Spinmeisters go negative
If you can construct believable stories with enough truth in them to smear somebody royally, boy, is there a pot of gold waiting for you in D.C.
Spin doctors are nothing new in politics, but a certain type — equal parts scriptwriter, opposition researcher and ruthless street fighter — is increasingly in demand, and for good reason.
Just ask John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate who became the target object of a new verb: “swift-boating.”
The term comes from a 2004 television ad that undermined Kerry’s status as a decorated Vietnam War hero, making less stark the contrast between him and George Bush, a self-proclaimed “wartime leader” who’d never heard a shot fired in anger.
White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove denied multiple reports of involvement with the Swift Boat campaign. But the hardball Republican operative Chris LaCivita was linked to it, along with multiple communications firms.
Records show that media consulting firm Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm was paid $276,000 for the Swift Boat campaign, and Creative Concepts, a Virginia firm, was paid $165,000 for repping both the Swift vets and the conservative book company Regnery Publishing, which issued a tome about Kerry’s military service, “Unfit for Command.”
Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), another Vietnam combat veteran with medals for valor, recently denounced the war in Iraq and found himself promptly swift-boated as a coward.
“The fact is,” says John Stauber, exec director of the Center for Media and Democracy, “going negative works.”
Democrats and liberals have tried similar PR offensives, most recently against Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, but with far less success. Why? Because blue-state spinmeisters haven’t yet mastered what their red-state counterparts obviously have.
“Modern communication isn’t about truth, it’s about a resonant narrative,” says Eric Dezenhall, a former Reagan administration aide and now president of his own crisis management firm. “The myth of PR is that you will educate and inform people. No. The public wants to be told in a story who to like and who to hate.”
Already suspected by blue-collar America as an elite and effete New Englander, Kerry — one of the handful of Ivy Leaguers who volunteered to go to Vietnam — was red meat for the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” ad that cast him as a Yale snot who’d come back from Vietnam to trash his largely working-class troops.
If that sounds audacious, it’s because, as Dezenhall says, “We’re living in an age of audacity,” another fact GOP spinmeisters understand and exploit superbly.
“George Bush communicates in terms of audacity,” Dezenhall says. Bush’s response to questions about the wiretapping was to say that he’s just trying to catch terrorists. Bold motivation, easily understood.
“Democrats communicate in terms of complexity,” Dezenhall says, referring to their windy explications of a need to pursue enemies within the rule of law as spelled out in various court … (snorrrrrrrrrrre).
Hence the lack of public outrage against a possible blatant violation of the Constitution, and the reason why Democrats, yet again, look like feckless pedants on national security.
There’s no way to measure the money that’s spent on political PR attacks, but Dezenhall estimates the market is at least “in the hundreds of millions.”
Stauber adds, “There’s a limitless amount of money to be made, because this kind of PR is a very significant tool in the modern political arsenal.”
Many political strategists double as PR advisers primarily for advocacy outfits known as 527 groups, named after a section of Internal Revenue Service code defining them.
Prominent during the 2004 election were whizzes like Larry McCarthy (whose first big smear-score was the Willie Horton ad in 1988 against Dem candidate Michael Dukakis), Benjamin Ginsberg (a Bush attorney who resigned after being linked to anti-Kerry groups), Stanley Greenberg (Dem pollster who advised Kerry) and Bill Knapp (admeister for an advocacy group who also advised Kerry).
As a result, the lines between PR expert and political strategist have become blurred, says Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for the political reform group Common Cause.
Don’t expect the lines to clear up anytime soon. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign and lobbying spending, 527 groups alone spent more than $160 million on advertising and PR during the 2004 election year.
But as CRP spokesman Massie Ritsch notes, 527s also transfer millions of untracked dollars to related committees and groups that also fund political ads and PR.
Media analyst MAGNA Global predicts that total political ad spending for the 2006 national elections will hit a record high of just under $3 billion. Spinmeisters possessing modern PR’s most important and essential skill — “the capacity to tell a story,” as Dezenhall says — will rake in most of those bucks as the mud flies.