Tag Archives: Stuart Stevens

Relevant Notes from the Republican Session of the Campaign Decision Makers Conference

These are notes from a session of republican consultants of the 2012 presidential campaigns, part of the Harvard campaign decision makers conference that took place a week and a half ago. There is some information that is valuable, almost eternally, certain mathematical formulas, a poem of succinct genius – some of what’s said in this conference would have been given great attention had it been revealed during the course of the campaign, and is now entirely ignored. This allows us to see much political news properly for what it is, gossip, much as the first couplings of some famed and beautiful pair are newsworthy in the days following the eventful night, and of no interest at all a century after they’re in their coffins. I was struck by the fact that, allegedly, Chris Buck, a Newsweek photographer, told the Bachmann team that his editors had given the specific task of taking a photo of their candidate that made her look bad; that Newt Gingrich made his campaign decisions in conjunction with his wife; that the supposed alliance between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul did not exist, they simply were not competing for the same votes; that the states look at putting a name on a ballot as a shakedown measure by which they can extract as much money as possible from a campaign, this, again, according to a member of the Bachmann team.

All this is now considered bygone gossip, of no importance now that the parade has moved on, with the most important points at this time, shown equal inattention by news media, those dealing with the tumult in the republican party. In their detailing of the process, one can observe the obvious tensions between the conservative establishment and the populists who are the party’s true power base: those candidates unfavored by the establishment and moneymen, anyone other than Romney and Perry, had to struggle for finances, and were grateful for entry in the many debates, which gave them exposure that they otherwise barely had the money to pay for. Despite their meagre finances, at least one of these populist candidates, Rick Santorum, nearly took the nomination, and may have only lost his grasp at the ring because of the very well-funded super PACs on the side of Romney.

Though it is never explicitly said, the logical deduction to be taken from the conversation is that the republican establishment believes that a crucial factor in its loss for the presidency is lack of control over the process: in order to win in 2016, there needs to be tighter RNC grip on the debates, rather than handing off control to the liberal media, whose goals do not converge with the party’s (this Politico article points out that this process has already begun), and a shorter primary schedule that would give populists less of an advantage and less possibility of exposure, with money of course concentrating around the candidates most desired by the GOP mandarins. According to the consultants here, the major problem that the Romney campaign faced wasn’t a lack of ideas, but that they did not have enough money, leaving them vulnerable during the summer: this means, undoubtedly, that an attempted remedy for this will be even more big donor money flooding the race to guarantee a win. That states shake down campaigns for fees is of no concern for the party, as such actions will deter smaller, less will financed campaigns from coming close to victory. All this will help the preferred GOP candidate from moving too rightward from centrist positions to compete with rivals, positions which will later cripple their bid in the general, and keep the preferred candidate from using up too much money in primary fights.

There is only one major obstacle to this: the preferred candidate of the establishment is often not that of the populist heart, the party within the party, the tea party: Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and most especially, Rick Santorum, were all preferred to Mitt Romney by this group. However, if this populist voice can be fully suppressed in the primaries, then they will, of course, always vote for the republican candidate over the democrat with perhaps enough of a chunk of woo-able independents to win the general. This is what just happened in 2012: the tea party did not want Mitt Romney, they did not like Romney, but they were a reliable bloc of Romney voters, anyway. Whether this corralling can be fully successful is an open question: Dave Carney, Perry adviser, states that even though the establishment very much may want to change to a shorter primary schedule, the GOP base would never tolerate it. Carney makes another important point: the party will not be changed from the top-down, through the ideas of various conservative intellectuals, and the RNC leadership. The RNC, he stresses is a legal entity that does some fund-raising, some technical stuff, and that’s it: it is incidental to shaping the party. Voters shape the party. The beginnings of this attempt at populist suppression and the populist reaction to it might be found in this past year’s rules change at the convention, described by Michelle Goldberg in “Rules Change Sparks Grassroots Boos at GOP Convention”.

Those expecting foreshadowings of a dramatic ideological change at the GOP will be disappointed: the Obama coalition is viewed as one tied to Obama specifically. Better transmission of the republican message to latino voters is emphasised, rather than mentioning any change in GOP policies, in terms of amnesties or visa programs. Many consultants discourage the idea that they need to become more like democrats.

I have not made a full transcript – where the entire independent expenditures session was of interest, this only had select points of relevance. The structure of what follows is: a summary with each sentence giving a quick description of the transcript, with a footnote linking to the fragment (notable moments are accompanied by the audio, all fragments are accompanied by indicators of the approximate beginning and end of the fragment in the full audio of the conference). The conference fragments are given in chronological order, but they should be coherent in and of themselves. I encourage anyone finding any interest in this to go to the Harvard campaign decision makers conference for the full audio. I have transcribed sections of this, and the full independent expenditures conference as this is one of the few moments such consultant speak openly and frankly (or as frankly as one can expect from such a profession), without the specific purpose of advocacy for their candidate, and, in a major break from form, on the record with attribution.

The Players:

Moderators: Jonathan Martin (Politico) and Jan Crawford (CBS News).

Consultants, in no order (respective candidate is in parenthesis): Matt Rhoades and Stuart Stevens (Romney), Linda Hansen and Mark Block (Cain), John Brabender (Santorum), Matt David and Ana Navarro (Huntsman), Vince Haley (Gingrich), Rob Johnson and Dave Carney (Perry), Phil Musser (Pawlenty), Keith Nahigian and Brett O’Donnell (Bachmann), Trygve Olson (Paul), Carlos Sierra (Roemer)

The consultants are given a chance to ask each other anything, and there is silence1. Rhoades believes that the longer primary ultimately hurt the candidate2. Carney points out the conflict between what primary voters and the establishment want from the primary3. Brabender speaks out in support of the high number of debates, and helped to make up for their campaign’s lack of money4. O’Donnell is also thankful for the debates giving his candidate so much exposure5 (O’Donnell, a debate expert was, famously, let go by the Romney campaign for his outsize prominence in helping the candidate prep for these contests – this gets a mention in Robert Draper’s informative “They Retort, You Decide”, the main incident covered in “Mitt Romney splits with Brett O’Donnell” by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman, the offending article: “Facing Second Loss to Gingrich, Romney Went on Warpath” by Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny). We’d like the debates better if our candidate was better at them, and they also tried to outflank each other on the right, says Navarro6. Hansen also stresses the benefit her candidate gained from the debate7. Stevens does not think the debates forced Romney to the right, but does think the debates were degrading to the candidates8. Musser does not think the debates, when conducted by the liberal media, are in the best interests of the party, but is unsure whether the RNC has the power to exert control9. Stevens further emphasises the lack of influence the campaigns have over the debates10. Musser says that the straw poll is a circus and a joke11. Carney and Johnson were originally with Gingrich, they explain why they left, and that the decisions of the Gingrich campaign were joint ones, of husband and wife12.

Carney and Johnson explain the sudden move of Perry into the presidential race, that the lack of prior long-term preparation hurt him13. Carney makes the point that Gingrich simply didn’t have the money for the extensive campaign that he wanted to run14. Johnson makes clear one of the reasons why Perry could enter the race – his access to a near unlimited amount of money from fundraisers15. Rhoades thought that prior to Perry’s entry, they felt their greatest threat came from Pawlenty, and that Perry’s campaign ended not due to his infamous gaffe (forgetting the name of a federal agency he wanted to get rid of), but because of the statements in his book Fed Up that social security was a ponzi scheme16. Carney goes into detail on how the absence of long-term prep prior to Perry’s entry ultimately doomed the campaign, then goes on a wild rant about the futility of candidate debates, then yells at Sierra because the debates were essential to his candidate17. Sierra hates the debates, because they were the near only chance for his candidate to get wide exposure and he wasn’t allowed in – now Martin yells at Sierra18. Hansen emphasizes the information value of the debates and questions whether the mainstream journalists are doing their proper part in this19. Olson complains of the way the debates ended up being Mean Girls, and speaks of the way Perry, with his regal motorcade, made himself into a target20. Carney again points to their lack of lead-up time as a factor in their inability to deal with attacks when they became a target21. Stevens believes the primary candidates were impressive, and many of them will be even more formidable in ’1622. Olson explains that Romney and Paul were sympathetic to each other, were not competing for the same votes, but there was no formal alliance23.

David emphasizes again that the format of the debates was to the detriment both of the candidates and the party24. Haley believes that Gingrich did well in every area, except in ads, where he was heavily outspent25. The pivotal moment when Gingrich swatted down a question about his marriage was unplanned, says Haley26. Stevens says that after they won New Hampshire, he was certain, whatever other states they lost, they would eventually win27. Stevens was not worried about Gingrich’s South Carolina win28. The moment that Gingrich angrily reacted to King’s question and the crowd broke out in cheers, Rhoades started concentrating on Florida29. Stevens explains a basic successful effective debate strategy, used by them against Gingrich: the most aggressive debater wins the debate30. Johnson talks about the major impact of Perry’s back surgery on his campaign31. Nahigian and O’Donnell talk about the double standard women candidates face when it comes to their appearance and health, and Nahigian argues that Iowa voters don’t vote for women in their legislatures, or for outside female candidates32. Hansen agrees that there’s a double standard33. Nahigian alleges that Chris Butler, a Newsweek photographer, before taking Bachmann’s picture for his magazine’s cover, revealed that his editors did not want him to take a good picture of their candidate34 (the cover was controversial at the time). Block says that they knew about the sexual harassment allegations against Cain before his entry into the race, and regrets that they did not dispel them through a press conference on Halloween35. Hansen emphasizes how important it is to prepare the candidate’s family for these things, because the media scrutiny during these scandals can be intensive36.

Brabender discusses the attempts to get Gingrich to quit the race, that the Gingrich campaign staff worked to get him to drop out of the race, so that a conservative would get the nomination, but Gingrich resisted this, and stayed in, perhaps an important factor in Santorum eventual loss37. Haley explains why Gingrich stayed in38. Haley explains that Gingrich took the attack ads personally, and wasn’t able to laugh them off39. Nahigian explains how getting on a state ballot now is a shakedown by the states for money40. Brabender says that they ultimately lost not to the Romney campaign, but to his super PACs41.Stevens explains how the noise of the primary ended up engulfing and tainting all the candidates42.

Rhoades talks about how you can only aim to win the primary, and then the general election43. Rhoades emphasises again the importance of the social security issue in defeating Perry44. When did the Romney campaign know their man was the nominee? Stevens says45. The burden of these campaigns on the candidate’s family: Stevens explains46. Why was Obama allowed to define Romney over the summer? Rhoades and Stevens give a detailed answer, with emphasis made on their lack of funds relative to the Obama campaign47. The Romney campaign stresses that they had no co-ordination with their super PAC, and that such organizations were both a gift and a curse48. Rhoades discusses the preparations made in anticipation of Bain Capital-related attacks, and the efforts to counter them49. Haley says that the “King of Bain” ad produced by the Gingrich super PAC was not, in fact, wanted by the campaign (this is a little surprising, since Gingrich had already attacked the Romney-Bain connection before the ad was produced, and Gingrich’s super PAC, Winning Our Future, got the funds to advertise the film from Sheldon Adelson, the main contributor to Gingrich’s campaign)50. Olson predicts that in ’16 all attack ads will outsourced to super PACs, to avoid any taint with the main campaign51. Stevens emphasizes again that the difference between the money their campaign and the Obama campaign had on hand was the reason they didn’t reply to the summertime attack ads52. David says that the Huntsman campaign did not succeed with moderate or conservative voters, nor did their super PAC provide them with the ads that they wanted, which, instead of portraying Huntsman as a moderate, played up his conservative credentials53.

David thinks that the republicans need to moderate somewhat, but that they lost this race because of technology and the difficulty of going against an incumbent president54. Musser does not think the Obama coalition will hold together, and stresses the importance of advertising on media that latinos watch55. Sierra thinks a more conservative candidate like Santorum would have resulted in more of an ass-kicking, Martin asks, so, someone like Bachmann, or…Sierra replies, more of an ass-kicking, Martin confirms: more of an ass-kicking56. Haley believes that making people’s lives better through conservative governing solutions is a winning message, with the policy to be more fully defined at a later time57. Carney believes that there is this misconception that a central party makes policy decisions, no: voters make decisions, the RNC is just a legal entity that does fund-raising 58. Johnson: Fox News is of incredible importance in terms of exposure during a republican primary 59. Nahigian believes republicans need to get back to small government conservatism 60. David thinks there’ll be at least one republican candidate in ’16 who’ll be pro-gay marriage 61. Brabender thinks there on dangerous ground if they try to be more like democrats 62. Olson believes the Obama coalition is not a long-term electoral coalition, and that the republicans need to take a less hawkish stance 63. Rhoades points to the incredible impact of the debates as his biggest surprise64. Stevens refers back to 2004, when it was believed republicans had a long-term electoral lock and argues that the current primary process is fundamentally sound and will serve them well in bringing about a republican nominee who will win the presidency four years from now65.

1

Jan Crawford: We’re going to actually toss out to you – because you were there from the beginning, formulating strategies, seeing what your opponents were doing. So we’re just going to say the first question, and the floor is yours. Come on, you guys. (Martin: what are the questions that have been on your mind ever since the primary (inaudible)?) (silence) (Martin: Dive in. Somebody dive in.) (laughter) (long silence) Come on, Keith.

(0:45-1:15)

2

Crawford: One of the things we were obviously tossing around was just the change in the rules to extend this campaign…the proportional voting. Any of you guys want to pick up on that one, what kind of impact did that have…did that draw out this campaign longer, ultimately to the nominee’s detriment in the general? Or did that as intended, allow for other candidates to come forward…Matt?

Matt Rhoades: Thanks Jan. Obviously, the process this time…this was why when we were doing our early planning on the Romney campaign, we never expected to win this early, because of the proportional allocation of the delegates…and early on, when the RNC was figuring out the rules, back in 2010, you know we knew that we didn’t want an extended calendar, we wouldn’t publicly say that, though…but behind the scenes, some of our supporters were focused on trying to keep the calendar a little less expansive, and…so we knew going into this, it wasn’t going to be…primaries aren’t easy, first off. (Martin: who was doing that?) There would be individuals such as Ron Kaufman, who works at the RNC, who were focused on that, but obviously, when the rules changed, publicly, we came out, and said we’re for it. Because, those are the rules. You can’t be against the rules. And at the end of the day, we knew we had to be patient throughout the process, and we knew there would be people who rose up to the top, and we would just have to stick to our strategy in the primary, but at the end of the day, we had to spend $87 million dollars, and we came out in April against an incumbent candidate who just had so much money, and maybe if it wasn’t an incumbent president we were going against, it would’ve been great for everybody, and I know a lot of people thought the Obama-Hillary Clinton campaign made Obama a lot stronger, and there were certainly parts of the primary that made governor Romney a better candidate, but at the end of the day, when we’ve spent $87 million dollars, and these are $2500 dollar cheques that we can’t collect, until after the convention, it was a disadvantage.

Crawford: So your bottom line is that that change ultimately hurt the nominee?

Rhoades: Yes.

(2:05-4:10)

3

Dave Carney: If you care about primary voters than proportional’s the way to go, because 40% voted for somebody, and 30% voted for somebody else, those 30% should be represented at the convention…

Jonathan Martin: So you’re saying stick with it then?

Carney: No. No, I’m not. I’m saying if you care about what the primary voters have to say, then proportional’s a fair way to do it, if you care about let’s get this thing done, and cooked things get cooked, so we can go and try to fight the general election, then you want winner take all. (Crawford: Weren’t-) The establishment is let’s get this over, the guys with the money, people like you [journalists, the moderators] fondling over them every day, you want to get this over with. Everyone, in a year, everyone’s gonna know who…the conventional wisdom who our nominee’s gonna be in O-16, and that’s going to help drive that candidate, you know, pretty far. But primary voters, and our party is very small d democratic, I don’t think they would stand to go back to the kingmaker…what they perceive as the insiders telling them who’s going to-

Martin: It’s here to stay then?

Carney: Yes.

(5:20-6:20)

4

John Brabender: But I would say it worked.

Martin: John Brabender.

Brabender: Representing Rick Santorum. Here’s…he spent between him and his super PAC about $27 million dollars. And went pretty darn far. Because of the way the system is set up, I’m guessing the nominee spent with his campaign and super PAC between the $120 and $130 million range. YET: we were able to have a continuous primary and not wrap things up after three states, which, I think for the party was a positive thing, I would even argue the prolonged debates was a positive thing and one of the reasons Mitt Romney won the first debate against the president. What I do think is a problem is when there’s inconsistency. Florida being a winner-take-all state, all of a sudden in the middle of nowhere, just changed strategies dramatically. Texas having to go to the end of the line because of changes down there, changed the system dramatically, so I think it needs to be more balanced and more consistent, but I would argue to many degree, the system worked.

(6:20-7:30)

5

Brett O’Donnell: The debates had a huge impact, both on the primary and on the general election this time.

Martin: Now, full disclosure, Brett, you’re a debate guy.

O’Donnell: I understand that, but I think that the airwaves were so crowded this time, that voters used the debates to make a lot of decisions about candidates, and that was seen in how the results bore out. I mean, Gingrich’s campaign came back twice on the back of debates. Our campaign was put on the map because of two debates. And Florida and South Carolina swung because of debates. I think debates matter, they give the public a chance to see candidates outside the paid media campaign, which I thought was pretty important.

(8:05-8:40)

6

Martin: Alright, what’s the downside of debates? I see Ana Navarro moving up to mike back there.

Ana Navarro: Maybe if our guy was better at debates, we would like them better. But since he wasn’t – I actually thought we had too many debates, and I thought it hurt in general-

Martin: What’s the downside?

Navarro: The downside was they tried to out-right wing each other, and we never got back to the middle in the general.

(9:15-9:25)

7

Linda Hansen: We feel the debates were very profitable, obviously the first debate especially helped Mr. Cain get on the map, shall we say? And help people understand who he was.

Crawford: If you guys remember, the focus group said that Herman Cain, who no one knew, was the winner.

Hansen: Not only that, but we didn’t have a lot of money, which was not secret. So the debates really helped to get out message out, but in a sense as well…I was just talking to someone from Minnesota who said, other than the debates, they really would never have seen the candidates at all. They said especially governor Romney…they said other than the debates, they never really had much contact. I feel that the debates, and the extra debates, are very, very helpful for citizens all across the country.

(10:00-10:40)

8

Martin: Matt and Stuart, did the debates push your candidate too far to the right you think, and hurt you in the general?

Stuart Stevens: No, I don’t think that’s the problem. I think these debates began with the best of intentions, then spun sorta out of control…the biggest problem from my perspective, and a lot of times when we talk here, we’ll be expressing our own opinions, not a unified opinion from inside the Romney campaign…we’ll have differences of opinions on things. My feeling is…having the news organizations sponsor these…began to give it a commercial quality…that at a certain point, became almost degrading to the candidates. And they should’ve been more serious, there’s something odd about this process…

Crawford: Can I interrupt? When you say degrading to the candidates, is there any moment or two that jumps out at you as examples?

Stevens: Well, I think the way the candidates are being introduced…it was sortof more of an “American Idol” kind of model, rather than a serious presidential debate, versus the way they’re doing the commission of presidential debates. They’re more serious. And there’s also something very odd about the branding of these debates, by large multi-national corporations, the CNN debate, the Fox debate, or the NBC debate. I think in an ideal world, debates would be put on, and news organizations would cover it, in the same way we do the rest of the campaign. We don’t have a CBS sponsored news conference, or a CBS sponsored rally. And I would like to think, ideally, in the future there would be some mechanism to control this.

Martin: Stuart, let me just follow up with you, if I could to the first answer that you gave, do you think the debates hurt your candidate in terms of how he ran in the general? The words “self-deportation” came out of your candidate’s mouth at the debate in Tampa. If it wasn’t for that debate, I don’t think Romney ever says that phrase. That wasn’t helpful for the candidate in the fall, was it?

Stevens: Listen, I think he was expressing an opinion.

Martin: But wasn’t that damaging to him in the fall?

Crawford: Going to Ana’s point, did the debates…and the media’s looking for interesting exchanges…did it push Romney to the right?

Stevens: I didn’t have a problem with it. I think when you run for president, I think you should expect to get asked tough questions. You should expect to be placed in a lot of situations where you’re going to be asked tough questions. And be that in an op-ed interview, or…wherever, there’s no gotcha quality, or ambush quality to the debates, everybody knows what they’re doing, they’re up there…so…that doesn’t…

Martin: But he wouldn’t have used that phrase (inaudible)…he wouldn’t have used that phrase in a print interview.

Stevens: I wouldn’t…make that assumption at all. He said what he wanted to say.

Martin: But there’s no pressure on that stage to outflank each other on the right, when you’re trying to get the republican nomination?

Stevens: Listen, if you go back, one of the advantages that governor Romney had in this process, in general, but in these debates, was having gone through these debates before. And one of the things we talked about, was that debates are never about the room. And you’re gonna get booed. And that was very true of the tea party debate in Orlando. Which is a very raucous event. And we were laughing about it before. We said, this is gonna be like rock’em, sock’em. They’re gonna boo everybody. And it happened. It was fun. It just happens.

(10:00-12:50)

9

Phil Musser: I want to turn your question a little bit forward looking, because you asked about 2016, and here’s what I think is gonna happen, because some of the viewpoints in this room are being reflected. I think you’re gonna find at the very beginning of this process, there was a good-faith effort to contain and limit the number of debates, and a lot of people in this room sat around the table, and said is this a good idea or a bad idea? The problem was, we all had different interests, right? John Brabender and the Cain people and the Pawlenty people to some, but differing degrees at the beginning of this race, were looking at the right goal for the party in the debates…I suspect, as you look forward, the republican party will probably re-introduce that…meaning, the chief rub is why are we out-sourcing control of the debates to liberal news media organizations, why are we not, Stuart’s point, putting some kind of framework around this that’s got common sense, and giving it to people that, frankly, are going to allow us to drive our message, as opposed to, play into the narrative that…the scripts of the major news organizations right [sic]. I think that process will be re-visited formally, in the next year, and it’s something you should look for, because there are probably too many of these things.

Crawford: Is that something the RNC would take control of?

Musser: Therein lies the rub, because structure of the national party committee, versus the tea party movement [Martin: Yeah.] versus the interests and needs of the candidates, are very different. But I just think that it’s something that’s clearly gonna be re-thought about again, and discussed with more seriousness.

(16:30-17:55)

10

Stevens: It was very, very difficult trying to deal with organizations on the debates. Because ultimately the only power you have is that you won’t show up.

Crawford: But is that much of a power-

Stevens: No, it’s not much of a power. It’s like, “Okay, don’t show up.”

Crawford: It’s held against you, presumably.

Stevens: Exactly. Which means you really don’t have any power. Which means…you end up showing up. Which means…you lose control. (laughing) So you end up doing twenty debates.

(17:55-18:25)

11

Crawford: Let’s go…let’s stay on the straw poll.

Musser: I hope that one of the legacies of the 2012 campaign is that, talk to your presidential candidates: don’t chase the shiny object in the straw poll. It’s a circus, it’s not a caucus. It’s a joke. And we made a fundamental strategic miscalculation about the level of investment we chose to deploy there, in part necessitated by the need to gain traction and momentum, and try to secure financial support, but ultimately, the straw poll, I think has run its course, in terms of the contest for Iowa, in that it’s unrepresentative of the broader contours of the caucus going electorate that turns out, and, interestingly, it’s really more of a celebrity contest…I’ve worked with Keith Nahigian in 1996, he’s probably the best organizer I’ve ever met in republican politics, and the fact that Michele Bachmann got into the race in May, and managed to win the straw poll in August, is amazing. Because it’s not just something you wake up and think about doing. It takes a lot of planning and timing.

(21:00-22:20)

12

Martin: We heard so much from Newt about the consultant driven campaign that he was forced to run in the early part of his bid…what exactly did he mean by that from your perspective, and what exactly did you guys want him to do that he pushed back on?

Rob Johnson: Well, first of all we couldn’t force Newt to do anything. So, if it was consultant…it was Newt driven…and…

Martin: Even back then it was Newt driven?

Johnson: Absolutely. And I think we were very honest when we…departed. That there’s just a fundamental, to use his words…frankly, there was a fundamental (laughter) difference of opinion on how to run a campaign. We-

Martin: What’d you want to do?

Johnson: I wasn’t a consultant, but the way. He was talking about Dave. I was the campaign manager.(laughter) But we felt like you needed to go to the states, and talk to the people, and do it more than a day at a time.

Martin: What’d he want to do?

Johnson: He wanted to go to the states and talk to the people, but a day at a time. He wanted to do television, he wanted to wait for the debates, and turns out, that was probably pretty good strategy.

Martin: How much of that was driven by Callista, his wife? The schedule?

Johnson: They were a team. (laughter) And so, I think, a lot was driven by the team.

(25:45-27:15)

13

Carney: For years…publicly, privately…he’s said he’s had no interest, didn’t want to do it. Thought he’d have a bigger role impacting the federalist movement, the tenth amendment movement from outside Washington, that was a very radical departure from everything he’d ever said and done over the years…to sortof position him to be a…try to help lead that states’ rights federalist movement, was designed to do that, and not designed to be a candidate for president, clearly. Had he given any sort of indication, frankly, “let’s think about it”, “let’s not rule it out”, “let’s wait and see”, I think there are hundreds of things that we could’ve done differently that could’ve better prepared to run. I think…when you talk to legislator, county chairmen, and political activists, in the early states, when you’re doing that days before getting into the race, and raising money, and getting up to speed on the issues, clearly that’s-

Crawford: So, did he have a grasp of how difficult it would be…getting in so late…when it dawn on him that playing catch up would be so hard?

Johnson: Before we answer that, I know that Matt and Stuart read the book…if he was going to run for president, he never would’ve written that book. [Martin: PONZI SCHEME] I mean, it’s what he believes, right, but you would have written that book later?

(28:00-29:00)

14

Carney: First of all, he’s a brilliant guy, and he has billions of ideas and he…he’s not somebody who’s looking for…he’s looking for help, he’s not looking for correction…but fundamentally, it comes down to finances. He did not have the resources, he did not have any financial infrastructure to support him…paying a bunch of consultants, hanging around, to implement a campaign that it wasn’t going to have the resources to execute. He wanted…originally we were going to…have a really aggressive, multi-million dollar effort, field operation, [Martin: Newt was.] Yeah, and we were going to do all of this new engagement, social media, and have basic, cutting-edge, sort of third way to run a campaign.

(29:30-30:10)

15

Johnson: And we always knew we could raise a lot of money out of Texas. Something else that was encouraging, I guess encouraging is the right word, in the latter part of July, we reached out to a national network, led by Peter Terpeluk, god bless his soul [Terpeluk, a former ambassador to Luxembourg, was involved in early Perry fund-raising, and died in August 2011). And...we would invite ten people, and a hundred people would show up in Austin, Texas. We were doing this three times a week. So, we were seeing three hundred national fund-raisers - bundlers - a week. And at the time, only one in five of the McCain elite donor bundlers were engaged in the race, so four out of five weren't. And they were showing up in Austin, Texas to meet Rick Perry, and it was very encouraging.

(32:00-32:50)

16

Rhoades: First up, up to governor Perry getting into the race, the candidate in the race we were most concerned about up to that point was governor Pawlenty. Because, to the point that Phil Musser has made and their strategy...if governor Pawlenty was able to get through the travails of the Iowa straw poll, and was able to go on and win the Iowa caucus, he was one of those candidates that could pull it off with his retail politic way, both Iowa and New Hampshire. And if we had lost Iowa and New Hampshire to governor Pawlenty, things would've been pretty bleak for our campaign. When governor Perry got into the race, certainly we had a lot of respect for his record when it came to jobs and the economy, because the way people were talking at that time, you would think that every job that was created, was actually created in Texas. And up to that point, we had put an onus...or an emphasis, excuse me, on running a campaign focused on jobs and the economy. And so we knew this was going to be an obstacle to us moving forward, and that's why, very quickly, during the course of governor Perry's entry into the race, you know, governor Pawlenty had left, we made it a point to contrast on governor Perry's record. And it included the initial debates, and the interactions, on those stages, and obviously, Rob, made a point about Fed Up, and I give credit to Stuart Stevens as the individual on the campaign who fell in love with Fed Up, we just kinda executed on the strategy behind it, but we made...with Stuart's guidance, we decided to put an emphasis on governor Perry's position on social security. And not go after jobs and the economy.

Martin: Did your polling show that was his biggest vulnerability, Perry's?

Stevens: I don't think we ever really polled it.

(32:55-35:20)

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Crawford: What happened with that campaign? Why after jumping in, skyrocketing to the top, becoming the candidate the Romney guys were most concerned about...then it all fell apart. Why? Was it the debates, did he get in too late, was it never viable, the money drying up? What was it?

Carney: Well, I could talk to my therapist...I still haven't...(laughter) It's one of two things: we made a lot of mistakes.

Crawford: Like what?

Carney: Small mistakes. (Martin: like what?) The biggest, big tactical or strategic mistake...if he was gonna do this, he should've started years ago. Chairman of the RGA, governor of Texas, the legislature meets 140 days every two years, he has a lot of time on his hands, he could've been doing lots of things, you know, going to help people around the country, to meet people, become very helpful in Ohio, in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, some of these important states, meet donors and things like that, so we didn't have that luxury of time. Two, we should've waited. We should've waited, actually, longer.

Crawford: You mean waited longer-

Carney: To get in. Spent more time...when he decided, is there a possibility, what (inaudible) taught me...the three questions we tried to answer...and put a framework or a plan together...it was based on, we need to get in, or Romney was starting locking people up, more than he had, he had a lot of people locked up already, and start fundraising...we had unlimited ability to raise money. That was not, ever, a problem. It wasn't a matter of how to collect it. The problem was the political side: political support, and governor Romney's team was excellent and had a long head start, and it was locking people up, and a lot of people were waiting to see who was getting into the race, we were concerned...we should've waited, until November, maybe. Or maybe the middle of October, because of the Florida move up, you know the declaration by the secretary of state to be on the ballot. It would've given us more to be prepared, more time to do some of the groundwork that's necessary, get better prepared on the issues-

Crawford: You wouldn't have had the September debates. (laughing)

Carney: Listen, this is the craziest thing about debates. First of all...

Johnson: First of all, they're panels. They weren't debates.

Carney: Whatever, yeah, exactly. This is the crazy...THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES NEVER DEBATES! Okay? It's a skill that's unrequired! Unnecessary! It's not the fucking - uh, it's not the (laughter) prime minister, he doesn't stand there and take questions for half an hour! NOBODY EVER QUESTIONS THE PRESIDENT! In public. There's never...you know, Putin and he do not argue on the red phone! I mean, this is crazy! (laughter) Number two, the RNC's never ever enforced anything! The idea that the RNC, like last time, would fix this problem, that's crazy! The establishment candidate is not gonna want to do debates, the front-runner, and everybody who has no money wants to get on for twelve minutes...on national cable TV. Because it's their shot! And it's free! You know, the idea that you go from California, to Florida, to California with a holiday in-between, ten days, that's illuminating...whatever happened to town meetings? Matt's 100% right. Candidates have to run their own campaigns.

Martin: But the [Buddy] Roemer folks – the debates were your candidate’s only shot?

Carney: WHAT KIND OF CRAZY IDEA IS THAT?!? (laughter)

(36:30-40:05)

18

Martin: Carlos, tell him.

Carlos Sierra: We hated the debates. We really hated the debates. I think we do need some debate reform. I think Stuart made a great point that it’s basically corporate sponsored…you know, it’s very undemocratic. I know you guys-

Martin: You guys were pining to get into the debates! NOW YOU’RE KNOCKIN THEM?

Sierra: Huh?

Martin: That was your whole strategy.

Sierra: No, everyone had their time to shine. And it was cuz of the debates. You either…Michele Bachmann shined…Perry…

Johnson: We shined before the debates. (laughter)

Sierra: Exactly. So…like I said last night, part of our strategy was, were the debates, and unfortunately we never got in. I know Gary Johnson never got in. And I don’t know what’s…we do need debate reform though. But it’s sad though that two governors were not allowed in.

(40:15-41:00)

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Hansen: One of the things that I think we need to remember about the debates is…who we’re ultimately trying to serve, and that would be the citizens of the country. That would be the voters who are looking for information, many of whom never get to live in Iowa, and see the candidates, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but who do we serve? And as journalists, you know, what is your job? Your job is to give factual information to the citizens of this country. And so, we need to remember, what’s the purpose of the debates? And there’s positives and negatives about how many, where they were…you know, all that, and Stuart brought up a really good points, about who’s in charge of the questioning.

(41:10-41:55)

20

Martin: Trygve Olson, you are sitting next to Matt Rhoades, which is fitting to a lot of people in this room because there was much chatter about the Romney-Ron Paul-

Trygve Olson: I feel like Ron Paul at the CBS Foreign Policy Debate: sixty seconds. (Martin: Alright, alright.) But maybe we’ll be able to win another million dollars money-bombing.

Martin: What was the nature of the contact between the Paul campaign and the Romney campaign? Were you talking to Matt Rhoades-

Olson: No, I’m going to answer the- I’m going to use my own debate strategy, I’m going to answer the question I want to talk about rather than the- (Martin: I’ll follow up.) “This is typical media attacks”, to use a Newt Gingrich strategy. I think the thing with the debates, and there was some effort, and it started with a conversation between Jesse Benton and Ginsberg [Ron Paul campaign chairman Benton and Ben Ginsberg, Romney confidante], based off of 2008, to get all the campaigns together to talk about the debates, and try to impose a little bit of will back on. The problem with the number of debates is you can’t really get at it is because everybody has their own interests, so what ended up happening is “we’re not going over ninety minutes.” We don’t want to have a green room that’s six thousand miles away, so…Stuart [Stevens] and I have to ride around in a golf cart with a guy who gets lost because he doesn’t know where he’s going on the University of Tampa campus. And furthermore, why are Stuart and I are on the same golf cart because it only re-inforces the notion that we have an alliance from people like you? (Martin: No, but-) But: the important thing, one of the things that I think is missing from this conversation that matters, and the debates re-inforces this, and I don’t know how to refer to it any differently but there’s kindof a seventh grade girls, and I don’t mean any disrespect to seventh-grade girls, there’s kindof a seventh-grade girls component to this. And all the candidates are spending so much time at the debates, you know, like Bob likes Joe, and Joe doesn’t like Frank, and whatever, and so, like last time, Huckabee and McCain really didn’t, there’s been a lot reported on this, they didn’t want Romney to get the nomination, so they ganged up. This time, there was a tendency for candidates, as somebody would rise, everybody would gang up on them. The question I would like to ask is, to Dave, you know the one thing I couldn’t understand with you guys, when you guys did roll in, there was, you know, you had seven state troopers, and Simi Valley was the site of the first appearance, for everybody else, and all the rest of the campaigns were sitting around, here comes Rick Perry, he’s riding high in the polls, he’s got seven state troopers with him, he’s got this entourage, who’s he think he is, the prime minister of britain? Let’s all get him. And, I don’t know if there’s a way around it, but I do think…I always wondered had the “optics” of your rolling into this dynamic of people who’d been travelling…enter into the equation, because I do think it mattered. It certainly mattered in my guy going after you on Hillarycare.

(41:55-44:50)

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Carney: In hindsight, would we have preferred not to have jumped into the race and had things go so well, I mean, things happened, and the poll numbers looking temporarily great? Nah, I wouldn’t trade that. I would rather have a longer ramp-up time. But once you get in, you sorta want that. We weren’t structurally sufficient to support that sort of meteoric rise, and we became a target just like most everybody else for their fifteen days in the sunshine. We were a target and we just didn’t have the infrastructure in place to support, that candidates need to-

(45:30-46:30)

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Stevens: I just think it’s really important to note that…having run for president before was a great advantage for governor Romney. And I think it would be a great mistake to think that the candidates who are in this race that ended up not getting the nomination or maybe didn’t have such a good debate here or there, are not candidates who could be president. And who would not do a lot better next time they run. There’s nothing like running for president of the united states. And having run before is a great experience and I think there were a bunch of tremendously talented candidates that would do really well. And I think it would be a real mistake to look and say, okay, this stumble, or that stumble, that person’s not up to playing the game. Watch these candidates, I think a lot of them will come back and do really well.

(46:40-47:40)

23

Crawford: You know there would always be this effort to attack Romney by the alternatives, but Dr. Paul really didn’t do that in these debates. It looked like there were clearly some kind of bond or alliance that he had struck with Romney, why was that?

Olson: Matt [Rhoades], do you want to tell me what I should say? [Rhoades: Nah.] (laughter) There’s been a lot made of the idea that we didn’t attack, that we didn’t draw contrasts with Mitt Romney in the way we drew contrasts with other candidates, whether it was the debates or, you know, through our paid media, the reality is…we had lots of pieces of mail that drew contrasts. The Romney folks like to remind us about the day Mitt Romney announced, we raised one point seven million dollars off of that, with a pretty scathing “Mitt Romney is the establishment” But strategically, we were never in a place where we were competing with Mitt Romney for, essentially, establishment votes. And so, I think that matters. I think the other thing that matters is, on a personal level, and Stuart alluded to this, it matters to have done it before for a lot of reasons, but one of the things that mattered in that relationship is, and it’s been documented a lot, Ann Romney and Carol Paul, became friends…Ron Paul considers Mitt Romney someone that’s a friend. They had shared a journey that had gone on for four years and to some degree they’re at a similar station in life. They have five kids, so, you know, there were issues, certainly on foreign policy, where he disagreed with governor Romney, but strategically, you know, it was more important to draw a contrast with Rick Perry when he got in the race because he was taking votes, tea party type voters, from us in Iowa.

(48:10-50:00)

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Crawford: You said the debates – you were speaking more broadly – you believe those debates actually harmed the party itself.

Matt David: Absolutely. I mean I talked to…I remember we did a debate and I talked to a friend that was outside of politics the next day, and he was, like, were you at that crazy Fox debate? And I was like, it was actually CNN. But yes, I was there. But, it tells me a lot. So, yeah, I think it did hurt the party.

Crawford: Why, because the candidates looked less presidential? I mean, does everybody agree with this? Or does this seem-

David: It’s like Stuart said, when we walk on stage, and it’s like a cross between “American Idol” and a football game.

(51:40-52:20)

25

Vince Haley: Dave mentioned about the financial limitations of the campaign [Dave Carney, speaking about his time at the Gingrich campaign] which made it very difficult to respond to negative attacks when they came. Gingrich, I think, was very successful in his approach, not just in the debates…he did very well in the debates, but also several public gatherings in Iowa that in key moments in October and November, he wowed the audience. So he was winning in many ways lots of support on the ground, not just in debates. But we were not prepared to deal with the onslaught of ads against us in Iowa.

(57:00-57:30)

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Haley: Take South Carolina. You had two debates before the vote. I think…I forget exactly what the polling was that week…I don’t know how close it was…the first debate took place and I think Newt had two standing ovations, had enormous momentum, and then of course, the second debate, if you all remember there was this question that John King led off the debate with about the ABC News interview with Newt’s ex-wife, and Newt gave an answer, and the place erupted with a standing ovation, and I turned to somebody, and I said “Newt either won the primary right then or there, or lost it.”

Martin: Did he tell you guys before that debate that he was going to give that answer if the question came up?

Haley: No. Not me.

Martin: You didn’t know.

Haley: So, in South Carolina, the turn-out, if the figures are correct, there was a 30% bump-up in turn-out, in South Carolina. It shattered the record from 2000. A very positive momentum. And you go to Florida, which has eight media markets, you know, if there was a place to stop him, it had to be Florida.

(57:30-58:50)

27

Stevens: I don’t remember precisely, but I think there was, that one night…it was a double digit shift toward Newt after that first debate. Ten to fifteen points. And if you’ll notice, go back and look at it, in the second debate, the governor did not attack Newt. Because it was not a moment where Newt was attacking him. It was just one of those things that happened, that Newt, to his credit, seized a moment, he’s very good at that. And what’re you going to do? Just get out of the way. Florida…we always felt very comfortable about winning Florida. But we always felt that after we won New Hampshire, we could lose states, and just stay in, and we would win. We might lose some, win some, but that maybe this thing would go to June. But: we planned to stay to June. Went to the convention. Stayed to the convention. We were gonna do what it took to win, timewise. And we couldn’t control that calendar, so we were very steady and calm about it.

(59:00-1:00:30)

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Crawford: Were you- how alarmed were you after South Carolina?

Stevens: Not at all. To be honest.

Crawford: Even though the state-

Stevens: Not at all, because-

Crawford: Your polling was up, though, you must have been surprised by-

Stevens: It was…listen, in politics, things happen. And Newt had great moments, the governor grew his vote, from four years earlier, he came in third, we didn’t see anything happening that was damaging to the candidacy, he didn’t lose because he had stumbled, he didn’t lose because he had been attacked, he didn’t lose because…his negatives didn’t skyrocket. Newt had a good week. I mean, give him credit.

(1:00:30-1:01:20)

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Rhoades: Let me just echo, first what Stuart said…we had to stay calm in South Carolina…but I can tell you, fifteen minutes into the first debate in South Carolina, that was the last moment I thought about South Carolina the rest of the campaign. I simply shifted focus to Florida.

Crawford: Really?

Rhoades: You gotta stay calm.

Martin: South Carolina was cooked.

Rhoades: You knew it was a great moment for the speaker. And-

Martin: This is the Myrtle Beach debate, the Fox debate.

Rhoades: The very first debate in South Carolina. Within fifteen minutes of the first debate, I shifted my focus on Florida. And, uh, you know, that’s when we went and double downed on our efforts in Florida. I forget the specific amounts of money we spent, uh, but traditionally, you do a thousand point TV buy, and for the Florida primary, we upped that to at least fifteen hundred, maybe more, but I don’t remember the exact numbers.

(1:01:45-1:02:50)

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Stevens: There’s a rule of thumb, perhaps O’Donnell can speak to this better than I, a large percentage of the time, the most aggressive person in a debate when people are engaging, will win that debate. And we had pretty clear-cut simple goals, we needed to engage, and win.

(1:04:15-1:04:40)

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Martin: I want to ask Dave Carney something, before we forget this. And that is, the question of governor Perry’s health. To what degree did his back problems impact his debate performance?

Carney: I think it had a big impact.

Martin: How so? He was in pain.

Carney: Originally, what the doctors and the patient thought, you know in terms of recovery time it was supposed to be very short period, before he could get back on to his regular routine, his whole campaign was built upon a very aggressive, arduous schedule of travel, and in order to make up for lost time, and just never…the situation during the summer and early fall…was just never completely right…it was supposed to be two weeks…and then it was four months…it was still a problem. It’s just a fact, it’s not an excuse. We passed tort reform in Texas, so we can’t sue the doctors for what they told him but my doctor tells me I need to lose a few pounds, I may not exactly listen to what he had to say, I listen to what I think I want to hear, so it could have been the patient (laughter) The patient, wanting to think it was two weeks. You know, and everything would be fine. But it was, it was a minor thing. Everybody’s a…this little procedure was minor. And everybody’s…in the governor’s mind, in the office’s mind, it was not a big deal in the slightest. It was an in and out operation, and-

Crawford: But do you think that had an effect on his debate?

Johnson: Yes.

Crawford: Was it just- was he on medication, was it just the standing, having to stand, and he was in pain?

Johnson: Yeah, it was the standing…it was the inability to get a decent night’s sleep…you know, the travel. It was more difficult to study, more difficult to get comfortable. Again, this is our specific problem, because we had no time, so we would go to a debate site to do something, we would want to meet with fifty people, have different meetings, try to reach out, to introduce Perry to different types of people that we would have spent the last five years doing, and so, you know, you can’t do that when you’re in pain. You negative meetings. You don’t want to have it. So you end up really hurting yourself because- in the debate, and the debate prep takes up so much time. But it was definitely a factor, not an excuse, we made many other mistakes. It was a problem.

(1:04:40-1:07:30)

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Crawford: There was another health issue that was raised on the campaign trail, and that involved Michele Bachmann. Keith, do you think that had an impact on her campaigning, or at least the public’s perception, the media’s perception of her, as the candidate?

Keith Nahigian: It was incredible how much coverage it got. I mean, a person has headaches. Probably no one would be in this room- I thought it was- It went to the question of commander-in-chief, the button, you know, the phone, that kind of thing, I think it’s a higher standard if it’s a woman running for office, especially if it’s a state like Iowa, and, uh-

Crawford: Wait, what do you mean a higher standard? You mean women have to be healthier, and-

Nahigian: Well, women don’t get out of Iowa. Ms. Clinton didn’t get out of Iowa. Ms. Dole didn’t get out of Iowa.

Martin: So why’d you campaign there in the first place?

Nahigian: Huh?

Martin: Why’d you campaign there in the first place?

Nahigian: Well, as a decision, you know, collectively we had to make. But if you look at the number of state-wide elected officials, there’s no women in the state senate, there’s no congressional members that are women, you just saw a woman first lady get beat in Iowa, it’s a different place, and I think the impact of that in a state like Iowa was a little bit more, and it’s kinda funny-

Crawford: You mean, the migraines? Had more- resonated with voters more?

Nahigian: I think it was a bigger issue. And remember it was an issue for like two weeks. It was kinda amazing. I mean, I was on the John McCain campaign in 2000, and we had to open up our medical records of John McCain and…post-POW camp kind of thing, and…that was kinda interesting, but…here we were, we were running against a guy with stage four cancer [Herman Cain], and they didn’t ask him a question about his health at all. It was kinda overblown, considerably. I mean, I was with her everyday, the entire campaign. I never saw her have any issues, at all.

Crawford: Never.

Nahigian: No.

O’Donnell: And I mean, we literally had reporters jumping into us, to ask questions about the migraine headache thing. It was absurd, and we also saw this in other ways…I mean, we saw stories about her nails, and about the dresses she wore, and nobody ever wrote about Mitt Romney’s tie, or-

Crawford: Wellllllll-

Martin: His hair, all the time! That’s not true.

Brabender: They did write about our sweater vests.

Martin: There were tons of stories about Mitt Romney’s hair!

O’Donnell: No no no, there were way more stories about- In every debate-

Johnson: They wrote about us not wearing boots.

O’Donnell: What dress she wore, and what colors she wore, and why it was a bad color, her hair, I mean, I think there were a lot of stories that focused that were gender specific, and the migraine headaches opened the door to that.

(1:07:30-1:10:20)

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Hansen: You brought up Mr. Cain’s cancer, and I think one of the reasons that maybe that wasn’t a huge issue is that because he was open about that from the very, very beginning. He spoke very, very openly about it. So, in defense of the media, in that regard, he was very open about it, but the, the point still remains that there is a double standard. They don’t talk about, “Oh, my gosh, how much did Mitt Romney pay for his shoes?”, you know, they talk about different things about women, and why is that? You know, we have kinda a joke on our campaign , with out team, if I would say something intelligent, they would look at me and I’d say there’s not just air between these ears. You know, and it’s a joke, but every woman knows exactly what I’m talking about…and I think every man might, because there is this mild double standard, and we say there’s no glass ceiling, but there is, in a way? Because we focus on things that are inconsequential when it comes to women candidates.

(1:10:10-1:11:30)

34

Nahigian: It kinda rolled into our Newsweek cover, I remember that. We sat down with a photographer, who said my job is to come and take a bad picture of you. And we?

Crawford: He said that?

Nahigian: Yeah, that was the first conversation he had with her. He said, “my editors don’t want me to take a good picture of you.” And we were about to cut the whole thing off…and like I’ve said, I’ve done seven of these, from working with male-female to working with governor Whitman in New Jersey, and it’s a different game. I mean, I remember when governor Whitman had a…ovarian cyst when she was a governor, and the New York Times had a picture, this big of her anatomy, and what was going to happen, and six months later, Giuliani had prostate cancer, and the press said, “let’s give him his privacy.” You know, it’s just a little bit different. It goes to the question of commander-in-chief, a little bit heavy and that particular issue lingered much longer than it actually was…they were looking for a story, that didn’t exist, and they almost couldn’t take the answer: no.

(1:11:30-1:12:30)

35

Crawford: When were you two aware of the allegations of sexual harassment? When…did you know about these when he declared his candidacy? Were you aware of them before they were alleged? When did you find out about that?

Mark Block: Well, we didn’t have an opposition research department. (Hansen: We’d done our opposition research, though.) Just like, when you sit down with a candidate, you ask them what’s going to come up? We were very aware of the national restaurant association allegation.

Crawford: So when he got in the race you knew about what had happened at the (Block: Yes.) association?

Block: And…we knew about it, and there was nothing there. One of the things that I would say we did wrong is not respond forcefully, sooner, to the national restaurant association allegations, because we knew there was nothing there. He made the decision I’m not gonna chase something that I know there’s no substance to, alright? It spun out of control, and if I had to do it all over again, on Halloween Day, we would have came out with the news conference and tried to put it to bed.

(1:12:30-1:14:15)

36

Hansen: The other thing that I’ve said often, I think, we could have done a better job of, in that regard is, actually preparing his family. Preparing his family for the rigors…they were great, they were 100$ supportive, Mrs. Cain is 100% supportive, she was with him all the way through every bit. But when the media came on the family so much, it took a physical toll? And that’s when Mr. Cain decided he needed to think. Because the physical toll it was beginning to take on his family, not only his wife, but many people know he had his fourth grandchild, born January 1st, so his daughter in law was in a late trimester of pregnancy, so he’s looking at that in terms of my first job as a leader is to be leader of this family.

(1:14:15-1:15:15)

37

Martin: John, one of the things that I know people in this room were fascinated by for a long time, was this dynamic of having both Santorum and Gingrich in the race dividing the conservative vote, while running against governor Romney. Can you talk to us about the nature of the conversations that your boss had with Newt, during that period of time? Because they were talking, I believe, on the phone and occasionally at the debates? What were they talking about? Was it ever considered that one would drop out and carry the banner?

Brabender: Well, most of those conversations were staff-to-staff. Rick and Newt did talk a couple of times, I remember that Santorum told me a couple of times that Newt gave him some historical reference to the 1920s and, you know, type of thing…of how it was going to play out again. And I think Rick reminded him it was a senator that had won that year. But anyhow…there was…when we got to what I would say the final stage of the campaign we felt there were three things for us still to get to the delegate count that had to happen. Number one was for us to win Pennsylvania, number two was for Texas, which was at least having some discussions to going potentially winner take all, because they were so late in the process, and number three, we had to get Gingrich out. And it wasn’t where we were competitive with Gingrich, but in many cases where he was getting now four percent of the vote but it was killing us.

Martin: Was there a discussion to get him out of the race?

Brabender: There was clear discussions between our staff and their staff, you know, I got the sense that their staff thought it would be in the best interest if Newt Gingrich would step aside and there would be some unified nature…I believe there was very close to that happening…

Martin: When? Do you recall?

Brabender: Early April. And I remember receiving a call saying that Newt personally had decided he did not want to do that.

Martin: From who?

Brabender: What’s that?

Martin: Who was the call from? Do you recall?

Brabender: I know, but I’m not going to share that.

Martin: And if that had happened, you think your candidate would have gotten the nomination?

Brabender: Well, I think it would’ve helped, I think that if you look in retrospect, people forget how close Rick did come to getting the nomination.

(1:18:20-1:21:00)

38

Haley: In terms of what compelled him to stay in, I think part of the polling showed that Gingrich vote was not going to all go to Santorum. It was going to be a split going to, some to Santorum, some to Romney. And I think he also felt that, and this is speculation on my part, that it would be seen more as an…alliance against Romney? That I don’t think he felt comfortable with…and he held out hope for doing well in Delaware, and possibly a Reagan-style comeback in North Carolina. That was a long-range hope, and it was slight and tenuous, but those are some of the reasons.

(1:21:00-1:21:55)

39

Haley: Well, I think when you don’t have…one of the things in hindsight, we would have done much better would, hopefully, have been a much stronger surrogate operation. Because it’s always better when others can deliver messages, as opposed to…

Crawford: Right. And coming from him…

Haley: From him. Or you deliver such messages through paid media, television ads, and so, absent those resources, I think Newt used the term one time, that if he’s a running back or fullback coming through the line and no one’s blocking the noseguard, then he’s gonna run over the noseguard. It came up to him to call out some of the inaccuracies in the ads that were opposing him, and to, you know this is…running for president is a very personal thing. This is, you know…Newt’s been a national figure for thirty years. He’s been a builder of the republican party…builder of the conservative movement…so, one cannot simply…take some of those ads and sortof wash it away and say, oh, it’s all part of a big political game, and it’s all ironic and amusing, and so…

Crawford: So, he took it quite personal?

Haley: Well, I don’t think…my vantage point? You can’t but help take it, to some degree, and…I think the challenge will always be, how do you take negative attack ads, and either match them, to some degree on television, or find a way to transcend it, because you have such an overwhelmingly positive vision of the future that those ads sorta lose their potency, or do you do it in a sorta charismatic way by tossing it aside, and we didn’t find that right way to do that. And so it’s a very human thing, and Mitt maybe he coulda done it in a better way, but…there you are.

(1:22:00-1:24:10)

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Nahigian: One of the goals of this forum is to kinda look back at the process, I do think one thing that didn’t match up with this open percentage delegates as you would go through, it was going to prolong the whole thing? Was…it didn’t really get written about in-depth, and that was the burden of ballot access. Getting on the ballot in these states was dramatic, and certainly Romney had a huge advantage, he had money, he had started early, but these states have figured out that it’s a shakedown now, and it’s unbelievable, they just make up a price, you want to be on the ballot in the district of Columbia? Well, let’s make it a hundred grand. It’s an unbelievable burden, for the natural growing of a campaign. If you have to build it to go till June, and you’re starting in the beginning, and you have to suddenly take a million dollars to get on these couple of ballots, it’s gonna really be a hurdle…we always say the RNC can’t reform anything, maybe it’s something they need to address, some kind of a consistency, at least maybe in the first couple of them. We experienced Virginia: you had to make a decision. Are we gonna be able to be on Virginia? You had to go door to door in every single county, and every single ballot. People had to be there, individually, and I think some of our campaigns, if we would have been the alternative to Romney, we wouldn’t have been on the ballot on a lot of these states, and I think some of these other campaigns weren’t on the ballot.

(1:24:10-1:25:40)

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Brabender: I’d actually argue it wasn’t the organization so much as it was their super PAC. Because, the way the dynamics changed, we could fight a battle, in one state at a time with the Romney people and do it quite efficiently, we found. The problem is, while we’re fighting in Michigan, the super PAC is hitting us with ads in Ohio and Illinois. (Martin: Right.) And that was the big problem that we were running…was that we could not control the message further down the road like they could.

(1:26:30-1:27:05)

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Stevens: You know, we were going back and reviewing what ads we had run for this campaign, before this thing, because, we forget. The spot that we ran, more than any other spot in the primary, was a spot we called “Mass record”. Which we ran because, it worked. Which was about the governor’s record in Massachusetts…if we had it here, you’d say “oh, yeah.” And I think what you’re able to do though, in each of these states on the media was completely dwarfed by the conversation that was being held and that conversation became a loud argument between candidates. And that dwarfed anything that each of the candidates was able to do. So: when we came out of these states and finally secured the nomination and started testing, we found a remarkable number of people thought that governor Romney was catholic and was against contraception. And it’s because he had been in these debates, and it’s sorta like you’re in a restaurant, and you’re not really paying attention, but you hear this argument at this table, over here. And you get bits and pieces of it, but you don’t really know what they’re saying. That’s how most of the public looks at the primary.

Martin: But Stuart, you said earlier that the debates didn’t hurt the candidate in terms of pushing him to the right, but now you’re saying that he was seen because of those debates as- (Stevens: it’s not just the debates.) against contraception, that sounds like it hurt pretty badly.

Stevens: No, it’s not just the debates. Because after Arizona, there weren’t any more debates. It’s what you’re seeing on the evening news, it’s how it’s being covered.

(1:27:30-1:29:30)

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Martin: You bring up a topic I’m really fascinated by, and that is…to what degree was your primary strategy geared around general election viability…which is to say, how much did being strong against Obama inform your primary strategy? I mean, certainly not wanting to retreat on health care was part of that…you didn’t want to apologize for creating this health care law here in Massachusetts…what issues especially were you guys sortof very, very driven by in terms of not wanting to hurt yourself too much for the general?

Rhoades: Obviously, we put a premium on just talking about jobs and the economy and the president’s record, and that’s what we tried to make the primary campaign about. Obviously, that’s forward looking into the general. But when you’re running for the nomination, you gotta win the nomination. And if you’re looking beyond securing that nomination too much, you are jeopardizing your chances of winning that nomination.

(1:29:30-1:30:30)

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Rhoades: I regret that…I truly believe…people were shocked that we were going after governor Perry in a republican primary on social security. They were critical of us at the time, saying we were hitting him from the left…and, if you look through the unwinding of the Perry campaign, a lot of people put a focus on that one infamous debate moment. But, it was the very early debates, the first and second debates, (Martin: the heartless) and by the third debate, and this is well before the other moment, (Martin: Sure) I think governor Perry was badly hurt and I…in retrospect, I believe we probably could’ve just beaten governor Perry with the social security hit.

Martin: Interesting.

(1:30:30-1:31:30)

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Crawford: When was the moment inside the campaign that you realised that Romney was the nominee?

Stevens: When senator Santorum withdrew from Pennsylvania.

Martin: It was never before that?

Stevens: No.

Crawford: So…it was an open question throughout whether-

Stevens: You can’t be in a fight, and not be in the fight.

(1:34:10-1:34:40)

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Crawford: Sure. Because I’m going to ask you a question next.

Stevens: I think there’s something difficult to realize unless you’ve been through this, and seen how hard this is for candidates and their families. And how much candidates and their families are…they’re real people. And how much that affects the flow…of campaigns. It’s a…no one runs for president at this level who’s not a tremendously accomplished, talented person. And, a very driven person. And each of these decisions become very difficult. But it’s very, very tough on families. Very tough. It’s a very difficult thing to report on, because you don’t get close to the family, but for a campaign, and these people, it’s a driving force that is at the center of so much.

(1:38:10-1:39:10)

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Crawford: Because we are supposed to be going through the conventions on our panel, and one thing I’d like to ask the Romney campaign, what was the strategy in the summer, when you were allowing the president to define Romney. So that you came to the convention having to introduce your candidate to the american people when of course, he’d been the target of attack ads for months?

Rhoades: Let me start it off by saying, we made the decision going into the general that the thing the voters needed to learn first was first and foremost about governor Romney, what he would do as president. And so that’s why we went with day one, job one. And that was the focus of our paid advertising over the summer. To the first question, we had at the very beginning, you know, unfortunately, we had gone through a long primary process we called the long slog, and spent $87 million dollars to secure the nomination, to become the presumptive nominee, and we were not going to take matching funds so that we could be more competitive down the stretch, so that meant that we were being outspent over the summer. And, we always understood that was going to be one of the bigger challenges that we had, even to the point where we did take out a loan at the end of the primary process going into the convetion, so we could stay up on TV, for a longer period of time. So that was our initial thought, Stuart I don’t know if you have anything to add.

Stevens: Let me make three points on this, because it’s often misunderstood here. First, the day that Mitt Romney announced, in June, he had, what, a twenty-five percent of the electorate in the republican primary. President Obama had close to the amount of votes that he got on election day. So, when you think about that, it means, what was governor Romney’s task? He had to win the primary against a bunch of formidable opponents, and I think these opponents have been underestimated by the press, frankly. Then, present himself to the public and go garner a majority of the electorate nationally. That’s a tough process. What did the president have to do? The president had to hold on to the votes that he had. And that is a very different process. He probably, if you actually looked at it, the president’s campaign, probably lost votes over that year. But they started with enough votes to win. You come out of a primary, you are forced to look at the situation of what do you need to do when you have to triage this? And it is, every day in that campaign, in those situations is Sophie’s Choice: and when people say, you should be doing this, you should be doing that, my answer is, you’re right. It’s like scheduling, you should be in Richmond, you should be in Des Moines. You’re right. But you can only be in one. And, we tested this extensively, and what voters, and this makes sense if you think about it, what voters wanted to know most was what Mitt Romney would do as president. And they desired more information about Mitt Romney, but what they really wanted to know was, what would this guy do as president? And that was the essential element that we had to fill with voters, to give them. And I would just say, the premise of the Obama campaign was to define Mitt Romney such that by the time of the debates, we heard the spin over and over again, that there would not be enough persuadable voters et cetera. That didn’t happen.

Crawford: Well-

Stevens: It didn’t. I mean, all the national polls, his favourability was the same or higher than Barack Obama’s.

Crawford: So you don’t believe that the attack ads that they ran in the key toss-up states, which people in other states didn’t get, created a level of resistance that was just impossible for you to overcome?

Stevens: I think- No, I don’t believe that…the other thing was just the amount of money they had to spend, that we didn’t have to spend.

(1:41:10-1:45:00)

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Martin: Matt and Stuart, I think Carl Forti and Charlies Spies are here. You guys couldn’t co-ordinate during the campaign, but now those restraints are gone. The truth can be told. What did you guys expect, the super PAC that supported you to be doing during the campaign? What were you hoping for, what was the discussion in the campaign?

Stevens: We didn’t talk about it.

Martin: There was never a discussion about, this massive entity outside that was blasting Newt-

Johnson: John, you don’t have time to sit around and talk about what other people are doing, you’re so busy worrying about what you’re doing.

Martin: So there was never discussion about what Carl and those guys were doing?

Stevens: No.

Martin: And what you hoped they would do in Iowa, and things like that?

Rhoades: There were parts of the campaign, during the course of the campaign, when super PACs were helpful to governor Romney’s campaign, no doubt about it. And I think the most obvious example is the baggage ad that Restore Our Future did, in Iowa. And Stuart and I were just reflecting and we should’ve looked at some…I’m not sure if our campaign did negative Newt Gingrich ad in December, leading up to Iowa. I think we were positive, so certainly that was helpful for the Romney campaign. But then again, you live by the sword, you die by the sword, super PACs were not helpful to governor Romney in South Carolina.

(1:45:00-1:46:00)

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Martin: Newt’s super PAC went after you pretty fiercely, thanks to the man in Las Vegas [Sheldon Adelson], on the issue of Bain Capital. Did those attacks on Bain prepare you guys at all for the general election, or…if not, why weren’t you guys not more prepared in the general for the Bain attacks?

Rhoades: Obviously, we knew Bain would come up during the course of the campaign. It had certainly come up during governor Romney’s senate campaign in 1994. It came up in his gubernatorial campaign in 2002. It may even have come up a little bit in the primary in 2008, with some of governor Huckabee’s supporters. So, during the course of the primary season, the chairman of our campaign, Bob White, who was one of the founders of Bain, set up a task force which included staffers on the campaign, it included former Bain employees, and they just started wargaming this all out, in the fall. Literally, up on a whiteboard, what the attacks are going to be, (Martin: Fall of ’11) Fall of ’11, excuse me. Yeah, in the fall of 2011.

Martin: How much did the Newt and Perry Bain attacks hurt you guys? In the primary?

Rhoades: Well, I think in the primary, in the primary, there was a super PAC ad that was called “King of Bain” or a film…(Martin: I recall that) And within twenty four to forty eight hours, our Bain team was able to go through the film, and the ads, and find out that it was related to a company that was sold after Bain had actually owned it. So, it was viewed as inaccurate. So, what we were able to do was fact-check that and really make a push, an argument in a primary, that this was an attack on capitalism. And I think we were successful cuz we had organizations, news entities like the Wall Street Journal editorial board, conservative newspapers like the Washington Examiner, who called out speaker Gingrich and the super PACs that were perpetuating these attacks on capitalism. We even did an ad, when we had all these ads going up in Florida, there was an ad that we did that defended governor Romney’s record at Bain, and pointed towards these attacks on capitalism, so in the primary, I think we were successful with responding to that. Certainly, we set this group up in the fall of 2011, we thought these attacks could occur in the primary, we were a little bit surprised at the intensity in a republican primary on them, but we dealt with them.

(1:46:25-1:49:05)

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Martin: If you guys could run your own super PAC, what’s the one thing you would have gotten your super PAC to have done for you? Either Newt or Romney?

Haley: Well, if I could just answer, I would say to change these rules to let the money flow to the campaign. The reforms should be that you should have unlimited money, with twenty-four hour reporting, and full disclosure. Our campaign wouldn’t have wanted the Bain attacks, we would have had more attacks on the Massachusetts record, drawing contrasts-

Martin: You guys didn’t want the Bain attacks?

Haley: No, it came completely out of the blue, it came up for the first time during one of the debates. Gingrich was not talking about the King of Bain, he was talking about Mitt the Massachusetts moderate. He was talking about his record. This was completely off the topic that we wanted to talk about, and the media became consumed by it. Now maybe there was an incidental benefit, that Santorum was completely washed out of the conversation for a couple of days in New Hampshire, because of all this attack on capitalism, but as Matt said, it was very effectively rebutted by Gingrich being seen as attacking capitalism. And we had many supporters, friendly supporters, who were quite displeased by what was happening, assigning to Gingrich and our team what we were doing. And, you know, there were times in South Carolina when the question could’ve been, do we continue on that vein? The King of Bain? And we didn’t. We focussed on other things.

(1:50:00-1:51:25)

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Olson: But when we put up ads hitting Newt Gingrich, or Rick “Al Gore’s Texas cheerleader”, or serial hypocrisy, or whatever, Ron Paul had to put his own name on it, whereas when Restore Our Future was hitting Newt in Iowa, they could do it under somebody else’s name. And I think, really, when you look at 2016, you know, the first thing that everybody’s gonna run and do is, you’re gonna wanna run and get a super PAC to do your dirty work for you, so you don’t have to do that, and you’re gonna try and get John Downs [adman for Ron Paul, a profile can be found at the Washington Post: "The man behind the Ron Paul ads"] or your meanest ad guy, in terms of talent, go into the super PAC rather than internally, but then it’s outside the control of the candidate, which is unfortunate.

(1:52:00-1:52:30)

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Crawford: Wanna pick up on what you were saying…so did you not have the money, to aggressively defend yourselves against the president’s attempts to define you over the summer, I mean was that why you didn’t- You said you spent $87 million dollars during the primary…

Stevens: Look, we spent all the money we had. (laughing) (Crawford: Right.) It’s not complicated. We had a primary that cost us $137 million dollars or something. The president didn’t have a primary, he had four years to build a war chest, which we didn’t, we had to go out and raise a lot of money in that summer…we spent all the money that we had, we had to choose what we were doing, and in states like Ohio, we were being outspent three or four to one. So it was not a…we watched this very carefully, and did what we felt and what our testing showed us was the most effective responses, given the limited options that we had. They had more bullets in their gun, it’s not an unusual circumstance.

(1:53:00-1:54:15)

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Martin: Matt David, one of the bets that Jon Huntsman seemed to make after the ’08 election was that the defeat of John McCain was going to usher in a period where the republicans would embrace something close to a DLC [democratic leadership council] style of moderation…that there was an opening for someone in the party on the environment, perhaps on gay rights, to sorta move a bit to the middle, uh, obviously that calculation was mistaken in hindsight, but just can you talk to me about your candidate, and the sortof broader themes that he struggled with, of one day trying to be the conservative, but also trying to be more of a moderating force, and do you think the next time around, we’re gonna see more candidates in the GOP primary take a Huntsman like course in terms of trying to move more toward the middle? A more pragmatic approach?

Daivd: Well, yeah. This was actually reflected in the super PAC conversation too. Because we waited forever for the super PAC to come in, and then when they did, they came in New Hampshire, with an ad talking about how conservative we were, which was not really our message in New Hampshire. It was very unhelpful, but we struggled with…as I laid out last night, our initial path was to the left of Romney, but we hoped, what we had going for us at the end of the day, was he actually had a very conservative governing record in Utah. When you looked at it, and we hoped at the end of the day, conservatives would come back and give us a look. But it never happened.

(1:55:30-1:57:00)

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Martin: Going forward as a moderate force in the republican party, are we gonna see more candidates that take the approach that at times your candidate took, of trying to say look, we’re not gonna win a general election by shouting at each other and trying to appeal to just our narrow base. Are more candidates gonna be emboldened in ’16 to take that approach do you think?

David: Yeah, I think we’re gonna have to moderate on some issues. Immigration, gay marriage, but I think Stuart wrote about this the other day in his column ["Mitt Romney: A good man. The right fight."], we are gonna have to…it’s very difficult to beat an incumbent president. Very, very difficult. So while we’ve gotta make some changes, I don’t think it’s a freak-out moment for us. I think one area, we were talking about this last night, one area where we do have to catch up, and we should freak out a little, is on the technology front. I mean listening to Jeremy [Jeremy Bird, Obama tech guy], about their analytics, and their data, and their technology, that’s somewhere where we need to step up.

(1:57:00-1:58:00)

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Martin: We read so much about Tim Pawlenty and the Sam’s club for so long. And it seemed like the most promising message for your candidate was to be the populist, running against the rich son of a governor and CEO, and here’s the son of St. Paul. But he never fully embraced the sort of Sam’s Club messages, or ran against Wall Street, or ran that real populist campaign. Is that an opening, you think, that the party, going forward, more of a populist approach, that Pawlenty talked about, but never fully embraced?

Musser: Yeah, possibly. Just to build on Matt’s [Matt David's] point, you know, beating incumbents is very very challenging, and as you look at the potential field of 2016, I’m not sure that the Obama coalition that turned out in ’08 and O-12 can be reconstituted again by a nominee Cuomo or a nominee Clinton, against a nominee Rubio, a nominee Santorum, a nominee whoever may well run. And credit to the Obama campaign for turning out that coalition. I agree on the technology front, I think there’s obviously lessons to be learned there, and I suspect that the party will do due diligence and focus on that. And frankly, having no designated leader will lead to a period of somewhat disorganized chaos where a lot of us will get kicked out, that’s probably a healthy process, if an unruly one. And then finally I think, obviously the demographic challenge, most explicitly illustrated with the latino community is one that has instructive lessons. I think we didn’t spend enough money communicating there, early enough, if you want to understand functionally where El Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Mexicans, Cubans get their information, it’s overwhelmingly from two places on television, which is Univision and Tele Mundo. I would hope our party would look at developing a growth oriented, prosperity agenda, aimed at showing working-class latinos how a conservative set of principles could be good for them, and I would encourage our party to take the last $100 million dollars that went out the door at the very end of the campaign, and look at starting to communicate at the beginning of the cycle.

(1:58:00-2:00:15)

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Sierra: You know if Bachmann, Cain, or Santorum would have gotten the nomination, it would have been more of an ass-kicking. I mean, I think, our party does need to moderate, I think minority out-reach is huge…our party’s dead unless there’s shake-up.

Martin: So if you guys had nominated a conservative like Bachmann, Santorum…

Sierra: It would have been more of an ass-kicking.

Martin: More of an ass-kicking.

(2:00:30-2:01:00)

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Haley: I mean obviously money matters, message matters. I don’t know if I have a particular grand insight, other than…we have to grow the party and there’s nothing we can’t…there’s nothing that conservative governing solutions…we can offer conservative governing solutions to the country and attract a big majority. I don’t think this idea whether we’re a conservative populism, or moderate, or what have you, I think we’re talking about making people’s lives better, through a set of policies, and the definition of what that is can come later, but conservative governing solutions will be the way of the future.

(2:01:00-2:01:40)

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Carney: I would say the biggest takeaway of this whole election cycle is that people have this misconception that there’s a party where people sit around and make decisions. Voters make decisions. Jeff Larson and Ben Key [Larson is a GOP consultant who worked on the 2008 convention;Ben Key is a top member of the RNC] don’t sit there and say “okay, we’re gonna be moderate here, let’s pick a little lighter, darker, whiter”, that’s crap. Candidates are good, they have a good message, they can win. Candidates are bad, they have a bad message, they’re gonna lose. And the media, and the elite want things nice and tidy and clean, and not messy, which is what everybody here but Romney became, and was, and they don’t like that. They like let’s get this thing over in January, so we have a whole year to beat up on the president, and the big chalk is no one…people think the headquarters of the RNC does something other than a legal entity to raise money and do technical things.

(2:01:40-2:02:25)

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Johnson: Another interesting point, or thing that I learned, was how important Fox New was in a republican primary. You could sit in Washington, D.C., and talk to seventy percent of Iowans or sixty percent of South Carolinans…Carolinians…people from South Carolina…(Carney: oops.) Oops. I just think that Newt was on to something with that point. And I agree with Matt completely, we go to catch up with them in technology.

Martin: And Rob do you think that will affect future campaigns about going to Iowa and New Hampshire or do you think the candidates will do less of it because they can go to Fox and be on national TV?

Johnson: No. The candidates without money will do it, but the candidates with money will go press the flesh. And get on Fox from Des Moines.

(2:02:30-2:03:15)

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Nahigian: My takeaway for the future is that our party has to get back to real conservatism, being able to show demonstrable differences in how we’re gonna govern, the philosophy of government, smaller government, and on the fiscal side as well.

(2:03:10-2:03:30)

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David: When you’re dealing with…and Johnathan, you’ve written about this…vacuum, and trying to defeat the beast that is the Twitter, and Facebook, and…so keeping perspective about what you’re seeing as a campaign versus what voters are seeing, those are two different things…

Martin: Matt, yes or no, will there be a republican in ’16, in the primary, who’s for gay marriage?

David: Yes.

(2:04:45-2:05:05)

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John Brabender: The lessons I think we learned, we learned as a campaign, is one, winning a Saturday primary means nothing, (laughing) number two is…we’re getting into dangerous ground I think as republicans saying “oh, let’s start acting more like democrats” I think the biggest lesson we learned in the primaries is a lot of blue collar people who feel we no longer represent or understand their lives. And I think that was also represented in the general election.

(2:05:05-2:05:35)

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Olson: Alright, I’ll be fast. Biggest surprise: how the media and pundits are over-buying into the notion that Obama’s coalition is a democratic / demographic coalition…

Martin: This is a primary discussion I’m talking about…

Olson: Oh. Well. I think that’s true in the primary too. (laughter) And the second one is, I think the republican party needs to do better among younger voters and there are real lessons in Ron Paul’s message.

Martin: National security? Should the party be less hawkish, do you think?

Olson: Well, I think you can have a discussion about national security that may not be Ron Paul is, but maybe someplace not where John Bolton is.

Crawford: What do you think in Ron Paul’s message will attract a younger generation?

Olson: Economic empowerment is a huge one. An emphasis on the fact that their generation came of age in a, if you’re thirty years old, you were in college when 9/11 happened, you’ve seen friends go to Iraq and Afghanistan, come back as different people. You’ve had two recessions…And Ron Paul is speaking to them about the fact that government is not necessarily the answer to their problems and they shouldn’t sit around saying “we need to rely on government”, and Jeremy [Jeremy Bird] yesterday said that the demographic group that Obama was worried about was younger voters…there’s a huge opportunity there, Ron Paul…thirteen thousand people at the University of California, Los Angeles campus, six thousand University of Wisconsin…

Martin: Same with Matt. Yes or no: will there be a candidate in the ’16 primary who will be, Trygve, for marijuana legislation?

Olson: What candidate are you thinking about, Johnathan (laughing)? (laughter)

Martin: Yes or no?

Olson: I have no idea. I don’t predict future-

Martin: Is Rand [Rand Paul] gonna run in ’16?

Olson: I would be arrogant to try and make an announcement for Rand Paul, but I’m sure you’ll be the first one to know if he does.

(2:06:45-2:08:45)

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Rhoades: Surprise? The debates. The debates were important in 2008, but in the 2012 primary, it was just shocking how they shook up the race, week after week, and how many people were watching these things.

(2:08:50-2:09:30)

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Stevens: I think my biggest surprise was the degree to which governor Romney was considered a front-runner. Even though he never led in the polls. It was sorta odd. Takeaway is, we seem to be in a moment now that is very narrative driven. If we go back and look at the November-December 2004 moment, it was filled with why there was a republican lock on the electoral college, why it was unlikely for a democrat to be elected president in the near future, and I think that’s a similar moment here…and I think the primary process in four years is likely to serve us very well. And to produce a nominee that is likely to win the presidency. And we should remember that.

(2:09:30-2:10:20)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ungovernable ireland

2 From Feeding Frenzy:

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

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

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

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

belgium hatred part one brussels passive resistance

On the difficult to navigate tunnels of Brussels:

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

belgians rolling over and surrendering

3 A crowd in an english restaurant:

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

english country crowd part one english country crowd part two

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

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

but they were germans

A three-star restaurant in Germany:

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

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

This is Germany after all.

They have problems with their Mustang.

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

germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He would be German as well.”

“Ahhh…” It was a delightful notion.

maybe it would kill some germans

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

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

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

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

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

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

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

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

Suddenly I started to laugh.

“Yes?” Rat asked.

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

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

gassing germans

5 A restaurant owner:

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

southerners

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

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

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

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

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

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

choking rachel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

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

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

“They are?”

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

“But the Japanese don’t worry you?”

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

“They’re worse?”

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

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

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

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

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

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

“That’s almost the whole paper.”

“Yes. This is very important.”

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

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

iacocca

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

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

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

polish solidarity

11 In Feeding Frenzy:

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

mormons joke

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

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

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

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

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

President?

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

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

reagan as president pt1 reagan as president pt2

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

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

reagan dunce

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

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

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

polish solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

polish solidarity

18 On first joining the George W. Bush campaign:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, yes,” Matt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

proto tea party candidates

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

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

political consultants influence underlined

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

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

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

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

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

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 A sample menu, eleven courses

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

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

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

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

tuscan menu part one tuscan menu part two

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

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

birthday 22 october

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

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

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

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

28 From Feeding Frenzy:

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

oxford

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

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

30 From The Big Enchilada:

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

film school part one film school part two

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

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

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

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

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

32 See above.

33 The profile for Turkistan

night train to turkistan bio

Malaria Dreams:

malaria dreams bio

Scorched Earth:

scorched earth profile

Feeding Frenzy:

profile

Big Enchilada:

enchilada bio

34 See footnote 30.

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

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

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

flight of wife

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

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

tipitinas bar

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

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

“I see.” I started to fall asleep.

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

“It is?”

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

wife and algiers strike

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

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

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

taste in pens and paper

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

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

my wife had taken it home

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

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

our house

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

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

our place in austin

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

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

my apartment

38 A transcript of the Charlie Rose piece is here.

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

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

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

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

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

40 The dedications.

Turkistan:

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

night train to turkistan dedication

Malaria Dreams:

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

malaria dreams dedication

Scorched Earth:

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

scorched earth dedication

Feeding Frenzy:

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

feeding frenzy dedication

The Big Enchilada, dedication:

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

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

echilada dedication

The Big Enchilada, acknowledgements:

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

enchilada acknowledgements

41 From the various episodes:

42 A brief explanation might be found here.

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

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

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

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

lucien was involved in diamonds

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

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

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

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

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

lucien money must be involved somewhere

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

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

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

“Relationship?”

“He is a friend?”

I plunged boldly ahead. “Sort of.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not. He’s just a friend.”

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

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

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

A visit to where Lucien bought his diamonds.

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

“You mean they find diamonds?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

where lucien looked for diamonds

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

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

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

early october

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

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

carnet england storm

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

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

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

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

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

cameroon national holiday

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

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

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

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

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

war zone capitals of a winning side

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

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

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

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

fragment of shot down plane

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

47 A description of the security measures:

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

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

burkina faso coup pt one burkina faso coup pt two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

early october

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

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

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

“How much?”

“Half a million Central African francs.”

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

270 francs

Shortly after this, it is Stevens’ birthday.

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

birthday 22 october

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

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

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

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

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

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

lucien half a million bribe

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

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

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

franc dollar graph cropped more

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

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

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

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

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

jerrican seventy dollars

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

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

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

three thousand cfa about eleven dollars

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

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

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

thanksgiving

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

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

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

“Fifty thousand CFA to fix the car.”

That was almost two hundred dollars.

fifty thousand cfa

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

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

“Yes, but first we must discuss price.”

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

“Fifty thousand CFA.”

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

fifty thousand cfa first time

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

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

49 A meal recalled in Feeding Frenzy:

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

oversized gar

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

50 The excerpt from Malaria Dreams:

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

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

adrar heat

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

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

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

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

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

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

conquest sahara

The character enters the scene:

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

Bou Djemaa

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

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

53 From Malaria Dreams:

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

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

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

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

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

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

smuggling money into algeria

54 An entrance and a refreshingly sympathetic description:

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

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

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

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

habib palestinian resolution 242

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

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

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

new council meeting

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

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

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

(Images courtesy Rose productions.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President?

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

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

reagan as president pt1 reagan as president pt2

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

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

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

“That’s almost the whole paper.”

“Yes. This is very important.”

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

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

iacocca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bus moved into Dunhuang.

peasant pt1 peasant pt2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope that these excerpts provide evidence of an absence.

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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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Malaria Dreams by Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens

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

Malaria Dreams Stuart Stevens

THE UNSUBMISSIBLE PLACE

Malaria Dreams is a travel memoir following Stevens and a companion, Ann Bradley, as they voyage from the Central African Republic up to Algeria, traveling through, among other places, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and the Sahara. It is the best book of his that I have read because either through his own restraint, or the efforts of an editor, Stevens does not give in to his desire for malice or imagined violence. In other books, he or his proxy hero might imagine strangling a woman or ripping her vocal chords out with his teeth. Here, he simply groans. At the same time, the african setting makes his flaws even more poisonous. Though it’s the best book of his I’ve read so far, it’s also the most distasteful, and the ill taste of its worst moments endures. There is another, rather unusual aspect to this memoir, but I’ll get to that after.

Perhaps more than any place, Africa does not submit itself to anyone in writing. Ultimately, the writer must submit themselves to the continent. It is this resistance to submission which destroys Stevens’ book. It attempts to be a comedy travelogue, two bumbling adventurers passing through sights picturesque and horrific, the two travelers unchanged and apart from the landscape. The essence of what they observe, however, only hinted at in the writing, seems too rich, too complex to be contained in such a frivolous structure, and it makes this writing seem rancid.

I give two examples early on that stay with me. The first is a very vivid moment in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, which should contain the materials of something multi-faceted, the pathos and ridiculousness of poverty, yet which is made into something simpler, the comedy and horror of a man of the first world beset by the downtrodden of the third (I include a scan of the book pages to accompany all quotes, to make clear the quote is not distorted or taken out of context):

beggars

Bangui, like New York, has a hidden population of homeless and infirm who emerge after dark dominating the streets. Driving to and from expensive restaurants in Henri’s car, I’d noted with curiousity the swarming wheelchairs, unlike any I’d seen – ingenious devices powered by hand cranks mounted like handlebars. Outfitted with wide tires suitable for Bangui’s rubbled streets, the chairs could move with extreme speed and dexterity.

This I discovered while sulking back to the Novotel. On a side street near the main traffic circle, I suddenly found myself surrounded by wheelchairs. It seemed, at first, an amiable coincidence. I nodded and kept walking. Two chairs wheeled in to block my route. This is ridiculous, I thought, and turned, trying to be ever so casual, down a side alley leading to a main street. A chair manned by a person missing a chin filled the narrow walkway. He gave me a horrible, skeletal grin.

The encircling chairs began to move forward, tightening the noose. I can run, I thought, run past them, knock them over. Then a flashing knife made me think otherwise.

As they drew nearer, I reached into my pocket for a handful of coins. Shaking them alluringly like dice, I scattered the money in the street.

The wheelchairs instantly broke ranks, scrambling for the flashes of silver. I bolted for the hotel.

Ann was waiting for me in the lobby. “Did you get mugged?” I asked her, panting a bit.

“Of course not. Don’t be paranoid.”

Another scene, this one in a bar, again in Bangui:

does he beat you

At the bar there was a young, very pretty white woman we’d seen on the flight from France. She’d been carrying a black baby, and I asked Henri and Françoise if they knew her.

“Oh, yes,” Françoise said, “everyone knows everyone in Bangui. She met her husband while he was a student in Paris. They fell in love, married and came back here to live. He beats her regularly.”

This was delivered not in a catty, gossipy way but as a simple statement of fact, like “The pizza is good.”

“It’s very common,” Henri assured Ann and me. I suppose we looked as if we needed assuring.

“I do not even think,” Françoise said, “that it has anything to do with meanness or anger. It is always done, so they do it.”

“How quaint,” Ann observed.

Henri looked over at the woman at the bar. “The white wives of Africans do not strike me as the happiest people in the world.”

Later:

Ann and I talked with the tall, attractive woman bartender. She was not, to our surprise, French. “Russian,” she insisted, but when we looked unconvinced, she relented. “Czechoslovakian,” she admitted, as if that would make her presence completely logical. “I married an African student studying at university.”

“Does he beat you?” Ann asked.

I looked over at her, trying to recall how much Beaujolais she’d downed at dinner.

“What?” the Czech bartender asked. The music roared.

“Does he beat you?” Ann yelled, slapping the bar a few times for effect.

“What?”

Beat you!”

The bartender laughed. “We are divorced now,” she cried. “I am a free woman in Bangui!”

After:

On the edge of the city center, where the houses disappeared and the shacks began, it was jammed with white men dancing with black women.

“The pride of France!” Henri exclaimed, gesturing out over the steamy club floor. The men all had short hair and wore the preppy outfits that apparently were the norm for French men in Africa; topsiders and bright Lacoste shirts, khaki pants and alligator belts.

“This is what the men in Beau Geste were fighting for,” Henri said. “Vive l’Afrique!” He ordered another bottle of champagne.

They run into some american marines, including one named Ernie. Stevens buys beers.

aids man

With a familiar feeling of fiscal panic, I frantically tried to calculate it in dollars. Ernie took a look and said flatly, “About sixty-five dollars. I tried to warn you.”

“No problem,” I mumbled, thinking back fondly to the bargain price of living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“The only cheap thing in this country,” Ernie told me while we worked our way back over to the main huddle, “is women, but then you got to figure most of them come with the gift that keeps on giving.”

“What?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

“AIDS, man.” He slapped me on the back. “You join the Marine Corps, you flat learn about that stuff. What you got here” – he gestured out over the dance floor crowded with white men and black woman – “is one great hunk of AIDS. Right here is where it all started.”

“Some of these French guys,” another marine pronounced, “I think they might have got it on with that first monkey started all this stuff.”

“Hey.” Ernie wrapped his big arm around my shoulder. “This girl Ann, she your girlfriend, or what?”

Later we went outside to watch two French soldiers in a desultory fight. The marines were unimpressed. “For the love of God, will you look at those fairies. Are they in love or fighting?”

The ranking marine, a sergeant who, in his late twenties, was the oldest of the group, steered his men toward a Land Cruiser where a black chauffeur was asleep. “Leaving E. Club,” the sergeant barked into his crackling radio.

“Hey, look,” Ernie told Ann and me, though mostly he was looking at Ann, “you guys got to come over to the marine house. We got a great cook.”

“You have a cook?” Ann asked. She had a great interest in all things culinary.

“Hell, yes. Chauffeur too. Ain’t life great?”

Ann agreed and asked if she should dress for dinner.

That there is an ugliness, a squalor, in the contrast between the rich and the poor in Africa, in the difference in lives between the colonials and the citizens, in the ravages of disease, there is no doubt. Faced with it, I think the best writers can only find some all encompassing vision, not one that is sentimental, one that must be necessarily unsentimental, but one where all the characters and the details of their lives come through. The other approach, is one of nihilism, of finding the wretched in every man or woman, and necessarily, in oneself. The first approach can be found in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. The second can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

A coward takes neither approach, and uses the background for simple frissons – AIDS is rampant, the french are corrupt, the africans often poor and desperate, though the writer’s targets in the book, as seen above, are always selective. The opportunism and exploitation of the french is skewered, but never that of american corporations. The best embassies, in Chad and Niger, are built with american funds for reasons of military alliance. The most unequivocal heroic portrayal is Chad’s military fight, backed by the US, against Libya. I do not doubt the bravery of those involved in the fight, only find it striking that it is nearly the sole heroism to be found on the continent, and I think here we see the same Stevens that’s found in Scorched Earth: a man who liked to fight, a man who can only find meaning in a fight. This is not to suggest that there are not africans who are viewed with kindness in the book, only that no one emerges as themselves, the way the best characters do, seemingly warping the book through their life. The characters of this book are finally only effects, of sentimentality, garishness, horror, fear.

Here are a few short excerpts, showing three recurring motifs of the book: the french are opportunists, development aligned with US military needs is the best infrastructure in Africa, and foreign non-military aid helps no one. I have no issue with the first critique, but find it questionable when the scathingness halts when it comes to the imperial policies of one’s own nation, and disturbing when the only overseas support that is valued is martial.

A brief meeting with a young frenchman:

young frenchman

He wore penny loafers, khaki pants and a Lacoste shirt. With his short dark hair and intense manner, he reminded me of the civil rights workers who came to Mississippi in the mid-sixties from colleges like Bowdoin and Swarthmore. I expected him to hum Peter, Paul and Mary songs at any moment. Jean-Marc was his name. He had traveled across America by bus, evolving an elaborate rating system for bus stations along the way.

After Jean-Marc finished his bus station critique, he explained why his country continued to “be involved” with former West African colonies like the CAR, Cameroon, and Chad.

“I tell you, my friend,” he said twirling a coat hanger meat skewer, “they may talk about the prestige, the sentimental attachment, but it is money! Yes, money! Okay my government pours a lot of francs into these countries but they get more out. The trade agreements, the minerals, the timber. How you say? Money talks, bullshit walks?”

The embassy compound in Niger:

magnificent bacon cheeseburgers fugitive invasions

The peace corps workers in Zinder had given us a most valuable tip: the American Recreation Center in Niamey. It was an extraordinarily pleasant compound full of trees and tennis courts and a snack bar that served bacon cheeseburgers. Magnificent bacon cheeseburgers. Also thick, rich milk shakes and French fries – all the food I never ate in America. But after weeks of canned hash and ravioli, it tasted wonderful, the stuff of gustatory dreams. And, unlike every restaurant we’d encountered in West Africa, the snack bar was cheap.

That there were enough Americans in Niamey to merit (if that’s the right word) a recreation center was, to me, a confounding surprise. Like Chad, though, Niger was an American beachhead in West Africa. A gleaming new embassy sat on the far outskirts of town, part of a compound that included a new ambassador’s residence. There were sufficient American military advisers and marines to field a potent side in the local rugby league.

A contrast to what Stevens thinks non-military foreign aid contributes to Africa:

The Peace Corps training center for Africa (which included 60 percent of the entire Peace Corps) was in Niamey, and the years of drought in the Sahel had created a small army of advisers, World Bank types and UN “experts.”

Since 1928, of course, the “wretched state” of the region has only worsened and it’s an open question whether the army of relief professionals has slowed or accelerated the process. As British journalist Patrick Marnham wrote in his superb collection of essays on West Africa, Fantastic Invasion: “For all the difference it made to the people of the Sahel, it might not have mattered if the relief planes had flown out over the Atlantic and dumped the grain into the sea. Much of it was never distributed beyond the main reception centres until more than one year after the drought had ended, by which time local food supplies had been restored.”

But traveling in 1977, four years after the drought of 1973, Marnham saw “the terrible after-effects of the relief operation….On the promise of free assistance thousands of people abandoned their traditional resources….There is nothing for them to do, their economy has been destroyed, and there are no schemes to rebuild it. They are refugees in their own country.”

Foreign aid in the Central African Republic:

foreign aid like cocaine

It had not rained for some time and red dust floated in the air with every passing Land Cruiser or Land Rover. These big vehicles belong to the myriad of foreign organizations working in Bangui. They cruise the streets like a benevolent occupying army. It is difficult to comprehend, but in this small country of about two and a half million, there are American, French, German, Dutch, Japanese, even Chinese – agencies toiling, in theory at least, to improve the life of Central Africans. With an annual per capita income of under three hundred dollars and an average life expectancy of only forty-four years, the challenge is formidable.

Many of the aid projects work with one particular agency of the government and – the relationship is more than coincidental – the government of the CAR has a staggering number of agencies. Foreign aid is to the CAR what cocaine is to Columbia.

One last, unambiguous, metaphor:

only west relief org part one only west relief org part two

The tin garage housed in a concrete grease pit. That figured. Only a Western relief organization would go to the trouble to construct something as solid and enduring as a concrete grease pit.

That Stevens values military over more benevolent aid is not because of hard-line ideological partisanship, not for anything at all, but because, as he made clear in Scorched Earth, there is something in him that simply enjoys fighting. His aloofness to Cold War partisanship can be found late in the book, when a group of polish car smugglers try to solicit funds for Solidarity, the labor union led by Lech Walesa which was a crucial player in the struggle against the Soviet Union, fighting for greater democracy against the military rulers of the communist Polish state.

polish solidarity

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

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

Were I to be confronted by such grifters, I might have made clear that I wished to make to make sure my funds made it to worthy fighters, rather than lowly thieves, or moved to anger that this pair smeared a noble group by associating themselves with their cause. Stevens does otherwise, rolling his eyes with disdain at the anti-communists themselves.

More importantly, there is this scene in the US embassy of the Central African Republic:

reagan dunce

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

The ambassador at this time was David Fields. He was, in fact, a Reagan appointee, but I understand Stevens’ point: that this man was someone of considerable experience, and not an incompetent dropped into the slot for reasons of favorable ideology, as Reagan’s often appointments often were. The toenails, hair, and jellybeans of Ronald Reagan are now seen among the faithful as a divinity’s relics; Stevens happily blasphemes the messiah when he walked the earth and ruled the greatest land of the world, making stark that he is a simple pragmatist, no fiery eyed believer. He’s a republican principally for the lower taxes on the wealthy, and most likely looks on Reagan zealots and Tea Party irregulars the same way the United States viewed the Afghanistan mujahideen, a bunch of primitive fools useful for achieving a strategic end.

A final note on the lack of substantial characters: I do not believe it is racial, or having anything to do with Africa itself, but stems from Stevens’ basic dislike of people. In Scorched Earth, he writes of a political consultant, perhaps much like himself, who must organize people into voting for his candidate, yet who clearly looks on these voters as poor, ridiculous fools who he wants nothing to do with. It is possible to be a good writer and be indifferent to those around you in your daily life, but as a writer, one must have a deep attentive sense of others. Isaac Bashevis Singer has a story when a woman tells a writer, “To write, you need a good brain.” The writer replies “Better a good eye.” And a good ear.

Stevens’ aversion for people is embodied best, for me, in this brief moment in Cameroon.

this is why i had come to africa

A night at the mission would have been comfortable – any insect-free environment had appeal – but I longed for the feel, the texture, of an African evening.

And that night I found it: under a baobab tree near a Muslim village a few miles north of Garoua. Across the stretch of fields, a red band of fire swept down a hillside. In the soft light of the day’s last moments, the wailing call to prayers floated from the village mosque. Waves of hear shimmered from the dry ground, the earth giving up some of the burning it had received that day.

This, I thought before nodding away, was why I had come to Africa.

It is this moment Stevens has been waiting for during his travels on the continent. An Africa without Africans. This antipathy for people, so that all his characters are at a distance, and never really characters at all, overlaps with the next point, the shaping of this narrative and the false notes in Stevens’ work.

FALSE NOTES

For the small, small number who have read both Feeding Frenzy by Stuart Stevens, and Malaria Dreams, what’s striking is the uncanniness in the shared structure, as if both come from the same template, a National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Europe and National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Africa, respectively.

In Frenzy, Stevens travels through Europe with a very beautiful former model named Rachel Kelly in a Mustang with the intent to sell it somewhere in Europe. The car suffers many problems during the trip, and they race to a meeting point with Kelly’s fiancé, a former special forces guy. Kelly is a mix of street-wise sass, but also well-read, and knowledgeable in upscale fashion and cuisine. She’s originally from Wyoming. Though attractive and occasionally mistaken as Stevens’ girlfriend, no romantic entanglement takes place, no sexual tension is even hinted at.

The plotline for Dreams is almost from the same blueprint. Stevens travels to Africa to pick up a Land Rover in the Central African Republic, which he must transport to Algeria, so it can be brought to Europe. The reason for this is either because the car can be obtained more cheaply in Africa, or because it carries diamonds which can be smuggled out. His companion is Ann Bradley, a woman from a military family who is well-read, carries around a five pound copy of Italian Vogue, knows cooking and clothes, and has a boyfriend in the military, this time in the air force. She is sassy, streetwise, tough, but also well-read. She’s from Oklahoma.

Here is the first appearance of Ann Bradley, well-read, stylish, but with roots in Oklahoma and expertise in mechanics:

ann bradley

Across the aisle my “team” was engrossed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She was twenty-three years old, 5’5″”, 110 pounds, and possibly the only person ever to transfer from Bryn Mawr to the University of Oklahoma. In all likelihood Ann knew more about mechanics than I did, but I doubt I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t. She was nibbling from a can of pheasant pâté. She’d acquired this treat at the airport in Marseilles when I had suggested she buy us some sandwiches while I held our place in the check-in line. She’d returned some time later quite pleased.

Here is Rachel Kelly eating paté by hand in France.

rat with pate underlined

I found Rat eating a can of paté in the herb garden of the convent. She was wearing a bright white sun hat that she’d bought in Paris, black jeans, and a black tee shirt with a small, very discrete Harley-Davidson logo. Henry was perched at her feet and she was eating with a her fingers the local paté straight from the tin.

Another of the first descriptions of Ann, in a stylish bathing suit, a five pound copy of Vogue, and a mention of a boyfriend fighter pilot:

jaguars are fighter pilots

I found Ann in back of the Sofitel by the pool. It was on a jetty jutting out into the Ubangi. She wore a bathing suit with a large number 7 on it and was reading a five-pound Italian Vogue, another Marseilles acquisition, surrounded by a half dozen very pale young men.

“They’re Jaguar pilots,” she told me. Somewhere behind her sunglasses and the red St. Louis Cardinals hat pulled down low, I caught a trace of a smile.

“Jaguars are French fighter planes,” Ann explained peevishly.

“Oh. Fighter jocks.” Now it was my turn to smile. Ann’s boyfriend back in Oklahoma was a fighter pilot. “A generic preference?” I inquired.

This is the first appearance of Rachel Kelly, in a gym, wearing a stylish bathing suit:

Malaria Dreams

Rat was wearing a black one-piece suit that looked like the sort of thing bathing beauties wore on the Riviera in the twenties. There’s a picture around of Zelda trying to look sexy and she’s wearing something similar.

She was an ex-model who worked for a fashion designer and could explain quite movingly why some grades of wool make you look like a million dollars and others, you were better off cutting a few holes in a big plastic garbage sack and heading out the door. Call it a flair for fashion.

This is Carl, Rachel’s boyfriend, who used to be Special Forces:

“I was SOG – Special Operations Group. We were the black-arts guys. In country, no uniforms, Laos, Cambodia.”

“Got to tell you, man, I loved it. Nasty, nasty but I loved it.”
“What did you do?” [asks Stevens] It was a stupid question.
“Jumped out of helicopters and shot a lot of people. Great time.”
“Sure”, I said.

Though neither Rachel or Ann is ever quoted as speaking at length in french, they both occasionally break into it.

This is Ann:

liberte egalite

One flag bearer caught sight of Ann and stopped suddenly, kicking up a flurry of dust. Ann smiled and saluted with her beer. She wore shorts and a tee shirt featuring a picture of oversized sunglasses at a rakish angle. The young Cameroonian patriot looked confused, uncertain whether to smile or scowl. Finally he thrust his flag toward Ann and shouted, “Liberté!”

“Liberté!” Ann yelled.

This is Rachel:

cest impossible

“No!” Rat finally exclaimed after an appropriate dramatic silence. “Do you really think?”

I glanced at her, trying to tell if she was truly shocked or just pretending.

The German shrugged.

C’est impossible!” Rat exclaimed.

C’est impossible! I stared at her. Who was this woman from Wyoming trying to kid?

Ann has mechanical aptitude, and so does Rachel:

automotive skills

“My theory is that you might have put in unleaded fuel and 1965 V-8s probably need all the lead they can get.” [said Rachel]

She was right, of course. Rat had an annoying way of being right about things automotive. It was her Wyoming cowgirl roots.

Rachel Kelly adopts a dog for their trip in Europe. Ann Bradley adopts a stray gazelle.

Here is Ann with the gazelle:

thompson gazelle

Ann appeared from behind the chief’s hit. Cradled in her arms was a small, catlike creature with a sharp snout.

“This is Thompson,” she announced. “Thompson the gazelle.”

Our procession had the look of a fable: Joseph in the lead carrying the wicket picnic basket packed with French cheese and sausage, Henri in his Guccis flipping through Paris Match, Ann nuzzling with the gazelle, and myself lugging a pack with the unlikely label “Himalayas.”

That night in Berbérati, we watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek to cheek on Henri’s VCR, powered by his personal generator. Afterwards, Henri played Cole Porter songs on his piano – “the only one in all this part of Africa” – while Ann fed Thompson drops of milk and I read James Hadley Chase.

Here is Rachel with the dog:

henry the dog

She walked over to the far corner of the garden, where a little iron gate led out onto Queen’s Walk and, just beyond that, St. James’s Park.

She pointed to a contented-looking golden retriever tied to the fence.

“What’s that?” I asked, a sense of dread cascading rapidly through my being.

“That’s Henry and he’s ours!”

“His name is Henry. I’m keeping him for a family that was going to take him to America for a year but found that he would have to be quarantined for two months and it would have broken their heart to do that to their dog. So we just agreed to take care of him.”

They do not get the needed Land Rover, instead settling for another car which they hope to sell at the end of their trip in Africa. Where in Frenzy, the pair to race to meet Kelly’s mate, here they race to meet Stevens’ wife in Algeria, a woman who forever stays off-screen, unseen and unheard, unable to make it even to the closing pages because of a cancelled flight.

It is a structure which fits Europe better than Africa, with the latter, with its horrors and beauties, resisting one more man insisting that it be a backdrop for their own adventure. Of course, the most striking aspect of the shared template is the woman, who appears to be the same character, but perhaps played by slightly different actresses, first by Liv Tyler, next by Rachel Weisz. In Frenzy, it is she who initiates the idea of a trip. With Dreams we’re not given any idea as to why the female needs to be brought along – is she there to translate? Who knows? Neither book ever mentions the possibility of envy from one’s mate about a man and a woman traveling alone together. In the case of Frenzy, that Stevens might even have a wife is never mentioned. That there is the possibility that she will not get to spend christmas with her husband – the rendezvous in Algeria is three days before this festive event – but this strange woman might, is never brought up. It is one of those details that makes the reader very skeptical of Stevens as a writer, a skepticism seemingly shared by Charlie Rose in this interview. Beyond this is the simple incredulity of two people with no experience in Africa and no guide, traveling half its length, including the Sahara and the former warzone of Chad, never mind the possibility that they might have taken the same route but with diamonds smuggled in their vehicle.

That the Land Rover to be retrieved carries diamonds on the inside, which will then be smuggled back to Europe is implied in several places.

In the meeting with Lucien which initiates the African trip:

lucien was involved in diamonds

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

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

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

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

lucien money must be involved somewhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Relationship?”

“He is a friend?”

I plunged boldly ahead. “Sort of.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not. He’s just a friend.”

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

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

A visit to where Lucien bought his diamonds.

where lucien looked for diamonds

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

“You mean they find diamonds?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

This last fragment should convey how incredibly dangerous it would be for two people, unfamiliar with Africa, without a guide or any contacts, to travel up through Africa to Algeria. The recklessness of those who would decide to do such a thing, the recklessness of an experienced diamond smuggler to trust a fortune to such novices, shakes a reader’s belief in this book, would shake their belief, even if, say, it were fiction. This is to speak only of the ringless falseness of what’s given here, rather than the rank immorality of being complicit in the smuggling of diamonds from a continent that had much of its mineral wealth stolen by colonial powers.

False notes such as these make you look at what Stevens writes with a more intense skepticism, perhaps warranted, perhaps not. That, for instance, he attended Oxford as an undergraduate, as he says in Frenzy, graduate school at Oxford in this Atlantic piece, in Dreams he mentions attending Oxford again:

oxford

Within twenty-four hours we were sitting in front of a Mr. Richards, an Englishman who ran the largest Nissan agency in town, and spilling our story. He was amused. We had, it turned out in one of those odd twists of fate I thought only occurred in Evelyn Waugh stories, attended the same college at Oxford. This was by far the most tangible benefit I’d ever accrued from any educational institution.

These claims may well be true; what I find unusual, another one of those possible false notes, is that no mention is ever made of Oxford in any profile or interview. One detail a Times reporter, or any reporter, will almost always ask is, where you went to school. The only time education is mentioned in a times piece on Stevens is “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate” with UCLA attendance mentioned, and Oxford not at all. One’s education shouldn’t matter to a reader, yet publishers are always tarting up your bio with a mention of some ne plus ultra school, with Oxford as a triple cherry deluxe, yet, again, Oxford is never mentioned in Stevens’ book jackets. This all in the context of a profile, mostly sympathetic, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney”, which describes Stevens as occasionally having an outsized ego.

These are ambiguous off notes that arouse skepticism. I think there are more definite ones in Dreams.

TIME OUT OF JOINT

The details that are off in Dreams fall almost entirely into the categories of time and money.

The book, though published in 1989, takes place in the fall of 1987. There are several details establishing the year as exactly that one, which we’ll get to as we go through this section.

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

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

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

early october

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

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

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

270 francs

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

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

“How much?”

“Half a million Central African francs.”

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

Shortly after this, it is Stevens’ birthday.

birthday 22 october

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

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

lucien half a million bribe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

franc dollar graph cropped more

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

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

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

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

jerrican seventy dollars

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

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

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

three thousand cfa about eleven dollars

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

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

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

thanksgiving

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

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

fifty thousand cfa

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

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

“Fifty thousand CFA to fix the car.”

That was almost two hundred dollars.

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

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

fifty thousand cfa first time

“Yes, but first we must discuss price.”

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

“Fifty thousand CFA.”

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

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

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

I end with the final details that are off, starkly off, for which I leave to others to deduce an explanation.

As said before, Stevens arrives on the continent at the beginning of October. He celebrates his birthday in Bangui, Central African Republic, on the twenty second of October.

I stated earlier that there are markers establishing that the story takes place in 1987. Here is the first one. Stevens writes of the carnet, a letter of passage, needed to travel through most African countries to avoid paying entrance duties to that country.

carnet england storm

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

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

What is puzzling is this. The storm took place on October 16th and 17th. Stevens obtains his carnet before leaving for Africa. Yet he says he arrives in Africa in early October. How is it that he is in England during this storm, yet is in Africa, before the storm?

There is another, smaller discrepancy. It is after his birthday, Stevens and Ann Bradley are traveling from Cameroon into Chad. Stevens describes what is taking place there:

chad was fighting a war

Entering Chad near the capital, N’Djamena, one could theoretically drive across Lake Chad (largely dry for the last ten years) and into Niger. There were problems with this approach. For starters, Chad was fighting a war with Libya and though most of the fighting occurred in the northern desert near the border, the Libyans had bombed N’Djamena just a few months earlier.

Later, when they are about to enter Chad, we get this description:

war zone capitals of a winning side

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

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

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

All this suggests a war with ongoing fighting. These descriptions correspond to either later October and mid-November, or early November and late November, respectively. Yet this was at least a month and a half into a ceasefire between Libya and Chad with no outbreak of hostilities. No doubt traveling in this area was still a frightening experience, and that the ceasefire could break any day was a disturbing possibility for those entering Chad. But why leave out a crucial piece of information such as this, placing the conflict in a more ambiguous pre-ceasefire place rather than after?

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

fragment of shot down plane

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

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

This was actually a well-reported incident, “Libyan Warplane Is Downed In Chad By French Forces” which took place on September 8th, 1987 and one that may have helped trigger the ceasefire. That the shooting down is mentioned, but the ceasefire is not, as if to create a sense of ongoing war which the travelers might face is a strange one.

One more detail that I think points to a disconcerting anachronism. The trip starts in the Central African Republic, which they stay in past Stevens’ birthday on October 22. After, they leave for Cameroon, where they run into a national celebration in Bertoua.

cameroon national holiday

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

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

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

The only national holiday that this could be is Cameroon’s Unification Day, when the french and english parts of the country united. Again, this scene takes place after Stevens’ birthday on October 22. Cameroon’s unification day is October 1st.

There is another possible discrepancy, but this does not relate directly to Malaria Dreams, but a trip to Africa described in Feeding Frenzy. There are discrepancies if it is the same trip to Africa described.

Traveling along the river Niger in Malaria Dreams, Stevens and Bradley come across some fishermen.

capitaine giant perch

I woke up at first light and brewed coffee on the little gas stove. The mornings were the best time of day, when it was cool enough to forget, at least for a little while, the strangling heat of the upcoming hours. A pirogue floated through the mist, a graceful craft with bow and stern rising upward like outstretched arms. There were two teenagers poling the boat. They landed and hoisted out a bulky fish, mouth gaping. It was a capitaine, a breed of giant perch I’d first seen pulled from the Ubangi River in Bangui.

A capitaine, Nile perch, can be found in the Niger river. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens remembers a moment from a trip in Africa, perhaps the same trip of Malaria Dreams

oversized gar

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

Now, Stevens has not come across fishermen in Niger, but fished himself, one of many times he has fished in Africa. At no point in Malaria Dreams does he mention doing any fishing. Another prominent detail is the error in the fish: the visual identification of the gar is entirely correct, but this is a fish that is not found in the river Niger, or anywhere in Africa, as outlined in this brief National Geographic summary; it can, however, be found in Stevens’ native Mississippi. It is from the Lepisosteidae family, none of which can be found in Africa. Here is a partial list of fish to be found in the Niger river; lepisosteida are easily recognizable by their snub nose; none of the fish species in this list seem to have this identifier.

A final short small detail, but one that I found as equally striking as the date of the storm. After leaving Chad, where they spend thanksgiving, the travelers go to Niger.

burkina faso coup pt one burkina faso coup pt two

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

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

Again, this takes place after Thanksgiving, either at the very end of November, or early December. The coup in Burkina Faso is spoken of as having taken place a few days earlier.

The coup in Burkina Faso was against the very charismatic, guitar playing Thomas Sankara, who was killed. The coup took place on the 16th of October and he was executed on the 17th, 1987. Again, I leave it to others to make their deductions.

The ending of this post is abrupt: I think there’s possibility of greater analysis of this book, so I consider this entry unfinished.

(Edits have been made for clarity; additions were made detailing the smuggling of diamonds in the book, the ambassador who is not a Reagan dunce, and the polish smugglers. A few additions were made on the currency exchange of the book, along with some edits for improved clarity.)

Malaria Dreams Stuart Stevens

THE UNSUBMISSIBLE PLACE

Malaria Dreams is a travel memoir following Stevens and a companion, Ann Bradley, as they voyage from the Central African Republic up to Algeria, traveling through, among other places, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and the Sahara. It is the best book of his that I have read because either through his own restraint, or the efforts of an editor, Stevens does not give in to his desire for malice or imagined violence. In other books, he or his proxy hero might imagine strangling a woman or ripping her vocal chords out with his teeth. Here, he simply groans. At the same time, the african setting makes his flaws even more poisonous. Though it’s the best book of his I’ve read so far, it’s also the most distasteful, and the ill taste of its worst moments endures. There is another, rather unusual aspect to this memoir, but I’ll get to that after.

Perhaps more than any place, Africa does not submit itself to anyone in writing. Ultimately, the writer must submit themselves to the continent. It is this resistance to submission which destroys Stevens’ book. It attempts to be a comedy travelogue, two bumbling adventurers passing through sights picturesque and horrific, the two travelers unchanged and apart from the landscape. The essence of what they observe, however, only hinted at in the writing, seems too rich, too complex to be contained in such a frivolous structure, and it makes this writing seem rancid.

I give two examples early on that stay with me. The first is a very vivid moment in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, which should contain the materials of something multi-faceted, the pathos and ridiculousness of poverty, yet which is made into something simpler, the comedy and horror of a man of the first world beset by the downtrodden of the third (I include a scan of the book pages to accompany all quotes, to make clear the quote is not distorted or taken out of context):

beggars

Bangui, like New York, has a hidden population of homeless and infirm who emerge after dark dominating the streets. Driving to and from expensive restaurants in Henri’s car, I’d noted with curiousity the swarming wheelchairs, unlike any I’d seen – ingenious devices powered by hand cranks mounted like handlebars. Outfitted with wide tires suitable for Bangui’s rubbled streets, the chairs could move with extreme speed and dexterity.

This I discovered while sulking back to the Novotel. On a side street near the main traffic circle, I suddenly found myself surrounded by wheelchairs. It seemed, at first, an amiable coincidence. I nodded and kept walking. Two chairs wheeled in to block my route. This is ridiculous, I thought, and turned, trying to be ever so casual, down a side alley leading to a main street. A chair manned by a person missing a chin filled the narrow walkway. He gave me a horrible, skeletal grin.

The encircling chairs began to move forward, tightening the noose. I can run, I thought, run past them, knock them over. Then a flashing knife made me think otherwise.

As they drew nearer, I reached into my pocket for a handful of coins. Shaking them alluringly like dice, I scattered the money in the street.

The wheelchairs instantly broke ranks, scrambling for the flashes of silver. I bolted for the hotel.

Ann was waiting for me in the lobby. “Did you get mugged?” I asked her, panting a bit.

“Of course not. Don’t be paranoid.”

Another scene, this one in a bar, again in Bangui:

does he beat you

At the bar there was a young, very pretty white woman we’d seen on the flight from France. She’d been carrying a black baby, and I asked Henri and Françoise if they knew her.

“Oh, yes,” Françoise said, “everyone knows everyone in Bangui. She met her husband while he was a student in Paris. They fell in love, married and came back here to live. He beats her regularly.”

This was delivered not in a catty, gossipy way but as a simple statement of fact, like “The pizza is good.”

“It’s very common,” Henri assured Ann and me. I suppose we looked as if we needed assuring.

“I do not even think,” Françoise said, “that it has anything to do with meanness or anger. It is always done, so they do it.”

“How quaint,” Ann observed.

Henri looked over at the woman at the bar. “The white wives of Africans do not strike me as the happiest people in the world.”

Later:

Ann and I talked with the tall, attractive woman bartender. She was not, to our surprise, French. “Russian,” she insisted, but when we looked unconvinced, she relented. “Czechoslovakian,” she admitted, as if that would make her presence completely logical. “I married an African student studying at university.”

“Does he beat you?” Ann asked.

I looked over at her, trying to recall how much Beaujolais she’d downed at dinner.

“What?” the Czech bartender asked. The music roared.

“Does he beat you?” Ann yelled, slapping the bar a few times for effect.

“What?”

Beat you!”

The bartender laughed. “We are divorced now,” she cried. “I am a free woman in Bangui!”

After:

On the edge of the city center, where the houses disappeared and the shacks began, it was jammed with white men dancing with black women.

“The pride of France!” Henri exclaimed, gesturing out over the steamy club floor. The men all had short hair and wore the preppy outfits that apparently were the norm for French men in Africa; topsiders and bright Lacoste shirts, khaki pants and alligator belts.

“This is what the men in Beau Geste were fighting for,” Henri said. “Vive l’Afrique!” He ordered another bottle of champagne.

They run into some american marines, including one named Ernie. Stevens buys beers.

aids man

With a familiar feeling of fiscal panic, I frantically tried to calculate it in dollars. Ernie took a look and said flatly, “About sixty-five dollars. I tried to warn you.”

“No problem,” I mumbled, thinking back fondly to the bargain price of living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

“The only cheap thing in this country,” Ernie told me while we worked our way back over to the marin huddle, “is women, but then you got to figure most of them come with the gift that keeps on giving.”

“What?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

“AIDS, man.” He slapped me on the back. “You join the Marine Corps, you flat learn about that stuff. What you got here” – he gestured out over the dance floor crowded with white men and black woman – “is one great hunk of AIDS. Right here is where it all started.”

“Some of these French guys,” another marine pronounced, “I think they might have got it on with that first monkey started all this stuff.”

“Hey.” Ernie wrapped his big arm around my shoulder. “This girl Ann, she your girlfriend, or what?”

Later we went outside to watch two French soldiers in a desultory fight. The marines were unimpressed. “For the love of God, will you look at those fairies. Are they in love or fighting?”

The ranking marine, a seargent who, in his late twenties, was the oldest of the group, steered his men toward a Land Cruiser where a black chauffeur was asleep. “Leaving E. Club,” the seargent barked into his crackling radio.

“Hey, look,” Ernie told Ann and me, though mostly he was looking at Ann, “you guys got to come over to the marine house. We got a great cook.”

“You have a cook?” Ann asked. She had a great interest in all things culinary.

“Hell, yes. Chauffeur too. Ain’t life great?”

Ann agreed and asked if she should dress for dinner.

That there is an ugliness, a squalor, in the contrast between the rich and the poor in Africa, in the difference in lives between the colonials and the citizens, in the ravages of disease, there is no doubt. Faced with it, I think the best writers can only find some all encompassing vision, not one that is sentimental, one that must be necessarily unsentimental, but one where all the characters and the details of their lives come through. The other approach, is one of nihilism, of finding the wretched in every man or woman, and necessarily, in oneself. The first approach can be found in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. The second can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

A coward takes neither approach, and uses the background for simple frissons – AIDS is rampant, the french are corrupt, the africans often poor and desperate, though the writer’s targets in the book, as seen above, are always selective. The opportunism and exploitation of the french is skewered, but never that of american corporations. The best embassies, in Chad and Niger, are built with american funds for reasons of military alliance. The most unequivocal heroic portrayal is Chad’s military fight, backed by the US, against Libya. I do not doubt the bravery of those involved in the fight, only find it striking that it is nearly the sole heroism to be found on the continent, and I think here we see the same Stevens that’s found in Scorched Earth: a man who liked to fight, a man who can only find meaning in a fight. This is not to suggest that there are not africans who are viewed with kindness in the book, only that no one emerges as themselves, the way the best characters do, seemingly warping the book through their life. The characters of this book are finally only effects, of sentimentality, garishness, horror, fear.

Here are a few short excerpts, showing three recurring motifs of the book: the french are opportunists, development aligned with US military needs is the best infrastructure in Africa, and foreign non-military aid helps no one. I have no issue with the first critique, but find it questionable when the scathingness halts when it comes to the imperial policies of one’s own nation, and disturbing when the only overseas support that is valued is martial.

A brief meeting with a young frenchman:

young frenchman

He wore penny loafers, khaki pants and a Lacoste shirt. With his short dark hair and intense manner, he reminded me of the civil rights workers who came to Mississippi in the mid-sixties from colleges like Bowdoin and Swarthmore. I expected him to hum Peter, Paul and Mary songs at any moment. Jean-Marc was his name. He had traveled across America by bus, evolving an elaborate rating system for bus stations along the way.

After Jean-Marc finished his bus station critique, he explained why his country continued to “be involved” with former West African colonies like the CAR, Cameroon, and Chad.

“I tell you, my friend,” he said twirling a coat hanger meat skewer, “they may talk about the prestige, the sentimental attachment, but it is money! Yes, money! Okay my government pours a lot of francs into these countries but they get more out. The trade agreements, the minerals, the timber. How you say? Money talks, bullshit walks?”

The embassy compound in Niger:

magnificent bacon cheeseburgers fugitive invasions

The peace corps workers in Zinder had given us a most valuable tip: the American Recreation Center in Niamey. It was an extraordinarily pleasant compound full of trees and tennis courts and a snack bar that served bacon cheeseburgers. Magnificent bacon cheeseburgers. Also thick, rich milk shakes and French fries – all the food I never ate in America. But after weeks of canned hash and ravioli, it tasted wonderful, the stuff of gustatory dreams. And, unlike every restaurant we’d encountered in West Africa, the snack bar was cheap.

That there were enough Americans in Niamey to merit (if that’s the right word) a recreation center was, to me, a confounding surprise. Like Chad, though, Niger was an American beachhead in West Africa. A gleaming new embassy sat on the far outskirts of town, part of a compound that included a new ambassador’s residence. There were sufficient American military advisers and marines to field a potent side in the local rugby league.

A contrast to what Stevens thinks non-military foreign aid contributes to Africa:

The Peace Corps training center for Africa (which included 60 percent of the entire Peace Corps) was in Niamey, and the years of drought in the Sahel had created a small army of advisers, World Bank types and UN “experts.”

Since 1928, of course, the “wretched state” of the region has only worsened and it’s an open question whether the army of relief professionals has slowed or accelerated the process. As British journalist Patrick Marnham wrote in his superb collection of essays on West Africa, Fantastic Invasion: “For all the difference it made to the people of the Sahel, it might not have mattered if the relief planes had flown out over the Atlantic and dumped the grain into the sea. Much of it was never distributed beyond the main reception centres until more than one year after the drought had ended, by which time local food supplies had been restored.”

But traveling in 1977, four years after the drought of 1973, Marnham saw “the terrible after-effects of the relief operation….On the promise of free assistance thousands of people abandoned their traditional resources….There is nothing for them to do, their economy has been destroyed, and there are no schemes to rebuild it. They are refugees in their own country.”

Foreign aid in the Central African Republic:

foreign aid like cocaine

It had not rained for some time and red dust floated in the air with every passing Land Cruiser or Land Rover. These big vehicles belong to the myriad of foreign organizations working in Bangui. They cruise the streets like a benevolent occupying army. It is difficult to comprehend, but in this small country of about two and a half million, there are American, French, German, Dutch, Japanese, even Chinese – agencies toiling, in theory at least, to improve the life of Central Africans. With an annual per capita income of under three hundred dollars an an average life expectancy of only forty-four years, the challenge is formidable.

Many of the aid projects work with one particular agency of the government and – the relationship is more than coincidental – the government of the CAR has a staggering number of agencies. Foreign aid is to the CAR what cocaine is to Columbia.

One last, unambiguous, metaphor:

only west relief org part one only west relief org part two

The tin garage housed in a concrete grease pit. That figured. Only a Western relief organization would go to the trouble to construct something as solid and enduring as a concrete grease pit.

That Stevens values military over more benevolent aid is not because of hard-line ideological partisanship, not for anything at all, but because, as he made clear in Scorched Earth, there is something in him that simply enjoys fighting. His aloofness to Cold War partisanship can be found late in the book, when a group of polish car smugglers try to solicit funds for Solidarity, the labor union led by Lech Walesa which was a crucial player in the struggle against the Soviet Union, fighting for greater democracy against the military rulers of the communist Polish state.

polish solidarity

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

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

Were I to be confronted by such grifters, I might have made clear that I wished to make to make sure my funds made it to worthy fighters, rather than lowly thieves, or moved to anger that this pair smeared a noble group by associating themselves with their cause. Stevens does otherwise, rolling his eyes with disdain at the anti-communists themselves.

More importantly, there is this scene in the US embassy of the Central African Republic:

reagan dunce

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

The ambassador at this time was David Fields. He was, in fact, a Reagan appointee, but I understand Stevens’ point: that this man was someone of considerable experience, and not an incompetent dropped into the slot for reasons of favorable ideology, as Reagan’s often appointments often were. The toenails, hair, and jellybeans of Ronald Reagan are now seen among the faithful as a divinity’s relics; Stevens happily blasphemes the messiah when he walked the earth and ruled the greatest land of the world, making stark that he is a simple pragmatist, no fiery eyed believer. He’s a republican principally for the lower taxes on the wealthy, and most likely looks on Reagan zealots and Tea Party irregulars the same way the United States viewed the Afghanistan mujahideen, a bunch of primitive fools useful for achieving a strategic end.

A final note on the lack of substantial characters: I do not believe it is racial, or having anything to do with Africa itself, but stems from Stevens’ basic dislike of people. In Scorched Earth, he writes of a political consultant, perhaps much like himself, who must organize people into voting for his candidate, yet who clearly looks on these voters as poor, ridiculous fools who he wants nothing to do with. It is possible to be a good writer and be indifferent to those around you in your daily life, but as a writer, one must have a deep attentive sense of others. Isaac Bashevis Singer has a story when a woman tells a writer, “To write, you need a good brain.” The writer replies “Better a good eye.” And a good ear.

Stevens’ aversion for people is embodied best, for me, in this brief moment in Cameroon.

this is why i had come to africa

A night at the mission would have been comfortable – any insect-free environment had appeal – but I longed for the feel, the texture, of an African evening.

And that night I found it: under a baobab tree near a Muslim village a few miles north of Garoua. Across the stretch of fields, a red band of fire swept down a hillside. In the soft light of the day’s last moments, the wailing call to prayers floated from the village mosque. Waves of hear shimmered from the dry ground, the earth giving up some of the burning it had received that day.

This, I thought before nodding away, was why I had come to Africa.

It is this moment Stevens has been waiting for during his travels on the continent. An Africa without Africans. This antipathy for people, so that all his characters are at a distance, and never really characters at all, overlaps with the next point, the shaping of this narrative and the false notes in Stevens’ work.

FALSE NOTES

For the small, small number who have read both Feeding Frenzy by Stuart Stevens, and Malaria Dreams, what’s striking is the uncanniness in the shared structure, as if both come from the same template, a National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Europe and National Lampoon’s Road Trip: Africa, respectively.

In Frenzy, Stevens travels through Europe with a very beautiful former model named Rachel Kelly in a Mustang with the intent to sell it somewhere in Europe. The car suffers many problems during the trip, and they race to a meeting point with Kelly’s fiancé, a former special forces guy. Kelly is a mix of street-wise sass, but also well-read, and knowledgeable in upscale fashion and cuisine. She’s originally from Wyoming. Though attractive and occasionally mistaken as Stevens’ girlfriend, no romantic entanglement takes place, no sexual tension is even hinted at.

The plotline for Dreams is almost from the same blueprint. Stevens travels to Africa to pick up a Land Rover in the Central African Republic, which he must transport to Algeria, so it can be brought to Europe. The reason for this is either because the car can be obtained more cheaply in Africa, or because it carries diamonds which can be smuggled out. His companion is Ann Bradley, a woman from a military family who is well-read, carries around a five pound copy of Italian Vogue, knows cooking and clothes, and has a boyfriend in the military, this time in the air force. She is sassy, streetwise, tough, but also well-read. She’s from Oklahoma.

Here is the first appearance of Ann Bradley, well-read, stylish, but with roots in Oklahoma and expertise in mechanics:

ann bradley

Across the aisle my “team” was engrossed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She was twenty-three years old, 5’5″”, 110 pounds, and possibly the only person ever to transfer from Bryn Mawr to the University of Oklahoma. In all likelihood Ann knew more about mechanics than I did, but I doubt I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t. She was nibbling from a can of pheasant pâté. She’d acquired this treat at the airport in Marseilles when I had suggested she buy us some sandwiches while I held our place in the check-in line. She’d returned some time later quite pleased.

Here is Rachel Kelly eating paté by hand in France.

rat with pate underlined

I found Rat eating a can of paté in the herb garden of the convent. She was wearing a bright white sun hat that she’d bought in Paris, black jeans, and a black tee shirt with a small, very discrete Harley-Davidson logo. Henry was perched at her feet and she was eating with a her fingers the local paté straight from the tin.

Another of the first descriptions of Ann, in a stylish bathing suit, a five pound copy of Vogue, and a mention of a boyfriend fighter pilot:

jaguars are fighter pilots

I found Ann in back of the Sofitel by the pool. It was on a jetty jutting out into the Ubangi. She wore a bathing suit with a large number 7 on it and was reading a five-pound Italian Vogue, another Marseilles acquisition, surrounded by a half dozen very pale young men.

“They’re Jaguar pilots,” she told me. Somewhere behind her sunglasses and the red St. Louis Cardinals hat pulled down low, I caught a trace of a smile.

“Jaguars are French fighter planes,” Ann explained peevishly.

“Oh. Fighter jocks.” Now it was my turn to smile. Ann’s boyfriend back in Oklahoma was a fighter pilot. “A generic preference?” I inquired.

This is the first appearance of Rachel Kelly, in a gym, wearing a stylish bathing suit:

Malaria Dreams

Rat was wearing a black one-piece suit that looked like the sort of thing bathing beauties wore on the Riviera in the twenties. There’s a picture around of Zelda trying to look sexy and she’s wearing something similar.

She was an ex-model who worked for a fashion designer and oculd explain quite movingly why some grades of wool make you look like a million dollars and others, you were better off cutting a few holes in a big plastic garbage sack and heading out the door. Call it a flair for fashion.

This is Carl, Rachel’s boyfriend, who used to be Special Forces:

“I was SOG – Special Operations Group. We were the black-arts guys. In country, no uniforms, Laos, Cambodia.”

“Got to tell you, man, I loved it. Nasty, nasty but I loved it.”
“What did you do?” [asks Stevens] It was a stupid question.
“Jumped out of helicopters and shot a lot of people. Great time.”
“Sure”, I said.

Though neither Rachel or Ann is ever quoted as speaking at length in french, they both occasionally break into it.

This is Ann:

liberte egalite

One flag bearer caught sight of Ann and stopped suddenly, kicking up a flurry of dust. Ann smiled and saluted with her beer. She wore shorts and a tee shirt featuring a picture of oversized sunglasses at a rakish angle. The young Cameroonian patriot looked confused, uncertain whether to smile or scowl. Finally he thrust his flag toard Ann and shouted, “Liberté!”

“Liberté!” Ann yelled.

This is Rachel:

cest impossible

“No!” Rat finalled exclaimed after an appropriate dramatic silence. “Do you really think?”

I glanced at her, trying to tell if she was truly shocked or just pretending.

The German shrugged.

C’est impossible!” Rat exclaimed.

C’est impossible! I stared at her. Who was this woman from Wyoming trying to kid?

Ann has mechanical aptitude, and so does Rachel:

automotive skills

“My theory is that you might have put in unleaded fuel and 1965 V-8s probably need all the lead they can get.” [said Rachel]

She was right, of course. Rat had an annoying way of being right about things automotive. It was her Wyoming cowgirl roots.

Rachel Kelly adopts a dog for their trip in Europe. Ann Bradley adopts a stray gazelle.

Here is Ann with the gazelle:

thompson gazelle

Ann appeared from behind the chief’s hit. Cradled in her arms was a small, catlike creature with a sharp snount.

“This is Thompson,” she announced. “Thompson the gazelle.”

Our procession had the look of a fable: Joseph in the lead carrying the wicket picnic basket packed with French cheese and sausage, Henri in his Guccis flipping through Paris Match, Ann nuzzling with the gazelle, and myself lugging a pack with the unlikely label “Himalayas.”

That night in Berbérati, we watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek to cheek on Henri’s VCR, powered by his personal generator. Afterwards, Henri played Cole Porter songs on his piano – “the only one in all this part of Africa” – while Ann fed Thompson drops of milk and I read James Hadley Chase.

Here is Rachel with the dog:

henry the dog

She walked over to the far corner of the garden, where a little iron gate led out onto Queen’s Walk and, just beyond that, St. James’s Park.

She pointed to a contented-looking golden retriever tied to the fence.

“What’s that?” I asked, a sense of dread cascading rapidly through my being.

“That’s Henry and he’s ours!”

“His name is Henry. I’m keeping him for a family that was going to take him to America for a year but found that he would have to be qurantined for two months and it would have broken their heart to do that to their dog. So we just agreed to take care of him.”

They do not get the needed Land Rover, instead settling for another car which they hope to sell at the end of their trip in Africa. Where in Frenzy, the pair to race to meet Kelly’s mate, here they race to meet Stevens’ wife in Algeria, a woman who forever stays off-screen, unseen and unheard, unable to make it even to the closing pages because of a cancelled flight.

It is a structure which fits Europe better than Africa, with the latter, with its horrors and beauties, resisting one more man insisting that it be a backdrop for their own adventure. Of course, the most striking aspect of the shared template is the woman, who appears to be the same character, but perhaps played by slightly different actresses, first by Liv Tyler, next by Rachel Weisz. In Frenzy, it is she who initiates the idea of a trip. With Dreams we’re not given any idea as to why the female needs to be brought along – is she there to translate? Who knows? Neither book ever mentions the possibility of envy from one’s mate about a man and a woman traveling alone together. In the case of Frenzy, that Stevens might even have a wife is never mentioned. That there is the possibility that she will not get to spend christmas with her husband – the rendezvous in Algeria is three days before this festive event – but this strange woman might, is never brought up. It is one of those details that makes the reader very skeptical of Stevens as a writer, a skepticism seemingly shared by Charlie Rose in this interview. Beyond this is the simple incredulity of two people with no experience in Africa and no guide, traveling half its length, including the Sahara and the former warzone of Chad, never mind the possibility that they might have taken the same route but with diamonds smuggled in their vehicle.

That the Land Rover to be retrieved carries diamonds on the inside, which will then be smuggled back to Europe is implied in several places.

In the meeting with Lucien which initiates the African trip:

lucien was involved in diamonds

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

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

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

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

lucien money must be involved somewhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Relationship?”

“He is a friend?”

I plunged boldly ahead. “Sort of.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not. He’s just a friend.”

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

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

A visit to where Lucien bought his diamonds.

where lucien looked for diamonds

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

“You mean they find diamonds?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

This last fragment should convey how incredibly dangerous it would be for two people, unfamiliar with Africa, without a guide or any contacts, to travel up through Africa to Algeria. The recklessness of those who would decide to do such a thing, the recklessness of an experienced diamond smuggler to trust a fortune to such novices, shakes a reader’s belief in this book, would shake their belief, even if, say, it were fiction. This is to speak only of the ringless falseness of what’s given here, rather than the rank immorality of being complicit in the smuggling of diamonds from a continent that had much of its mineral wealth stolen by colonial powers.

False notes such as these make you look at what Stevens writes with a more intense skepticism, perhaps warranted, perhaps not. That, for instance, he attended Oxford as an undergraduate, as he says in Frenzy, graduate school at Oxford in this Atlantic piece, in Dreams he mentions attending Oxford again:

oxford

Within twenty-four hours we were sitting in front of a Mr. Richards, an Englishman who ran the largest Nissan agency in town, and spilling our story. He was amused. We had, it turned out in one of those odd twists of fate I thought only occurred in Evelyn Waugh stories, attended the same college at Oxford. This was by far the most tangible benefit I’d ever accrued from any educational institution.

These claims may well be true; what I find unusual, another one of those possible false notes, is that no mention is ever made of Oxford in any profile or interview. One detail a Times reporter, or any reporter, will almost always ask is, where you went to school. The only time education is mentioned in a times piece on Stevens is “Image Makers Hard at Work In the Selling of a Candidate” with UCLA attendance mentioned, and Oxford not at all. One’s education shouldn’t matter to a reader, yet publishers are always tarting up your bio with a mention of some ne plus ultra school, with Oxford as a triple cherry deluxe, yet, again, Oxford is never mentioned in Stevens’ book jackets. This all in the context of a profile, mostly sympathetic, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney”, which describes Stevens as occasionally having an outsized ego.

These are ambiguous off notes that arouse skepticism. I think there are more definite ones in Dreams.

TIME OUT OF JOINT

The details that are off in Dreams fall almost entirely into the categories of time and money.

The book, though published in 1989, takes place in the fall of 1987. There are several details establishing the year as exactly that one, which we’ll get to as we go through this section.

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

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

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

early october

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

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

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

270 francs

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

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

“How much?”

“Half a million Central African francs.”

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

Shortly after this, it is Stevens’ birthday.

birthday 22 october

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

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

lucien half a million bribe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

franc dollar graph cropped more

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

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

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

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

jerrican seventy dollars

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

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

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

three thousand cfa about eleven dollars

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

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

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

thanksgiving

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

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

fifty thousand cfa

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

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

“Fifty thousand CFA to fix the car.”

That was almost two hundred dollars.

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

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

fifty thousand cfa first time

“Yes, but first we must discuss price.”

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

“Fifty thousand CFA.”

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

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

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

I end with the final details that are off, starkly off, for which I leave to others to deduce an explanation.

As said before, Stevens arrives on the continent at the beginning of October. He celebrates his birthday in Bangui, Central African Republic, on the twenty second of October.

I stated earlier that there are markers establishing that the story takes place in 1987. Here is the first one. Stevens writes of the carnet, a letter of passage, needed to travel through most African countries to avoid paying entrance duties to that country.

carnet england storm

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

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

What is puzzling is this. The storm took place on October 16th and 17th. Stevens obtains his carnet before leaving for Africa. Yet he says he arrives in Africa in early October. How is it that he is in England during this storm, yet is in Africa, before the storm?

There is another, smaller discrepancy. It is after his birthday, Stevens and Ann Bradley are traveling from Cameroon into Chad. Stevens describes what is taking place there:

chad was fighting a war

Entering Chad near the capital, N’Djamena, one could theoretically drive across Lake Chad (largely dry for the last ten years) and into Niger. There were problems with this approach. For starters, Chad was fighting a war with Libya and though most of the fighting occurred in the northern desert near the border, the Libyans had bombed N’Djamena just a few months earlier.

Later, when they are about to enter Chad, we get this description:

war zone capitals of a winning side

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

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

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

All this suggests a war with ongoing fighting. These descriptions correspond to either later October and mid-November, or early November and late November, respectively. Yet this was at least a month and a half into a ceasefire between Libya and Chad with no outbreak of hostilities. No doubt traveling in this area was still a frightening experience, and that the ceasefire could break any day was a disturbing possibility for those entering Chad. But why leave out a crucial piece of information such as this, placing the conflict in a more ambiguous pre-ceasefire place rather than after?

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

fragment of shot down plane

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

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

This was actually a well-reported incident, “Libyan Warplane Is Downed In Chad By French Forces” which took place on September 8th, 1987 and one that may have helped trigger the ceasefire. That the shooting down is mentioned, but the ceasefire is not, as if to create a sense of ongoing war which the travelers might face is a strange one.

One more detail that I think points to a disconcerting anachronism. The trip starts in the Central African Republic, which they stay in past Stevens’ birthday on October 22. After, they leave for Cameroon, where they run into a national celebration in Bertoua.

cameroon national holiday

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

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

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

The only national holiday that this could be is Cameroon’s Unification Day, when the french and english parts of the country united. Again, this scene takes place after Stevens’ birthday on October 22. Cameroon’s unification day is October 1st.

There is another possible discrepancy, but this does not relate directly to Malaria Dreams, but a trip to Africa described in Feeding Frenzy. There are discrepancies if it is the same trip to Africa described.

Traveling along the river Niger in Malaria Dreams, Stevens and Bradley come across some fishermen.

capitaine giant perch

I woke up at first light and brewed coffee on the little gas stove. The mornings were the best time of day, when it was cool enough to forget, at least for a little while, the strangling heat of the upcoming hours. A pirogue floated through the mist, a graceful craft with bow and stern rising upward like outstretched arms. There were two teenagers poling the boat. They landed and hoisted out a bulky fish, mouth gaping. It was a capitaine, a breed of giant perch I’d first seen pulled from the Ubangi River in Bangui.

A capitaine, Nile perch, can be found in the Niger river. In Feeding Frenzy, Stevens remembers a moment from a trip in Africa, perhaps the same trip of Malaria Dreams

oversized gar

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

Now, Stevens has not come across fishermen in Niger, but fished himself, one of many times he has fished in Africa. At no point in Malaria Dreams does he mention doing any fishing. Another prominent detail is the error in the fish: the visual identification of the gar is entirely correct, but this is a fish that is not found in the river Niger, or anywhere in Africa, as outlined in this brief National Geographic summary; it can, however, be found in Stevens’ native Mississippi. It is from the Lepisosteidae family, none of which can be found in Africa. Here is a partial list of fish to be found in the Niger river; lepisosteida are easily recognizable by their snub nose; none of the fish species in this list seem to have this identifier.

A final short small detail, but one that I found as equally striking as the date of the storm. After leaving Chad, where they spend thanksgiving, the travelers go to Niger.

burkina faso coup pt one burkina faso coup pt two

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

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

Again, this takes place after Thanksgiving, either at the very end of November, or early December. The coup in Burkina Faso is spoken of as having taken place a few days earlier.

The coup in Burkina Faso was against the very charismatic, guitar playing Thomas Sankara, who was killed. The coup took place on the 16th of October and he was executed on the 17th, 1987. Again, I leave it to others to make their deductions.

The ending of this post is abrupt: I think there’s possibility of greater analysis of this book, so I consider this entry unfinished.

(Edits have been made for clarity; additions were made detailing the smuggling of diamonds in the book, the ambassador who is not a Reagan dunce, and the polish smugglers. A few additions were made on the currency exchange of the book, along with some edits for improved clarity.)

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Scorched Earth by Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens

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

scorched earth by stuart stevens

SYNOPSIS

A novel by Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. It is a book of interest since one often says things in fiction that are perhaps never said in memoirs or factual tales, and also because few political consultants have written novels about their own profession, showing how they see their role, politics, voters.

The story has a plot that is both convoluted and simple. In an unnamed state, but one which can only be Mississippi (Tishomingo county is often referenced), Luke Bonney, a congressman, runs in an election for Senate against the state’s governor, Solomon Jawinski, whose campaign is managed by Matthew, Luke’s brother. Matthew Bonney is married to congresswoman Lisa James. Luke, despite his good looks, is unmarried. The father of Luke and Matthew is Powell Bonney, former governor of the state. Almost all of the story takes place in the last six days of the campaign.

During the election, the Jawinski campaign is threatened by revelations from his ex-wife’s memoir. Luke Bonney’s campaign is hit by allegations that he slept with a group of black transvestite prostitutes. Luke Bonney tries to counter this rumor by claiming that he slept with Matthew Bonney’s wife. Matthew cheats on Lisa with her sister, Dawn. The election ends in a near dead heat, with Jawinski finally winning by a fraction of votes. Jawinski believes the tightly split vote shows how disgusted voters are with the choices given them, so, in order to heal this cynicism, he has Powell Bonney appointed in his place as senator. The story ends with the rumors over Luke Bonney ambiguous and unresolved, Powell Bonney a senator, Matthew and Lisa expecting their first child.

Though I don’t think it’s very funny, the story is an attempt at a madcap farce, with a few serious moments. There are many reasons why it doesn’t work, but a principal one is that the reader has no sense of the characters as real. The people of a broad comedy may be exaggerations, yet they must still feel something like what we do in comparable situations: women and men are deeply upset when they’re betrayed, sexual entanglements do not begin and end arbitrarily, there is some intuitive reason for why two brothers hate each other. Lisa shows no regret or sadness when she intuits that Matthew has betrayed her with her own sister. Matthew sleeps with Dawn, then never gives her any additional attention again, nor does she ask any. The brothers Matthew and Luke hate each other, but though we wait to hear of some basis for the long standing ire, none is ever revealed.

If the book is a failure, that does not keep it from being a fascinating one, almost entirely because of the writer’s privileged position. Through several sections, I try and examine the more intriguing aspects in some depth. Quotes from the book are often long, to make clear that they are not selective or distorted. All quotes are accompanied by scans of the pages to make clear that the quote is very much real, and not fabricated.

ROSS BARNETT AND GEORGE WALLACE

Perhaps the strangest, most interesting detail of the book is that Powell Bonney, the father of brothers Luke and Matt, is a composite of segregationists George Wallace, governor of Alabama and Ross Barnett, governor of Mississippi; he is also, easily, the most sympathetic character in the book.

Powell is governor of Mississippi during the strife of the civil rights era, with two historical events merged and given over to him. He is there during the integration of Ole Miss when James Meredith is admitted as a student, during which a massive riot takes place and several people are killed; this is joined with the image of George Wallace standing in the doorway to block admission of black students to the University of Alabama, as well as the idea of Wallace’s penitence for segregation and his subsequent re-election as governor.

What is strange is the way these segregationists have been re-sculpted into this character. He is simply a good man, caught amongst the forces of history, deeply regretful of what takes place when a riot breaks out at the university over the admission of its first black student. After the crisis, stricken by conscience, he resigns from the governorship, and finds a sort of penance by doing volunteer work at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm.

This is one of the first references to the father’s segregationist past in the book, with the borrowed detail of Wallace standing in the school’s doorway:

The Big Guy.

That’s what they called his father in those days. The two brothers had picked it up from one of the state troopers who drove him around and played at being a bodyguard. He never called their father Governor Powell Bonney. Just the Big Guy, even to his face. The governor didn’t seem to mind.

Matt had liked that state trooper. He was the one who told Matt and Luke about their father’s decision not to run for reelection. Luke was furious, Matt could remember it so clearly. “Why?” he kept asking. “How come?”

The trooper just shook his head. He was a sizable fellow, large but not obese, with a burr haircut and a warm smile. Even their mother liked him. “Your daddy’s a good man,” he told them that day driving around in his cruiser – Luke and Matt loved that cruiser. “You don’t let anybody tell you different. You hear me now? The Big Guy’s a champ. A champ-i-on. You wanna hear the siren?”

That was before they were old enough to understand. At least officially understand. What Matt knew was that something wasn’t right. Later, in college, even at the University, right next to the photos of the cars burning and the dead bodies. There were three of those: one student, one national guardsman, and one poor bastard photographer from Sweden. That sort of spread the losses evenly. It would have been hardly fair if any blacks had died. After all, only one was trying to enter the University. That’s what the Big Guy was trying to stop – standing tall in the doorway.

“You hear me now? The Big Guy’s a champ. A champ-i-on. You wanna hear the siren?”

The most extensive mention of the father’s role during the University crisis comes during a visit by Matt Bonney to the prison where his father does his volunteer work. A history book triggers a memory of where he was and what took place that night. The date of the admission of James Meredith has been changed, from October 1, 1962 to September 7, 1964, when Robert Kennedy was no longer even attorney general, but other than that the facts seem the same.

Wandering around the empty library, Matt found a copy of a state history and began to read. It was a new textbook and included a section on his father entitled “The Question of Powell Bonney?”

Powell Bonney’s single-term governorship is one of the more enigmatic in state history. Indeed, Powell Bonney himself remains a mysterious figure in our state’s history. There are those who consider him a tragic victim of the times, destroyed by the race question. Others see him as a conservative who took advantage of racial issues to gain election only to be overtaken by events. But all agree the pivotal event in his single term was the integration of the state University and the subsequent riots that left four people dead. Clearly, Governor Bonney saw these events as a personal failure, and though he gave no reason publicly for deciding not to seek a second term, it was generally agreed that the incidents at the state University were at the heart of his decision.

The exact date was easy to remember – it had made headlines across the country – September 7, 1964. He always thought of it beginning with the two of them in the kitchen, he and Lisa, while his father, who was governor then, of course, was “dealing with the situation.” Lisa’s father was teaching law at the University, a visiting professor taking a year off from his Capitol City law practice.

A few blocks away, in the center of the campus, a crowd of students was beginning to gather, and less than a mile away, a small army of National Guardsmen were waiting instructions from Robert Kennedy, the attorney general. Tomorrow, the first black was scheduled to be enrolled in the state University.

Huddled in the kitchen, Matt and Lisa felt they were part of some great and strange adventure. Outside the house, television crews waited with a score of reporters. They were perched on the sidewalk, spilling out into the quiet street lined with live oaks, drinking lemonade and iced tea the University provided. They sat there waiting for some word from the house, and it made Matt and Lisa feel very important and mature that they were on the inside, a part of what was happening.

That night after dinner at the kitchen table, they slipped over the back fence, very serious in their stealth, convinced that their departure, if detected was sure to be seen on Huntley-Brinkley. Once free, they wandered around town holding hands for the first time. Certain streets were totally deserted, while others were packed with racing students and the press.

They decided to follow the jeeps and trucks that had begun moving toward the campus’s main square. Several blocks later, though, the streets were blocked by a rifle-carrying students turning away all spectators. But Lisa knew the town and she led Matt to the football stadium, where an underground tunnel connected the locker room an the gym, which faced onto the main square. Perched on a locker, they watched the riot begin.

They killed two people and burned a half-dozen cars that night, and Matt and Lisa watched it all. At first they were more excited and nervous than they had ever been, but by the end, they just felt numb, eyes burning from the tear gas. They stayed until dawn when the square was mostly empty of students and firemen were left in peace to hose down the smoldering cars.

When they got back to the house, Matt and Lisa expected their fathers to be waiting, upset by their disappearance. But no one was there. After they had gone to bed, Matt in the guest bedroom, Lisa a floor above, Matt heard his father and Lisa’s father come in together, the front door slamming behind them.

They remained downstairs for a little bit, then his father came up to the extra bedroom next to Matt’s, where he was staying. Matt was just falling asleep when he heard his father vomiting in the bathroom they shared. A little later, he thought he heard sobs, but about this he couldn’t be sure.

This governor vomits over what has taken place. The history book gives the possibilities of either a tragic figure or a man overwhelmed by history. A later episode with the current governor, Jawinski, further makes him into a martyr. Jawinski implies there was a secret deal with Robert Kennedy, but the riots took place anyway.

“Oh, that’s good, Bonney. Just terrific. Anyway, dummy, you’re crazy to be dumping on your old man. He did the best he could. I think there was a lot more about that standing-in-the-schoolhouse-door act than people ever understood. I really do.”

“You mean like some kind of deal with Robert Kennedy that he would pretend to be against the integration but then let it happen.”

Jawinski looked over at Matt for a terrifyingly long time. “Yeah,” he finally said, surprised, “something like that.”

“They just didn’t figure on the riot.”

“Riots you don’t figure. It’s the first rule of riots.”

There were, in fact, attempts by governor Ross Barnett to arrange in some way to have Meredith attend a school, without bringing about a confrontation with federal forces. These arrangements broke down. Barnett did not “pretend” to be against integration. He was against integration. He made defiant, incendiary speeches against integration on the Saturday before Meredith’s admission to the school. He arrested the Freedom Riders when they came through his state. He showed visible and crucial support to Byron De La Beckwith, the assassin of Medgar Evers. “There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration,” he said. “We will not drink from the cup of genocide.” White supremacy was his campaign theme each time he ran for office. He was utterly unrepentant about his actions at his death, and stated emphatically that he would act in exactly the same way again. All this information is unambiguous and easily available in his obituary. He did not seek a second term for “mysterious reasons”, but because term limits restricted governors to single nonconsecutive terms.

These were the same non-mysterious reasons why Governor Wallace did not seek a second term in Alabama, following the tenure in which he fought integration at his own state’s university. Wallace, whatever the sincerity of his later professions of regret, did attempt to make active penance, in addition to the forced penitence of partial paralysis from an assassin’s bullet, by confessing to having been wrong, becoming a born again Christian, actively seeking out the forgiveness of his state’s black citizens, some of whom then demonstrated their forgiveness by voting the man back into office. All these steps to redemption for this specific act go untaken by this novel’s governor. He goes into exile. He trains for the Ironman. He does volunteer work at the prison. The last no doubt helpful, but not a direct confrontation of the segregation he helped enforce.

So, given this historical context, it’s puzzling that this book takes the material of two segregationists, who believed in the inherent inferiority of a substantial number of their state’s citizens, and turns it into a character that is a martyr, someone who is an instrument for good, integration, yet cannot reveal this, who then goes into exile, a man too good for this world. It can only be read as an exculpation, a fantasy desired of who the governor was then and why he acted, a shirking from what actually took place.

Stranger still, is that the book acknowledges that this man once made an active appeal for segregation. Matt stumbles upon a commercial made during the governor’s race:

“Powell Bonney – the man from Arcadia!” the voice announced boldly. (Or, at least, semiboldly. The announcer was Woody Jackson, the best local talent available at the time the commercial was made, in 1962. [Woody Jackson, a local TV newscaster character who appears briefly in the book]) “He speaks for the people!” The camera cut from footage of Powell Bonney speaking before a huge crowd at the Lester County Fair to Powell Bonney in a studio talking directly into the camera. “I have always tried to do my best to protect our way of life. The stakes in this election are high. Our cause just. I need your help in the battle ahead!”

Despite this contentious history, it is never explicitly brought up in any conversation between father and either son. It is simply enough to present him as a martyr and assume that the reader will accept that. This perhaps makes one of the last moments of the story truly alienating. Though the current governor has won the senate race, he hands over this position to Powell Bonney, the former segregationist governor:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

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

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

This is viewed, from inside the story, as the sound, moral choice, a happy ending to this novel. I would think a very large number of black men and women of Mississippi would take great issue with what happens: they vote for a candidate, yet somehow this group of almost entirely white men and women decide that the better pick would be the favorite son of the state, the former segregationist governor. He is, after all, a decent man. There were a lot of victims in the fight for civil rights, and, according to this novel, the governor was a victim too. So, it’s only proper that he get another chance, and serve as state senator. How could any upstanding black man or woman dare disturb the universe and disagree with that?

How does this man demonstrate his ultimate decency in a novel written by a Republican consultant? Through his support of a massive government program which will benefit the children of every state, a national literacy program:

“I’ve got one son who thinks I chickened out and another who figures I wasn’t a hero on civil rights. They’re both right, but there you have it. So look, can we talk about literacy? Please? I’ve proposed legislation that would guarantee every American a right to basic literacy skills. It’s an unbelievably good bill.”

So, government paternalism is an evil that a republican must fight against with all his will, unless, of course, it is needed to redeem an aging segregationist. Even big government occasionally has its uses.

GOSSIP

As with any book about american politics, a number of figures appear as caricatures, a few small details changed, taunting you to unmask who they are. I am very poor at this game, but I believe I guessed at least one correctly. Perhaps because there is a safety in fiction, and safety in mildly guised characters, every member of the political-media-industrial complex who appear under another name are portrayed unsympathetically, if not utterly dark with bile.

Early on, an obnoxious and violently unattractive man shows up, a former journalist who has become a celebrity by hosting “Showdown”, a quasi-debate program where he shouts and spits over unfortunate guests. This, I believe, can only be one man, the late Prince of Darkness, the infamous Robert Novak. Here Novak is Robert Newsome, and “Showdown” is Novak’s ugly child, “Crossfire”.

A lengthy quote describing the man and his creation:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Few ugly people love the camera, but Robert Newsome was a triumphant exception. He looked forward to his nationally telecast weekly program called “Showdown” with the same heart-thumping glee he had once anticipated his first bylines in his salad days with the Baltimore Sun. The camera – television! that wonderful cathode stage – had resurrected political reporter Robert Newsome from op-ed obscurity and had thrust (that’s how he liked to think about it – THRUST) him into the homes of unsuspecting millions. Television had brought him fans. Television had, for the first time in his forty-seven years, narrowed the vast chasm between his sexual appetites and reality. (Maybe a little too much. That lawsuit was annoying, but it was mostly inside baseball. No one really seemed to care.) Television had made him rich.

At first, the thought of appearing on television made Robert Newsome throw up. Literally. (The outtakes of his first shows were an underground classic in Washington. “Grab the wastebasket!” was the oft-heard, off-camera cry of the bedraggled director.) But he had gradually stumbled onto what he figured to be the medium’s dirty little secret: Television was easy! There was none of the hard digging and seducing of sources that went into his twice-weekly column, Banished was the need to freeze to death at the Iowa caucuses or get teargassed at demonstrations. All you had to do was show up in a studio, usually a temperature-controlled studio, and rant and rave, threaten and cajole – his normal dinner party performance, really, no more or less – and that was it. People loved it. Newsome was a star.

Some television critics had speculated, much to Newsome’s pleasure, that he deliberately tried to make himself look unappealingly sinister on camera. But the truth was that Newsome required no magic to make his electronic presence frightening. He was short and dumpy, with arms too long for his frame, arms that looked to be borrowed from another body. His face was a disaster. He had collapsed cheekbones and a bulbous forehead, a combination that threw most of his features into perpetual shadow. The tone of his skin was swarthy, which on handsome Italians is enviously referred to as “olive,” but Newsome’s olive was overripe and splotchy, two weeks to the bad. A feeble beard raged across his face like a gray bushfire partially extinguished by a rake.

It was Newsome’s love of combat that his audience adored. Here was a man who spoke the truth. “You’re lying, Senator!” A man who begged to be hated! “This may come as a shock, Congressman, but my sources tell me you have an illustrious future behind you.” Thus spoke Newsome!

The set of “Showdown” was designed to maximize the shock effect of confrontation. The two “guests” – it seemed an odd word for people invited to be abused – sat jammed next to each other in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs. Newsome sat inches away across a simple black table, quite literally in their faces. When the show got really hot, spittle flew in all directions. True fans loved to watch closely to observe who was getting the most spray in the face. Usually, it was a guest, for Newsome was blessed with a fierce set of salivary glands.

For some reason, whenever he faced Robert Newsome, Matt’s mind drifted to images of Newsome having sex. Matt wondered if Newsome took off his thick black socks and what sort of sounds he made. It was an oxymoronic vision, like a warthog dancing. Matt started to laugh.

I quote one more Newsom segment from the novel. It is easily one of its most striking, of no consequence in its overall structure, but of great importance to a reader during a presidential election, especially one where a population is burdened and worn down, while a media-politico elite issues diktats from an increasingly lofty height. Robert Novak, I’m sorry, Newsome and Matt Bonney go to a run-down chinese restaurant. Newsome looks about at the sorry souls of myriad races, far poorer than the two men, people who will be poor the rest of their lives, feels no connection with any of them, and states clearly: he wants no part of them. Matt Bonney hears this, and completely agrees. Remember that the next time you wonder why some Sunday morning “news” program seems to have so little to do with the poverty and desperation of people outside their hallowed studios, or when the Romney campaign puts forth a message of compassion, concern, or empathy. The people who opine on those programs, the man who crafted that message, have nothing to do with your sorry lives and they are grateful for that.

The significant areas receive my bolds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, yes,” Matt said.

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

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

Next, there is a political consultant, Mort Koughan, working for the opposing candidate, Matt’s brother Luke. He is not given anything like the extensive description of Newsome; he is fat, jewish, with a hard glare and a low rumble of a voice. He’s a very famous consultant from New York City who frequently loses his temper, works state campaigns as well as presidential races. That he is from New York and jewish, I think, are red herrings. The two prominent consultants who match those details are Hank Sheinkopf and Dick Morris, but they don’t really fit the other details, and Morris, despite his current outsize profile, was a very secretive figure when this book was written.

The hard eyes, the temper, the man’s fame and prominence, especially the low rumble of a voice, all make me think this is supposed to be a thinly veiled Ed Rollins, California born catholic. Two quick notes: Rollins appeared on a discussion panel with Stevens in this episode of Charlie Rose, and he was very critical of the performance of the Romney campaign in this very good article, “The Lost Party” by John Heilemann).

Like Newsome, he is looked at with loathing. Koughan makes his first appearance in the novel as a “Showdown” guest:

“And on my right is the famed veteran of national politics, the media maven from New York, the wealthy and ever-well-fed Mort Koughan.” [introduction by Newsome]

Mort Koughan glared and chortled all at once, an exceptionally repellent combination.

“From what I can gather,” Koughan said in his low grumble of a voice, “people around here have a very high regard for former Governor Bonney. In fact, most think he was a heck of a lot better governor than the man trying to do the job right now.”

During a debate, Koughan fires off his gun by accident.

Suddenly, a sound bellowed from the wings. “Jesus wept! I shot myself! Jesus!”

It was Morton Koughan’s voice. He staggered out on stage, staring downward in amazement. A dark wetness spread across his gray Paul Stuart suite pants. “How the hell did this happen?” he asked, as if he were questioning the inferior performance of one of his employees. “How the hell-” His legs wavered, and then he pitched off to the side like an ugly tree losing its balance.

As a quick aside, I should mention that I find a detail here to be slightly unusual: a catholic would be in the habit of saying “jesus wept!”, as an oath, but I think a jewish man from New York City would be less accustomed to using such a phrase as a curse.

After this incident, emphatic reference is made in the book on this man’s small penis. Folks, these are the jokes.

Another consultant, Ruthie, on Matt Bonney’s team:

“You think that fat bastard shot himself in his tiny little thing on purpose?” Ruthie hissed.

A conversation between Matt and his mother.

“Matt,” his mother said gently. “It’s not Luke, and you know it. It’s that awful consultant of his from New York. The one who shot himself-”

“In his little-bitty penis.”

“Matt!” But she was laughing.

I’ll note a strange aspect of this loathing which I’ll return to later. Koughan inspires great animus in Matthew, he is widely looked on as a repellent creature, as if we in the audience should easily see and share in this venom, yet there is nothing in the man portrayed that appears to justify this. He is a pit fighter, but there is nothing I notice that distinguishes him from Matthew or anyone in the Jawinski campaign.

Here he is again, recovering from his self-inflicted wound, not simply a political combatant, but a man whose existence challenges the concept of a loving god:

From the control room, Matt and Governor Jawinski could see Morton Koughan roaming the perimeter of the soundstage. Using a cane, he dragged one foot behind him. For an instant, Matt was astonished to feel a pang of sympathy for a man whose very existence he felt challenged the notion of a benevolent God.

“Look at that jerk,” Jawinski muttered. “He looks like a wounded warthog.”

This was true.

Another political professional who shows up is Walter Farkas, a pollster who works with Matthew Bonney. He is a slightly eccentric man, dark skinned but not african american, whose brother works in his polling firm as well. This, I believe, is the polling expert John Zogby.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Walter Farkas walked across the table, his bare toes splayed across the glass like a tree rog. While he walked, he rolled his tie up and down. His gray pinstriped suit gave every impression of having been slept in, which it might well have been. Walter was noted for keeping vampire hours, an unusual trait for a pollster. As a rule, pollsters were the accountants of politics – smart but dry, a breed whose members prided themselves on their very blandness as proof of their submission to the empirical forces of numerical logic.

But not Walter Farkas. It was one of the reasons he and Solomon Jawinski took to each other from the start. Years ago, Walter’s brother, Josh, who held up the business end of their polling firm, had called then Attorney General Jawinski to pitch Walter’s services.

A physical description and age appear in this pan over the campaign consultants sitting behind the observation glass during the testing of a TV ad:

Scorched Earth 017n Farkas tall

Had the glass been reversed, the focus group could have witnessed a rather strange assemblage: the tall and dark Farkas, who looked like he should be running a numbers racket in Queens (which he had done once while at Columbia – his numerical adroitness had made him an instant success); Charlie Song, who was half-black and half-Oriental and somehow preposterously handsome; and Ruthie Simms, who resembled a cheerleader trying out for a role in a music video. Walter Farkas was the oldest at forty-four; Ruthie Simms, the youngest, twenty-eight; and Charlie Song in between at thirty-three.

I am unclear who Charlie Song and Ruthie Simms are stand-ins for, if anyone. I note also the strange juxtaposition that Song is half-black, half-asian, and “somehow” preposterously handsome. I am uncertain why good looks should be a surprising development from this racial mixture.

Again, as with the others, Farkas is viewed with bileful hostility. The thoughts of Ruthie, another consultant, on Farkas:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

She had never in her life met anyone who thought he knew as much as Walter Farkas. The problem was, he actually had good ideas so it was impossible just to ignore him, which is what she’d really have liked to do.

It is Farkas who wants to make an issue of Luke Bonney’s sexual orientation. He brings it up during a meal where he keeps taking food off other people’s plates. Two details establish how he’s viewed by Matt Bonney and the writer:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“What’s it mean?” Matt asked. He wanted the pompano to arrive that instant so he wouldn’t have to look into Walter’s horrible gray face another second. “Do the spots work or not?”

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Walter nodded, then leaned down so that Matt could taste his acrid breath and whispered, “What do you know about your brother being a fag?”

Later, Farkas is beaten by Matt Bonney for what he’s done. I leave that excerpt to the next section.

Finally, for completeness, I mention that Roger Ailes, along with the lesser known Bob Beckell, a democrat consultant, make a brief walk-on under their actual names. I wish I could say some rancid secret is exposed here, but their appearance is a non-event, though Beckell is viewed with casual dismissiveness.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I am leaving,” Lisa sighed, and this time she opened the door, and just as she did, Roger Ailes walked into the bathroom with Bob Beckell. They were both big men, and the bathroom seemed to get much smaller in a hurry.

“What is this,” Beckell demanded, laughing, “some kind of Bonney family reunion?”

“I was just explaining to Beckell,” Ailes said, quite graciously, as if this were a bathroom conclave convened at his request, ” that it takes a smart man to win a bunch of races and become a national pundit, but it takes a damn genius to lose forty-eight states in a presidential race and become the hottest pundit in town.”

Beckell, when he had managed Walter Mondale’s campaign, had done just that. Now he dispensed political wisdom on national tv with great aplomb.

“Amazing country, ain’t it Roge?” Beckell beamed.

“I,” Lisa said most graciously, “was just leaving some time ago.”

Luke Bonney laughed and slapped Beckell’s expansive back. Matt shrugged, catching Beckell’s puzzled expression. As a fellow political professional, he looked to Matt to explain the odd behavior of these two congresspeople named Bonney. But Matt marched right past him for the door.

VIOLENCE

In the last book I read and wrote about by Stevens, Feeding Frenzy, he showed a strong fascination for violence in the context of the normally sedate genre of foodie memoir. Here, in the more vicious terrain of political combat and the more permissive universe of fiction, this fixation on violence continues. It is not just that politics is inherently violent struggle, but Stevens wants it to be like violent struggle, and make the violence of the struggle as brutal and sadistic as possible.

This is Luke Bonney preparing for his debate. My bolds.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Over the earphones connected to the Sony Walkman resting in his lap, he was listening to a collection of Motown’s greatest hits, cassette five of an eight-cassette package. Before the debate, he intended to work through all eight.

Luke had spent two full days preparing for the debate with his New York media adviser, the famous Morton Koughan. They had strategized and prepped, rehearsed and analyzed for hours. Now Luke Bonney understood that success or failure came down to his ability to perform. By the time tape eight ended with a Jackson Five medley, he had every intention of being fully prepared to tear Governor Solomon Jawinski’s face right off his ugly head.

Luke Bonney and his consultant Morton Koughan discussing on how to deal with some negative advertising.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“How,” Luke asked in a tired voice, “do you think we ought to respond?”

“We’ve got to go in and tear Jawinski’s heart out and eat it right in front of him. Before he does it to us. That’s what we do. We’ve been ridiculing him. Now we kill him.”

The violence is not simply imagined, as in Feeding Frenzy, but often acted out. After Walter Farkas releases the accusation that Luke Bonney slept with prostitutes, Matthew confronts Farkas, then hits him.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

No one said anything for a long time until Matt, whose head lay on the table and who appeared asleep said, “Farkas, what have you done this time?”

“Me?” he answered, looking around the room, which was beginning to fill. “Me, Matt?”

Matt looked up, his eyes slanted like an alligator viewing a potential meal.

“You are such a lying, miserable failure of human endeavor,” Matt said in a tone of voice no different than when he had ordered his Greek salad.

Farkas sputtered and grew red. “You stupid cracker!” he hissed, loud enough to silence the table and booths in the back half of the restaurant. Lionel and Darryl [the owners of the restaurant] stopped in mid-delivery, myopic eyes bulging delightedly.

On the other side of the restaurant, a reporter from the Clarion Item newspaper sat at the counter trying, without great success, to appear not to be listening.

“I don’t think this is quite the place,” Charlie said.

“Right,” Farkas blurted. “You gonna tell me what the exact proper place is for this cracker to call me a miserable failure of a human?”

“How about the kitchen?” Matt asked, still using the same level voice.

Farkas seemed taken aback. “Okay,” he said, frowning, as if analyzing the change of venue.

The Mayflower kitchen was a loud, extraordinarily hot place. Bubbling vats of oil sizzling with strange shapes covered most of the surfaces. Buckets of brown, twisted french fries hung from meat hooks above the stoves. Two men, both black, and two women, both white, threw their bodies about with tremendous velocity.

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

After the election, Matthew Bonney goes to the rival victory party, then lights hidden firecrackers and throws lit firecrackers at everyone, including his nemesis, Morton Koughan.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

At first, the crowd cheered as the Roman candles lit the sky, thinking, of course, that this was all part of the show. But when Matt hurled the first M80s into the edge of the crowd, and the second round of star shells came shooting straight at the well-barbered heads of the crowd, a nervous ripple of panic shook the onlookers. This escalated into a roar of sheer fear when the helicopter spinners flashed toward the crowd, then the lava cones and the parachute flares. A few dozen simple bottle rockets completed the riot.

“I’m gettin’ out of here!” a handsome woman with a lovely tennis tan announced, kicking off her high heels and sprinting for her convertible but not before grabbing a bottle of champagne from one of the stunned waiters.

Matt ran through the night, lighting the fireworks he and Lisa had hidden. He was barefoot, the sand and clay crunching against his bare soles, sweat pouring off his face, a pleasant, almost sweet sweat of energy long stored finally expended. As he sprinted from hidden fuse to hidden fuse, Matt couldn’t remember when he had enjoyed anything quite as much. He liked it so much he figured he should do it again very soon, make a regular habit of it, say, every few weeks or so.

“There he is!” Matt heard one of the waiters scream, and he passed for a second, looking around, wondering who might have arrived. Then he realized the waiter was pointing at him. “Ninja!” the waiter screamed, getting a better look at Matt as he paused. “Ninja man!”

Matt smiled, then launched a bottle rocket at the man’s crotch. “Aeeiiii!” he screamed, jumping aside with surprising alacrity, revealing a very disturbed-looking Morton Koughan suspended between his walking cane and the bar. He did not seem flushed with the sweet wine of victory. In truth, he looked mostly pissed off and well on his way to a quite mean drunk.

“Ninja!” Koughan yelped.

Matt smiled, lighting a fist full of bottle rockets.

“Go ahead!” Morton Koughan screamed. “Shoot me! Go ahead!”

Matt hated to disappoint the famous media consultant.

Ninja bastard!” Koughan yelped as he flung himself behind the bar to avoid the incoming missiles.

Matt was quite impressed with his agility. He may have been an aging, overweight, half-lame, nearly self-castrated media consultant from New York, but the man could move when faced with an immediate introduction to the physics of bottle rocketry.

After Luke tells Matthew he wants to use an affair with his wife as an alibi, Matthew hits him.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I need to start leaking the word that Lisa and I have been an item. I need it out there to beat off this fag thing. It’s the way it’s got to be, and I’m here trying to be a nice guy to ask you if it’s okay or what.”

“Let me understand.” Matt’s voice shook. “You’re a nice guy because you’re asking me if it’s okay if you tell the world that you’re having an affair with my wife?”

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

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

The desire for violence is aroused not just by opponents and wrongdoers, but by anyone who irritates Matthew. His fellow consultant Ruthie says something that annoys him, and Matthew wants to rip her throat with his teeth.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

Ruthie later says something else that annoys Matthew and he wants to rip her throat with his teeth.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

The imagery here echos Stevens’ own fantasies of strangling women in Feeding Frenzy.

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

“You have a problem,” she said.

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

maybe it would kill some germans

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

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

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

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

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

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

This desire for violence is not a put-on, but one truly felt by the writer, which Stevens has occasionally been very honest about. A relevant paragraph from “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse”, an article Stevens wrote on long distance cycling, on his path through various sports. The striking portion is bolded.

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

This fascination with violence is a filter through which the political process is seen. Elections, are simply war by other means. It is best shown near the ending, when the vote is split, and an image of strength must be given. Stevens was a participant on the Bush team during the 2000 election fiasco and this section serves as an eerie foreshadowing of what took place.

Before getting to the martial imagery, two quick excerpts are disturbingly apt given what was to happen in 2000.

One, on the possibility of vote theft:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

The other, on the inspection of voting tallies:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

Here then are the segments after the contested vote which emphasize the point of politics as war, a politics that the writer wants to be war. I bold the significant notes in the first excerpt:

Scorched Earth 031n Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

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

Matt agreed sophisticated armaments might come in handy.

The press conference makes the point even more emphatically, the importance of the projection of strength, military strength:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

So, let us be clear. The supporters of Barack Obama, of those who wish for a fairer life for the 99%, must recognize that the chief strategist of the Romney campaign does not look upon elections as a happy ballet of ideas, or a civil discussion, or a calm thinking over of choices, but vicious, nasty, violent war. Do not ever worry that some infinitely wise op-ed columnist chastises you for being too partisan, or unrelenting, or unmerciful. Always remember that the only things the chief strategist of the Romney campaign believes in are force, power, strength, and sadism. When Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the democratic national committee laughs at the foibles and follies of the Romney campaign, Stuart Stevens no doubt wants to rip the vocal cords out of her throat with his teeth.

THE PROCESS

Perhaps the most startling aspect of this book about a state election, written by a political consultant, is the entire absence of any discussion of any issues – poverty, employment, medical care, anything. It is not that these issues do not exist; Matt Bonney mentions that the state continues to finish last in just about any ranking of citizen welfare. It is not simply that issues are tangential, or referred to through other means, they are not there at all.

This is stated, clearly and openly, in a discussion at the Jawinski campaign on how to deal with attack ads from the opposing candidate:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You announce,” Matt told him, “you announce that your campaign is demanding that all stations refuse to air this scurrilous attack. This attack that has no place in the political dialogue! And by inference, neither does the sort of scurrilous personal attack Luke Bonney’s media consultant must have talked him into launching, because you know Luke Bonney wouldn’t stoop to such low-life behavior on his own.”

“This is a race about issues! About values!” Walter Farkas sounded positively transformed.

“What issues?” Jawinski asked. “We’ve got issues in this race?”

“Of course not, but you can’t admit that.”

This next quote appears again in a conversation in the Jawinski camp on how to win the election, knowing that if the race is a referendum on their man, they will lose. The only way to win is by attacking and destroying the other candidate. Again, no issues are mentioned.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Well, it seems to me,” [lieutenant governor] Jack Tangent spoke up, “it seems to be that the biggest issue in this race is sitting right here,” he nodded toward the governor, “and as long this race is about a fellow named Solomon Jawinski, we might just up and lose. I mean, I find it hard to believe, but it just might be that fifty percent plus one wake up on Saturday feeling like maybe they’re kind of tired of Solomon and how they’d maybe like a change.”

“So?” Walter Farkas asked.

Jawinski scowled at Farkas. He liked his lieutenant governor and did not want him hurried. Jack had his own languid style, but eventually he would come around to the point – and the odds were it would be worth the effort.

“So maybe,” Jack continued, dawdling as always, “maybe we better get around to makin’ people start asking questions about that other fellow so destiny can work its little magic and our boy will end up in the Senate. Trouble is, nobody would ever think our esteemed Luke Bonney was a crook or a Communist. Can’t make him into that. Gotta play off his strengths to whip his weaknesses. Little jujitsu. You guys understand.”

There was a brief pause until Walter Farkas looked around and asked in a stage whisper, “Did anybody understand that?”

“I think,” Matt said, “that the lieutenant governor means that as long as this race is a referendum on Solomon Jawinski, we will probably lose. Or sure as hell could lose. But if we can get people to focus on questions about Luke, we can win. But the problem is that we don’t have really good stuff on Luke – nothin’ dirty -”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Farkas said quietly.

This idea, to use an opponent’s strengths against him, was, of course, effectively applied by the Bush campaign against Kerry, where the asset of his military experience was destroyed through various methods, most crucially the Swift Boat attack ads.

This allows for a quick digression, on the possible differences of what can be admitted in fact and fiction.

What follows is a small excerpt from an interview with Stevens by Jules Witcover, conducted in March 7, 2007, dealing with the issue of issue PACs such as 527s acting independently of the campaign (the site is currently off-line, so a screenshot of the full interview follows the excerpt). A central point of campaign finance reform is whether or not such PACs genuinely act apart from the main campaign, or whether co-ordination, explicit or through implicit signaling is inevitable. In this interview, Stevens claims the 527s acted entirely on their own.

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

I hate it.

Talk a little about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may well have been the case that the 527s acted on their own. However, it should be noted that what Stevens states here is entirely different from what Matthew Bonney, says in the novel about independent action committees. A front committee, The Citizens for Good Government, is set up by Walter Farkas, the campaign’s pollster, in order to publicize the story that Luke Bonney has slept with a number of transvestite prostitutes.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Who’s the Committee for Truth and Justice?” Matt asked.

“The Citizens for Good Government,” Charlie corrected. “It’s Walter Farkas and Byron Timmons.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Matt muttered. His hands trembled with rage.

“Walter has found,” Charlie continued, “three male prostitutes who say they have been playing around with Luke.”

It is after this that the issue of the connection between this front group and the campaign comes up. It is here that Matthew Bonney states that co-ordination between independent committees and the larger campaign was inevitable, as impossible to avoid as teenagers having sex, an admission entirely at odds with what Stevens said in the interview on co-ordination with the Swift Boat committees.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

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

I now go to a lengthy excerpt of the book which best illustrates the exclusive emphasis on what could be style issues, over anything to do with any policies that might help or hurt those living in the state. It is the best, truest scene in the book, very detailed, its details no doubt coming directly from personal work experience. The campaign team tests out a possible election ad for effectiveness with a group of potential voters. No issue is discussed in either the anti-Jawinski or anti-Bonney ad, no issue that might be hinted at in either ad is discussed by the campaign team either. The only “issue” is the perception of inexperience in Bonney and clownishness in Jawinski.

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The room darkened, and the television set flickered. A series of news clips appeared on the screen, brief bits on Martin Luther King Jr., the Olympic swimming team, Fidel Castro, the Atlanta Braves baseball team.

Farkas always showed the same clips at the beginning of all his focus groups. The responses served as a control, weeding out any pranksters: a ten rating for Fidel Castro tagged you as either a Communist or crazy, both equally useless in Farkas’s statistically correct world.

After the clips came separate three-minute segments of Luke Bonney and Solomon Jawinski answering questions at the previous night’s debate. Farkas had selected the responses to Woody’s weather question and Samantha’s UNICEF inquiry [Samantha Simms and Woody Jackson, panelists from the debate] – the bland of the bland. A strong response either positive or negative would ferret out any closet supporters or antagonists. Farkas naturally assumed that a certain number of people had lied during the initial selection process when asked if they had strong feelings about either candidate. They lied for the $35 bounty, they lied because they wanted to give what they figured was the correct answer, they lied for spite, and they lied for fun. Farkas hated mendacity. Liars were to a pollster what land mines were to tank commanders: nasty little unknowns that could muck up everything.

These bland three-minute appetizers were followed by the morning’s red meat: the new Bonney campaign spot attacking Jawinski. This was the spot Morton Kouhan had made the night before, directing by phone from his hotel room. Ruthie had obtained the spot from Ernie Swindell [the TV station manager] as soon as it had been delivered to the station early this morning. It was not scheduled to be aired until that evening in the time slots adjacent to the news. This was the most treasured airtime for political commercials. Years ago somebody like Walter Farkas had figured out that people who vote like to watch the news, and somebody like Matt Bonney figured out that positioning a commercial next to a news broadcast lent a certain credibility to the message. Most stations across America refused to sell political ads inside a news broadcast, fearing that it compromised the impartial tone of the news. But the Capital City stations, ever confident of their ethical reputation – as well as being greedy as pigs – had a policy of selling any open position.

In the darkened room of the focus group, the pirated spot began to play. Koughan had constructed the ad around film of Solomon Jawinski water-skiing at Cyprus Gardens intercut with shots from the debate. First, you saw the governor behind the podium proclaiming, “And I’ll be the sort of senator who’ll fight for what’s best for you!” Then it cut to Jawinski on water skis. He had never been a particularly pretty sight in a bathing suit, and he did not fare well in comparison to the stunning beauties of Cyprus Gardens who shared his tow rope. While the viewers heard the governor talking about what he would do as senator, they saw a delighted Solomon Jawinski clearly having a splendid time: as the camera zoomed in on his bouncing belly and skullcap of wet curls, he whooped and hollered, riding his single ski with a preternatural grace. He beamed at his co-skiers, muscular angels of the jet spray. Jawinski looked delighted, ecstatic, a man who had died and gone to heaven.

He did not look, however, by any stretch of the imagination, like a United States senator.

An announcer’s voice, a rich mocking voice, cut in over the pictures: “This man wants to be your next United States senator. He wants to represent you in matters of war and peace. He’s asking for the right to raise your taxes, to support or cancel Social Security.

“Over the next six years, this man wants to be your voice in Washington. Your voice. Your voice. Your voice…”

During the last refrain, the camera closed in on Jawinski letting loose – in slow motion – one of his famed rebel yells. Some might say it was a moment of pure existential joy; others might say Solomon Jawinski looked like a total asshole.

Ruthie watched the spot with a sick feeling in her stomach. She thought it was a terrific spot, one that cut to the core of the doubts about Solomon Jawinski. Sure, he’s a funny guy, but do you really want him in Washington?

The focus group spun the dials wildly. Some laughed. A few frowned and shook their heads. All eagerly awaited the next spot.

It was the spot Matt had made the night before, and it opened with a smiling Luke Bonney from the debate, which faded into another shot of Luke smiling and then another – a long, seemingly endless montage of Luke Bonney smiling.

The announcer began in a friendly, conversational tone: “He’s a young politician who likes to smile and make promises. Then smile some more and make some more promises.”

As the announcer spoke, the camera pushed in a little closer on each smiling shot, and each shot made Luke Bonney look sillier and sillier and even a bit sinister.

“But when you think about the problems we face,” the announcer continued as Luke Bonney’s smile was replaced by a half-dozen images of problems – unemployment, hot spots around the globe, crop failure, drugs – “do we really want just another smiling politician? Or a leader who’s not afraid to say no and can make Washington stand up and listen to what we are about. A smiling politician…or a leader. Solomon Jawinski. Smart. Tough. Ready for the job.”

The dials spun like windmills in a gale. When the lights came on, Ruthie thanked everyone and stood by the door distributing unmarked envelopes each containing $35 in cash. The generic envelopes and the payment in cash rather than by check were part of an effort by the Jawinski campaign to conceal the fact that they had sponsored the focus group. As in most campaigns, there was a great obsession with secrecy, but no one could actually articulate why it would be undesirable for anyone to know the Jawinski camp was holding focus groups. But campaign secrets took on a value of their own, so the more secrets the better.

The all importance of image is seconded when Matt observes his brother speaking. Luke is a very good politician, but this quality has nothing to do with any legislative expertise or achievement – none are ever mentioned – only his ability to shift in tone for the appropriate audience, just as a great musician can move effortlessly from playing with small bands to large orchestras.

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Matt was halfway back to the car when he heard his brother take the stage. He knew what he was going to say – Matt had watched his brother on the stump a half-dozen times during this campaign. He always gave a reverse doughnut – a different introduction with specifics tailored to the crowd, a stock middle section, and a close geared to the emotional level of the crowd. Without fail, he was his most emotional in front of poorer, less educated crowds. In front of business or do-gooder types like the League of Women Voters, Luke became almost analytically aloof and reserved, just the way they liked it. This adapatability was a trait Matt, when he still worked on his brother’s campaigns, had groomed. He felt it was the key to the big leagues. Any small-time politician can have one good act, but the big boys had half a dozen they rolled out at will, assessing the temperature of the crowd with great finesse.

“Today, before I begin here at this glorious Lester County Fair-”

That was Luke Bonney all the way. Make sure to refer to the event in the first sentence. It was a trick straight out of a Dale Carnegie speech-giving class, and it always worked.

This exclusive emphasis on image, on perception, rather than any policies merges with the idea that the management of an election campaign has nothing to do with policy, and for a consultant to have any focus on policy is a mistake. This is not an interpretation on my part, it is, again, stated explicitly by the hero consultant of the book, Matthew Bonney.

A scene at the end, Matt talking about the work of his wife, the congresswoman, and the contrast between governing and consulting:

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He knew she would have been up since 7:00 A.M., doing what she did every morning: talking on the phone, reading this subcommittee’s report on that committee’s report on the previous committee’s study of the subcommittee’s recommendation. There was a permanent but ever-changing stack of such reports by their bed in Washington. Matt couldn’t read the covers without getting bored. It was said by some that political consultants had too much influence on the governmental process, but Matt was yet to know a consultant who really gave half-a-damn about government. Government was that thing done by other people, the folks who actually wrote those reports that Lisa and her colleagues consumed like so much cotton candy. What Matt and his kind did were elections. That was as different from government as playing tuba in the high school band was from playing halfback on the team.

And that was how it should be, Matt figured. What was mucking everything up was the confusion of the two endeavors. Increasingly, the sort of person who would make a good political consultant was running for office. And winning, of course, because they were the best at manipulating the system. But, Lord knows, this wasn’t the breeding ground for the great statesmen of tomorrow. It was fundamentally wrong, confusing the two. It was like ambulance drivers replacing doctors just because they knew how to get to the patients first.

That an election is fundamentally about these dueling images, that it not be about policy at all, is what Stevens wants. He does not wish there to be any analytical aspect to a campaign, and cannot conceive of one. What everyone wants, even those who say it is not what they want, is conflict. He does not see journalism giving anything in terms of insightful examination or analysis as a counterpoint to the visual slugging contest, only diktats. The choice between two dueling images, the dozens played between two campaigns is democracy. That nobody votes or is disgusted that politics in turn is transformed by subservience to these images is not an issue either. Look at Italy, that’s where people vote, and look what sorry shape that country is in.

All this is said in this discussion about political coverage between Newsome and Matt Bonney:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You know what it is about you reporters, Newsome?” Matt asked. Newsome was busy scrubbing furiously at his suit pants with a wet towel. “You’re fundamentally conflicted about this campaign stuff.”

“Conflicted?” Newsome muttered.

“You guys talk all the time about how you hate dull campaigns and spend God knows how much energy trying to get two candidates to bash each other’s brains out-”

“What other fun is there?”

“Exactly. And then if a campaign should finally catch fire and start exploding on you, all of a sudden you start to condescend and rip into us for lack of decorum. Decorum. Hah!” Matt laughed loudly. Heads turned. “On the one hand, you want democracy to be a great popular sport, everybody involved and cheering wildly. But as soon as it starts to happen, you’re horrified. It’s like you want everybody to come to the party but only if they dress just so. You complain about how nobody votes anymore. Big deal! Ninety percent of the people in Italy vote. You want a country like that? And all this BS about how television ads are ruining campaigns! You know why editorial writers don’t like television spots? Because they take power out of their hands! They want a few dinky debates, a polite campaign, and then for everybody to sit at home on Sunday waiting for the editorials to know which way to vote. Instead, some jerk like me can muck things up! You want twenty percent of the people to vote instead of fifty! Just take campaign commercials off the air. You’ll bore everybody to death!

That Matt Bonney and Stevens both want, thrive on, is the violence of the campaign, a juvenile violence unconnected to anything to do with any issue whatsoever, is emphasised in this brief mention of the intensive arguments over set-up for a debate:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

For media consultants, debates were fun. It was one of the few opportunities in adult life in which you were expected to be as demanding and petty as an irate six-year-old. Fierce battles were fought over podium height, lighting selection, backdrops – all the details that assumed a preternatural importance but in fact meant next to nothing. Grown men would howl like wounded animals and make vile threats of physical dismemberment and career-ruining blackmail over questions such as the difference between fifty-six- and fifty-eight-inch podiums. What other business would not only praise you for acting like a contemptible tyrant but pay you an obscene amount of money in the process?

To act like a tantrummy six-year-old is not exactly my idea of fun, or that of many that I know, but it is Matt Bonney’s, and I assume Stevens’ as well, given that he expects a sympathetic connection with the reader here.

What is made clear to be crucial in a campaign is not any issue, but identity. Matt Bonney’s father defended the way of life of those in Mississippi, his identity and their identity, against federal incursion. Matt Bonney’s candidate is a Polish jew born in McComb County, Michigan, but these details of location and ethnicity do not matter, because he has fastened on what connects him with a substantial amount of voters in Mississippi, and, for that matter, many states.

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But it was part of young Solomon Jawinski’s genius that he understood the basic similarities between his old environs and his new. He appreciated that McComb County and the Capital City were linked by the same kinships of xenophobia and provincialism, with a sustaining faith that they were God’s chosen people. “Damn rednecks,” Jawinski would mutter around the house. “Rednecks here, rednecks there. All the damn same.” In Matt’s opinion, this early strategic insight is what allowed Jawinski to do what seemed on face value as completely, ridiculously, and utterly impossible: get elected. Elected in a state in which there were probably just as many left-handed Lithuanians as Polish Jews. But Jawinski wasn’t just any Polish Jew; he transformed himself into a Polish-Jewish REDNECK, a Polish-Jewish redneck superman.

This identity has nothing to do with any policy that might help the poverty or suffering of the people of Mississippi. It has only to do with a particular style of speech and life, in this case, a variation on Bill Clinton without the Oxford education.

The communication of this identity to the voter, is what is of primary importance, with the candidate himself secondary and incidental to the process from the consultant’s perspective. This is obvious in this passage, where Matt Bonney talks of the ease of the end of the campaign, when the candidate becomes entirely an automaton, entirely under the control of consultants, who are now unhindered by the personality of an actual man, awake and alive.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

It was an inevitability in campaigns that during the final two weeks, a candidate was largely removed from the decision-making process, shunted from one event to another in a nineteen-hour-a-day frenzy. This always left the candidate in a near catatonic state of exhaustion with no time to think – at exactly the stage that required the most precise thinking. Most consultants, of course, relished this moment when a candidate teetered on physical collapse and functioned as a mindless automaton. Then they – the professionals – could go about their jobs without the messy hindrance of the person who was, titularly, at least, their commander in chief.

That Mitt Romney is a robot-like, lifeless man may be considered a liability by pundits and possibly voters, but: given the last fragment, I believe Stevens ultimately considers this automaton-like quality a strong plus.

Further, that policy is of no importance, that the focus be solely on violent gladiatorial combat, that the poor, suffering souls of Mississippi that Matt Bonney observes in the chinese restaurant may well remain poor and suffer, getting poorer and suffering more is of no concern to the consultant. He does not want any part of these voters’ lives, as he admits to Newsome, and he no longer lives in Mississippi, instead moving from state to state running campaigns, so the consequences of this election will never be felt or seen by him.

That there is something rancid in this, is pointed out by the most sympathetic figure of the book, his father, the former segregationist Powell Bonney. My bolds:

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“We always call lieutenant governors Lite Guvs. Whatever state I’m working in,” Matt shrugged, “it always seemed to fit.”

“Don’t you get confused about what state you’re working in?”

Matt knew that Powell Bonney hated the very concept of consultants working on different races around the country. He thought it was fundamentally a corruption of democracy. Matt had never argued the point.

Matthew Bonney knows that he is something of a carpetbagger, plundering these campaigns in poor states for fortunes then scooting away, but he continues to do his work. There is the fact that he is paid an obscene amount of money, but also, something that might be constructed as Stuart Stevensism, a specific theory of political life, which pervades this book. I leave it to the next section.

THE MOB

In this novel, Stuart Stevens views politics as primal, violent, tribal struggle. Ideas are entirely absent. The identity and image of the candidate are crucial. When necessary, a show of force, a martial demonstration, is essential for victory. Elections are not decided by analysis, but through the rough feelings of the mob. Stevens, and his proxy, Matthew Bonney, make a great deal of money by manipulating this mob. Yet at the very same time, Stevens has contempt for the rabid crowd, this thoughtless rabble, and does not believe government is best served through appealing to their appetites. At the end of the book, the wishes of the mob are overruled by the wisdom of the elect: Jawinski abdicates as Senator, and has Powell Bonney appointed in his place. That there may be something racial in this attitude might be noted as well; former segregationist Powell Bonney cannot win in the state because of black voters, but in the end, he can be imposed on them, and it will be for their benefit.

That Matthew Bonney continues to work as a consultant, despite his contempt for this mob, despite the fact that it does not bring about the best result for the state, is, I think, because both the author and his proxy hero share the same belief, that there is something eternally mob-like and tribal in humanity, both in the United States and elsewhere, which can never be remedied or fixed, only manipulated or oppressed.

One of the first scenes in the book, the night of the TV debate, conveys this. This debate is, ostensibly, about the back and forth of competing ideas of the candidates. Yet none of the ideas of either is ever brought up. Beforehand, we are given the scene surrounding this debate, a portrait of two rival groups of passionate supporters. It is essentially, we are told, a pep rally. These crowds are crucial for psychological warfare. They embody no support of any particular idea, but they are essential for the candidate, who is part of this crowd, just as they are part of him, as well as necessary for giving a visual spectacle for reporters. We are given the side detail that an Iranian exile served a crucial role in crowd organization in a California campaign, and that he was extraordinarily skilled at it. The ideas of the candidate supported, a lunatic who wanted to toss a few warheads on Iran, are of no consequence. That the Iranian organizer before organized crowds against the Shah is of no importance. All that is crucial is the mobilization of the crowd for support, and this man is able to do so.

Then we move to the theme already seen before, that the natural state of politics is one of sadistic, brutal struggle. Jawinski is going to kick a little ass tonight. A demure grandmother, a previous client of Matt Bonney’s, was roused to want to rip off her opponent’s dick and shove it down his throat.

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A block from the station, supporters of Solomon Jawinski and Luke Bonney lined the street. They were mostly kids, teenagers or college students in their early twenties, the shock troops of every campaign. They all carried signs proclaiming their respective allegiance and shouted at each other as if at a pep rally which, more or less, they were. That intelligent human beings would find it rewarding to stand on a hot street corner, and jump up and down with signs trying to affect the outcome of an event that was taking place a block away in a sound-proof, windowless studio may seem marginally insane, but it was all part of the psychological warfare that no aggressive, in-your-face, must-win campaign – that is, a good campaign – ever neglected. The street-corner demonstrations were intended for two audiences – the reporters covering the debate and the candidates themselves. Both were expected to be impressed by this spontaneous outpouring of loyalty. In a California senate race a year earlier, Matt had been lucky enough to find a visiting Iranian student at UCLA who was a genius at organizing such demonstrations, having trained on the streets of Tehran chanting “Death to Americans!” It did not seem to bother the Iranian in the least that Matt’s candidate, a congressman from southern California, had once suggested Tehran might be in need of a little “nuclear renewal.”

Even though he knew the predebate street action was carefully scripted, Jawinski still enjoyed the show. “Yeah,” he snorted, “we’re gonna kick a little ass tonight. No doubt about it.” Matt found that all his clients had a tendency to talk like enraged, steroid-crazed linebackers in the predebate hours. Once a demure, sixty-five-year-old grandmother running for Congress in Florida on a pro-environmental platform had leaned over to Matt on the way to a debate and murmured, “I’m gonna to rip the bastard’s little wee-wee off and stuff it right down his golden throat.” She was running against a local anchorman, hence the “golden throat” reference.

Another important, though very brief, image occurs towards the end, in the ruins of Luke Bonney’s victory party. Matthew sees his brother on the stage:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Luke was standing on top of the crude podium, hands on his hips. He reminded Matt of nothing so much as Jim Jones just before handing out the Kool-Aid – a strange, troubled figure but not an unhappy one.

Politics is a cult, a gathering of a group through demagoguery. The supporters may be drinking elixir, or they may be drinking poison, but they will drink it, out of the mob’s blind animal fealty to a magnetic man.

However, at the same time that Matthew Bonney requires the mob for his business, he despises it. He hates the individuals who make it up, and he thinks that it is ultimately a destructive force. He has utter contempt for every other person involved in political consulting, whether it be Morton Koughan, Ruthie Simms, or Walter Farkas. In one of the last scenes, it’s shown how little he or his congressional wife care about the voters of their state:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

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

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

It was the surest way to guarantee a difficult situation. Matt Bonney needs average voters for his work, and he hates them as well. He guesses that his wife is on the phone with one of her constituents, because she sounds like she’s not really listening. Who wants to hear from the slobs back in Mississippi?

That the author believes the foolish cretins who make up this mob are also dangerous as a crowd, is made again in the views expressed on Germany and Japan. Stevens, in Feeding Frenzy states boldly that he hates Germany and hates Germans.

i hate germans

“You’re getting close to Germany. There is hope.”

“I hate Germans, and how am I going to get there without brakes?”

but they were germans

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

maybe it would kill some germans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He would be German as well.”

“Ahhh…” It was a delightful notion.

This same anti-German passion appears in a number of Governor Jawinski’s speeches. There is the televised debate:

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The question went to Luke Bonney. “If elected to the Senate, Congressman Bonney, would you support the president’s policy of noninvolvement with the difficulties of German reunification, or do you advocate stronger action to bring about change in Eastern Europe and other former captive nations?”

Luke Bonney knew this one was coming and hit smoothly over the fence. There was no question that the president had chosen a wise course of action. “Europe’s destiny should be in the hands of the Europeans. We have helped foster a great democracy in West Germany, and they are perfectly capable of charting their own course.”

Jawinski exploded.

“I’ve never heard such gibberish in all my life! I’d call it total bull if my ex-wife wouldn’t yell at me!”

The audience roared. Jawinski’s profanity had become a running joke in the state, as was his relationship with the former First Lady. “How is it that any responsible, intelligent person -,” he looked over at Luke Bonney to make it clear he didn’t really believe these adjectives fit his opponent, “could think for even one moment that this pansy approach” (gay rights was not a big issue in the state) “to the terrible realities of German reunification was a wise course of action has got to be one brick shy of a load. Maybe Luke Bonney doesn’t remember how many soldiers from our great state died fighting – “

And Jawinski was off, hitting all his favorite notes, a wild John Coltrane improv riff, knowing where he was going but not sure how he would get there. There was something fundamentally wrong with Germans and their thwarted sense of destiny. If you think the Germans have really changed, just spend an hour on the autobahn! A nation with the soul of a bully! Either at your feet or at your throat! Is forty years enough? Hell, no! Forget Omaha Beach?! Forget the Bulge?!

The crowd, most of whom honestly didn’t care one way or the other about what happened to Germany, whooped and hollered their approval. Blood on the floor!

Note, of course, the reaction of the studio audience.

The idea of tribal violence is there again during a television interview conducted with the governor, speaking about the germans, the japanese, and the southern confederacy. I bold what I consider a truly striking detail, in this moment of grievous income inequality in the U.S.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

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

“They are?”

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

“But the Japanese don’t worry you?”

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

“They’re worse?”

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

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

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

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

Note that the lunacy is not the ideas expressed, but to express oneself honestly. Also important is that Jawinski is easily the most sympathetic character in the book after Powell Bonney, the former segregationist. The view of the japanese, like that of the germans, is not simply Jawinski’s, but that of Stevens himself. The hero consultant Matt Bonney also dislikes the japanese, though not in such forthright terms.

From a moment in the morning after he lit firecrackers at the other campaign’s victory party:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

It wasn’t until he caught a glimpse of his face in the reflective backwaters of the river that he actually thought about what he had done the night before. What he saw was a face streaked with dirt and black powder smudges, long hair held in place with a black headband that trailed down his back like a strange tail.

“Jesus!” Lisa murmured, still half-asleep. “Geronimo. You look like Geronimo.”

“Yeah?” Matt said, pleased. “Not a ninja?” He had never considered the reference to be a compliment, not being overly fond of many things of Japanese origin.

This dislike, as stated by Jawinski, over the aggressive military aspect of the germans and japanese is never connected with the history of the countries, or particular conditions that might shape a people. It is entirely tribal, with the germans, the japanese, the confederacy having a nature that is something like a violent mob, which in turn must be beaten and controlled. There is something fundamentally wrong with germans. They are a nation with the soul of a bully. It is good that Mississippi is poor, because this educates and controls its citizens after rising up against authority. It would be better if Germany had not been unified, better if both Germany and Japan had remained poor, as that would have leashed their inherent tribal instinct for war. Remember that this novel takes the riot at the University of Mississippi, and places the blood entirely and wholly with this mob, while segregationist Powell Bailey is made into an innocent martyr.

Towards the end, Matt Bonney lets out his exasperation at the electoral process. It is a speech that shows the mixed feelings of the character and the author, but it also this sense of any group of voters as only a mob. He is now a co-host of “Showdown”, and gives the opinion on-air:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I’m not sure,” Matt stuttered, “why anyone would want to be in public office.” Matt realized that he was saying something that he deeply believed. “I can’t imagine one single reason that anyone would run for office. I really can’t.”

“We expect people to live by a standard the rest of us have abandoned years ago, we invade their privacy, we pay them squat.” Matt faced the camera. From his earphone, he could hear the director’s calming voice urging him to get the program back on track. “With ridiculously small contribution limits, we think we’ve actually accomplished some ethical breakthrough, while we make our politicians roam around the country begging for money to pay people like me. Reporters hide in the bushes in front of houses, root through garbage, chase old girlfriends. We all ask, ‘Why would anyone want to put with that’ in one breath and then bitch that nobody decent runs for office in the other. My God!”

The problem is that the job pays too little and takes away too much of one’s privacy, which keeps better candidates out. These better candidates will make better decisions for us. That Matt Bonney focuses on image to the exclusion of all else, that he wishes elections to be like violent combat and pushes them to be so, goes unmentioned, perhaps because he and Stevens think that this aspect is inevitable, a bloodlusting idiot mob unavoidable. The only remedy is that somehow this mob be handed leaders who are better than they deserve, like Powell Bonney, who might actually pass programs that could help them.

AN ALTERNATIVE IDENTITY

For this last section, I bring up what should be a private matter, but which the GOP has decided is not. Supposedly, there are questions that cannot be asked of the powerful, because it is undignified and cruel, though this is a luxury only reserved for this society’s topmost niche. No man or woman barely making enough to support their children can ever turn down a pee test at work. No woman seeking an abortion in certain states can now avoid certain inquiries.

So it would seem that when a campaign, as part of its strategy to woo voters, makes a secret donation to the National Organization for Marriage, as well as signing their pledge, and has their candidate speak at Liberty University, I think one might be entitled to ask a question of the man behind said strategy.

However, the following is not so forward as an explicit question, so much as a carefree piece of literary analysis only hinting at a possible query, an analysis which could well be very, very wrong. It continues on a hypothesis brought up already, in discussing Feeding Frenzy, then referred to here and here as well. I leave it to the reader to be intelligent enough to make certain deductions.

One more note before we begin: Matt Taibbi wrote a hilarious piece on the overuse of italics in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. In deductive moments, I tend to overuse italics as well.

This novel features two brothers, Matthew and Luke Bonney. They are very, very much alike physically. Near twins. Matthew, the political consultant, must make an effort not to look like his brother. This observation is made on one of the first pages.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Luke stood with his arm around Matt, and Lisa realized it was one of the few times she had even sen the to brothers so close together. The resemblance, despite Matt’s best efforts, was striking. Since they were little kids, Matt and Luke had been mistaken for twins. Matt had confessed to Lisa that there was a time when he had enjoyed this, basking in the physical glory of his slightly older sibling. But since they had come to Washington, Matt had worked at distinguishing himself from the collegiate good looks of Luke Bonney. Though they still shared the same high cheekbones, Matt liked to think that he had aged faster than his brother, his face more creased, his features lived in, not like Luke Bonney whose face looked as if it had been made yesterday. Always gleaming, always smiling. Smiling. And Lisa knew how careful Matt was to avoid the perfect helmet-of-hair look that was a Luke Bonney trademark. These days, Matt wore a ponytail.

Luke, the congressman, barely exists in this book, with the story concentrated almost entirely on Matthew, the political consultant. We know very few things about Luke, except that he’s very good-looking, he’s a congressman, he’s not married, and the possibility that he slept with a number of transvestite prostitutes. Though we are never told why, and though we are given nothing by which to make an inference, Matt Bonney hates his brother. It is the foundation of his existence.

Here he is talking to his wife:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“And I don’t hate Luke. And I don’t understand how you can work against your brother, if you want to know the truth.”

“What? I hate my brother!”

“No, you don’t. Nobody hates their brother.”

Matt stared at her. “Of course I hate my brother! Hating my brother is one of the cornerstones of my existence. Look what he’s doing to Mule Jail!” Matt paused for a second. He almost never raised his voice when talking to Lisa. “Why shouldn’t I hate my brother?”

Mule Jail is the land where their childhood home once stood, before it burnt down. His brother has sold the land to a country club for development. He is desecrating a place sacred to their family memories.

Matt Bonney does not simply look like his brother, there is the good possibility that he might have been his brother. This is said clearly by Matt Bonney himself.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Even though he’d seen it hundreds of times, the plate on the office door that read Congresswoman Lisa Bonney never failed to startle him. It made him think first of his brother and then, more troublingly, of himself as a congressman. It was like being confronted with an alternative identity, the way his life could have been. It was not something he liked to think about very much these days.

So, there’s a man who looks just like Matt Bonney, is almost his twin and who he might well have been. This, I think, is the classic shadow self, the person who acts in ways we may wish to but do not. That Matthew views Luke not just as his double, but a dark mirror image, is implied rather strongly through a few details.

Luke does not simply have bad qualities, he is diabolical. Again, a conversation with his wife:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“He’s diabolical,” Matt moaned, returning to the Style section article.

“Diabolical?” Lisa questioned. “I’ve heard Luke Bonney described as a ‘pretty boy,’ ‘simplistic,’ ‘grossly ambitious,’ ‘overly friendly,’ and ‘the ultimate Sigma Chi,’ but never ‘diabolical.’ This is an entirely new development.”

Then, in one of the only times in the book when the brothers meet, Luke and Matthew speak following the revelation that his brother may have slept with transvestite prostitutes. What do we associate with the devil? Fire.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Matt looked at his brother. He was wearing a double-breasted gray pinstriped suit. His hair was perfectly in place, his teeth gleamed. He looked freeze-dried except for his eyes. His normal bright blue had been replaced by red-streaked horrors.

“You looking at my fireballs, brother?” Luke asked. “I can wear these if it’ll help.” He pulled out a pair of aviator sunglasses and put them on.

I go back to the beginning of the book, because there is a striking sentence there of some relevance. It is the only time when Luke, Matt, and Lisa appear together, all three in the men’s bathroom. I find the entire quote unusual in the immediate emphasis of the husband or wife as escort, with the last sentence especially stunning, almost an answer to a question unasked.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Congresswoman Lisa Bonney was there in her role as Matt’s wife, a most unusual turn of events since it normally was Matt who found himself dragged along as the spouse. It was a role – the spouse – that they both hated playing, but it was the nature of Lisa’s job as a member of Congress that she was more in need of a spouse as escort than Matt. Matt was a political consultant and no one, of course, really cared if a political consultant was married or not.

Matt is a political consultant, and no one cares if he is married or not, unlike his brother, the man he might well have been, whose marital status people very much care about.

I give now a lengthy excerpt from the press conference with the transvestite prostitutes. They are, I think, made into creatures as lurid and grotesque as possible.

Josh Finkelstein and Tom Alexander are reporters. Byron Timmons is a ridiculous conservative fanatic and Civil War revisionist, who organized the press conference. Trixie, Pierce, and Markel are the black transvestite prostitutes. Their ethnicity is made very obvious, and used for comic effect1.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Trixie smiled, as did Markel and Pierce. But none of them said a word.

“Well,” Dawn finally broke the silence, “this is certainly enlightening. What about it, Trixie, have you really been sleeping with Congressman Luke Bonney?”

Trixie giggled and cut his eyes sideways at Byron, who nodded and smiled while wiping his forehead with a hankie.

“Say what?” Trixie asked, crossing his legs.

“Did you sleep with Congressman Luke Bonney?”

A slow smile gathered in the corners of Trixie’s lipsticked lips. “I don’t remember doing much sleeping.”

Trixie was expecting laughter. The reporters stared in silence.

“What did you do, Trixie?” Tom Alexander asked.

“We done it all.”

Markel and Pierce laughed, covering their mouths with their hands. A few short grins broke out in the press corps.

“All?”

“The nasty thing.” Trixie laughed.

“He done it all.” Pierce crowed, “the nasty and the watusi.”

“The nasty and the watusi,” Dawn repeated, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Ernie had his camera on.

“Yeow!” Trixie affirmed.

“How did you first meet Congressman Bonney?”

The three looked at each other, then over at Byron, who looked a bit calmer. He nodded and smiled.

“He come down Farish Street,” Trixie began.

“Driving that car of his -” Markel continued.

“Looking for a good time, he was,” Pierce added.

“He found it too.”

Trixie’s last comment occasioned a fresh round of giggles amongst the three.

“What kind of car does Congressman Bonney drive?” Tom Alexander asked.

“A white Poniac Sunbird,” the three said in unison.

Tom Alexander looked over at Byron, who shrugged and smiled nervously.

“Where did you have sex with the congressman?” Dawn asked. This seemed to stump them.

“Where?” Pierce finally asked, embarrassed. “You mean-”

The press corps hooted. “Ask him, Dawn!” Tom Alexander cried. “Get to the bottom of it!”

Pierce looked hurt and confused.

“At what location,” Dawn clarified. “Where did you go to have sex?”

“We did it at the Zebra Motel,” the three said, again more or less as a chorus.

“Which room?” Dawn asked.

“Twenty-four,” they answered together.

“All three of you at once?” Josh Finkelstein demanded.

This set off gales of laughter amongst the three.

“What kind of people you think we are?” Markel finally asked. “You dealing with a bunch of sluts, you think?”

“Tell me, girls,” Josh Finkelstein asked drolly, “how did you meet Mr. Byron Timmons?”

“He drove down Farish Street, too,” Trixie said.

“Is he a client like Congressman Bonney?” Josh Finkelstein pounced on Trixie.

“Now just a minute!” Byron exploded.

“I didn’t ask you, Byron.”

“I met these gentlemen when I was performing a citizen’s investigation of charges-”

“Who brought the charges?” Josh Finkelstein barked.

“I have had my longtime suspicions and I-”

“Yeah, I’ve got some suspicions, too, Byron.”

“Lots of suspicions going down,” Tom Alexander said.

“I don’t think any details about my personal situation are very important,” Byron said. “I’d like to focus-”

“We decide what’s important, Byron,” Dawn interrupted.

“There is no disputing that I have presented three independent sources-”

“You on drugs or what?” Josh Finkelstein yelled. “Independent? They’ve been drilled like trained seals.”

“If you are questioning the integrity of these gentlemen-”

“That’s right,” Josh Finkelstein said flatly. “You bet.”

“You callin’ us a liar?” Trixie shouted.

“I be callin’ us a liar,” Josh Finkelstein sneered, mocking Trixie’s accent.

“Why you little faggot,” Pierce cried, standing up. “You want to come up here and-”

“As long as I don’t catch anything!”

Markel and Trixie both stood up, squinting through the television lights.

“Bitch!” they cried in almost perfect unison. Trixie lobbed a small handbag at Josh Finkelstein, who ducked behind Tom Alexander.

“Gentlemen!” Byron cried.

“You call my black ass a ‘gentleman’ one more time,” Markel erupted, then threw his pocketbook at Byron. With surprising deftness, Byron pirouetted out of harm’s way. The imitation crocodile-skin bag sailed into a television light, tumbling it with a tremendous explosion as the bulb shattered.

“You moron!” Ernie screamed at no one in particular.

“Gentlemen!” It seemed to be the only word Byron still knew.

“I warned you!” Markel shouted. He turned around so that his back was facing Byron, presenting a profile to the press corps. He then dropped his pants while Pierce hooted, “Black moon risin’!”

Though what actually took place with Luke is left unresolved, late in the book, a strong hint is dropped that Luke did indeed have sex with these women – transvestites prefer to be referred in the gender they dress, so I refer to them as such.

Matt and his wife stay at the hotel where the alleged unions took place.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“George voted for Solomon,” Lisa greeted Matt. “That’s one vote.”

“George?” Matt sat down and immediately drank all of Lisa’s coffee in one sip.

Lisa nodded over her shoulder at a large black woman emerging from the kitchen with a coffee pot in her hand. At least, Matt thought it was a woman. She looked a lot like Tina Turner, only even more muscular.

“I felt kind of bad,” George said. The accent was Jamaican, lilting, and delightful. “To vote against a customer, it is not such a good thing.”

“Customer?” Matt whispered to Lisa. She shrugged, and Matt turned to George. “Customer?” he asked.

“You saw on the news. Mr. Luke likes the Zebra, that man can do, yes!”

“Oh,” Matt said, nodding. “You saw it on the news.” He turned to Lisa. “He saw it on the news. That doesn’t mean it’s true.”

“No?” George said, laughing.

Matt looked at Lisa, with a question in his eyes.

“Does Luke really…” For the first time, Matt thought about the idea that his brother might really be sleeping with Trixie, Pierce, and Markel. “I always thought it was a joke that Farkas and Byron cooked up.”

“I’m sure it is,” Lisa said.

“No, you’re not. You’re not at all.”

So, Matt Bonney has a brother who looks just like him, who he very well could have been, a congressman, with a public life open to scrutiny, who people can blackmail because of the grotesque figures he has sex with, if only he had not decided to be a political consultant, who no one cares whether they’re married or not.

As a related aside, there appears to be an attempt to always move the unsavory aspects of election campaigns to others. It is Walter Farkas who comes up with the attack involving the prostitutes. It is Morton Koughan who is a despicable creature, though like Luke, we are never told why he is so hateful. He appears to do, here come more italics, only exactly what Matthew does.

That Koughan is a judas goat for the sins of political consultants is not implied, but made explicit. Here is a conversation between Matthew Bonney and his father, upset about the ad involving the prostitutes:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I want you to go and talk to your mother about what is going on. Tell her you are getting that transvestite thing off the air. And tell her about what might happen with Luke. Blame it on that guy, what’s his name…?”

“Koughan. Morton Koughan. The media consultant.”

“Blame it on that New York media consultant. You can always blame anything on a New York consultant, right?”

Matt had to laugh.

So, perhaps there is the possibility that there is not one judas goat in this story, but two. Perhaps also, just as there are parts of a story about a political consultant, written by a political consultant, which we immediately detect as obviously biographical, there may well be other parts that are also biographical, though a little hidden. Anyway: if others are given license to speculate on a president’s birth certificate, I think I’m allowed to speculate on a political strategist’s books.

Though I have mapped out a pattern of a shadow self in this book, I should add that this idea of a shadow double is out in the open in an episode of Northern Exposure, “Jules et Joel”. Joel, the reserved doctor protagonist, suffers a concussion, after which he dreams of a twin brother who acts out the impulses he does not, and who can be blamed for any sins he commits. While this dream twin pursues these desires, Joel is interrogated by an imagined Sigmund Freud. These scenes are in the usual place. I quote the relevant moments:

Freud

Joel Ego

Joel Id

FREUD
Do you always do things out of a sense of obligation?

JOEL
No! (beat) Yeah, most of the time. Yeah.

JOEL
Well, my point is what difference does it make to Jules? One more blot more or less on his already disreputable character, whereas to soil my reputation would-

FREUD
Soil?

JOEL
At least Jules expresses his id. He is id. Me, I am all super-ego. Good behavior. Stellar achievement. Always judging myself how others judge me. But…who really is the bad one here? Joel, who is only pretending to be good…or Jules, who expresses his evil side, so that when he is good is the genuine article?

FREUD
Perhaps you project onto your brother those parts of yourself which it is uncomfortable for you yourself to own up to.

JOEL
Jules is an animal, a predator, a sexual juggernaut whose idea of guilt is something like lint. Say Jules meets a girl. As he rips her clothes off, they ride like eels into a frenzy of unadulterated love-making. Me, I’d shower with my socks on if they wouldn’t get moldy. I have this thing about getting totally naked…I feel totally…

FREUD
Exposed?

JOEL
Exactly. I mean I want to be spontaneous, I do. I have this thing about analyzing my every move. And pre-meditated spontaneity is about as exhilarating as getting the measles twice.

JOEL
Let’s take O’Connell for example. I mean, Jules plies her with alcoholic beverages, instinctively tells her everything he knows she wants to hear, flatters her, charms her and then sticks his tongue down her throat before she has a chance to say “Ah.” I mean, me, do I want her as badly as Jules? Absolutely. But do I pin her against the wall, pressing my chest against her chest? Thrusting my hips against her hips? I mean, do I?

FREUD
Do you?

JOEL
Me, yeah. Joel Fleischman. Are you kidding? No way. I mean, I’d tell her it’d never work out simply because we have nothing in common… because I hate everything that she likes. And in return for my forthrightness and honesty, I’d get at best, if ever, her grudging respect. When, like Jules, what I really want… is to lick her naked body from head to foot like a postage stamp.

I near the end with one penultimate note, this time a small one on writing style. The character of Matt Bonney is someone, we are told, who has had “zillions” of girlfriends, a man with the usual rabid lust of almost any man. Here is the first, and only physical description of his wife:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

She was thin and dark, almost an inch taller than Matt’s five feet eleven inches. She was not so much beautiful as exotic, with dark hair and cheekbones that cut sharply across her face. On a trip to China, an official junket on which Matt had been included as a spouse, guides had twice asked if she were a Mongolian fashion model, a species of creature that neither she nor Matt had known actually existed.

The only absence I note is that men with this conventional lust have, both inside and outside of books, the occasionally endearing and sometimes tiresome quality of always fixating on a woman’s body: the texture, the curves, the movement. It is for that reason women wear clothes which accentuate such features, and wear heels to exaggerate these extraordinary rhythms. Matthew Bonney makes no mention whatsoever of his wife’s body here, or anywhere in the book. Nor does he make any mention of the body of almost any other women, including Dawn Simms, who he has an affair with. This may be a simple aesthetic divergence, a show of greater gallantry than most men possess, or, forgive me…a dog that doesn’t bark.

I end with a compliment. The bookjacket, in its author profile, again, carries no mention of Stevens’ credits as an undergrad and graduate at Oxford. I praise him for his discretion and self-effacement.

Stuart Stevens book jacket

* An excellent profile of Larry McCarthy, “Attack Dog” by Jane Mayer is in the New Yorker.

(After initial posting, edits were made to fix links and to improve clarity. A relevant section of “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse” was added later. The mention of “Northern Exposure” was added later. “Northern Exposure” images and script quotes copyright Universal TV and related producers.)

1 When I first read this book, I assumed this section on the transvestites was fiction – however, it is very much taken from reality, an episode from 1980s Mississippi politics, one more incident from that state which has somehow fallen under the waves, while more banal scandals of the Northeast remain common currency.

I am grateful to We’re With Nobody by Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian, for giving it mention. The book is a memoir of their years as opposition researchers, researching weak points and scandals of political opponents for later use in attack ads and talking points. Huffman is fascinating as a coincidental doppleganger of Stevens. Both have backgrounds in Mississippi, both have travelled extensively in Africa and Asia, both have written prolifically about politics and other subjects. They are at separate polarities however – Stevens is a mercenary, while Huffman seeks some betterment of politics by eliminating the unsavoury and amoral from the field. Stevens sees Karl Rove as an ally unfairly maligned, while Huffman is enthusiastic in continued malignment of the man. I think, on aesthetic grounds alone, that Huffman is the better writer. His description of Timbuktu, for whatever reason, strikes me as more authentic than that of Stevens; I look forward to reading his pieces on Jan-Michael Vincent and dirt eaters.

Returning to the main episode, I give the full description in With Nobody. The perspective is Huffman’s:

In the mideighties, the state of Mississippi, which later served as our proving ground as opposition researchers, was in the throes of a particularly brutal, and surreal, gubernatorial election. At the center stood a trio of transvestite prostitutes who claimed they’d had sex, on numerous occasions, with the leading candidate, a Democrat who was then the state attorney general. Notably, considering where we were, the prostitutes were black and the AG was white.

I was a reporter in Jackson at the time, and the newspaper’s statewide editor, a fiery former marine and Vietnam War veteran, supervised the coverage of the story, which attracted a national media circus that included Geraldo Rivera, the controversial correspondent for the ABC News show 20/20. During a particularly aggressive interview, Rivera, a proud pioneer of trash TV, drove one of the transvestites to tears by angrily demanding to know how it felt to have “ruined a man’s life.” It was, in a way, a legitimate question, particularly considering the transvestites’ penchant for changing their stories, but his delivery was unnecessarily rough. On-camera, the transvestites came across as physically striking, yet they were shy, and clearly unprepared for what they were getting into when they agreed to vogue with the Republican businessmen who hired them to go public with their stories.

The viciousness of Rivera’s attack and the prostitute’s resulting distress prompted my editor, who was present for the interview, to intercede. He and Rivera exchanged a few heated words and the argument devolved into a shoving match-a precursor to Rivera’s brawl a few years later with skinheads, that famously earned him a broken nose. So it was that a freelance opposition research campaign undertaken by a group of conservative businessmen resulted in a Vietnam War vet fighting with Geraldo Rivera in defense of a sobbing transvestite. And that was just the offstage action.

The newspaper’s executive editor had initially balked at reporting the results of the businessmen’s inflammatory research, which they had privately presented to him. The group was comprised of longtime Republicans in what was then a staunchly Democratic state, and they clearly had a political vendetta against the AG. More importantly, there were significant questions about the veracity of their claims. Rather than accept the businessmen’s word for it, the newspaper’s editors assigned two reporters to investigate the matter independently.

The reporters discovered that the businessmen had hired a private detective agency to interview the prostitutes along with policemen who claimed to have seen the AG speaking with trolling prostitutes as they made their rounds. The businessmen then paid the transvestites to go public, and afterward sequestered them in various hotels across the Louisiana line, presumably to control access and to ensure they could find them when they needed them.

At the beginning, the Republican gubernatorial candidate steered clear of endorsing the businessmen’s claims, though they were designed to get him elected. That would soon change. As the scandal reached a fever pitch, even his wife got in on it, smugly proclaiming during one speaking engagement, in reference to the fact that the attorney general was, you know, divorced, “I’m running for first lady, and I’m unopposed.”

Ultimately, the lurid details, the shockingly personal nature of the attack, questions about the businessmen’s payments to the prostitutes and attempts to convince the attorney general’s financial donors to abandon him, together with the lack of clearly documented evidence, did not sit well with either the public or the media.

A reporter asked one of the businessmen during a news conference, “Are you attempting to ruin the man? Are you trying to defeat him? Are you trying to get him to withdraw? What are you doing?” Eventually, television and radio stations refused to sell the group airtime for their campaign ads, enabling the beleaguered attorney general to control the dialogue about the scandal. The result was that the Republican candidate’s campaign was eclipsed by a bizarre sideshow staged by his own supporters.

There are a few noteworthy points here – the women, when they appeared in a press conference were not the ridiculous, comic figures of the book, but tragic ones. Rivera’s bullying, continues unabated and remains consistently callous, having now found a suitable haven at Fox News. The gubenatorial candidate was democrat William Allain, and the detective who pressured the women to make the allegations was Rex Armistead. There was no ambiguity afterwards about the allegations – the women recanted them. The character of Byron Timmons in the book is not Armistead, but still perhaps based on someone real.. Armistead, however, had a colorful enough history for a book, from his possible involvement in covering up the killing of black students at Jackson State, to his futile attempts to prove that Bill Clinton was involved in cocaine smuggling. He is a character who would be as welcome to any fiction as his person is unwelcome to this life. In the disputed race, William Allain won the election. The “20/20″ segment where Rivera questioned the women to the point of tears, despite its sensational nature, does not appear to be on youtube or anywhere else on the web. This footnote was added long after the rest of it was written, November 19th, 2012, two weeks less a day after the election. It originally stated that Armistead was involved in the killing of students at Jackson State due to an unmalicious mis-reading on my part; it has been changed to the still serious crime of possible complicity in veiling what took place there.

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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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Charlie Rose Interviews Stuart Stevens, Chief Strategist For Mitt Romney

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, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

The video of the full interview can be found at Charlie Rose’s site. I find the interview hilarious because of the host; though I also pause to post this – this seems like sadism, without the possibility of insight, even with the strange attitude at the end about places outside Europe. However, given that Republican candidates are cheerfully making an issue of cultural issues, including Prop 8, and Stevens enjoys politics because it allows him the possibility of hitting somebody, this might be an example of people hitting back…but mainly I post it for the hilarity that is Charlie Rose.

A partial transcript.

CHARLIE ROSE: Stuart Stevens got away with the perfect crime. He rode around Europe in a vintage Mustang and somebody else’s girlfriend (starts laughing) and he ate out at a different three star restaurant almost every night for a month. All the evidence against him is in this book, Feeding Frenzy. He is a political consultant, a travel writer, an athlete, a scriptwriter, a gourmet, and he joins me now to answer the question: Who. Paid.

ROSE: Who. Paid?

STUART STEVENS: Well, perfect crime (inaudible)

ROSE: And who were your traveling companions?

STEVENS: Uh, well, read the book, Charlie. A wonderful woman…

ROSE: …who you call Rat. Works out with you at Body Beautiful or wherever you work out.

STEVENS: We like to eat, we like to go to gyms. She’s a wonderful woman.

ROSE: She’s a friend. This is a platonic relationship, wasn’t it?

STEVENS: This is true.

ROSE: This is true. And you two…went to Europe (international hand gesture for “went to Europe”). Why…how did the idea come up?

STEVENS: Uh…

ROSE: Don’t be coy with me, okay?

STEVENS: I’m not being coy with you. It seemed like…

ROSE: Or even distant about this.

STEVENS: It seemed…it seemed…like a ridiculous notion. I like to do things to excess.

ROSE: Yeah, no kidding.

STEVENS: I think by doing things to excess you crack them open and have fun. And I thought it was a fairly ridiculous notion to go and eat in all these restaurants…if you want to go…you need a structure. So there’s a simple structure. Twenty-nine three star Michelin restaurants. Why don’t I go to all of them on consecutive days? It seemed like a ridiculous notion.

ROSE: Thirty days, thirty restaurants?

STEVENS: Thirty days, thirty restaurants. And I think you have to follow these ridiculous notions from time to time, to kindof see where they lead.

ROSE: Okay. Bear with me…because this is all in the book, so I’m not trying to strike out on ground that’s private.

STEVENS: Fair enough.

ROSE: It’s a little unusual for a married man to go away with a beautiful young woman to eat their way through Michelin restaurants for thirty days. It’s unusual. So, explain yourself.

STEVENS: I have this…sortof…pattern…of time to time going off…

ROSE: I can’t wait to hear this!

STEVENS: …with someone…

ROSE: To climb mountains or do whatever. (makes international “Climb mountains or whatever” hand gesture)

STEVENS: It’s much more fun to go with…

ROSE: YOUR WIFE!

STEVENS: It’s much more fun to go with someone who’s female than, rather some guys.

ROSE: Yeah, basically, you go into a restaurant one time…this is in the book, so this is not…in London.

STEVENS: Right.

ROSE: And you’re there with a stunningly beautiful woman. Your friend. Platonic friend. Rat. And you look over there and there are ten young investment banker preppie wannabes, wannabe somethings. And you say to yourself I’m so happy I’m not talking to them, I’m talking to her.

STEVENS: Absolutely. I never was one of those guys that kind of like was like, let’s go out to dinner with the guys.

ROSE: (laughing) Right.

STEVEN: You know, but I had taken this trip through China. And I’d taken this trip through Africa. And it seemed sorta that I was due to go someplace that people actually go on purpose.

Images and interview excerpt copyright Rose Communications Inc.

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Commander in Chief: “Wind Beneath My Wing” Written by Steven A. Cohen and Stuart Stevens, Chief Strategist for Mitt Romney

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 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.

“Wind Beneath My Wing” can be seen here on Hulu; the imdb data for the episode is here. An episode of a series portraying the administration of the first american woman president, the fictional Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), a Vice President and political Independent, incredibly, unassociated either with the Republicans or Democrats, who reaches power after the death of the president*. Her nemesis throughout the show is the speaker of the house, Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland). A good introduction to the series can be found here.

An episode that is notable for three points, the last overlapping with the position of its co-writer, Stuart Stevens, as chief strategist in the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. The ampersand in the writing credit indicates, I believe, that Steven A. Cohen and Stevens wrote the episode in collaboration, rather than one writer brought in to re-write the other’s work. Stevens also worked as co-producer and consultant on the show – so we cannot speak of what takes place as rogue work outside of his influence.

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

There are two plots, which I believe have thematic connections, but without any overlap in event or character. The president goes to a series of fundraising events in California. While there, Air Force One is targeted for destruction by someone, unless he gets to speak to the president. At the White House, Allen’s son and daughter have a party. The man who threatens to destroy the presidential plane turns out to be a Gulf War veteran who is desperately trying to get medical care for his ailing wife. After the party, a copy of the Gettysburg address is found missing. The president tells the soldier that whatever ways the government has failed him will be looked into and a remedy will be attempted, but his threat will not be tolerated, and he will be killed unless he surrenders. The soldier gives up. The Gettysburg address is found, the president’s youngest daughter having hidden it out of spite for all the attention her older siblings got during the party. The president returns home to have breakfast with her family, both sides of the family ignorant of the drama that the other faced.

Now, a long digression for an obvious but necessary point: though Hollywood and Washington, D.C., are seen as adversaries to each other, I think their adversarial positions are largely symbolic, for the temporary benefit of either party. Hollywood is an industry that can sate, momentarily, with images of beauty and comfort, very occasionally truth; it can easily portray its adversary as slothful and indifferent to providing this same audience with anything. The wealthy celebrities of Hollywood, who constitute a fraction of the community, are a suitable straw man opposition, privileged, ignorant children whose enthusiasms have nothing to do with the world outside their shallow lives. Hollywood is degenerate, diseased, and atheistic, Washington is old, sexless, prudish, and senescent. These symbols are a convenience, and will be abandoned when equally convenient. When Hollywood requires access to overseas markets or help in copyright law, it makes alliance without difficulty. When Hollywood portrays presidential power, it is often unskeptical and superficial.

There are two myths which are forwarded in movies and TV about american presidents, and both are to the dangerous benefit of Washington. Movies and TV value action, kineticism, so almost always the president will demonstrate their greatness through martial achievement, a war waged, the lives lost and tangible achievement secondary to the victory. The other myth is what is perceived as something like the mystic aspect of the symbols of power which somehow transforms whatever individual elected president into someone worthy of the post, somehow birthing virtues that allow them to wield power to the benefit of the citizens. Both myths are so ubiquitous, I offer no citation of either.

These myths do not exist out of supplication to power, but out of interest of what is required of the product itself. A leader involved in military action will always make for a more viable movie than about one involved in a debate over, say, agricultural subsidies. Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Che Guevera would all be considered better subjects for any visual narrative than Woodrow Wilson* or Cesar Chavez. The second myth lies entirely with ideals that are considered axiomatic in Hollywood, and are considered beyond question: that american democracy will always elect someone who has the possibility of good and virtue, with any later venality the result of corruption by power*. This ideal is commonplace, among other false axioms of the movies such as good people always eventually finding real love, and the height of heroic achievement involving a gun and killing another man – this last, of course, dovetails well with the first myth about power and military achievement. This is a myth apart from other democracies – I do not think any parliamentary democracy carries the idea that if someone is elected prime minister, they must, by virtue of election, somehow automatically assume great virtue.

This distinction in the United States might be rooted in the merging of the roles of head of government and head of state in the presidency, making the president a sort of temporary king. The divine aspect of kings, but also the idea of the United States as a nation created as christan nation comes into play here. Some holy aspect of the presidency chooses the righteous, even if this righteousnes is well hidden, and makes the person righteous. The election of an unworthy man whether it be Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, is not just the election of a bad man, in certain christian eyes, but a violation of this sacred ideal. Even among secularists, some mystic aspect is perceived, just as mystic ideas of destiny and benevolent serendipity are held onto even after much of a christian persepective is abandoned.

These myths do not exist apart from Washington, but overlap, and provide dangerous benefit to presidents. This can be found in a naivete that a president’s character will be remedied by the office, that through a holy union, this individual finally becomes “presidential”. The more lethal effect is through the emphasis placed on martial achievement. Military action is to be supported, and considered essential, as it re-inforces the idea of a president and the magic of presidential and government symbols. A president who does not wage war is wasting an opportunity. Both myths, and their horrific consequences, can be found in the presidency of George W. Bush.

A shabby mediocrity who was most of his life a non-achieving non-entity, he would no doubt have died a non-achieving non-entity without the extraordinary wealth and political power of his family. His flaws of intellectual sloppiness, impatience, and arrogance were all in full view during his presidential campaign. After his election, and a post-9/11 speech, it was observed that somehow he had gained the necessary insight and moral courage for his role – this achievement, I believe, did not arise out of any observation of his character, as he was just as dull and arrogant as before, but out of the necessity to believe that such a change had taken place. It is here that the other myth came into play: that war is of central importance to the majesty of the presidency. Napoleon lectured his generals not to fight in order to make pretty pictures. But it is for the pretty pictures alone, not for any empire or conquest, that war is waged in movies and now. The post-war planning for Iraq and Afghanistan was abysmal, with fatal consequences for the lives of thousands. Emphasis was placed on the images of victory, with everything else a tiresome afterthought. Not incidentally, Stevens, the writer of this episode, was involved both in the election and re-election of President Bush.

Both myths are of central importance in talking about any modern depictions of the presidency, including this program; I now go back to the episode. The first notable point: indistinct from other movies and TV series on the american presidency, is the emphasis on symbols of wealth and power, and the underlying martial aspect of these symbols. The United States is a great military power, and the power of these symbols does not lie with the great intellectual ideas of the constitution, but often, the country’s lethal might alone. This, I believe, is not my reading or mis-reading this program – it’s explicitly stated.

A list of the following settings during the episode: a television interview with speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton; the Washington Monument; a motorcade; the inside of a limo in the motorcade; Air Force One, inside and outside; a motorcade again; inside of the limo again; a pricey hotel; Air Force One, inside and outside, under siege; a high tech command center set up inside the hotel; the inside of the White House during the party; the White House for the concluding family breakfast. The only exception to all this is the hotel kitchen, though even this embodies power, with a great, lengthy tracking shot that opens with the country’s vast bounty visible in a long line of desserts before zigzagging about following the president, her entourage, and her security detail.

A brief sample:

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

So, these are the symbols of a wealthy nation, but also one of great armed strength. As previously stated, these symbols are assumed to be something like a holy sword, somehow to be inherited only by the benevolent; the other assumption is that power, military power, exudes from these symbols, in this episode serving as an aphrodisiac in both plots.

In the first plotline, the president’s consultant, Dickie McDonald, has sex on Air Force One with a reporter, Isabel Rios, the plane itself serving as an incentive for the consummation.

MCDONALD
I love this plane. Greatest political tool ever assembled.

KELLY LUDLOW [President's press secretary]
What are you doing here?

MCDONALD
It makes you sound powerful. Try it. “I just flew in from the East Coast.” Or: “I just flew in from the East Coast on Air Force One.”

ISBAEL RIOS
You’re right. It does make you sound powerful.

A little later:

MCDONALD
[It's] the White House with wings. Ultimate home-court advantage. A symbol of power and grace.

RIOS
Cut the sales pitch, Dickie. I already blew off the events. What are we doing here?

DICKIE
You tell me.

It is after this that they have sex.

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

This is mirrored in the White House, where the president’s children have a party. The White House here is both a sacred institution, but also a playland, a sort of combination of Disneyland and the Vatican. That this sacred magic is derived from its military aspect is introduced in this playful scene:

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

SCHOOLKID
What would happen if I push that button?

REBECCA
That button?

SCHOOLKID nods.

REBECCA
I don’t know if I should tell you.

SCHOOLKID
Come on. We won’t say anything.

REBECCA
You promise? OK. If you push that button, a signal is beamed to a secret satellite that sends a code to a special CIA computer that activates the launch sequence.

SCHOOLKID
Like missiles and stuff?

REBECCA nods.

SCHOOLKID
Are you serious?

REBECCA
Yeah.

REBECCA pushes button.

The room’s lights come on.

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

Then, another one, where the President’s son tells a girl of there being a secret, second diversionary Oval Office, and makes a joke of trying to contact the Pentagon.

SCHOOLGIRL
So this is the only one, right?

HORACE CALLOWAY

Oval Office?

SCHOOLGIRL nods.

HORACE
Actually, there’s two. One’s a double for security.

SCHOOLGIRL
I knew it!

HORACE
Get me the Pentagon!

OPERATOR (O.S.)

White House operator.

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

Subsequent to this, just like on the plane, there is the implication that they have sex. Since our tender imaginations cannot conceive of those in high school taking this momentous step, it is more subtly implied than the event on the plane.

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

Another digression: that martial force is an expected part of the presidency, that it is one more pageant to be thrown by a leader, like the inauguration or the State of the Union, is shown in this casual line during the showdown over the attempt to destroy Air Force One:

JIM GARDNER [the Vice-President]
We could re-schedule the fundraiser.

SYNDI [fund-raising co-ordinator]

Are you kidding? This is front row seating to watch the president during a crisis. I mean, this is what they’re paying for.

Now, the second point: the observation of a strange paradox. It is military might which grants mystic power to these symbols, yet the military and secret service are prominent in this episode for being treated as a separate class which the mandarin ruling class, and the show itself, often views with contempt. The idea that there is no class structure in the United States is now extinct; watching this episode only sticks it further into the ground.

The very visual appearance of what might be considered a security servant class is distinct from the mandarins, the very way in which one relates to the other is distinct.

For instance, Nathan Templeton, speaker of the house, and Mackenzie Allen, president, are adversaries. Yet they share the same social codes, the same knowledge of politics, everything suggests a shared social experience of comfort. Templeton is very smart, eloquent, and witty. Despite their conflict, they speak to each other with a necessary civility. Both have a an appearance and bearing that is regal. I don’t choose the adjective idly. I imagined the possibility, very reasonable, I think, based on their similar manner, that later in the series we would discover that Templeton was in fact Allen’s father.

This image best embodies their shared place:

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

I contrast that to the portrayal of the security class; this shows up most prominently with the renegade soldier, but also with a run-in between the political consultant and a secret service man. The consultant and the reporter want to leave the plane, while the secret service man worries about the threat to their lives if they leave.

DICKIE MCDONALD

I’m walking off the plane. I’m gonna wave nicely at the bomber over there. Then I’m gonna go to the airport bar and have a gin and tonic.

ISABEL RIOS
I’m going too.

DICKIE MCDONALD
If you make us stay and this nut sets this thing off, my family will sue your ass off. And if he doesn’t, I will spend the rest of my life telling everyone how you held me hostage on Air Force One.

SECRET SERVICE AGENT
We’ve got a passenger coming off.

RIOS
Two passengers!

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

There is in McDonald’s speech an assumption that the secret service man is subservient to him. McDonald has the money and resources to sue the man. His word that he was held hostage by this man holds power; whatever rebuttal of the secret service man is of less worth. This has nothing to do with the respective aspect of their characters, since nothing we’ve seen of the secret service man is that he is anything less than honourable, and entirely with the classes they belong to. McDonald is eloquent and close to the levers of power, the secret service man is not.

Before arriving at the case of the veteran, it should be noted that the entire appearance of this security class, as well as that of a White House social director, a sort of security / handmaiden group, is distinct and apart from that of the leadership. The president, president’s husband, speaker of the house, the vice president, the press secretary, whatever their race and gender, are all soft featured, intelligent, and photogenic.

From top to bottom, images of the president, president’s husband, speaker of the house, vice president, and press secretary:

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

Those of the security class are entirely unhandsome, gritty, and hard. The social director, though attractive, has the fixed expression of an eternal scold. You’re certain while watching it that the actress must have at one point played a murderous governess. The members of the security class make me think only of one word: “subterranean”. A group of men who exist beneath the earth and make the machines function, they themselves unseen. There are two possible assumptions, possibly overlapping: that each group draws, or eventually molds one into, these particular physical types, or the aesthetic idea of having each member of a particular vocational class, whatever their variety, physically embody certain traits. Either way, I find, there is a sense of a separate but unequal, of two groups whose members are biologically destined, who can be found only in one grouping and never in the other.

A sample of the security and servant group. Greater emphasis will be placed later on the appearance of the renegade soldier, but I include him here as well (from top to bottom – a secret service agent, Secret Service agent Pete Ragone, the social director, the renegade soldier Frank Terzano):

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

This point was introduced as a paradox, but it is not a paradox specific to this show, rather, one common to movies and government. The military, as an abstract force, is to be respected and feared. To dissent from a war is to betray this noble force, and will be the target of fierce anger. The subject of soldiers now, after two wars, who return with little work available, sometimes homeless, often living in disturbing poverty, the very safety net they might require for survival cut to pieces – this is not a subject fit for discussion. Here, we may see again the convergence of the interests of Hollywood and Washington: there are countless movies detailing the awesome, merciless power of the military, while a handful of films, budgeted at pennies, are given to veterans living in poverty and neglect. This ignominy of the last is as common, if not more common, as the heroics of the first – it is only a case of what both groups, Hollywood and Washington, prefer to talk about, and what illusions citizens want.

I focus now on Frank Terzano, the rogue soldier who holds Air Force One hostage. We see him initially in full shot, then wearing mirrored glasses, then in fragments, a mouth, or an eye, until finally we are given his full face without glasses:

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

commander in chief wind beneath my wings

What I think is interesting is what the episode does not do here. Terzano is someone closer to ourselves, in terms of social position and income, than the president or her staff. As the episode progresses, we should have the uncanny sense not only of the soldier being more and more like us, but that our empathy is torn between him and the president; perhaps we may even feel an ever greater connection to this man than the distant leader. Again, this is not what takes place. The episode eventually makes clear why he commits this desperate act, but at the same time he is made into an almost subhuman creature. His appearance, in the fragments and when his full face is revealed, has the physical quality of a child – a bald baby head and pleading eyes. The little dialogue he is given is entirely emotion-riven, without any possibility of his making his case through eloquence or rational argument.

The details of the case are given not to him to convey, but exclusively to his doctor. Whether the assumption is that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal to discuss his wife’s medical condition, I have no idea. However, allowing him this would at least have given him a rounded humanity, an equality with the president and her staff, the possibility he could very well be a member of their families, or: that he’s an equal with members of the viewing audience, that he could very well be one of them, that he now lacks. An obvious place for dramatic tension would be between the actions of the president, correct given the circumstances, and empathy for Terzano, who may be entirely wrong but acts for just reasons – but this is entirely spurned. Instead, the tension lies with the myth mentioned earlier, that the president must be inherently good, and killing this man will besmirch this image of sacred goodness.

Two dialogue excerpts, the first time we hear Terzano’s voice, when he declares why he’s committing this rash act, and his doctor discussing his wife’s condition.

FRANK TERZANO
I don’t want to kill anyone. But I’ve tried and I’ve tried and now they’re gonna listen! I served my country for years. This is how they treat us? They’re just gonna let my wife die? She is down to 97 pounds.

DR. BERNARD HENDRICKS
I’ve had Betty Terzano as a patient for over ten years. About eight years ago, we discovered a stage-one colon cancer. Very early.

NATHAN TEMPLETON
Early discovery and treatment work?

HENDRICKS
Yeah.

NATHAN TEMPLETON
Isn’t that the point of me going through that humiliating ritual every year?

HENDRICKS
We were progressing in treatment and she was responding and then…Frank’s veterans health care was cencelled.

PRESIDENT ALLEN
Why?

JIM GARDNER [Vice President]
As best I can tell, Frank Terzano was receiving VA benefits because he was classified as more than 50 percent disabled when he was discharged after Desert Storm.

NATHAN TEMPLETON
Combat wound?

GARDNER
No. He was hit by a vehicle in a staging area.

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.

HENDRICKS
It gets worse.

ALLEN
How?

HENDRICKS
We found, when he did have insurance, that she only responds well to Zorbitux*. It’s a boutique, targeted drug that only works sometimes when nothing else does.

ALLEN
You said it gets worse?

HENDRICKS
Zorbitux costs $17,000 a month.

Next, a dialogue excerpt which is the only scene when Terzano is given the chance to speak at length. As stated, his dialogue makes me think of nothing less than a child, lacking the thought to do anything than express his most urgent want. President Allen, in turn, treats him as nothing more than such a child, not an equal with whom one gives an argument, or expresses shock that they have acted in such a manner, who must be cajoled through the carrot of patriotism, and the stick of death. It should be mentioned that patriotism goes entirely unmentioned in the episode until this point – the president travels to California for the material purpose of fund-raising; the various symbols in the episode owe their totemic power not due to national feeling, but the way they embody strength; the sexual power of the White House and Air Force One has nothing to do with the national feeling of the respective female conquests. “Absolutely nothing”, to quote President Allen, is offered to this soldier – this dumb sap will be gotten out of the plane through love of his country.

There is also this strange mirror, which I don’t think entirely co-incidental. As noted, the two episode plotlines both feature the use of national symbols as tools for sexual pursuit. There is a second symmetry: one also features a national symbol, a copy of the Gettysburg Address, nearly lost due to efforts of a child. The second features a national symbol nearly lost due to the efforts of – who exactly? A soldier, a man just like any other man, or another desperate child, a double to the the first plot’s troublesome child?

The dialogue:

ALLEN
Mr. Terzano, this is the president of the United States.

TERZANO
I don’t believe it. Prove it.

ALLEN
No, Mr. Terzano, I don’t need to prove it. You need to listen. I’ve met with Dr. Hendricks.

TERZANO
You did? Did he tell you about my wife? How sick she is? He’s a very kind man. He tried to help us, but he couldn’t.

ALLEN
Yes, I agree, he is a kind man, and he cares about you and your wife. I’ve also looked into your situation and here is what I’m prepared to offer you: (beat) Absolutely nothing.

TERZANO
Nothing? What do you mean?

ALLEN
That’s correct, Mr. Terzano, absolutely nothing. I find what you’ve done outrageous and a complete abandonment of the principles you upheld as a member of the United States military.

TERZANO
I’m hanging up!

ALLEN
Mr. Terzano, if you hang up, one way or the other, you will be dead very shortly and your wife will be alone. Is this how you want your children to remember you? Not as a man who saved his country, but a terrorist?

TERZANO
I don’t know what else to do. I’m supposed to take care of her. Can you understand that? We tried everything. I let her down. So this is my only option.

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…

TERZANO
I’ve heard all this before.

ALLEN
Not from me.

TERZANO
I can’t keep letting her suffer. I need guarantees that she’ll get care and…

ALLEN
This is not a negotiation, Mr. Terzano. This is a choice for you to make. Either you’re willing to surrender peacefully or this will end violently. If you care about your family, as I believe you do, you’ll save your life. It’s your best hope, sir. And, frankly, it’s your only hope. Good night.

ALLEN
Everyone off the plane?

PETE RAGONE
Yes Ma’am.

ALLEN
Give him five minutes and then take your first clear shot.

A third and final point. The previously stated points are relevant to a consultant like Stuart Stevens because I think they confirm the lack of distinction between what is wanted by audiences not just in fictions about american presidents, but in presidents themselves. There is no dissenting or contrarian note in this episode from other similarly themed popular fictions. I do not believe this is a case of a political consultant submitting to the demands of the form, but demonstrating that what is wanted from a president is also wanted from the form, and the presidential candidate must also meet the standards of this same form, however wrong and inappropriate they are for a president. The investment of symbols of government with some mystic power, untied with the performance or aptitude of government, and tying this same mystic power with military might is extraordinarily dangerous, and any president who has an unquestioning belief in such connections, and employs them to strengthen his own presidency, is not a patriot, but a very dangerous man. This very fusion, however, is a commonplace of stories about american presidents.

Now, a third and final point specific to Romney, Stevens, and especially the centerpiece of the Romney campaign, his strange, ridiculous quest to end Obamacare. As stated, Terzano holds the plane hostage in order to pressure the government to get medical care for his wife after he’s found ineligible under their current insurance. The last lines in the episode about the man are these:

ALLEN
I want a report on what happened with the Terzanos. What? Why? Who’s responsible? I want a medical report on her condition.

KELLY LUDLOW [the president's press secretary]
News is reporting offers of private donations willing to cover her costs.

I first make the small insight that this strange detail reinforces the mystic idea of martial power. By unflinchingly threatening this man until he surrenders, a bounty of funds and aid has emerged. From guns, come butter. Swords will not need to be transformed into plowshares, swords will summon plowshares from the ground. This, again, is the happy merger between Hollywood and Washington in image-making. Hollywood can make better movies about swords than wheat, Washington’s ruling class gains more right now from sword making and sword selling than wheat, so we have an agreeable illusion: swords, somehow, make wheat.

The other insight, directly connected with the Romney campaign is the following: it would seem that a military man, whose wife is in dire need because of the refusal of private insurers to provide coverage, which is then compensated for by citizens across the country offering to pay for her medical care, is a rather obvious endorsement of the very federal health care plan Romney and his campaign oppose. Observe: the episode makes clear that the market does not work in this case, with a valiant decent man unable to pay his wife’s medical bills. Observe also that these same medical bills are not the result of poor choices, but the capricious nature of illness itself. A third observation: that this man does not have enough to pay for the bills is not due to laziness or poor choices but honorable service in the military, and injury incurred while in service. This is not viewed as an incidental to life and the government, but an instance of a man who, in the fictional president’s words, has “not been well-served by your country”. That others are willing to cover this woman’s bills implies the very nature of public insurance: one contributes to a pool of money that will help with the injuries and illness of others, as well as possibly oneself at future point. That the donations come across state lines implies a federal plan, rather than one designed state by state.

I do think this is a very reasonable interpretation, though perhaps Stevens believes instead that the best approach to health care is to encourage persons to hold national monuments hostage until coverage of the showdown prompts others to pay their medical bills.

By episode’s end, I was left with the question, what does Stevens believe in, a public insurance plan or its fervent opposition?

My humble conclusion is that, as a political consultant, belief is his business, but this work is with making others believe, with himself believing in nothing at all. He is, not unlike most, if not all, political consultants, a dream-maker mercenary: when a television audience has a hope of political action over medical bills, he’ll happily offer those poor folks an illusion, and when partisans want the bogeyman of government health care destroyed, he’ll happily craft an illusion for those suckers as well. Like a smart bookie, he makes money whichever team holds the trophy. It will be of no consequence to this person whether Romney wins or loses, or what happens to the conditions of life for the needful and desperate in the United States. A man who can purchase eleven course meals can afford private health care that most of us cannot. If cities and country descend into sufficient misery, he’ll always be able to fly to somewhere else.

* I choose Woodrow Wilson not entirely arbitrarily; he participates in World War I, but this is a war entirely marked by a grim inertia. Visual heroics have been found in Afghanistan and Viet Nam, but almost none in this conflict. It was a war of creeping oblivion, troops locked in static points for much of it, without any possibility of conquest or great epic battle. It is possible to find something heroic in the charge up San Juan Hill, however ridiculous; not so much slow death by disease in a trench.

* I do not consider this idea of the presidency always choosing the righteous man and the idea of a later corruption by power in contradiction; I think there is a distinction between the virtuous man somehow found, then corrupted, and the less sentimental idea that the very process by which one attains political power very rarely requires virtue, and virtue is often an impediment. The best example I can think of the contrast in view is the grandest movie treatment ever given to the Nixon presidency, Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which took the approach of dramatic tragedy, a hero fatally flawed, who, despite these dooming flaws managed good work in the Mideast and China; this would be in contrast to the more conventional attitude that this was a man, who, given other circumstances, would have been just another mafia lawyer, a craven, oily sycophant drenched in self-pity, empty of significant idea or insight.

* Mitt Romney, presumably with some guidance from Stevens has recently assailed President Obama in the following terms (my italics): “Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy” (link). This program’s President Mackenzie Allen is a former University chancellor.

* A drug, I believe, that is entirely fictional, indigenous to this episode.

Images and script copyright ABC / Disney.

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