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.