Tag Archives: William Winter

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

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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.

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