Twenty-one years ago, back in the dark days before the Internet, laptop computers, cell phones and wireless email, I sat in a hotel room out West and watched a candidate for Congress practice for a debate with his opponent.
I had taken a sabbatical from journalism to spend some time in politics to learn how life worked on the other side of the fence. So here I was, out in the middle of nowhere, posing as an expert who could advise the candidate on how he might improve his debating style.
What made me an expert? I was from Washington, that’s all. I had never coached anyone in speaking style. I had appeared before groups often as a columnist for a newspaper in Illinois for 11 years, but I had no formal spokesperson training nor had I ever worked in a campaign before.
Yet I was plucked out of a congressional staff job, given a weekend’s orientation, and sent out on the road to be the campaign pro from Washington. Over the next few years, I would manage a congressional campaign, run the country’s most expensive independent expenditures operation, teach at several campaign schools, lecture at two colleges about politics and campaigns and work as a consultant on more campaigns than I can remember – all without prior experience or training, without any real qualifications and without the foggiest notion of what I was doing.
I would jet in, dispense advice based on experience I didn’t have and then move on to the next campaign. In spite of this, 85 percent of my candidates won their elections and that statistic kept propelling me on to new jobs and challenges. Before long, I was sitting in a corner office in downtown Washington, overseeing the largest political action committee in the country. My only contact with journalism came from reporters who sat across my desk for interviews.
Politics is a seductive business, a heady world where money flows freely, power comes from success (either perceived or real) and illusion replaces reality.
As a journalist, I tried to poke through the illusion of politics to get to the truth behind candidates. As a political operative, I created that illusion and built firewalls to prevent anyone from discovering the truth.
It was surprisingly easy. Politics is, first and foremost, public relations and marketing – the selling of a commodity. The candidate is a product, the latest gee-whiz you-gotta-have bit of fluff that campaign pros mold like a piece of clay and then peddle to the customers, who are also known as voters.
Positions on issues are fashioned not on beliefs or convictions, but through demographics, polls and focus groups. Issues that don’t click with voters are avoided or at least sanitized so they don’t offend any of the core groups that support the candidate.
Academics call it political science. It ain’t even close to science. Politics breeds on hype, fear and emotion. Campaigns are fashioned out of thin air with the same marketing approach used to sell laxatives. In the end, the result is the same.
Politics gave us Bill Clinton, who used the power of the Presidency to feed his lust and turned the Oval Office into his personal whorehouse. Politics gave us Robert Torricelli, the scandal-ridden Senator from New Jersey who quit his re-election campaign this week when it became obvious he couldn’t win. It gave us Jim Traficant, the ex-Congressman from Ohio who is now in the slammer for extortion, bribery and tax evasion.
And just who do we thank for all of this? We thank the pros, the campaign operatives, the hired guns.
People like me.
Back in that hotel room many years ago, I saw and watched that candidate for Congress mangle the English language as he prepared for his debate. When he finished, he looked at me and asked: “How did I do?”
I shrugged. “If you had been up there masturbating, your hand would be asleep.” He got mad. But the next time he did it better. And he won the election.
Afterwards, the campaign consultant – a veteran of many campaigns – pulled me aside.
“I’m not sure you’ve got what it takes for this business,” he said. “Maybe you should go back to journalism.”
He was right.