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“Blue Smoke and Mirrors”

ISSUE:  Summer 1982
The Rise of Political Consultants: New Ways of Winning Elections. By Larry J. Sabato. Basic Books. $20.95.

The consultant portrayed in this definitive study of the political world’s newest and potentially most lucrative profession comes through as the precocious child—and sometimes as just a smart brat—of a still immature electronic era.

His spectacular rise to prominence and wealth, with his occasional display of awesome influence upon the voting emotions of mankind, happens to coincide with the development and evolution of those twin instruments of Apocalypse and Armageddon, the television set and the computer. And yet the political consultant, under another name and a different technology, must always have been with us.

“At least since the days of Cicero, who called campaigning “a most wretched custom,” electioneering has always had a double-edged reputation,” Sabato writes. “On the one hand it has been viewed as a necessary and even somewhat useful part of democratic ritual. On the other hand it has been seen as a seedy and self-advertising public spectacle that frequently attracts to its banner ignoble and untrustworthy denizens of society’s darkest corners. Consultants often appear as innocent and as devious as the electioneering skills they market. There is nothing inherently evil about their new techniques; any technology of itself is morally neutral and can be used for good or ill.”

The author is content to let good and evil speak for themselves, leaving the reader to form his own judgments, through much of his well-organized, meticulously researched, well-balanced and lucidly written dissection of the new-fangled profession. He examines its origins, tells how it grew, and analyzes its three major specialized subdivisions: polling, television image-making, and direct-mail propagandizing, along with its overlay of a still highly inexact and spooky art, political strategy-making. There is no doubt that the author harbors grave concerns about the moral impact and ethical standards of some of the practitioners. In a final chapter, he sets forth tentative judgments of his own and raises questions that are disturbing—yet also perhaps oddly reassuring—for the future of representative democracy in the land of Thomas Jefferson.

Such pre-electronic authorities as Jefferson and Cicero— and perhaps Harry Flood Byrd, Virginia’s and the nation’s most durably successful political boss of the 20th century— might ponder, along with the reader, over the difficulties of distinguishing between good and evil camouflaged by the consultants’ use of “blue smoke and mirrors.”

What is reality, and which is illusion? How does one spot the good guys and the bad guys? In the hatless, videotaped, glaring modernity of Marshall McLuhan’s global village, how can one be sure which are the white hats, which are the black? How can one be sure whether a Great Communicator is communicating something that is really his own, and that he believes in, or whether he is largely an artful creation of some anonymous media wizard?

Similar questions must have bothered Cicero and other, more dispassionate observers of the electioneering processes down through the ages. Now, however, Sabato suggests, there may be a clear and present danger of a new sort:

“Consultants and the new technology have not changed the essence of politics. Politics is still persuasion, still a firm and friendly handshake. But the media of persuasion are no longer the same. . . .

“Political consultants, answerable only to their client-candidates and independent of political parties, have inflicted severe damage upon the party system and masterminded the modern triumph of personality cults over party politics in the United States.”

There was a time, of course, when the medium of persuasion—apart from the firm, friendly pressing of flesh, along with the personal speech—was the handwritten or printed word. One might look back to the early days of the 19th century and find a prototype of today’s consultant: Thomas Ritchie, the printer-editor-publisher who established the Richmond Enquirer, apparently at the behest of Mr. Jefferson, to serve as a Jeffersonian party organ and dispel the thick, conservative Federal fog that even then enveloped Richmond and environs. Ritchie’s newspaper and print shop served the Jeffersonian Democrats exceedingly well; he also won extra spurs as an early model consultant by founding what became the Virginia party’s guiding cabal, known as the Richmond Junto, which met regularly with Ritchie usually presiding at the Brockenbrough mansion (later the White House of the Confederacy) to plot strategy and act as a committee of correspondence for Democratic candidates.

After the Civil War, when Readjuster Billy Mahone set out to form a new Virginia party, they still were not labeled consultants, but Mahone employed a post-Ritchie equivalency. He bought the Richmond Whig, staffed it with professional propagandists, and turned it into a flaming Readjuster organ. With the help of the Whig and fliers from its print shop, and with the help of collaborators imported from north of the Potomac, financed in large part by his Republican friends in Washington, Mahone upset the Bourbon establishment and enjoyed a brief, turbulent fling as the state’s first political boss of the post-bellum era.

Virginia’s last great political boss, Harry Byrd, perfected and operated his conservative Democratic machine before and into the early years of the electronic age. Byrd never felt the need of importing any hired guns; he had a select coterie’ of home-grown, in-house, amateur or non-professional operatives, directed by the equivalent of a modern consultant-in-chief, Everett Randolph Combs. Over the years 1926—57 Mr. Combs served on the public payroll in several different state offices, but his main function was to keep the Byrd machine on track. The super-consultancy of Byrd & Combs held sway over Virginia elections at most levels from statewide to congressional to local. In semi-electronic simplicity, Byrd and Combs made the telephone the chief instrument of their consultant services; each used it through uncounted hours of long-distance polling and pulse-taking and strategy-shaping talks with key communicants in county courthouses and city halls, as well as with business-professional establishmentarians throught the state.

One may wonder whether it was just coincidence that the decline of the Virginia boss system occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of the consultant system. The new breed of political professionals had begun to sprout and flourish in California in the 1940’s, but it was not until three years after the death of Hany Byrd that the political hired hands made their mark significantly in a Virginia gubernatorial campaign. In 1969 Republican Linwood Holton became the first major Virginia candidate to import a state campaign manager, or consultant-in-chief, from another state. With the help of this political gun from Texas, plus a sapient staff of professional specialists, Holton also became the first Republican to occupy the Virginia governor’s office since Jan. 1, 1886

Students of Virginia politics still marvel at a double illusion created by the Holton campaigners. They persuaded thousands and thousands of Virginia Democrats at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum that they should vote for Holton (a) to save the Byrd machine, and (b) to kill the Byrd machine. Opinions still differ on whether the Holton victory should be credited more to the liberal or more to the conservative defections from the old-time “normal” Democratic majority of the Byrd era. It may also be argued, of course, that the quality of the candidate and the political tides of the time had much to do with that famous 1969 victory, which opened a long-closed door into Virginia’s first Republican decade.

Three years later there was no doubt that a late-coming hired gun from California, armed with an electronic arsenal bought by $250,000 “borrowed” from a COP sugar daddy, delivered the coup de grace to an amiably moderate Democrat and elected a rigidly conservative Republican as Virginia’s first GOP member of the U. S. Senate since March 3, 1889. For the remainder of the 1970’s, the Republican surge widened and deepened. They not only “got there fustest with the mostest” consultants, but also with the most money, indisputably the mother’s milk of consultancy politics. Frequently, too, they were fortunate in the quality of the Democratic opposition, or the lack thereof. The Virginia GOP, nevertheless, clearly got the jump on the Democrats in the new technologies of political warfare. They demonstrated a superior electronic expertise -in playing on Virginia’s traditionally conservative fears and emotions.

What happened in 1981, therefore, may seem ironic. The Democrats beat the GOP at its own consultancy game. For the first time since the 1960’s, the Democrats mobilized almost as much money and almost as many consultants as the Republicans for a gubernatorial campaign. They also managed to mobilize a sturdy ticket that tended to soothe, rather than scare, the conservative establishment. After the Democrats swept all three top state offices—no party had scored such a Virginia sweep since 1965—the post-mortems gave much of the credit to consultants, particularly the media image makers and pollsters, employed by the gubernatorial winner, Charles S. Robb. Among the Republican losers, there was a strong tendency to blame the defeat on consultancy faults and mistakes.

Sabato finished his book before the 1981 returns were available, and he does not reckon with that campaign’s twists and turns, but the 1981 experience may serve to underline the pertinacy of some Sabato comments and conclusions on the consultancy game. It was, of course, by far the most expensive gubernatorial year in Virginia history. If a rule-of-thumb developed by Sabato’s analyses and averagings of consultant compensation in many states held good here, the consultants claimed about 20 percent of the total campaign expenditures. These probably approached or exceeded $7 million for the two gubernatorial candidates alone, if all the unreported costs were known. The 1981 Virginia campaign not only confirmed the obvious fact that consultancies contribute greatly to the super-inflationary spiral of campaign costs; it also reflected the concurrent phenomenon observed in recent elections across the nation—that increasing amounts of money are being funneled to favored candidates by the burgeoning political action committees, or PACs, of special interest groups.

The Sabato answer to the money and the PAC problems tends to be Jeffersonian. He does not believe in clamping tight restrictions or prohibitions on campaign spending by PACs or anyone else. Rather, he suggests, what is needed is more money from more sources. Two hundred years ago, in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth. . . .” Or, as Sabato puts it for the late 20th century: “By encouraging competing interests to flourish, the resources of any single special interest become less significant.”

There is comforting reassurance in the Sabato conclusion that, despite consultant wizardry in the electronic realm, “no foolproof magic can transform a sow’s ear into a silk purse.” There is also a disturbing chill in the thought that “political consultants and the new campaign technology may well be producing a whole generation of officeholders far more skilled in the art of running for office than in the art of governing.”

On the whole, the message from Sabato’s inquiries into the brave new political world of consultancies is upbeat: “No one has the foggiest notion of what percentage of the vote a consultant or a piece of new campaign technology can or does add to a candidate in a given set of circumstances. Campaign observers rarely ever have a precise idea of what event or series of events produced the election result. Campaigning remains a complex, unpredictable and very unscientific process, and one may expect and be grateful that it always will be.”

To this, there may be added a footnote from the author’s interviews with leading consultants: “We are still artists, trying to develop a dramatic way of capturing the attention and then inspiring resolve,” one of the best suggested. “The new technology is in its infant stage for those who practice the media arts. What we learn is what doesn’t work, by trial and error. . . . We really don’t know a great deal. If we knew more we would be dangerous.”


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