ick up a Washington memoir in the hope of gleaning hidden truths, or even just a feel for the texture of life in the capital’s inner sanctums, and you’re likely to come away disappointed. Washington memoirs may not be any more opaque, gilded, and self-serving than other kinds, but they sure feel that way. That’s because most are written not for the reader, but for the writer. If you’re a big enough deal that you’re committing your thoughts to paper, chances are you’re thinking mainly about your own career advancement, and as the recent memoirs of the presidential aspirants made plain, this rarely yields much beyond bland self-promotion. Readers willing to lower their sights a bit discover small rewards. Staffers’ memoirs are more likely to traffic in score settling and limited truth tellingNancy’s astrology fixation, Hillary’s communion with Eleanor Roosevelt’s ghost. But even here unearthing the diamonds requires a pickax and a strong back, because for aides, too, the premium for publishing is really no different: If you aim to get aheadand who in Washington doesn’t?you’d better be careful who you cross. So these tend to be mountains of banality as well. One reason the index is the part of the book Washingtonians flip to first is that if you know who’s going to get the knife it’s easier to skip right to it.
Such shortcuts are entirely unnecessary with How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative, because it’s clear from the book jacket that the author, Allen Raymond, won’t be getting ahead, and, owing to the circumstances of why this is so, has a knife out for just about everybody. Raymond is the veteran GOP operative who used his phone-banking business to jam Democratic phone lines in New Hampshire on election day 2002 in order to upset the party’s voter-turnout operation. Republicans swept the midterms, including the big Senate race in New Hampshire, but things didn’t turn out nearly so well for Raymond. He was busted by the feds, abandoned by his own party, and wound up serving time in prison, the stooge in a scandal that clearly reached much higher. How to Rig an Election is Raymond’s revenge on the party that screwed himan angry, unsparing, and occasionally funny look at the seamy underside of politics by a man who seems to have embodied all its worst qualities.
What separates this memoir from most others is that Raymond, fresh from a jail stint, holds no illusion of having a future in politics and seems refreshingly disinclined to try to convince us that he has been somehow misunderstood. He is free to tell the unfettered truth. That he has done so here cannot seriously be doubted, because Raymond, by his own account, is as thoroughly cynical and repellent a memoirist as I’ve ever encountered.
Nature, not nurture, seems to have been the cause of this, since it’s clear that he was a bad seed long before he entered politics. The scion of the Underwood Typewriter fortune, he was kicked out of prep school for smoking pot, enjoyed a postcollege spell squandering his inheritance, and wound up in advertising, “the low man on the Ty-D-Bol account.” Raymond claims not to have been much interested in politics until a combination of boredom and low admission requirements impelled him toward pursuing a graduate degree in political management. A man of no fixed beliefs, he decided to become a Republican after graduating because it was the early 1990s and a friend told him “that’s where all the money’s heading.”
Raymond started out as a nobody in the roughneck world of New Jersey politics and quickly decided that the gunslinger image cultivated by so many operatives was the aspect of politics that appealed to him most. In New Jersey Republican circles, ideological purity takes a backseat to the interests of the local machine, so a consultant skilled in political combat and unburdened by a sense of principle or fair play can do well for himself. Raymond was precisely such a consultant, and most of How to Rig an Election is devoted to ticking through the many sordid highlights of a career spent managing candidates who probably deserved no better than they got.
There is, for example, the assemblyman who beat his wife and who Raymond manages to spin to victory. There’s the ditzy blond socialite whose rich, pushy friends drive her campaign to imminent disaster. There’s the former prosecutor and defense lawyer whom Raymond describes as “unencumbered by any ideals,” who eventually makes it to Congress. Winners and losers alike are thrown under the bus. Raymond has it in for both parties and the electorate, too. Voters are “dupes.” Democrats are “baby killers.” His own Republican Party is bursting with “knuckle-draggers, gunnies, committed-ideologue nuts” and “backwoods hayseeds” spouting “pro-life snake-handling babble.” The only difference between the parties that matters to Raymond is how willing they are to do anything to win, and only here do we detect a flash of professional pride. “When it came to playing in the gutter, we were the professionals,” he writes. “The Dems weren’t even junior varsity.”
Raymond is never happier than when he is splashing in the gutter, and his catalog of dirty tricks would do Nixon proud. To annoy the supporters of two opponents in a Republican primary, he hires a phone bank to make repeated calls on the opponents’ behalf during the Super Bowl. To stoke latent feelings of racism, he hires inner-city black men to call white suburban Democrats to “encourage” them to vote for Raymond’s opponent, betting they’ll do just the opposite. His coup de grce comes during the race with the ethically challenged prosecutor. Just before election day, with the contest neck and neck, the campaign discovers that its Democratic adversary, a sheriff, ran over and crippled an off-duty policeman several years earlier, but managed to seal the legal records and arrange a financial settlement with a nondisclosure agreement. They track down the victim in a hospital and persuade him to confide his story (likely in violation of his nondisclosure agreement). Then he calls a press conference and uses the episode as the campaign’s closing attack. “I could only have been happier if we’d caught him touching small children,” Raymond confesses. As the prosecutor airs the charges to the news media, Raymond works the crowd to distribute T-shirts attacking the opponent as “Hit and Run Herb.”
The absurd title and the publicity material that accompany How to Rig an Election endeavor mightily to present Raymond and his story as a far bigger deal than they deserve to be. The hope is that we’ll accept him as a top-flight GOP operative in the presidential race who possessed Rove-like powers (or what people used to imagine were Rove’s powersnot so much anymore, huh?) and used them to control the outcome of an election. But nowhere does Raymond attempt anything so grand as trying to “rig” an election. As the New Hampshire episode demonstrates, he tended to be more nuisance than genius and utterly lacked the ability to get away with his capers. In reality, Raymond was a sometimes competent, midlevel functionary, and nothing more, who was regularly pushed aside by the party’s true elites.
To his credit, Raymond is perfectly candid about this aspect of his career. He never hesitates to turn the jaded eye inward or admit embarrassing facts. To the extent that his book gets any attention, the focus undoubtedly will be on the dirty tricks. They’re fun to read aboutand, yes, wrong to have committedbut their actual effect on the political process, here as in other cases, is almost always exaggerated. (And who cares about a bunch of long-forgotten state races in New Jersey?) What is more broadly revealing, and ultimately more interesting, are the glimpses of everyday life as a Republican operative that form the connective tissue between all the bad acts. Especially for someone in the same fieldalbeit, in my case, from a different anglereading about the dull grind of a hopeless campaign, the intense pressure always to be hustling for the next job, and the continual struggle to climb the greasy pole with some of the most ruthless people on the planet provides an entre into a part of politics that, even to relative insiders, usually remains hidden.
Raymond still clings to a few thin reeds of his old life, such as the tough-guy image, manifested here as a world-weary, Dashiell Hammett authorial voice that sometimes grates, but usually manages to capture quite well the punishing succession of pressures and small defeats that comprised his life as an operative. Take his initial encounter with Rove, who appears just as Raymond has finished delivering a direct-mail pitch to an Illinois Senate candidate, and promptly cuts him off at the knees without giving it a thought: “As if guided by the same primordial, threat-sensing ESP that sends animals running for high ground before the rain ever comes, Rove came slouching into the boardroom almost as soon as I took the packet from my briefcase.” Has there been a better description of Rove?
It’s this kind of humor and candor that eventually earns the book a grudging respect (mine, anyway) despite all the treachery and cynicism and dirty tricks. When the feds move in to investigate the phone-jamming project, Raymond’s higher-ups at the Republican National Committee decide to cut him loose. In the end, he’s a nobodyand somebody has to take the fall. (By contrast, Jim Tobin, an RNC official under whose auspices Raymond worked in New Hampshire, was provided millions of dollars’ worth of legal representation by the RNC.) Left to fend for himself, he becomes “senior vice president of keeping my ass out of prison” and, as with so much else, fails at this, too.
While Raymond wouldn’t be anyone’s pick to lead a Cub Scout troop, the fate that has befallen him feels slightly unjust. With the flood of corruption sweeping through Republican Washington these past few years, it seems somehow wrong that he is one of only a few to have seen the inside of a jail cell. Every day seems to bring new evidence that his behavior was not so far from the mean. And who else has offered a public accounting of their behavior that’s anywhere near as comprehensive and damning as How to Rig an Election?
I suspect this karmic imbalance won’t last long. Raymond has a nice riff on the rubber Jesus bracelets that evidently were in vogue for a time at RNC headquarters. He notes acidly that “none of the top men or women in the RNC ever asked themselves what Jesus would do until after they got caught doing things he would never have done.” And, indeed, Republican scandals continue to blossomamong them, incredibly, another Republican phone-banking scandal in New Hampshire (this one smearing Mitt Romney’s Mormonism), which has again drawn the interest of the feds. Raymond may be a turncoat and an outcast, but it’s a safe bet that he will soon be in the company of his fellow Republicans once againif not among those who decide to publish their memoirs, then certainly among the growing ranks of felons.