The curious case of the consultant and the migrating head


WASHINGTON -- The controversy over the fake picture used in a commercial for Sen. John Warner of Virginia has thrown new light on an old issue -- the role of political consultants in American politics.

The commercial used by the Virginia Republican against Democratic challenger Mark Warner was, of course, beyond the pale. The ad purported to prove that the Democratic Warner was a true "insider" in the political establishment, which is one of the complaints he is making against the Republican Warner. (The two Warners are not related.)

The spot showed Mark Warner shaking hands with former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia while a smiling President Clinton looks on approvingly. The problem was that the original picture showed Mr. Wilder shaking hands with Sen. Charles H. Robb -- before the John Warner campaign pasted Mark Warner's head on Mr. Robb's body.

When the hoax was exposed, John Warner quickly took "responsibility," whatever that means, insisted he hadn't known the fakery and fired the consultant responsible, Greg Stevens. Mark Warner understandably tried to milk the episode for all it was worth, but John Warner remains the heavy favorite for re-election.

That's the way these things usually play out. The hired guns take the rap, as they should, and the candidates get away essentially unscathed.

Whether that is reasonable is another question. It is obviously true that no candidate in a major campaign can know in advance of everything being done in his or her name by the staff. But would it be too much to expect a Senate candidate to go over commercials before they are broadcast? It wouldn't take an hour a week.

The real problem is that many candidates have become too dependent on these consultants -- experts on advertising, voter identification, opinion polling and campaign strategy. Indeed, in some cases candidates prove their bona fides as serious contenders by hiring big-name consultants with long records of winning campaigns. Then, too often, they give the consultants a free hand.

Political consultants are like any other group. Some are bad apples; most are not. But consultants live and die with their won-lost records. When one of them makes a big score -- James Carville as principal strategist of the Clinton campaign in 1992, for instance -- other candidates line up to offer fortunes for their services.

To withstand temptation

Even some of the best consultants may yield to the temptation to cross the line. Greg Stevens, the consultant involved in the Warner controversy, had earned a strong enough reputation among Republicans that one of his other clients this year is the Bob Dole campaign.

Not all the deceptions cooked up by consultants are as clumsy as the fake picture. But consultants routinely run intellectually dishonest commercials distorting the personal history or voting records of the opposition. The key is not to make the distortion so blatant that the press catches on and a backlash develops. Alternatively, the trick is to put some distance between a questionable maneuver and the candidate.

That is what happened with the infamous "Willie Horton" ad used against Michael Dukakis in 1988. It was broadcast under the sponsorship of an independent expenditure committee, so that no one could blame George Bush for making a racist attack.

The press has become more aggressive in examining commercials and analyzing which are misleading and false. But the consultants have discovered that most voters don't pay much attention to these analyses, so they have to worry only about something as egregiously out of bounds as putting Mark Warner's head on Chuck Robb's body.

Meanwhile, the candidates are content to let the professionals run their campaigns as they see fit. After all, they are paying big money to these experts. If something goes too far, you can

always take responsibility, replace the consultant and move on. Nobody will blame you, and the consultant can always find another candidate looking for someone with good ideas.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 10/16/96

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