He was a “winner of 1989” and a “face to watch in the 1990s.” He’s one of the “Democratic Party’s rising stars,” the man “with the mysterious magic touch.” “He is now the precinct captain,” says a Democratic regular. The Sun-Times’s Steve Neal admires his ability to frame issues and calls him “the kingmaker.”
The rising star of the Democratic Party is not a sleek, airbrushed politician in a carefully tailored suit, and he’s never run for nor been elected to anything. On this particular afternoon he looks decidedly scruffy in a lavender T-shirt, baggy gray pants, sneakers, a droopy mustache, and unkempt hair that could use a trim. His office is given over to family pictures, sports memorabilia, and artifacts of the brewing industry–a tall Schlitz trophy, an electric-guitar-shaped Budweiser sign, an enormous clock that also commemorates Bud–almost as much as it is to political mementos: framed tributes from Richard M. Daley and Harold Washington, the pen that Paul Simon used to sign his oath of office for his first Senate term, and a note from Lynn Martin that says, “Dear Dave, Although we do not know each other well, I’d like to pass on a real compliment. Whatever the reason, I’m glad you won’t be with Paul Simon. You’re very, very good.”
David Axelrod is hot. Seven years after he left the Tribune, where he was a political editor, to work on the first senatorial campaign of Paul Simon, the 36-year-old former Manhattanite and graduate of the University of Chicago is the only heavy-hitting political consultant between the coasts. In the 1990 Illinois primaries, every single one of his candidates made the cut: Dick Phelan, Dawn Clark Netsch, Patrick Quinn, David Orr, Cecil Partee, Chuck Bernardini. He also works for candidates in Utah and Ohio and Iowa, and he generally gets them elected. He knows how to use the news media and knows how to make convincing TV commercials.
Axelrod is intense, aggressive, manifestly intelligent, extremely verbal, argumentative, and highly competitive. His politics are standard leftist: he talks about Republicans as “country clubbers” with the fervor of one who really believes it, despite the electoral evidence of the last few years. He jiggles a leg constantly as he answers questions. He wheels his Saab–sans seat belt–through heavy traffic with one hand constantly on the car phone, expertly transferring from one call to the next, in a virtually nonstop virtuoso demonstration of the utility of call waiting. He lives in Oak Park with his wife and three young children.
Axelrod & Associates now boasts eight employees: seven (including Axelrod) work in an industrial-chic office on North Franklin that feels curiously unfinished, and one works in Washington. Together they seem likely to continue their rise to political prominence as the premier media manipulators of the baby-boom generation.
Bryan Miller: Let’s start with a little background. How did you get into political reporting, and from there into consulting?
David Axelrod: I started writing while I was at the University of Chicago. I was always interested in politics and in news, and I worked on political campaigns even as a young kid in New York. I came out here, and this was an interesting sort of laboratory for politics. And I got a job writing for the Hyde Park Herald, a political column, and stringing for Time magazine. Then I got an internship at the Tribune the summer I graduated, which was 1976, and I got hired after that.
I worked my way onto the political beat, and then in 1981 or so I became a political writer for the paper, wrote a column. And then I left in ’84 to go to work for Paul Simon, who was running against Percy. I was supposed to be the communications director, and I ended up as the manager after a few weeks, because [the campaign] was kind of a mess. We won that race–I was deeply involved in framing the message of that campaign–and off of that experience I opened up this business.
We started in borrowed space–Forrest Claypool, who used to work for Mayor Daley and now works for Pat Quinn, and I started it–in a little ten-by-ten office, and we’ve grown over time. We’ve done a lot of races across the country, and obviously a lot here.
BM: When a reporter goes over to the enemy side–joins a campaign or takes a political job–the pure of heart all roll their eyes. Did you see being a reporter as a way to get into political work, or did your thinking change along the line?
DA: Well, first of all, I don’t necessarily view the two pursuits as polar opposites to start with. I certainly didn’t start as a reporter with the idea of making the move. I love reporting, I love journalism–and I was good enough to know that I was starting to report the same stories over and over. I wanted to leave before I got burned out.
There were changes at the Tribune that probably precipitated the move, because it became a lot more bottom-line oriented. And when I got there, there was an almost romantic sense of mission.
I always had a mission to make government more honest and more responsive–and I don’t think that’s changed. I still have the same reverence and regard for journalism, and most of my friends are still reporters, not politicians. But there’s an advantage to being in the room when events are being shaped, instead of just reporting on them. I enjoy shaping the news the same as I enjoyed reporting on it–not more, the same. And when you’re a reporter, there are limits to how partisan you can be and to the impact you can have.
BM: What was the reaction among your colleagues? Did anyone accuse you of turning your coat?
DA: Most of them were sympathetic. Everyone’s aware of the burnout aspects of journalism. I can only remember one person, an editor at the Tribune, who said, “You’re making a terrible mistake.” And I think today he’d admit that he was the one who was mistaken. It would have been a terrible mistake if I hadn’t gone.
BM: Has being on the other side changed your attitude toward the press?
DA: No. I have a different attitude toward the press than people who’ve spent their careers in politics do. I appreciate the role of the press–it’s not to coddle politicians. For one thing, I know that if a politician starts complaining about coverage and starts picking apart coverage, it means that campaign’s in trouble. I think I put some balance into the discussion.
BM: Which role do you find to be more enjoyable?
DA: I’m not a very good bureaucrat, and at a newspaper the size of the Tribune, there’s a certain element of that. There’s a real satisfaction to helping shape events. I loved the camaraderie of the newspaper business, and I miss that. I liked writing a column. I recently reread a bunch of those–I was doing some cleaning, and I found them–and I had pangs, not of regret but of fond remembrances. Being a reporter was an irreplaceable and really extraordinary part of my life. But had I stayed too long, I think I would have grown bitter and bored.
BM: Do you think that your political views ever strayed into your reporting? Were you ever partisan?
DA: Well, there’s a difference between reporting and writing a column. Yes, I was partisan in my column. But I went right down the middle in my reporting.
When I left, Frank Damato, who was then an alderman and who’s not exactly a League of Women Voters type, said, “You stuck it up our asses, but you stuck it up everybody’s asses, so we figured you were fair.”
One of the hardest things for me to learn [as a consultant] was that I was supposed to applaud when my candidate was speaking–I was so used to being impartial. But my partisan feelings were one more reason for me to leave the newspaper.
BM: How much of the day-to-day aspects of political races do you now handle yourself, and how much do you delegate?
DA: I’m involved in every campaign, and I usually do it in conjunction with one of our associates. They handle a lot of the day-to-day communications with the campaign, and I get involved with strategic consultation, and in the writing of commercials or major speeches–or if there’s a crisis I get involved. I tend to become more deeply involved on a personal basis in the last months of a campaign. That’s basically the system that’s grown up over time, and it’s worked well.
BM: Do you do a lot of traveling?
DA: Yeah. You know, it varies–there are slow times and there are hectic times. But in an on season I’ll be on the road two or three days a week. It comes with the territory. Last year we did races from the eastern shore of Maryland to Utah, so I was around the country.
BM: Why didn’t you stay with the Simon campaign when he won? If you were managing it, couldn’t you have had a nice job with him after the race?
DA: In the Senate offices? Yeah. But that was never what I was interested in doing.
Besides, I don’t want to work for anybody else. I like working for myself. Secondly, I didn’t want to go into government. Third, I like campaigns, and I wanted to work in campaigns. Fourth, I like Chicago, and I hate Washington. I resisted going to Washington when I was a reporter, and I’ve resisted moving to Washington as a consultant–because I like the life-style here, and because I’m more effective working in a place where people don’t talk about the Federal Register over dinner, with real people who have real concerns.
BM: Have you ever run for political office yourself, or aspired to?
DA: No. I guess as a young person, everyone who deals with public issues or thinks about them thinks about that, but it’s really not something I aspire to. I’m comfortable in the role I’m playing.
BM: Is that because of the “hot seat” aspect of holding public office–or the way that the news media pry into every aspect of a politician’s life today?
DA: The demands on people in public life are such that, particularly if you have a family, it’s difficult. At this juncture in my life I wouldn’t want to subject my family to it.
It’s not so much the “hot seat” aspect–people in my business find themselves on the hot seat all the time. But it’s a matter of wanting to preserve some privacy and private time. When you’re in public life, the demands on your time are basically open-ended, and so weekends and evenings and much of the time that’s reserved to your family, if you’re in other pursuits, gets devoted to politics. And I would think that would be very difficult.
BM: Are you a political consultant, or a media consultant–how do you define yourself?
DA: Well, the terms tend to be somewhat fluid. I am a political media consultant, and we tend to get involved in everything that has to do with the message of a campaign–so [we do] free media strategy, press strategy, speech writing, composition of literature, as well as the production of commercials.
BM: How much control do you have over a campaign? Does it depend on what the candidate wants to give you, or do you dictate terms?
DA: In no campaign is the media consultant the ultimate decision maker. That’s always the candidate, and generally the campaign manager. And we tend to work in synergy with the campaign.
I think we have a good deal of influence over the message of campaigns. People hire us to give them our best advice, but there’s no requirement that they accept that advice–nor is there any guarantee that they will. We’ve had a good working relationship with every one of our clients, with very few exceptions.
Generally we work out strategy collegially, so it’s not really a matter of who’s in control or who’s in charge–it’s a group of people working toward a common goal.
BM: So how do you sell a candidate? What’s the process? If I come to you and say “Help me with my campaign,” what happens next?
DA: Well, first of all, we have to find a way to let people know you’re a woman, because your name’s very confusing.
Every campaign, I think, begins with essentially the same process, and that process is a gathering of as much information as possible about your candidate, about your opponents, and about the political environment in which you’re working. What we’re about is the business of developing a message for that campaign. And by message I mean an argument, much as a lawyer would develop a case or an argument for a courtroom–except in this case the jury is that electorate that you’re trying to influence at the polls.
And so you ought to go into a race pretty much understanding what your comparative advantages are, what issues work to your benefit, where your strengths abut your opponent’s weaknesses on issues that are important to people. And then you try and drive the debate that way, and make the race about the issues that you want the race to be about. You do that through a combination of free media–in other words, press conferences, speeches, debates–and paid media, which are commercials, which tend to come later in the campaign.
So if we were to take a candidate, the first thing we would do is spend some time asking an awful lot of questions, looking at clips and past history, assessing what we think might be opportunities, assessing what we think might be problems. And then we go through the same process in looking at our opponents, and make some suppositions about arguments that we could posit. And then we test them in polling to see which arguments resonate with people, and then we build a message around those arguments that we know or that we’re confident will work with people.
BM: You try to make a candidate proactive rather than reactive.
DA: There’s no question that in politics it’s better to be setting the pace than reacting to other people. Campaigns are about defining the issues upon which the election is going to be decided, and making sure those issues are your issues and not your opponent’s issues.
A good example is what George Bush did to Mike Dukakis in 1988: he dominated the debate, put Dukakis on the defensive, and really dictated the terms by which people made their decision. He not only defined himself, but he defined Dukakis–in a way that I think crippled Dukakis. So while I don’t necessarily applaud either the outcome or some of the tactics, it was sort of a textbook case of message dominance, partly because of Dukakis’s unwillingness to respond, participate in the process.
BM: What would you have done differently in that situation?
DA: Unquestionably, when you are hit as hard and as negatively as Dukakis was hit, you have to respond, and you have to respond swiftly, and you have to respond in a tough-minded way.
Rather than quickly responding to Bush’s attacks with counterattacks, they let them ride and instead chose to disdain Bush’s tactics. They went with commercials sort of playacting–cynical Bush advisers plotting and scheming against Dukakis–so they really kind of missed the point there. Clearly, on the whole Willie Horton issue, there were things that Dukakis could have said: the program was started by a Republican governor, not by Dukakis; that in every state there’ve been problems with furlough programs, including in Ronald Reagan’s California. Or he simply could have gone on the attack on other issues and tried to change the dialogue. But instead he arrogantly refused to engage in the process. And so when people say that he was the victim of character assassination, my response is that he was the victim of character suicide really, because he let it happen to himself.
BM: How much does it cost to have you handle a campaign?
DA: It varies from race to race, the size of the race, the time commitment I think it will take. I’m going to be pretty elliptical here–we charge a fee, and we get a percentage of the buy that they place on television, as advertising agencies do. It’s a good living, but we work hard to earn it.
BM: Can you give me any kind of ballpark figure?
DA: It varies, it varies. In a very small race, it could be as little as $10,000; in a larger race, it could be 50 or 60 over time.
BM: Do you produce all of the commercials yourselves?
DA: Yeah. I have a producer on staff, and we hire out crews. I’ll sit in on the editing, and I’ll go out on the shoot, but we obviously don’t have our own editing facility. We work at all the [production] houses around town. But we’re basically a soup-to-nuts operation for candidates, covering the whole waterfront of communications.
So if we started at the beginning of a campaign, we would write an announcement speech, we would develop the free media schedule, we would help supervise the research, we would prepare the candidate for debates, and we would produce the commercials.
BM: How long are you usually involved in a given race?
DA: It depends. I’ve been involved in races that’ve begun literally 15 months before election day, 18 months. We’re now–as we’re sitting here, it’s June–but since January, we’ve been interviewing for ’92 races.
BM: What do you think will be the most important race next year?
DA: Well, it’s hard to say now. Obviously, presidential races are always going to take precedence over others. But I think there are going to be some fairly significant Senate races in the country. The New York Senate race is going to be extremely important–Senator D’Amato is vulnerable. There’s now an open seat in Utah, and that’s going to be a very significant race. I think the race in Kansas could be really interesting. California is going to be a major, major battleground in ’92 because we have two Senate seats open–Cranston’s seat and Wilson’s seat–as well as seven new congressional seats. California’s going to be almost an election unto itself in 1992.
BM: And how many of those races do you think you’ll get? How many do you think you can handle?
DA: It depends on the magnitude of the races. We did 12 races last November. You know, a major Senate race could fill up a lot of your dance card. We’re pitching some of those–we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m sure I’ll be involved in some races locally, but it’s too early now to see what shape this thing’s gonna take.
BM: Have you ever worked for one candidate in a primary, lost it, and then worked for his opponent in the general election?
DA: Let me think about that. I can’t remember doing that. I wouldn’t be averse to doing that, because I am partisan and I basically believe that a mediocre Democrat is better than most Republicans. And I believe in parties, I believe in partisanship. And if you believe in parties and partisanship, you ought to labor, once the primaries are over, to elect the nominees of your party–unless there’s some overriding reason not to.
BM: What about working on a presidential election? Would you want to do that again? You said that a couple of Senate races could really fill up your dance card–what would a presidential race do to it?
DA: They’re pretty demanding. I think it would knock a lot of things off the floor. My notion now is that the best way to participate in presidential races is as a subcontractor, as part of a large team of creative people, not as the majordomo.
BM: Do you go to the candidates, or do they come to you?
DA: Primarily, you go to them. This is a very aggressive business, and you have to bargain yourself that way. A friend of mine in the business says a lot of people make the mistake of thinking we’re like Richard Gere in the movie Power, but really we’re like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. We’re always on the road, peddling our wares, and talking to candidates, and making our pitches. It’s an arduous and not altogether pleasant process. It’s sometimes frustrating, but the payoff is worth it.
BM: It sounds as if the cash doesn’t come in on a regular basis.
DA: Yeah, it comes in in spurts. You just have to manage it appropriately.
BM: About how many major players are there in the business?
DA: Probably a half a dozen.
BM: Where would you put yourself?
DA: I would say at the low end of the top rung. We have probably come farther faster than most of the other firms in the country, and I think we’re certainly the most successful firm between the coasts. Most of the firms tend to be situated in Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and some on the west coast. But we’re the only ones I know of in between doing the volume of business and the magnitude of business that we’re doing. We’ve got a ways to go, but we’ve come a long way, and I think we’re well respected in the business.
BM: I was planning to ask you about negative ads and whether they work–obviously you’d say that in the case of George Bush and Michael Dukakis they did.
DA: Well, I think some so-called negative advertising works and some doesn’t. I think some of it has to do with the credibility of the attack. If an attack goes unresponded to, there’s a much greater likelihood that it’s going to work–and that was the case certainly with Dukakis and Bush. I think negative attacks are going to work if they’re well documented, or if they’re predicated on newspaper reporting, because I think people are justifiably skeptical of these commercials’ positive endings. So when third parties step in and essentially assert the validity of the attack, I think people are far more willing to accept them.
Now, I think that gratuitous personal attacks tend not to work, attacks that are based more on inference and insinuation than fact. An example is in Texas, where Ann Richards was pummeled by advertising questioning her history of alcohol abuse and perhaps substance abuse, but in a very insinuating way. Those spots didn’t work. So the effectiveness of negative advertising varies with the attack and how it’s presented. Do I think there is a receptivity to negative advertising? I think there probably is. I don’t think that people have a very elevated feeling about public officials today. And so you’re swimming downstream if you shed light on some shortcoming of a public official. But I still think people are fair-minded, and if the attack is unwarranted they’ll reject it.
BM: Do you use negative advertising?
DA: Well, my feeling about politics is that when candidates put their names on the ballot, and voters vote, voters don’t say, “Which of these candidates do I love the most? They’re all great guys, but who is the greatest?” That’s not how they choose. They make very tough comparisons–they want to know who’s on their side of various issues that are important to them. And I think that in most cases it’s incumbent on you as a media consultant and a campaign adviser to help fill in the information they need to make that decision. So we do, in many cases, advertising that creates contrast between our candidate and the opponent.
There are times where a candidate–and Daley certainly is one of them–is so fundamentally strong, or his personality is so dominant or whatever, that you don’t have to engage the opponent in any way. That’s in some ways preferable, I suppose, because you override all the wringing of hands that’s associated with challenging one’s opponent. But that’s pretty rare.
So that’s a long way of saying that we do do spots about opponents, as well as about our candidates, and if we didn’t do that, in most cases our candidate would be in the same position as Dukakis–left to stand naked.
BM: Didn’t you take some criticism for your radio ads for Cecil Partee against Jack O’Malley?
DA: Actually, I won an award for one of ’em. But I took criticism primarily from a columnist in the Sun-Times. I don’t regret that at all. I regret that she didn’t understand what the spot was about–most people did. The spot was highlighting not the fact that Jack O’Malley was young, but the fact that he was woefully inexperienced. And I don’t think there’s any question about that–the man had never prosecuted a case, he had no administrative experience, and he was going to run the second biggest prosecutor’s office in the country. He was running against a guy, in Partee, who had been city treasurer, president of the senate, been a state’s attorney for eight years, had run major city agencies, and had volumes of experience. So that was a contrast that was worth making, and we did it with some humor. But the commentator who commented on that drew from the spot somehow that we were attacking O’Malley for being young, which wasn’t the case. The fact is, Rich Daley was younger than O’Malley when he became state’s attorney–but he was also far more experienced in government and, frankly, more mature as a public official.
BM: How did you overcome the perception of Daley as a dummy? I forget who it was who called him “Dumb-Dumb Daley,” but that was indicative of his image not so long ago.
DA: Gus Savage said it. In that case, I think you just consider the source–if Gus is disparaging someone’s intelligence, it’s a pretty good bet that they’re probably quite bright.
In the initial campaign, in 1989, we made one adjustment at the beginning of the campaign. We made a commercial, and in it Daley addressed the camera and at one point he said, “I may not be the best speaker in town, but I know how to bring people together and run a government.” And that one line was quite useful for us, because it showed some self-awareness and it was important for us to separate out the fact that Daley is not always the most articulate speaker from the issue of whether he was bright and capable. Now, frankly, that’s no longer an issue. You can talk to the man on the street or you can look at polling, and I think that Daley’s pretty well dispelled the notion that he isn’t bright. And I can tell you from personal experience that I don’t know anybody with more intuitive insights into government and people than Rich Daley, and that’s the reason he is where he is. I would love to take credit for the success of Rich Daley, but the success of Rich Daley is 95 percent a result of his own tremendous insights and instincts.
BM: And in his business, instinct may be more important than raw intellectual horsepower.
DA: Yeah. I think the thing about Daley that’s so engaging is that he is very straightforward and instinctual in his responses, and I think people understand that he is not trying to pull a fast one on anybody. We interviewed Saul Bellow for a film we did to kick off the campaign, and he said about Daley, “What you see is what you get, and what you get is very good.” I think he’s right. He also said, and I agree with him, that Daley is atypical of politicians in that he is totally without guile. I think people appreciate that.
For a guy who’s grown up in and around politics all his life, he’s remarkably unpolitical in his approach to the public. Or apolitical, I should say. I think he’s far more interested in government than politics. An editorial writer in town once told me, “Beneath that gruff exterior there beats the heart of a policy nerd,” and I think that that’s really true. Rich Daley thinks a fun day is sitting around and solving some bureaucratic snafu in government.
His father was highly political in a way that this Daley is not. I think his political instincts are tremendous, but I think his desire to shape all things political around him is nonexistent.
BM: What is your relationship with Richard Daley?
DA: We’re brothers.
BM: Separated at birth?
DA: [Laughs.] Right.
BM: Can you describe the working relationship you have with Daley?
DA: I have a good relationship with him, and a high degree of respect for him. Of all the people I’ve worked with, I don’t know anyone who’s more motivated by policy and immersed in the details of government. In terms of our working relationship, I generally deal more with the people around him, particularly in times of campaigns, to help define the message and, obviously, produce media.
BM: How often are you in direct communication?
DA: Well, during a campaign more than I am when I’m not in a campaign. I’m in communication with his staff on a weekly basis, say, in the noncampaign time; probably on a daily or a close to daily basis in a campaign season. But my contact with him is on an as-needed basis, and more often–most often–my views are filtered through others. I don’t sit down with him on a weekly basis and share my views; I would say it’s less frequent than that, particularly in the off-season. But then I’ll work on projects–like his inaugural speech–in which I’ll sit down with him and cull from him what points he wants to make, and then craft it into a speech. So I’ll meet with him more frequently when I’m working on a project like that.
BM: Are you on retainer?
BM: So you’re always available to consult if they need you.
DA: Yeah. And, you know, frankly, I feel a sense of allegiance to him, primarily because I really feel he’s well motivated and has the best interests of the city at heart. I have a high regard for him, and I’m happy to be available to him and to his staff when they need me.
BM: What kinds of things do you advise him on?
DA: My expertise is in the areas of language and how to shape issues, and in the course of a campaign my role is to work through with him and the staff what the fundamental messages of that campaign are going to be, and then come up with ideas and with language and ultimately with media that bring those messages home. So that’s my function. I’m not, and I don’t seek to be, a policymaker. I don’t think that’s an appropriate role for a consultant.
But once the policy is made, or when a policy is about to be presented, I think that I can be helpful in terms of advising how it might be received and how it might be better received if it were crafted in a specific way. So that’s where I think I come into the process.
BM: Would you ever urge against a given policy if you thought it was a real mistake, or is that not your job?
DA: Oh, I think I would make my feelings known; they won’t always be necessarily heeded.
The thing about the Daley operation that is impressive to me is that he has a lot of good people around him, and there is a lot of collegiality and group decision making. While [Daley] is pretty strong willed, and the final arbiter in all matters, generally a consensus emerges among the people around him and he’s presented with a recommendation which he either accepts or rejects. So my role is often to work within that group to forge a consensus if I have a strong feeling about something. But ultimately it’s his call, and very rarely would I go to him directly and say “This is a mistake, don’t do this.” I’ve done that on a few occasions.
BM: Can you give me any specifics?
BM: Can you give me any examples of how you’ve helped him in any specific instances?
DA: I’d rather not. I have to be honest: I’m uncomfortable about sharing details of consulting conversations with clients. I just don’t think that’s appropriate, so I’d rather be general.
BM: Before he announced the Lake Calumet airport site, did you talk it over with him at all?
DA: No. I’ve talked to him and his staff at intervals about that project, and people from my staff have talked to the people who are working on the presentation of that from time to time, but that’s a good example of an issue on which he has a very strong view–that that’s the right place, and that the project itself is essential to the economic future of the city. And so he didn’t need any guidance from me or anyone other than the planners to make that decision. I think in a situation like that the best use of people like me is to ask how to best present the thing once it’s decided.
BM: Do you still go to those daily staff meetings?
DA: Only occasionally, not on a daily basis like I did before.
BM: Do you send any of your people to them?
DA: No. In a noncampaign season, my involvement is less intense–and it should be. Daley’s got a superb circle of aides and advisers who understand government. And while I think that there is a political element to everything that you do, when you’re not in the campaign mode I don’t know that there’s a need for campaign people around on a regular basis–and I’m not. I prefer to be available when I’m needed, and not interpose myself when I’m not needed.
One thing that I’d like to add, because of who your readership is, is that Daley really is a guy who gets into policy, and is surprisingly unpolitical. I began to see some of this in 1982, when I wrote a magazine profile of him for the Tribune. I saw dimensions to him that surprised me then. So I wasn’t surprised when I went to work for him. But I think that was initially a lot of cultural bias against him, and I think that some of that’s still lingering.
BM: I recall that Dawn Clark Netsch used to refer to him as “Dirty Little Richie.”
DA: Right. Well, I think the fascinating thing is that, over the years, she became one of his closest allies, and chaired his campaign for mayor in ’83. There are layers and there are layers to him that become obvious when you meet him. First of all, he’s always looking to learn and grow, which is unusual in politics. Most politicians feel they know everything, and therefore they learn nothing.
BM: Has Daley changed significantly? Was he really “Dirty Little Richie,” or was that a foul canard at the time?
DA: I think that any human being who doesn’t change from their mid-20s to their late 40s is an unusual and troubled person. I think there’s no question that he matured, and I think that, starting in 1977, he needed to make his own way in the world. And there were an awful lot of people rooting against him, because they felt that he had undue advantages when his father was so powerful. And when his father died it was sink-or-swim time–and Daley swam.
I think that a lot of things–personal adversity and political adversity–contributed to his growth, and the people around him contributed to his growth. Probably one of the best things that you can say about him is that very few public officials have shown the degree of growth, and the ability to grow, that Daley has, from the time that he got to the legislature until today. The growth has been unusual and enormous.
BM: How did you first get hooked up with him?
DA: Well, I covered him as a reporter, and I wrote that magazine story about him in 1982, and that was the first sort of sustained contact I had with him. I went in with no real predisposition, positive or negative, and I was impressed by him and the people around him when I wrote that piece. Then I covered the ’83 mayoral race for the Tribune, so I had some fairly consistent exposure to him. After I left the paper I kept in contact, and in 1988, after Harold died, it was obvious to me that he might run for mayor, and I went and I talked to a number of the people who were thinking of running. And I just felt most comfortable with him and with his group–primarily with him. And I signed on to do his state’s attorney’s reelection race in 1988 with a mind toward working for him if he decided to run for mayor in ’89. And things grew from there. I think by and large it’s been a really successful and gratifying association.
BM: Is it true that all of the would-be mayoral candidates approached you after Washington died? Byrne, Daley, Evans . . . ?
DA: I’m trying to think if all of them did. There were a lot of them. I spoke with most of them; I don’t remember talking with Ed Vrdolyak. But I had conversations with a number of people who contacted me, who were interested in running; some of them ran, some of them didn’t. But I have absolutely no question in my mind that I went with the right guy.
BM: What is your opinion of Jane Byrne?
DA: I covered Byrne in ’79, when she ran for mayor, and I was young and impressionable. And I think I gave her a very positive spin as she talked about reforming the system. And then I watched for four years as she systematically broke every promise she made and became kind of a parody of a machine mayor. She used power recklessly and brutally. People who exercise power well are the ones who understand that the less you use it the better. Byrne used it indiscriminately and often in a very hostile way. So the contrast between the promise she held out as a candidate and the nightmare she delivered as mayor was about as stark as anything I’ve seen in politics.
Now, I guess what I feel for her is pity. I think she’s sort of a sad personality who seems to be searching for some meaning and something meaningful to do. I’ve long since lost my ability to feel real negatively toward her.
I did Harold’s race against her in ’87, and I guess what struck me then is that she was running as a reformer again. So she ran as a reformer, broke all her reform promises as mayor, then ran as a reformer again, which I thought was remarkable. But she did one thing that I thought was good, and that is that she endorsed Washington after the primary, which I thought was positive for the city.
BM: It’s certainly more than a lot of Washington’s opponents did.
DA: Yeah. So I’ll always respect her for having done that, but I can never forget the travesty of her administration.
BM: What did you think of Washington?
DA: Harold Washington was one of the most engaging personalities I’ve ever encountered in my whole life. He was just a charming, interesting guy. I think that as a politician he was absolutely masterful, and what he did for the city in terms of breaking down some barriers that absolutely had to be broken down was enormously important. I think that, whereas Daley revels in sitting behind a desk making decisions and involving himself in the details of government, Washington was less interested in that than he was in the theater of politics. So they were much different. But I think that they both had greatness in their own ways. There’re a couple of qualities which they share in common. I believe that both those guys, Washington and Daley, had and have a deep, abiding identification with Chicago. Secondly, they both were and are people with enormous strength–and you can’t hold that job in a city like this without it. They both had steellike determination. But where Daley is very shy, Washington was very outgoing.
BM: If Daley’s a “policy nerd,” what was Washington? Was Washington a good mayor in the same sense that Daley is?
DA: I think that Washington was a good mayor, but not in the same sense that Daley is. I think that Daley is a good hands-on chief executive. I think Washington was not a good hands-on chief executive, but that he was what Chicago needed at the time: someone who had the determination to break with the old ways and change the way the city did its business. So I think he was an important historical figure in the city, and in the growth and development of the city. But for Harold, polemics and rhetoric were sort of the essential core of his politics, and that’s not the case with Daley.
I don’t know what would have happened over time with Washington as mayor; I had concerns at the time that he was strangled in some ways, or allowed himself to be, or wanted to be, by the group around him. I thought his aides were too constrictive in terms of the flow of information, and there was an awful lot of infighting there that was unproductive. And he kind of allowed that, and in odd ways encouraged it, and he was very isolated from a lot of the decision making because of it.
I don’t know what that would have meant in the long run, but in the short run he did some extraordinarily important things, in terms of changing government’s orientation, and changing the public orientation toward government, and forcefully saying we’re going to open and distribute certain services equitably; we’re not going to put the same premium on politics that we did in the past. And he set a standard that I think every mayor’s going to have to adhere to in the future in those regards. So I think he was very important.
BM: Have you ever seen a candidate’s personality change in the course of a campaign?
DA: I’ve not seen candidates change for the worse in a campaign, but I’ve seen candidates grow and become more competent, more articulate about issues, and so on. Campaigns are proving grounds in many ways. They test the physical and emotional stamina, and the intellectual mettle, of the people involved. You really do get a sense of what people are made of in situations like that.
BM: Did you lend money to Pat Quinn so that he could run his most recent campaign?
DA: Yeah. Yes. You know, when Pat runs for public office, Pat does so–or has traditionally done so–on a shoestring. Pat tends to speak for the disenfranchised, who don’t have vast sums of money to give to political candidates. Therefore, he’s habitually overmatched financially and outspent. So basically everyone who works with Pat does so out of a mixture of professional and personal loyalty. He’s my friend, and I think he’s an outstanding guy–so I did whatever I could to help him.
BM: I’m interested in knowing how you get your message across, how you divide your dollars, how you get your free news media, how you place commercials, how much reliance you put on print advertising.
DA: There’s no hard-and-fast formula for the apportionment of money. Generally, in each campaign you spend half your money on television if you’re in a television market.
BM: What’s a television market?
DA: If you’re in a race where television would be used. If you’re running for alderman, you’re not going to run television commercials.
BM: So what’s the bottom level for a TV race?
DA: It depends on what town you’re in. We work in cities where for $15,000 you can buy what it would cost $150,000 to buy in Chicago. So with television that inexpensive, in those markets you’ll see state senate candidates, state legislative candidates, county commissioner candidates, and so on running television [ads]. In a city like Chicago television is prohibitively expensive for candidates running for the legislature, running for alderman. And I think the first level you’ll see television spots at is for a county office, or a major congressional race, for example the Yates-Eisendrath race–but that was fairly unusual. Primarily, city, county, and up is where you would begin to see television in a market like this.
Free press is an ongoing process that starts from the day you announce. And that really adds, and there’s no formula as to how many stories you want to do, how many times you want to be in the paper–although there’s a limit to what the media will tolerate. I mean, you can’t go to that well every day. So unless you’re in the final weeks of the campaign, and you’re being covered by the press every day in a race for mayor or county board or governor, you would pick your shots, and you’d probably do two, maximum three, major press hits a week. But again, that varies according to the opportunities that arise, and sometimes issues break that afford you the opportunity to get a lot of coverage–spin off of breaking news. Sometimes, it’s a little hard going, and you’ve got to forage for those opportunities.
We work with campaigns on that, developing visuals that will be interesting for television or twists on stories that will help candidates bow on breaking news.
BM: Is one of your staff people responsible for dealing with the press?
DA: No, each of my associates is pretty well versed in free press operations. They’ve all been press secretaries, and with my press background, I think I’ve got a fairly good handle on it. So between us, we brainstorm and exchange ideas with campaigns–we’ll fire up memos on various issues.
In every race that we’re involved in, we subscribe to the local newspapers. One of my colleagues generally spends an awful lot of time foraging through newspapers from across the country, looking for issues for our various candidates.
BM: So the role of the TV commercials becomes more important closer to the end of the campaign, depending upon how heated the campaign is.
DA: For two reasons. One is that it’s expensive, and so you can’t run television perpetually. Secondly, most voters are probably less interested in campaigns than we, the political professionals, are, and they don’t focus until late. So those TV and radio commercials become much more significant–yes–toward the end of campaigns. But free press obviously helps. If you develop stories along the way, those stories may become fodder for commercials later in the campaign.
BM: What kinds of things do you look for for stories in the free press–charges against an opponent . . .
DA: Well, primarily it would be about the issues. Occasionally you might engage an opponent about a charge, but primarily we look for ways of augmenting or amplifying the issues that we’re working on. Now, some of them may have implicit implications for our opponents down the line. If we call for some sort of ban on certain kinds of political contributions, or if we highlight the pervasive pernicious influence of a particular special interest and that special interest has a relationship with one of our opponents, that may surface later on. Those stories we use.
But what we’re really looking for is opportunities through the news to demonstrate our candidate’s strengths vis-a-vis given issues. And again, we look for opportunities with breaking news to build up an identity around a given issue.
BM: What are some of the proven issues, the issues that work best? Do they vary by region?
DA: It varies by region and by race and even by campaign. And by and large what I have found over time is that the issues that work best for my candidates–and I only work for Democrats–tend to be progressive, populist issues, issues that go with things like utility rates, about inequitable tax burdens on middle- and low-income people, that go into issues like home ownership, accessibility to education, health care, quality-of-life issues. Those tend to resonate more than the others. And today I think the most pervasive issue nationally continues to be crime. That’s particularly so in the urban areas–there’s an extraordinary concern about drugs and crime, gangs. And so those tend to be a consistent part of campaigns across the country.
BM: How do you think the public gets most of its information these days?
DA: Through television. Much of what we do–the charges and countercharges and all that–these have been staples of American politics since the beginning of the republic. What’s changed is television. Television just magnifies everything so much that, whereas you might be able to reach a hundred people on the street corner, through television you can talk to a million people at a time.
There’s no question that people get more of their information today through television–through television news and through commercials. That’s changing a little bit–I mean, it’s getting more difficult, because with the advent of VCRs and cable stations the exposure you can get through commercial television advertising has diminished fairly significantly. But it’s still far and away the most effective way to reach people.
In terms of free media, a successful free media outing is judged by whether or not you got television news coverage, especially in a market like this.
BM: When you’re placing your commercials, do you put them on all the channels, or just the channels with the highest ratings?
DA: We apportion our media dollars according to a few factors. One is who the likely voters are. We tend to advertise more heavily on news adjacencies than commercial advertisers would, because people who watch the news tend to be people who are motivated enough to vote. And from race to race the rest of the fine-tuning depends upon research–once you make a judgment as to who your likely voters are, then you gear the media to the programming that they’re likely to watch.
So, for example, if you think you have either a problem or a great opportunity among women who work in the home, you might buy more daytime programming–the Oprah Winfrey-type programming. But if your target is blue-collar men, you look more closely at your weekend sports programs.
BM: John Corry, in the New York Times, wrote, “Television is a performance medium, and by performance the candidates are judged.” Would you agree with that?
DA: Well, no, I wouldn’t. I mean, I think to an extent that that’s true, but I think that more than anything what television communicates, at least in political campaigns, is a sense of what candidates are about. And ultimately I don’t think it’s so much their ability to perform, but a sense from voters that a given candidate is on their side on the most important, salient issues to them, that influences campaigns.
Oftentimes in campaigns you see people win who never appear in a speaking role in their own commercials, for whatever reason. And that sort of belies the notion that one has to be a great performer.
BM: What about debates?
DA: Well, obviously debates do require more from candidates. But except for presidential races or in extraordinary local races–like the 1983 mayor’s race, in which Harold Washington really catapulted to the mayor’s office through debates–debates tend not to be watched very well, and they tend not to, in most cases, influence the outcome of elections.
BM: So have debates become nothing more than opportunities for good sound bites?
DA: Yeah, and that’s what you play for in debates. You play for the good story on the 10 o’clock news, and you plan not to make a gaffe that could prove fatal. In 1976 Ford’s remark that Eastern Europe wasn’t under the domination of communists was probably the single most decisive event in that campaign.
BM: He was just ahead of his time.
DA: Yeah, right. He was a visionary.
BM: How much information can you really get into a 30-second spot?
DA: You can get a fair amount of information in there, but I would be less than candid if I told you that after watching a series of commercials a voter could expound in great detail on what a candidate stands for. But I do think that the spots convey a basic sense of who candidates are–at least a successful spot. And I think people come away from them with–it may be shorthand knowledge, but it’s knowledge that distinguishes candidates from each other. Thirty seconds is not the most desirable length in which to communicate anything of great substance, but my experience has been that by the end of every campaign people have made judgments about candidates that are fairly accurate. And in the amalgam of all the spots and all the public debate comes through an image that tends to be fairly accurate.
BM: I’ve been surprised sometimes talking with colleagues about a given candidate. I read three papers every day, and I get my perceptions that way. They watch TV, and they get their perceptions from that. And our perceptions come out completely different.
DA: That’s true. The classic example of that is that the people inside a debate, in the audience, often have a completely different idea about who won the debate than someone who saw the clips on the ten o’clock news, or even someone who saw the debate on television. But just dealing with the first point: Debates are often won in the battle of the ten o’clock sound bites rather than the full exercise, because very few people are willing to sit through the full exercise.
BM: So is this, in a sense, the victory of style over substance?
DA: Well, certainly, style helps in a television age. I think that the whole perception propagated by a movie like The Candidate, that you can just fill an empty vessel with magic malarkey and he or she can get elected, is not really the case–no matter how well they perform. I think that unless you communicate an essential message that people feel comfortable with and identify with, your chances of winning are fairly remote. And I think that transcends just the ability to perform. I think that it includes the ability to articulate a message that’s meaningful to people. It’s easy to say that politics has become the triumph of form over content, but I don’t think it was form that got Bush elected, for example, in 1988.
BM: But isn’t it easier to sell emotion than, say, cold, hard economic facts?
DA: Sure, that’s true. And it’s always been true in politics–here and, I imagine, elsewhere–that emotional appeals often are more effective than cerebral ones. But I still return to the point I made before, which is that I think by and large people do get a sense from these campaigns about who the candidates are and what they stand for, even if they’re a little hazy on some of the specifics. I hate to apologize for the system, but I think the system’s working better probably than the handwringers over at the League of Women Voters and other places are willing to concede.
BM: When I read the newspapers and then see the election results, I wonder, “Just how gullible are people?” For example, everything I’ve ever read about Dick Phelan suggests that he’s an arrogant son of a bitch. Yet here’s this commercial–one that you include on your reel of “greatest hits”–showing him as just one of the guys. And that’s one of the things that’s credited with helping him to win the election.
DA: First of all, you should know that that bar that commercial was filmed in is where Phelan ate lunch every day. So it was not entirely a contrived setting. There’s no question that there were some theatrics involved, as there always are in a production like that, but the fundamental points that he made in those commercials–that he grew up in a middle-class family, that they struggled to send him to Notre Dame, that he built this law firm himself, and that he was running to change the insider mentality in county government–all of these were true, and it was to penetrate this veneer or this image of aloof arrogance that you refer to [that the commercial was made].
BM: You always make a point about how you only work for Democrats.
BM: Is this party loyalty usually the case among consultants? Do most of your peers work just one side of the street or the other?
DA: There are consultants who cross the line, but by and large consultants tend to work for people within their own party. They are not without ideology and philosophy, which is, I suspect, the misconception about us. Most of us bring to this a point of view and seek out candidates who reflect that point of view and certainly who reflect our partisan commitments. I certainly do.
BM: Someone said he thought political consultants were like the hired guns back in the range wars in the west–they worked only for cattlemen or only for sheep men.
DA: (Laughs.) I never quite thought of it in those terms, but I certainly consider myself a soldier in the Democratic Party. There have been opportunities to work the other side of the street, but I have been consistent, and I will continue to be consistent, in turning those down.
BM: So why the Democrats?
DA: Because I believe in the Democratic Party. It represents the broad majority of Americans.
BM: But there’s an excellent case to be made that the Democratic Party has become the party of quotas and special interests. What does your average blue-collar white ethnic have in common with the likes of Teddy Kennedy, Jim Wright, and Jesse Jackson?
DA: I don’t know what the blue-collar white ethnic has in common with Ted Kennedy or Jesse Jackson, but they have less in common with the country clubbers of the Republican Party! I don’t know why white middle-class voters should vote against their economic interests.
BM: Isn’t excessive taxation against the economic interests of middle-class voters of any race? Aren’t quotas against the interests of all achievers?
DA: Neither party believes in the abolition of taxes. There are certain vital government services that require revenues, and there’s gonna be taxation. The question is, Who pays? And I firmly believe that the Republican Party represents a discrete set of interests, as does the Democratic Party. And the Republican Party represents fundamentally a handful of elite, well-off Americans that have scored an absolute bonanza in the almost 12 years since Reagan and Bush took over.
BM: Did you by any chance see the article on race in the Atlantic?
DA: No, I didn’t.
BM: It makes the point that the Democrats are losing their traditional constituency because of the backing of quotas, and people’s perceptions that these quotas are costing them their jobs for no good reason.
DA: Well, I think that the Republican Party’s been masterful in playing the race card and invoking the image of a confiscatory government to persuade, particularly, white middle Americans to vote against their economic interest. I think it’s one of the great canards of history, this continuing effort of the Republican Party to woo people to vote for policies that fundamentally work against their interests.
BM: But what about the quotas?
DA: I think the Republican Party wants to call the Democratic Party a party of quotas for obvious reasons, again, as part of the strategy of trying to deflect white male Americans from focusing on their own economic interests. It’s a diversion. But I don’t see the party or myself as a Democrat as being wedded to the notion of quotas. I do see the party as being wedded to the notion of fairness and equal opportunity, and I think that’s a commitment that’s worth keeping. The fact is that we are a country of immigrant groups and minorities. We ought to do what we can to make sure that this remains a place of opportunity where your skills and talents can carry you as far as they can take you. But that’s not to say that quotas are the way to achieve that.
BM: Do you think the Democrats have hurt themselves with their convention rules, with their delegate selection techniques? Obviously, the only Democrat who’s made it to the White House in the last few years was Jimmy Carter–and he probably owed it directly to Ford’s pardoning Nixon for Watergate.
DA: Well, I think that the whole nominating process is a little bit wacky, and I, like others, believed back in the late 60s and early 70s that we needed to open up the process. I think now we’ve created a situation where we’ve largely closed the leadership of the party out of the decision-making process. I would like to see a situation where the party leaders get together and make some judgments as to the relative merits of candidates, and have the conventions actually nominate candidates, rather than simply ratify the result that’s been preordained by primaries.
I didn’t always feel this way, but having been through this process as a consultant to a candidate and having covered it as a reporter, I have to say that it’s not a very edifying, enlightened way of choosing a candidate. I think some good candidates have been bypassed by the system, and some bad candidates advanced and been nominated. I mean in 1988, more than anything else, Mike Dukakis won by dint of having more money than everyone else and being able to run the marathon of primaries more effectively. But he really wasn’t, as we saw, a very effective candidate in the general election. It would have been nice if we could have been a little more deliberative and substantial in our evaluation of these candidates. Perhaps we would have made a different decision.
But understand that our process is not significantly different from the Republican Party’s process. Both parties have basically gone the route of endless primaries. So I think the whole process is out of whack.
BM: Have you ever worked for any candidates you didn’t like or that you didn’t believe in?
DA: No. Well, I shouldn’t say no. On occasion I’ve worked for candidates for partisan reasons with whom I wasn’t exactly thrilled, but I thought it was important to the party that they win the election. By and large, though, I’m fairly selective about the people that I work for, and I feel good about the people that I work for–and I’ve walked away from fairly lucrative opportunities because I didn’t feel comfortable.
BM: What about Frank Annunzio? Did you feel good about working for him?
DA: I felt good working against Walter Dudycz. That was a case in which I felt strongly that I didn’t want Walter Dudycz in the United States House. I think Walter Dudycz represents a kind of right-wing special-interest politics that is the wrong path for this country. So, yeah, I feel good that I worked for Annunzio, because I think the alternative was not palatable.
BM: But Annunzio was at best asleep at the switch in the S & L crisis, and certainly his overall record is pretty sleazy. My feeling about Dudycz is that he is an honest man. Aren’t there ever cases where you just want to stay out of a given contest?
DA: No, no. When Walter Dudycz casts antienvironmental votes, when he votes against gun control–which I think is essential in this country–when he represents the interests of big financial institutions, I don’t see that as in our interests. And despite what he said [about his job with Cook County], there’s nothing more offensive to me than these guys who are vigilant about other peoples’ taxes while they collect them hand over fist for themselves. So while everybody is entitled to their opinion–and I certainly respect yours that Walter Dudycz is an honest man–I didn’t see him as a desirable alternative.
Politics is about choices. I would have preferred to see a Nobel Prize winner run against Walter Dudycz, but there was none nominated. And given the choice between an Annunzio and a Dudycz, I will go that way every time.
BM: There was a rumor at the time that you got pressured by the Daley camp to work for Annunzio.
DA: I got no pressure from Daley. I think my relationship with Daley is misunderstood, or perhaps Daley is misunderstood, but Rich Daley has never asked me to do something that I didn’t want to do. When he has talked to me about working for candidates that I didn’t support and I’ve shown no interest, that’s been fine with him.
I was originally contacted [about working for Annunzio] by the Democratic Committee in Washington, because they were worried about losing his seat. And I responded to the call of the party.
BM: Are there candidates you worked for once and decided you would never work for again?
DA: Yeah, probably there are, but I’m not going to divulge who those candidates are. My guess is that some of them won’t run again.
BM: Wasn’t there a break with Paul Simon?
DA: I’d be less than candid to say that we’re as close as we were when I left the newspaper to go to work for him. Paul and I went through two tough elections together, the 1984 election and the 1988 presidential election, in which I did the media. I think Paul thinks that he should have been president of the United States, and I think he looks around and it’s pretty clear he’s not president of the United States. And so it’s a lot easier to look around and assign blame elsewhere than it is to absorb it yourself. And I knew when I went to work for him in the presidential race that the likely outcome was that he would not win, and that might end our professional relationship. But it was worth it, as far as I was concerned. But it did turn out that way–there’s no question about it.
And I’ve been disappointed–I’ve been pretty candid about my disappointments. But if it weren’t for Paul Simon, I wouldn’t be here today. I loved the newspaper business, but leaving it and going this route was the best thing I could have done. It’s worked out very well for me. And I wouldn’t have done it without Paul. I owe him a real debt of gratitude for that.
But I’ve seen him be disturbingly disloyal to too many people, and I’m disappointed in that. I have a high regard for him in many ways, but I value personal loyalty very much. It’s one of the qualities I admire, for example, in Daley. I think Paul could exercise more of that in his dealings with people. That’s not to say, by the way, that I wouldn’t support Paul. I was happy Paul got reelected.
I have absolutely no regrets about any decision that I’ve made since I left the newspaper.
BM: How do you decide whether or not to work with and for someone?
DA: Well, part is instant. I’ve learned now that if your gut tells you that a relationship is probably not going to work, it probably isn’t. So one is just a very visceral judgment as to whether you like someone, you can get along with him, you can work with him, and so on. Another is obviously political. If someone stands for a series of things that you don’t stand for, has fundamentally different views, clearly that’s an impediment toward working for them. And a third thing that sometimes poses problems is when a candidate stands for nothing and is sort of looking to you to fill in the blanks. Every candidate needs help in terms of developing policy and so on, but you want to know the basic, fundamental instincts are there. You want to know what they are, and you want to know that they believe in them and they care about them.
People say negative things about Phelan, which you mentioned earlier. Tom Hardy of the Tribune, who’s a good friend of mine, is a particularly rabid anti-Phelan person, to the point of irrationality. And Phelan has that effect on people, because he is so very self-assured. But I think that at the fundamental level of honesty and integrity, he is very strong and very good, and I have no regrets. I think it’s good that he got elected, and I’m happy that he got elected, and I look to him to do good things at the county board.
But I’ve walked away from other candidates because I felt they didn’t stand for anything, and that they could go one way or the other, depending on what advice they got from me. And I don’t want that responsibility. I don’t want to be anybody’s puppeteer. That is not appealing to me.
BM: Are there other consultants out there who do take on or relish that puppeteer role?
DA: I think there are some who are more Machiavellian than others, and I think there are some who derive great pleasure in the image of being the guy pulling the strings. But my business is like any other business–there are good people and bad people, there are people who have integrity and there are people who have none. For myself, I like to feel a philosophical kinship with the people I work with. And that philosophical kinship may be as simple, in a general election, as a partisan kinship. But more often these relationships are formed in primary elections, and they go to more specific issues of a progressive-reform nature.
BM: What is your opinion of Roger Ailes?
DA: Roger Ailes is an intense, cantankerous, bruising political player. I’ve only had direct experience with him twice. Once was when I was managing the Simon campaign, in ’84, and he was making some debate arrangements for Percy–and we had an acrimonious encounter. Then the second time was when his company did one of our opponents in Ohio. We beat them there.
He’s a tough guy. I think he suffers at this juncture from a little bit of intoxication over his own public profile. I thought it was absolutely ludicrous when he came here and held a press conference and, as an entity unto himself, attacked Paul Simon in the last campaign. I thought that was unprofessional and ludicrous, and hurt his candidate more than Simon. And it hurt him–I think he looked foolish. But I think that flows from the kind of attention he’s gotten. He’s taken on a larger-than-life image, off of the 1988 campaign.
BM: Could Lynn Martin have done better with somebody else?
DA: Well, let’s put it this way–she couldn’t have done worse. I don’t know what happened in that campaign–I wasn’t privy to the internal machinations of that campaign. But that campaign was an abject disaster from start to finish, and I’m sure it’s not one that he includes in his demonstration reel.
I don’t think Illinois’s been a particularly good state for him. As I said, he did Percy in ’84, and we beat them running into the teeth of a Republican landslide nationally. So this hasn’t been a good state for Roger Ailes, and of course Dukakis very nearly beat Bush in this state in 1988, so I guess he doesn’t understand Illinois particularly well.
I do think the demonization of Roger Ailes has probably gone overboard in some quarters. I think he has earned a reputation as a hard-hitting–and I guess some would say not necessarily above-the-belt all the time–kind of consultant. But much of it comes off the ’88 business of Willie Horton and all that, and the reality is, as I said, that the real problem was Dukakis’s arrogance and reticence. So I wouldn’t hit Ailes as hard as perhaps some others would–the very name connotes negative campaigning.
BM: Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to offer?
DA: I think politicians tend to blame media consultants for the low esteem in which politicians have been held, as if the media consultants were responsible for the Vietnam war, or for Watergate, or the savings-and-loan crisis, and so on. The fact is that politicians have done a lot to erode their own positions in the public estimation. Campaigns today, I think, are less acrimonious, less personal, less gratuitous in some ways than they had been at other times in our history. Clearly television changes the magnitude of every charge–and makes it larger and can, in very short order, change the nature of the campaign. And that’s what everybody fears, and that’s what everybody’s concerned about. But while I’d say that it’s an imperfect situation, I’d say that it’s preferable to having campaigns censored, and speech limited, and terms dictated about how you can present yourself to voters. And I hope that we resist the importunings of the ivory-tower folks to do that, because I think that would be a terrible disservice to the process.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.