The Spin Doctor Is Out

As a political consultant, I learned the tricks of the trade from James Carville and Paul Begala. I loved playing hardball in a business where winning is everything. But the time came when politics got too partisan, too mean, and too all-consuming—even for me. by Mark McKinnon

MAYBE IT WAS THE CANDIDATE FOR STATEWIDE OFFICE WHO got so drunk he came on to a member of our film crew at a public restaurant while his wife and daughter sat horrified across the table. Maybe it was the time I got so frustrated I screamed obscenities at a female statewide officeholder. Maybe I got tired of juggling ten to twenty campaigns at once. Maybe I got tired of candidates’ asking me what their firmly held convictions should be. Maybe I got tired of accusing opponents of being right-wing extremists who wanted to cut social security benefits—and tired of them accusing my candidates of being tax-and-spend liberals. Maybe I simply lost my political idealism. Maybe I got tired of being in a dingy campaign office a thousand miles from home missing yet another of my daughters’ birthdays. Maybe politics just got old. Maybe I just got tired. Maybe it was the lure of the regular hours and reliable revenue of the corporate world. Maybe it was a combination of a lot of things. Whatever the case, after fifteen years of working on the front lines of American politics, I got out.

As a political consultant, I worked with some of the top spin doctors in the business: James Carville, Paul Begala, the now-infamous Dick Morris. I started off a true believer—a servant of democracy, determined to change the system. By the time I quit, I’d learned how to manipulate the system, and I used all the tricks of the trade to help elect my candidates. There is one bottom line in political consulting: winning. Nothing else matters.

If you followed the campaigns of governors Ann Richards and Mark White, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, comptroller John Sharp, treasurer Martha Whitehead, and mayors Bob Lanier and Ron Kirk, then you’ve probably seen my work. I’d prefer that you (and I) didn’t remember the disastrous campaigns of Lena Guerrero and Bob Krueger, but they were my work too. That’s the way political consulting is—incredible highs, devastating lows, sometimes feeling bulletproof, sometimes feeling that all the blood had been drained out of my body. I had no idea of the toll it had taken on me mentally and spiritually until I quit.

I’d always been interested in politics, but I really got hooked when I was the editor of a University of Texas at Austin student newspaper, the Daily Texan, in 1980. I got my first taste of campaign tactics in the election to pick the editor. I found out that one of my two opponents was guilty of résumé inflation, so I leaked it to my other opponent. They got into a huge public brawl over the allegation. I sat back, watched them cut each other up, and coasted to victory.

During my tenure I wrote mostly about politics. One of my heroes was Austin state senator Lloyd Doggett. Like me at the time, he was an unabashed liberal and a committed enemy of special interests. So, when Doggett decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1984, I wandered over to his headquarters and volunteered to work in his campaign. Soon I was keying data into a computer for five bucks an hour. Paul Begala, who had been the student body president at UT when I was editor of the Daily Texan, was also working on the campaign. When he discovered that I was hanging around, he declared that I should be working in the press office.

I was in heaven. It was a marriage of my two loves, politics and the press. Better yet, I was flacking for someone with righteous convictions, someone who not only wouldn’t talk to lobbyists but wouldn’t even let them in his office. (Today I’m not certain Doggett would let me in his office.)

Our political consultant was a raving maniac from Louisiana by the name of James Carville. He and Begala would become the architects of Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, but at the time, Carville was a nobody—forty years old, never won a race, literally had all his belongings in a suitcase, begging to do the race for $3,000 a month. His language was so spicy that after Doggett won the primary, he was moved out of the headquarters into a separate house. We didn’t want volunteers or children exposed to him. He looked like a prehistoric reptile and acted like a hyperactive twelve-year-old. But if you spent enough time around him and got over the initial shock, you could see that he was a flat-out political genius. Carville prowled and growled around the campaign headquarters. He spat. He raved. He holed up in a closet with piles of articles about Congressman Phil Gramm, Doggett’s Republican opponent, searching for clues. He’d bounce around the office looking over everyone’s shoulder, shouting, “Watcha doin’? Watcha working on?”

Carville hammered Doggett about message discipline—the idea that candidates should determine the one compelling rationale for their candidacy and say it every time they open their mouths. One of Gramm’s few vulnerabilities at the time was some bad votes on social security. But Doggett liked to talk about a lot of other things. Carville kept after him. Then, on the day the United States embassy was blown up in Lebanon, Doggett was asked about the incident. He responded, “Well, it’s a terrible tragedy, of course, but what I’m really concerned about is the social security of their surviving relatives. Phil Gramm wants to take it away.”

Although Doggett got creamed, I became a confirmed political addict in the process. I was worried, however, that getting beaten so badly was not exactly a launching pad to political employment. To my utter astonishment, I was able to parlay my marginal experience into a job in Governor Mark White’s press office and then became press secretary for his 1986 reelection campaign.

Working as a spokesman for a governor provides a lot of opportunity to screw up. And when you do, the whole world knows about it, as I soon found out. Every time we had to file a campaign finance report, I’d

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