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.