Embracing the myth of the campaign wizard, again

The Jim Messina profile industry is part of a long tradition

Maybe it began with the lionization in the press of the Irish Mafia that helped elect John Kennedy in 1960. Or maybe it dates all the way back to reporters’ fascination with Franklin Roosevelt’s first campaign manager, Jim Farley, and his technological breakthrough—the Farley file, a collection of note cards that prompted FDR to remember that the wife of the North Dakota party chairman was named Velma.

Whatever its origin, the image of campaign strategists as part eccentric visionary, part Rasputin is an enduring staple of presidential coverage. Twenty-four years ago this month, U.S. News & World Report profiled Lee Atwater under the headline, “The bad ol’ boy behind George Bush.” The newsmagazine portrait by Kenneth T. Walsh hit all the standard chords, playing up Atwater’s hard-rock persona (“The young strategist revels in his reputation as an anti-Establishment hell raiser”) and his rock-throwing politics (“He has made a specialty of negative campaigning…even choosing the topic as the centerpiece of his doctoral dissertation”).

This memory-lane stroll through Nexis was prompted by Joshua Green’s recent cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek on Atwater’s 2012 counterpart: “Obama’s CEO: Jim Messina Has a President to Sell.” Green’s profile is built around intriguing vignettes of Messina worshipfully consulting oracles from Democrat-friendly sectors of the high-tech world. The article relays how Messina beseeched Google’s Eric Schmidt for advice on the business of politics and enlisted Silicon Valley insights to determine the layout of campaign headquarters; it also portrays—alas, with scant skepticism—the way that Messina was “dazzled” by Vogue editor Anna Wintour and her spreadsheet showing how much money might be made from an Obama-themed designer clothing line.

While the details are very au courant, Businessweek’s portrait of Messina embodies many of the time-honored verities of strategist profiles. There is, for example, the requisite glimpse of campaign manager’s divided soul: “Messina is unusual in Washington, at once a hard-bitten political fixer known for handling unpleasant tasks…and also earnestly devoted to self-improvement.” The news peg is often the operative’s passionate belief that this time politics is about to make a quantum leap, so all prior campaigns are ancient history. (The Businessweek cover chronicles Messina’s obsession with social media and metrics to monitor it). And there is always the embarrassing do-anything-to-win incident from the campaign manager’s past: in 2002, as Green reports, Messina produced a homophobic attack ad in a Montana Senate race.

(Full disclosure: Josh Green is a friend with whom I have shared convivial expense-account dinners on the campaign trail. And, yes, I know these disclaimers interrupt the flow of the article. But, hey, this is CJR).

Other Messina profiles have hit similar themes, if occasionally coming to different conclusions. When Messina left the White House—where he was deputy to chief of staff Rahm Emanuel—to head the Obama reelection drive, a 2011 sketch by The New York Times’s Jeff Zeleny noted his “short temper” and described him as sharing “with Mr. Emanuel a penchant for salty language.” And writing about Messina for Mother Jones this month, David Corn captured liberal doubts about the president’s campaign manager: “To some, Messina may symbolize all that is conventional about the Obama presidency.” Referring to Messina’s time in the White House, Corn also writes, “He became known as being as hardcore as his boss Rahm Emanuel if not as profane or flamboyant.” (If only social media metrics could help us calibrate just how salty Messina’s language is, and whether the Times or Mother Jones is right about it.)

These kind of profiles—and I have written a few over the years—are an enduring and often useful part of campaign coverage. But they are also part of a genre that makes it easy for even experienced political reporters to lapse into clichés.

Politics is always changing in these profiles. Matt Bai, in an April 2004 New York Times Magazine article, rhapsodized about the breakthrough organizational genius of White House svengali Karl Rove and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman: “Up close, what Bush is assembling on the local level looks less like a political campaign than what is known in business as a multilevel marketing scheme.” But somehow, campaigns remain more or less the same (that is, dominated by TV attack ads) and so ready to be re-invented by another genius in the next election cycle.

In this cycle, there have been fewer feature articles about Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades—which is to say, Rhoades plays the old-fashioned role of an aide with a passion for anonymity. As Jason Horowitz wrote in a November 2011 Washington Post profile, “Years operating off the radar have given Rhoades a reputation as one of the Republican Party’s most shadowy tacticians.”

But that, of course, does not prevent Rhoades from providing a classic, Atwater-esque illustration of coiled anger. According to Horowitz, Rhoades became so enraged during the 2004 Bush reelection campaign that he smashed a computer screen because the news on it displeased him. A March profile of Rhoades in BuzzFeed by McKay Coppins repeated (with credit to the Post) the irresistible computer-screen anecdote.

The BuzzFeed piece ends with a quote that could apply to any campaign chieftain since the days when political reporters wearing fedoras handed their copy to Western Union couriers during brief stops on whistle-stop train tours. According to campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, Rhoades is “relentless…he never takes a day off, and he gets by on barely no sleep. He’s a real-life version of the Terminator.”

If you push past the clichés and the credulous this-time-is-different hype, these profiles can hold some value, especially for the politics junkies who are the intended audience. It is fascinating to know, as Green reports, that Messina claims that he is putting more faith in high-tech titans than traditional politics. What is impossible to know, though, is whether Messina is spinning the message that technology will substitute for the lost enthusiasm of 2008, or whether he truly believes it.

Still, I sometimes wonder whether political journalism went a bit awry when campaign managers, admakers and strategists began to take center stage in the presidential drama. Maybe I have read too many breathless sentences like, “James Carville was nervous.” As Carville would be the first to admit, it’s the candidate, stupid.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.