Why political consultants need a polish

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Does that pesky image problem apply to consultants, too?


I think it’s safe to say there aren’t too many parents who hear this from their young ones: “When I grow up, I want to be a political consultant.” If my son had told me that was his dream, I doubt that even I would have said, “Darling, what a great, heartwarming idea. I’m all in favor of it.” And I’m a political consultant. But it got me thinking—why not? Why wouldn’t I encourage my child to go into what has become my career of choice? It might have something to do with how our profession is perceived. Exhibit A: the depictions of the political operative in popular culture. It’s hardly a pretty picture. I just re-watched a bunch of political movies—everything from “The Candidate” with Robert Redford to “Primary Colors” with John Travolta and Kathy Bates to “The Ides of March” with George Clooney. In each case, politics is portrayed as a smarmy activity. Plus, the political consultant is usually portrayed as a slime ball. Take the lesson, at least in “Primary Colors”— idealism doesn’t pay. Think back to poor Kathy Bates. As Jack Stanton’s devoted consultant she compares her political ideals, and her feelings about Stanton, to the pure light of the full moon. She then kills herself when he wants to use a particularly nasty piece of oppo that she unearthed. Talk about a terrible commentary on the fate of an idealist in politics. Compare that to Exhibit B: the case of the Ryan Gosling character in “Ides of March.” He goes to a meeting with the opposing campaign manager, gets fired for disloyalty, and then finds out about the duplicity of his own candidate. He then resorts to his own leverage to push himself back into the campaign and then successfully gets his revenge through some duplicity of his own. Lots of legitimate questions raised by these two examples alone: Is it wrong to seek revenge when you’re fired unfairly for disloyalty? Where does a consultant draw the line when a candidate himself goes astray? Where’s the moral center? It seems to keep moving in politics, at least on film. I asked Joe Trippi just how true to life all of these questions are. Trippi’s an idealistic veteran—he advised on the screenplay for “The Ides of March.” Plus, the Phillip Seymour Hoffman character is loosely based on him. At the start of most campaigns, explains Trippi, you don’t care about the pecking order. “But once it gets going, you realize you might get to be the chief of staff to the president,” he says. “That’s why a lot of these campaigns keep blowing up. That’s why loyalty is the only thing you can count on.” But does it have to be portrayed that way? “Well if it wasn’t, it’d be a lie,” says Trippi. “It’s a constant struggle between idealism and dirt.” I also asked media consultant Fred Davis about his recent depiction in HBO’s “Game Change”—the story of the McCain-Palin campaign. Does he think he got a fair shot in the film? “No!” he exclaims. Too venal? Too scheming? Neither. “They made me a milquetoast,” he says. “It was much more exciting than that.” Okay, at least one political consultant who feels he wasn’t portrayed colorfully enough! Now, anyone with half a brain and a vested interest in reading this article will undoubtedly ask, “What turnip truck did this gal fall of?” And I’d agree. Except for one thing: it’s next to impossible to find a portrayal of the political consultant that isn’t ugly. Through more than a dozen films, I haven’t found a single plot in which anything but nefarious activities are going on, spurred on and abetted by political operatives. Granted, a screenplay about a clean politician might be a tad dull. Also, I can’t imagine any screenwriter endeavoring to write a dull script, even Aaron Sorkin, who despite his idealistic portrayals of presidents, throws in his fair share of crooked consultants. So there’s some tainting somewhere. As screenwriter Jack Amiel pointed out to me, “My thinking is you don’t get a lot of mileage out of portraying any politician as a good guy.” Ok, so point made—pop culture portrayals of political consultants shouldn’t make us jump for joy and Hollywood isn’t likely to help us out on this point. Here’s the conundrum: when what’s portrayed on the silver screen seeps into our political reality, there’s a backlash. Then, I contend, it turns people away from running for office. As a corollary, I think it encourages demagogues, egotists and narcissists to run. This is the reason I’m worried. I spend my life trying to find good candidates for many down-ballot offices. These are the types of offices that we tend to ignore at our own peril: school board, city council, state legislature. But when I find someone who cares, someone who is filled with ideals and ideas for a better district, state or world, they typically dismiss a run for office out of hand. “Hell no,” is a frequent response. “Who wants to go through that?” I asked Trippi if he was worried about turning of potential candidates. He thinks the reality is harsh enough. “How many people who run for office have never had an affair?” he asks. “But, you’re right. Some of the best we could have aren’t pure enough. And even if they are, they don’t want to go through the gauntlet.” So does the image of the political consultant need a polish? Do potentially great candidates need to be encouraged more? Sure, why not? But what we really need is an adult conversation. What we really need to be asking ourselves as an industry is whether we’re stretching ourselves enough to get good men and women elected. Or do we so secretly relish the image of the political operative as the calculating puppet master that manipulating the candidate becomes more important than the real needs of the people? If you’ve gotten this far and feel this is a valid question, then perhaps an appropriate line to end with is one of the most famous final lines in political movie history: “What do we do now?”Jennie Blackton is a former talk-show host, sitcom writer/producer and movie studio vice president. She now works with down-ballot candidates.


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