One fine almost-spring day in early March of this year, a clutch of reporters gathered outside a townhouse on Lafayette Square, just across the street from the White House. They were there for one of those events in a presidential campaign that is, in retrospect, of no importance, but seems absolutely crucial at the time. Inside the townhouse was Gerald Ford, who had come to Washington to meet with the men who would help him decide whether or not to enter the race.

One by one the men arrived, smiling and waving to the reporters, showing their credentials to the Secret Service agents at the door, not saying anything. Their names, for the record, were John Marsh, Robert Teeter, Stuart Spencer, Richard Cheney, Thomas Reed, Douglas Bailey, and John Deardourff—not household words. In fact, here was a man, Ford, who had been an elected official in the Republican Party from 1946 to 1977 and a loyal party man for all that time, deciding whether to seek his party’s nomination by gathering around him a group that included only two people who had ever run for office (Marsh, formerly a fairly obscure congressman from Virginia, and Cheney, a first-term congressman from Wyoming).

The other members of the group were not political leaders. They controlled no votes and headed no constituencies. Most of them—Teeter, Spencer, Bailey, and Deardourff—were political consultants. They made their living by hiring themselves out to Republican campaigns. They were completely uninvolved in the processes of government. But they knew, presumably, how to persuade large numbers of people to vote for a political candidate, and thus were better able than anyone else in American politics—including all elected officials and heads of party organizations—to deliver votes. Ford was certainly better off talking to them than to anyone else who could be called a political boss, if indeed there is anybody left who can be called that.

By comparison, just 12 years ago Hubert Humphrey, a figure of eminence similar to Ford’s, had joined the presidential race even later than Ford and won the nomination easily. “Humphrey had entered no primaries,” Theodore H. White wrote at the time, “…but the AFL-CIO structures had delivered to him almost all of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, and Ohio; Democratic governors and mayors, who had found Humphrey the man in the Johnson administration most sensitive to their problems, could deliver hundreds more delegates from New Jersey to Washington.”

By 1980, winning the nomination that way was out of the question. Not only that, all the people Humphrey called on were nearly useless to a presidential candidate. In 1976 Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination without any organized support, but when Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago endorsed him after it was clear he would be nominated, it was seen as official confirmation that Carter had it locked up. Four years later, Daley was dead and the mayor of Chicago, Jane Byrne, endorsed Edward Kennedy, who then lost the Illinois primary to Carter. Conversely, Mayor Edward Koch of New York endorsed Carter, who then lost the New York primary to Kennedy.

The way to win now is to go directly to the voters; and the people who understand how to do that are political consultants. They are the new bosses.

Political consultants make up a fairly small industry, consisting of perhaps a thousand people across the country, most of them upper-middle-class and well-educated. They come from all over but live, to a greater extent than the generation of bosses that preceded them, in a circumscribed world. They know each other. They gossip together, fight, get married, get divorced, compare notes on airport Holiday Inns, and seem oddly self-sufficient and disconnected from the real world that they end up changing.

They perform a wide variety of functions—mailing, filmmaking, polling, telephoning, writing, organizing, time-buying, strategizing—but to leave it at that is to mislead a little, because a simple process lies at the heart of their work. Political consultants start by taking public opinion polls to find out what is likely to motivate various groups of voters to pull the lever for their can!iidate. Then, based on the results, they design television advertising to appeal to the mass of voters; and for more specific appeals, they “target” segments of the market and reach them with specially designed pitches, often through the mail or by telephone. The whole mechanism is centered around the direct appeal to voters. Targeting, especially, has an effect exactly opposite to the old party system. Instead of bringing disparate people together by emphasizing their similarities, it breaks them apart and goes after them on the basis of their differences.

Political consultants are self-confident people who believe that through the techniques of research, targeting, and contact, they can persuade virtually anyone to do virtually anything. They see themselves as understanding better than anyone else the true rhythms and forces of our age. Sixty years ago, Sherwood Anderson, describing the boom days of the Ohio Valley in the late 19th century, wrote, “The youth and optimistic spirit of the country led it to take hold of the hand of the giant, industrialism, and lead him laughing into the land.” The leaders of the political consulting business believe that industrialism is dead, and that the new giant that controls the nation is communications.

Let Me Restructure You

In harnessing the giant, it is considered more important to understand what the voters want than what the candidates are like, with the caveat that a presidential candidate cannot be successfully presented as something markedly different from what he really is. One of the elder statesmen of political consulting, Tony Schwartz, articulated the basic theory of the business better than anyone else in a book called The Responsive Chord. Schwartz (an eccentric man who lives a hermetic existence in a home and office in Hell’s Kitchen in New York, surrounded by tapes, yelling at his secretary who retaliates by yelling at her poodle) argues that the point of political advertising is not to sell a candidate to voters but to appeal to feelings the voters already have, making them think the candidate fits those feelings. “I’m attaching to what’s inside people,” he says, “bringing it out, and restructuring it. I’m trying to connect candidates to your feelings.”

On that theory, for instance, a New York adman named David Sawyer who was brought into the Kennedy presidential campaign this year in midstream realized that the voters had minimal fondness for Kennedy to which ads could attach. So he scrapped a campaign emphasizing Kennedy’s positive aspects and started a successful new series of ads aimed at rapping President Carter. “We found what worked is if you don’t say necessarily it was a positive vote for Kennedy,” Sawyer said later. “He himself is not perceived as a leader capable of leading the American people. They wanted to say, ‘Who’s most qualified to lead?’ For Christ’s sake, don’t raise the question that way. Your research tells you that you’re constantly shifting to your weakest, weakest attribute.”

In the John Anderson campaign, two direct mail consultants, Roger Craven and Tom Matthews (who also did a mailing for Kennedy that flopped) ran a successful fundraising campaign through the mails by attaching to affluent voters’ feelings of personal alienation, in a way that managed to flatter them at the same time:

“You may be a well-informed, intelligent, courageous, fair-minded citizen, but you don’t count.

“The reason they think you don’t count is simple. They believe that presidential candidates are selected by fools, by citizens who believe lies, evasions, half-truths, and soft soap.”

An Eagle in the Bush

George Bush hired a hot Republican adman from Baltimore named Robert Goodman, who decided that the responsive chord in the electorate was a desire for a glorious leader, so that was what he tried to make Bush into. He explained that he had decided that “I would reach into the heroism I felt in George. That became the word for me, heroism. I dubbed him the American eagle.”

Goodman could have been a figure out of the nightmares of a member of the League of Women Voters or Common Cause. He is an unabashed and irrepressible master of the extremest techniques of political image-mongering. He got an English-bred New Yorker named Malcolm Wallop elected to the Senate from Wyoming via a series of ads showing cowboys saddling up and galloping across the range as an announcer said, “Ride with us, Wyoming.” He had filmed Senator Harrison Schmitt, a former astronaut, walking around in a Western shirt as a voice-over told the voters of New Mexico, “He walks among the people… he speaks… he listens.” He had put Senator Rudy Boschwitz in a plaid shirt in a Minnesota country store, looking up from chatting with the storekeeper and saying to the audience, “People like Arnie here need a friend in Washington. I really wanna be that friend.”

For Bush, Goodman designed a jazzy series of ads that tried to capitalize on his man’s experience while at the same time creating a somewhat forced air of excitement around him. In one ad (for which Goodman even hired actors to pose as Secret Service men to make Bush appear to be more of a big deal), as the crowds swirled around him and the music swelled in the background, Bush said he would move America “into a position of strength. We’re gonna be strong, we’re gonna lead, and we’re gonna win!”

After the election, the political consultants will by and large go about other business, since government is not their concern. The political reporters who covered the campaign and who also playa major part in determining who is elected will direct their attention to important state races, party mini-conventions, and mayors’ and governors’ conferences; government doesn’t interest them either. The programs and policies of the federal government will be run by people who have been almost entirely unconnected to the democratic exercise of the campaign. The resulting effect on government will be severe, as Jimmy Carter’s first term shows well.

Carter took office without, as he liked to point out, owing anything to anybody. Nobody owed anything to him either. Having gone directly to the people to get elected, he has continued to go directly to the people when he is in trouble, through the old campaign technique of public opinion polling followed by appearances on television (which are now free, of course). If Ronald Reagan beats Carter, it’s likely that he would behave similarly. Reagan hasn’t had a razzle-dazzle ad campaign this year, but to draw the conclusion from that that he doesn’t understand modern politics would be dead wrong. His entire career lies outside the realm of the party system; his rise has been through the mechanisms of television and celebrityhood and the direct appeal to voters. If Reagan is like Carter, he will have a great deal of trouble using the traditional mechanisms of politics that presidents once used to govern as well as to get elected-the members of Congress from his own party, the governors, the mayors, and the major interest groups. He will be hamstrung by single-issue groups.

He won’t have a coalition—or, to put it more pointedly, he won’t have a party in the traditional sense because the parties have died and been replaced by political consultants.

That’s too bad. A working political party is a way of getting a majority of people to agree to make a common cause, to work out overall goals that transcend their many specific interests. Old-fashioned politics makes it possible to govern, but old-fashioned politics requires an elaborate series of deals made, jobs given, and coalitions formed that have become unnecessary with the rise to pre-eminence of television advertising in politics. It’s often said that the main impact of advertising on politics has been in the increasing emphasis on candidates’ images rather than the “real issues,” but that’s not strictly the case. Americans have elected presidents on the basis of image since the days of Andrew Jackson. The real change has been not in the content of politics but in its form. The consultants, through their direct appeal to targeted market segments, have eliminated the middleman—the party.

The background for the rise of the consultants was a series of demographic changes occurring mainly in the two decades following World War II. Then, in the ten years after that, some changes in the election and nominating laws and a few influential campaigns brought the communications specialists to their present status.

Most of the old bosses were products of a large, cohesive class of poor or blue-collar people in big cities or rural areas. The city bosses, especially, were based in neighborhoods where they knew everyone. They could go for a walk and see their constituency. Often, they were their constituency. They intimately knew their concerns. After the war, of course, the old neighborhoods lost their cohesiveness as the people in them began to do better financially. The passage of the G.I. Bill and the opening of the first Levittown started a mass migration to the suburbs, a huge increase in the education level of the population, and, ultimately, marked increases in the median family income too. These changes meant, first, that people were now out where their old precinct captains couldn’t reach them; second, that they were more inclined to make up their own minds about who to vote for; and third, that they had less need of the kind of help from their local governments that was the traditional quid pro quo for votes. Not only were Americans on the whole better off financially; those who were needy were increasingly looking to the federal government rather than local officials for munificence. From 1960 to 1976 public social welfare expenditures increased from $52.3 billion to $331.4 billion, making a turkey from the local boss at Christmastime or a low-paying job with the sheriffs office far less alluring than it once had been.

At the same time that these traditional conduits from politicians to voters were cracking, a new conduit was emerging in television. In 1950, nine percent of American households had televisions; in 1960, 87 percent; in 1970, 95 percent. More than anything else, television became the great national shared experience. In 1948, the national political conventions were televised for the first time. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower was the first presidential candidate to hire a television adviser, the actor Robert Montgomery. By 1956, both major candidates were running professionally produced television advertising as part of their campaigns.

Direct mail advertising, which began half a century before with the big mail-order houses, got into big-time politics with the first Eisenhower campaign and was used increasingly through the 50s and 60s to raise money, persuade, and sample opinion. By the late 70s, single-issue groups could generate as many as half-a-million postcards to the White House about a piece of legislation, using direct mail appeals. Polling was also becoming more often used and more sophisticated technically through the 50s and 60s, with Louis Harris’s work for John F. Kennedy in 1960 being the most prominent breakthrough.

In the meantime, television advertising was spreading throughout American politics. Charles Guggenheim, who made Adlai Stevenson’s ads in 1956, produced and directed a half-hour film in 1958 for an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas. In 1962 Guggenheim made a half-hour film for the successful Senate campaign of George McGovern. In 1964 he made a third half-hour film, for Robert Kennedy’s Senate race in New York, and won again. The next year, David Garth entered the business by engineering John V. Lindsay’s television-based New York City mayoral campaign. In 1966 an unknown, anti-machine Democrat, Milton Shapp, came out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination for governor of Pennsylvania, again largely on the strength of a Guggenheim half-hour film, which Shapp himself had never even seen.

Pretty soon, television advertising was killing off established politicians who thought they had safe seats. In 1968 Richard Schweiker used television to upset Senator Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania. The same year, Mike Gravel took away Ernest Gruening’s Alaskan Senate seat by using a Shelby Storke film called “Man From Alaska.” On the weekend during the primary campaign when the film was shown, Gravel went from 30 points behind in the polls to 10 points ahead. In 1970 Governor James Rhodes of Ohio refused to use television advertising in his Senate race, and lost; in 1974 he recaptured the governorship by spending 90 percent of his campaign budget on video. By 1978 even old Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, a member of Congress since 1933 and a man whom none could best at traditional politics, was scared enough to hire David Garth to run a media campaign for him.

Two changes in the rules of politics also helped the consultants rise to power. First, a series of reforms in the party nominating processes following the 1968 election eliminated the ability of bosses to deliver votes at the conventions and made the primaries the controlling factors in winning party nomination. Second, campaign finance laws passed throughout the 70s severely limited the size of contributions, which meant that political money, like votes, would come more through direct appeals to people and less through the support of big shots. At the same time, the laws allowed corporate and labor-union political action committees to act as large-scale conduits of political funds and thus become, in effect, multiple mini-parties. “Corporate people move a lot,” one PAC manager in Washington explains. “Christ, it takes them two years to figure out how to get to work. They don’t get into the community much. They feel they should be doing something, and the corporate PAC is there. Probably they’re involved in that instead of a party.”

It was only natural that the experts in polling and advertising would reap the maximum financial advantage from their new influence by forming independent consulting firms. The first political consulting firm on record was Campaigns, Inc., founded in 1933 by a husband and wife, Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, in California, fertile ground for the business because of its weak party system and heavy suburban popUlation. By 1980, the consulting business had so proliferated that, as one old pro, F. Clifton White, put it, “when a guy wants to run for office, the first thing he does is hire a political consultant.”

The major statewide races pit consultant against consultant, so while the stock of the business stays high the stocks of its members rise and fall as their candidates win and lose. A consultant who is hot can lend instant legitimacy to a campaign, bringing the candidate who has hired him the serious attention of the press and the PACs. The dozen or so leading figures in political consulting, operating mostly out of New York, Washington, and Los Angeles and working mostly for candidates of one party, have helped elect at least half of the senators, governors, and big-city mayors in the country, not to mention the presidents of Venezuela, the Philippines, and France. In short, they have put more important politicians into power than Boss Tweed or Mayor Daley ever dreamed of.

Because the leading consultants have succeeded in doing what the old bosses never could—extending their operations across state and regional lines—they have helped create a national political culture that dominates local politics. To watch campaign ads is to see a country where Biloxi is not much different from Pittsburgh. It is possible to detect some difference between ads in the Northeast, which tend to be argumentative, and ads from the West, which emphasize music and scenery and the candidate’s heroic aspects. And there are differences between the styles of individual consultants. But overriding all that is a consensus that the American people like candidates who are informal, who have seemingly happy marriages and healthy children, who are against crime and corruption and high taxes while remaining deeply concerned about the needy and the elderly (the latter being the group with the highest voter turnout). And who owe nothing to anybody.

Those are the facts, but they don’t fully explain the fall of the old bosses and the rise of the consultants. One reason the changeover has been so complete is that, although television advertising has never been the darling of the intellectuals, every downturn in the parties’ fortunes has been applauded by right-thinking people. The idea that politics is dirty is so widespread that it, as well as demographical and rule changes, has been an important part of the death of the parties. This point is best illustrated through the story of one man, a party loyalist who became a consultant because of the power of an idea. His name is Matt Reese.

Out in the Cold

Matt Reese is a born politician, a man who loves politics and is good at it. After bouncing around in several jobs as a young man, he became passionately involved in John F. Kennedy’s primary campaign in 1960 in his home state, West Virginia, working as a protege to Kennedy’s campaign director there, Bob McDonough. When Kennedy won, Reese had chips to cash in, and he came to Washington to work in the government in 1961. He soon found a place at the Democratic National Committee as director of operations, assigned to register as many Democratic voters as possible; voter registration was a near-obsession of Kennedy’s.

Reese did an excellent job, although his patron did not live to reap the results. In the 1964 campaign, he registered nearly half-a-million new voters across the country, through phone banks and volunteers. His grand ambition was to be the chairman of the One. But he was a well-known Kennedy man-Robert Kennedy was more a hero to him than John Kennedy had been-and President Johnson made it known that he didn’t want a Kennedy man in charge of the DNC. In late 1965, it was clear to Reese that he wasn’t going anywhere in Washington.

In the meantime, his old mentor Bob McDonough had been appointed director of the Department of Natural Resources (essentially the parks department under a fancier name) in West Virginia, and he asked Reese to come back and serve as his deputy. The idea was that the two men would not only run the parks, then growing rapidly because of a torrent of Great Society money flowing into West Virginia, but also establish a political organization in case Robert Kennedy ran for president in 1968. If that happened, it might get them back to Washington, and might get Reese the job he wanted so badly, the directorship of the DNC. So in addition to building parks, McDonough and Reese handled all matters involving Bobby Kennedy in the state and tried to build a network of people loyal to them, to the governor, Hulett Smith, and to Kennedy. All these causes were not at war with each other, because good parks would be good for the political fortunes of Reese and McDonough and Smith and Kennedy as well. Also, for Reese and McDonough, the connection to national politics lent them stature, even glamour. It satisfied the natural human desire to let the rest of the world know you’re alive. It was the little extra ingredient that kept men of their caliber in jobs running state parks.

One day in the summer of 1966 Reese received a visit from a man named Bob Mellace, who was the premier political reporter for the premier Republican newspaper in West Virginia, The Charleston Daily Mail. Mellace handed Reese a piece of paper, a photostat of a page of the parks department’s contracts with concessionaires, which Reese had just reviewed and renewed. In the margin of the page Reese had written a note to McDonough: “Why don’t we look at changing the length of time on these contracts so if bad things happen in November our friends won’t be out in the cold.” After Reese had written the note he had discussed it with McDonough and they had decided not to lengthen the contracts after all; and even when writing the note, Reese had assumed that the friends who got contracts would be friends who also did a good job. But that isn’t the point.

The point is that in that moment with Bob Mellace and the photostat, Matt Reese choked. Mellace asked him if he had written the note. He knew he had, of course. He could have denied it, but that would have been an outright lie, and one he might have gotten caught in. He could have admitted it, but what was clean politics to him would, he knew, look wrong to the public. Even as far as experts like Reese and Mellace were concerned, the temper of the times, then as now—the entire thrust of what Americans learn about what is good and bad about government—was such that it was impossible for an intelligent politician to explain to an intelligent reporter on a moment’s notice what was good about giving state contracts to competent friends over competent enemies. So Reese didn’t want to say yes either.

Instead, he said he didn’t know whether or not he had written the note. That was the worst thing he could have said. First, it wasn’t true. Second, it allowed the story to take on a life of its own as Mellace pieced together more evidence and more waggling statements from Reese. The Daily Mail rode the story hard for six months, and in the end Reese resigned.

He was, for the moment at least, finished as a state executive and so had to turn to the practice of politics, divorced from government. He started a political consulting firm. Today, Matt Reese and Associates is one of the most respected consulting firms in Washington. Reese is a big success. Rather than polling or making advertisements, he has devised a specialty for himself, targeted phone banks. As much as the old Democratic Party tried to bind people together, he now breaks them apart. Using a computerized system called Claritas, he has divided the country into 250,000 “block groups” and classified the groups into 40 categories based on demographics. For a candidate or a cause, he can identify which of the 40 categories is ripest for persuasion, find the block groups, and get them to vote. In other words, for each election he builds a temporary and evanescent coalition, which after election day ceases to exist.

Reese is an extremely able man and would be an asset to any Democratic administration. He knows how to get things done. He is in sympathy with the party’s goals, and capable of tremendous loyalty to its leaders. But it won’t happen, because, as his career shows, there is no place in American politics today for the political administrator—the kind of official that he tried to be in West Virginia.

There is, however, a place for the Reese of today, the political consultant. People with a technical expertise at winning elections and no involvement in policy—the Gerald Rafshoons of the world—are welcomed into government. Matters of substance are handed over to a different kind of technician, the non-political experts like Harold Brown. It’s just mixing the two that’s not respectable.

As a result, people who run for president spend their campaigns traveling around with the political technicians and not putting their minds to hard thought about what their substantive agenda will be if they win and how it might be effected. Then, after the election, the policy technicians, who have little sense of why and how the president was elected, take over and are themselves usually stymied by a Congress they don’t understand. Instead of one kind of technician or another, we need people who have participated both in formulating policy and in winning elections, people who have an agenda and know how to put it into effect. People who could have done both have been forced by respectable opinion into choosing one or the other. And that, as Reese himself says, is a goddamned shame.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.