Politicians Are Villains. Our New Heroes Are Political Operatives.

Dissecting the mainstream.
March 28 2012 2:10 PM

Dark Artists

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

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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.”

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“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.

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.