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

November 1996By Comments

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 get anxious because I knew there would be a lot of questions, and I knew I didn’t know all the answers. In fact, the only people who really understood White’s complicated finance reports were the governor and his treasurer, Shannon Ratliff. I always begged Shannon to be available on the day of the filings to answer any tough questions. One filing day reporters were beating down my door at deadline. Shannon was nowhere to be found. Failing to think before I spoke (a fundamental rule for press secretaries), I said in frustration, “It’s not as bad as it looks.”

Governor White used to get up early and read the papers. When I got a call the next morning at 6:01, I knew it was trouble. Sure enough, my quote led the story, and the governor was none too happy. He expressed his displeasure: “McKinnon, I can get people to say this about me for free.”

Governor White had an uphill reelection campaign that year. Oil prices had collapsed and plunged the Texas economy into the ditch. Voters were looking to hold someone accountable, and White was the most likely candidate. He turned to his pollster and political savant, Dick Morris, for help. Morris had helped engineer White’s 1982 election, Bill Clinton’s first governor’s race, and Clinton’s comeback from a losing reelection campaign. Morris wanted a campaign manager he could control, so he brought in Harris Diamond, an old friend from earlier days in New York City politics. Diamond was not just from New York City, he embodied New York City. He was loud, pushy, opinionated, and rude—not a conventional choice to manage a governor’s race in Texas. The cultural gap surfaced early. White convened a meeting of his key advisers, a group of very powerful, very wealthy, and very Texan politicians, ranchers, and business types. Diamond did his best to blend in with the good old boys and convince them that he knew the Texas political landscape, but he blew the audition when he concluded by saying that the key to victory would be “nailing down seventy-five percent of the Spaniard vote.”

In politics you learn as much from your mistakes and losses as you do from your victories. Two days before the election, I was invited to speak informally to the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. It was billed as an off-the-record discussion of the political strategies of the two campaigns. The lesson I learned is that nothing is ever off-the-record. Toward the end of the session, I admitted that part of our strategy was to portray Bill Clements as “a cold, heartless son of a bitch.” I didn’t think anything of it until I got home later that night, and my wife and child were sitting in front of the television with strange looks on their faces. “Daddy,” my daughter said, “how come you said those bad words on TV?” I hadn’t even noticed there was a TV camera in the back of the room.

After White’s defeat I got an offer to go to Louisiana as the press secretary for a congressman named Buddy Roemer who was running for governor against incumbent Edwin Edwards. There was a mysterious lure to the idea of working in politics in Louisiana. A former Texas governor once said, “If you think you know anything about politics, go to Louisiana and get your Ph.D.” So I decided to go for the degree. I packed my bags and headed for Baton Rouge.

At first I thought I had landed in hell. For the first few months before my family joined me, I lived in a fleabag motel. It rained every day. There were only two of us at the campaign headquarters. And Roemer, who was an obscure congressman from northwest Louisiana, languished in fifth place—dead last—in the polls.

Gradually the color and flavor of Louisiana politics began to emerge. And it was incredible. Rarely a day went by that some political official wasn’t indicted. It was almost a badge of honor. Two of the candidates in the governor’s race died during the campaign. One was gunned down; the other perished in a mysterious plane crash, which gave rise to allegations of insurance fraud.

Edwards was the most flamboyant, candid, and facile politician I’ve ever witnessed. He’d been twice indicted and twice acquitted. After it was revealed that several jurors in one of Edwards’ cases had stolen towels and property from the hotel in which they were sequestered, the governor declared that he had truly been judged by a jury of his peers.

Roemer was the only candidate willing to defy the conventions of Louisiana politics. We knew we weren’t going to get any endorsements from the political establishment, so we ran against it. He was a gambler in more ways than one; he filed his poker earnings in his annual financial report. In the middle of the summer, when we had only $30,000 and things looked truly hopeless, we considered chartering a plane to Las Vegas with the Louisiana press corps and putting the whole $30,000 on one roll of the dice. If we hit, we were in; if we didn’t we were out. Common sense prevailed.

Roemer advocated reforms unheard-of in Louisiana. He came out for capping contributions at $5,000 and imposed that limit on himself even though it wasn’t the law (it is now, thanks to Roemer). It drove us crazy, because we knew that without the cap, we could be raising a lot more money. In fact, we got so discouraged that we imported James Carville for a day to see if he could talk Roemer out of the cap. Roemer was steadfast.

We drove around the state, parish by parish. Roemer would grab newspaper editors and publishers by the lapels and say, “This is our chance to break from the past. We can break from the politics that have dragged this state into the swamp of thieves and crooks, the politics that have landed Louisiana in last place in virtually every meaningful category. For once, don’t look at the horse race. Look at the horse. We can make a difference if you’re willing to make a difference.”

It worked. A month before the election, the New Orleans Times-Picayune endorsed Roemer on the front page of its Sunday edition. New Orleans is the vote-rich gold mine of Louisiana politics. And everyone, including Roemer’s supporters, had assumed that Roemer could never break through there. The endorsement shook money loose from people who had been holding back because, even though they liked Roemer, they didn’t think he had a chance of selling statewide.

The next pivotal moment in the campaign occurred during a debate. A reporter asked the candidates whether they would endorse Edwards if they didn’t make the runoff. For months there had been rumors that the other candidates had cut deals with Edwards. Jim Brown, who was a leading contender at the time, said yes, he would consider endorsing Edwards. When the question came around to Roemer, he didn’t blink: “No. I’m running to slay the dragon.”

With three weeks to go, we finally had the money to get on television, but it had happened so suddenly that we didn’t have any spots ready. Roemer, a veteran political consultant named Ray Strother, and I sat in a television studio filming spots as we wrote them. The deadline, the stakes, the excitement, and the creative energy made my pulse race. I remember thinking, “This is what it’s all about. This is why I like the game. This is why I play.” And the result was the creation of the spot that got Roemer elected:

“Some insiders say I’m not a good politician because I say things that make some people angry. They’re right. I do.

“I made some people in Washington angry when I refused to take a congressional pay raise, passed by the politicians for the politicians. I thought the country needed to tighten its belt.

“I made the bureaucrats and deadheads in Baton Rouge angry when I said I’d reduce the number of state cars and scrub the budget. I made the polluters angry when I said those who pollute the air and water should pay to clean it up. Clean it up or get out, I said! I made the education bureaucrats angry when I said I’d break up the top three floors of their department of education, cut the consultants, and pay the teachers.

“I notice my opponents don’t make many people angry. That doesn’t surprise you does it? Politics as usual. I don’t like Louisiana politics. I love Louisiana. I love Louisiana enough to make some people angry.”

On election night we ran first with 33 percent of the vote. Edwards ran second with 27 percent. As the night wore on, Edwards refused to appear. Something was up. As we huddled, euphoric, to plan our runoff strategy, the legend of Louisiana politics conceded the race.

Roemer asked me to stay in Louisiana as his press secretary, but I had the key to the political-consulting kingdom—a dramatic win in a big-time race—and an offer to go to New York and join David Sawyer, one of the original gurus of political media. He was a documentary filmmaker turned political filmmaker turned political media consultant. For me, it was an opportunity to learn from one of the masters.

From the first day I joined the firm, I was on a plane. Sawyer was at that stage of his career where he basically showed up to pitch the clients, then turned over the campaigns to people like me and Mandy Grunwald, who later became President Clinton’s media adviser in the 1992 campaign. I was thrown into the deep end of political consulting and forced to learn how to keep my head above water. We worked for clients like Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, Shimon Peres in Israel, and President Virgilio Barco Vargas in Colombia, as well as Democrats in all sorts of races across the United States. I couldn’t believe it. A couple of years earlier, when I had gone to work for Lloyd Doggett, I was thankful that I had an indoor job with no heavy lifting. Now, at 32, I was flying to foreign countries to advise presidents.

In 1988 I was part of the futile battle to make a president out of Michael Dukakis. Things started to go wrong early, when campaign manager John Sasso resigned. It was discovered that Sasso had leaked a tape to the news media showing that Dukakis’ leading opponent, Senator Joseph Biden, was plagiarizing a speech by a Labor candidate in England. I still don’t understand why Sasso had to quit. He and Dukakis should have simply stood up and said, “We felt an obligation to let the press know that one of my opponents is stealing his speeches from someone else.” They would have taken a hit for a few days, but it would have blown over. And then Sasso could have given the campaign a direction and a message.

Instead, when Susan Estrich was hired to replace Sasso, two distinct camps developed—the old Sasso camp and the new Estrich camp. And the factions hated and mistrusted each other. The campaign had two pollsters, and they wouldn’t share their information. We couldn’t get any data from either one of them. Our media campaign was equally absurd. Dukakis decided that rather than using political media consultants, he’d get experts at commercial advertising. The problem, we quickly discovered, is that Madison Avenue can sell the hell out of soap, but when it comes to political campaigns, they’re as useful as bicycles are to fish. They think style, not substance; form, not content. Political media consultants are used to producing ads in 24 hours for $5,000. These folks couldn’t imagine producing anything for less than $200,000, and if it had been left to them, most of the ads would have been ready just in time for Christmas.

Campaigns are not about building market share over time. They are about winning or losing on a particular day. And that’s the difference between the approach and focus of ad people and political media people. Madison Avenue says, “Buy our soap because it smells good and it’s refreshing.” We say, “Buy our soap and stimulate the economy; buy their soap and your skin will flake and peel and you’ll lose your job.”

At one point I counted 92 ads that had been produced for the campaign. There was no strategy. No message. No focus. The only good that came out of the Dukakis campaign was that the Democrats learned what mistakes to avoid four years later. One of the lessons I learned from the Dukakis experience is that internal turf battles can contribute as much to a losing campaign as a bad strategy. Another lesson is that all the talent in the world can’t make up for a fundamentally flawed candidate. Or, as Carville would say, “You can’t shine shit.”

I expected to stay with Sawyer indefinitely, but two things happened back in Texas: Roy Spence turned his attention away from politics, and Ann Richards decided to get into the 1990 governor’s race. Spence, a founder of GSD&M advertising in Austin, was the preeminent Democratic media consultant in the Southwest. He had been Walter Mondale’s presidential media consultant in 1984 and worked on campaigns in Texas for Mark White, Garry Mauro, and Bob Krueger. But Spence began spending more and more time on commercial advertising and less on politics. So when I was asked to serve as the communications director for Ann Richards’ primary campaign for governor, it seemed like the right opportunity to work my way back into Texas politics. At the same time, I joined a small Austin consulting firm that worked for a number of clients in statewide and congressional races across the South during the 1990 political cycle.

One of Richards’ initial problems was that she wasn’t prepared for dealing with the media in a campaign atmosphere. She was used to being the darling of the political press corps. She was friends with many members and had shared a lot of long afternoons and late nights with them. But the moment she became a candidate, the stakes went up and the game changed.

One of my first assignments was to establish a good working relationship with the reporters who would be covering the race. I knew that for raising money, it is important how Washington views a candidate. One person whose opinion would be influential in establishing the conventional wisdom on the race was David Maraniss, the Washington Post’s regional bureau chief in Austin. Early in the race, I invited him to lunch with Richards. Big mistake.

The lunch was billed as informal—an opportunity for Maraniss to get to know Richards. Richards, however, was extremely apprehensive about the encounter. I was constantly surprised how little confidence she had in herself; I believe she knew what great expectations people had for her, and she worried that she would not measure up. Regarding Maraniss, she feared that he would want to get into a deeply substantive dialogue for which she felt unprepared so early in the race. I assured her that was not the idea.

Trouble hit during salad. After some initial friendly chat, Maraniss pulled out his notebook, and I saw Richards stiffen like deer hearing a hunter. Maraniss asked quite innocently, “So, what do you expect the basic ideas or themes of your campaign to be?”

Richards’ fork dropped and clattered onto her plate. She rearranged her napkin in her lap. She turned from Maraniss to me and, colder than an iceberg, said, “Mark, I thought I wasn’t going to have to work for my lunch.” And that, of course, made it into the Post’s story: When asked about her campaign theme, Richards said that she thought she wasn’t going to have to work for her lunch.

Ann Richards won her race because she is a survivor. And that is a high compliment in politics today. You must be willing and able to take an absolutely brutal and humiliating public beating and return fire. During the governor’s race, Richards got dragged down into the depths of political hell and then got pulled back up to heaven on her determined old water-skis behind the motor mouth of Clayton Williams. Election night in November 1992 was a great night. It was also a huge professional success. My firm’s clients won fourteen out of seventeen races that night.

And then things just took off. Campaigns and Elections magazine called me a “rising star.” Candidates started calling me for a change. Bob Lanier called. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called. A candidate for president of Nigeria called—and I went off to Africa. Then, in 1991, I hooked up with Public Strategies, a well-established Austin firm of political professionals with a long history of success.

By this time I had come to view political candidates in two ways. There were those who had fun and didn’t take themselves too seriously (Dallas mayor Ron Kirk is a good example). And then there were the Bob Kruegers of the political world who took themselves very seriously—and had very little fun. I was with Krueger on his first day in the U.S. Senate after being appointed by Ann Richards. A Dallas television reporter asked him if, when he had been a college professor at Duke in the early seventies, he could have imagined himself today, serving in the Senate. Krueger didn’t even pause. “Why, yes,” he intoned. “I’ve always assumed this is where I was meant to be.”

Well, he wasn’t meant to be there for long. Richards had named him to fill Lloyd Bentsen’s seat after Henry Cisneros, John Sharp, and a long list of others fell out of the running. Nobody really disliked Krueger, but he was hardly the choice to inspire Democrats to vote in a special election. After he went into a runoff trailing Kay Bailey Hutchison, our media team—Roy Spence, Paul Begala, and I—were reduced to putting Krueger in a leather jacket and sunglasses as a spoof to demonstrate just how bad a “politician” he really was. The so-called “Terminator” ad got a lot of criticism because shortly after it aired, a poll was released that showed Krueger down 20 points to Hutch-ison. What none of us could say was that he was down 30 points before the ad.

My next disaster was Lena Guerrero’s race for railroad commissioner in 1992. I knew Lena from UT and thought of her as a skilled and shrewd politician with a terrific future. Lena had been an Austin state representative and had played a prominent role in the Richards’ campaign. When a vacancy occurred at the Texas Railroad Commission, Richards appointed Guerrero to the position. When she came up for election, she asked me to help. But I made the number one mistake in political consulting: an assumption.

In any serious campaign in America today, one of the most important jobs is what we call opposition research. You hire specialists to research every possible facet of your opponent’s life and career. But it is just as important to conduct aggressive opposition research on your own candidate. Candidates always sound convincing and truthful when they answer “Nothing” to the question, Are there any dark secrets we ought to know about before we get started? But you shouldn’t take it for granted.

In the case of Guerrero, I assumed our opposition researchers had taken the basic step of looking into her résumé. But early in September I got one of those phone messages any political consultant dreads. A campaign operative delivered the bad news. “Uh, Mark, we just got a call from a reporter who has some questions about Lena’s degree, like whether or not she actually has one.”

The campaign self-destructed before our eyes. Lena’s initial denials only served to make the story worse and give it legs. The story led TV news reports across Texas for about three weeks. First there was the question of whether she had her degree. Then it was a question of whether, as she said, she was just four hours short. Then it came out that she was nineteen hours short. Then came the videotapes of Lena giving a speech at a commencement ceremony: “I remember my own graduation.” The election was effectively over.

Fortunately, there were more than enough successes to make up for the occasional disaster. But as each campaign cycle came to an end, I found myself thinking more and more about getting out of politics. I still loved the heat of the fight and the thrill of victory. But the highs were getting tougher to sustain and the lows tougher to pull out of. Campaigns are 100 percent pursuits. They don’t stop at night or on weekends. That doesn’t leave much time for things like family. (Carville just had his first child at 51.) My daughters will soon be teenagers, and we have too few memories to share. This was brought home to me when they and my wife were looking through some old photographs of our place in New York and my eldest inquired earnestly, “Mommy, did Daddy live with us then?”

Beyond family considerations, the bitter partisanship of today’s politics has become increasingly frustrating to me. I have seen too many good people driven out of and away from politics because they didn’t want to go through the public radiation treatment that occurs in a highly charged partisan campaign. Political consultants are partly responsible for creating that atmosphere. At the same time, our firm has grown to almost one hundred employees, including a number of Republicans, and as we have expanded our business into corporate political communications, participation in partisan elections is more and more of a practical problem.

I’ll never leave politics entirely. I am still working in public affairs and on nonpartisan campaigns, and I employ the same strategy and tactics on behalf of our clients. I still believe in the best aspects of politics—the process of bringing opposing factions together for a common purpose—and in people of vision and character who can make it work. People like Bob Bullock and Bob Lanier are public servants in the truest sense of the word; they serve because they are committed to public policy and making life better for the people of their state and communities. They understand power and how to use it, but they use it to the right end. They are not partisans, and they don’t practice the politics of division. I’d do their laundry if asked.

But I won’t miss desperate candidates, manic campaign managers, and last-minute attack and response ads. This year I will not be spending the frantic last weekend before the election in a dark editing studio. I’ll be deep in the interior of Mexico, following the migration of the monarch butterfly—with my family.

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