have broken their heart to do that to their dog. So we just agreed to take care of him.”

They do not get the needed Land Rover, instead settling for another car which they hope to sell at the end of their trip in Africa. Where in Frenzy, the pair to race to meet Kelly’s mate, here they race to meet Stevens’ wife in Algeria, a woman who forever stays off-screen, unseen and unheard, unable to make it even to the closing pages because of a cancelled flight.

It is a structure which fits Europe better than Africa, with the latter, with its horrors and beauties, resisting one more man insisting that it be a backdrop for their own adventure. Of course, the most striking aspect of the shared template is the woman, who appears to be the same character, but perhaps played by slightly different actresses, first by Liv Tyler, next by Rachel Weisz. In Frenzy, it is she who initiates the idea of a trip. With Dreams we’re not given any idea as to why the female needs to be brought along – is she there to translate? Who knows? Neither book ever mentions the possibility of envy from one’s mate about a man and a woman traveling alone together. In the case of Frenzy, that Stevens might even have a wife is never mentioned. That there is the possibility that she will not get to spend christmas with her husband – the rendezvous in Algeria is three days before this festive event – but this strange woman might, is never brought up. It is one of those details that makes the reader very skeptical of Stevens as a writer, a skepticism seemingly shared by Charlie Rose in this interview. Beyond this is the simple incredulity of two people with no experience in Africa and no guide, traveling half its length, including the Sahara and the former warzone of Chad, never mind the possibility that they might have taken the same route but with diamonds smuggled in their vehicle.

That the Land Rover to be retrieved carries diamonds on the inside, which will then be smuggled back to Europe is implied in several places.

In the meeting with Lucien which initiates the African trip:

lucien was involved in diamonds

“I spent a good bit of time in the CAR last year,” Lucien explained.

I nodded, methodically working my way through a bundle of saté skewers. Lucien was always going off to obscure corners of America. No one seemed to know what he did or why, though supposedly it had something to do with gold and diamonds.

“What I was wondering is” – he leaned forward and cocked an eyebrow – “if perhaps you would be interested in driving my vehicle back to Paris.”

In a talk with a Central African Republic local about why the truck is being held:

lucien money must be involved somewhere

“I have been thinking about your Land Rover,” Henri [a local acquaintance] began unexpectedly. For the first time since arriving in Africa, the Land Rover did not, at the moment anyway, seem very important.

“What I cannot understand, if all Lucien has done wrong is not pay this fee on time, why do they make such a mess? Is that how you say, a mess?”

[a lawyer for the local government] Knepper thinks the minister [of mines] or Follope, the capitaine in the Brigade Minerale, is angry at Lucien. Maybe both.”

“I think,” Henri finally decided, “that the minister thought he was going to make some money out of Lucien and our friend Lucien did not allow this to happen. Money must be involved somewhere.”

A conversation with the minister of mines on why the government won’t release the vehicle, as well as highlighting that the rover is expected to be used for smuggling, and the improbablility of the whole venture:

minister of mines dialogue part one minister of mines dialogue part two

“Tell me,” the minister began, “just what is your relationship with Lucien?” Then he smiled.

Alarms rang inside my head. The minister’s voice reminded me of the best sort of prosecutor: low-keyed, friendly, with traps set at the end of each seemingly harmless sentence.

“Relationship?”

“He is a friend?”

I plunged boldly ahead. “Sort of.”

A knowing smile. And you are here doing his business?”

“Oh, no.” Then I explained how I had come to be in the Central African Republic.

“Let me understand,” the minister queried patiently, “you were having dinner with your friend Lucien and he asked you to go to Africa to transport his vehicle and you said yes. This is what really happened?”

It suddenly sounded like the most preposterous thing I’d ever heard. “Well, tes. That’s pretty much what happened.”
The minister and the capitaine exchanged bemused looks. “And how long have you been involved in buisness with your friend Lucien?”

“I’m not. He’s just a friend.”

The looks came again. “And you come all the way to Africa to pick up a vehicle just for a friend?”

I said in a voice that sounded very tiny, “I thought it would be fun.”

A visit to where Lucien bought his diamonds.

where lucien looked for diamonds

“It’s close to here that Lucien looked for his diamonds,” Henri said, leaning against the Renault and watching a teenager work the hand pump drawing gas from a fifty-gallon drum. “This is diamond country. That is one of the reasons,” he grinned, “you see Muslims driving cars like that.” He nodded to a newish Toyota Land Cruiser behind us waiting for gas.

“You mean they find diamonds?” I asked.

“I mean they buy diamonds from Africans. But mostly they smuggle.”

Just outside Yaloke, beyond the twin rows of poplars planted fifty years ago by the French that make the road, if only for an instant, look like Avignon, a police roadblock stopped all traffic.

A soldier returned with Joseph and peered into the car, shining a light – it was almost dark – in each of our faces. Then abruptly he shook hands with Henri and waved us on.

“Diamonds,” Henri muttered, just as the first owl burst skyward under our headlights.

This last fragment should convey how incredibly dangerous it would be for two people, unfamiliar with Africa, without a guide or any contacts, to travel up through Africa to Algeria. The recklessness of those who would decide to do such a thing, the recklessness of an experienced diamond smuggler to trust a fortune to such novices, shakes a reader’s belief in this book, would shake their belief, even if, say, it were fiction. This is to speak only of the ringless falseness of what’s given here, rather than the rank immorality of being complicit in the smuggling of diamonds from a continent that had much of its mineral wealth stolen by colonial powers.

False notes such as these make you look at what Stevens writes with a more intense skepticism, perhaps warranted, perhaps not. That, for instance, he attended Oxford as an undergraduate, as he says in Frenzy, graduate school at Oxford in this Atlantic piece, in Dreams he mentions attending Oxford again:

oxford

Within twenty-four hours we were sitting in front of a Mr. Richards, an Englishman who ran the largest Nissan agency in town, and spilling our story. He was amused. We had, it turned out in one of those odd twists of fate I thought only occurred in Evelyn Waugh stories, attended the same college at Oxford. This was by far the most tangible benefit I’d ever accrued from any educational institution.

These claims may well be true; what I find unusual, another one of those possible false notes, is that no mention is ever made of Oxford in any profile or interview. One detail a Times reporter, or any reporter, will almost always ask is, where you went to school. The only time education is mentioned in a times piece on Stevens is “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate” with UCLA attendance mentioned, and Oxford not at all. One’s education shouldn’t matter to a reader, yet publishers are always tarting up your bio with a mention of some ne plus ultra school, with Oxford as a triple cherry deluxe, yet, again, Oxford is never mentioned in Stevens’ book jackets. This all in the context of a profile, mostly sympathetic, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney”, which describes Stevens as occasionally having an outsized ego.

These are ambiguous off notes that arouse skepticism. I think there are more definite ones in Dreams.

TIME OUT OF JOINT

The details that are off in Dreams fall almost entirely into the categories of time and money.

The book, though published in 1989, takes place in the fall of 1987. There are several details establishing the year as exactly that one, which we’ll get to as we go through this section.

Money and the rate of exchange is mentioned often in the book. Stevens often complains about how incredibly expensive it is to travel and eat in Africa, given that it is, his words, a third world place. US dollars are exchanged for the Franc of Central Africa. The value of the Central African franc was tied directly to that of the french franc – one french franc was worth fifty francs of central africa. This relation was fixed and did not fluctuate. A brief overview of the history of the franc of central africa can be found here. The rate of exchange for US dollars to francs did fluctuate, with this rate affecting the number of french francs a dollar was worth, which in turn affected the number of central african francs a dollar was worth.

The exchange rate between french francs and US dollars is crucial for what’s very off in the events in the book.

Stevens and Ann Bradley arrive in the Central Republic of Africa in early October 1987.

early october

I had been in Bangui less than ten minutes when I was robbed for the first time. This proved to be very fortunate. Muggings, rape and murder, I quickly discovered, were the pillars of conversation among the white community, and my introductory theft gave me something to talk about on the party circuit.

It was early October. The season was a factor in the robbery as it had been cold and rainy in Europe and I had arrived at the Bangui airport carrying a heavy raincoat. It was a new coat, recently purchased in England. I liked it.

Their initial mission is for Stevens to retrieve the Land Rover of his friend, Lucien. In order to do so, they need to pay a sizable bribe to a government official.

270 francs

The problem with the Land Rover was really quite simple, Capitaine Follope – whom Knepper addressed as “mon capitaine” – explained. There were some fees that had not been paid on mineral leases Lucien had acquired from the government. The vehicle had been seized as collateral against future payment.

“The amount in question is very small,” Follope said reassuringly.

“How much?”

“Half a million Central African francs.”

It sounded like a lot of money to me. I tried to calculate quickly: 270 Central African francs, or CFA to the dollar. It was a little less than $2000. Not a small amount but certainly cheaper than buying a new car. Lucien, I figured, would gladly pay if he understood it was the only way to see his Land Rover again.

Shortly after this, it is Stevens’ birthday.

birthday 22 october

It was my birthday, the twenty-second of October.

After this date, Stevens contacts Lucien to approve the bribe.

lucien half a million bribe

“You’ve got to understand, nothing is working!” I enumerated our efforts to free the Land Rover, the frustrations of this person being out of town, that person out of touch, everyone promising everything, and nothing, ultimately, happening.

“Yes, that’s how it is,” he answered pleasantly. “It just takes time.”

This occasioned an outburst on my part as to the limits of my time. Then I moved to present my case. “You’ve got to come down here yourself. It’s a must; or let me throw some money around for a bribe. That might help.”

“I don’t think my flying there is a very good idea,” Lucien said, his voice, for the first time, sounding serious. “How much money?”

We finally agreed upon half a million CFA – about two thousand dollars. It seemed a reasonable sum to offer as a bribe.

The bribe in CFA francs has stayed the same, and the bribe in US dollars has apparently stayed the same – almost or about two thousand dollars. No mention is made of any urgency regarding the rate of exchange. Again, this is a book where the narrator is concerned about the expense of things, and often mentions the price of an item in US dollars after giving the price in CFA francs.

However, during October, the rate of exchange of the dollar versus other currencies drops drastically, a possible cause, of many, for the crash of markets, which took place October 19th, three days before Stevens’ birthday, the crash perpetuating this decline. After the October 19th crash, the dollar continued its decline against the franc, losing ten percent of its value over two months.

A graph generated by the very helpful Economagic website illustrates this.

franc dollar graph cropped more

Yet somehow the bribe paid out in US dollars remains the same, whether early or late in October.

This rapid fall in the dollar’s value vis a vis the franc is something that one would expect as an obvious mention, that even as the travelers got closer and closer to their destination, prices kept climbing because of the loss of value.
?
For that matter, perhaps I am miscalculating, but the rate of exchange used in the book seems to have no relation with the exchange rate at the time.

The bribe at the beginning of October is 500 000 CFA francs, which Stevens calculates is worth about $2000 US dollars. 500 000 CFA francs is 10 000 french francs, so one US dollar is worth about five french francs in the book. Stevens gives an exchange of 270 CFA francs per US dollar, or 5.4 francs per dollar, so this might be because the bribe in US dollars isn’t quite $2000, perhaps a little less. However, as can be seen in the graph, the US dollar was trading above six francs for the first half of October, far above an exchange rate of either 5 or 5.4. Then it falls, so around the beginning of November, when Stevens calls Lucien, it’s at 5.70. In the book, however, the rate of exchange has remained entirely frozen at what it was at the beginning of October, stock still at five francs or five point four francs. This is still, a worse rate of exchange as shown in the graph, even with the start of the dollar’s value drop, five or five point four in the book, compared to 5.7 in currency exchange records.

After Stevens’ birthday, but before the call to Lucien, he has to buy some gas:

jerrican seventy dollars

I spotted a metal jerrican for sale at nineteen thousand CFA – seventy dollars; to make the trip north, I needed at least fifteen.

19 000 CFA francs is 380 french francs. If seventy US dollars buys 380 french francs, the rate of exchange is 5.428. It has either stayed level at the previous 5.4, or slightly improved from 5: either way, it is still lower than what was available around that month at any currency exchange.

A bribe is paid in Cameroon, at some point in the first three weeks of November.

three thousand cfa about eleven dollars

Three thousand CFA, about eleven dollars, was the standard amount Pierre turned over. Once a motorcycle patrol demanded more.

Three thousand CFA is sixty french francs, so now the exchange rate is 5.45. Again, if the exchange in the book in October is taken, it is level. It is also weaker than it ever was, at any exchange, as shown on the graph, and shows none of the rapid devaluation taking place.

We are told at one point that it is thanksgiving, which, in 1987, would be November 26.

thanksgiving

It was Fernando who reminded us it was Thanksgiving. He mentioned it in an offhand way while we stood at the head of the long buffet marveling at the pasta, the veal, the pastries. “An untraditional thanksgiving, no?” he said. Ann and I looked at each other, not understanding what he meant, and then we both looked up at a wall calendar featuring a nude girl riding a tractor. He was right, it was thanksgiving.

Shortly before this, we are given a last price quoted both in CFA francs and US dollars, the cost of fixing their car.

fifty thousand cfa

The volunteer mechanic requested tools, and I brought out the odd-fitting nonmetric set I’d stolen from Lucien. He grunted and went to work with a set of pliers. After a few minutes of messing about, he rose and said, simply, “Fifty thousand.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked, not understanding.

“Fifty thousand CFA to fix the car.”

That was almost two hundred dollars.

Fifty thousand CFA francs is a thousand french francs, so a dollar is now worth five francs. During the period in which the dollar weakened versus the franc, in this book, during the same time period, the dollar either gains in value, then drops back to what it was, to a weaker value than it actually was on the world’s currency exchange, somewhere above 5.60 in the period right before thanksgiving. Or it stays rock solid same throughout this period of rapid falling value.

In fact, the price given for car repair here is the same as a ransom asked for before Stevens’ birthday in October. It is a price demanded for information on Stevens’ stolen coat.

fifty thousand cfa first time

“Yes, but first we must discuss price.”

It was, apparently, a ransom situation. “How much do they want?” I asked.

“Fifty thousand CFA.”

That was almost two hundred dollars, far too much. We negotiated for some time. Finally we agreed on five thousand CFA.

Here, fifty thousand CFA is equal to two hundred dollars, the same exchange as it is after November 26. Given that the calculation for the exchange in some amounts is close to 5.4, and Stevens gives an exchange rate of 270 CFA francs per dollar for the October amounts, or a 5.4 rate, there appears the possibility that the exchange rate throughout the story is 5.4, as an exchange rate, please excuse my lapse into italics, might be conveniently set in a fiction. So there is some strange discrepancy in what the actual exchange rate should be, beyond the dramatic absence of any sense of a dollar plummeting in value, losing ten percent of its value over the course of the trip in relation to the native currency in an already expensive continent.

I add as well that at no point does Stevens write of carrying around a large amount of money that he has already exchanged and that the amounts needed on the trip are sometimes very, very large, such as paying two thousand dollar bribes or buying a new vehicle. It is also important that before Stevens says he left for this trip, in early October or late September, the dollar franc exchange had been holding steady for a long while, trading above six francs a dollar, nowhere close to the 5.4 rate ubiquitous in the book.

I end with the final details that are off, starkly off, for which I leave to others to deduce an explanation.

As said before, Stevens arrives on the continent at the beginning of October. He celebrates his birthday in Bangui, Central African Republic, on the twenty second of October.

I stated earlier that there are markers establishing that the story takes place in 1987. Here is the first one. Stevens writes of the carnet, a letter of passage, needed to travel through most African countries to avoid paying entrance duties to that country.

carnet england storm

Actually, I had a carnet. Warned that travel by car in Africa was impossible without one, I’d gone to considerable trouble and expense to acquire one from the Automobile Association in England. Unfortunately, my visit to England coincided with the worst hurricane to hit the country in a century, silencing all telephones, littering the streets with uprooted trees and knocking out the rail line from London to the Dover ferry. My life had not been made easier by the fact that I was hauling around enough Land Rover parts to launch a dealership, plus assorted camping gear – though my stove and lantern did come in handy in my hotel when the electricity died for two days.

What’s referred to here must be the massive storm which hit England in 1987, easily considered the worst storm of the century for the area, and featuring hurricane winds.

What is puzzling is this. The storm took place on October 16th and 17th. Stevens obtains his carnet before leaving for Africa. Yet he says he arrives in Africa in early October. How is it that he is in England during this storm, yet is in Africa, before the storm?

There is another, smaller discrepancy. It is after his birthday, Stevens and Ann Bradley are traveling from Cameroon into Chad. Stevens describes what is taking place there:

chad was fighting a war

Entering Chad near the capital, N’Djamena, one could theoretically drive across Lake Chad (largely dry for the last ten years) and into Niger. There were problems with this approach. For starters, Chad was fighting a war with Libya and though most of the fighting occurred in the northern desert near the border, the Libyans had bombed N’Djamena just a few months earlier.

Later, when they are about to enter Chad, we get this description:

war zone capitals of a winning side

Cloaked in a perpetual layer of dust, the town still resembles what it was for years: a battlefield.

But war-zone capitals of a winning side are usually graced with an infectious optimism difficult to resist. And Chad definitely feels it is winning. After years of watching Libya annex its northern territory, Chad finally put aside internal feuds and struck back. In a series of blitzkrieg assaults, Chadian forces overran Libyian desert bases previously though impenetrable. Their attack methods quickly qualified as the stuff of legends.

The American government aids Chad in its war with Libya and this helps create a benevolent attitude toward Americans in N’Djamena.

All this suggests a war with ongoing fighting. These descriptions correspond to either later October and mid-November, or early November and late November, respectively. Yet this was at least a month and a half into a ceasefire between Libya and Chad with no outbreak of hostilities. No doubt traveling in this area was still a frightening experience, and that the ceasefire could break any day was a disturbing possibility for those entering Chad. But why leave out a crucial piece of information such as this, placing the conflict in a more ambiguous pre-ceasefire place rather than after?

That this all takes place months after the ceasefire is made clear, though indirectly, in this scene with a member of the US embassy staff in Chad:

fragment of shot down plane

Tim Whitset worked for the U.S. embassy. A big man in his early thirties, he’d lived in Africa for over a decade and relished matching wits with the local bureaucracy. His office in the newly fortified embassy compound was, in essence, a large vault with a heavy combination on the door. From this windowless crypt, he launched his rescue missions in the complicated bureaucratic wars that raged through the Chadian government. On his desk, he had a souvenir of a more traditional war.

“It’s a piece of a Libyan plane, actually,” he responded to my question about the charred piece of twisted metal. “It was shot down a few months ago over town. Poor suckers flew all the way from Libya to drop a few bombs in a mud flat outside of town and then got blown to hell and back. A U.S. missile operated by the French. A true United Nations effort.”

This was actually a well-reported incident, “Libyan Warplane Is Downed In Chad By French Forces” which took place on September 8th, 1987 and one that may have helped trigger the ceasefire. That the shooting down is mentioned, but the ceasefire is not, as if to create a sense of ongoing war which the travelers might face is a strange one.

One more detail that I think points to a disconcerting anachronism. The trip starts in the Central African Republic, which they stay in past Stevens’ birthday on October 22. After, they leave for Cameroon, where they run into a national celebration in Bertoua.

cameroon national holiday

On thie Sunday afternoon, a raucous crowd spilled out of the bar dancing to the music blaring from a stand selling cassettes and records.

Three pickup trucks filled with young men waving Cameroon flags roared up from the direction of town. They shouted slogans, and when the bar throng responded tepidly, they yelled louder. Several jumped off the truck and ran about the market brandishing flags; the scene reminded me of male cheerleaders taking the field before a football game.

Pierre when I asked, explained that this was a Cameroonian national holiday, Independence Day, he beieved.

The only national holiday that this could be is Cameroon’s Unification Day, when the french and english parts of the country united. Again, this scene takes place after Stevens’ birthday on October 22. Cameroon’s unification day is October 1st.

There is another possible discrepancy, but this does not relate directly to Malaria Dreams, but a trip to Africa described in Feeding Frenzy. There are discrepancies if it is the same trip to Africa described.

Traveling along the river Niger in Malaria Dreams, Stevens and Bradley come across some fishermen.

capitaine giant perch

I woke up at first light and brewed coffee on the little gas stove. The mornings were the best time of day, when it was cool enough to forget, at least for a little while, the strangling heat of the upcoming hours. A pirogue floated through the mist, a graceful craft with bow and stern rising upward like outstretched arms. There were two teenagers poling the boat. They landed and hoisted out a bulky fish, mouth gaping. It was a capitaine, a breed of giant perch I’d first seen pulled from the Ubangi River in Bangui.

A capitaine, Nile perch, can be found in the Niger river. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens remembers a moment from a trip in Africa, perhaps the same trip of Malaria Dreams

oversized gar

I described a meal I’d cooked once by the River Niger. The centerpiece was an oversized gar I’d caught, the only fish longer than six inches I’d ever caught in Africa. It was a bony prehistoric-looking thing about as appetizing as a display in a natural history museum. I filleted it, which was the only thing I could imagine doing, wrapped the fillet in tin foil with bits of onions and some old garlic cloves I’d bought in the Timbuktu market, and buried it in the coals of a driftwood fire. It was shockingly good, moist and sweet. I ate it with half a can of peaches and a mix of fried yams and onions, which was about all the shelves of Timbuktu’s largest grocery had to offer.

Now, Stevens has not come across fishermen in Niger, but fished himself, one of many times he has fished in Africa. At no point in Malaria Dreams does he mention doing any fishing. Another prominent detail is the error in the fish: the visual identification of the gar is entirely correct, but this is a fish that is not found in the river Niger, or anywhere in Africa, as outlined in this brief National Geographic summary; it can, however, be found in Stevens’ native Mississippi. It is from the Lepisosteidae family, none of which can be found in Africa. Here is a partial list of fish to be found in the Niger river; lepisosteida are easily recognizable by their snub nose; none of the fish species in this list seem to have this identifier.

A final short small detail, but one that I found as equally striking as the date of the storm. After leaving Chad, where they spend thanksgiving, the travelers go to Niger.

burkina faso coup pt one burkina faso coup pt two

Niger, though, was a security-mad country with roadblocks and police checks every twenty or thirty miles. The routine of paranoia had been accelerated by a coup a few days earlier in neighboring Burkina Faso. Like virtually every West African leader, the president of Niger had catapulted himself to power in a similar coup and no doubt viewed the events in Burkina Faso as intimations of his own mortality. (The Burkina Faso president, an exceptionally charismatic guitar-playing young leader, was gunned down in his residence, as is the custom.)

All of this meant it was impossible to travel a mile in Niger without immaculately ordered papers, including insurance.

Again, this takes place after Thanksgiving, either at the very end of November, or early December. The coup in Burkina Faso is spoken of as having taken place a few days earlier.

The coup in Burkina Faso was against the very charismatic, guitar playing Thomas Sankara, who was killed. The coup took place on the 16th of October and he was executed on the 17th, 1987. Again, I leave it to others to make their deductions.

The ending of this post is abrupt: I think there’s possibility of greater analysis of this book, so I consider this entry unfinished.

(Edits have been made for clarity; additions were made detailing the smuggling of diamonds in the book, the ambassador who is not a Reagan dunce, and the polish smugglers. A few additions were made on the currency exchange of the book, along with some edits for improved clarity.)

Malaria Dreams Stuart Stevens

THE UNSUBMISSIBLE PLACE

Malaria Dreams is a travel memoir following Stevens and a companion, Ann Bradley, as they voyage from the Central African Republic up to Algeria, traveling through, among other places, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and the Sahara. It is the best book of his that I have read because either through his own restraint, or the efforts of an editor, Stevens does not give in to his desire for malice or imagined violence. In other books, he or his proxy hero might imagine strangling a woman or ripping her vocal chords out with his teeth. Here, he simply groans. At the same time, the african setting makes his flaws even more poisonous. Though it’s the best book of his I’ve read so far, it’s also the most distasteful, and the ill taste of its worst moments endures. There is another, rather unusual aspect to this memoir, but I’ll get to that after.

Perhaps more than any place, Africa does not submit itself to anyone in writing. Ultimately, the writer must submit themselves to the continent. It is this resistance to submission which destroys Stevens’ book. It attempts to be a comedy travelogue, two bumbling adventurers passing through sights picturesque and horrific, the two travelers unchanged and apart from the landscape. The essence of what they observe, however, only hinted at in the writing, seems too rich, too complex to be contained in such a frivolous structure, and it makes this writing seem rancid.

I give two examples early on that stay with me. The first is a very vivid moment in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, which should contain the materials of something multi-faceted, the pathos and ridiculousness of poverty, yet which is made into something simpler, the comedy and horror of a man of the first world beset by the downtrodden of the third (I include a scan of the book pages to accompany all quotes, to make clear the quote is not distorted or taken out of context):

beggars

Bangui, like New York, has a hidden population of homeless and infirm who emerge after dark dominating the streets. Driving to and from expensive restaurants in Henri’s car, I’d noted with curiousity the swarming wheelchairs, unlike any I’d seen – ingenious devices powered by hand cranks mounted like handlebars. Outfitted with wide tires suitable for Bangui’s rubbled streets, the chairs could move with extreme speed and dexterity.

This I discovered while sulking back to the Novotel. On a side street near the main traffic circle, I suddenly found myself surrounded by wheelchairs. It seemed, at first, an amiable coincidence. I nodded and kept walking. Two chairs wheeled in to block my route. This is ridiculous, I thought, and turned, trying to be ever so casual, down a side alley leading to a main street. A chair manned by a person missing a chin filled the narrow walkway. He gave me a horrible, skeletal grin.

The encircling chairs began to move forward, tightening the noose. I can run, I thought, run past them, knock them over. Then a flashing knife made me think otherwise.

As they drew nearer, I reached into my pocket for a handful of coins. Shaking them alluringly like dice, I scattered the money in the street.

The wheelchairs instantly broke ranks, scrambling for the flashes of silver. I bolted for the hotel.

Ann was waiting for me in the lobby. “Did you get mugged?” I asked her, panting a bit.

“Of course not. Don’t be paranoid.”

Another scene, this one in a bar, again in Bangui:

does he beat you

At the bar there was a young, very pretty white woman we’d seen on the flight from France. She’d been carrying a black baby, and I asked Henri and Françoise if they knew her.

“Oh, yes,” Françoise said, “everyone knows everyone in Bangui. She met her husband while he was a student in Paris. They fell in love, married and came back here to live. He beats her regularly.”

This was delivered not in a catty, gossipy way but as a simple statement of fact, like “The pizza is good.”

“It’s very common,” Henri assured Ann and me. I suppose we looked as if we needed assuring.

“I do not even think,” Françoise said, “that it has anything to do with meanness or anger. It is always done, so they do it.”

“How quaint,” Ann observed.

Henri looked over at the woman at the bar. “The white wives of Africans do not strike me as the happiest people in the world.”

Later:

Ann and I talked with the tall, attractive woman bartender. She was not, to our surprise, French. “Russian,” she insisted, but when we looked unconvinced, she relented. “Czechoslovakian,” she admitted, as if that would make her presence completely logical. “I married an African student studying at university.”

“Does he beat you?” Ann asked.

I looked over at her, trying to recall how much Beaujolais she’d downed at dinner.

“What?” the Czech bartender asked. The music roared.

“Does he beat you?” Ann yelled, slapping the bar a few times for effect.

“What?”

Beat you!”

The bartender laughed. “We are divorced now,” she cried. “I am a free woman in Bangui!”

After:

On the edge of the city center, where the houses disappeared and the shacks began, it was jammed with white men dancing with black women.

“The pride of France!” Henri exclaimed, gesturing out over the steamy club floor. The men all had short hair and wore the preppy outfits that apparently were the norm for French men in Africa; topsiders and bright Lacoste shirts, khaki pants and alligator belts.

“This is what the men in Beau Geste were fighting for,” Henri said. “Vive l’Afrique!” He ordered another bottle of champagne.

They run into some american marines, including one named Ernie. Stevens buys beers.

aids man

With a familiar feeling of fiscal panic, I frantically tried to calculate it in dollars. Ernie took a look and said flatly, “About sixty-five dollars. I tried to warn you.”

“No problem,” I mumbled, thinking back fondly to the bargain price of living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“The only cheap thing in this country,” Ernie told me while we worked our way back over to the marin huddle, “is women, but then you got to figure most of them come with the gift that keeps on giving.”

“What?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

“AIDS, man.” He slapped me on the back. “You join the Marine Corps, you flat learn about that stuff. What you got here” – he gestured out over the dance floor crowded with white men and black woman – “is one great hunk of AIDS. Right here is where it all started.”

“Some of these French guys,” another marine pronounced, “I think they might have got it on with that first monkey started all this stuff.”

“Hey.” Ernie wrapped his big arm around my shoulder. “This girl Ann, she your girlfriend, or what?”

Later we went outside to watch two French soldiers in a desultory fight. The marines were unimpressed. “For the love of God, will you look at those fairies. Are they in love or fighting?”

The ranking marine, a seargent who, in his late twenties, was the oldest of the group, steered his men toward a Land Cruiser where a black chauffeur was asleep. “Leaving E. Club,” the seargent barked into his crackling radio.

“Hey, look,” Ernie told Ann and me, though mostly he was looking at Ann, “you guys got to come over to the marine house. We got a great cook.”

“You have a cook?” Ann asked. She had a great interest in all things culinary.

“Hell, yes. Chauffeur too. Ain’t life great?”

Ann agreed and asked if she should dress for dinner.

That there is an ugliness, a squalor, in the contrast between the rich and the poor in Africa, in the difference in lives between the colonials and the citizens, in the ravages of disease, there is no doubt. Faced with it, I think the best writers can only find some all encompassing vision, not one that is sentimental, one that must be necessarily unsentimental, but one where all the characters and the details of their lives come through. The other approach, is one of nihilism, of finding the wretched in every man or woman, and necessarily, in oneself. The first approach can be found in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. The second can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

A coward takes neither approach, and uses the background for simple frissons – AIDS is rampant, the french are corrupt, the africans often poor and desperate, though the writer’s targets in the book, as seen above, are always selective. The opportunism and exploitation of the french is skewered, but never that of american corporations. The best embassies, in Chad and Niger, are built with american funds for reasons of military alliance. The most unequivocal heroic portrayal is Chad’s military fight, backed by the US, against Libya. I do not doubt the bravery of those involved in the fight, only find it striking that it is nearly the sole heroism to be found on the continent, and I think here we see the same Stevens that’s found in Scorched Earth: a man who liked to fight, a man who can only find meaning in a fight. This is not to suggest that there are not africans who are viewed with kindness in the book, only that no one emerges as themselves, the way the best characters do, seemingly warping the book through their life. The characters of this book are finally only effects, of sentimentality, garishness, horror, fear.

Here are a few short excerpts, showing three recurring motifs of the book: the french are opportunists, development aligned with US military needs is the best infrastructure in Africa, and foreign non-military aid helps no one. I have no issue with the first critique, but find it questionable when the scathingness halts when it comes to the imperial policies of one’s own nation, and disturbing when the only overseas support that is valued is martial.

A brief meeting with a young frenchman:

young frenchman

He wore penny loafers, khaki pants and a Lacoste shirt. With his short dark hair and intense manner, he reminded me of the civil rights workers who came to Mississippi in the mid-sixties from colleges like Bowdoin and Swarthmore. I expected him to hum Peter, Paul and Mary songs at any moment. Jean-Marc was his name. He had traveled across America by bus, evolving an elaborate rating system for bus stations along the way.

After Jean-Marc finished his bus station critique, he explained why his country continued to “be involved” with former West African colonies like the CAR, Cameroon, and Chad.

“I tell you, my friend,” he said twirling a coat hanger meat skewer, “they may talk about the prestige, the sentimental attachment, but it is money! Yes, money! Okay my government pours a lot of francs into these countries but they get more out. The trade agreements, the minerals, the timber. How you say? Money talks, bullshit walks?”

The embassy compound in Niger:

magnificent bacon cheeseburgers fugitive invasions

The peace corps workers in Zinder had given us a most valuable tip: the American Recreation Center in Niamey. It was an extraordinarily pleasant compound full of trees and tennis courts and a snack bar that served bacon cheeseburgers. Magnificent bacon cheeseburgers. Also thick, rich milk shakes and French fries – all the food I never ate in America. But after weeks of canned hash and ravioli, it tasted wonderful, the stuff of gustatory dreams. And, unlike every restaurant we’d encountered in West Africa, the snack bar was cheap.

That there were enough Americans in Niamey to merit (if that’s the right word) a recreation center was, to me, a confounding surprise. Like Chad, though, Niger was an American beachhead in West Africa. A gleaming new embassy sat on the far outskirts of town, part of a compound that included a new ambassador’s residence. There were sufficient American military advisers and marines to field a potent side in the local rugby league.

A contrast to what Stevens thinks non-military foreign aid contributes to Africa:

The Peace Corps training center for Africa (which included 60 percent of the entire Peace Corps) was in Niamey, and the years of drought in the Sahel had created a small army of advisers, World Bank types and UN “experts.”

Since 1928, of course, the “wretched state” of the region has only worsened and it’s an open question whether the army of relief professionals has slowed or accelerated the process. As British journalist Patrick Marnham wrote in his superb collection of essays on West Africa, Fantastic Invasion: “For all the difference it made to the people of the Sahel, it might not have mattered if the relief planes had flown out over the Atlantic and dumped the grain into the sea. Much of it was never distributed beyond the main reception centres until more than one year after the drought had ended, by which time local food supplies had been restored.”

But traveling in 1977, four years after the drought of 1973, Marnham saw “the terrible after-effects of the relief operation….On the promise of free assistance thousands of people abandoned their traditional resources….There is nothing for them to do, their economy has been destroyed, and there are no schemes to rebuild it. They are refugees in their own country.”

Foreign aid in the Central African Republic:

foreign aid like cocaine

It had not rained for some time and red dust floated in the air with every passing Land Cruiser or Land Rover. These big vehicles belong to the myriad of foreign organizations working in Bangui. They cruise the streets like a benevolent occupying army. It is difficult to comprehend, but in this small country of about two and a half million, there are American, French, German, Dutch, Japanese, even Chinese – agencies toiling, in theory at least, to improve the life of Central Africans. With an annual per capita income of under three hundred dollars an an average life expectancy of only forty-four years, the challenge is formidable.

Many of the aid projects work with one particular agency of the government and – the relationship is more than coincidental – the government of the CAR has a staggering number of agencies. Foreign aid is to the CAR what cocaine is to Columbia.

One last, unambiguous, metaphor:

only west relief org part one only west relief org part two

The tin garage housed in a concrete grease pit. That figured. Only a Western relief organization would go to the trouble to construct something as solid and enduring as a concrete grease pit.

That Stevens values military over more benevolent aid is not because of hard-line ideological partisanship, not for anything at all, but because, as he made clear in Scorched Earth, there is something in him that simply enjoys fighting. His aloofness to Cold War partisanship can be found late in the book, when a group of polish car smugglers try to solicit funds for Solidarity, the labor union led by Lech Walesa which was a crucial player in the struggle against the Soviet Union, fighting for greater democracy against the military rulers of the communist Polish state.

polish solidarity

So we waited until help arrived, and from a most unlikely source: Polish auto smugglers.

“We sell cars and give the money to Solidarity!” the couple boasted to Ann and me, expecting all Americans to have a soft spot for Lech Walesa and company.

Were I to be confronted by such grifters, I might have made clear that I wished to make to make sure my funds made it to worthy fighters, rather than lowly thieves, or moved to anger that this pair smeared a noble group by associating themselves with their cause. Stevens does otherwise, rolling his eyes with disdain at the anti-communists themselves.

More importantly, there is this scene in the US embassy of the Central African Republic:

reagan dunce

The American ambassador. Our meeting had been unsettling. Not that he wasn’t pleasant or forthcoming; in truth he’d proven a delightful, intriguing man, a Foreign Service pro (as opposed to a Reagan appointee dunce) with twenty years in Africa.

The ambassador at this time was David Fields. He was, in fact, a Reagan appointee, but I understand Stevens’ point: that this man was someone of considerable experience, and not an incompetent dropped into the slot for reasons of favorable ideology, as Reagan’s often appointments often were. The toenails, hair, and jellybeans of Ronald Reagan are now seen among the faithful as a divinity’s relics; Stevens happily blasphemes the messiah when he walked the earth and ruled the greatest land of the world, making stark that he is a simple pragmatist, no fiery eyed believer. He’s a republican principally for the lower taxes on the wealthy, and most likely looks on Reagan zealots and Tea Party irregulars the same way the United States viewed the Afghanistan mujahideen, a bunch of primitive fools useful for achieving a strategic end.

A final note on the lack of substantial characters: I do not believe it is racial, or having anything to do with Africa itself, but stems from Stevens’ basic dislike of people. In Scorched Earth, he writes of a political consultant, perhaps much like himself, who must organize people into voting for his candidate, yet who clearly looks on these voters as poor, ridiculous fools who he wants nothing to do with. It is possible to be a good writer and be indifferent to those around you in your daily life, but as a writer, one must have a deep attentive sense of others. Isaac Bashevis Singer has a story when a woman tells a writer, “To write, you need a good brain.” The writer replies “Better a good eye.” And a good ear.

Stevens’ aversion for people is embodied best, for me, in this brief moment in Cameroon.

this is why i had come to africa

A night at the mission would have been comfortable – any insect-free environment had appeal – but I longed for the feel, the texture, of an African evening.

And that night I found it: under a baobab tree near a Muslim village a few miles north of Garoua. Across the stretch of fields, a red band of fire swept down a hillside. In the soft light of the day’s last moments, the wailing call to prayers floated from the village mosque. Waves of hear shimmered from the dry ground, the earth giving up some of the burning it had received that day.

This, I thought before nodding away, was why I had come to Africa.

It is this moment Stevens has been waiting for during his travels on the continent. An Africa without Africans. This antipathy for people, so that all his characters are at a distance, and never really characters at all, overlaps with the next point, the shaping of this narrative and the false notes in Stevens’ work.

FALSE NOTES

For the small, small number who have read both Feeding Frenzy by Stuart Stevens, and Malaria Dreams, what’s striking is the uncanniness in the shared structure, as if both come from the same template, a National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Europe and National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Africa, respectively.

In Frenzy, Stevens travels through Europe with a very beautiful former model named Rachel Kelly in a Mustang with the intent to sell it somewhere in Europe. The car suffers many problems during the trip, and they race to a meeting point with Kelly’s fiancé, a former special forces guy. Kelly is a mix of street-wise sass, but also well-read, and knowledgeable in upscale fashion and cuisine. She’s originally from Wyoming. Though attractive and occasionally mistaken as Stevens’ girlfriend, no romantic entanglement takes place, no sexual tension is even hinted at.

The plotline for Dreams is almost from the same blueprint. Stevens travels to Africa to pick up a Land Rover in the Central African Republic, which he must transport to Algeria, so it can be brought to Europe. The reason for this is either because the car can be obtained more cheaply in Africa, or because it carries diamonds which can be smuggled out. His companion is Ann Bradley, a woman from a military family who is well-read, carries around a five pound copy of Italian Vogue, knows cooking and clothes, and has a boyfriend in the military, this time in the air force. She is sassy, streetwise, tough, but also well-read. She’s from Oklahoma.

Here is the first appearance of Ann Bradley, well-read, stylish, but with roots in Oklahoma and expertise in mechanics:

ann bradley

Across the aisle my “team” was engrossed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She was twenty-three years old, 5’5″”, 110 pounds, and possibly the only person ever to transfer from Bryn Mawr to the University of Oklahoma. In all likelihood Ann knew more about mechanics than I did, but I doubt I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t. She was nibbling from a can of pheasant pâté. She’d acquired this treat at the airport in Marseilles when I had suggested she buy us some sandwiches while I held our place in the check-in line. She’d returned some time later quite pleased.

Here is Rachel Kelly eating paté by hand in France.

rat with pate underlined

I found Rat eating a can of paté in the herb garden of the convent. She was wearing a bright white sun hat that she’d bought in Paris, black jeans, and a black tee shirt with a small, very discrete Harley-Davidson logo. Henry was perched at her feet and she was eating with a her fingers the local paté straight from the tin.

Another of the first descriptions of Ann, in a stylish bathing suit, a five pound copy of Vogue, and a mention of a boyfriend fighter pilot:

jaguars are fighter pilots

I found Ann in back of the Sofitel by the pool. It was on a jetty jutting out into the Ubangi. She wore a bathing suit with a large number 7 on it and was reading a five-pound Italian Vogue, another Marseilles acquisition, surrounded by a half dozen very pale young men.

“They’re Jaguar pilots,” she told me. Somewhere behind her sunglasses and the red St. Louis Cardinals hat pulled down low, I caught a trace of a smile.

“Jaguars are French fighter planes,” Ann explained peevishly.

“Oh. Fighter jocks.” Now it was my turn to smile. Ann’s boyfriend back in Oklahoma was a fighter pilot. “A generic preference?” I inquired.

This is the first appearance of Rachel Kelly, in a gym, wearing a stylish bathing suit:

Malaria Dreams

Rat was wearing a black one-piece suit that looked like the sort of thing bathing beauties wore on the Riviera in the twenties. There’s a picture around of Zelda trying to look sexy and she’s wearing something similar.

She was an ex-model who worked for a fashion designer and oculd explain quite movingly why some grades of wool make you look like a million dollars and others, you were better off cutting a few holes in a big plastic garbage sack and heading out the door. Call it a flair for fashion.

This is Carl, Rachel’s boyfriend, who used to be Special Forces:

“I was SOG – Special Operations Group. We were the black-arts guys. In country, no uniforms, Laos, Cambodia.”

“Got to tell you, man, I loved it. Nasty, nasty but I loved it.”
“What did you do?” [asks Stevens] It was a stupid question.
“Jumped out of helicopters and shot a lot of people. Great time.”
“Sure”, I said.

Though neither Rachel or Ann is ever quoted as speaking at length in french, they both occasionally break into it.

This is Ann:

liberte egalite

One flag bearer caught sight of Ann and stopped suddenly, kicking up a flurry of dust. Ann smiled and saluted with her beer. She wore shorts and a tee shirt featuring a picture of oversized sunglasses at a rakish angle. The young Cameroonian patriot looked confused, uncertain whether to smile or scowl. Finally he thrust his flag toard Ann and shouted, “Liberté!”

“Liberté!” Ann yelled.

This is Rachel:

cest impossible

“No!” Rat finalled exclaimed after an appropriate dramatic silence. “Do you really think?”

I glanced at her, trying to tell if she was truly shocked or just pretending.

The German shrugged.

C’est impossible!” Rat exclaimed.

C’est impossible! I stared at her. Who was this woman from Wyoming trying to kid?

Ann has mechanical aptitude, and so does Rachel:

automotive skills

“My theory is that you might have put in unleaded fuel and 1965 V-8s probably need all the lead they can get.” [said Rachel]

She was right, of course. Rat had an annoying way of being right about things automotive. It was her Wyoming cowgirl roots.

Rachel Kelly adopts a dog for their trip in Europe. Ann Bradley adopts a stray gazelle.

Here is Ann with the gazelle:

thompson gazelle

Ann appeared from behind the chief’s hit. Cradled in her arms was a small, catlike creature with a sharp snount.

“This is Thompson,” she announced. “Thompson the gazelle.”

Our procession had the look of a fable: Joseph in the lead carrying the wicket picnic basket packed with French cheese and sausage, Henri in his Guccis flipping through Paris Match, Ann nuzzling with the gazelle, and myself lugging a pack with the unlikely label “Himalayas.”

That night in Berbérati, we watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek to cheek on Henri’s VCR, powered by his personal generator. Afterwards, Henri played Cole Porter songs on his piano – “the only one in all this part of Africa” – while Ann fed Thompson drops of milk and I read James Hadley Chase.

Here is Rachel with the dog:

henry the dog

She walked over to the far corner of the garden, where a little iron gate led out onto Queen’s Walk and, just beyond that, St. James’s Park.

She pointed to a contented-looking golden retriever tied to the fence.

“What’s that?” I asked, a sense of dread cascading rapidly through my being.

“That’s Henry and he’s ours!”

“His name is Henry. I’m keeping him for a family that was going to take him to America for a year but found that he would have to be qurantined for two months and it would have broken their heart to do that to their dog. So we just agreed to take care of him.”

They do not get the needed Land Rover, instead settling for another car which they hope to sell at the end of their trip in Africa. Where in Frenzy, the pair to race to meet Kelly’s mate, here they race to meet Stevens’ wife in Algeria, a woman who forever stays off-screen, unseen and unheard, unable to make it even to the closing pages because of a cancelled flight.

It is a structure which fits Europe better than Africa, with the latter, with its horrors and beauties, resisting one more man insisting that it be a backdrop for their own adventure. Of course, the most striking aspect of the shared template is the woman, who appears to be the same character, but perhaps played by slightly different actresses, first by Liv Tyler, next by Rachel Weisz. In Frenzy, it is she who initiates the idea of a trip. With Dreams we’re not given any idea as to why the female needs to be brought along – is she there to translate? Who knows? Neither book ever mentions the possibility of envy from one’s mate about a man and a woman traveling alone together. In the case of Frenzy, that Stevens might even have a wife is never mentioned. That there is the possibility that she will not get to spend christmas with her husband – the rendezvous in Algeria is three days before this festive event – but this strange woman might, is never brought up. It is one of those details that makes the reader very skeptical of Stevens as a writer, a skepticism seemingly shared by Charlie Rose in this interview. Beyond this is the simple incredulity of two people with no experience in Africa and no guide, traveling half its length, including the Sahara and the former warzone of Chad, never mind the possibility that they might have taken the same route but with diamonds smuggled in their vehicle.

That the Land Rover to be retrieved carries diamonds on the inside, which will then be smuggled back to Europe is implied in several places.

In the meeting with Lucien which initiates the African trip:

lucien was involved in diamonds

“I spent a good bit of time in the CAR last year,” Lucien explained.

I nodded, methodically working my way through a bundle of saté skewers. Lucien was always going off to obscure corners of America. No one seemed to know what he did or why, though supposedly it had something to do with gold and diamonds.

“What I was wondering is” – he leaned forward and cocked an eyebrow – “if perhaps you would be interestd in driving my vehicle back to Paris.”

In a talk with a Central African Republic local about why the truck is being held:

lucien money must be involved somewhere

“I have been thinking about your Land Rover,” Henri [a local acquaintance] began unexpectedly. For the first time since arriving in Africa, the Land Rover did not, at the moment anyway, seem very important.

“What I cannot understand, if all Lucien has done wrong is not pay this fee on time, why do they make such a mess? Is that how you say, a mess?”

[a lawyer for the local government] Knepper thinks the minister [of mines] or Follope, the capitaine in the Brigade Minerale, is angry at Lucien. Maybe both.”

“I think,” Henri finally decided, “that the minister thought he was going to make some money out of Lucien and our friend Lucien did not allow this to happen. Money must be involved somewhere.”

A conversation with the minister of mines on why the government won’t release the vehicle, as well as highlighting that the rover is expected to be used for smuggling, and the improbablility of the whole venture:

minister of mines dialogue part one minister of mines dialogue part two

“Tell me,” the minister began, “just what is your relationship with Lucien?” Then he smiled.

ALearms rang inside my head. The minister’s voice reminded me of the best sort of prosecutor: low-keyed, friendly, with traps set at the end of each seemingly harmless sentence.

“Relationship?”

“He is a friend?”

I plunged boldly ahead. “Sort of.”

A knowing smile. And you are here doing his business?”

“Oh, no.” Then I explained how I had come to be in the Central African Republic.

“Let me udnerstand,” the minister queried patiently, “you were having dinner with your friend Lucien and he asked you to go to Africa to transport his vehicle and you said yes. This is what really happened?”

It suddenly sounded like the most preposterous thing I’d ever heard. “Well, tes. That’s pretty much what happened.”
The minister and the capitaine exchanged bemused looks. “And how long have you been involved in buisness with your friend Lucien?”

“I’m not. He’s just a friend.”

The looks came again. “And you come all the way to Africa to pick up a vehicle just for a friend?”

I said in a voice that sounded very tiny, “I thought it would be fun.”

A visit to where Lucien bought his diamonds.

where lucien looked for diamonds

“It’s close to here that Lucien looked for his diamonds,” Henri said, leaning against the Renault and watching a teenager work the hand pump drawing gas from a fifty-gallon drum. “This is diamond country. That is one of the reasons,” he grinned, “you see Muslims driving cars like that.” He nodded to a newish Toyota Land Cruiser behind us waiting for gas.

“You mean they find diamonds?” I asked.

“I mean they buy diamonds from Africans. But mostly they smuggle.”

Just outside Yaloke, beyond the twin rows of poplars planted fifty years ago by the French that make the road, if only for an instant, look like Avignon, a police roadblock stopped all traffic.

A soldier returned with Joseph and peered into the car, shining a light – it was almost dark – in each of our faces. Then abruptly he shook hands with Henri and waved us on.

“Diamonds,” Henri muttered, just as the first owl burst skyward under our headlights.

This last fragment should convey how incredibly dangerous it would be for two people, unfamiliar with Africa, without a guide or any contacts, to travel up through Africa to Algeria. The recklessness of those who would decide to do such a thing, the recklessness of an experienced diamond smuggler to trust a fortune to such novices, shakes a reader’s belief in this book, would shake their belief, even if, say, it were fiction. This is to speak only of the ringless falseness of what’s given here, rather than the rank immorality of being complicit in the smuggling of diamonds from a continent that had much of its mineral wealth stolen by colonial powers.

False notes such as these make you look at what Stevens writes with a more intense skepticism, perhaps warranted, perhaps not. That, for instance, he attended Oxford as an undergraduate, as he says in Frenzy, graduate school at Oxford in this Atlantic piece, in Dreams he mentions attending Oxford again:

oxford

Within twenty-four hours we were sitting in front of a Mr. Richards, an Englishman who ran the largest Nissan agency in town, and spilling our story. He was amused. We had, it turned out in one of those odd twists of fate I thought only occurred in Evelyn Waugh stories, attended the same college at Oxford. This was by far the most tangible benefit I’d ever accrued from any educational institution.

These claims may well be true; what I find unusual, another one of those possible false notes, is that no mention is ever made of Oxford in any profile or interview. One detail a Times reporter, or any reporter, will almost always ask is, where you went to school. The only time education is mentioned in a times piece on Stevens is “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate” with UCLA attendance mentioned, and Oxford not at all. One’s education shouldn’t matter to a reader, yet publishers are always tarting up your bio with a mention of some ne plus ultra school, with Oxford as a triple cherry deluxe, yet, again, Oxford is never mentioned in Stevens’ book jackets. This all in the context of a profile, mostly sympathetic, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney”, which describes Stevens as occasionally having an outsized ego.

These are ambiguous off notes that arouse skepticism. I think there are more definite ones in Dreams.

TIME OUT OF JOINT

The details that are off in Dreams fall almost entirely into the categories of time and money.

The book, though published in 1989, takes place in the fall of 1987. There are several details establishing the year as exactly that one, which we’ll get to as we go through this section.

Money and the rate of exchange is mentioned often in the book. Stevens often complains about how incredibly expensive it is to travel and eat in Africa, given that it is, his words, a third world place. US dollars are exchanged for the Franc of Central Africa. The value of the Central African franc was tied directly to that of the french franc – one french franc was worth fifty francs of central africa. This relation was fixed and did not fluctuate. A brief overview of the history of the franc of central africa can be found here. The rate of exchange for US dollars to francs did fluctuate, with this rate affecting the number of french francs a dollar was worth, which in turn affected the number of central african francs a dollar was worth.

The exchange rate between french francs and US dollars is crucial for what’s very off in the events in the book.

Stevens and Ann Bradley arrive in the Central Republic of Africa in early October 1987.

early october

I had been in Bangui less than ten minutes when I was robbed for the first time. This proved to be very fortunate. Muggings, rape and murder, I quickly discovered, were the pillars of conversation among the white community, and my introductory theft gave me something to talk about on the party circuit.

It was early October. The season was a factor in the robbery as it had been cold and rainy in Europe and I had arrived at the Bangui airport carrying a heavy raincoat. It was a new coat, recently purchased in England. I liked it.

Their initial mission is for Stevens to retrieve the Land Rover of his friend, Lucien. In order to do so, they need to pay a sizable bribe to a government official.

270 francs

The problem with the Land Rover was really quite simple, Capitaine Follope – whom Knepper addressed as “mon capitaine” – explained. There were some fees that had not been paid on mineral leases Lucien had acquired from the government. The vehicle had been seized as collateral against future payment.

“The amount in question is very small,” Follope said reassuringly.

“How much?”

“Half a million Central African francs.”

It sounded like a lot of money to me. I tried to calculate quickly: 270 Central African francs, or CFA to the dollar. It was a little less than $2000. Not a small amount but certainly cheaper than buying a new car. Lucien, I figured, would gladly pay if he understood it was the only way to see his Land Rover again.

Shortly after this, it is Stevens’ birthday.

birthday 22 october

It was my birthday, the twenty-second of October.

After this date, Stevens contacts Lucien to approve the bribe.

lucien half a million bribe

“You’ve got to understand, nothing is working!” I enumerated our efforts to free the Land Rover, the frustrations of this person being out of town, that person out of touch, everyone promising everything, and nothing, ultimately, happening.

“Yes, that’s how it is,” he answered pleasantly. “It just takes time.”

This occasioned an outburst on my part as to the limits of my time. Then I moved to present my case. “You’ve got to come down here yourself. It’s a must; or let me throw some money around for a bribe. That might help.”

“I don’t think my flying there is a very good idea,” Lucien said, his voice, for the first time, sounding serious. “How much money?”

We finally agreed upon half a million CFA – about two thousand dollars. It seemed a reasonable sum to offer as a bribe.

The bribe in CFA francs has stayed the same, and the bribe in US dollars has apparently stayed the same – almost or about two thousand dollars. No mention is made of any urgency regarding the rate of exchange. Again, this is a book where the narrator is concerned about the expense of things, and often mentions the price of an item in US dollars after giving the price in CFA francs.

However, during October, the rate of exchange of the dollar versus other currencies drops drastically, a possible cause, of many, for the crash of markets, which took place October 19th, three days before Stevens’ birthday, the crash perpetuating this decline. After the October 19th crash, the dollar continued its decline against the franc, losing ten percent of its value over two months.

A graph generated by the very helpful Economagic website illustrates this.

franc dollar graph cropped more

Yet somehow the bribe paid out in US dollars remains the same, whether early or late in October.

This rapid fall in the dollar’s value vis a vis the franc is something that one would expect as an obvious mention, that even as the travelers got closer and closer to their destination, prices kept climbing because of the loss of value.
?
For that matter, perhaps I am miscalculating, but the rate of exchange used in the book seems to have no relation with the exchange rate at the time.

The bribe at the beginning of October is 500 000 CFA francs, which Stevens calculates is worth about $2000 US dollars. 500 000 CFA francs is 10 000 french francs, so one US dollar is worth about five french francs in the book. Stevens gives an exchange of 270 CFA francs per US dollar, or 5.4 francs per dollar, so this might be because the bribe in US dollars isn’t quite $2000, perhaps a little less. However, as can be seen in the graph, the US dollar was trading above six francs for the first half of October, far above an exchange rate of either 5 or 5.4. Then it falls, so around the beginning of November, when Stevens calls Lucien, it’s at 5.70. In the book, however, the rate of exchange has remained entirely frozen at what it was at the beginning of October, stock still at five francs or five point four francs. This is still, a worse rate of exchange as shown in the graph, even with the start of the dollar’s value drop, five or five point four in the book, compared to 5.7 in currency exchange records.

After Stevens’ birthday, but before the call to Lucien, he has to buy some gas:

jerrican seventy dollars

I spotted a metal jerrican for sale at nineteen thousand CFA – seventy dollars; to make the trip north, I needed at least fifteen.

19 000 CFA francs is 380 french francs. If seventy US dollars buys 380 french francs, the rate of exchange is 5.428. It has either stayed level at the previous 5.4, or slightly improved from 5: either way, it is still lower than what was available around that month at any currency exchange.

A bribe is paid in Cameroon, at some point in the first three weeks of November.

three thousand cfa about eleven dollars

Three thousand CFA, about eleven dollars, was the standard amount Pierre turned over. Once a motorcycle patrol demanded more.

Three thousand CFA is sixty french francs, so now the exchange rate is 5.45. Again, if the exchange in the book in October is taken, it is level. It is also weaker than it ever was, at any exchange, as shown on the graph, and shows none of the rapid devaluation taking place.

We are told at one point that it is thanksgiving, which, in 1987, would be November 26.

thanksgiving

It was Fernando who reminded us it was Thanksgiving. He mentioned it in an offhand way while we stood at the head of the long buffet marveling at the pasta, the veal, the pastries. “An untraditional thanksgiving, no?” he said. Ann and I looked at each other, not understanding what he meant, and then we both looked up at a wall calendar featuring a nude girl riding a tractor. He was right, it was thanksgiving.

Shortly before this, we are given a last price quoted both in CFA francs and US dollars, the cost of fixing their car.

fifty thousand cfa

The volunteer mechanic requested tools, and I brought out the odd-fitting nonmetric set I’d stolen from Lucien. He grunted and went to work with a set of pliers. After a few minutes of messing about, he rose and said, simply, “Fifty thousand.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked, not understanding.

“Fifty thousand CFA to fix the car.”

That was almost two hundred dollars.

Fifty thousand CFA francs is a thousand french francs, so a dollar is now worth five francs. During the period in which the dollar weakened versus the franc, in this book, during the same time period, the dollar either gains in value, then drops back to what it was, to a weaker value than it actually was on the world’s currency exchange, somewhere above 5.60 in the period right before thanksgiving. Or it stays rock solid same throughout this period of rapid falling value.

In fact, the price given for car repair here is the same as a ransom asked for before Stevens’ birthday in October. It is a price demanded for information on Stevens’ stolen coat.

fifty thousand cfa first time

“Yes, but first we must discuss price.”

It was, apparently, a ransom situation. “How much do they want?” I asked.

“Fifty thousand CFA.”

That was almost two hundred dollars, far too much. We negotiated for some time. Finally we agreed on five thousand CFA.

Here, fifty thousand CFA is equal to two hundred dollars, the same exchange as it is after November 26. Given that the calculation for the exchange in some amounts is close to 5.4, and Stevens gives an exchange rate of 270 CFA francs per dollar for the October amounts, or a 5.4 rate, there appears the possibility that the exchange rate throughout the story is 5.4, as an exchange rate, please excuse my lapse into italics, might be conveniently set in a fiction. So there is some strange discrepancy in what the actual exchange rate should be, beyond the dramatic absence of any sense of a dollar plummeting in value, losing ten percent of its value over the course of the trip in relation to the native currency in an already expensive continent.

I add as well that at no point does Stevens write of carrying around a large amount of money that he has already exchanged and that the amounts needed on the trip are sometimes very, very large, such as paying two thousand dollar bribes or buying a new vehicle. It is also important that before Stevens says he left for this trip, in early October or late September, the dollar franc exchange had been holding steady for a long while, trading above six francs a dollar, nowhere close to the 5.4 rate ubiquitous in the book.

I end with the final details that are off, starkly off, for which I leave to others to deduce an explanation.

As said before, Stevens arrives on the continent at the beginning of October. He celebrates his birthday in Bangui, Central African Republic, on the twenty second of October.

I stated earlier that there are markers establishing that the story takes place in 1987. Here is the first one. Stevens writes of the carnet, a letter of passage, needed to travel through most African countries to avoid paying entrance duties to that country.

carnet england storm

Actually, I had a carnet. Warned that travel by car in Africa was impossible without one, I’d gone to considerable trouble and expense to acquire one from the Automobile Association in England. Unfortunately, my visit to England coincided with the worst hurricane to hit the country in a century, silencing all telephones, littering the streets with uprooted trees and knocking out the rail line from London to the Dover ferry. My life had not been made easier by the fact that I was hauling around enough Land Rover parts to launch a dealership, plus assorted camping gear – though my stove and lantern did come in handy in my hotel when the electricity died for two days.

What’s referred to here must be the massive storm which hit England in 1987, easily considered the worst storm of the century for the area, and featuring hurricane winds.

What is puzzling is this. The storm took place on October 16th and 17th. Stevens obtains his carnet before leaving for Africa. Yet he says he arrives in Africa in early October. How is it that he is in England during this storm, yet is in Africa, before the storm?

There is another, smaller discrepancy. It is after his birthday, Stevens and Ann Bradley are traveling from Cameroon into Chad. Stevens describes what is taking place there:

chad was fighting a war

Entering Chad near the capital, N’Djamena, one could theoretically drive across Lake Chad (largely dry for the last ten years) and into Niger. There were problems with this approach. For starters, Chad was fighting a war with Libya and though most of the fighting occurred in the northern desert near the border, the Libyans had bombed N’Djamena just a few months earlier.

Later, when they are about to enter Chad, we get this description:

war zone capitals of a winning side

Cloaked in a perpetual layer of dust, the town still resembles what it was for years: a battlefield.

But war-zone capitals of a winning side are usually graced with an infectious optimism difficult to resist. And Chad definitely feels it is winning. After years of watching Libya annex its northern territory, Chad finally put aside internal feuds and struck back. In a series of blitzkrieg assaults, Chadian forces overran Libyian desert bases previously though impenetrable. Their attack methods quickly qualified as the stuff of legends.

The American government aids Chad in its war with Libya and this helps create a benevolent attitude toward Americans in N’Djamena.

All this suggests a war with ongoing fighting. These descriptions correspond to either later October and mid-November, or early November and late November, respectively. Yet this was at least a month and a half into a ceasefire between Libya and Chad with no outbreak of hostilities. No doubt traveling in this area was still a frightening experience, and that the ceasefire could break any day was a disturbing possibility for those entering Chad. But why leave out a crucial piece of information such as this, placing the conflict in a more ambiguous pre-ceasefire place rather than after?

That this all takes place months after the ceasefire is made clear, though indirectly, in this scene with a member of the US embassy staff in Chad:

fragment of shot down plane

Tim Whitset worked for the U.S. embassy. A big man in his early thirties, he’d lived in Africa for over a decade and relished matching wits with the local bureaucracy. His office in the newly fortified embassy compound was, in essence, a large vault with a heavy combination on the door. From this windowless crypt, he launched his rescue missions in the complicated bureaucratic wars that raged through the Chadian government. On his desk, he had a souvenir of a more traditional war.

“It’s a piece of a Libyan plane, actually,” he responded to my question about the charred piece of twisted metal. “It was shot down a few months ago over town. Poor suckers flew all the way from Libya to drop a few bombs in a mud flat outside of town and then got blown to hell and back. A U.S. missile operated by the French. A true United Nations effort.”

This was actually a well-reported incident, “Libyan Warplane Is Downed In Chad By French Forces” which took place on September 8th, 1987 and one that may have helped trigger the ceasefire. That the shooting down is mentioned, but the ceasefire is not, as if to create a sense of ongoing war which the travelers might face is a strange one.

One more detail that I think points to a disconcerting anachronism. The trip starts in the Central African Republic, which they stay in past Stevens’ birthday on October 22. After, they leave for Cameroon, where they run into a national celebration in Bertoua.

cameroon national holiday

On thie Sunday afternoon, a raucous crowd spilled out of the bar dancing to the music blaring from a stand selling cassettes and records.

Three pickup trucks filled with young men waving Cameroon flags roared up from the direction of town. They shouted slogans, and when the bar throng responded tepidly, they yelled louder. Several jumped off the truck and ran about the market brandishing flags; the scene reminded me of male cheerleaders taking the field before a football game.

Pierre when I asked, explained that this was a Cameroonian national holiday, Independence Day, he beieved.

The only national holiday that this could be is Cameroon’s Unification Day, when the french and english parts of the country united. Again, this scene takes place after Stevens’ birthday on October 22. Cameroon’s unification day is October 1st.

There is another possible discrepancy, but this does not relate directly to Malaria Dreams, but a trip to Africa described in Feeding Frenzy. There are discrepancies if it is the same trip to Africa described.

Traveling along the river Niger in Malaria Dreams, Stevens and Bradley come across some fishermen.

capitaine giant perch

I woke up at first light and brewed coffee on the little gas stove. The mornings were the best time of day, when it was cool enough to forget, at least for a little while, the strangling heat of the upcoming hours. A pirogue floated through the mist, a graceful craft with bow and stern rising upward like outstretched arms. There were two teenagers poling the boat. They landed and hoisted out a bulky fish, mouth gaping. It was a capitaine, a breed of giant perch I’d first seen pulled from the Ubangi River in Bangui.

A capitaine, Nile perch, can be found in the Niger river. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens remembers a moment from a trip in Africa, perhaps the same trip of Malaria Dreams

oversized gar

I described a meal I’d cooked once by the River Niger. The centerpiece was an oversized gar I’d caught, the only fish longer than six inches I’d ever caught in Africa. It was a bony prehistoric-looking thing about as appetizing as a display in a natural history museum. I filleted it, which was the only thing I could imagine doing, wrapped the fillet in tin foil with bits of onions and some old garlic cloves I’d bought in the Timbuktu market, and buried it in the coals of a driftwood fire. It was shockingly good, moist and sweet. I ate it with half a can of peaches and a mix of fried yams and onions, which was about all the shelves of Timbuktu’s largest grocery had to offer.

Now, Stevens has not come across fishermen in Niger, but fished himself, one of many times he has fished in Africa. At no point in Malaria Dreams does he mention doing any fishing. Another prominent detail is the error in the fish: the visual identification of the gar is entirely correct, but this is a fish that is not found in the river Niger, or anywhere in Africa, as outlined in this brief National Geographic summary; it can, however, be found in Stevens’ native Mississippi. It is from the Lepisosteidae family, none of which can be found in Africa. Here is a partial list of fish to be found in the Niger river; lepisosteida are easily recognizable by their snub nose; none of the fish species in this list seem to have this identifier.

A final short small detail, but one that I found as equally striking as the date of the storm. After leaving Chad, where they spend thanksgiving, the travelers go to Niger.

burkina faso coup pt one burkina faso coup pt two

Niger, though, was a security-mad country with roadblocks and police checks every twenty or thirty miles. The routine of paranoia had been accelerated by a coup a few days earlier in neighboring Burkina Faso. Like virtually every West African leader, the president of Niger had catapulted himself to power in a similar coup and no doubt viewed the events in Burkina Faso as intimations of his own mortality. (The Burkina Faso president, an exceptionally charismatic guitar-playing young leader, was gunned down in his residence, as is the custom.)

All of this meant it was impossible to travel a mile in Niger without immaculately ordered papers, including insurance.

Again, this takes place after Thanksgiving, either at the very end of November, or early December. The coup in Burkina Faso is spoken of as having taken place a few days earlier.

The coup in Burkina Faso was against the very charismatic, guitar playing Thomas Sankara, who was killed. The coup took place on the 16th of October and he was executed on the 17th, 1987. Again, I leave it to others to make their deductions.

The ending of this post is abrupt: I think there’s possibility of greater analysis of this book, so I consider this entry unfinished.

(Edits have been made for clarity; additions were made detailing the smuggling of diamonds in the book, the ambassador who is not a Reagan dunce, and the polish smugglers. A few additions were made on the currency exchange of the book, along with some edits for improved clarity.)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Scorched Earth by Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens

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 book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, 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.

scorched earth by stuart stevens

SYNOPSIS

A novel by Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. It is a book of interest since one often says things in fiction that are perhaps never said in memoirs or factual tales, and also because few political consultants have written novels about their own profession, showing how they see their role, politics, voters.

The story has a plot that is both convoluted and simple. In an unnamed state, but one which can only be Mississippi (Tishomingo county is often referenced), Luke Bonney, a congressman, runs in an election for Senate against the state’s governor, Solomon Jawinski, whose campaign is managed by Matthew, Luke’s brother. Matthew Bonney is married to congresswoman Lisa James. Luke, despite his good looks, is unmarried. The father of Luke and Matthew is Powell Bonney, former governor of the state. Almost all of the story takes place in the last six days of the campaign.

During the election, the Jawinski campaign is threatened by revelations from his ex-wife’s memoir. Luke Bonney’s campaign is hit by allegations that he slept with a group of black transvestite prostitutes. Luke Bonney tries to counter this rumor by claiming that he slept with Matthew Bonney’s wife. Matthew cheats on Lisa with her sister, Dawn. The election ends in a near dead heat, with Jawinski finally winning by a fraction of votes. Jawinski believes the tightly split vote shows how disgusted voters are with the choices given them, so, in order to heal this cynicism, he has Powell Bonney appointed in his place as senator. The story ends with the rumors over Luke Bonney ambiguous and unresolved, Powell Bonney a senator, Matthew and Lisa expecting their first child.

Though I don’t think it’s very funny, the story is an attempt at a madcap farce, with a few serious moments. There are many reasons why it doesn’t work, but a principal one is that the reader has no sense of the characters as real. The people of a broad comedy may be exaggerations, yet they must still feel something like what we do in comparable situations: women and men are deeply upset when they’re betrayed, sexual entanglements do not begin and end arbitrarily, there is some intuitive reason for why two brothers hate each other. Lisa shows no regret or sadness when she intuits that Matthew has betrayed her with her own sister. Matthew sleeps with Dawn, then never gives her any additional attention again, nor does she ask any. The brothers Matthew and Luke hate each other, but though we wait to hear of some basis for the long standing ire, none is ever revealed.

If the book is a failure, that does not keep it from being a fascinating one, almost entirely because of the writer’s privileged position. Through several sections, I try and examine the more intriguing aspects in some depth. Quotes from the book are often long, to make clear that they are not selective or distorted. All quotes are accompanied by scans of the pages to make clear that the quote is very much real, and not fabricated.

ROSS BARNETT AND GEORGE WALLACE

Perhaps the strangest, most interesting detail of the book is that Powell Bonney, the father of brothers Luke and Matt, is a composite of segregationists George Wallace, governor of Alabama and Ross Barnett, governor of Mississippi; he is also, easily, the most sympathetic character in the book.

Powell is governor of Mississippi during the strife of the civil rights era, with two historical events merged and given over to him. He is there during the integration of Ole Miss when James Meredith is admitted as a student, during which a massive riot takes place and several people are killed; this is joined with the image of George Wallace standing in the doorway to block admission of black students to the University of Alabama, as well as the idea of Wallace’s penitence for segregation and his subsequent re-election as governor.

What is strange is the way these segregationists have been re-sculpted into this character. He is simply a good man, caught amongst the forces of history, deeply regretful of what takes place when a riot breaks out at the university over the admission of its first black student. After the crisis, stricken by conscience, he resigns from the governorship, and finds a sort of penance by doing volunteer work at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm.

This is one of the first references to the father’s segregationist past in the book, with the borrowed detail of Wallace standing in the school’s doorway:

The Big Guy.

That’s what they called his father in those days. The two brothers had picked it up from one of the state troopers who drove him around and played at being a bodyguard. He never called their father Governor Powell Bonney. Just the Big Guy, even to his face. The governor didn’t seem to mind.

Matt had liked that state trooper. He was the one who told Matt and Luke about their father’s decision not to run for reelection. Luke was furious, Matt could remember it so clearly. “Why?” he kept asking. “How come?”

The trooper just shook his head. He was a sizable fellow, large but not obese, with a burr haircut and a warm smile. Even their mother liked him. “Your daddy’s a good man,” he told them that day driving around in his cruiser – Luke and Matt loved that cruiser. “You don’t let anybody tell you different. You hear me now? The Big Guy’s a champ. A champ-i-on. You wanna hear the siren?”

That was before they were old enough to understand. At least officially understand. What Matt knew was that something wasn’t right. Later, in college, even at the University, right next to the photos of the cars burning and the dead bodies. There were three of those: one student, one national guardsman, and one poor bastard photographer from Sweden. That sort of spread the losses evenly. It would have been hardly fair if any blacks had died. After all, only one was trying to enter the University. That’s what the Big Guy was trying to stop – standing tall in the doorway.

“You hear me now? The Big Guy’s a champ. A champ-i-on. You wanna hear the siren?”

The most extensive mention of the father’s role during the University crisis comes during a visit by Matt Bonney to the prison where his father does his volunteer work. A history book triggers a memory of where he was and what took place that night. The date of the admission of James Meredith has been changed, from October 1, 1962 to September 7, 1964, when Robert Kennedy was no longer even attorney general, but other than that the facts seem the same.

Wandering around the empty library, Matt found a copy of a state history and began to read. It was a new textbook and included a section on his father entitled “The Question of Powell Bonney?”

Powell Bonney’s single-term governorship is one of the more enigmatic in state history. Indeed, Powell Bonney himself remains a mysterious figure in our state’s history. There are those who consider him a tragic victim of the times, destroyed by the race question. Others see him as a conservative who took advantage of racial issues to gain election only to be overtaken by events. But all agree the pivotal event in his single term was the integration of the state University and the subsequent riots that left four people dead. Clearly, Governor Bonney saw these events as a personal failure, and though he gave no reason publicly for deciding not to seek a second term, it was generally agreed that the incidents at the state University were at the heart of his decision.

The exact date was easy to remember – it had made headlines across the country – September 7, 1964. He always thought of it beginning with the two of them in the kitchen, he and Lisa, while his father, who was governor then, of course, was “dealing with the situation.” Lisa’s father was teaching law at the University, a visiting professor taking a year off from his Capitol City law practice.

A few blocks away, in the center of the campus, a crowd of students was beginning to gather, and less than a mile away, a small army of National Guardsmen were waiting instructions from Robert Kennedy, the attorney general. Tomorrow, the first black was scheduled to be enrolled in the state University.

Huddled in the kitchen, Matt and Lisa felt they were part of some great and strange adventure. Outside the house, television crews waited with a score of reporters. They were perched on the sidewalk, spilling out into the quiet street lined with live oaks, drinking lemonade and iced tea the University provided. They sat there waiting for some word from the house, and it made Matt and Lisa feel very important and mature that they were on the inside, a part of what was happening.

That night after dinner at the kitchen table, they slipped over the back fence, very serious in their stealth, convinced that their departure, if detected was sure to be seen on Huntley-Brinkley. Once free, they wandered around town holding hands for the first time. Certain streets were totally deserted, while others were packed with racing students and the press.

They decided to follow the jeeps and trucks that had begun moving toward the campus’s main square. Several blocks later, though, the streets were blocked by a rifle-carrying students turning away all spectators. But Lisa knew the town and she led Matt to the football stadium, where an underground tunnel connected the locker room an the gym, which faced onto the main square. Perched on a locker, they watched the riot begin.

They killed two people and burned a half-dozen cars that night, and Matt and Lisa watched it all. At first they were more excited and nervous than they had ever been, but by the end, they just felt numb, eyes burning from the tear gas. They stayed until dawn when the square was mostly empty of students and firemen were left in peace to hose down the smoldering cars.

When they got back to the house, Matt and Lisa expected their fathers to be waiting, upset by their disappearance. But no one was there. After they had gone to bed, Matt in the guest bedroom, Lisa a floor above, Matt heard his father and Lisa’s father come in together, the front door slamming behind them.

They remained downstairs for a little bit, then his father came up to the extra bedroom next to Matt’s, where he was staying. Matt was just falling asleep when he heard his father vomiting in the bathroom they shared. A little later, he thought he heard sobs, but about this he couldn’t be sure.

This governor vomits over what has taken place. The history book gives the possibilities of either a tragic figure or a man overwhelmed by history. A later episode with the current governor, Jawinski, further makes him into a martyr. Jawinski implies there was a secret deal with Robert Kennedy, but the riots took place anyway.

“Oh, that’s good, Bonney. Just terrific. Anyway, dummy, you’re crazy to be dumping on your old man. He did the best he could. I think there was a lot more about that standing-in-the-schoolhouse-door act than people ever understood. I really do.”

“You mean like some kind of deal with Robert Kennedy that he would pretend to be against the integration but then let it happen.”

Jawinski looked over at Matt for a terrifyingly long time. “Yeah,” he finally said, surprised, “something like that.”

“They just didn’t figure on the riot.”

“Riots you don’t figure. It’s the first rule of riots.”

There were, in fact, attempts by governor Ross Barnett to arrange in some way to have Meredith attend a school, without bringing about a confrontation with federal forces. These arrangements broke down. Barnett did not “pretend” to be against integration. He was against integration. He made defiant, incendiary speeches against integration on the Saturday before Meredith’s admission to the school. He arrested the Freedom Riders when they came through his state. He showed visible and crucial support to Byron De La Beckwith, the assassin of Medgar Evers. “There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration,” he said. “We will not drink from the cup of genocide.” White supremacy was his campaign theme each time he ran for office. He was utterly unrepentant about his actions at his death, and stated emphatically that he would act in exactly the same way again. All this information is unambiguous and easily available in his obituary. He did not seek a second term for “mysterious reasons”, but because term limits restricted governors to single nonconsecutive terms.

These were the same non-mysterious reasons why Governor Wallace did not seek a second term in Alabama, following the tenure in which he fought integration at his own state’s university. Wallace, whatever the sincerity of his later professions of regret, did attempt to make active penance, in addition to the forced penitence of partial paralysis from an assassin’s bullet, by confessing to having been wrong, becoming a born again Christian, actively seeking out the forgiveness of his state’s black citizens, some of whom then demonstrated their forgiveness by voting the man back into office. All these steps to redemption for this specific act go untaken by this novel’s governor. He goes into exile. He trains for the Ironman. He does volunteer work at the prison. The last no doubt helpful, but not a direct confrontation of the segregation he helped enforce.

So, given this historical context, it’s puzzling that this book takes the material of two segregationists, who believed in the inherent inferiority of a substantial number of their state’s citizens, and turns it into a character that is a martyr, someone who is an instrument for good, integration, yet cannot reveal this, who then goes into exile, a man too good for this world. It can only be read as an exculpation, a fantasy desired of who the governor was then and why he acted, a shirking from what actually took place.

Stranger still, is that the book acknowledges that this man once made an active appeal for segregation. Matt stumbles upon a commercial made during the governor’s race:

“Powell Bonney – the man from Arcadia!” the voice announced boldly. (Or, at least, semiboldly. The announcer was Woody Jackson, the best local talent available at the time the commercial was made, in 1962. [Woody Jackson, a local TV newscaster character who appears briefly in the book]) “He speaks for the people!” The camera cut from footage of Powell Bonney speaking before a huge crowd at the Lester County Fair to Powell Bonney in a studio talking directly into the camera. “I have always tried to do my best to protect our way of life. The stakes in this election are high. Our cause just. I need your help in the battle ahead!”

Despite this contentious history, it is never explicitly brought up in any conversation between father and either son. It is simply enough to present him as a martyr and assume that the reader will accept that. This perhaps makes one of the last moments of the story truly alienating. Though the current governor has won the senate race, he hands over this position to Powell Bonney, the former segregationist governor:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“And let’s not kid ourselves that when it came down to it, there weren’t many people in this state who were happy with the choices before them.” [said Jawinski] He looked over at Luke with a wry grin. “Just about everybody hated us both and hated the fact that they had to choose between us. Something is wrong.”

Standing at the side of Jawinski, Luke Bonney nodded. The governor motioned for Luke to join him at the microphone.

“Both of us,” Jawinski continued, “believe the people deserve better. And instead of just complaining about it, we’re going to do something about it.”

“I,” Jawinski continued, “will, of course, no longer be governor. Lieutenant Governor Jack Tangent will be sworn in as the new governor. But it will be my-” he stopped here and rolled the word around delightfully, “recommendation that the new governor appoint Governor Powell Bonney to fill the remainder of the term.”

This is viewed, from inside the story, as the sound, moral choice, a happy ending to this novel. I would think a very large number of black men and women of Mississippi would take great issue with what happens: they vote for a candidate, yet somehow this group of almost entirely white men and women decide that the better pick would be the favorite son of the state, the former segregationist governor. He is, after all, a decent man. There were a lot of victims in the fight for civil rights, and, according to this novel, the governor was a victim too. So, it’s only proper that he get another chance, and serve as state senator. How could any upstanding black man or woman dare disturb the universe and disagree with that?

How does this man demonstrate his ultimate decency in a novel written by a Republican consultant? Through his support of a massive government program which will benefit the children of every state, a national literacy program:

“I’ve got one son who thinks I chickened out and another who figures I wasn’t a hero on civil rights. They’re both right, but there you have it. So look, can we talk about literacy? Please? I’ve proposed legislation that would guarantee every American a right to basic literacy skills. It’s an unbelievably good bill.”

So, government paternalism is an evil that a republican must fight against with all his will, unless, of course, it is needed to redeem an aging segregationist. Even big government occasionally has its uses.

GOSSIP

As with any book about american politics, a number of figures appear as caricatures, a few small details changed, taunting you to unmask who they are. I am very poor at this game, but I believe I guessed at least one correctly. Perhaps because there is a safety in fiction, and safety in mildly guised characters, every member of the political-media-industrial complex who appear under another name are portrayed unsympathetically, if not utterly dark with bile.

Early on, an obnoxious and violently unattractive man shows up, a former journalist who has become a celebrity by hosting “Showdown”, a quasi-debate program where he shouts and spits over unfortunate guests. This, I believe, can only be one man, the late Prince of Darkness, the infamous Robert Novak. Here Novak is Robert Newsome, and “Showdown” is Novak’s ugly child, “Crossfire”.

A lengthy quote describing the man and his creation:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Few ugly people love the camera, but Robert Newsome was a triumphant exception. He looked forward to his nationally telecast weekly program called “Showdown” with the same heart-thumping glee he had once anticipated his first bylines in his salad days with the Baltimore Sun. The camera – television! that wonderful cathode stage – had resurrected political reporter Robert Newsome from op-ed obscurity and had thrust (that’s how he liked to think about it – THRUST) him into the homes of unsuspecting millions. Television had brought him fans. Television had, for the first time in his forty-seven years, narrowed the vast chasm between his sexual appetites and reality. (Maybe a little too much. That lawsuit was annoying, but it was mostly inside baseball. No one really seemed to care.) Television had made him rich.

At first, the thought of appearing on television made Robert Newsome throw up. Literally. (The outtakes of his first shows were an underground classic in Washington. “Grab the wastebasket!” was the oft-heard, off-camera cry of the bedraggled director.) But he had gradually stumbled onto what he figured to be the medium’s dirty little secret: Television was easy! There was none of the hard digging and seducing of sources that went into his twice-weekly column, Banished was the need to freeze to death at the Iowa caucuses or get teargassed at demonstrations. All you had to do was show up in a studio, usually a temperature-controlled studio, and rant and rave, threaten and cajole – his normal dinner party performance, really, no more or less – and that was it. People loved it. Newsome was a star.

Some television critics had speculated, much to Newsome’s pleasure, that he deliberately tried to make himself look unappealingly sinister on camera. But the truth was that Newsome required no magic to make his electronic presence frightening. He was short and dumpy, with arms too long for his frame, arms that looked to be borrowed from another body. His face was a disaster. He had collapsed cheekbones and a bulbous forehead, a combination that threw most of his features into perpetual shadow. The tone of his skin was swarthy, which on handsome Italians is enviously referred to as “olive,” but Newsome’s olive was overripe and splotchy, two weeks to the bad. A feeble beard raged across his face like a gray bushfire partially extinguished by a rake.

It was Newsome’s love of combat that his audience adored. Here was a man who spoke the truth. “You’re lying, Senator!” A man who begged to be hated! “This may come as a shock, Congressman, but my sources tell me you have an illustrious future behind you.” Thus spoke Newsome!

The set of “Showdown” was designed to maximize the shock effect of confrontation. The two “guests” – it seemed an odd word for people invited to be abused – sat jammed next to each other in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs. Newsome sat inches away across a simple black table, quite literally in their faces. When the show got really hot, spittle flew in all directions. True fans loved to watch closely to observe who was getting the most spray in the face. Usually, it was a guest, for Newsome was blessed with a fierce set of salivary glands.

For some reason, whenever he faced Robert Newsome, Matt’s mind drifted to images of Newsome having sex. Matt wondered if Newsome took off his thick black socks and what sort of sounds he made. It was an oxymoronic vision, like a warthog dancing. Matt started to laugh.

I quote one more Newsom segment from the novel. It is easily one of its most striking, of no consequence in its overall structure, but of great importance to a reader during a presidential election, especially one where a population is burdened and worn down, while a media-politico elite issues diktats from an increasingly lofty height. Robert Novak, I’m sorry, Newsome and Matt Bonney go to a run-down chinese restaurant. Newsome looks about at the sorry souls of myriad races, far poorer than the two men, people who will be poor the rest of their lives, feels no connection with any of them, and states clearly: he wants no part of them. Matt Bonney hears this, and completely agrees. Remember that the next time you wonder why some Sunday morning “news” program seems to have so little to do with the poverty and desperation of people outside their hallowed studios, or when the Romney campaign puts forth a message of compassion, concern, or empathy. The people who opine on those programs, the man who crafted that message, have nothing to do with your sorry lives and they are grateful for that.

The significant areas receive my bolds.

Newsome stiffened as soon as he and Matt walked in the door.

“You always bring me to the nicest places,” he mumbled as Matt led him to a stool at the counter in the rear near the all-Chinese section. Newsome carefully wiped the counter with his paper napkin. His red face appeared to have been drenched with a garden hose.

“Who bothers you the most?” Matt leaned over to whisper in Newsome’s ear, “the niggers, the ‘necks, or the chinks?”

A frightened smile tried to fight its way onto Newsome’s face.

“Don’t forget I’ve been to your house in Washington, Bonney. I know how you live. Your stereo cost more than the per capita income of this god forsaken country.”

Matt started strenuously to object but then, calculating quickly in his head, realized with some embarrassment that Newsome was literally correct. But it was a wonderful stereo. “I live in a very middle-class neighborhood, you know that, Newsome. I’m not out there in Bethesda with all you rich white folks.”

Thank God there’s still some place for us. Jesus, I’ve been poor. Poor is boring. It sucks.”

“Look, Nuisance, I just brought you here so you could interview average voters three days before the election. I’m just trying to help you out, pal.” Matt beamed and ordered two cups of coffee from the girl, perhaps ten years old, behind the counter. She had the face of a Han Chinese, with skin that looked almost transparent.

“You don’t think I’ll do it?” Newsome challenged. He turned around on the stool and stared out at the crowd, his eyes flitting between the gruff Chinese men, the rambunctious black kids, the tired, middle-aged white men with the sullen quiet of the defeated. The fans droned overhead. Outside, it was already ninety degrees, the street glaring through the half-drawn shades like some exotic ray gun programmed to stun.

Newsome took a long look and turned around. He shook his head, staring straight ahead. “There was a time,” he began.

“Ah, yes,” Matt said.

“A time when I would have been dying to know just what every one of those unique souls was thinking. What made ‘em tick. Were they going to vote? For whom? Why?” He shrugged and drank from his coffee cup. “Now, now, I think I just don’t care. I don’t want to be a part of their world and, God knows, I don’t want ‘em part of mine. Jesus.”

“Yeah,” Matt said, watching their reflection in the mirror behind the counter. “Me, too.”

Next, there is a political consultant, Mort Koughan, working for the opposing candidate, Matt’s brother Luke. He is not given anything like the extensive description of Newsome; he is fat, jewish, with a hard glare and a low rumble of a voice. He’s a very famous consultant from New York City who frequently loses his temper, works state campaigns as well as presidential races. That he is from New York and jewish, I think, are red herrings. The two prominent consultants who match those details are Hank Sheinkopf and Dick Morris, but they don’t really fit the other details, and Morris, despite his current outsize profile, was a very secretive figure when this book was written.

The hard eyes, the temper, the man’s fame and prominence, especially the low rumble of a voice, all make me think this is supposed to be a thinly veiled Ed Rollins, California born catholic. Two quick notes: Rollins appeared on a discussion panel with Stevens in this episode of Charlie Rose, and he was very critical of the performance of the Romney campaign in this very good article, “The Lost Party” by John Heilemann).

Like Newsome, he is looked at with loathing. Koughan makes his first appearance in the novel as a “Showdown” guest:

“And on my right is the famed veteran of national politics, the media maven from New York, the wealthy and ever-well-fed Mort Koughan.” [introduction by Newsome]

Mort Koughan glared and chortled all at once, an exceptionally repellent combination.

“From what I can gather,” Koughan said in his low grumble of a voice, “people around here have a very high regard for former Governor Bonney. In fact, most think he was a heck of a lot better governor than the man trying to do the job right now.”

During a debate, Koughan fires off his gun by accident.

Suddenly, a sound bellowed from the wings. “Jesus wept! I shot myself! Jesus!”

It was Morton Koughan’s voice. He staggered out on stage, staring downward in amazement. A dark wetness spread across his gray Paul Stuart suite pants. “How the hell did this happen?” he asked, as if he were questioning the inferior performance of one of his employees. “How the hell-” His legs wavered, and then he pitched off to the side like an ugly tree losing its balance.

As a quick aside, I should mention that I find a detail here to be slightly unusual: a catholic would be in the habit of saying “jesus wept!”, as an oath, but I think a jewish man from New York City would be less accustomed to using such a phrase as a curse.

After this incident, emphatic reference is made in the book on this man’s small penis. Folks, these are the jokes.

Another consultant, Ruthie, on Matt Bonney’s team:

“You think that fat bastard shot himself in his tiny little thing on purpose?” Ruthie hissed.

A conversation between Matt and his mother.

“Matt,” his mother said gently. “It’s not Luke, and you know it. It’s that awful consultant of his from New York. The one who shot himself-”

“In his little-bitty penis.”

“Matt!” But she was laughing.

I’ll note a strange aspect of this loathing which I’ll return to later. Koughan inspires great animus in Matthew, he is widely looked on as a repellent creature, as if we in the audience should easily see and share in this venom, yet there is nothing in the man portrayed that appears to justify this. He is a pit fighter, but there is nothing I notice that distinguishes him from Matthew or anyone in the Jawinski campaign.

Here he is again, recovering from his self-inflicted wound, not simply a political combatant, but a man whose existence challenges the concept of a loving god:

From the control room, Matt and Governor Jawinski could see Morton Koughan roaming the perimeter of the soundstage. Using a cane, he dragged one foot behind him. For an instant, Matt was astonished to feel a pang of sympathy for a man whose very existence he felt challenged the notion of a benevolent God.

“Look at that jerk,” Jawinski muttered. “He looks like a wounded warthog.”

This was true.

Another political professional who shows up is Walter Farkas, a pollster who works with Matthew Bonney. He is a slightly eccentric man, dark skinned but not african american, whose brother works in his polling firm as well. This, I believe, is the polling expert John Zogby.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Walter Farkas walked across the table, his bare toes splayed across the glass like a tree rog. While he walked, he rolled his tie up and down. His gray pinstriped suit gave every impression of having been slept in, which it might well have been. Walter was noted for keeping vampire hours, an unusual trait for a pollster. As a rule, pollsters were the accountants of politics – smart but dry, a breed whose members prided themselves on their very blandness as proof of their submission to the empirical forces of numerical logic.

But not Walter Farkas. It was one of the reasons he and Solomon Jawinski took to each other from the start. Years ago, Walter’s brother, Josh, who held up the business end of their polling firm, had called then Attorney General Jawinski to pitch Walter’s services.

A physical description and age appear in this pan over the campaign consultants sitting behind the observation glass during the testing of a TV ad:

Scorched Earth 017n Farkas tall

Had the glass been reversed, the focus group could have witnessed a rather strange assemblage: the tall and dark Farkas, who looked like he should be running a numbers racket in Queens (which he had done once while at Columbia – his numerical adroitness had made him an instant success); Charlie Song, who was half-black and half-Oriental and somehow preposterously handsome; and Ruthie Simms, who resembled a cheerleader trying out for a role in a music video. Walter Farkas was the oldest at forty-four; Ruthie Simms, the youngest, twenty-eight; and Charlie Song in between at thirty-three.

I am unclear who Charlie Song and Ruthie Simms are stand-ins for, if anyone. I note also the strange juxtaposition that Song is half-black, half-asian, and “somehow” preposterously handsome. I am uncertain why good looks should be a surprising development from this racial mixture.

Again, as with the others, Farkas is viewed with bileful hostility. The thoughts of Ruthie, another consultant, on Farkas:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

She had never in her life met anyone who thought he knew as much as Walter Farkas. The problem was, he actually had good ideas so it was impossible just to ignore him, which is what she’d really have liked to do.

It is Farkas who wants to make an issue of Luke Bonney’s sexual orientation. He brings it up during a meal where he keeps taking food off other people’s plates. Two details establish how he’s viewed by Matt Bonney and the writer:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“What’s it mean?” Matt asked. He wanted the pompano to arrive that instant so he wouldn’t have to look into Walter’s horrible gray face another second. “Do the spots work or not?”

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Walter nodded, then leaned down so that Matt could taste his acrid breath and whispered, “What do you know about your brother being a fag?”

Later, Farkas is beaten by Matt Bonney for what he’s done. I leave that excerpt to the next section.

Finally, for completeness, I mention that Roger Ailes, along with the lesser known Bob Beckell, a democrat consultant, make a brief walk-on under their actual names. I wish I could say some rancid secret is exposed here, but their appearance is a non-event, though Beckell is viewed with casual dismissiveness.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I am leaving,” Lisa sighed, and this time she opened the door, and just as she did, Roger Ailes walked into the bathroom with Bob Beckell. They were both big men, and the bathroom seemed to get much smaller in a hurry.

“What is this,” Beckell demanded, laughing, “some kind of Bonney family reunion?”

“I was just explaining to Beckell,” Ailes said, quite graciously, as if this were a bathroom conclave convened at his request, ” that it takes a smart man to win a bunch of races and become a national pundit, but it takes a damn genius to lose forty-eight states in a presidential race and become the hottest pundit in town.”

Beckell, when he had managed Walter Mondale’s campaign, had done just that. Now he dispensed political wisdom on national tv with great aplomb.

“Amazing country, ain’t it Roge?” Beckell beamed.

“I,” Lisa said most graciously, “was just leaving some time ago.”

Luke Bonney laughed and slapped Beckell’s expansive back. Matt shrugged, catching Beckell’s puzzled expression. As a fellow political professional, he looked to Matt to explain the odd behavior of these two congresspeople named Bonney. But Matt marched right past him for the door.

VIOLENCE

In the last book I read and wrote about by Stevens, Feeding Frenzy, he showed a strong fascination for violence in the context of the normally sedate genre of foodie memoir. Here, in the more vicious terrain of political combat and the more permissive universe of fiction, this fixation on violence continues. It is not just that politics is inherently violent struggle, but Stevens wants it to be like violent struggle, and make the violence of the struggle as brutal and sadistic as possible.

This is Luke Bonney preparing for his debate. My bolds.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Over the earphones connected to the Sony Walkman resting in his lap, he was listening to a collection of Motown’s greatest hits, cassette five of an eight-cassette package. Before the debate, he intended to work through all eight.

Luke had spent two full days preparing for the debate with his New York media adviser, the famous Morton Koughan. They had strategized and prepped, rehearsed and analyzed for hours. Now Luke Bonney understood that success or failure came down to his ability to perform. By the time tape eight ended with a Jackson Five medley, he had every intention of being fully prepared to tear Governor Solomon Jawinski’s face right off his ugly head.

Luke Bonney and his consultant Morton Koughan discussing on how to deal with some negative advertising.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“How,” Luke asked in a tired voice, “do you think we ought to respond?”

“We’ve got to go in and tear Jawinski’s heart out and eat it right in front of him. Before he does it to us. That’s what we do. We’ve been ridiculing him. Now we kill him.”

The violence is not simply imagined, as in Feeding Frenzy, but often acted out. After Walter Farkas releases the accusation that Luke Bonney slept with prostitutes, Matthew confronts Farkas, then hits him.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

No one said anything for a long time until Matt, whose head lay on the table and who appeared asleep said, “Farkas, what have you done this time?”

“Me?” he answered, looking around the room, which was beginning to fill. “Me, Matt?”

Matt looked up, his eyes slanted like an alligator viewing a potential meal.

“You are such a lying, miserable failure of human endeavor,” Matt said in a tone of voice no different than when he had ordered his Greek salad.

Farkas sputtered and grew red. “You stupid cracker!” he hissed, loud enough to silence the table and booths in the back half of the restaurant. Lionel and Darryl [the owners of the restaurant] stopped in mid-delivery, myopic eyes bulging delightedly.

On the other side of the restaurant, a reporter from the Clarion Item newspaper sat at the counter trying, without great success, to appear not to be listening.

“I don’t think this is quite the place,” Charlie said.

“Right,” Farkas blurted. “You gonna tell me what the exact proper place is for this cracker to call me a miserable failure of a human?”

“How about the kitchen?” Matt asked, still using the same level voice.

Farkas seemed taken aback. “Okay,” he said, frowning, as if analyzing the change of venue.

The Mayflower kitchen was a loud, extraordinarily hot place. Bubbling vats of oil sizzling with strange shapes covered most of the surfaces. Buckets of brown, twisted french fries hung from meat hooks above the stoves. Two men, both black, and two women, both white, threw their bodies about with tremendous velocity.

Walter Farkas was standing there gawking when Matt hit him in the stomach. Tired as he was, Matt’s punch was not particularly powerful, but it was close enough to bump Farkas into Lionel, who was just entering the kitchen door behind Farkas with a tray full of plates. Flailing about for a handhold, Lionel grabbed hold of Farkas’s shirt. For a moment, the two hung together in some perfect symmetry before all those good pompano dinners Lionel had consumed over the years edged his center balance toward the floor, and together, linked like an awkward train, the two of them cascaded backward through the door into the restaurant. The tray full of dishes followed closely thereafter, its astounding crash serving as period to Farkas’ strangled cry: “Crackers! All crackers!”

After the election, Matthew Bonney goes to the rival victory party, then lights hidden firecrackers and throws lit firecrackers at everyone, including his nemesis, Morton Koughan.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

At first, the crowd cheered as the Roman candles lit the sky, thinking, of course, that this was all part of the show. But when Matt hurled the first M80s into the edge of the crowd, and the second round of star shells came shooting straight at the well-barbered heads of the crowd, a nervous ripple of panic shook the onlookers. This escalated into a roar of sheer fear when the helicopter spinners flashed toward the crowd, then the lava cones and the parachute flares. A few dozen simple bottle rockets completed the riot.

“I’m gettin’ out of here!” a handsome woman with a lovely tennis tan announced, kicking off her high heels and sprinting for her convertible but not before grabbing a bottle of champagne from one of the stunned waiters.

Matt ran through the night, lighting the fireworks he and Lisa had hidden. He was barefoot, the sand and clay crunching against his bare soles, sweat pouring off his face, a pleasant, almost sweet sweat of energy long stored finally expended. As he sprinted from hidden fuse to hidden fuse, Matt couldn’t remember when he had enjoyed anything quite as much. He liked it so much he figured he should do it again very soon, make a regular habit of it, say, every few weeks or so.

“There he is!” Matt heard one of the waiters scream, and he passed for a second, looking around, wondering who might have arrived. Then he realized the waiter was pointing at him. “Ninja!” the waiter screamed, getting a better look at Matt as he paused. “Ninja man!”

Matt smiled, then launched a bottle rocket at the man’s crotch. “Aeeiiii!” he screamed, jumping aside with surprising alacrity, revealing a very disturbed-looking Morton Koughan suspended between his walking cane and the bar. He did not seem flushed with the sweet wine of victory. In truth, he looked mostly pissed off and well on his way to a quite mean drunk.

“Ninja!” Koughan yelped.

Matt smiled, lighting a fist full of bottle rockets.

“Go ahead!” Morton Koughan screamed. “Shoot me! Go ahead!”

Matt hated to disappoint the famous media consultant.

Ninja bastard!” Koughan yelped as he flung himself behind the bar to avoid the incoming missiles.

Matt was quite impressed with his agility. He may have been an aging, overweight, half-lame, nearly self-castrated media consultant from New York, but the man could move when faced with an immediate introduction to the physics of bottle rocketry.

After Luke tells Matthew he wants to use an affair with his wife as an alibi, Matthew hits him.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I need to start leaking the word that Lisa and I have been an item. I need it out there to beat off this fag thing. It’s the way it’s got to be, and I’m here trying to be a nice guy to ask you if it’s okay or what.”

“Let me understand.” Matt’s voice shook. “You’re a nice guy because you’re asking me if it’s okay if you tell the world that you’re having an affair with my wife?”

Luke shrugged, and Matt thought he looked incredibly smug for a fellow who had just been accused of waking up next to transvestites. Matt thought about this for a bit, then he stood up and, almost as an afterthought, hit his brother very hard right in his nose.

“Right,” Matt repeated when Luke fell, sputtering to the floor, blood exploding all over his gray pinstripes and Ruthie’s Oriental rug.

The desire for violence is aroused not just by opponents and wrongdoers, but by anyone who irritates Matthew. His fellow consultant Ruthie says something that annoys him, and Matthew wants to rip her throat with his teeth.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Ruthie suddenly smiled. It was a huge smile that lit up her entire face. “We’re going to win,” she murmured, almost breathlessly. “This will do it for sure. Luke is finished!” She thought for a moment. “We ought to still do that spot you came up with, the one with Luke on vacation with those lobbyist sleazebags. Have you been able to get that tape yet?”

Her Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and Matt thought very hard for an instant about biting it and ripping it from her throat with his teeth.

Ruthie later says something else that annoys Matthew and he wants to rip her throat with his teeth.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Look, let’s face it,” Ruthie said, “My sister on television is strictly a T and A kind of thing regardless of what she is doing. She’s a T and A kind of girl.”

“Oh,” Lisa said, “unlike being an anchorwoman like my sister. T and A has nothing to do with that, of course not. That’s strictly a matter of superior intellect. That’s why they hired Dawn. I mean, she’s just talking about plastic surgery now because it will make her smarter.”

Dawn! Matt’s vision went a little blurry around the edges.

“Plastic surgery?” Ruthie giggled. “She is not.”

Lisa laughed, and Ruthie turned to Matt. “Dawn doesn’t need any surgery, does she?” Ruthie asked. “Neck, eyes, cheeks?”

Matt wanted to reach across the table and bite her vocal cords right out of her throat.

The imagery here echos Stevens’ own fantasies of strangling women in Feeding Frenzy.

“Can you recommend a hotel?” I asked an elderly woman walking her tiny Pekingese pup.

“You have a problem,” she said.

Immediately I felt like strangling the woman. A problem? A problem? Just because I’m riding around in a car with no brakes in a city with man-eating tunnels and I’ve got a dog on the back seat who is just dying to eat your silly little dog and, besides, I’m about to be late for dinner at Comme Chez Soi, you think I’ve got a problem? PROBLEM?!

maybe it would kill some germans

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

“We could stop and siphon out the old gas and put in new.”

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

“A hose would probably be best, don’t you think?”

I thought about killing her, maybe with a hose wrapped around her neck.

“Just a thought,” she added, when she saw my look.

This desire for violence is not a put-on, but one truly felt by the writer, which Stevens has occasionally been very honest about. A relevant paragraph from “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse”, an article Stevens wrote on long distance cycling, on his path through various sports. The striking portion is bolded.

So I played football and rugby, boxed and wrestled, none of it particularly well. I tried basketball but always got into fights, mostly as a way to cover for the fact that I never could master that dribbling thing. This all works well enough through high school and college, but at a certain point you look up and the options for participating in sports as a socially accepted way to commit pleasurable acts of violence have narrowed. When most peers are focused on building a career and starting a family, it becomes problematic to admit that what you most enjoy in life is lining up and knocking the snot out of somebody, or vice versa. What once made you seem fun-loving and enthusiastic – so well-rounded! – now begins to paint a darker portrait of an emerging psychopath with serious developmental issues. You’re not just the aging lifeguard whose friends have all left the beach – you’re the aging lifeguard with a little serial killer practice on the side.

This fascination with violence is a filter through which the political process is seen. Elections, are simply war by other means. It is best shown near the ending, when the vote is split, and an image of strength must be given. Stevens was a participant on the Bush team during the 2000 election fiasco and this section serves as an eerie foreshadowing of what took place.

Before getting to the martial imagery, two quick excerpts are disturbingly apt given what was to happen in 2000.

One, on the possibility of vote theft:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Solomon Jawinski, even after being governor for seven years, had never been accepted by many in the local courthouse crowd – the county clerks and the supervisors – and they were the ones most likely to steal votes. The way things were these days, it was hard for them to steal big time, but they could definitely tilt an election that was less than half a percent. The courthouse crowd loved nothing more in the world than a close election. The state, like all southern states, was still under the jurisdiction of the federal Voting Rights Act, and it required Justice Department approval to strike a single name from the voting rolls. Few county clerks wanted to go to the trouble of dealing with Washington just because somebody had moved or died, so as a result there were more people on the voting rolls dead than alive. That made it very easy to steal.

The other, on the inspection of voting tallies:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Everywhere on the ground floor of the mansion, people were screaming into telephones. No fewer than ten cellular phones were in use, and every line of the mansion’s thirteen line system was lit by a manic voice intent on securing a not insignificant prize – six years in the U.S. Senate. The noise was elaborate. A desperate, loud noise:

“What do you mean those boxes are ‘okay’? We’ll decide if they’re okay or not, not some damn county clerk wanting to kiss Luke Bonney’s ass. Hell, yes, I want ‘em impounded now!”

Here then are the segments after the contested vote which emphasize the point of politics as war, a politics that the writer wants to be war. I bold the significant notes in the first excerpt:

Scorched Earth 031n Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Charlie Song, talking into two telephones, winked at Matt. He flashed a thumbs-up, not very convincingly. He was still in a very Charlie Song suit that did not look as if he had slept in it, as Matt knew he had. If he had slept at all. Theirs would have been an all-night vigil, with lawyers rousted in the middle of night. The finest legal aides available in the state turned out of bed like a bunch of Parris Island recruits heading for a midnight march through the swamps.

A television was on in the corner, and Luke Bonney was standing before a podium expressing his supreme confidence that the recount would put him where the people of this great state clearly wanted him – in the United States Senate. Matt could just make out the faded Sun and Sand logo on the podium.

“Dream on, slime sucker!” Ruthie hissed, turning to give Matt a quick kiss on the cheek. Her eyes glowed with the heat of the hunt. “Banana republic stuff, Matt,” she whispered fiercely, “we hold on to the lead long enough, we got it. Bring out the tanks! Put those damn planes in the air!”

Matt agreed sophisticated armaments might come in handy.

The press conference makes the point even more emphatically, the importance of the projection of strength, military strength:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

The Solomon Jawinski postelection press conference was held on the steps of the mansion. The location had been Matt’s idea and had been chosen to project as much credible force as possible. It was the sort of thing best done while standing on top of a tank surrounding by a whole bunch of ferocious-looking guys with nasty weapons. The message was clear: I am mean. I am strong. Do not mess with me, or you shall die.

Instead of tanks, Jawinski had to settle for the somewhat imposing white columns of the mansion and in place of armed men, civility dictated he rely on a bunch of tired-looking lawyers. It suffered in the translation, but Solomon Jawinski seemed delighted by the world. Matt couldn’t remember seeing him this happy.

So, let us be clear. The supporters of Barack Obama, of those who wish for a fairer life for the 99%, must recognize that the chief strategist of the Romney campaign does not look upon elections as a happy ballet of ideas, or a civil discussion, or a calm thinking over of choices, but vicious, nasty, violent war. Do not ever worry that some infinitely wise op-ed columnist chastises you for being too partisan, or unrelenting, or unmerciful. Always remember that the only things the chief strategist of the Romney campaign believes in are force, power, strength, and sadism. When Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the democratic national committee laughs at the foibles and follies of the Romney campaign, Stuart Stevens no doubt wants to rip the vocal cords out of her throat with his teeth.

THE PROCESS

Perhaps the most startling aspect of this book about a state election, written by a political consultant, is the entire absence of any discussion of any issues – poverty, employment, medical care, anything. It is not that these issues do not exist; Matt Bonney mentions that the state continues to finish last in just about any ranking of citizen welfare. It is not simply that issues are tangential, or referred to through other means, they are not there at all.

This is stated, clearly and openly, in a discussion at the Jawinski campaign on how to deal with attack ads from the opposing candidate:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You announce,” Matt told him, “you announce that your campaign is demanding that all stations refuse to air this scurrilous attack. This attack that has no place in the political dialogue! And by inference, neither does the sort of scurrilous personal attack Luke Bonney’s media consultant must have talked him into launching, because you know Luke Bonney wouldn’t stoop to such low-life behavior on his own.”

“This is a race about issues! About values!” Walter Farkas sounded positively transformed.

“What issues?” Jawinski asked. “We’ve got issues in this race?”

“Of course not, but you can’t admit that.”

This next quote appears again in a conversation in the Jawinski camp on how to win the election, knowing that if the race is a referendum on their man, they will lose. The only way to win is by attacking and destroying the other candidate. Again, no issues are mentioned.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Well, it seems to me,” [lieutenant governor] Jack Tangent spoke up, “it seems to be that the biggest issue in this race is sitting right here,” he nodded toward the governor, “and as long this race is about a fellow named Solomon Jawinski, we might just up and lose. I mean, I find it hard to believe, but it just might be that fifty percent plus one wake up on Saturday feeling like maybe they’re kind of tired of Solomon and how they’d maybe like a change.”

“So?” Walter Farkas asked.

Jawinski scowled at Farkas. He liked his lieutenant governor and did not want him hurried. Jack had his own languid style, but eventually he would come around to the point – and the odds were it would be worth the effort.

“So maybe,” Jack continued, dawdling as always, “maybe we better get around to makin’ people start asking questions about that other fellow so destiny can work its little magic and our boy will end up in the Senate. Trouble is, nobody would ever think our esteemed Luke Bonney was a crook or a Communist. Can’t make him into that. Gotta play off his strengths to whip his weaknesses. Little jujitsu. You guys understand.”

There was a brief pause until Walter Farkas looked around and asked in a stage whisper, “Did anybody understand that?”

“I think,” Matt said, “that the lieutenant governor means that as long as this race is a referendum on Solomon Jawinski, we will probably lose. Or sure as hell could lose. But if we can get people to focus on questions about Luke, we can win. But the problem is that we don’t have really good stuff on Luke – nothin’ dirty -”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Farkas said quietly.

This idea, to use an opponent’s strengths against him, was, of course, effectively applied by the Bush campaign against Kerry, where the asset of his military experience was destroyed through various methods, most crucially the Swift Boat attack ads.

This allows for a quick digression, on the possible differences of what can be admitted in fact and fiction.

What follows is a small excerpt from an interview with Stevens by Jules Witcover, conducted in March 7, 2007, dealing with the issue of issue PACs such as 527s acting independently of the campaign (the site is currently off-line, so a screenshot of the full interview follows the excerpt). A central point of campaign finance reform is whether or not such PACs genuinely act apart from the main campaign, or whether co-ordination, explicit or through implicit signaling is inevitable. In this interview, Stevens claims the 527s acted entirely on their own.

How do you feel about both the independent-expenditure committees and 527s, in terms of losing control of your own campaign?

I hate it.

Talk a little about that.

Like the Swift Boats. I remember when the whole Swift Boat thing, everybody in the [George W.] Bush world was furious, and sort of stunned. People don’t believe this, but it’s true.

So it’s not enough to be able to say, “Hey, that wasn’t ours, and we had nothing to do with it – we didn’t talk to anybody.” You are getting nailed with it anyway? Is that the problem?

Oh, yeah. People do nail you with it. And most of the time they screw it up, in the sense that they don’t do what you want to do. And I remember in the Swift Boat thing, I had been working on this ad, just kind of noodling on my own, where it was very straightforward. “John Kerry came back from Vietnam and he said this.” And then I had just a clip of it. It said, “What do you think?” That was it. And then the Swift Boat people came in.

But it didn’t go after the element of his service in Vietnam?

No. And they entered the argument on the medals issue, which I always felt was the worst way to argue that. Like should he have gotten two medals instead of three? It’s just insane. And so I felt that by entering the argument at that point, they had discredited the argument. And the one thing you could say about someone like Karl [Rove], Karl likes to control things. Not in a bad way, but in a “we don’t like stuff just to happen.” And all of us, I think, were like, “What?” I certainly didn’t know anything. I don’t think anybody knew anything about it. It’s just kind of you wake up one morning, and it’s like, “What?” I remember the phone ringing, one of the 6 a.m. phone calls, you know whatever it’s going to be it’s not going to be good. It’s like, “Have you seen this?” And so, I mean, people say the Swift Boat thing hurt Kerry. Maybe. Maybe the way they handled it hurt him. But I thought the “Ashley” ad that was done mainly in Ohio by the 527s, you see that where Bush is embracing this girl whose mother had died in 9/11. He did the Willie Horton ads, Larry [McCarthy]*; he did it. I thought it was a very good ad, fabulous ad.

buying of the president part one buying of the president part two

It may well have been the case that the 527s acted on their own. However, it should be noted that what Stevens states here is entirely different from what Matthew Bonney, says in the novel about independent action committees. A front committee, The Citizens for Good Government, is set up by Walter Farkas, the campaign’s pollster, in order to publicize the story that Luke Bonney has slept with a number of transvestite prostitutes.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Who’s the Committee for Truth and Justice?” Matt asked.

“The Citizens for Good Government,” Charlie corrected. “It’s Walter Farkas and Byron Timmons.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Matt muttered. His hands trembled with rage.

“Walter has found,” Charlie continued, “three male prostitutes who say they have been playing around with Luke.”

It is after this that the issue of the connection between this front group and the campaign comes up. It is here that Matthew Bonney states that co-ordination between independent committees and the larger campaign was inevitable, as impossible to avoid as teenagers having sex, an admission entirely at odds with what Stevens said in the interview on co-ordination with the Swift Boat committees.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Can Farkas be traced?” Matt asked, ignoring her and trying to focus. “Will anyone prove he was involved with Byron?”

“No,” Charlie answered, though he wasn’t really sure of this at all. It was what he had spent the afternoon trying to decide. Some people knew that Farkas was a friend of Byron Timmons’s [sic], but that couldn’t be called a crime, though by all rights it should have been.

The question at hand involved a violation of FEC – Federal Election Commission – law. It was illegal for there to be any contact or coordination between an independent group like Citizens for Good Government and a federal campaign. This was because the independent groups were exempt from the fund-raising limitations and reporting requirements imposed on congressional and senatorial campaigns. Nine times out of ten, however, this was a sham. It was like trying to keep teenagers from having sex. The very notion of stopping two groups with the same goal from trading information and plotting together sub rosa was preposterous.

I now go to a lengthy excerpt of the book which best illustrates the exclusive emphasis on what could be style issues, over anything to do with any policies that might help or hurt those living in the state. It is the best, truest scene in the book, very detailed, its details no doubt coming directly from personal work experience. The campaign team tests out a possible election ad for effectiveness with a group of potential voters. No issue is discussed in either the anti-Jawinski or anti-Bonney ad, no issue that might be hinted at in either ad is discussed by the campaign team either. The only “issue” is the perception of inexperience in Bonney and clownishness in Jawinski.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

The room darkened, and the television set flickered. A series of news clips appeared on the screen, brief bits on Martin Luther King Jr., the Olympic swimming team, Fidel Castro, the Atlanta Braves baseball team.

Farkas always showed the same clips at the beginning of all his focus groups. The responses served as a control, weeding out any pranksters: a ten rating for Fidel Castro tagged you as either a Communist or crazy, both equally useless in Farkas’s statistically correct world.

After the clips came separate three-minute segments of Luke Bonney and Solomon Jawinski answering questions at the previous night’s debate. Farkas had selected the responses to Woody’s weather question and Samantha’s UNICEF inquiry [Samantha Simms and Woody Jackson, panelists from the debate] – the bland of the bland. A strong response either positive or negative would ferret out any closet supporters or antagonists. Farkas naturally assumed that a certain number of people had lied during the initial selection process when asked if they had strong feelings about either candidate. They lied for the $35 bounty, they lied because they wanted to give what they figured was the correct answer, they lied for spite, and they lied for fun. Farkas hated mendacity. Liars were to a pollster what land mines were to tank commanders: nasty little unknowns that could muck up everything.

These bland three-minute appetizers were followed by the morning’s red meat: the new Bonney campaign spot attacking Jawinski. This was the spot Morton Kouhan had made the night before, directing by phone from his hotel room. Ruthie had obtained the spot from Ernie Swindell [the TV station manager] as soon as it had been delivered to the station early this morning. It was not scheduled to be aired until that evening in the time slots adjacent to the news. This was the most treasured airtime for political commercials. Years ago somebody like Walter Farkas had figured out that people who vote like to watch the news, and somebody like Matt Bonney figured out that positioning a commercial next to a news broadcast lent a certain credibility to the message. Most stations across America refused to sell political ads inside a news broadcast, fearing that it compromised the impartial tone of the news. But the Capital City stations, ever confident of their ethical reputation – as well as being greedy as pigs – had a policy of selling any open position.

In the darkened room of the focus group, the pirated spot began to play. Koughan had constructed the ad around film of Solomon Jawinski water-skiing at Cyprus Gardens intercut with shots from the debate. First, you saw the governor behind the podium proclaiming, “And I’ll be the sort of senator who’ll fight for what’s best for you!” Then it cut to Jawinski on water skis. He had never been a particularly pretty sight in a bathing suit, and he did not fare well in comparison to the stunning beauties of Cyprus Gardens who shared his tow rope. While the viewers heard the governor talking about what he would do as senator, they saw a delighted Solomon Jawinski clearly having a splendid time: as the camera zoomed in on his bouncing belly and skullcap of wet curls, he whooped and hollered, riding his single ski with a preternatural grace. He beamed at his co-skiers, muscular angels of the jet spray. Jawinski looked delighted, ecstatic, a man who had died and gone to heaven.

He did not look, however, by any stretch of the imagination, like a United States senator.

An announcer’s voice, a rich mocking voice, cut in over the pictures: “This man wants to be your next United States senator. He wants to represent you in matters of war and peace. He’s asking for the right to raise your taxes, to support or cancel Social Security.

“Over the next six years, this man wants to be your voice in Washington. Your voice. Your voice. Your voice…”

During the last refrain, the camera closed in on Jawinski letting loose – in slow motion – one of his famed rebel yells. Some might say it was a moment of pure existential joy; others might say Solomon Jawinski looked like a total asshole.

Ruthie watched the spot with a sick feeling in her stomach. She thought it was a terrific spot, one that cut to the core of the doubts about Solomon Jawinski. Sure, he’s a funny guy, but do you really want him in Washington?

The focus group spun the dials wildly. Some laughed. A few frowned and shook their heads. All eagerly awaited the next spot.

It was the spot Matt had made the night before, and it opened with a smiling Luke Bonney from the debate, which faded into another shot of Luke smiling and then another – a long, seemingly endless montage of Luke Bonney smiling.

The announcer began in a friendly, conversational tone: “He’s a young politician who likes to smile and make promises. Then smile some more and make some more promises.”

As the announcer spoke, the camera pushed in a little closer on each smiling shot, and each shot made Luke Bonney look sillier and sillier and even a bit sinister.

“But when you think about the problems we face,” the announcer continued as Luke Bonney’s smile was replaced by a half-dozen images of problems – unemployment, hot spots around the globe, crop failure, drugs – “do we really want just another smiling politician? Or a leader who’s not afraid to say no and can make Washington stand up and listen to what we are about. A smiling politician…or a leader. Solomon Jawinski. Smart. Tough. Ready for the job.”

The dials spun like windmills in a gale. When the lights came on, Ruthie thanked everyone and stood by the door distributing unmarked envelopes each containing $35 in cash. The generic envelopes and the payment in cash rather than by check were part of an effort by the Jawinski campaign to conceal the fact that they had sponsored the focus group. As in most campaigns, there was a great obsession with secrecy, but no one could actually articulate why it would be undesirable for anyone to know the Jawinski camp was holding focus groups. But campaign secrets took on a value of their own, so the more secrets the better.

The all importance of image is seconded when Matt observes his brother speaking. Luke is a very good politician, but this quality has nothing to do with any legislative expertise or achievement – none are ever mentioned – only his ability to shift in tone for the appropriate audience, just as a great musician can move effortlessly from playing with small bands to large orchestras.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Matt was halfway back to the car when he heard his brother take the stage. He knew what he was going to say – Matt had watched his brother on the stump a half-dozen times during this campaign. He always gave a reverse doughnut – a different introduction with specifics tailored to the crowd, a stock middle section, and a close geared to the emotional level of the crowd. Without fail, he was his most emotional in front of poorer, less educated crowds. In front of business or do-gooder types like the League of Women Voters, Luke became almost analytically aloof and reserved, just the way they liked it. This adapatability was a trait Matt, when he still worked on his brother’s campaigns, had groomed. He felt it was the key to the big leagues. Any small-time politician can have one good act, but the big boys had half a dozen they rolled out at will, assessing the temperature of the crowd with great finesse.

“Today, before I begin here at this glorious Lester County Fair-”

That was Luke Bonney all the way. Make sure to refer to the event in the first sentence. It was a trick straight out of a Dale Carnegie speech-giving class, and it always worked.

This exclusive emphasis on image, on perception, rather than any policies merges with the idea that the management of an election campaign has nothing to do with policy, and for a consultant to have any focus on policy is a mistake. This is not an interpretation on my part, it is, again, stated explicitly by the hero consultant of the book, Matthew Bonney.

A scene at the end, Matt talking about the work of his wife, the congresswoman, and the contrast between governing and consulting:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

He knew she would have been up since 7:00 A.M., doing what she did every morning: talking on the phone, reading this subcommittee’s report on that committee’s report on the previous committee’s study of the subcommittee’s recommendation. There was a permanent but ever-changing stack of such reports by their bed in Washington. Matt couldn’t read the covers without getting bored. It was said by some that political consultants had too much influence on the governmental process, but Matt was yet to know a consultant who really gave half-a-damn about government. Government was that thing done by other people, the folks who actually wrote those reports that Lisa and her colleagues consumed like so much cotton candy. What Matt and his kind did were elections. That was as different from government as playing tuba in the high school band was from playing halfback on the team.

And that was how it should be, Matt figured. What was mucking everything up was the confusion of the two endeavors. Increasingly, the sort of person who would make a good political consultant was running for office. And winning, of course, because they were the best at manipulating the system. But, Lord knows, this wasn’t the breeding ground for the great statesmen of tomorrow. It was fundamentally wrong, confusing the two. It was like ambulance drivers replacing doctors just because they knew how to get to the patients first.

That an election is fundamentally about these dueling images, that it not be about policy at all, is what Stevens wants. He does not wish there to be any analytical aspect to a campaign, and cannot conceive of one. What everyone wants, even those who say it is not what they want, is conflict. He does not see journalism giving anything in terms of insightful examination or analysis as a counterpoint to the visual slugging contest, only diktats. The choice between two dueling images, the dozens played between two campaigns is democracy. That nobody votes or is disgusted that politics in turn is transformed by subservience to these images is not an issue either. Look at Italy, that’s where people vote, and look what sorry shape that country is in.

All this is said in this discussion about political coverage between Newsome and Matt Bonney:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You know what it is about you reporters, Newsome?” Matt asked. Newsome was busy scrubbing furiously at his suit pants with a wet towel. “You’re fundamentally conflicted about this campaign stuff.”

“Conflicted?” Newsome muttered.

“You guys talk all the time about how you hate dull campaigns and spend God knows how much energy trying to get two candidates to bash each other’s brains out-”

“What other fun is there?”

“Exactly. And then if a campaign should finally catch fire and start exploding on you, all of a sudden you start to condescend and rip into us for lack of decorum. Decorum. Hah!” Matt laughed loudly. Heads turned. “On the one hand, you want democracy to be a great popular sport, everybody involved and cheering wildly. But as soon as it starts to happen, you’re horrified. It’s like you want everybody to come to the party but only if they dress just so. You complain about how nobody votes anymore. Big deal! Ninety percent of the people in Italy vote. You want a country like that? And all this BS about how television ads are ruining campaigns! You know why editorial writers don’t like television spots? Because they take power out of their hands! They want a few dinky debates, a polite campaign, and then for everybody to sit at home on Sunday waiting for the editorials to know which way to vote. Instead, some jerk like me can muck things up! You want twenty percent of the people to vote instead of fifty! Just take campaign commercials off the air. You’ll bore everybody to death!

That Matt Bonney and Stevens both want, thrive on, is the violence of the campaign, a juvenile violence unconnected to anything to do with any issue whatsoever, is emphasised in this brief mention of the intensive arguments over set-up for a debate:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

For media consultants, debates were fun. It was one of the few opportunities in adult life in which you were expected to be as demanding and petty as an irate six-year-old. Fierce battles were fought over podium height, lighting selection, backdrops – all the details that assumed a preternatural importance but in fact meant next to nothing. Grown men would howl like wounded animals and make vile threats of physical dismemberment and career-ruining blackmail over questions such as the difference between fifty-six- and fifty-eight-inch podiums. What other business would not only praise you for acting like a contemptible tyrant but pay you an obscene amount of money in the process?

To act like a tantrummy six-year-old is not exactly my idea of fun, or that of many that I know, but it is Matt Bonney’s, and I assume Stevens’ as well, given that he expects a sympathetic connection with the reader here.

What is made clear to be crucial in a campaign is not any issue, but identity. Matt Bonney’s father defended the way of life of those in Mississippi, his identity and their identity, against federal incursion. Matt Bonney’s candidate is a Polish jew born in McComb County, Michigan, but these details of location and ethnicity do not matter, because he has fastened on what connects him with a substantial amount of voters in Mississippi, and, for that matter, many states.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

But it was part of young Solomon Jawinski’s genius that he understood the basic similarities between his old environs and his new. He appreciated that McComb County and the Capital City were linked by the same kinships of xenophobia and provincialism, with a sustaining faith that they were God’s chosen people. “Damn rednecks,” Jawinski would mutter around the house. “Rednecks here, rednecks there. All the damn same.” In Matt’s opinion, this early strategic insight is what allowed Jawinski to do what seemed on face value as completely, ridiculously, and utterly impossible: get elected. Elected in a state in which there were probably just as many left-handed Lithuanians as Polish Jews. But Jawinski wasn’t just any Polish Jew; he transformed himself into a Polish-Jewish REDNECK, a Polish-Jewish redneck superman.

This identity has nothing to do with any policy that might help the poverty or suffering of the people of Mississippi. It has only to do with a particular style of speech and life, in this case, a variation on Bill Clinton without the Oxford education.

The communication of this identity to the voter, is what is of primary importance, with the candidate himself secondary and incidental to the process from the consultant’s perspective. This is obvious in this passage, where Matt Bonney talks of the ease of the end of the campaign, when the candidate becomes entirely an automaton, entirely under the control of consultants, who are now unhindered by the personality of an actual man, awake and alive.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

It was an inevitability in campaigns that during the final two weeks, a candidate was largely removed from the decision-making process, shunted from one event to another in a nineteen-hour-a-day frenzy. This always left the candidate in a near catatonic state of exhaustion with no time to think – at exactly the stage that required the most precise thinking. Most consultants, of course, relished this moment when a candidate teetered on physical collapse and functioned as a mindless automaton. Then they – the professionals – could go about their jobs without the messy hindrance of the person who was, titularly, at least, their commander in chief.

That Mitt Romney is a robot-like, lifeless man may be considered a liability by pundits and possibly voters, but: given the last fragment, I believe Stevens ultimately considers this automaton-like quality a strong plus.

Further, that policy is of no importance, that the focus be solely on violent gladiatorial combat, that the poor, suffering souls of Mississippi that Matt Bonney observes in the chinese restaurant may well remain poor and suffer, getting poorer and suffering more is of no concern to the consultant. He does not want any part of these voters’ lives, as he admits to Newsome, and he no longer lives in Mississippi, instead moving from state to state running campaigns, so the consequences of this election will never be felt or seen by him.

That there is something rancid in this, is pointed out by the most sympathetic figure of the book, his father, the former segregationist Powell Bonney. My bolds:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“We always call lieutenant governors Lite Guvs. Whatever state I’m working in,” Matt shrugged, “it always seemed to fit.”

“Don’t you get confused about what state you’re working in?”

Matt knew that Powell Bonney hated the very concept of consultants working on different races around the country. He thought it was fundamentally a corruption of democracy. Matt had never argued the point.

Matthew Bonney knows that he is something of a carpetbagger, plundering these campaigns in poor states for fortunes then scooting away, but he continues to do his work. There is the fact that he is paid an obscene amount of money, but also, something that might be constructed as Stuart Stevensism, a specific theory of political life, which pervades this book. I leave it to the next section.

THE MOB

In this novel, Stuart Stevens views politics as primal, violent, tribal struggle. Ideas are entirely absent. The identity and image of the candidate are crucial. When necessary, a show of force, a martial demonstration, is essential for victory. Elections are not decided by analysis, but through the rough feelings of the mob. Stevens, and his proxy, Matthew Bonney, make a great deal of money by manipulating this mob. Yet at the very same time, Stevens has contempt for the rabid crowd, this thoughtless rabble, and does not believe government is best served through appealing to their appetites. At the end of the book, the wishes of the mob are overruled by the wisdom of the elect: Jawinski abdicates as Senator, and has Powell Bonney appointed in his place. That there may be something racial in this attitude might be noted as well; former segregationist Powell Bonney cannot win in the state because of black voters, but in the end, he can be imposed on them, and it will be for their benefit.

That Matthew Bonney continues to work as a consultant, despite his contempt for this mob, despite the fact that it does not bring about the best result for the state, is, I think, because both the author and his proxy hero share the same belief, that there is something eternally mob-like and tribal in humanity, both in the United States and elsewhere, which can never be remedied or fixed, only manipulated or oppressed.

One of the first scenes in the book, the night of the TV debate, conveys this. This debate is, ostensibly, about the back and forth of competing ideas of the candidates. Yet none of the ideas of either is ever brought up. Beforehand, we are given the scene surrounding this debate, a portrait of two rival groups of passionate supporters. It is essentially, we are told, a pep rally. These crowds are crucial for psychological warfare. They embody no support of any particular idea, but they are essential for the candidate, who is part of this crowd, just as they are part of him, as well as necessary for giving a visual spectacle for reporters. We are given the side detail that an Iranian exile served a crucial role in crowd organization in a California campaign, and that he was extraordinarily skilled at it. The ideas of the candidate supported, a lunatic who wanted to toss a few warheads on Iran, are of no consequence. That the Iranian organizer before organized crowds against the Shah is of no importance. All that is crucial is the mobilization of the crowd for support, and this man is able to do so.

Then we move to the theme already seen before, that the natural state of politics is one of sadistic, brutal struggle. Jawinski is going to kick a little ass tonight. A demure grandmother, a previous client of Matt Bonney’s, was roused to want to rip off her opponent’s dick and shove it down his throat.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

A block from the station, supporters of Solomon Jawinski and Luke Bonney lined the street. They were mostly kids, teenagers or college students in their early twenties, the shock troops of every campaign. They all carried signs proclaiming their respective allegiance and shouted at each other as if at a pep rally which, more or less, they were. That intelligent human beings would find it rewarding to stand on a hot street corner, and jump up and down with signs trying to affect the outcome of an event that was taking place a block away in a sound-proof, windowless studio may seem marginally insane, but it was all part of the psychological warfare that no aggressive, in-your-face, must-win campaign – that is, a good campaign – ever neglected. The street-corner demonstrations were intended for two audiences – the reporters covering the debate and the candidates themselves. Both were expected to be impressed by this spontaneous outpouring of loyalty. In a California senate race a year earlier, Matt had been lucky enough to find a visiting Iranian student at UCLA who was a genius at organizing such demonstrations, having trained on the streets of Tehran chanting “Death to Americans!” It did not seem to bother the Iranian in the least that Matt’s candidate, a congressman from southern California, had once suggested Tehran might be in need of a little “nuclear renewal.”

Even though he knew the predebate street action was carefully scripted, Jawinski still enjoyed the show. “Yeah,” he snorted, “we’re gonna kick a little ass tonight. No doubt about it.” Matt found that all his clients had a tendency to talk like enraged, steroid-crazed linebackers in the predebate hours. Once a demure, sixty-five-year-old grandmother running for Congress in Florida on a pro-environmental platform had leaned over to Matt on the way to a debate and murmured, “I’m gonna to rip the bastard’s little wee-wee off and stuff it right down his golden throat.” She was running against a local anchorman, hence the “golden throat” reference.

Another important, though very brief, image occurs towards the end, in the ruins of Luke Bonney’s victory party. Matthew sees his brother on the stage:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Luke was standing on top of the crude podium, hands on his hips. He reminded Matt of nothing so much as Jim Jones just before handing out the Kool-Aid – a strange, troubled figure but not an unhappy one.

Politics is a cult, a gathering of a group through demagoguery. The supporters may be drinking elixir, or they may be drinking poison, but they will drink it, out of the mob’s blind animal fealty to a magnetic man.

However, at the same time that Matthew Bonney requires the mob for his business, he despises it. He hates the individuals who make it up, and he thinks that it is ultimately a destructive force. He has utter contempt for every other person involved in political consulting, whether it be Morton Koughan, Ruthie Simms, or Walter Farkas. In one of the last scenes, it’s shown how little he or his congressional wife care about the voters of their state:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

When Matt got back to his townhouse on G Street, Southeast, Lisa was on the phone. “That’s just wonderful. Fine. Good.”

She had the mindlessly happy, I’m-not-really-listening tone she usually adopted when talking to one of her constituents. Matt figured it was probably someone on the Farm Bureau or maybe the Rotary Club president of Arcadia looking for a speaker. “Why, Matt just walked in.”

Matt frowned. Lisa knew – everyone knew – that it was dangerous to put Matt in contact with average voters. It was the surest way to guarantee a difficult situation.

It was the surest way to guarantee a difficult situation. Matt Bonney needs average voters for his work, and he hates them as well. He guesses that his wife is on the phone with one of her constituents, because she sounds like she’s not really listening. Who wants to hear from the slobs back in Mississippi?

That the author believes the foolish cretins who make up this mob are also dangerous as a crowd, is made again in the views expressed on Germany and Japan. Stevens, in Feeding Frenzy states boldly that he hates Germany and hates Germans.

i hate germans

“You’re getting close to Germany. There is hope.”

“I hate Germans, and how am I going to get there without brakes?”

but they were germans

[He] was German. They were all German. Which was very troubling when I quickly realized what a likable, genuinely friendly person he was. It always troubles me when I come across Germans I like. It makes maintaining my rabid anti-German fervor all the more difficult, which, naturally, I resent terribly.

maybe it would kill some germans

“And leave the Mustang! Just like that?” [says Stevens]

“Yes. With any luck at all, some German will steal it and be driven mad with frustration.”

She knew I disliked Germans. The idea did have some appeal.

A few cars, not many, had passed us without stopping.

“A German wouldn’t know the brakes were bad. They might get in and drive away and plow right into a tree.” This enjoyable scenario began to unfold in my head.

“Or maybe a big tanker truck. Lots of flames.”

“But that would snuff the truck driver too,” I cautioned.

“He would be German as well.”

“Ahhh…” It was a delightful notion.

This same anti-German passion appears in a number of Governor Jawinski’s speeches. There is the televised debate:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

The question went to Luke Bonney. “If elected to the Senate, Congressman Bonney, would you support the president’s policy of noninvolvement with the difficulties of German reunification, or do you advocate stronger action to bring about change in Eastern Europe and other former captive nations?”

Luke Bonney knew this one was coming and hit smoothly over the fence. There was no question that the president had chosen a wise course of action. “Europe’s destiny should be in the hands of the Europeans. We have helped foster a great democracy in West Germany, and they are perfectly capable of charting their own course.”

Jawinski exploded.

“I’ve never heard such gibberish in all my life! I’d call it total bull if my ex-wife wouldn’t yell at me!”

The audience roared. Jawinski’s profanity had become a running joke in the state, as was his relationship with the former First Lady. “How is it that any responsible, intelligent person -,” he looked over at Luke Bonney to make it clear he didn’t really believe these adjectives fit his opponent, “could think for even one moment that this pansy approach” (gay rights was not a big issue in the state) “to the terrible realities of German reunification was a wise course of action has got to be one brick shy of a load. Maybe Luke Bonney doesn’t remember how many soldiers from our great state died fighting – “

And Jawinski was off, hitting all his favorite notes, a wild John Coltrane improv riff, knowing where he was going but not sure how he would get there. There was something fundamentally wrong with Germans and their thwarted sense of destiny. If you think the Germans have really changed, just spend an hour on the autobahn! A nation with the soul of a bully! Either at your feet or at your throat! Is forty years enough? Hell, no! Forget Omaha Beach?! Forget the Bulge?!

The crowd, most of whom honestly didn’t care one way or the other about what happened to Germany, whooped and hollered their approval. Blood on the floor!

Note, of course, the reaction of the studio audience.

The idea of tribal violence is there again during a television interview conducted with the governor, speaking about the germans, the japanese, and the southern confederacy. I bold what I consider a truly striking detail, in this moment of grievous income inequality in the U.S.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Everybody worries about the Japanese, and, to be sure, they’re terrible people-”

“They are?”

“Of course! Look we might think of them now as smiling, camera toting technocrats, but let’s don’t forget, not too long ago they were a nation of sun-worshipping lunatics trying desperately to take over the world. They’re racist, narrow-minded people.” He shrugged. “We just don’t have the same values.”

“But the Japanese don’t worry you?”

“Not really. When it comes down to it, they’d rather be rich than powerful. But the Germans-”

“They’re worse?”

“Ab-so-lutely!” Down came the hand, up went the cigarette. “They still have this horrible sense of thwarted destiny. Lookit,” he took off his glasses and rubbed the dark circles surrounding his eyes like bruises, “one hundred years ago, this was the richest part of the country. Man, we were rich, rich, rich. But then we went and did a stupid, violent thing called secession. In five years we became the poorest part of the country, and one hundred years later, it’s still that way. And maybe that’s not so bad.

“It’s good to be poor?” Dawn looked genuinely shocked.

It’s good to have some kind of reminder of what happens when people do something horrible – like rebellion. The Germans, all those damn cars, the money – amnesia!” Slap! Jawinski’s big hand crashed down on his knee. “Amnesia! That’s where being rich like that does to you! Losing the war made us better people! Don’t you get it?”

“We’re gonna miss that man,” [TV station manager] Tom Riddell said gravely. “When you got a man crazy enough to actually speak his mind, it’s a real crime to let him go.”

Note that the lunacy is not the ideas expressed, but to express oneself honestly. Also important is that Jawinski is easily the most sympathetic character in the book after Powell Bonney, the former segregationist. The view of the japanese, like that of the germans, is not simply Jawinski’s, but that of Stevens himself. The hero consultant Matt Bonney also dislikes the japanese, though not in such forthright terms.

From a moment in the morning after he lit firecrackers at the other campaign’s victory party:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

It wasn’t until he caught a glimpse of his face in the reflective backwaters of the river that he actually thought about what he had done the night before. What he saw was a face streaked with dirt and black powder smudges, long hair held in place with a black headband that trailed down his back like a strange tail.

“Jesus!” Lisa murmured, still half-asleep. “Geronimo. You look like Geronimo.”

“Yeah?” Matt said, pleased. “Not a ninja?” He had never considered the reference to be a compliment, not being overly fond of many things of Japanese origin.

This dislike, as stated by Jawinski, over the aggressive military aspect of the germans and japanese is never connected with the history of the countries, or particular conditions that might shape a people. It is entirely tribal, with the germans, the japanese, the confederacy having a nature that is something like a violent mob, which in turn must be beaten and controlled. There is something fundamentally wrong with germans. They are a nation with the soul of a bully. It is good that Mississippi is poor, because this educates and controls its citizens after rising up against authority. It would be better if Germany had not been unified, better if both Germany and Japan had remained poor, as that would have leashed their inherent tribal instinct for war. Remember that this novel takes the riot at the University of Mississippi, and places the blood entirely and wholly with this mob, while segregationist Powell Bailey is made into an innocent martyr.

Towards the end, Matt Bonney lets out his exasperation at the electoral process. It is a speech that shows the mixed feelings of the character and the author, but it also this sense of any group of voters as only a mob. He is now a co-host of “Showdown”, and gives the opinion on-air:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I’m not sure,” Matt stuttered, “why anyone would want to be in public office.” Matt realized that he was saying something that he deeply believed. “I can’t imagine one single reason that anyone would run for office. I really can’t.”

“We expect people to live by a standard the rest of us have abandoned years ago, we invade their privacy, we pay them squat.” Matt faced the camera. From his earphone, he could hear the director’s calming voice urging him to get the program back on track. “With ridiculously small contribution limits, we think we’ve actually accomplished some ethical breakthrough, while we make our politicians roam around the country begging for money to pay people like me. Reporters hide in the bushes in front of houses, root through garbage, chase old girlfriends. We all ask, ‘Why would anyone want to put with that’ in one breath and then bitch that nobody decent runs for office in the other. My God!”

The problem is that the job pays too little and takes away too much of one’s privacy, which keeps better candidates out. These better candidates will make better decisions for us. That Matt Bonney focuses on image to the exclusion of all else, that he wishes elections to be like violent combat and pushes them to be so, goes unmentioned, perhaps because he and Stevens think that this aspect is inevitable, a bloodlusting idiot mob unavoidable. The only remedy is that somehow this mob be handed leaders who are better than they deserve, like Powell Bonney, who might actually pass programs that could help them.

AN ALTERNATIVE IDENTITY

For this last section, I bring up what should be a private matter, but which the GOP has decided is not. Supposedly, there are questions that cannot be asked of the powerful, because it is undignified and cruel, though this is a luxury only reserved for this society’s topmost niche. No man or woman barely making enough to support their children can ever turn down a pee test at work. No woman seeking an abortion in certain states can now avoid certain inquiries.

So it would seem that when a campaign, as part of its strategy to woo voters, makes a secret donation to the National Organization for Marriage, as well as signing their pledge, and has their candidate speak at Liberty University, I think one might be entitled to ask a question of the man behind said strategy.

However, the following is not so forward as an explicit question, so much as a carefree piece of literary analysis only hinting at a possible query, an analysis which could well be very, very wrong. It continues on a hypothesis brought up already, in discussing Feeding Frenzy, then referred to here and here as well. I leave it to the reader to be intelligent enough to make certain deductions.

One more note before we begin: Matt Taibbi wrote a hilarious piece on the overuse of italics in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. In deductive moments, I tend to overuse italics as well.

This novel features two brothers, Matthew and Luke Bonney. They are very, very much alike physically. Near twins. Matthew, the political consultant, must make an effort not to look like his brother. This observation is made on one of the first pages.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Luke stood with his arm around Matt, and Lisa realized it was one of the few times she had even sen the to brothers so close together. The resemblance, despite Matt’s best efforts, was striking. Since they were little kids, Matt and Luke had been mistaken for twins. Matt had confessed to Lisa that there was a time when he had enjoyed this, basking in the physical glory of his slightly older sibling. But since they had come to Washington, Matt had worked at distinguishing himself from the collegiate good looks of Luke Bonney. Though they still shared the same high cheekbones, Matt liked to think that he had aged faster than his brother, his face more creased, his features lived in, not like Luke Bonney whose face looked as if it had been made yesterday. Always gleaming, always smiling. Smiling. And Lisa knew how careful Matt was to avoid the perfect helmet-of-hair look that was a Luke Bonney trademark. These days, Matt wore a ponytail.

Luke, the congressman, barely exists in this book, with the story concentrated almost entirely on Matthew, the political consultant. We know very few things about Luke, except that he’s very good-looking, he’s a congressman, he’s not married, and the possibility that he slept with a number of transvestite prostitutes. Though we are never told why, and though we are given nothing by which to make an inference, Matt Bonney hates his brother. It is the foundation of his existence.

Here he is talking to his wife:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“And I don’t hate Luke. And I don’t understand how you can work against your brother, if you want to know the truth.”

“What? I hate my brother!”

“No, you don’t. Nobody hates their brother.”

Matt stared at her. “Of course I hate my brother! Hating my brother is one of the cornerstones of my existence. Look what he’s doing to Mule Jail!” Matt paused for a second. He almost never raised his voice when talking to Lisa. “Why shouldn’t I hate my brother?”

Mule Jail is the land where their childhood home once stood, before it burnt down. His brother has sold the land to a country club for development. He is desecrating a place sacred to their family memories.

Matt Bonney does not simply look like his brother, there is the good possibility that he might have been his brother. This is said clearly by Matt Bonney himself.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Even though he’d seen it hundreds of times, the plate on the office door that read Congresswoman Lisa Bonney never failed to startle him. It made him think first of his brother and then, more troublingly, of himself as a congressman. It was like being confronted with an alternative identity, the way his life could have been. It was not something he liked to think about very much these days.

So, there’s a man who looks just like Matt Bonney, is almost his twin and who he might well have been. This, I think, is the classic shadow self, the person who acts in ways we may wish to but do not. That Matthew views Luke not just as his double, but a dark mirror image, is implied rather strongly through a few details.

Luke does not simply have bad qualities, he is diabolical. Again, a conversation with his wife:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“He’s diabolical,” Matt moaned, returning to the Style section article.

“Diabolical?” Lisa questioned. “I’ve heard Luke Bonney described as a ‘pretty boy,’ ‘simplistic,’ ‘grossly ambitious,’ ‘overly friendly,’ and ‘the ultimate Sigma Chi,’ but never ‘diabolical.’ This is an entirely new development.”

Then, in one of the only times in the book when the brothers meet, Luke and Matthew speak following the revelation that his brother may have slept with transvestite prostitutes. What do we associate with the devil? Fire.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Matt looked at his brother. He was wearing a double-breasted gray pinstriped suit. His hair was perfectly in place, his teeth gleamed. He looked freeze-dried except for his eyes. His normal bright blue had been replaced by red-streaked horrors.

“You looking at my fireballs, brother?” Luke asked. “I can wear these if it’ll help.” He pulled out a pair of aviator sunglasses and put them on.

I go back to the beginning of the book, because there is a striking sentence there of some relevance. It is the only time when Luke, Matt, and Lisa appear together, all three in the men’s bathroom. I find the entire quote unusual in the immediate emphasis of the husband or wife as escort, with the last sentence especially stunning, almost an answer to a question unasked.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Congresswoman Lisa Bonney was there in her role as Matt’s wife, a most unusual turn of events since it normally was Matt who found himself dragged along as the spouse. It was a role – the spouse – that they both hated playing, but it was the nature of Lisa’s job as a member of Congress that she was more in need of a spouse as escort than Matt. Matt was a political consultant and no one, of course, really cared if a political consultant was married or not.

Matt is a political consultant, and no one cares if he is married or not, unlike his brother, the man he might well have been, whose marital status people very much care about.

I give now a lengthy excerpt from the press conference with the transvestite prostitutes. They are, I think, made into creatures as lurid and grotesque as possible.

Josh Finkelstein and Tom Alexander are reporters. Byron Timmons is a ridiculous conservative fanatic and Civil War revisionist, who organized the press conference. Trixie, Pierce, and Markel are the black transvestite prostitutes. Their ethnicity is made very obvious, and used for comic effect1.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Trixie smiled, as did Markel and Pierce. But none of them said a word.

“Well,” Dawn finally broke the silence, “this is certainly enlightening. What about it, Trixie, have you really been sleeping with Congressman Luke Bonney?”

Trixie giggled and cut his eyes sideways at Byron, who nodded and smiled while wiping his forehead with a hankie.

“Say what?” Trixie asked, crossing his legs.

“Did you sleep with Congressman Luke Bonney?”

A slow smile gathered in the corners of Trixie’s lipsticked lips. “I don’t remember doing much sleeping.”

Trixie was expecting laughter. The reporters stared in silence.

“What did you do, Trixie?” Tom Alexander asked.

“We done it all.”

Markel and Pierce laughed, covering their mouths with their hands. A few short grins broke out in the press corps.

“All?”

“The nasty thing.” Trixie laughed.

“He done it all.” Pierce crowed, “the nasty and the watusi.”

“The nasty and the watusi,” Dawn repeated, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Ernie had his camera on.

“Yeow!” Trixie affirmed.

“How did you first meet Congressman Bonney?”

The three looked at each other, then over at Byron, who looked a bit calmer. He nodded and smiled.

“He come down Farish Street,” Trixie began.

“Driving that car of his -” Markel continued.

“Looking for a good time, he was,” Pierce added.

“He found it too.”

Trixie’s last comment occasioned a fresh round of giggles amongst the three.

“What kind of car does Congressman Bonney drive?” Tom Alexander asked.

“A white Poniac Sunbird,” the three said in unison.

Tom Alexander looked over at Byron, who shrugged and smiled nervously.

“Where did you have sex with the congressman?” Dawn asked. This seemed to stump them.

“Where?” Pierce finally asked, embarrassed. “You mean-”

The press corps hooted. “Ask him, Dawn!” Tom Alexander cried. “Get to the bottom of it!”

Pierce looked hurt and confused.

“At what location,” Dawn clarified. “Where did you go to have sex?”

“We did it at the Zebra Motel,” the three said, again more or less as a chorus.

“Which room?” Dawn asked.

“Twenty-four,” they answered together.

“All three of you at once?” Josh Finkelstein demanded.

This set off gales of laughter amongst the three.

“What kind of people you think we are?” Markel finally asked. “You dealing with a bunch of sluts, you think?”

“Tell me, girls,” Josh Finkelstein asked drolly, “how did you meet Mr. Byron Timmons?”

“He drove down Farish Street, too,” Trixie said.

“Is he a client like Congressman Bonney?” Josh Finkelstein pounced on Trixie.

“Now just a minute!” Byron exploded.

“I didn’t ask you, Byron.”

“I met these gentlemen when I was performing a citizen’s investigation of charges-”

“Who brought the charges?” Josh Finkelstein barked.

“I have had my longtime suspicions and I-”

“Yeah, I’ve got some suspicions, too, Byron.”

“Lots of suspicions going down,” Tom Alexander said.

“I don’t think any details about my personal situation are very important,” Byron said. “I’d like to focus-”

“We decide what’s important, Byron,” Dawn interrupted.

“There is no disputing that I have presented three independent sources-”

“You on drugs or what?” Josh Finkelstein yelled. “Independent? They’ve been drilled like trained seals.”

“If you are questioning the integrity of these gentlemen-”

“That’s right,” Josh Finkelstein said flatly. “You bet.”

“You callin’ us a liar?” Trixie shouted.

“I be callin’ us a liar,” Josh Finkelstein sneered, mocking Trixie’s accent.

“Why you little faggot,” Pierce cried, standing up. “You want to come up here and-”

“As long as I don’t catch anything!”

Markel and Trixie both stood up, squinting through the television lights.

“Bitch!” they cried in almost perfect unison. Trixie lobbed a small handbag at Josh Finkelstein, who ducked behind Tom Alexander.

“Gentlemen!” Byron cried.

“You call my black ass a ‘gentleman’ one more time,” Markel erupted, then threw his pocketbook at Byron. With surprising deftness, Byron pirouetted out of harm’s way. The imitation crocodile-skin bag sailed into a television light, tumbling it with a tremendous explosion as the bulb shattered.

“You moron!” Ernie screamed at no one in particular.

“Gentlemen!” It seemed to be the only word Byron still knew.

“I warned you!” Markel shouted. He turned around so that his back was facing Byron, presenting a profile to the press corps. He then dropped his pants while Pierce hooted, “Black moon risin’!”

Though what actually took place with Luke is left unresolved, late in the book, a strong hint is dropped that Luke did indeed have sex with these women – transvestites prefer to be referred in the gender they dress, so I refer to them as such.

Matt and his wife stay at the hotel where the alleged unions took place.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“George voted for Solomon,” Lisa greeted Matt. “That’s one vote.”

“George?” Matt sat down and immediately drank all of Lisa’s coffee in one sip.

Lisa nodded over her shoulder at a large black woman emerging from the kitchen with a coffee pot in her hand. At least, Matt thought it was a woman. She looked a lot like Tina Turner, only even more muscular.

“I felt kind of bad,” George said. The accent was Jamaican, lilting, and delightful. “To vote against a customer, it is not such a good thing.”

“Customer?” Matt whispered to Lisa. She shrugged, and Matt turned to George. “Customer?” he asked.

“You saw on the news. Mr. Luke likes the Zebra, that man can do, yes!”

“Oh,” Matt said, nodding. “You saw it on the news.” He turned to Lisa. “He saw it on the news. That doesn’t mean it’s true.”

“No?” George said, laughing.

Matt looked at Lisa, with a question in his eyes.

“Does Luke really…” For the first time, Matt thought about the idea that his brother might really be sleeping with Trixie, Pierce, and Markel. “I always thought it was a joke that Farkas and Byron cooked up.”

“I’m sure it is,” Lisa said.

“No, you’re not. You’re not at all.”

So, Matt Bonney has a brother who looks just like him, who he very well could have been, a congressman, with a public life open to scrutiny, who people can blackmail because of the grotesque figures he has sex with, if only he had not decided to be a political consultant, who no one cares whether they’re married or not.

As a related aside, there appears to be an attempt to always move the unsavory aspects of election campaigns to others. It is Walter Farkas who comes up with the attack involving the prostitutes. It is Morton Koughan who is a despicable creature, though like Luke, we are never told why he is so hateful. He appears to do, here come more italics, only exactly what Matthew does.

That Koughan is a judas goat for the sins of political consultants is not implied, but made explicit. Here is a conversation between Matthew Bonney and his father, upset about the ad involving the prostitutes:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I want you to go and talk to your mother about what is going on. Tell her you are getting that transvestite thing off the air. And tell her about what might happen with Luke. Blame it on that guy, what’s his name…?”

“Koughan. Morton Koughan. The media consultant.”

“Blame it on that New York media consultant. You can always blame anything on a New York consultant, right?”

Matt had to laugh.

So, perhaps there is the possibility that there is not one judas goat in this story, but two. Perhaps also, just as there are parts of a story about a political consultant, written by a political consultant, which we immediately detect as obviously biographical, there may well be other parts that are also biographical, though a little hidden. Anyway: if others are given license to speculate on a president’s birth certificate, I think I’m allowed to speculate on a political strategist’s books.

Though I have mapped out a pattern of a shadow self in this book, I should add that this idea of a shadow double is out in the open in an episode of Northern Exposure, “Jules et Joel”. Joel, the reserved doctor protagonist, suffers a concussion, after which he dreams of a twin brother who acts out the impulses he does not, and who can be blamed for any sins he commits. While this dream twin pursues these desires, Joel is interrogated by an imagined Sigmund Freud. These scenes are in the usual place. I quote the relevant moments:

Freud

Joel Ego

Joel Id

FREUD
Do you always do things out of a sense of obligation?

JOEL
No! (beat) Yeah, most of the time. Yeah.

JOEL
Well, my point is what difference does it make to Jules? One more blot more or less on his already disreputable character, whereas to soil my reputation would-

FREUD
Soil?

JOEL
At least Jules expresses his id. He is id. Me, I am all super-ego. Good behavior. Stellar achievement. Always judging myself how others judge me. But…who really is the bad one here? Joel, who is only pretending to be good…or Jules, who expresses his evil side, so that when he is good is the genuine article?

FREUD
Perhaps you project onto your brother those parts of yourself which it is uncomfortable for you yourself to own up to.

JOEL
Jules is an animal, a predator, a sexual juggernaut whose idea of guilt is something like lint. Say Jules meets a girl. As he rips her clothes off, they ride like eels into a frenzy of unadulterated love-making. Me, I’d shower with my socks on if they wouldn’t get moldy. I have this thing about getting totally naked…I feel totally…

FREUD
Exposed?

JOEL
Exactly. I mean I want to be spontaneous, I do. I have this thing about analyzing my every move. And pre-meditated spontaneity is about as exhilarating as getting the measles twice.

JOEL
Let’s take O’Connell for example. I mean, Jules plies her with alcoholic beverages, instinctively tells her everything he knows she wants to hear, flatters her, charms her and then sticks his tongue down her throat before she has a chance to say “Ah.” I mean, me, do I want her as badly as Jules? Absolutely. But do I pin her against the wall, pressing my chest against her chest? Thrusting my hips against her hips? I mean, do I?

FREUD
Do you?

JOEL
Me, yeah. Joel Fleischman. Are you kidding? No way. I mean, I’d tell her it’d never work out simply because we have nothing in common… because I hate everything that she likes. And in return for my forthrightness and honesty, I’d get at best, if ever, her grudging respect. When, like Jules, what I really want… is to lick her naked body from head to foot like a postage stamp.

I near the end with one penultimate note, this time a small one on writing style. The character of Matt Bonney is someone, we are told, who has had “zillions” of girlfriends, a man with the usual rabid lust of almost any man. Here is the first, and only physical description of his wife:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

She was thin and dark, almost an inch taller than Matt’s five feet eleven inches. She was not so much beautiful as exotic, with dark hair and cheekbones that cut sharply across her face. On a trip to China, an official junket on which Matt had been included as a spouse, guides had twice asked if she were a Mongolian fashion model, a species of creature that neither she nor Matt had known actually existed.

The only absence I note is that men with this conventional lust have, both inside and outside of books, the occasionally endearing and sometimes tiresome quality of always fixating on a woman’s body: the texture, the curves, the movement. It is for that reason women wear clothes which accentuate such features, and wear heels to exaggerate these extraordinary rhythms. Matthew Bonney makes no mention whatsoever of his wife’s body here, or anywhere in the book. Nor does he make any mention of the body of almost any other women, including Dawn Simms, who he has an affair with. This may be a simple aesthetic divergence, a show of greater gallantry than most men possess, or, forgive me…a dog that doesn’t bark.

I end with a compliment. The bookjacket, in its author profile, again, carries no mention of Stevens’ credits as an undergrad and graduate at Oxford. I praise him for his discretion and self-effacement.

Stuart Stevens book jacket

* An excellent profile of Larry McCarthy, “Attack Dog” by Jane Mayer is in the New Yorker.

(After initial posting, edits were made to fix links and to improve clarity. A relevant section of “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse” was added later. The mention of “Northern Exposure” was added later. “Northern Exposure” images and script quotes copyright Universal TV and related producers.)

1 When I first read this book, I assumed this section on the transvestites was fiction – however, it is very much taken from reality, an episode from 1980s Mississippi politics, one more incident from that state which has somehow fallen under the waves, while more banal scandals of the Northeast remain common currency.

I am grateful to We’re With Nobody by Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian, for giving it mention. The book is a memoir of their years as opposition researchers, researching weak points and scandals of political opponents for later use in attack ads and talking points. Huffman is fascinating as a coincidental doppleganger of Stevens. Both have backgrounds in Mississippi, both have travelled extensively in Africa and Asia, both have written prolifically about politics and other subjects. They are at separate polarities however – Stevens is a mercenary, while Huffman seeks some betterment of politics by eliminating the unsavoury and amoral from the field. Stevens sees Karl Rove as an ally unfairly maligned, while Huffman is enthusiastic in continued malignment of the man. I think, on aesthetic grounds alone, that Huffman is the better writer. His description of Timbuktu, for whatever reason, strikes me as more authentic than that of Stevens; I look forward to reading his pieces on Jan-Michael Vincent and dirt eaters.

Returning to the main episode, I give the full description in With Nobody. The perspective is Huffman’s:

In the mideighties, the state of Mississippi, which later served as our proving ground as opposition researchers, was in the throes of a particularly brutal, and surreal, gubernatorial election. At the center stood a trio of transvestite prostitutes who claimed they’d had sex, on numerous occasions, with the leading candidate, a Democrat who was then the state attorney general. Notably, considering where we were, the prostitutes were black and the AG was white.

I was a reporter in Jackson at the time, and the newspaper’s statewide editor, a fiery former marine and Vietnam War veteran, supervised the coverage of the story, which attracted a national media circus that included Geraldo Rivera, the controversial correspondent for the ABC News show 20/20. During a particularly aggressive interview, Rivera, a proud pioneer of trash TV, drove one of the transvestites to tears by angrily demanding to know how it felt to have “ruined a man’s life.” It was, in a way, a legitimate question, particularly considering the transvestites’ penchant for changing their stories, but his delivery was unnecessarily rough. On-camera, the transvestites came across as physically striking, yet they were shy, and clearly unprepared for what they were getting into when they agreed to vogue with the Republican businessmen who hired them to go public with their stories.

The viciousness of Rivera’s attack and the prostitute’s resulting distress prompted my editor, who was present for the interview, to intercede. He and Rivera exchanged a few heated words and the argument devolved into a shoving match-a precursor to Rivera’s brawl a few years later with skinheads, that famously earned him a broken nose. So it was that a freelance opposition research campaign undertaken by a group of conservative businessmen resulted in a Vietnam War vet fighting with Geraldo Rivera in defense of a sobbing transvestite. And that was just the offstage action.

The newspaper’s executive editor had initially balked at reporting the results of the businessmen’s inflammatory research, which they had privately presented to him. The group was comprised of longtime Republicans in what was then a staunchly Democratic state, and they clearly had a political vendetta against the AG. More importantly, there were significant questions about the veracity of their claims. Rather than accept the businessmen’s word for it, the newspaper’s editors assigned two reporters to investigate the matter independently.

The reporters discovered that the businessmen had hired a private detective agency to interview the prostitutes along with policemen who claimed to have seen the AG speaking with trolling prostitutes as they made their rounds. The businessmen then paid the transvestites to go public, and afterward sequestered them in various hotels across the Louisiana line, presumably to control access and to ensure they could find them when they needed them.

At the beginning, the Republican gubernatorial candidate steered clear of endorsing the businessmen’s claims, though they were designed to get him elected. That would soon change. As the scandal reached a fever pitch, even his wife got in on it, smugly proclaiming during one speaking engagement, in reference to the fact that the attorney general was, you know, divorced, “I’m running for first lady, and I’m unopposed.”

Ultimately, the lurid details, the shockingly personal nature of the attack, questions about the businessmen’s payments to the prostitutes and attempts to convince the attorney general’s financial donors to abandon him, together with the lack of clearly documented evidence, did not sit well with either the public or the media.

A reporter asked one of the businessmen during a news conference, “Are you attempting to ruin the man? Are you trying to defeat him? Are you trying to get him to withdraw? What are you doing?” Eventually, television and radio stations refused to sell the group airtime for their campaign ads, enabling the beleaguered attorney general to control the dialogue about the scandal. The result was that the Republican candidate’s campaign was eclipsed by a bizarre sideshow staged by his own supporters.

There are a few noteworthy points here – the women, when they appeared in a press conference were not the ridiculous, comic figures of the book, but tragic ones. Rivera’s bullying, continues unabated and remains consistently callous, having now found a suitable haven at Fox News. The gubenatorial candidate was democrat William Allain, and the detective who pressured the women to make the allegations was Rex Armistead. There was no ambiguity afterwards about the allegations – the women recanted them. The character of Byron Timmons in the book is not Armistead, but still perhaps based on someone real.. Armistead, however, had a colorful enough history for a book, from his possible involvement in covering up the killing of black students at Jackson State, to his futile attempts to prove that Bill Clinton was involved in cocaine smuggling. He is a character who would be as welcome to any fiction as his person is unwelcome to this life. In the disputed race, William Allain won the election. The “20/20″ segment where Rivera questioned the women to the point of tears, despite its sensational nature, does not appear to be on youtube or anywhere else on the web. This footnote was added long after the rest of it was written, November 19th, 2012, two weeks less a day after the election. It originally stated that Armistead was involved in the killing of students at Jackson State due to an unmalicious mis-reading on my part; it has been changed to the still serious crime of possible complicity in veiling what took place there.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 82 other followers