A self-described "political hack," Strother's new book, Falling Up: How a Redneck Helped Invent Political Consulting is at once an intensely honest autobiography, a rollicking political commentary and a no-holds-barred exposé of the dangers his craft poses to modern democracy. At the end of the day, Strother says, luck and timing determine a candidate's fate more than anything else. He's had his share of both.
Q: In your prologue, you describe your struggle to tell the truth in this book. Tell me more about that.
A: I wrote the book four times. The first two times I threw it away. The third time I wrote it, my agent threw it away. The fourth time I wrote it, I was at Harvard, at the Kennedy School, and I had given up on it. Then one day it came to me like a blinding flash. I realized that I had been dishonest from beginning to end. I hadn't told the truth. I'd cut corners and shaded things. I worried about what people might think. Then I said, "I'm gonna write it straight. And after I write it straight I'll go back and take things out if I have to."
Q: Your book denounces the shallowness of today's politicians. Do you think there's any honesty left in American politics today?
A: A great, honest man just died -- Senator Patrick Moynihan -- the last intellectual in the Senate. The Senate and the House today -- the House is actually better than the Senate -- is peopled by and large by midgets. When I went to Washington [in 1980], it was peopled by giants. You had Lloyd Bentsen, John Stennis, Gary Hart. You had great thinkers. Alan Simpson was a great thinker. Whether you agreed with him or not politically, he was a very sincere man.
Q: Are there any giants left?
A: I don't think there's a giant in the Senate. And I'm really worried about that. But part of it's my fault. I share the blame for what's happened.
Q: It is true that political consultants have given us what you call the helmet-head politician of today?
A: That's true, but it's been a long process. When I started in 1967, I was a driver. I didn't know what I was doing. I was a fraud from the very beginning, but nobody else knew what they were doing either. At that time, we wrote speeches and made ads and anything else we thought was right. Over time, I realized that polling was going to become important, so I would ask to hire pollsters. At first, my clients didn't want to do it. As I got more prominent, I could demand that polling be part of the package -- that somebody like [New Orleans pollster] Joe Walker could bring his kind of information and insight to be able to put a campaign together. They thought of it at first like tail fins on a Cadillac: it was just for appearance and didn't have any function. Then, all of a sudden, people realized that without a pollster you couldn't win.
Now, polling is more important than anything else. Most candidates hire a pollster first, and they decide what they think according to what the poll says. Think about the downside of that: You're never going to think creatively. You're never going to do anything independently. You're going to be a puppet to pollsters. Polling has taken over politics. Pollsters have become so important that we have what I call the seamless campaign. A guy gets elected and the next day he starts a campaign for re-election -- and he uses a pollster to keep him on top of the issues of the day, so his votes reflect what the polls say.
I had a candidate call me one time and say, "Why didn't you tell me that vote would cost me votes in the next election?" I said, "I don't govern. I do campaigns." This person got very angry and said, "When you know that something's coming before the Senate that's going to affect my election, you call me." Well, I think that's awful. I think it's one of the worst things that could happen to American democracy. But it's happening everywhere. ... George Bush has his political consultant, Karl Rove, in the White House giving him advice. It's the seamless campaign.
But it gets worse than that. Because this seamless campaign demands that you start raising money the day after you're elected -- for the next election. Russell Long told me once that the great thing about being a senator is that you could be a statesman for four years and a politician for two. That isn't the case any more. You're a politician for six years now and never a statesman, in my opinion. We've torn the fabric of democracy.
Q: You were a mentor to Jim Carville. What's your take on him now?
A: Carville is a very interesting man. He's what's good and he's what's bad about our business. James was a good consultant. Maybe not the best in America, but a good consultant, and he had a personality that demanded the candidate toe the line and stay on message. And when he got on his feet he did an awfully fine job and made a lot of money. A presidential campaign is the golden calf. It's your ticket. James worked for Bill Clinton -- and this brings up the part that bothers me about James. There was a film producer who wanted to make a documentary about Clinton, but Clinton didn't trust the press and didn't want to let the guy inside -- even though he had promised the filmmaker total access. As a result, the film guy couldn't get what he wanted. But he was there to make a film, so when he turned and saw this quirky Cajun who was a load of kicks, he just made the film about James, who subsequently got a great deal of notoriety. In fact, nobody illustrates the notion of political-consultant-as-celebrity better than James. In our celebrity culture, the ability of a political consultant is often misunderstood, if not exaggerated. But, to James' credit, he worked hard to get where he is. He paid his dues.
Q: You don't have much nice to say about Bill and Hillary Clinton. Do you think she could be elected President?
A: I didn't think she could be elected senator, but I was wrong. Completely wrong. What we have to admit about her, whether you like her or not, is that she's one of the brightest people in American politics. She has a soaring intellect. She's smarter than her husband and her husband is very smart. I discount Hillary Clinton because I'm not personally fond of her -- because I've had too much interaction with her through the years. So, will Hillary run for president? Yeah. Could she get elected? Yes -- luck and timing are everything. When Bill Clinton ran for president the first time, he didn't run to win. He ran to establish himself. Clinton got in to become the leader of the Democratic Party and, four years later, to run for president. Then he won! Luck and timing. Right time, right place.
Q: You speak lovingly but unsparingly of Louisiana and all its political foibles. Now that Edwin Edwards is in jail, do you think Louisiana has changed?
A: No. Louisiana's not going to change until people here quit laughing about political shenanigans at dinner parties. Louisiana's fabric has been corrupted. ... It isn't that Louisiana's people are bad; we just accept corruption that other states won't accept.
Q: Acknowledging that you will be working for state Treasurer John Kennedy in this year's race for governor, what's your assessment of the current crop of candidates?
A: I think it's a pretty good crop of candidates -- as good as I've seen in a while. I suspect before it's over we'll see a few more candidates, and I don't think we'll know who the favorite is until a couple of weeks out. It's going to be a late-developing race. Louisiana's not really angry right now. Foster's not the devil. People are tired of him, but there's no urgency to it. I don't see this thing coalescing very quickly.
Q: What will it take to win this race?
A: I think it will be a campaign about competence. And I think it's going to be a more thoughtful campaign. There are a couple of people trying to demagogue oil right now. I don't think it'll work. The public here is pretty smart -- as smart as anywhere else. Demagoguery works very early in a campaign, but it reflects very badly on you later on. They'll all try little gimmicks, but in the end those things won't elect you. You'll have to have something to say that appeals to voters. I'll be honest, I don't know what that is right now. I don't know if anybody does.
Q: You admit freely that you fell "up" into your career track by learning your craft as you bounced from one campaign to the next. But, as you note, that's because political consulting itself was still in its infancy then. Can somebody learn the consulting trade today the way you did?
A: It's much harder to do what I did. When I got to Washington, I only had two competitors. Now, everybody uses a consultant. We have 2,000 consultants in the American Association of Political Consultants. The way to get to the top now is very, very difficult -- almost impossible. You have to work your way up. A few will succeed, but it's much harder today.
Q: You only worked for Democrats -- except for Buddy Roemer, who at least started out as a Democrat -- but that was your choice. Today, it's pretty much a rule that consultants at the national level must work exclusively for one party or the other. Is that a good thing?
A: It makes us more partisan, but you can only work for one party now because there's so much information that's shared. For ethical reasons, you have to do it that way. The year I worked for Roemer's re-election caused me to be blackballed by the Democrats for a year. I learned my lesson. I resented it, because I thought I was doing the right thing for the right reason. Like it or not, you can only work for one party.
Q: What advice would you give to a young person wanting to run for office?
A: Get involved in the political process. Find somebody you care about, somebody who matters to you in politics. Go to them and work with them. Don't go into something you don't know anything about. Go to a campaign and volunteer. Get in the trenches. Work for nothing. The cream rises to the top. Good people are recognized and they are hired. Carville worked like that.
Q: If you could have a candidate who's extremely smart or one who's merely lucky, which would you choose?
Q: Why do you think people run for office -- is it more a genuine desire to serve or is it mostly for the ego stroke?
A: I'm afraid it's more ego driven now. I run into people who do what's expedient rather than what's right. In the end, for democracy to work, you have to have people who really care.
Q: You don't spare the press in your criticism of American politics. What reporters do you still respect and why?
A: It's not that I'm against the press. I'm against the blow-dried press. I'm against the newsreaders. The people who are "pundits" with no reason to be pundits. You get people making pronouncements on television and I wonder what their credentials are. Why are you there? What do you know? Then you look at journalists like Jack Germond, Jules Witcover and others. These guys paid their dues. They think about things. They write. Some of them appear on camera, but not often. We have the [MSNBC Hardball host] Chris Matthews generation that screams at each other. That's not news. That's show biz.
Q: Which American politician do you most admire, and why?
A: Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. He got into politics for the right reason, serves for the right reason, and doesn't pay attention to opinion polls. John Lewis, who was a pioneer civil rights activist, has a speech impediment because he was beaten so badly. He was a client of mine and I asked him later about Bull Connor, who had beaten him so much that he couldn't speak. He said that Bull Connor was a man of his generation and that it's not his fault. John Lewis is a man who is completely forgiving. He is the American hero, to me. The quintessential American hero.
Q: At one point in your book you seem to show a higher regard, in terms of talent, for Buddy Roemer than Bill Clinton.
A: I was representing them both at the same time, shuffling back and forth between Baton Rouge and Little Rock in the 1980s. Roemer had all the equipment, more so than Clinton. He was at least as smart as Clinton, maybe smarter. He cared about things and he had a vision of things he wanted to do. Clinton knew how to get things done. He could manipulate people better. Buddy was a little too straight, where Clinton was willing to bend backwards to get what he wanted. Buddy was more like Gary Hart. He didn't really like people. He'd sit with his back to a restaurant full of people so nobody would bother him when he ate dinner in Baton Rouge. But as far as skill, intelligence, vision -- Roemer was better than Clinton. The ingredient missing in Clinton is not his intellect, not his memory, but his creativity. Clinton is not creative. Roemer is creative. He could also write. He wrote some beautiful speeches that I probably got credit for along the way, but I didn't write them. Roemer had a sense, a feeling of rhythm. He was lyrical. Clinton never said anything that was memorable.
Q: Talk about the role of race in Southern politics, particularly in light of your role in the Roemer-Edwards-Duke race of 1991. Do you still see race -- and racism -- playing a role in campaigns?
A: That's what I feel strongest about in the world -- racism and anti-Semitism. We keep telling ourselves, "Look how far we've come." And we have made some progress. However, when David Duke ran in this state, he was known as a KKK leader and a former Nazi -- and he got over half the white vote every time he ran statewide.
But let's take Louisiana out of it, because we're no worse here than any other Southern state. Let's look at Georgia, which is considered an enlightened Southern state. Georgia has had some incredible governors. But, when it came time to vote in the last Georgia governor's race, the only issue was whether they should keep the rebel flag as part of their state flag. The rebel flag was incorporated into Georgia's state flag in 1956 in defiance of a Supreme Court decision. It had nothing to do with their heritage, but people were saying, "Let's return to our heritage." It wasn't their heritage, it was defiance of the Supreme Court. But the issue was so prevalent that, in the southern part of the state, voter turnout was enhanced up to 300 percent in some counties. And the Republicans made the flag the major issue -- subtly though. The candidate himself never brought up the flag except when asked. He said, "We should have had the right to vote on that flag." Well, they didn't vote on it in 1956. So the election revolved around that.
In South Carolina, the governor was defeated because of the Confederate flag. So, anytime you think that racism in the South is dead, remember: it cost two governors their elections. Lyndon Johnson said he thought that because of civil rights legislation the South would become Republican for a lifetime. And he was right. Why did whites become Republican? It wasn't because Republicans were for better economic opportunities or for Social Security or for education. It was because of race. What we've learned to do is hide our racial prejudices. What we've learned is polite, plausible deniability. We've learned the language that allows us to be racist without exposing ourselves. But we're still racist.