The Middlebrow

Dark Artists

How the political operative—not the politician—became the hero of modern American campaigns.

Steve Schmidt.
Steve Schmidt, senior adviser to Republican presidential nominee John McCain, on the 2008 campaign trail

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

If Mitt Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, the man behind the Etch A Sketch gaffe, is having a dark night of the soul, he ought to call Steve Schmidt. Schmidt was John McCain’s senior strategist—aka the man who OK’d Sarah Palin and presided over a seven-point shellacking. Yet in the HBO movie Game Change, Schmidt came off looking … pretty good. Shambling and put-upon, sure, but also a loyal soldier for a lost cause.

Or Fehrnstrom might call James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. The release of the 1993 documentary The War Room on a Criterion Collection Blu Ray reminds you of Bill Clinton’s masterminds at their scheming best. They’re planting negative stories (Poppy Bush printed campaign signs in Brazil!), swatting down sex rumors, crowing, “We changed the way campaigns are run.”

In the wake of a gaffe, political operatives are the media’s buffoons. They seem as sad their inevitable nicknames: Turd Blossom, Sergeant Schmidt, Schlumpy. But when the history of the campaign is laid down, this comic portrait gets erased like an Etch A Sketch. In the hands of a political reporter or filmmaker, the political operative becomes something else entirely. He becomes a romantic—sometimes tragic—hero.

A political operative’s story is told in three acts. Act 1: The operative meets the candidate. “He had the gait of a man used to being obeyed, admired, courted, and loved,” George Stephanopoulos wrote of his first encounter with Bill Clinton. A pact is made, one that flatters both candidate and op. “It was how I felt around him: uniquely known and needed, as if my contribution might make all the difference,” Stephanopoulos wrote.

Act 1 is a time of innocence, before the inevitable mistress/reverend/campaign finance scandal. Vacations—even a second child, in the case of Obama op David Plouffe—are set aside on account of the campaign. “Of course, political consultants are motivated by money and power and sex and all that,” says Paul Begala, who worked for Clinton in 1992. “But more than most people, they have a need to believe in a cause larger than themselves.”

Belief turns out to be the operative’s undoing. For in Act 2 of his story—in the cornfields of Iowa or among the snowdrifts of Manchester—the scales fall from his eyes. He might be turned off by Bill Clinton’s rubbery soul, Al Gore’s elusive soul, George W. Bush’s lack of depth, John McCain’s monster ego. The operative asks—to steal a thought from McCain man Terry Nelson, in Game ChangeDoes [Clinton/Obama/McCain] really want to be president?

Act 3 depends on whether an op’s candidate wins or loses. If he wins, the operative always cries. James Carville breaks down at the end of The War Room. Axelrod and Robert Gibbs teared up during Obama’s 2008 convention valedictory in Denver. As the authors of Game Change write perceptively, “the magnitude of what they had accomplished sank in.”

If the candidate loses, there are two possibilities. The operative is cast as a loyalist—think of Clintonite Maggie Williams, who tightened up Hillary’s sputtering campaign. Or else the op is a reluctant mutineer—as when John Edwards’ team plotted to reveal his affair to save the party, or when McCain aide Nicolle Wallace, according to the Game Change movie, refused to vote.

How do the dark artists become heroes? First, political operatives seem to inhabit the same plane as the rest of us. Barack Obama is superhuman; David Axelrod is a guy you meet at a deli. Lately, the growing gallery on cable news keeps operatives in front of the public. So does Twitter. Bill Burton, who works at Obama’s super-PAC, tweets like he’s auditioning to write for Jon Stewart. From February: “Newt Gingrich promises gas at $2.50 and coke at a nickel.” What a scamp!

A political operative is heroic because we see him through the lens of work. He is a drudge serving at the whim of a temperamental, messianic boss. “Obama wasn’t happy,” reads a typical line in Game Change. Later: “… [Obama] still wasn’t happy …” And: “[Obama] began by letting his people know he wasn’t entirely happy.” Obama wasn’t alone in his unhappiness. “McCain wasn’t happy about any of this.” “Hillary was not a happy woman in the summer of 2008.” These books are the revenge of put-upon servants, The Candidate Wears Prada.

Of course, if the operative seems heroic, it may be because he’s the one telling the story. “The operative should not be part of the story,” says Mark McKinnon, who worked on two campaigns for George W. Bush, “but I suppose it’s a manifestation of modern media and culture that they become characters in the drama.” Indeed, it is the operatives, in almost every case, who are feeding writers like John Heilemann and Mark Halperin the inside dope. It is from operatives that we learn McCain’s less-than-stirring rallying cry: “Let’s do it … I guess.” We learn that Barack Obama pissed off Michelle when she learned from the media he was attending a campaign event. We learn of Palin’s eerily composed response to her newfound celebrity: “It’s God’s plan.”

“Who knows a professional athlete better than the trainer or the caddie?” says John Weaver, a former McCain adviser. Or as Paul Begala puts it, “It’s a form of intimacy. In a sense, these guys and gals are letting you into their family. The Clintons were very much that way. … Hillary would come down in sweat pants and say, ‘OK, boys, what are we doing today?’ ” However strategically these morsels are doled out, it beats a portrait of the candidate composed of debate clips and sound bites.

There’s a final thing that makes a political operative heroic. He is the stand-in for the voters. When Stephanopoulos gazes upon Bubba for the first time, he’s giving him the skeptical once-over Democratic voters did later. Ditto Sgt. Schmidt, whose jaws drops when he learns Palin doesn’t know the difference between North and South Korea. Bush operative Ken Mehlman’s apology for using gay marriage as a wedge issue in the 2004 campaign is a classic voter’s reaction: buyer’s remorse. (Even more classic: Bush strategist Matthew Dowd broke with his boss W. over the Iraq War and said he was thinking about doing missionary work. He wound up at ABC.)

Yes, political operatives are spinning us. But part of their heroic narrative is that they are being spun themselves. It’s ironic that, before his gaffe, Eric Fehrnstrom had for 10 years been “the defiant defender of Mr. Romney when he has been accused of being a flip-flopper or having no core principles,” according to the Times. Somewhere, on a redeye over Wisconsin, I suspect Fehrnstrom really does worry his boss is like an Etch A Sketch. The political operative is the first to notice a candidate’s flaws and the first to get over them.