THIS IS THE STORY of three drop-outs who changed the world’s politics. They didn’t mean to do it. One had hoped to be an actor; one dreamed of playing American football; the third was a disenchanted spy. They stumbled into the election business because it paid well, because it seemed meaningful, because it was more fun than real work. They had a knack for television, the new medium of politics. They had an ability to read the public mind. They recruited a handful of other canny men, each with insuperable egos and the gift of the gab. And together they built a short-lived but influential little company that sold American politics to the world.
The firm was called the Sawyer Miller Group. The people who worked there were not politicians, even less political thinkers. They were political consultants, the campaign trail’s crossbreed of roadies and impresarios. Starting out in the early 1970s, they cut ads and they wrote speeches, they polled voters and they devised strategies, they planted yard signs and drove candidates around. They learned their low-brow science running election campaigns for presidents, senators, governors, and mayors. They then sold the lessons of America’s television spots and battleground states around the world: the men from the Sawyer Miller Group helped Cory Aquino to lead the People Power revolution in the Philippines and advised democrats in Chile on the removal of General Pinochet; they led their clients to victory in Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador, as well as to defeat in Greece and Peru; they worked pro bono for Tibet’s Dalai Lama, and they got paid in sweaty bundles of hundred-dollar bills in Nigeria.
In its prime, Sawyer Miller worked in dozens of countries around the world, touching the lives of more than a billion people. Their headquarters was a discreet little office on East Sixtieth Street in Midtown Manhattan. Next door was the famed Copacabana nightclub, a frisky place that was packed every Friday and Saturday night and described in song by Barry Manilow as the “hottest spot north of Havana.” Up on the top floor of Sawyer Miller’s building, the great entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., had his apartment. And halfway in between, David H. Sawyer rented a floor of the neoclassical office block. He furnished it with matte black desks, wide leather sofas, and vogueish deep purple walls. He built a bank of TV screens into the wall of his office and a wet bar from which he offered candidates advice and a scotch and soda. Against the prime-time glow of the Reagan presidency, Sawyer Miller became a discreet political powerhouse.
The forty or so people in the firm set out to sway elections across Latin America, Africa, Europe, and Asia, working on every continent, they used to boast, where the people outnumbered the penguins. “At its best, Sawyer Miller sat around the conference table and walked around the world and talked about our clients and it was like the National Security Council,” remembers David Morey, who worked there for a couple of years in the mid-1980s and then spent a decade trying to get Kim Dae-Jung elected in South Korea. “In fact, we were more armed with facts. Probably more accurate intelligence than most of the agencies. It was that well penetrated. There was so much talent. You could have run the country out of that conference room.”
The firm was never short of such boosterish self-confidence. Still, there’s more than an echo of the truth in there: in its day, Sawyer Miller had a bigger global reach than McDonald’s.
They all started out as idealists. They wanted to do good and make money. They were generally antiestablishment and anti-intellectual. They were smart, entertaining, and, most of all, passionate. They believed that politics and politicians could make a difference. They believed that democracy—in particular, the new “electronic democracy” made possible by televisions, telephones, and computers—challenged elites and empowered common people.
For all that, they ended up with a decidedly mixed record. On the one hand, their clients included five Nobel Peace Prize winners—the Dalai Lama, Shimon Peres, Kim Dae-Jung, Oscar Arias, and Lech Walesa. On the other, the firm was also named by a Washington think tank as part of the “Torturers’ Lobby,” blamed for working on behalf of governments, such as Colombia’s, that had ugly records of human rights abuses. In the United States, Sawyer Miller worked almost exclusively for Democrats; internationally, they were more promiscuous. They worked on the left and the right, and sometimes both. In the 1970s, they worked against and then for Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela. They worked for and then against Manuel Noriega in Panama. In the early 1990s, they helped campaign to get Václav Havel elected in the Czech Republic; they advised Lech Walesa in Poland.
Very often, they lost. Sawyer Miller’s clients lost every time they ran for the U.S. presidency. They lost congressional races from North Carolina to Florida, Illinois to Utah. They lost in Argentina, they lost time and again in Israel, and they lost most spectacularly in Peru. When Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, invited the firm to come down to Lima to help his presidential campaign in 1990, he looked like a shoo-in: more than half the people of Peru were preparing to vote for him, while his rivals languished in single digits in the polls. Still, he lost—brought down by colossal misjudgments, allegations of racism, high-pitched shouting matches, feuds within a family-run campaign, and an embarrassing episode with an incontinent monkey. It was a humbling defeat. But, as they say in the industry, there are only two kinds of political consultants: those who never lose and those who cannot lie.
Sawyer Miller was in the vanguard of innovation, when television gave birth to the modern era of politics. Many people then feared an Orwellian future, a world of electronic political propaganda in which Big Brother controlled public thought. Others hoped that TV would create a new kind of dialogue, bringing substantive debate into the living room, pulling politicians down from their pedestals, and cutting out the rotten corruption of the party machine. Neither of those things happened. Instead, the men at the Sawyer Miller Group and a whole new breed of political professionals realized that the power of television was more profound, but less ennobling: they grasped the supremacy of image. They told their clients to “go negative”; they peddled “spin”; they placed their faith in continuous polling; they championed the permanent campaign; they put greater emphasis on character than on policy; they sliced and diced the electorate into myriad little targeted constituencies. They did all this because it worked.
Their intention was to engage voters. The irony is that they helped
to usher in a political culture that has turned ordinary people away in droves. More than a third of voters seem to have deserted the ballot box for good. There is more to this, of course, than slippery PR: access to information has eroded the authority of government and loosened the hold of the political party; ideological differences have narrowed, prosperity has increased, the isms of the twentieth century have been superseded by pragmatism, and politics, thankfully, does not shape and twist human lives as it did a generation or two ago. The education system and the media have failed to nurture civic involvement; the power of the nation-state has, increasingly, seemed dwarfed by the multinational corporation, the electronically empowered individual, the asymmetry of modern warfare. Still, the backdrop to the Sawyer Miller story is the disenchantment with democracy. The march of freedom in the past thirty years has brought hundreds of millions of people to polling stations for the first time, but disillusionment with politics has driven nearly as many away. Spin reinforced a vicious circle of suspicion in politics, while a calculating politician, a cynical media, and a distrusting public reinforced one another to hollow out the national conversation.
The men from Sawyer Miller were not the only ones to fashion a new style of politics. And they were not the only, or even the first, American professionals to whisper in the ears of the world’s presidents and politicians. They were the servants of change as much as they were the agents of it. The world’s politics has been governed by the defining forces of our times: the triumph of capitalism’s argument with communism; the transforming power of technology; the spread of democracy. But Sawyer Miller understood quicker than most that the information revolution lay at the root of all three. They harnessed the power of television. They learned to apply the wisdom of psychology and the verve of advertising to winning elections. They seized upon the opportunity of taking the American campaign ethic overseas and became the progenitors of a discreet
international industry in American political know-how. At the same time, even as they pioneered the Americanization of world politics, they were pulled back home by the politicization of U.S. business. They found that what they had learned in New Hampshire and Iowa, Venezuela and
Israel—that to communicate was not just to “inform,” but to “relate”—
applied just as much to Apple and Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs and Continental Airlines.
Together, David Sawyer and Scott Miller did for international political consultancy what Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice did for the world of musicals. They did not invent the art form, but they helped forge a massive modern industry.
They proved that, language, history, and national pride notwithstanding, the ballot box is as susceptible to the forces of globalization as the box office. Since Sawyer Miller, “political communications” has become an international business. American advisers have been behind the scenes when a dancing Boris Yeltsin ran for office in Russia, when a modernizing Tony Blair remade the Labour Party in Britain, and when Silvio Berlusconi swept to power promising a “Contract with the Italian People” (drafted by the same pollster who helped draw up Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” a few years earlier). One of the more subtle expressions of the Pax Americana has been the triumph of U.S.-style politics and the ubiquity of American political consultants.
Mark McKinnon was one of several Sawyer Miller men who went on to help get a man elected to the White House. A hip Texan who used to show up for work in Washington, D.C., dressed like a country-western singer minus the hat, McKinnon ran the advertising campaigns for George W. Bush in 2000 and again in 2004. In the run-up to the 2008 election, he worked for John McCain. During his time at Sawyer Miller, he advised candidates and parties in Ecuador, Colombia, and Nigeria. “There is a parochial notion that elections are different everywhere. They are not. They are the same everywhere,” McKinnon says. “The things that drive elections are the same in Nebraska as they are in Ghana.”
Politics in country after country has become as similar as Starbucks—and about as surprising. The assumption underpinning the international consultancy business is that the same principles apply everywhere, that a foreign country is just like another swing state, just like Ohio. Elections are carnivals. Message discipline has supplanted ideological debate. Parties have been in long decline, with personalities taking their place. Politics is estranged from policy-making. The battle is ever more for hearts, not minds: America’s winning and irresistible formula has been to re-
package an intellectual argument inside an emotional appeal. We are all fans of The West Wing now.
The world increasingly speaks in the same terms. London sounds more than ever like Washington: John Major tells the BBC he does not want to play “Monday-morning quarterback”; The Daily Telegraph has a front-page story on the Conservative Party courting the “religious right”; Labour heckles the new Tory leader David Cameron for being a “flip-flopper,” an echo of the Republican attack on John Kerry in 2004. For the rest of the world, the U.S. presidential election is not just a spectacle. It is a preview.
The Sawyer Miller Group accounts for just one twisted strand in the curiously underreported story of the globalization of politics. The office on East Sixtieth Street was a chaotic and sometimes farcical place: the company travel agent generally had a better idea of where the partners were going and what they were doing than David Sawyer. But the firm made an enduring difference. It epitomized how U.S. politics has become a global business. Its experience helps makes sense of the political world we live in now—and the new one we are on the threshold of entering. This book is the story of the life and times of the Sawyer Miller Group. At its most banal, it is the biography of a soon-forgotten PR company; in its more ambitious moments, it is an archaeology of the present, an investigation into the crime scene that is modern political culture, a short and selectively edited history of how political spin became a global business—all told through one New York office drama.
Like many political stories, it did not end well. Not for its founders, at least. Not, you might say, for any of us.
ALTHOUGH I didn’t know it at the time, I started writing this book on a humid summer morning in Troy, Ohio, the kind of deliberately retro town where you wouldn’t be surprised to bump into Jimmy Stewart walking down the street. That morning, thousands of people had thronged into the town square to cheer George W. Bush. The president was setting off on that modern political pilgrimage, the whistlestop bus tour through Middle America. I was standing on the sidelines, deeply involved in the groaning buffet of barbecue and fried chicken that gets laid on for the White House press corps at every stop, because I was covering the 2004 U.S. presidential election.
Quite unusually, Karl Rove wandered over. Rove was, at this point, a man of mythical proportions. He was the singular commander of the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign. He was the most intriguing man in American politics, the master of modern micro-politics, and the man entrusted with making the big strategic decisions. Bush called him his “Boy Genius,” “Turd Blossom,” and his “architect.”
As the president headed over to the podium to give his standard stump speech, we hacks descended upon Rove. He was peppered with questions—about the state of the race, the state of Ohio, the state of John Kerry’s campaign . . . the usual. After about half an hour, people started to peel away to jot down notes or listen to Bush. Soon there were only a handful of us standing around Rove, and the gaps between the questions and answers grew longer. The journalists, addled by too many consecutive predawn starts or simply too unimaginative, seemed to have run dry of things to ask the closeted mastermind of the Bush campaign.
After another pause, a Japanese journalist pointed to Rove’s canvas shoulder case bulging with papers and manila folders and asked him, half question, half small talk, “What’s in the bag?”
“Secret shit,” Rove said, letting out a laugh and putting a hand protectively on the case.
“The codes,” he went on, making his own silly mockery of the Myth of Rove. “I have the codes . . . name any city you want.” He chortled and I, being well brought up and English, politely chortled back at this joke about nuclear Armageddon.
Then Bush was done; Rove hurried back to the president’s bus to head to the next town hall meeting. The press scrambled to get on the buses that follow in convoy. Sitting on the coach as it rolled through the small towns of western Ohio; the fields of corn, potatoes, and soybeans; the streets of the small towns lined with people cheering the presidential motorcade or brandishing their own homemade Kerry banners, you couldn’t help wondering: What is in that bag? If you like, this whole book is an attempt to find out what was in that bag.
The Bush-Kerry race, much like the Bush-Gore contest in 2000, was not about a fundamental ideological choice. It was not a watershed in public opinion. It was about personality, perception, and organization. In the noisy blur of the election year, at least one thing was clear: the campaigns mattered. The Swift Boat ads, the evangelical vote, the online fund-raising and the get-out-the-vote operation all really counted. The election seemed to exemplify the primacy of tactics, the special place of a master tactician like Karl Rove, the sense that real power lies today in the hands of the political consultant, the modern Machiavelli. That intriguing, disheartening realization lies at the heart of this book: it is about politics in a tactical age, not an ideological one. It is also about how technology can transform politics. The Sawyer Miller Group flourished thanks to television, a new medium that a generation ago had an impact that was as profound as it was unpredictable. Today, the Internet is just beginning to have an impact on elections and the exercise of power, promising to rewrite the rules of the political game in ways that are, if anything, more sweeping and less certain. Part of the fascination in going back to the original innovators of modern political communication has been trying to come to grips with the election business on the brink of another information revolution. After two perplexing elections in America, and before the frenzied caravan starts barreling across the United States once again, the antics of the people at Sawyer Miller can help explain how the modern election machine works.
Television has simplified politics. It has done the same for history. We are seduced by the neat historical narrative, the idea that history is made by great men: the lone statesman in a political wilderness, the solitary inventor in the laboratory, the courageous soldier willing to confront the military establishment. The fact is, though, history is generally a team effort. It is not a soliloquy; it is a chorus line. And nowhere is this truer than in politics, a field that needs committees of people to agree to a new picture on a postage stamp and a congressional hearing to ascertain that American sportsmen take steroids. The “swarm theory” of history applies here: the idea that groups of people, not one or two individuals, change the course of our lives and the culture in which we live. The story of Sawyer Miller is much more than the story of the two men whose names were on the door.
But they were not all men at Sawyer Miller. There was one woman. Mandy Grunwald came straight out of Harvard and joined the firm in the late 1970s. When it came to putting together a political ad, she could make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. She was also difficult, abrasive, and rude. Seen as one of the guys, she was the kind of woman with a booming laugh and a sewer mouth who liked a bloody steak and a strong martini. She started as an intern, and after working on more than a hundred campaigns, she left New York a dozen years later to work in Little Rock for a no-hope presidential candidate named Bill Clinton.
Sawyer Miller was a place that relished its machismo; where people worked through the night on takeout, coffee, and cigarettes; where men found their wives—and lost their wives—in office romances and chance encounters on international flights; where every new candidate meant a gladiatorial battle that would ultimately end in victory or defeat. It hummed to the electronic pulse of television and thrilled at its own proximity to power. In 1986, Sidney Lumet made a movie about a successful political consultant that was based on the character of David Sawyer and played by Richard Gere. The film was called Power. (The catchline read: “More seductive than sex . . . More addictive than any drug . . . More precious than gold. And one man can get it for you.”)
“It was,” in the words of Mark McKinnon, “a damn mean business. All alpha dogs.”
It was the same phrase Ned Kennan used when he described the firm to me a few months later. Kennan had been a pivotal figure in Sawyer Miller, the pioneering pollster who had delved deeply into the public mind and provided the voter research that dictated the political message. When I spoke with him he had long retired from Sawyer Miller and moved out of New York City to live in the New England countryside. He was exploring Buddhism. Over a burger in Taylor’s, a dank downstairs bar in the faded town of Greenfield, Massachusetts, Kennan looked back at Sawyer Miller and the “alpha dogs.” He explained: “The alpha dog is the one who calls the shots. It comes from watching dogs. There’s always a dog in the pack who controls things.” It’s a curious boast, but several other of Sawyer Miller’s alumni have used the same term to describe their breed. “Alpha dogs” makes them sound like a crack troop of guerrilla forces who parachute behind enemy lines, sleep rough, and live off woodland berries, which is ironic for a bunch of guys who used to fly business class and write memos by the hotel pool. It is also a name that is ambivalent, hinting at both the brilliant and the dastardly, the inspiring and the manipulative. It is a name that fits.
Excerpted from Alpha Dogs by James Harding. Copyright © 2008 by James Harding. Published in May 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.