Political 'hired guns' outdraw their bosses


WASHINGTON -- In the political lull of this time of year, the news vacuum has been filled in recent days by a couple of stories, coincidentally intertwined, featuring political consultants.

One is the saga of Ed Rollins, the Republican who defected to Ross Perot last year, rejoined the GOP fold and helped engineer the upset gubernatorial victory of Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey, then destroyed his resurrection with loose talk of black voter suppression.

The other is the glitzy New Orleans wedding of James Carville, the consultant for loser Democratic Gov. Jim Florio in that race, and Mary Matalin, the sharp-tongued political director of the 1992 George Bush campaign bested by Carville in the service of Democrat Bill Clinton and an old Rollins friend.

Rollins in a deposition recanting his bragging said he "exaggerated" to needle rival Carville, whereupon Matalin reported that he had told her the same story of buying off black ministers not to tout Florio from their pulpits. Love, it seemed, was stronger than her Republican affiliation.

What all this underlined was the lofty state to which many consultants have soared in a profession in which they are supposed to advance someone else's political fortunes. Indeed, one of Rollins' biggest sins, beyond reinforcing the GOP image as callous toward blacks, was taking the play away from his "principal," as the consultants call the candidates for whom they labor.

Rollins in his deposition, with customary candor, owned up to having "a star quality" based on his past highly publicized political achievements, including managing the Ronald Reagan re-election campaign in 1984.

There was a time when consultants were content to remain in the background directing campaigns. Many were what could be called one-horse jockeys. That is, they got involved because they were committed to a single candidate in a specific campaign, either out of personal association or close identification with that candidate's goals.

After the campaign, they would join the administration if their candidate won, or go back to their private business or other endeavor if he or she lost -- and sometimes even if he or she won.

Some who originally were one-horse jockeys, like Democrat Larry O'Brien for John Kennedy, did gain public celebrity and worked for later candidates whose goals they shared. But many worked only or mainly for the winner they had helped elect. In the Jimmy Carter administration, for example, campaigners Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell and, unofficially, Jerry Rafshoon played key roles.

Others were one shot with losers and out, and their names are remembered mostly by political junkies: Bill Wise for Birch Bayh, Bill White for John Glenn, Ron MacMahan for Howard Baker, Paul Brountas for Mike Dukakis, Jim Johnson for Fritz Mondale, Charles Snider for George Wallace, Dennis Kanin for Paul Tsongas.

One reason that attitude changed was that the inside of campaigns began to undergo more press scrutiny, partly as a result of the success of Theodore H. White's "Making of the President" books. Consultants were spotlighted in the process.

And as campaigns spent more and more money and running them came to be a very lucrative business, the one-horse jockey increasingly gave way to the "hired gun" -- the consultant who hung out his shingle and toiled for multiple candidates. Usually they were bound to those candidates by shared ideological views, but not always.

Inevitably, these consultants thrived or struggled in their business by their batting average -- how many races they won and lost -- and the nature of the publicity they could generate, either by performance or pizazz, including becoming television commentators. They were not identified with one particular candidate or officeholder.

Most of them despised the term "hired gun," with its connotation of the hit man who comes in and does the job without much commitment one way or the other.

Considering how much money is to be made in politics today, it's not realistic to expect any wholesale return to the era of the one-horse jockey. But when the jockeys start getting their necks out front of the political horses they ride, something has seriously gone wrong.

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