Simon Jenkins – “Alpha Dogs: How Political Spin Became a Global Business by James Harding”

Alpha Dogs: How Political Spin Became a Global Business by James Harding

Simon Jenkins | July 27, 2008

The young man addressed the mayor of Boston to his face. “The people of Boston do not like you,” he said. “In fact they hate you. They view you as an aloof, arrogant, son-of-a-bitch bastard. You don’t give a damn about people.” The mayor’s only hope of re-election, he added, was to admit his misery and adopt a suggested new slogan, “The loner in love with the city.”

The mayor, Kevin White, did as he was told and won the election.

The date was 1978, and the young man, Ned Kennan, was one of a new breed of consultants moving the political campaign on from crude opinion polls to focus groups, issue analysis and, above all, television manipulation. They sold themselves as the merchandisers of electronic democracy, the “alpha dogs” of power. They thought they were masters of the universe.

Most prominent was Sawyer Miller, a firm created by a young New York blue blood called David Sawyer and a fleet-of-foot advertising copywriter for Coca-Cola, Scott Miller. Committed Democrats, they had come together in 1982 to promote the astronaut, John Glenn, to run for president against Ronald Reagan. The party preferred an insider, Walter Mondale, for whom they then went on to work. Mondale also lost.

Undaunted and with supreme confidence, Sawyer Miller expanded to embrace a dozen partners and sold itself to those running for office not just in America but in every corner of the globe. Wherever a candidate was in trouble, and even where not, Sawyer Miller and its army of eager young men and women (including Lord Malloch-Brown, the current Foreign Office minister) would arrive in town and offer them power on a plate. It worked for Shimon Peres in Israel, Cory Aquino in the Philippines, Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru. The firm and its acolytes could be found everywhere democracy was staggering into life, in Venezuela, Chile, Panama, Colombia, Russia, Ukraine. One Sawyer Miller executive, a Buddhist, even gave his services to the Dalai Lama, turning him from a reclusive monk into a global superstar.

If democracy was to be America’s greatest export, it needed salesmen. No matter that Sawyer Miller’s people had barely heard of some of the places in which they worked, let alone spoke the language. They peddled the hardware and software of democracy as applicable anywhere: surveys and polls, direct mail, stump speeches, get-out-the-vote operations, negative advertising, phone banks and online fund-raising. The company claimed at one point to have had one billion voters at its beck and call.

James Harding, a former Financial Times journalist in Washington and now the editor of The Times in London, has a good nose for the “new politics” of charismatic personality that supposedly emerged from the rise of wall-to-wall television coverage and the fall of communism. He is clearly mesmerised by the fast-talking, hard-living (and harder-loving) world of Madison Avenue.

Politicians, like corporations, lost authority in the new media age. Leaders had to converse. They needed to “woo their consumers, explain themselves to their regulators, justify themselves to their investors” and to do so every day. Winning elections was suddenly not a matter of intermittent speaking and greeting, but a 24/7 operation of total commitment. Consultants had to speak brutal truth to power. Politicians found it irresistible. Someone was taking their profession seriously – and the donors paid the fee.

And yet, how new was this, really? Political spin is as old as the Tudors. What outfits such as Sawyer Miller offered was not so much spin as the familiar craft – salesmanship. Image-making was well-known to Gladstone and Disraeli. Walter Lippmann wrote his seminal study, Public Opinion, in 1922. Opinion polls were in use before the second world war. Negative campaigning was as old as the hills.

More to the point, as Harding accepts, the Sawyer Miller teams were startlingly unsuccessful at the art they purported to sell. They secured the election of not one American presidential candidate for whom they worked – although an associate, James Carville, did “create” Bill Clinton. The firm traded on its selling of Aquino in the Philippines, but its subsequent Peruvian venture was a disaster. When Sawyer Miller arrived in Peru in 1990, the erudite and literary Vargas Llosa was 50 percentage points ahead in the polls for president. By the end of the campaign he had been wiped out by the populist Alberto Fujimori.

The new punditry may have offered new insights into old questions, such as “do campaigns matter?” or “should a candidate go for the soft centre or build outwards from a solid base?”. But their answers were hardly revolutionary. As the British spin doctor, Philip Gould, stated, “You can help a bad candidate, but you cannot make him win.” Campaigns help at the margin, but not “when history is on the turn”.

Irony of ironies, the Sawyer Miller techniques of intensive media manipulation were to prove more successful on the right than on their beloved left. They were taken up by a rival outfit, Black, Manafort and Stone, and by advisers to the Likud party in Israel and to the Reagan and Bush operations in America. An ardent follower, Karl Rove, was to become George WBush’s “turd blossom”.

Sawyer Miller went on to sell itself profitably to corporate America, to help Wall Street sanitise its image at the time of Enron.But the change in tack led to the loss of its most committed minds and, in 1991, the firm collapsed amid recrimination and animosity after just a decade of glory. In the words of one partner: “It lost its intellectual soul…born of a love of politics, the only thing that mattered was money.”

I am unsure how far Harding approves of his subjects. He deprecates the role of spin doctors in so re-engineering democracy as to “create a culture of public cynicism”, illustrated in falling turnouts in most western countries. Yet he is rightly adamant that democrats “cannot live out of time…the politician who eschews spin is as self-denying as the farmer who shuns fertiliser”. The firm whose tale he tells “understood that the flip side of freedom is the business of politics”.

Born of the television age, Sawyer Miller and its imitators plotted the path from that era to the digital one. The sweaty shirts in television studios have become vast computerised databases that enable Barack Obama to raise millions of dollars from individually targeted voters. Suddenly, politics is bespoke, personal, narrow. “Broadcast,” says Harding, “you can reach every individual with your message; narrowcast, you can reach them with theirs.” Perhaps the spookiest spin is yet to come.

Alpha Dogs by James Harding
Atlantic £22 pp251 Buy the book from Books First £19.80 including free delivery

Give him a string and he’ll pull it

Sawyer Miller’s greatest triumph – the replacement of Ferdinand Marcos by Cory Aquino – was milked for all it was worth by Mark Malloch Brown, left. Recently raised to the peerage, Lord Malloch Brown is best known today as a self-satisfied foreign minister, but in his heyday at Sawyer Miller he was an energetic string-puller, spinner and shadowy Mr Fixit for Cory Aquino (whose niece he was dating). Malloch Brown’s manoeuvres – according to Harding – include declaring an Aquino victory long before the ballot had been counted, thus catching the Marcos camp off guard. Malloch Brown supplied the statistics for the presumptive victory statement as well as writing it, prompting the commentator Peter Jennings to say that he was ‘a little ahead of the science on this’. The man who hired him for Sawyer Miller says: ‘In the story-telling, Mark became the grand chess master, but in reality…he was more pawn than master of that campaign.’ A more effective spinner for others than for himself, perhaps.

Published in: on August 2, 2008 at 6:32 PM  Leave a Comment  

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