Self-promoting Ed Rollins never learned to shut up


WASHINGTON -- In the beginning, the political consultants were not allowed at the head table.

They were one step above TV technicians, which was not a very high step.

The consultants worried about the lighting and the make-up and they cooked up jingles for the campaign commercials.

But they were not considered in the same league as the campaign managers. The managers knew the county chairmen and the city bosses; they knew the people who counted and what won elections.

And the campaign managers did not allow the political consultants into the strategy sessions.

But very rapidly TV changed all that.

In 1948, there were 500,000 TV sets in America. Four years later, there were 19 million. And by 1988, the average television viewer had the set on for 6 hours and 59 minutes per day.

And the county chairmen and city bosses did not count so much. You could communicate to voters directly if you could reach them through TV.

And the political consultants became gods.

After the 1988 campaign, Susan Estrich, the campaign manager for Michael Dukakis, identified the reason for his loss:

"We didn't have a Roger Ailes," she said. "I wish we had."

Roger Ailes was not George Bush's campaign manager. He was the media consultant, the TV wizard.

And he, Susan Estrich believed, made all the difference.

But besides the power of TV, there is another reason for the exalted role that political consultants now play in campaigns.

The press lionizes them. Names like Ailes and Atwater and Carville become almost as well known as the candidates themselves.

And that is because the consultants talk to the reporters while the candidates do not.

In the old days, we used to have an opportunity to talk to the candidate on a regular basis.

During his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan held a press conference virtually every day, answering questions for as long as we asked them.

In 1992, when I told that to a young Clinton staffer, he was aghast. "But how did he control the message?" the staffer asked.

Which was the difference a dozen years had made. Now, campaigns are almost entirely about control: Controlling a carefully constructed image of the candidate that the political consultant has devised.

And there is no easier way to ruin that image than by letting the candidate talk to reporters.

But if we could not talk to the candidate, whom could we talk to?

To the political consultants. They existed to talk to us. To spin us. To stroke us. To manipulate us.

And we loved them for it. These were the guys who would take our phone calls and feed us facts and figures and nifty quotes.

So we put these consultants high atop pedestals. So high that University of Virginia Professor Larry J. Sabato wrote a few years ago: "There is a desperate need for the press to stop treating consultants as gods of the political wars. . . ."

But they are gods.

Last week I turned on Ebert and Siskel. They were reviewing a new documentary on the Clinton campaign called "The War Room."

They both loved it -- two thumbs up -- and they discussed briefly who was more important to the campaign, George Stephanopoulos or James Carville. Ebert decided it was Carville.

And I thought: How about Bill Clinton? Did he play a small part in his victory?

A few weeks ago, Carville faced Ed Rollins in the New Jersey governor's race. (There were also two candidates in the race, but they were much less interesting than the consultants.)

Rollins won and Carville lost. And when Rollins went to breakfast with reporters and they asked him why he won, Rollins could not say: "I worked for a better candidate. She presented better policies and the voters recognized that."

No, he had to talk about his role and why he was invaluable.

So he told how he spread around a half-million dollars to black ministers to suppress the black vote.

And now he is in a heap of trouble for saying so.

Which is the one real problem that political consultants face:

They are so good at talking, they never know when to shut up.

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