'Crisis' Details U.S. Strategists' Role in Foreign Polls The documentary Our Brand is Crisis looks at the work of American consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum. The firm helped Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, aka Goni, win the presidency in Bolivia. The director of the film, Rachel Boynton, talks with Robert Siegel.
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'Crisis' Details U.S. Strategists' Role in Foreign Polls

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'Crisis' Details U.S. Strategists' Role in Foreign Polls

'Crisis' Details U.S. Strategists' Role in Foreign Polls

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Imagine seeing the tactical inside stuff of a presidential candidate campaigning. Consultants who shape his message, pollsters who test it, focus groups who review it, handlers who leak negative stories about his opponent.

Well, it's all there in a new documentary film called Our Brand is Crisis. The team of consultants is from the Washington firm of Greenberg Carville Shrum, but the candidate isn't American, he's Bolivian. This was the election of 2002. Since then the indigenous populist Evo Morales has been elected President of Bolivia, but the candidate whose campaign is the subject of the documentary is called Goni, short for Gonzalo, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

In this remarkable documentary, you watch Goni's American advisers, including Stanley Greenberg and Jeremy Rosner, help him turn his campaign around.

Unidentified Man#1: We don't have to change the way people perceive the country and the economy. What we have to change is what is at stake in the election.

Unidentified Man#2: What we'd like to start with is how to take any questions that come up and turn them into message.

Mr. JAMES CARVILLE, (Advisor to President Clinton): Very simple. As you set out the Bolivia nation, at a point of crisis, we are running because we bring to Bolivia at this time the skills and blah, blah, blah that are needed to lead, to save it from this dangerous period.

SIEGEL: Well, that last voice should be familiar to many. It's that of James Carville who is an adviser to President Clinton and also a figure on cable television. Rachel Boynton is the director of the documentary, Our Brand is Crisis. These are American consultants who go down to coach a Bolivian candidate, I assume for a good deal of money.

Ms. RACHEL BOYNTON, (Director, Our Brand is Crisis): That is correct, yes.

SIEGEL: And you had phenomenal access to their operation.

Ms. BOYNTON: Yeah, I think one of the things that people have found most shocking about the film is the access to the sort of proverbial smoke-filled back rooms that you know are all over America, in our country all the time, but that journalists would never be allowed access to with a camera.

So I really did manage, by going to Bolivia, to film intimate strategy meetings like the ones that you're describing, that will ring very true and seem very familiar, I think, to an American audience.

SIEGEL: Give us some context here. Goni had been president of Bolivia, therefore he was tainted with some responsibility for the disaster that was Bolivia as he's running for president.

Ms. BOYNTON: That's correct. Bolivia was indeed in crisis when Goni was running, at many levels. Economically, first and foremost. There was no real economy and Goni had been blamed for that.

SIEGEL: At one point, there's a conversation between Stan Greenberg, who's the pollster and political consultant, and Jeremy Rosner who is another major player here, and they're actually talking about Goni, their candidate, and let's listen to what they're saying.

Unidentified Man#1: Not perfect. It's not going to work. You saw, you saw it in the groups. It's not going to work. If it sounds like it's mostly successful. Now there's conviction in it being successful, you know. I mean that's what he believes.

Unidentified Man#2: As long as he (unintelligible). I know it's (unintelligible). I know it feels right.

Unidentified Man#1: Okay. Well, that was crowded out by...

Unidentified Ma#2: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man#1: There was no, there was no sense of shortcomings or…

Unidentified Man#2: Skirting defense or…

SIEGEL: As long as he says I know I fell short. If he admits some mistake here in the past, he'll go over better with the electorate.

Ms. BOYNTON: What they're talking about is Goni believes he created 500,000 jobs. The people don't buy it.

SIEGEL: And so it's now up to Goni to present himself differently, perhaps differently than he actually sees himself, to the Bolivian voters, if he is to have a chance with them.

Ms. BOYNTON: That's a huge issue for him, and it was interesting because I think it's an issue for many politicians in many races. What do you do when in order to win you need to say something that you don't really believe?

SIEGEL: And the answer is?

Ms. BOYNTON: Well, in this case, the answer is he goes forward and he says I made a mistake, I didn't create enough jobs, and he says what the people want to hear.

SIEGEL: They do something else. They decide that he has a threat coming at him from another candidate, from Manfred, and they decide to go negative against him.

Ms. BOYNTON: There's a moment where you're sitting with Goni as he's smoking a cigar.

SIEGEL: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOYNTON: And another American is sitting opposite him. Actually, he's an Israeli.

SIEGEL: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOYNTON: But he works with the American firm.

Unidentified Man#3: I want to talk about strategic issues. The first is Manfred Reyes Villa. We have to start negative campaigns against him.

SIEGEL: Mm hmm.

Unidentified Man#3: We have to make him from clean to a dirty campaigner. That's our task. I had a discussion with Carlos Sanchez about it. He has some stuff on him. He's going to do it through outside parties. So I told him, everything you do, it cannot be connected to us in any way, at the moment. Once we have the research and we know what's the best message, we make it official.

SIEGEL: Did you come away from watching Greenberg, Rosner, Carville, these American consultants at work in Bolivia, did you come away with the impression that they care about Bolivia?

Ms. BOYNTON: I think they do. One of the things that I was very interested in as a filmmaker, and one of the reasons why I picked this firm in particular, was because they professed to be very idealistic about the work they were doing. And that to me was interesting because I always saw the Americans in this film as representative of us as a nation, us as a people, and what sort of assumptions we as a country bring anywhere when we talk about spreading Democracy around the world.

So the fact that they went into this process as idealists, believing that they were working for the right guy and bringing the country what it needed, that was really interesting to me.

SIEGEL: What happened in Bolivia after the election that Goni, barely, but just did win?

Ms. BOYNTON: When Goni came into office, he had 22 percent support in the country, and in order to rule, he had to form a coalition. He tried to govern, was not successful, and certainly didn't achieve all these various things that he had promised with any kind of speed.

There were a series of protests that Evo Morales organized, particularly to fight for the rights of coca growers. Goni sent out military to break up these roadblocks that were formed, and several people were killed. And as the deaths mounted, the protests got worse, they turned into riots, and ultimately Goni was kicked out by massive street protests…

SIEGEL: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOYNTON: …in October of 2003.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the reaction of, say, a Jeremy Rosner, whom you talked to about this, to the complete collapse and flight of Goni as president from Bolivia not long after his electoral victory? What did you make of Rosner's assessment of all that?

Ms. BOYNTON: I think he was heartbroken. He's not the kind of person who would say that on camera, but I think he was heartbroken, and I think it's, I can only imagine what it feels like to be partially responsible for putting somebody in office and then to watch him get kicked out…

SIEGEL: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOYNTON: …in a series of bloody riots.

SIEGEL: Rachel Boynton, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. BOYNTON: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: That's filmmaker Rachel Boynton. She's the director of the documentary, Our Brand is Crisis. The film is now showing in New York and it opens across the country next month.

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