o p i n i o n  

r a y m o n d   d   s t r o t h e r

I grew up in a lower middle class house where politics mattered to our lives. People like my family had no other place to turn. I remember as a very small child praying at night to Harry Truman. My father taught me that you had to stand on the picket line against the clubs of the Texas Ranger thugs and you had to get involved in politics — because people like us had no other choice.

So I became a political consultant. It was a calling like the ministry.

This book is about my own personal evolutionary struggle to understand what I do and the larger consequences of our profession on democracy.

This book is not about redemption, but the struggle for redemption.

This book is about corruption and its insidious consequences.

This book is about the evolution of political consulting — the Darwinian struggle for success.

This book is about the beauty and gore of politics.

This book is about a lot of things that are not necessarily about me.

But let me start with corruption. As I say in my book….

Ancient warriors often point to a week of a month on a small island or bloody battlefield where they fought as twenty-year-olds as the most important moment of their lives. Louisiana was my foxhole and I wear the scars on my soul, though I left there in 1980 to move to D.C.

Corruption is an insidious thing. It is a cancer that lives and grows within us without notice. I learned political consulting in Louisiana, perhaps the most corrupt place in America. But strangely enough, most of the people there are not corrupt. They are as good as people everywhere.

But, unlike the analogy about pregnancy, there are shades of gray in corruption. Corruption can become part of the air you breathe. Like in a society of racists, one can become desensitized to racism and its language — one can be desensitized to corruption. In Louisiana a public official who is only slightly corrupt can be known as a reformer. The good and decent people laugh and tell stories about the corruption of their public officials. But by laughing at corruption these good people are promoting it — condoning it — and perpetuating it. I learned political consulting in Louisiana as one would learn to read Braille: by touching and running my hands over its surface and making value judgments. There were no role models to lean on, no university interested in helping guide me in political consulting. I was the child learning not to touch the hot stove by being burned. And I was burned again and again as I made my rulebook of what a political consultant does — and more importantly — does not do. On page 57 in my book I write out my first rules.

No drinking with clients.

No going to whorehouses with clients.

No live television.

Carefully inspect every garment worn by a candidate before the camera is turned on.

In the Soviet Republics children were taught that capitalism was a form of crime and was a corrupt system that preyed on others, and its foundation was personal greed. Therefore, when they awoke one day and were told they lived in a free market, they became criminals — as they were taught in school. Now they are sorting it out.

All it took to become a consultant was a sign on the door and a business card. There were abuses and some people gravitated to the profession looking for quick bucks. There are still some abuses. But we are getting our sea legs. Young consultants have older consultants as role models who live and do business by the rules. The American Association of Political Consultants is finally becoming a professional organization that exerts peer pressure on consultants and rewards them for good work.

Now there are universities that train students and make ethical conduct and professional standards part of the curriculum. Their students are working their way into the fabric of consulting, and the business is getting better. Just last week, at George Washington University, there was yet another conference on the consideration of ethics.

Once the newly elected Congressman and former Governor of Louisiana turned to a young reporter as they drove down a desolate road lined with shotgun shacks with junked cars in the front yard, bent basketball goals nailed to pine trees, and decorated with leaking sofas on the front porch, “Son, you see the people who live in these houses? They’re good people, honest people. You know why? They never been tempted.”

But there are other temptations in consulting that are beginning to corrupt the system.

Because of the stardom of consultants and the use of public opinion polls we have developed a seamless campaign that begins the day after the election. The consultants no longer stop on the steps of the capitol but follow the public official into the offices. We are becoming a democracy run by public opinion polls. Statistical studies are replacing leadership. I had a candidate who screamed at me, “If you knew that vote on X was going to hurt my re-election, you should have called and warned me.” I explained that I don’t get involved in government.

When I was new to the business, in the late 60s and early 70s, I had to beg candidates to hire pollsters. The science was suspect. Candidates just didn’t believe that reliable information could be obtained when fewer than a thousand of their constituents were interviewed. When pollsters were hired, they were considered tail fins on a ’57 Cadillac — a nice decoration with questionable function.

Now, pollsters are usually hired first and they control the message and the issues in the campaign. It is all out of balance.

Bill Clinton was an admitted student of polling. He even polled where to vacation. Now George Bush’s chief aid is a political consultant who stays in constant touch with pollsters.

WWII would have been lost if Roosevelt had relied on polls when he started lend lease and slowly moved this country to aid the allies.

Polling is good. Both Republicans and Democrats have great pollsters. Thus they both get the same information — and they both move toward the poll numbers like magnets. Why do you think the Republicans opposed the Department of Education for so long, and now are the defenders? Or Social Security? Or why did the Democrats support the war votes? Why did some Democrats vote for the tax cut? Polling.

My chief product, political television, is less effective than it was ten years ago. There are several reasons.

—Other alternative entertainment media.

—Knee jerk skepticism spawned by consultants who have become media stars.

—The control of pollsters. They have taken the heart out of political communication.

Things have changed. Some for the better, some not.

Senator John Stennis was a gentleman of the old school. His gentility, however, was not simply a matter of standing for women or tipping one’s hat. His was a style found today only in period movies and in the memory cupboards of ancient park-bench nappers.

But more than a gentle anachronism, he was a monument to a Senate of yesterday, a Senate closer to the House of Lords than to the casual gathering of sometimes mean-spirited breast-beaters and dwarves whose informality is accepted in Washington today.

I met Senator Stennis by accident one day during a friendly, nonbusiness lunch with Senator Russell Long in his Capitol hide-away just off the majestic dome. A white-coated waiter served us from a cart while we talked about our mutual interests and campaigns. The chance meeting with Stennis would fine-tune my appreciation of the Senate as an institution and wrench the old Mississippi senator out of a comfortable past.

He pushed through the door without knocking. “I’m so sorry for the intrusion, Senator Long. I didn’t know you had company. I have a small, private matter of state to discuss with you, but it can wait until another time. Please pardon me, sir.” He turned to leave.

“Come in, Senator.” Long rose from the table. “Come meet my friend Ray Strother. If you run for reelection, you may need his help.” Long winked at me. It was common knowledge that the courtly gentleman was not going to run again. He was a frail, small man with thin hair swept straight back. He wore suspenders — he called them braces — and a suit coat that was never removed in the presence of others. To appear without a coat, or even wearing a coat that did not match his trousers, would have been akin to appearing naked. His speech was from another era, closer to the nineteenth than the twentieth century. Born August 3, 1901, he retained the manners of those who raised him and those who taught him in a more formal time at the University of Virginia.

He shook my hand as I stood to greet him. “I’ve heard your name, sir, tell me what it is you do, sir, that might help me in my reelection, if I decided to run for reelection, of course.” And then he winked at Long. There were a lot of signals flying around the room.

The old senator had reasons to retire and, as it turned out, reasons to stay. When he was seventy, a thug had shot him in the stomach outside his D.C. home. A man of iron constitution, he recovered, but his health was never quite the same. He could have retired with grace. But the Senate was his entire existence. His wife had recently died, and he mourned her deeply. His was a solitary and lonely life that found meaning only in the corridors of the Capitol.

His colleagues didn’t think he had the stamina for a modern campaign. In 1980 the Democrats had lost control of the Senate in a reaction to run-away inflation, an oil shortage, and American citizens being held hostage by a mob in Iran. Most working Americans thought the Democratic Party had let them down. Ronald Reagan, though he disagreed with labor unions and most Democratic Party beliefs and institutions, won convincingly and dragged into office such unlikely senators as Jeremiah Denton in Alabama, Paula Hawkins in Florida, and Matt Mattingly in Georgia. Because of their success at electing such unelectables, the 1982 Republican professional wolf pack was confident, well funded, and eager to pick off weakened Democrats like Stennis. If they could win with people like Denton and Hawkins, they were sure they could defeat the tiny man from Mississippi with a good candidate. They had an attractive prospect, Haley Barbour. Politics had become a bloody business, and the hardened veterans on the Hill didn’t think Stennis was up to the race. Politics had changed, they told each other, and this eighty-year-old man lived in another day.

“What is it you do, sir?” Stennis asked as I sat with Senator Long at that lunch table. It seemed an easy question, but I was stunned. I had never been asked in exactly that context. Often candidates wanted to know if I used film or videotape, or if I specialized in one particular medium. What I do is make television commercials. No, what I do is communicate a campaign message. No, what I do is give a campaign direction and coordination. No, what I do is bring to bear years of experience in two hundred campaigns to help you win. What I do is meet with pollsters and drink with mail consultants. For God’s sake, everyone knows what I do. How could I have so much trouble explaining it?

The size of the old senator’s question stunned me, and I rambled and stumbled through an answer about film, opinion polls, phone banks, and the marriage of technologies. … Senator Stennis nodded pleasantly, but I had made little impression. He had worked in the Senate for thirty-seven years without campaign technology or experts. He had served his state well and had been returned again and again to office without heated opposition. In his previous campaign he had spent only about $5,000. He was truly one of the Senate’s prized institutions. He was a legend.

The simple fact that Senator Stennis had to ask “What is it you do, sir?” was testimony to how truly old-school he was.

“So you take pictures?” he finally concluded after I had rambled on for several minutes trying to answer his question….

“I guess I am a sort of photographer,” I agreed.

“So you have me walk up and down in front of the Capitol and you take my picture?” I was stunned by the innocence of the question.

“Well, I guess so, Senator.”

“Well, then, what do you do with those pictures?”

“I put them on television, Senator.”

“Well, I’ve never had much luck with that. I’ve sent those films home, but I’m not sure they ever ran them.”

He was referring to the public-service tapes that senators make in an effort to communicate with their electorate. They are offered to television stations for discretionary use in public-service time, usually late at night or early on Sunday mornings.

“Senator, we pay them to run the pictures.” I had fallen into his idiom.

“Well,” he said, shaking his head with some enthusiasm. “You pay them. That changes things, doesn’t it? We need to have a meeting, sir.”

A few days after this meeting I received a telephone call from one of Stennis’s staff members asking if I would be in my office to receive a call from the senator at 11 A.M. I confirmed I would wait for the call. She then asked if I would be available for a meeting with the senator in his office at 2 P.M. I said I would hold open that time. I confirmed to the staff member. However, about an hour later my phone rang again.

“Mr. Strother, this is Senator John Stennis. You may remember me. I met you with Senator Russell Long a few days ago.”

“I remember you well, Senator.” Needless to say, I was puzzled.

“I was wondering if we might not get together this afternoon about two o’clock.”

I confirmed again and later walked across the Capitol grounds to the Russell Office Building. I arrived about ten minutes early. An elderly secretary hurried to meet me.

“Are you Mr. Strother?”

“I am.”

“I’m so sorry, the senator forgot. He went to his apartment to take a nap.”

I soon forgot about it. I had more work than Morgan and I could handle anyway. I was in West Texas with Senator Lloyd Bentsen shooting film when he asked me about Stennis’s campaign. I said that I knew nothing about it.

Bentsen looked puzzled. “You’re not doing his campaign?”

“No, sir. I only met him one time. We never even talked about it.”

Bentsen shook his head, obviously confused. “What would it take for him to contract you?”

“Same as you, Senator, a handshake.”

A few days later I received a call from Stennis asking me to come immediately to his office. He was sitting behind a large desk. He rose and extended his hand.

“A firm handshake, sir,” he said with some enthusiasm. “Now how’s my campaign coming?”

Thus we began. During long afternoons spent sitting at the large table in his office, I explained phone banks and he gave me insight in to the Senate of yesterday. If Jimmie Davis had shown me yesterday’s campaigning, Stennis gave me a feel for the dignity and tradition of a Senate that was quickly fading as blow-dried pretenders performed under the glare of television lights.

“Wood is nice,” he told me one day as he rubbed his hand across his old table (which had once been Harry Truman’s). “New wood is beautiful, but it is the old wood that gets luster through years of hand-rubbing that seems to give it surfaces under the surfaces.”

One decision I made was to limit the number of technicians exposed to Senator Stennis. He was looking to me to do whatever vague things were necessary for victory and had difficulty understanding that there were some specialties I lacked. The Washington pollster Peter Hart and I became his campaign contacts. Peter used poll numbers to gently help the senator make campaign decisions. Until a confrontation near the end of the campaign, Peter, a complete gentleman himself, behaved like a grandson talking to the parent of his parents….

I kept running into the traditions of the old Senate. When we filmed in Washington, I arranged for several senators to give testimony to Stennis’s place and importance in the Senate. I called and scheduled Senators Bentsen, Texas; Johnston, Louisiana; Nunn, Georgia; Long Louisiana; and DeConcini, Arizona. At our morning meeting as I explained our afternoon shooting schedule, I saw Stennis glower and draw himself erect.

“Sir, who called those senators?”

I was astonished and didn’t understand his anger or body language. There had been no problem scheduling the senators. Stennis was loved by all.

“I did, Senator.”

“No, no, no, no. You can’t do that. You can’t call those senators direct. That, sir, is senator-to-senator business. Now you go sit down at that typewriter and make a list of senators you want, and I’ll take care of it.”

I typed out the list, and he folded it and put it in his coat pocket. That was the last I saw of it, but I spent the afternoon interviewing senators.

I grew to love this man and much of what he represented. There were times when I felt I was degrading him to bring him into modern politics. He had no understanding of the great demand of money in modern campaigns. We were asking him to raise two million dollars, when in the past he had spent about $5,000 per election. He would just wring his hands, and I would report to Senators Bentsen and Long, who were looking out after his welfare. They helped raise money. Finally, in desperation, I reminded the old senator that he was chairman of Armed Services and had spent billions of dollars with the defense industry. What about LTV? I asked him. What about McDonnell Douglas?

“Would that be proper?” he asked. I was glib with my answer in 1982, but that question has bothered me for years since. Is it proper for a public official to take money from companies and institutions over which he or she holds great power? Is it proper for state treasurers to collect campaign money from banks? Is it proper that fundraising must start for the reelection campaign the day after the election? Who gets first call on a public official’s time, the person who votes and writes a note or the person who raises $100,000? The answers are obvious and an insult to democracy.

Long before the Senate tied itself in knots over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill in 2001, Senator Stennis had put his finger on something that none of the reformers in modern politics wanted to touch: It is not only bad form to take money from industries regulated by Congress, it’s an inherent conflict of interest. What Congress has done over the years is to practically legalize bribery.

In a way, Senator Stennis’s naïveté about campaign financing mirrored the old-fashioned attitudes he had held through much of his career about race. When John Stennis started out in politics, Mississippi was a one-party state, as was most of the Deep South. The Mississippi Democratic Party of his youth was all white. Blacks, for obvious reasons, had tended since the time of Lincoln to lean Republican. But across the South, and most especially in Mississippi, blacks were simply discouraged — either by odious legal means such as “poll taxes” or, if that didn’t work, by threats of violence — from voting at all. If candidates like Stennis could avoid a Democratic primary, they didn’t nee to raise money for general elections against Republicans. Their victories were assured.

Historical ironies abound, of course, and not the least in Mississippi. All over the country, blacks left the Republican Party in droves during the Great Depression, settling their hopes on the same man my father put his trust in: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This occurred despite the fact that most of the legendary segregationists in American politics, such as George Wallace, Orval Faubus, and Strom Thurmond, began their public lives — and, in some cases ended them — in the Democratic Party. Mississippi itself boasted, if that is the word, some of the most virulent racists in American politics, all of them Democrats. Their number included Theodore G. Bilbo, who frequently compared blacks to monkeys, and Ross Barnett, the hapless racists who served as governor when the University of Mississippi was integrated at the point of U.S. army bayonets.

In 1948, when thirty-seven-year-old Hubert H. Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis, electrified the Democratic National Convention with an appeal to the party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights,” Strom Thurmond led southerners on a walk right out of the convention. John Stennis, who’d replaced Bilbo in the Senate the year before, went with him — along with the entire white establishment of Mississippi. (Louisiana’s senator Russell Long refused to participate in the walkout; he stayed and tried to hold the party together so that it would not be split on racial lines.) In 1964 and 1965, Stennis and Mississippi’s other senator, fellow Democrat James O. Eastland, were key participants in the filibusters that delayed and threatened passage of the Voting Rights Act and other landmark civil rights legislation pushed by LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, and the national Democrats.

While all this was going on, the modern version of the Republican Party in Mississippi was gaining a foothold, led by a Barry Goldwater conservative named Clark Reed. His appeal was not to disenfranchised blacks, but to conservative whites who felt the national Democratic Party had turned too liberal. One of the issues it had gone liberal on, of course, was race. And so, in the 1970s and 1980s, a historical shift appeared. In Mississippi and all across the South, whites began drifting to the Republican Party in national elections, while retaining their fealty to old Democratic Party warhorses like John Stennis in statewide and local contests.

It may be unfair to say that Republicans in Mississippi today are racists, even if they’ve inherited — or courted — the racist vote and profited from it. However, without the friction between the races, the Republicans would not have come so quickly to prominence. Certainly Senator Trent Lott makes no overt appeals on the race issue; nor did Haley Barbour, the young Reaganite tapped to run against Stennis in 1982. But one thing is sure, and it’s something that, when I think about it, allows me to admire John Stennis to this day. In June of that year, 1982, the Voting Rights Act came under consideration in the Senate for its periodic renewal. Of the southerners who fought against the law in 1965, three were still in office. Two of them, Stennis and Russell Long, were clients of mine. The third was Strom Thurmond himself. When it came time to report the bill to the floor, all three voted Aye.

Days later, after our conversation about fundraising, Senator Stennis called me over to his office. He said he had a surprise. He reached into his desk drawer and handed me a check from LTV. I was astonished. It was for $100. But he was proud and I didn’t have the heart to explain. His honor would not allow him to beg. Later, other senators did the dirty work for him and raised more than a million dollars for his campaign.


©2003 Raymond D. Strother
is published by Louisiana State University Press


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