Pin It

The Running Man 

Raymond Strother practically invented the science of political consulting. In the following excerpts from his new book, Falling Up, the Texas native goes back to the beginning, recounting his Louisiana tours of duty and reflecting on how the very p

In the fall of my fifth grade I was sent to school on an urgent assignment from my father. I was to correct the teacher's misinterpretation of history and explain to her that Franklin Roosevelt, and not George Washington, was the father of our country.

"Washington was just another aristocrat who rose to power on the backs of dead soldiers and working people. He could afford to throw dollars across the Potomac and chop down his family's fruit trees because they had more money and more trees. But working people don't. We have to squeeze our dollars and hang on because the world is filled with people who want to cheat us out of it."

My teacher looked at me with wonder but I wasn't rebuked, because she taught in a union town. My attitudes were spawned at Local 23 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. My father, Albert Dolph Strother, was a smoldering, 230-pound, six-foot-two-inch, khaki-clad, Lucky Strike-smoking, hard-muscled malcontent who sometimes lashed out in his sleep at intruders trying to take away something he had earned through sweat. I shadowboxed behind him, learning to call strikebreakers "scabs" with the corners of my mouth turned down and occasionally spitting in the grass. I carried candy Lucky Strikes in my shirt pocket. What my father hated, I hated. What he believed, I embraced as universal truth.

According to our code, to budge off of a truth in the face of an argument or to compromise merely showed lack of character. To forgive one's enemies was for the pale-faced preachers in my mother's church who pleaded for larger collections in the Sunday sermons my father occasionally attended as the price of peace at home. We listened vigilantly to those tear-stained sermons, especially closely when the union was on strike, to make sure the preacher didn't ask God for anything that would give aid and comfort to a scab or a union-busting company. Strikes made collection plates awfully light in Port Arthur, and preachers were known to ask for heavenly intervention when they couldn't make the payment on the church's new Ford.

The city of my birth needed Jesus to help cushion its workers against its climate of violence and its fear of unemployment. Port Arthur was an acid-smelling, soot-covered union town of people who earned their living at one of the local oil refineries or chemical plants. The city was a festering sore that infected the Gulf, the marshes, and the bayous. Even the air smelled of something singed and sour. Bosses, Republicans, and professional people moved to Beaumont, eighteen miles away. When Pete Seeger sang about "ticky-tacky" little houses that "all look the same," he could have been talking about the houses and society of Port Arthur. All of our fathers made, within a few cents, the same salary. Women didn't work. Democrats always received 95 percent of the vote.

My father was a brooding man who would enter blue periods and sit for hours under a cottonwood tree staring at things in the bottom of an empty coffee cup like a reader of tea leaves. I would sit close by and carve wooden sticks for fishing corks and repair broken fishing reels. Occasionally I would feel his presence as his big fingers reached out and tightened a screw I had forgotten or tied a knot in a line about to unravel. Once in a great while he would pat me on the head or ruffle my hair. Men like my father didn't hug. It just wasn't part of the code. These little acts of love and kindness were done without comment. Silence was part of our communication. It seemed more important to listen to the dry rattle of the cottonwood leaves than to pollute the quiet with meaningless words. But for some reason, when we were in the Gulf of Mexico out of sight of land in our tiny, fourteen-foot pea shell of a boat, he would share his secrets of life, both of us looking at the horizon while gulls threw themselves out of the sky to prey on the shrimp jumping across the surface to escape schools of speckled trout beneath them. I remember the smell of the fish breaking salt water and the thousands of frantic shrimp doing tailstands on the mirror surface.

"Not much difference in those shrimp and working people," my father said. "If they go down the fish eat them, if they jump out of the water they get eaten by the gulls." I just nodded. Occasionally as we sat watching our hand-carved popping corks bob on the water, he would say, "Raymond, go to school and get an education. We need some lawyers who can help working people."

In the depths of the Damned Republican Depression, before I was born, my father was infrequently employed as a deckhand on a Texas Oil Company tanker taking heating oil to New York. For some reason the company always fired all of the deckhands once they were in port and hired new ones. My father's theory was they didn't want men together long enough to organize. After being released my father would hop freight cars back south. As the unemployed deckhands and assorted displaced rail riders watched America slide by their boxcar, they sang Jimmy Rodgers hobo songs and talked about a new order where working people had job security and the bosses would be put in their place -- wherever that was. They rolled their own cigarettes and talked freely about the experiment in Russia and how maybe it wasn't such a bad idea.

"We'd all be Communists now if it weren't for Franklin Roosevelt," my father once told me. "We were about ready to pick up guns when he came along. Damned Herbert Hoover almost destroyed this country."

My teachers, though, again seemed to have a warped sense of history. They talked about a world depression and global economic factors. One of them actually had the gall to say Hoover wasn't responsible for the Depression. She didn't even know that his first name was "Damned." Her lack of understanding of a basic truth about Damned Hoover shook my confidence in the infallibility of teachers. I had already learned that preachers could not be trusted.

I had never talked to my parents about college. My father may have harbored dreams I could go, but I knew they couldn't afford to send me. My mother didn't seem to care. I didn't want to hurt their feelings, so I didn't discuss my ambitions with them. My father was sure that because of the union he could get me on at Gulf Oil, and that was my heritage.

The day after receiving the letter I packed some jeans, my only suit, and some shirts in a duffle bag and found my father sitting in a metal lawn chair under that huge cottonwood tree in the backyard, drinking coffee from a chipped cup. The grass in front of his chair had been worn to dirt like the carpet at the bottom step in an old public building. I explained that I was going to college and that I would hitchhike there so I could start early training for the cross-country season. He looked at me with almost no expression. "I'm glad. I always wanted you to got to college. But being on strike and all, I don't know how we can pay."

"I have a track scholarship."

"So where are you going?"

"Northwestern Louisiana State."

"Where's that?"

"Natchitoches, Louisiana."

"I know where that is. I once worked for a logging company that cut around Natchitoches. What are you going to study?"

"Journalism. I'm going to be a writer."

"Not a labor lawyer?'

"No."

"Well, maybe you can tell the union side. Nobody ever does that. You got any money?

"Yes, sir. I've been saving this summer."

He reached into his thin brown wallet that was shaped like the contours of his hip and turned out a leather flap that covered what he called his strike fund. He unfolded a $100 bill and handed it to me. It smelled like a damp newspaper. It was the last money he ever gave me.

He took a swallow of coffee and looked off into the blue, over the tops of the scrub trees, where he could see the gulls endlessly circling over Sabine Lake. He always looked south as though pain ended where the earth met the water's edge. Often I tried to look at the same spot to see if I could see the same things he did. I could not. At least not yet.

My father died on his seventy-fifth birthday, December 29, 1982. Cancer had invaded his bones and his brain. He didn't know me when I stood next to his bed. He was reaching up and tightening imaginary bolts with an imaginary wrench, perhaps fixing the car of some boss, or a machine in the refinery. The latter part of his life had not been pleasant. He was forced to retire by company rules, and no union leader came to his rescue. At night he would watch television, the window to a world he did not understand that disappointed him terribly.

His youngest son had been killed flying helicopters in a war he opposed. His eldest son was a tool of politicians and associated with the same business people and bosses he had spent all of his life fighting. After the funeral I walked into the backyard of the old house to the worn spot under the cottonwood tree. On a still afternoon the worm-eaten, sun-parched winter leaves rattled together into a moan of mourning and reproach. I stood under the old rotting tree and wept.

Upon graduating from the LSU School of Journalism, Raymond Strother worked for the Louisiana Press Association and the Associated Press before hiring on with ad man/political consultant Gus Weill in 1967. Early on in his career, Strother became intimately familiar with the "colorful" side of Louisiana politics, best evidenced in a visit with St. Landry Parish Sheriff Daly Joseph "Cat" Doucet in a brothel in which the sheriff had what Strother calls a "proprietary interest." Eventually, Strother would leave Louisiana politics, when "principles and ethics long buried began to fight to the surface." But not before he would work for one of the most colorful politicians this state has known -- Gov. Jimmie Davis.

I didn't know what to expect when I signed on to the Jimmie Davis campaign for governor in 1971 but I was told by the money people that it would be necessary for me to stay on the road most of the time, so I bought a new suit, some wash-and-wear suits, a new manual portable typewriter, and a bottle of Johnny Walker scotch to tuck in my suitcase. At that time large areas of Louisiana were still dry, and my religious candidate didn't drink. At least I was so informed. (Later I found that wasn't true. In fact, little the public knew about the old politician was true.)

Our campaign team was a strange group. Because the real Jimmie Davis band had disbanded decades before, the old campaigner assembled a group of players and a singer and simply gave them the old band's name. Music has always been the center of his campaign, so it would be the center this time too -- the flame that attracted the moths to the edge of our stage.

The final group in a Davis campaign was a gospel group, so he hired the famous Speer family from Nashville. They came complete with a deluxe touring bus and a beauty queen who kept the band circling the bus like wolves waiting to spring through any open window. But this religious Nazarene family immediately made the bus off limits and put a padlock on its door to protect the little darling as she slept in her secure bunk.

While the Speer family bus was ultramodern, with the amenities of a hotel, the Davis bus was a tired old retread selected only because of the minimal cost. The driver was a religious man who abandoned us one night in some remote village because when he was hired the governor had told him he would be paid "five" per month, which he interpreted as thousands and found in his first paycheck that Davis had meant hundreds. A compromise was reached, and he returned. Later I found vagueness was a Davis technique to set up bargaining that was advantageous to him. He usually covered his mouth with his hand when he spoke and mumbled in incomplete sentences, so one was never sure exactly what he had said. Often he would reprimand us by claiming he had not given specific orders we thought he had. Along with mumbling, he used code words in all conversations, so that one was never completely sure what he meant.

A typical Jimmie Davis command would be, "Find that man who did that thing yesterday and tell him to go to the place we went yesterday and to bring his things."

That might have meant something as simple as, "Find the mechanic who fixed the bus yesterday and tell him we will leave the bus at the service station on Main Street and he should bring his tools."

But there was never a straight statement. Davis had apparently broken so many laws and committed so many near-crimes as governor that he had become not just careful, but paranoid. One of his chief lieutenants, George Dupuis, told me that when the gamblers came to the governor's office to make their payoffs, he would turn and look at the window at Capitol Lake and talk about the beautiful weather until the door closed behind them. Then George would pick up the bags and drive the cash to a north Louisiana bank owned by Davis and his friends. Davis could then say with conviction, "With the Lord as my witness, I can honestly say I have never touched a dollar of gambling money."

So our campaign began its slow trek to yesterday with two buses with captive women in them, a young man trying to invent political consulting as he went, and an assorted group of shiny-suited pickers and singers, hangers-on, campaign groupies, Jesus freaks, music fans, petty thieves, white-collar criminals, arthritic, gray-haired political hacks, and a living legend who was in reality a master of deception. We were full-tilt boogie, determined to re-create 1944.

Davis had decided that his press secretary/political consultant/speechwriter/television ad producer (me) should manage the events in each of the small towns. So on the morning of the first day we moved into Jonesboro, where he had started his other two campaigns. I positioned the stage in a large flat area to allow room for crowds, but close enough to the courthouse to tap into an electric power socket. Davis, still living in the 1940s, told me confidently his voters would "come out of the pine trees by the thousands."

To alert these redneck masses, a convict and a Cajun boy known only as Muscles drove through the countryside playing Davis music out of the huge speakers affixed to the top of the vehicle, interspersed with information about our appearance the next day. At night the two reported to Davis about how many people waved and promised to attend. They lied.

By show time, a few dozen people stood in the shade of some distant oak and pine trees, fanning themselves with newspapers and Davis handbills. They were a motley group of country people interspersed with a few public officials in wet white shirts and wilted ties.

But we opened. Doc Guidry played "Under the Double Eagle." Eddy Raven sang "Mama Tried," the Speer family sang something about Jesus, and Anna Davis of Chuck Wagon fame did a beautiful rendition of "Help Me Make It Through the Night." Then Jimmie jumped onto the stage to speak. Though Davis knew hundreds of country songs by heart, he could not remember the speech he had given most of his life. He read it haltingly from large note cards.

The speech lasted about twelve minutes, loaded with platitudes and cliches, not a single word of which related to any concern a voter might have -- or even to the second half of the twentieth century. When Davis finished speaking he would pick up his guitar, an instrument he had never learned to play, and hang it around his neck as a prelude to singing a couple of his standards. He held his crowd pleaser, "You Are My Sunshine," until one of our shills in the audience would scream, "Play 'Sunshine,' Jimmie." The audience would genuinely go wild and demand encores, which he never gave. "Always leave 'em wanting a little more," he told me. "Besides, they're getting this for free."

One day Davis asked me into the bus. "You tell me you can get me in the newspapers. They don't cover my speeches."

"Well, governor, you don't say anything. You don't talk about any issues or say what you will do if you get elected. We give the same speech at every stop. If we had some new material, we might make news."

"Then we'll add something to the speech. What do you think is important now?"

"Drugs, governor. Parents are concerned about their kids and drugs."

"Well, then, we will put something in my speech about drugs. You work it up."

I spent the next two days in a library and talking to law enforcement agencies until I came up with a program to educate children about drugs and to increase the penalties for selling. I gave it to Davis, who told me he would study it and make some cards, meaning that he would add some new 4 x 5 index cars to his old speech. I notified the few reporters still on speaking terms with me about our new position and stood in back of the crowd when Davis began his old speech.

Abruptly, he stopped at the point where he was to inject the new drug material. The pause seemed to go on forever. He wasn't used to deviating from his set piece and was trying to process the added sentences. People in the audience began to cough.

Finally he looked up and literally screamed in to the mike, "DOPE!"

He paused and screamed again. "DOPE!"

He looked around the crowd, which was obviously mystified. "Dope!" he continued. "Some people are for it -- some people are against it. Myself, I don't know. Ask your mommas and daddies."

Then he went directly back to his old speech, full of outdated expressions from his agrarian past like, "I've been to the mill and had my corn ground." I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it perhaps is a metaphor of experience. The press laughed, and I went to the car and guzzled four beers. At dinner that night Davis came over to my table.

"How do you think that went?"

"Brilliant, governor. You were just brilliant. I guess if the press doesn't cover that speech, it just proves they're against us."

He nodded in satisfaction. He never again asked for new material.

In the early 1980s, Strother made the move to Washington, fueled by his successful working relationship with U.S. Sen. Russell Long. Before long, his groundbreaking techniques and winning record drew a national client base -- and the attention of a Southern governor who wanted to one day be president.

I'm sorry I ever met Bill Clinton. He was a dreamkiller who ended our relationship by damaging my business and adding my body to those he climbed over to reach the White House.

My feelings for and about Clinton have nothing to do with whether he was a good president. I think he was. I also think he is one the brightest men to ever hold the office, at least in modern times. His kind of intelligence, however, was what the rest of us always hated in college. There was always a student who could return to the dorm late at night, scan the textbook once, and make an "A" on the exam the next day. This student had the sort of memory that could categorize and recall information. But he could not paint. He could not write fiction. He could not create. He could not even formulate original ideas.

Bill Clinton's was that kind of intellect. He could remember faces, names, and everything he read, but he will never be known for a memorable speech because he, in large part, was a micromanager who had little regard for the intellect of others and wrote his own bland, cautious speeches. He didn't know he could not write. People always remember his delivery; they seldom remember what he said. Bill Clinton didn't coin Churchillian or even John Kennedy-esque phrases that became part of our common experience. He didn't even say anything as remarkable as Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No." In fact, the only two memorable lines of his presidency ("The era of big government is over" and "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky") were calculated falsehoods.

Producing television for Clinton was a nightmare. He wanted to examine each word, often losing the intended purpose of the commercial. When I tried to shoot the sort of spontaneous television I had used with Gary Hart, putting Clinton in the middle of a group of people and filming his remarks, he first demanded scripts. There is no doubt that he was capable of great magic on television, but he was always afraid of losing control. Dick Morris would write script paragraphs and test them in his polls. If a particular paragraph tested well, Clinton would demand that it be used in the commercial without a change. Our "spontaneous" commercials were simply Clinton repeating lines written by Morris. That meant that the visual and emotional part of the commercial was often sacrificed to stay true to those etched-in-stone paragraphs from Morris. Not good science. Not good television.

Why did he use me? Well, it is a crude term, but Bill Clinton was always known as a "star f--ker." That meant that he wanted the flavor of the month. When he was first settled in the White House, his guest list looked like Oscar night in Hollywood. He cultivated friendships with the famous. He was not interested in people like the president of General Motors or some great but obscure writer. He wanted Barbra Streisand across the table. He even gave the keys to the White House to Harry Thomason and his wife Linda Bloodworth, the rich producers of low-brow television sitcoms. He fed on celebrity. In 1984, I was a political celebrity, so he hired me.

I was smitten with Bill Clinton. There was no doubt that we could make television together. His warmth, intellect, and empathy slammed through the lens. But even on our first film shoot, I began to get hints that he would be a difficult candidate to manage. First, he kept deferring to his wife, another lawyer with the misguided notion that she was a wordsmith. Her specialty was to insist that we beat to death some word or phrase that wasn't even important to the commercial.

Between Hillary, Betsey Wright and Dick, I never felt in charge of the Clinton message and was not included in all phases of the campaign. Perhaps that's as it ought to be. Candidates are the ones who hold office after the campaign; they ought to say what's on their minds, not the consultants. The rub with Clinton was that although he said he wanted to do my character-building sort of television, what he truly believed in was negative advertising. I often explain to candidates that winning is different than beating your opponent. If a candidate wins because of force of character and ideas, he or she has a platform from which to govern. Clinton's favorite way of winning was simply to bludgeon his opponent. I wrote Clinton a memo warning him that his manner of winning was destructive.

(Memo to Bill Clinton)

... Unfortunately you have become a master at defeating your opponents, but you have learned little about winning. You end each campaign with an overdrawn emotional checkbook. The good and noble is sacrificed for short-term victories. And one thing I have learned in the last twenty years is that short-term victories are the junk food of politics. They require little thought and add little nutrition to your political life. One result of your philosophy of elections is you have lost respect for the voters. You only want to feed them enough information to make a quick, voting booth decision. Your favorite television style is a reflection of intellectual arrogance that excludes emotions ... that excludes people. In polls you test carefully worded paragraphs that work only in a vacuum and then attempt to plug them into the public consciousness. It is plastic and cynical.

Bill, voters are not stupid. They make complicated decisions they can't explain but they always have reasons. Your winning by being the only person left standing on election day because of financial and intellectual firepower leaves the voters feeling cheated and disconnected ...

In 1987, I persuaded Gary Hart to meet Clinton. It seemed logical to me that the great but cool intellect and ideas of Hart could be balanced by the warmth and political skills of Clinton. I envisioned a ticket with the cerebral senator from Colorado at the top and the smooth-talking governor of Arkansas as his candidate for vice president. So Hart and I flew to Little Rock for lunch at the mansion with Clinton. I thought it went well. The two seemed to like each other, and my hope was that, in time, some of Hart's idealism would rub off on Clinton. After lunch we were driven back to the airport. Hart peered out the window at the slums of Little Rock and said nothing until we were almost to the plane. By now I was accustomed to allowing him his reflective quietness, but I wanted to see if my plan had worked. I intruded, "Well, what do you think, Gary?"

"About what?" He was still peering out the window.

"About Clinton."

Hart turned to me. "There's no core. He doesn't believe in anything."

End of conversation. Clinton was never mentioned again as long as I knew Hart.

In 1990 the wheels came off of my relationship with Clinton. What is strange, though, is that I pulled for Clinton during his entire presidency. I guess my daddy's loyalties die hard. Ten or fifteen times I went on television talk shows to defend him, even after he'd gotten himself impeached by his habit of trying to outsmart everybody with clever answers -- including, stupidly, a federal grand jury. Because Clinton had turned away from my firm, my competitors has a newspaper clipping to use against us when they made presentations. Not only had Clinton killed my dream, he damaged my business. I wish I had never met Bill Clinton. But I am glad he was president. -->

But we opened. Doc Guidry played "Under the Double Eagle." Eddy Raven sang "Mama Tried," the Speer family sang something about Jesus, and Anna Davis of Chuck Wagon fame did a beautiful rendition of "Help Me Make It Through the Night." Then Jimmie jumped onto the stage to speak. Though Davis knew hundreds of country songs by heart, he could not remember the speech he had given most of his life. He read it haltingly from large note cards.

The speech lasted about twelve minutes, loaded with platitudes and cliches, not a single word of which related to any concern a voter might have -- or even to the second half of the twentieth century. When Davis finished speaking he would pick up his guitar, an instrument he had never learned to play, and hang it around his neck as a prelude to singing a couple of his standards. He held his crowd pleaser, "You Are My Sunshine," until one of our shills in the audience would scream, "Play 'Sunshine,' Jimmie." The audience would genuinely go wild and demand encores, which he never gave. "Always leave 'em wanting a little more," he told me. "Besides, they're getting this for free."

One day Davis asked me into the bus. "You tell me you can get me in the newspapers. They don't cover my speeches."

"Well, governor, you don't say anything. You don't talk about any issues or say what you will do if you get elected. We give the same speech at every stop. If we had some new material, we might make news."

"Then we'll add something to the speech. What do you think is important now?"

"Drugs, governor. Parents are concerned about their kids and drugs."

"Well, then, we will put something in my speech about drugs. You work it up."

I spent the next two days in a library and talking to law enforcement agencies until I came up with a program to educate children about drugs and to increase the penalties for selling. I gave it to Davis, who told me he would study it and make some cards, meaning that he would add some new 4 x 5 index cars to his old speech. I notified the few reporters still on speaking terms with me about our new position and stood in back of the crowd when Davis began his old speech.

Abruptly, he stopped at the point where he was to inject the new drug material. The pause seemed to go on forever. He wasn't used to deviating from his set piece and was trying to process the added sentences. People in the audience began to cough.

Finally he looked up and literally screamed in to the mike, "DOPE!"

He paused and screamed again. "DOPE!"

He looked around the crowd, which was obviously mystified. "Dope!" he continued. "Some people are for it -- some people are against it. Myself, I don't know. Ask your mommas and daddies."

Then he went directly back to his old speech, full of outdated expressions from his agrarian past like, "I've been to the mill and had my corn ground." I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it perhaps is a metaphor of experience. The press laughed, and I went to the car and guzzled four beers. At dinner that night Davis came over to my table.

"How do you think that went?"

"Brilliant, governor. You were just brilliant. I guess if the press doesn't cover that speech, it just proves they're against us."

He nodded in satisfaction. He never again asked for new material.

In the early 1980s, Strother made the move to Washington, fueled by his successful working relationship with U.S. Sen. Russell Long. Before long, his groundbreaking techniques and winning record drew a national client base -- and the attention of a Southern governor who wanted to one day be president.

I'm sorry I ever met Bill Clinton. He was a dreamkiller who ended our relationship by damaging my business and adding my body to those he climbed over to reach the White House.

My feelings for and about Clinton have nothing to do with whether he was a good president. I think he was. I also think he is one the brightest men to ever hold the office, at least in modern times. His kind of intelligence, however, was what the rest of us always hated in college. There was always a student who could return to the dorm late at night, scan the textbook once, and make an "A" on the exam the next day. This student had the sort of memory that could categorize and recall information. But he could not paint. He could not write fiction. He could not create. He could not even formulate original ideas.

Bill Clinton's was that kind of intellect. He could remember faces, names, and everything he read, but he will never be known for a memorable speech because he, in large part, was a micromanager who had little regard for the intellect of others and wrote his own bland, cautious speeches. He didn't know he could not write. People always remember his delivery; they seldom remember what he said. Bill Clinton didn't coin Churchillian or even John Kennedy-esque phrases that became part of our common experience. He didn't even say anything as remarkable as Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No." In fact, the only two memorable lines of his presidency ("The era of big government is over" and "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky") were calculated falsehoods.

Producing television for Clinton was a nightmare. He wanted to examine each word, often losing the intended purpose of the commercial. When I tried to shoot the sort of spontaneous television I had used with Gary Hart, putting Clinton in the middle of a group of people and filming his remarks, he first demanded scripts. There is no doubt that he was capable of great magic on television, but he was always afraid of losing control. Dick Morris would write script paragraphs and test them in his polls. If a particular paragraph tested well, Clinton would demand that it be used in the commercial without a change. Our "spontaneous" commercials were simply Clinton repeating lines written by Morris. That meant that the visual and emotional part of the commercial was often sacrificed to stay true to those etched-in-stone paragraphs from Morris. Not good science. Not good television.

Why did he use me? Well, it is a crude term, but Bill Clinton was always known as a "star f--ker." That meant that he wanted the flavor of the month. When he was first settled in the White House, his guest list looked like Oscar night in Hollywood. He cultivated friendships with the famous. He was not interested in people like the president of General Motors or some great but obscure writer. He wanted Barbra Streisand across the table. He even gave the keys to the White House to Harry Thomason and his wife Linda Bloodworth, the rich producers of low-brow television sitcoms. He fed on celebrity. In 1984, I was a political celebrity, so he hired me.

I was smitten with Bill Clinton. There was no doubt that we could make television together. His warmth, intellect, and empathy slammed through the lens. But even on our first film shoot, I began to get hints that he would be a difficult candidate to manage. First, he kept deferring to his wife, another lawyer with the misguided notion that she was a wordsmith. Her specialty was to insist that we beat to death some word or phrase that wasn't even important to the commercial.

Between Hillary, Betsey Wright and Dick, I never felt in charge of the Clinton message and was not included in all phases of the campaign. Perhaps that's as it ought to be. Candidates are the ones who hold office after the campaign; they ought to say what's on their minds, not the consultants. The rub with Clinton was that although he said he wanted to do my character-building sort of television, what he truly believed in was negative advertising. I often explain to candidates that winning is different than beating your opponent. If a candidate wins because of force of character and ideas, he or she has a platform from which to govern. Clinton's favorite way of winning was simply to bludgeon his opponent. I wrote Clinton a memo warning him that his manner of winning was destructive.

(Memo to Bill Clinton)

... Unfortunately you have become a master at defeating your opponents, but you have learned little about winning. You end each campaign with an overdrawn emotional checkbook. The good and noble is sacrificed for short-term victories. And one thing I have learned in the last twenty years is that short-term victories are the junk food of politics. They require little thought and add little nutrition to your political life. One result of your philosophy of elections is you have lost respect for the voters. You only want to feed them enough information to make a quick, voting booth decision. Your favorite television style is a reflection of intellectual arrogance that excludes emotions ... that excludes people. In polls you test carefully worded paragraphs that work only in a vacuum and then attempt to plug them into the public consciousness. It is plastic and cynical.

Bill, voters are not stupid. They make complicated decisions they can't explain but they always have reasons. Your winning by being the only person left standing on election day because of financial and intellectual firepower leaves the voters feeling cheated and disconnected ...

In 1987, I persuaded Gary Hart to meet Clinton. It seemed logical to me that the great but cool intellect and ideas of Hart could be balanced by the warmth and political skills of Clinton. I envisioned a ticket with the cerebral senator from Colorado at the top and the smooth-talking governor of Arkansas as his candidate for vice president. So Hart and I flew to Little Rock for lunch at the mansion with Clinton. I thought it went well. The two seemed to like each other, and my hope was that, in time, some of Hart's idealism would rub off on Clinton. After lunch we were driven back to the airport. Hart peered out the window at the slums of Little Rock and said nothing until we were almost to the plane. By now I was accustomed to allowing him his reflective quietness, but I wanted to see if my plan had worked. I intruded, "Well, what do you think, Gary?"

"About what?" He was still peering out the window.

"About Clinton."

Hart turned to me. "There's no core. He doesn't believe in anything."

End of conversation. Clinton was never mentioned again as long as I knew Hart.

In 1990 the wheels came off of my relationship with Clinton. What is strange, though, is that I pulled for Clinton during his entire presidency. I guess my daddy's loyalties die hard. Ten or fifteen times I went on television talk shows to defend him, even after he'd gotten himself impeached by his habit of trying to outsmart everybody with clever answers -- including, stupidly, a federal grand jury. Because Clinton had turned away from my firm, my competitors has a newspaper clipping to use against us when they made presentations. Not only had Clinton killed my dream, he damaged my business. I wish I had never met Bill Clinton. But I am glad he was president.

click to enlarge cover_story-6532.jpeg
click to enlarge cover_story-6532.jpeg
click to enlarge cover_story-6532.jpeg
Pin It

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Submit an event Jump to date

Latest in News

© 2015 Gambit
Powered by Foundation