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Seduced by a domineering mistress called politics

By Doug Thompson
September 29, 2006

I arrived in Washington on March 1, 1981 on what I thought then would be a two-year sabbatical from journalism. I wanted to spend a couple of years learning government and the political system from the inside. Such knowledge, I thought, would help me become a better journalist.

At least that was the plan.

When I reported for my job as press secretary to Illinois Republican Congressman Paul Findley, barricades did not block the driveways of the House office buildings or the U.S. Capitol and visitors did not pass through metal detectors to see their government in action.

Findley, a moderate Republican from an agricultural district, had achieved some notoriety for meeting with Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yassir Arafat and urging the White House to recognize the right for a Palestinian state. That generated a lot of opposition from the Jewish lobby and Findley barely survived a tough election in 1980.  I had covered that race as a reporter and, after the election, he offered me a job.

But the stifling, structured style of Findley’s office didn’t fit with my more freewheeling persona as a former reporter and columnist. I clashed often with the Congressman’s bureaucratic chief of staff. Within a few months I was talking to newspapers again about returning to my chosen profession earlier than planned.

Then Chriss Hurst, the incumbent director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, asked me to meet with Eddie Mahe, the legendary GOP political consultant who many in town felt led the party’s rebuilding effort after the debacles of Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Mahe asked me to join the campaign staff of Congressman Manuel Lujan of New Mexico, a five-term Republican who barely survived a strong election challenge in 1980. My job interview with Lujan took place over several glasses of scotch at the Capitol Hill Club. Somewhere during the course of the evening, he offered – and I accepted – a job.

In January, 1982, I was in New Mexico and finding that Lujan’s more relaxed style, and the no-holds-barred politics of the state, provided just the kind adrenaline rush that makes politics so addictive. I quickly mastered the skills of a political operative willing to bend the rules because winning was the only measure of success. When I discovered that Lujan, whose ancestors emigrated to New Mexico from Spain, had never carried the Spanish-speaking South Valley of Albuquerque because it voted mostly for Democrats, I engineered an "independent expenditure" campaing by a local car dealer that flooded the South Valley with door cards the weekend before the elction. The cards carried a photo of Lujan’s opponent — blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jan Hartke — and asked, in Spanish: "How to you pronounce Hartke in Spanish?"  The answer: "Gringo." Lujan carried the South Valley and the election.

During 1982, I also met Chuck Bailey, then deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, and he signed me on for contract work writing campaign literature for GOP races. By the time the 1982 elections ended, and Lujan won, I was hip deep in politics. The NRCC recruited me to serve as chief of staff for a freshman GOP congressman and also asked me to work with their orientation programs for new members of Congress. In the 1984 elections, I served as a contract field consultant for the NRCC and wrote the daily "Voices for Victory" report for the Reagan-Bush campaign under a contract with the RNC.

My reputatation as a cut-throat operative willing to take chances grew. In one race, I sent out a campaign brochure with the unlisted home phone number of an incumbent Democrat and asked voters to call him and complain about his votes. I told another candidate that his speaking performance was so weak that "if you had been up there masturbating, your hand would be asleep."

So, naturally, I was invited to join the faculty of the American Campaign Academy, a shadow Republican operations to train campaign managers and press secretaries. In lectures to aspiring campaign managers and press secretaries, I taught students to do anything to protect their candidate, to lie if necessary and find ways to circumvent the rules. Winning, I taught them, was the only acceptable outcome. That was the attitude and style that made me successful in the political arena.

In 1985 I returned to Capitol Hill, this time as Special Assistant to the Ranking Republican Member (Lujan) on the House Science & Technology Committee. For the next two years, I traveled extensively both domestically and internationally on committee business and enjoyed the good life as a senior level House staffer.

But the itch of politics remained and Mahe recruited me to work for retired Corning CEO Amory Houghton’s first run for Congress in 1986. Houghton won and the thought of returning to the interesting, but mostly sedate, life of a committee staffer didn’t hold much appeal. After the election, The National Association of Realtors came calling with an offer to run their independent expenditures campaigns. Shortly after joining the Realtors, the trade association of 800,000 members reorganized and I became Vice President of Political Programs with overall responsibility for their political funding operation, including what was then the largest political action committee in the country.

Running a PAC that maxes out in contributions in virtually every House and Senate race and buys entire tables at major fundraising events is a heady experience. Newspapers and journalism became a distant memory, lost in a lifestyle of six-figure incomes, large expense accounts and the power to influence elections with your checkbook.

My willingness to bend the rules carried over into work with the Realtors. I willingly promoted the organization’s myth that most people buy their homes because they can deduct mortgage interest on their income taxes (a "fact" contradicted by the reality that the United States at the time ranked third in per capita home ownership, trailing two other countries that did not allow mortgage interest deductability). I would spend millions on ad campaigns that promoted Realtor issues that were self-serving, even if it posed a threat to the economy or others. The only thing that mattered were gains for the special interest group that employed me.

Yet some shreds of the journalist remained and I began to question what I had become. I drank to bury the doubts but it wasn’t enough. After five years, the Realtors reorganized and I used the opportunity to walk away with a nice severance package.

Still I was not weaned from politics. I spent 1992 raising PAC funds for GOPAC, the political organization of Newt Gingrich. I also worked the GOP convention in Houston that year.

The drinking and doubts about what I was doing for a living increased and I finally crashed under the load in 1994.  During my recovery, my old political guru Eddie Mahe came calling again. His political consulting firm had, by that time, morphed more into a "strategic business communications" operation that handled crisis situations and other matters for companies.  In the summer of 1994 I was on a plane to Montana to help Echo Bay Mines of Denver with a due diligence study on a prospective gold mining operation.

I would spend much of the next few years traveling around the world for Echo Bay and other clients. I also returned part time to journalism, starting Capitol Hill Blue in October of 1994 and taking free-lance writing and photography assignments for wire services and national publications.

My last brush with political work came in 1999 when The Eddie Mahe Company signed on to help the Vermont Republicans to try and regain control of the state legislature. The campaign centered on GOP opposition to civil unions. When I saw the homophobic material the Republicans planned to use in the campaign it sickened me. I opted out of the campaign, a move that the beginning of the end of my involvement with Eddie and his partner, Ladonna Lee. The Eddie Mahe Company later merged with a law firm in Washington. I returned full time to journalism.

My wife and I began to spend more and more time at a farm we owned in the Southwestern Virginia Mountains. In 2004, we bought additional property and a home there, sold our home in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, and left Washington for good. I return now once a year to speak to the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism.

The planned two-year sabbatical from journalism turned into more than a decade and we spent 23 years in Washington. The money, the adrenaline rush and the power of politics seduced me without question. I made a lot of money and that money gives us a good quality of life now. I loved the action but I regret many of the things I did while working inside the political system. The self-loathing contributed, I’m sure, to my alcoholism, a disease you find prevalent in political circles.

With 12 years, three months and 23 days of sobriety under my belt I can look back at my years in politics and be truly ashamed of what I did in the name of a political party and its self-serving causes. The irony is that while I worked for Republicans, I never was one. I wasn’t, and still am not, anything. I’ve been an independent all my life and have never registered for any party or voted a straight ticket.

Those years in politics allowed me to better understand why things happen in politics and the government that the political system controls. It’s a corrupt system driven by greed and a lust for power. It’s a system that must be changed if America is to survive.

I’m ashamed now of many of the things I did as a political operative and I will do anything to help bring about the change that is needed. I was part of the problem. Now I hope to be part of the solution.

27 Responses to Seduced by a domineering mistress called politics

  1. Doubtom

    September 29, 2006 at 6:37 pm

    Good expose Doug and at your expense too!

    You know, in reading your history, I was struck by the hopeless feeling that you spend a lifetime accumulating experience and savvy only to have it coincide with the period when no one pays any attention to you anyway.

    I figure that’s why we see so many old people sporting either wistful or sad smiles. They know!

  2. Gentlewoman

    September 29, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    Hey Doug,
    Politics as a “domineering mistess” who seduces you? Yet, note that all the actors here are male. So why do you assign this ‘seduction’ to the female of the species? Your use of an old sexist metaphor is off-putting and misleading.
    It also puts you in the role of reacting as victim would, a victim of of so-called feminine wiles. Get out of the (your) past. Get your mind around to present need and into future possibilities. There is still time and hope for us to create change. Don’t react to the past, respond mindfully. We’re survivors of the Bush madness and need to go on and THRIVE in dismantling the Bush war on democracy.

  3. John Rice

    September 29, 2006 at 6:51 pm

    Doug,,,
    Congratulations on getting to where you are, and having survived that which you did. I am glad you wish to make amends.

    Are you convinced yet that both the major parties have been corrupted beyond repair or do you still hold out hope that one or the other parties will self-reform and salvage our democratic republic?

    We are about to lose our freedoms as a result of both parties. We are waging war on two countries as a result of both parties. We are contaminating other nations as a result of decisions by both parties. We are voting for increased military industrial and prison industrial expenditures on a bipartisan basis as well.

    Our only opportunity for real substantive change of paradigm is with a new political party to throw out the corrupt bipartisan status quo. Check out http://www.neitherparty.org and get to work right now, because hoping that either of the parties that got us into this mess will get us out is not merely delusional denial–it is insanity.

    Regards,,,John
    ( john_rice@neitherparty.org )

  4. Ross

    September 29, 2006 at 7:21 pm

    There are things you can only know from being in the middle of the game, and perspectives you lose by joining in. Why criticize Doug for explaining his perspective, which explains the opinions he’s been giving us for all these years?

    I got my first taste of the self absorption of party operatives volunteering for Dean in Wisconsin 04. This summer I worked-this time because it paid $10/hour-for the Dems in Iowa. These people knew every politician in the state, but it was like talking to a brick wall.

    People that work in politics-from campaigners in small towns to politicians themselves-have absolutely no sense about government and policy issues. It is just a high school football game where your team MUST defeat the other team. Doug, your story only proves that point, and you should talk about it every chance you get.

  5. anthnytap

    September 29, 2006 at 7:32 pm

    Many years ago during an awakening I noticed a quote by Carl Jung It went like this ” Alcoholics are emotionaly sensitive, childish, and grandiose.
    Another great quote in the handbook goes like this.
    “There is a principle which is bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance-
    that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”
    Herbert Spencer.
    nough said

  6. William Cormier

    September 29, 2006 at 7:34 pm

    Doug;

    I found your past to be interesting and for those with an open mind – it demonstrates how dirty real politics are and the enormous amount of “operatives” that work behind the scenes -working to shape an election or vote to an ideology that even the “operatives” don’t believe in. It sounds much the same as being a Sales Manager and Trainer, which I was for years – and it’s a simple matter of projecting an image and/or opinion that isn’t necessarily true – but is relatively easy to accomplish if you evaluate and formulate a good plan of action.

    I’m relatively new to politics – however find it very similar to Sales and Sales Management – with much higher stakes! The more I learn the more I find the process disgusting, where reality takes a backseat to spin and deception – all in the name of money and power.

    It’s good to have someone with your experience and insight to see through and expose many of the current deplorable deceptions Americans now take daily whether they want it or not through a corrupt MSM – but because of people like you, more and more individuals are learning just how corrupt and “broken” our political process is – and maybe even some insight on how to fix it…

    Keep up the good work Doug; we all made decisions or went down paths in our lives that were regrettable, however, in the end-game, it’s who you actually choose to support and help that define you as an individual.

  7. John Hanks

    September 29, 2006 at 9:02 pm

    The problem is not with our morals. It is with out institutions. The rich have to be taxed to extinction, and scam artists have to end up in jail.

  8. Kim

    September 29, 2006 at 9:47 pm

    Doug, I have to admit I don’t frequent this site as much since you announced your departure, but I’m glad you’re back.

    You’re a great writer and we as a country need your voice.
    I never hoped you’d stay away for good. The country is slipping down a slippery slope and you wrote about the Republicans wiping their behinds with the Constitution which I read here first.
    It is indeed a sad day for the nation.

  9. Doug Thompson

    September 29, 2006 at 10:09 pm

    Gentlewoman writes:

    Politics as a “domineering mistess” who seduces you? Yet, note that all the actors here are male. So why do you assign this ‘seduction’ to the female of the species? Your use of an old sexist metaphor is off-putting and misleading.

    The use of feminine to describe politics comes from my wife who always said politics was my mistress and she theatened to name the political system in an alienation of affection suit should be ever divorce.

    –Doug

  10. Sandy Price

    September 29, 2006 at 10:11 pm

    I’ve known Doug for many years and he has taken hits for being a Republican, a Democrat and who knows what else. The truth is he is apolitical and goes after graft not party players. He exposes those who need exposing and he does it completely disassociating himself from any political position.

    Part of Doug’s personality and background in politics is reflected in his Rants. He’s an old timer in D.C. and knows the good guys from the rats.

  11. Elmo

    September 29, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    In 1981 Paul Findley was my congresscritter. As I understand it, he was also associated with a newspaper called the Pike Press. Seems like journalism and politics aren’t all that different after all.

  12. Judith Anderson

    September 30, 2006 at 1:56 am

    I had a real problem getting my server to open this column.
    Apparenly the language of the subject line set off bells dsigned to block pornography.

  13. Doubtom

    September 30, 2006 at 8:22 am

    Washington DC is awash in alcohol. I spent 30 years in the Navy and I can attest to many of my fellow officers avoiding orders to Wash DC like the plague. It was well known for turning people into alcoholics. There are way too many cocktail parties.

  14. Karen

    September 30, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    Doug, you could write a heckuva book. I love reading about your smoke-filled rooms/bars experiences within the bowels of the District. There aren’t many candid witnesses to history; and it could be a therapeutic exercise as for you as well. “Confessions of a Hired Gun” sounds good to me.

  15. tatva

    September 30, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    Doug,
    I am Indian and watch with great concern the rate at which USA is becoming a police state with the political class totally being soundrals( as samulel johnson described politians rightly so). I see there is no will to fight in common people. And this is happening every where. UK, India, middle east. AT the same I get solace fro reading ur rants which eminds me that still we have people who hv stomach for fight agaisnt system.
    thank you.

  16. skiesel

    September 30, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    As much as I like some of your other work, your coverage of the Monica Lewinksy scandal appeared to me as a shameless, opportunistic way of jumping on the gravy train, instead of doing any REAL “muckraking”. Can you account for this, too?

  17. Doug Thompson

    September 30, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    skiesel writes:

    As much as I like some of your other work, your coverage of the Monica Lewinksy scandal appeared to me as a shameless, opportunistic way of jumping on the gravy train, instead of doing any REAL “muckraking”. Can you account for this, too?

    I felt then, and do now, that Bill Clinton’s behavior in the Monica Lewinsky affair was a failure of his Presidency and his leadership. He lied under oath about the relationship and he also lied to the American people. He abused the power of the Presidency by using the White House to attack and undermine those who spoke out. While his actions, in retrospect, may pale in relation to the current administration, he still violate the public trust and engaged in the “politics of personal destruction” against his enemies. As I have explained many, many times before, I am non-partisan when it comes to misdeeds by our elected officials. I don’t give a damn is a politician is Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, right or left. If they lie, violate the public trust or abuse the power of their office, they are fair game.

    –Doug

  18. Wanda Burchell

    October 1, 2006 at 10:12 pm

    Doug, I am fairly new to your column and really enjoy it very much. I was wondering why we never see you on some of the political shows like for instance “Hardball”. I would love to see you and Chris Matthews go head to head.Now that would be a great show!…..Wanda.

  19. jpb

    September 29, 2006 at 5:20 pm

    Thanks, Doug, for your openness and honesty about your past!

    More cynically, please continue to let your guilty conscience energize your efforts and your committment to fight the corruption you know so well.

    jpb

  20. June

    September 29, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    You know, Doug, you are a
    classic addict–it’s always all about you, isn’t it?
    Every few months you make these grand pronouncements that you’re turning over day to day operations to others and then it’s just like you have to hear the sound of your own voice and you’re back again. If you want to make a real difference concentrate on exposing the many ills that plague our system today, not constantly regurgitating the long and tortured path which you have followed in the past.

  21. Lexie Homewood

    September 29, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    Geez, June, lighten up. It’s Doug’s website, and if he wants to have a cathartic episode occasionally, it’s his right. The milk of human kindness must pump through your veins, powered by you compassionate heart.

  22. Edward Rico

    September 29, 2006 at 5:46 pm

    I really liked your rant about what you did in the name of politics. I wasn’t as successful or go as you did but I suffered the same addiction and did many things for the Democratic Party (DFL in Minnesota) that I now regret. I agree totally with your conclusions about the corruption and the danger to democracy, but how do you stop the young beginners from catching our addiction? We were lucky, we got out stayed sober, some never do.

  23. Fred P

    September 29, 2006 at 5:46 pm

    Thank you. This is very useful.

  24. Editor

    September 29, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    A comment was removed because it advocated violence against the writer. We will remove any post that advoces violence or makes threats against anyone.

  25. Doug Thompson

    September 29, 2006 at 6:02 pm

    June writers:

    You know, Doug, you are a classic addict–it’s always all about you, isn’t it?
    Every few months you make these grand pronouncements that you’re turning over day to day operations to others and then it’s just like you have to hear the sound of your own voice and you’re back again. If you want to make a real difference concentrate on exposing the many ills that plague our system today, not constantly regurgitating the long and tortured path which you have followed in the past.

    June, I believe readers have a right to know that when I write critically about the failures of the system and those who practice politics that I was myself guilty of the same misdeeds. In addition, when I wrote earlier this week about Senator Allen’s racial slurs, their campaign tried to convince reporters that I had never worked in GOP politics.

    Unlike the Senator, and so many others in politics today, I admit my mistakes.

    This was an attempt to set the record straight. Sorry you found it self-serving.

    –Doug

  26. Lou Raskin

    September 29, 2006 at 6:08 pm

    How nice it would be to be born old with wisdom and grow young towards naivety. Since it does not work that way we do the best we can.

    It takes a strong and determined person to first recognize prior mistakes, admit them and then act to make corrections.

    Doug, thanks for being a strong and determined person–sharing your experiences are helpful in understanding the present as is your ongoing commitment to speak your truth is greatly appreciated, and needed. Such actions are now vital.

  27. lezlie

    September 29, 2006 at 6:14 pm

    Thank you, Doug! There are many like you who want to be part of the solution. We must all do all that we can to take this country back from the consultants, political operatives, and criminally corrupt politicians.