Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist, Defends Newt Gingrich On Charlie Rose

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his novel Scorched Earth, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, and an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote. 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.

An example that a political consultant is at heart a mercenary. Like examples can be found on both sides of the aisle. In the current campaign, Stevens, as chief political strategist with a strong background in media, was most likely heavily involved in the creation of these anti-Newt Gingrich ads (here and here) citing the scandals of the Speaker. The book deal discussed in this episode involved a payment of over $4 million dollars to the Speaker for “To Renew America”, which many saw as a possible quid pro quo over Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of TV stations in the United States. A good introductory article on the old case would be “Murdoch, Joined by Lobbyist, Talked of Regulatory Problem at Meeting With Gingrich” by Katherine Q. Seelye (link).

This scandal was not part of the 1997 House reprimand; whose focus was use of tax exempt contributions to political foundations for practical purpose (a good overview is at the Christian Science Monitor) – the common link is receipt of funds that are used for practical purpose and denial of the link. It might be considered the first scandal of Gingrich’s reign as Speaker, anticipating what was to follow.

In this episode of “Charlie Rose”, aired at the time of the scandal (January 19, 1995), Stevens defends the conduct of the Speaker. Again, I do not think it should be surprising or remarkable that he defended then, and is part of the attacks now; the issue, I believe, is not one of principle, but of who is paying at the time. Areas of interest are bolded; I found the last line particularly funny, as well as what’s said about Murdoch and bribes, given his own current scandals.

The entire program can be seen at Charlie Rose’s site here.

CHARLIE ROSE: I begin with you, Bob. Why can’t the Speaker write a book and earn royalties from it in the same way Al Gore and many others have done?

BOB SHRUM: First, I think the Speaker of the House can write a book and he can earn royalties from it but I think he’d better off if he found a publisher who didn’t have actual or potential major business before the government. There was never any suggestion for example, when Senator Gore, then Senator Gore, wrote his book that that was involved. Secondly, I think you’ll find as a political matter that there are an enormous number of Republicans all over this town who are burning up the phone wires, you can’t quote me by name, bu I sure wish he wasn’t doing this. Uh, I think it’s become a distraction for the Republican party from the business they’re trying to conduct. But I also think it’s created this impression that there’s a lot that’s old about Newt. And it looks like old politics, and it looks like an old kind of deal, uh, it has a very very bad appearance, there are Republicans that are saying that. Some of them saying it on the record, very many of them saying it on background or off the record.

ROSE: The notion was that this seemed to be someone who didn’t have a lot of focus on him, once the focus was there he was portrayed as a man of ideas, a political genius, and all of a sudden people are saying he’s just like the rest. Is that the idea?

SHRUM: Well, I think that’s partly what happened to him. But I also think it’s very distracting for the Republican party, I think it’s very distracting for the debate. I was quite amazed yesterday that Carrie Meek’s relatively mild remarks compared to, for example, what Newt Gingrich said about then Speaker Jim Wright, which nobody in the house tried to stop from saying, that the Republicans made this huge brouhaha about those remarks, which made sure that all of them got huge prominent play on the evening news [a contemporary story about Meek’s remarks can be found at Google News Archive]. Maybe Stuart could elucidate what the self-interest in the Republican party in going down this line is.

STUART STEVENS: I think…look, I think the whole idea that Newt Gingrich is being accused of being a writer here is preposterous. And the idea that anyone thinks that Rupert Murdoch is going around and handing out four and a half million dollar bribes doesn’t know Rupert Murdoch. I mean, if Charlie Scribner pays the pope eight and a half million dollars, does he think he’s going to get into heaven?
I mean, this is ridiculous. And of course Al Gore’s publisher has business in front of the government. Doesn’t he have an interest in GATT, doesn’t he have an interest in trade agreements, doesn’t he have an interest in royalties? He has a tremendous interest, everybody does.

SHRUM: No one, Stuart, has the kind of interest that Murdoch does where basically his entire television empire is threatened now…he was, for example, today, all over Capitol Hill, seen repeatedly on the Hill: now he could be lobbying, or maybe he’s looking for new authors, or maybe he’s doing both. But I think it would have been a lot better off, and I don’t think this a very controversial point that I’m about to make, for him to find a publisher who did not create this kind of appearance of potential conflict and who did not have this large an issue before the federal government right now.

ROSE: Why shouldn’t he do that?

STEVENS: I don’t think it matters. If he wants to switch publishers he wouldn’t be the first author to do it, but I don’t think this is what this is about. This is about a misconception that the Democrats have that they can blow up Newt, and therefore stop Republicans. I think that’s totally missing the point here because I don’t think what happened in November really had much to do with Newt Gingrich’s popularity. Nobody voted against Dan Rostenkowski because they liked Newt Gingrich. It was a much larger thing that was happening…and Newt has been a tremendous supporter and putter out of ideas here, but it’s not a personality driven phenomenon.

ROSE: Do you agree with what Bob Novak said in his column that was quoted by Newt Gingrich at a press conference earlier today, he talked about how the mean-spirited assault on Newt Gingrich by House Democratic leaders is not reviving their troubled party…it has reached the point where it is districting the speaker from his formidable task of enacting the Republican agenda. He ends by saying that the challenge to respond be given not to him, but they pass it on to me. He’s still a relatively young man with enough years ahead of him to defer gratification and to use his fame for private gain in the future. Now is the time for larger pursuits by Newt Gingrich. Do you agree, essentially with what Novak is saying?

STEVENS: I think it’s always easy for the other person to say they shouldn’t make four and a half million dollars. And first of all, you don’t know he’s gonna make four and a half million dollars. And he’s actually, I think, taken a big risk here.

ROSE: I hear a figure of ten million because of all the (inaudible)

STEVENS: Well, I hope so. I always think writers should make more money. I mean, Bob Shrum’s a wonderful writer, I want Bob to make lots of money.

SHRUM: Stuart, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that there’s no attempt to have any influence on this guy, and then that he might make as much as ten million dollars, why should he give up ten million dollars? I think people with that much money put in front of them are at least susceptible to the argument that some appearance has been created, especially when the person giving them the money shows up to see them with his lobbyist, his professional lobbyist in tow. I think Novak, who is no Democrat, in fact, he’s a friend of mine, but he’s a fan of Newt, and he knows mean-spirited when he sees it, by the way, I think Bob Novak has it exactly right. It’s not a good idea for the Republican party to go through this. Especially, when they’re running into some legislative problems.

ROSE: Wait a minute. If he walks away from this, does it look like he’s been rolled by the Democrats, as, I think, Rush Limbaugh is saying, you better stand up, don’t let them do this, they do this to you on the book deal, they’ll try some other thing to get you.

STEVENS: Let me ask you this, Bob. Do you think Al Gore should give back the half million more he got put in his pocket?

SHRUM: Who was his publisher and what was the issue his publisher had?

STEVENS: I’m not sure.

SHRUM: Well, that’s the point. And the Republicans, let me tell you, would have been very quick to leap if there was a conflict of interest. Jim Wright got driven from office, and driven from the Speakership over a sum of money that was not in the six figures, was below five figures, for a book he wrote. I mean, it is preposterous to suggest that these are parallel cases. I think Gingrich would be smarter, and listen, any advice I give would be suspect and they’re not going to take it, but Gingrich would be a lot smarter to get out of this thing now. The worst advice you get in politics is when you’re in a difficult position or you’ve made a mistake, don’t ever back down because that shows weakness.

ROSE: Bob, speak to the point that I raised that this looks like he gets rolled by the House democrats if he backs down from this now. I mean, he came out and said this is the way it is, does it look like he’s been rolled?

SHRUM: Well, like I said, I don’t think any advice I give him would be taken very seriously. Frankly, they’d be better off living with that as a one day story than having this come back in one permutation or another over a period of time. I think it’s gonna come back.

STEVENS: Bob, let me ask you a question. If Murdoch passed on the deal, but say Scribner or Random House calls up Newt and says, listen, “I’ll give you ten million for this book”, would that bother you?

SHRUM: I would think at that point you’re talking about a straight commercial deal, unless somebody had some reason to suggest something else.

STEVENS: But isn’t there a reality when someone writes books? I mean, all of these publishing houses, almost all of them are owned by large corporations now. They’re all at some level have some influence before (inaudible)

ROSE: Yeah, but there’s more of a direct relationship here, clearly. Murdoch is there, clearly. And everyone knows what he wants from the Congress, I assume. The question is does he want legislation or not, or at least, Gingrich was making that point.

SHRUM: Well, he certainly wants legislation, Charlie, if he loses the legal battle. He’s not going to say, “Gee, sorry I lost in the courts, sorry I lost in the regulatory process, now I’m just gonna walk away after giving out hundreds of millions of dollars.”

STEVENS: Bob, you’re a really smart guy. You don’t really believe Murdoch thought a) this would never come out, and b) that he was going to go in there and bribe Newt with this? There’s a whole “how stupid do you think they are?” question here.

SHRUM: Stuart, you can put these questions different ways. The question that can be asked on the other side is: “Do you think it’s really rational to believe this doesn’t create some appearance of impropriety or conflict, that it is not a good situation for the Republican party, that it was not a smart thing for Newt Gingrich to do?”, I think, you were talking about the meaning of last November, I think the last thing you want to do, Stuart, is be on television talking about this, instead of talking about the changes the Republican party would apparently like to enact once they can agree on (inaudible)

ROSE: Isn’t that the reality, Stuart, of where we are and therefore, Novak, who makes that point, Newt is being distracted from what are more important goals?

STEVENS: I think there is a period here of sniping that is inevitable, and if the worst thing we’re accusing Newt Gingrich of, is being a potentially successful writer, I don’t think this is a horrible event.

SHRUM: That’s not the accusation. The accusation is that he has received a contract that can make him an enormous amount of money who actually has issues involving hundreds of millions dollars before the federal government, who went to see him with his lobbyist in tow. Now, when you put all of that set of circumstances together, it sure sounds like what Newt claimed to be running against, not what he was running for.

ROSE: Yeah, but we both know Bob, when these corporate guys go down to Washington they generally go down with their lobbyist, because he or she is their Washington representative who stays in Washington and generally takes them around town and takes them to meet whoever they want to meet. Right?

STEVENS: A good way to get out of this, is Newt could just vote against whatever Murdoch wants!

SHRUM: That too would create the following problem if it passed, people would say, first of all, he doesn’t have to vote, because he’s Speaker, if he got out of the chair and it was gonna pass anyway, to vote against it, it would like he was doing it just for token reasons.

ROSE: I want to bring this out to a wider scale. Is there some effort, do you think, both of you, that the Democrats are smarting from Gingrich has done and they know what he did to Speaker Wright, and this is the first, or the second, or the third salvo, of many to try to give him the same medicine he gave the Democrats when he was a back bench grenade thrower.

STEVENS: This is a classic case of life imitating high school. And they have a perfect chance to gang up Newt, Newt ganged up Wright, and they’re gonna do it.

SHRUM: Let the record show that Stuart just referred to Newt as high school. I think Democrats are simply saying there can’t be a double standard. The rules that applied, or that Newt wanted applied, are gonna be applied to him. Frankly, I think, the Democrats would be a lot better off debating some of these questions about the balanced budget amendment, except the Republicans can’t agree on a balanced budget amendment to bring to the floor. They can’t agree on what tax provision it should have, they don’t want to have an open rule, because then the Democrats are gonna say let’s exempt social security and medicare, the Republicans don’t want to put that in the balanced budget amendment. They don’t want the country to put it in the balanced budget amendment. So, what really happened, is that the House has ground to a halt, because of this enormous internal division within the Republican party about how to structure the balanced budget amendment. I look forward to that debate, I think that would be a good debate for Democrats to have.

ROSE: Last word, Stuart.

STEVENS: There’s a hundred day clock ticking here. I think we’ll declare victory or defeat after the hundred days. Republicans will have to deliver. If they let this distract them, and they don’t deliver, it will be a major defeat for Republicans. I don’t think they will.

ROSE: Let me do one more question for you, Bob, since you’re there watching this closely. Give me a sense of how you think Gingrich is surviving this, beyond the book deal, how he’s handling this as Speaker, how smart he is, how savvy he’s been about the accumulation of power in terms of appointing Committee chairs and the like.

SHRUM: I think he’s the most powerful Speaker in modern history. I think he’s extraordinarily smart and going beyond this issue, I think he talks too much. He’ll talk about anything at the drop of a hat without a text, it’s intellectually interesting sometime, sometime it’s rather odd, for example, when he says that men want to go out and hunt giraffes and women get infections if they stay in foxholes for thirty days. But I do think that tendency to talk and talk and talk is probably going to get him in trouble.

ROSE: Robert, is this the same speech where he said men like to be piglets in foxholes?

SHRUM: Yeah, they like to do that and hunt giraffes. Speaker is the right title to give Gingrich.

ROSE: Does it remind you of any president you know?

SHRUM: Well, he makes the president look positively laconic.

STEVENS: Writers should be allowed a certain eccentricity, and Newt looks to become a very successful writer.

ROSE: How successful a Speaker?

STEVENS: I think he’s going to be the most successful Speaker in our lifetime.

(thank yous)

All images and quotes copyright Rose Communications Inc.

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