Though I come from a rather illustrious old American family, politics was certainly not in my blood. In fact, until I became an operative for the Republican Party in the early 1990s, my family had managed to steer clear of that dirty business ever since my great-great-grandfather, Darwin Rush James, retired from Congress in 1887. My maternal great-grandfather was the printer and entrepreneur John Thomas Underwood, who founded the Underwood Typewriter Company, whose products bore one of the great brands in American history. When I was a kid, I could open any closet in any family home and find one of his ancient machines gathering dust. His wife, my great-grandmother Nana, was the kind of classic Yankee matriarch who would refer to people by what they manufactured, saying things like "Singer, they're in sewing machines." It amused her when the electrician hung a light over the wrong masterpiece. "No, no," she had laughed, "the other Monet!"
Of course that was a few generations ago, and my mother always used that old anecdote as an object lesson in how not to conduct myself. It was her considered opinion that the privileged came in two classes: the ones who worked hard to understand the true value of things, and the foolish.
While the Underwood fortune ensured that I'd never go hungry, family pride — hell, my own pride — ensured that I'd never be some yacht-hopping scion whose only full-time employment consisted of finding increasingly undignified ways to wrinkle his linen suits. Still, figuring out what I might do with my life was a tricky prospect. My paternal grandfather, Allen Raymond, had been a legendary correspondent for the New York Times, New York Herald, and the International Herald Tribune, so I had always been very aware of current events, particularly politics. But having spent my youth around an endless succession of reporters, I knew too much about them to ever become one myself.
The first thing I tried when I got out of college in 1989 was public relations, working for a New York firm at $21,000 a year. The Underwood money sure came in handy those days, since I was probably spending about $35,000 a year. The money wasn't a big issue for me, but after two years it was clear enough that I wasn't going to make much of an impact on the world doing flack work for BMW and Toshiba. My college buddies were on their way to significant careers in finance, one running the oil trade desk for Morgan Stanley, another trading his own capital from the family seat on the New York Stock Exchange, while I was going nowhere. I wanted to do something remarkable, to leave my imprint some-how. Here I had this legacy that was an American institution and I could never shake the feeling that I had to find some way to measure up to it.
The one thing I found interesting about PR work was that it challenged you to manipulate people's perceptions. Instead of dealing in cold, hard facts, you had supple, yielding elements that you could present in whatever way best suited your needs. Reality was malleable — it could be made to bend to your will. What, for instance, could the Super Bowl possibly have to do with toilet cleanser? Nothing at all, unless you happened to be the low man on the Ty-D-Bol account, as I was. It seemed a pretty stupid task to me when I spent weeks and weeks gathering data to find out how many gallons of water Americans flushed during the big game each year. But it was suddenly a brilliant bit of mind control when the Super Bowl announcers were discussing my statistics and my client during halftime at the most highly viewed sporting event of the year.
The idea that you could massage people's perceptions so that they saw what you wanted them to see fascinated me. I didn't exactly have a stranglehold on what my own reality even was at the time, but that didn't seem a very big deal. I just knew that if the little bit of mental sleight of hand I'd learned could be expanded upon, I could make something happen. What that was, precisely, I had no idea.
Becoming a salesman seemed an obvious choice, but for a salesman to leave a substantial footprint on the world he needs a pretty extraordinary product. When I failed to locate such a product in my own imagination, I thought I might find it in higher education; I started looking around at grad schools. None of the programs jumped out at me until I came across an ad for a new one-year program at Baruch College called the Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM). "Political management" — not that I knew what that actually meant, but it sounded cool. With all my youthful anxiety about living up to my heritage, with the full weight of our moneyed history bearing down on me, that's really all the thought I ended up giving the matter: "Politics. That sounds cool." Well, that and, "I'll give it a shot."
If the notion that a politician is little more than a product pitched by salesmen had dawned on me at the time, it was entirely on a subconscious level.
Fortunately for me, the program was only two years old at the time, and its admissions department was still desperate for people who could pay their way in with fifteen grand. It wasn't like getting into Harvard Law by a long shot — more like getting into community college. (The program did end up moving to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and has become quite a well-respected institution since I passed through its doors.)
At that time, the Graduate School of Political Management wasn't physically impressive, either. The school occupied a quarter of a floor in a run-down building near City Hall in New York. Literally shoved in a corner, it consisted of a large conference room, two small classrooms, and some staff offices. The rooms smelled moldy, the chairs were broken. What I'd come to learn later is that, at almost every level of American campaigning, low-rent, dank, and dismal is the default setting for all accommodations.
We were a small class, maybe thirty-five students altogether, and my attitude toward the program shifted from give-it-a-shot to win-at-all-costs on day one. High-profile internships for the likes of Roger Ailes and the legendary Democratic image-maker Hank Sheinkopf were being dangled in front of the class and, for a lot of us, the sense of competition was immediately apparent. Unlike college, which hadn't been about much of anything, performance here promised real rewards in the real world.
Just sitting there in our seats it was obvious that everyone was sizing one another up. At orientation, I remember feeling like I was older than the rest of the class by at least three years chronologically, and by a decade in terms of real work experience. Most of my classmates seemed to think this was just an extension of their senior year in college, while I felt like the experience was laying the groundwork for the rest of my life. I was, after all, the only person in the room wearing a suit.
If this is my competition in this industry, I thought, I've got it made. At the same time, I still had a nagging doubt as to whether I was doing the right thing. This felt more to me like learning a trade than entering a profession, as if I'd just spent $15,000 to go to Apex Tech. It was a totally blind gamble for me.
As I scanned the room, nobody looked like anyone I'd want to hang out with. I was just there to go to class and try to start a career, not to make friends. But that was a major flaw in my personality, since half of politics is basic networking or, more precisely, kissing ass. To this day I wonder how much further I might have gone in the industry if I'd managed to add that ability to my skill set.
When it came time for each of us to introduce ourselves to the class, a big flamboyant girl with about two coats of makeup on stood up from her chair and announced, "I'm from Arkansas and Bill Clinton is going to be the next president of the United States!"
We all essentially responded, "You're crazy!" We immediately dismissed her as a potential rival — she was clearly an overly emotional type.
Back then Clinton was nobody. This was three months before Iowa, four months before New Hampshire, and George H. W. Bush still had an 80 percent approval rating from the war in Iraq that wasn't a horrible misstep that will haunt our country for generations to come. But sure enough, the brassy girl from Arkansas turned out to be spot-on.
Of course that was a total fluke, a rare occurrence of naïve, hometown bravado lining up with actual events. But what I didn't know then, and it became one of the most important political lessons I'd ever learn, is that once you can spot the patterns in politics your predictions are usually going to be dead to rights. I first witnessed this kind of genuine political divination when our dean, Chris Arterton, correctly predicted that Bush would bring back Jim Baker to run his campaign. To us tyros it was an absurd notion that Ronald Reagan's chief of staff and treasury secretary, who was then serving as President George H. W. Bush's secretary of state, would leave that post to take the reins of the forty-first president's reelection campaign. George H. W. Bush had the aura of invincibility and none of us believed a guru like Baker would need to be called back into campaign service. Two months later it turned out to be true.
What Arterton had done is nothing you can learn in school, though. You have to have your own skin in the game. At the time, all of us students merely talked as if we did. But once you have skin in the game, you don't need to talk anymore — you're too worried about your skin. As impressed as I was with Arterton, my whole reason for being at GSPM was to work my way into the presence of true political giants. My first exposure to a real power player came when Roger Ailes showed up as a guest lecturer. Ailes had just taken over CNBC, which meant nothing to us, but he'd played a key role in getting Bush elected over Michael Dukakis in 1988, and his book, You Are the Message: Secrets of the Master Communicators, was a must-read for our class, along with Sun-Tzu's The Art of War, Machiavelli's The Prince, and Carl von Clausewitz's On War.
Ailes was larger than life, and not just because he's got a gut like the hood of a VW Bug. This was the guy who dreamed up the town hall forum for Richard Nixon, and who saved Bush's ass in '88. This guy was Lee Atwater's Lee Atwater. He personified what everyone in that room wanted to be.
What we wanted — what I wanted, whether I truly knew it at the time or not, was the worst thing anyone could want, and the thing most people never stop chasing: power. Wealth, health, youth...I had those in spades. All I lacked was influence over other human beings. Now there was something worth having!
Ailes walked in and I thought, I want to be a guy who, when the door closes and there're only three people left in the room, is one of them. When something needs to happen and it takes a man of influence in a dark room to make it happen, I want to be that man. Once Ailes began his lecture, no one said a thing. The man's whole attitude was "I'm gonna talk and you're gonna listen. I'm going to lay it down for you and if you don't pick it up, hey, that's your loss."
What he laid down for us was simply this: in politics, words are meaningless.
It isn't what you say, but how you say it. Every aspect of the phrases a candidate spews forth are insignificant except for how he emotes them. For better or worse, we've seen it proved countless times in the last ten years that Ailes's theory is accurate — not right or wrong, but accurate.
And we all saw that accuracy soon enough with Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" message. That line would have seemed smarmy to almost anyone if they'd read it in campaign literature, but Clinton embodied the theme so skillfully when he delivered it at a March 1992 campaign rally that it resonated perfectly with millions of voters.
I had personally marveled at Clinton's ability to stay on message that January, when he deftly outmaneuvered 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft over tabloid stories alleging an affair with Gennifer Flowers. The masterstroke wasn't when he blamed it on checkbook journalism, saying, "It was only when money came out, when the tabloids went down there offering people money to say that they had been involved with me, that she changed her story." The genius move was that he immediately added, "There's a recession going on." In ten seconds Bill Clinton went from denying a sordid sex tale to bashing President Bush on the economy. But more than that, he was actually blaming Bush's recession for poor Gennifer Flowers having to debase herself in the press. In this way Clinton got back to the message "It's the economy, stupid," dismissed Flowers as a gold digger, and delivered it all with an air of compassion for his accuser that would satisfy the liberal female voters he needed to win the election.
Bill Clinton may not have agreed with any of Roger Ailes's politics, but he certainly sounded like he'd read Ailes's book.
I came away from Ailes's lecture with the distinct impression that I'd enlisted in a military academy. He had the presence and bearing of a movie general as he drummed home the message that if you didn't personally believe what you were spinning, you'd damned well better work yourself into a lather until you looked and sounded like you did — that if you were ever to be a true political player, you had to indoctrinate yourself. And I felt myself growing fully indoctrinated. In fact, GSPM's Web site still refers to the school as "The West Point of Politics." When you're young you can really get into that. You think to yourself, I'm a badass gunslinger, when in truth you're just a privileged whitekid who's never seen the inside of a brawl. But you get sucked into that bravado before you've even hit the ground and done anything. And that attitude only grows with the confidence success brings; the higher you go in politics, in either party, the more pervasive it is — the more childish and just plain stupid.
The class that would prove most valuable to me in my career (and, in a way, end it) was a phone polling course taught by Barbara Farah, who was formerly Director of News Surveys at The New York Times. When she asked us to draft a survey, I figured I was way ahead of the game thanks to some PR work I'd done for Toshiba involving the U.S.-Japanese trade issue. When I'd given Barbara what I considered to be a deeply thought-out, intricate poll on our commercial relations with Japan, she took one look and told me, "You've got to dumb this down to the second grade. This is way too complex for your average voter."
A little taken aback, I asked, "Huh?"
"People are just too busy," she explained. "No one has time to pay attention to anything. You need to dumb this down to 'Dim, dem, and dose.'"
The lesson, and no one says you have to like it, is: If you want to succeed for your candidate, or as a candidate, you cannot be above the general public's comprehension. And the general public's comprehension is pretty low.
Another assignment was to conduct an actual telephone poll, for which we were supplied with a script and a selection of random telephone numbers for voters throughout the five boroughs of New York. I still have that script. When I had completed the assignment, I wrote on it, "Despite the proliferation of telecommunications in the U.S., many people remain afraid to use the phone. What I learned was never to be afraid to use the phone to retrieve or communicate information."
To retrieve or communicate information...If only I'd stuck strictly to those two telephonic applications when I was working the phones in New Hampshire, what a different story I'd be telling.
The course was called "Quantitative Methods," but its subject matter wasn't as dry as the name implied. For our polling project we had to call through our list of numbers until we had done six complete interviews. All of my numbers were in Queens and I ended up experiencing a language barrier on about 75 percent of my calls. At the time, we were applying our studies to the New York mayoral rematch between Rudy Giuliani and David Dinkins, so our scripts revolved around that race. The questions were fairly straightforward: "Who are you most likely to vote for?" and such. Yet I soon found myself coaxing my subjects through the interviews. It wasn't so much that I was trying to assign particular responses to the subjects, but I realized it was incredibly easy to lead someone into giving any answer you wanted.
The key was when I'd pose a simple question and the respondent would ask, "What does that mean?" Once they asked what something meant, I could just go ahead and rephrase it any way I chose because the script didn't provide any answers, only more questions.
Ideally, you're supposed to say, "I can't tell you what it means. I can only read you the question." But no one's ever been elected on ideals. What you end up telling them is more along the lines of "Well, what I think it means is A, and based on your income level and the other demographics in your file you'd be most likely to answer B."
This was a real eye-opener. This was where the rubber meets the road. If you can twist polling results, you can use those same results to manipulate everything from fund-raising to media perception. What had started out as an innocuous exercise in "quantitative methods" — polling and the retrieval of information via the phone — became my first lesson in wedge politics.
In wedge politics, you're trying to polarize just enough of a given electorate to get your candidate the win. You don't care about 100 percent of the vote; you don't even care about 55 percent of it. In wedge politics, you want to get 50 percent, plus one vote. If you can find an issue that turns off 49 percent of the voters, your guy gets 51 percent and you win. "Quantitative methods" is about using the polls to find — or, better yet, create — the negative issue that turns off the right segment of voters. That's Wedge Politics.
And American politics is Wedge Politics.
And that's only the beginning of what political operatives can do when they reach into someone's home armed with a telephone, a few loaded questions, and the Second Amendment.
Through the Giuliani-Dinkins race I saw firsthand that there was an art and a science to phone polling. It struck me that this was not a race about budgets, education, and crime, but how those issues impacted different racial groups. At the time, New York seemed ready to burst from racial tension and an ever-increasing crime rate. As the white candidate in that dynamic, Giuliani had no shot with black voters. But Latino and white voters were fertile ground for him even if they were Democrats in one of the nation's most liberal cities. Simply put, high crime rates and racial tension equaled frightened, angry white people. Giuliani's camp responded to this with one message, one vision: "Rudy is tough on crime; Dinkins doesn't care if whitey gets mugged."
In that atmosphere, when the Republicans reportedly had men with "inner-city" accents call Democratic households urging "Vote for David Dinkins," they were betting that white Democrats would turn out for Rudy. At least that's how I understood it as an engaged observer.
Was the tactic dirty? Was it clean? Meaningless. It was victorious.
Race-based electioneering through phone polling was absolutely tame, however, compared to the lengths that earlier operatives had gone to in order to manipulate the polls. In 1981, the Republican National Committee (RNC) birthed the modern-day voter suppression tactic in New Jersey. The RNC, in conjunction with the New Jersey Republican State Committee (NJGOP), discouraged minority voters from showing up at the polls by hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers to stand at urban polling places wearing black armbands that identified them as members of the nonexistent "Ballot Security Task Force." With their sidearms clearly visible, they stood next to signs that read: "WARNING. This area is being controlled by the National Ballot Security Task Force. It is a crime to falsify a ballot or to violate election laws."
That year Republican Tom Kean, Sr., defeated Democrat Jim Florio for governor by 1,797 votes. The criminal investigation went nowhere and the ensuing civil suit against the RNC and NJGOP ended up being settled for one dollar in U.S. district court. Both committees signed a pledge never to approve tactics that would intimidate voters — but did not admit wrongdoing.
A theme on which we were ceaselessly drilled at the GSPM was that the candidate who asks "Is it fair to get me elected this way?" is the candidate who's never won. When a nonmilitary educational institution's primary reading list is composed of Sun-Tzu, Ailes, Clausewitz, and Machiavelli, you can bet its ethics are going to be something special. Professor Bob Fullinwider of the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy was our go-to guy on that front. The cover page on the syllabus for his "Ethics and Politics" course featured two quotes:
"Politics is a blood sport." -Edward I. Koch
"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause. And if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, knowing that he will never be with those cold, timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat." — Teddy Roosevelt
Be good, be bad, but don't be indifferent — that was the framework. Be competitive, be in the sport. From there on in, all the gaming strategies we studied were war strategies, battlefield tactics.
Years later, I went to Angola as a representative of the International Republican Institute to teach members of an emerging democracy about what a democracy is and how it works. They didn't understand what I was saying about electoral politics until I started equating it with warfare. When I said that TV ads are the political equivalent of carpet bombing while a telephone pollster is a sniper, only then did the heads start nodding.
All the warfare stuff we were trained in served to bolster one philosophy: win or go home. As for what political fixers considered ethical in getting the win, that was made clear to me at GSPM when I was introduced to the American Association of Political Consultants. A speaker from the AAPC gave a lecture, which he opened by handing out copies of the association's code of ethics.
The first oath on the list read, "I shall not indulge in any activity that would corrupt or degrade the practice of political campaigning."
"Of course, I don't pay too much attention to that," the speaker said, "as I'm not a dues-paying member anyway."
So to me, the message was "Ethics this, fair play that — it's all bullshit. You lose, you go home. You win, you win."
It was then I learned the Golden Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules.
The Maryland professor aside, most of the people who taught us weren't academics by any stretch. They were from the down-and-dirty world of political operatives and they were tasked with teaching us the down-and-dirty realities of lobbying, polling, budgeting, and advertising, just to mention the basics. By the time I left GSPM I felt like I'd just been trained to be a mercenary. I just got out of boot camp and it was time to go annihilate someone.
At the same time, I couldn't help asking myself, "Dude, you just spent fifteen thousand dollars. What do you do now?"
I knew what I wanted to do, but had little idea of how to go about doing it.
Copyright © 2008 by Allen Raymond