Book Review: "Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms" by Ed Rollins with Tom DeFrank
Reviewed by: Jude Wanniski
Twenty years ago, when I was at the WSJournal's editorial page, I made the discovery that after watching the network evening news each night, I knew less about the world than if I had not watched at all. This is because so much of what was being reported was just not right. Reporters didn't exactly make things up. They would simply take a story from the print media that already had a spin to it and spin it beyond recognition. I was not only being misinformed, I was being angered and frustrated. In the last 20 years, I have watched the network evening news less than a dozen times, and then only to see film footage of various disasters, which could not be messed up.
If you have been thinking of buying Ed Rollins's book, I will save you the trouble. If you read it, you will know much less about what happened in the political campaigns he was involved in than you know now. This is because Rollins has a major screw loose, which enables him to honestly report things he has witnessed which never happened. In his blockbuster bestseller, Den of Thieves, James B. Stewart actually made up events which never happened in order to assure us that Michael Milken was a bad guy. Ed Rollins is not so sinister. I've known Rollins only since the 1988 presidential campaign, but I saw back then that he had a screw loose, which causes him to exhibit all the signs of a pathological blabbermouth. Worse, he is an honest man with a selective memory, which permits him to report as true events which never occurred, but which he thinks must have happened because he says they did.
Ed's reputation as a political genius was established despite the fact there is no evidence he ever helped any candidate for public office get elected to anything. If you search this book for such evidence, you will find only his "campaign management" of Ronald Reagan's re-election in 1984 over a Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, who promised to raise taxes. Taking credit for "managing" Reagan in 1984 amidst the only economic boom of the last 30 years is like taking credit for managing the 1927 Yankees. It was a title Ed got at the behest of his mentor, Lyn Nofziger, the political director in the Reagan White House of 1981, who hired Ed as his deputy and handed him the top job when he left. It was in 1984 that Ed learned how to spend megabucks on television spots, a practice he carried over into the Perot campaign of 1992. If anyone "managed" Reagan in 1984, it was Rollins's deputy, the late Lee Atwater. When President Bush needed a campaign manager in 1988, he chose Atwater, a decision that made Ed Rollins mad.
In 1988, when Jack Kemp was running for the GOP nomination, and had hired Charlie Black to manage the campaign, Ed had nothing to do. Charlie brought him in as "campaign chairman," with nothing to do but salvage his embarrassment at being passed over by Bush. Rollins proceeded to leak unfounded rumors to his press pals about the Kemp campaign running out of money and to complain that Jack was a lousy candidate. Early in the primary season I got a call from a reporter at U.S. News & World Report who said Ed was openly telling political reporters on the Georgetown cocktail circuit that he had been screwed by Atwater, that by rights he should be running Bush's successful campaign, but was instead "stuck with Kemp." I called Kemp and Charlie Black and reported the story, but they already knew Rollins had gone haywire and said it would cause more bad publicity to fire him than to stick it out. In his book, Rollins blames Kemp for being a bad candidate and accuses Charlie Black of having conspired with Lee Atwater to keep Kemp from winning. It is a deranged account.
In 1992, nobody would touch Rollins, as bad luck would have it for Ross Perot. In early 1992, when the Perot people asked my advice on who they should hire as a campaign manager, I recommended Rep. Vin Weber [R-MN] who had already announced he was leaving the House. Weber told them he couldn't do it, but suggested his buddy Ed Rollins. Before I had a chance to warn the Perot people that Rollins had a screw loose, they hired him for megabucks. Within a matter of days, Rollins publicly insulted Jesse Jackson on national television, at the very moment Jackson was prepared to lead a chunk of the black vote to Perot. Rollins turned out to be worse than anything Perot could have imagined, and left the race just so he could fire Rollins and the huge staff Rollins had assembled to spend megabucks on television spots. In his book, Rollins has a chapter on this "Campaign From Hell," which recounts how brilliant he was and how difficult Perot was, especially Perot's refiisal to spend megabucks on his brilliant tv spots. Not a word is mentioned about the Jesse Jackson debacle.
In 1993, Christine Todd Whitman hired Ed to manage her gubernatorial race, on the advice of Lyn Nofziger. I had time to warn Christie that she was hiring an albatross around her neck, but she went ahead anyway. Running against the most unpopular governor in New Jersey history, Jim Florio, Ed quickly ran the campaign into the ground. In the book he blames Christie's brother and husband for screwing things up, until his negative campaign spots won the day!!! There is not a single word about Steve Forbes and former Gov. Tom Kean persuading Christie to campaign on a Reaganesque growth platform, cutting state income tax rates by a third. Even that would have failed, except that Christie's brother had squirreled away enough money to run the tax-cut spots in the last three weeks of the campaign — money Rollins was itching to spend on his negative spots. Rollins of course had fought the Forbes/Kean strategy, which is why his memory fails him in his book.
Political reporters like Chris Matthews of MSNBC, who have fallen all over themselves extolling the brilliance of Rollins's book, must pass over entirely the book's account of how Rollins boasted of winning the New Jersey election for Christie by bribing the state's black ministers to discourage their congregations from voting. In reviewing this fiasco, Rollins admits he lied to the press, but did so only as one-upmanship of Florio's campaign manager, Jim Carville. In one of the most shameless sequences of the book, Rollins blasts Christie Whitman for kicking him when he was down.
Was this it for Rollins? No. In 1994, several candidates for office retained Rollins. All of them lost except his old friend George Nethercutt, who ousted House Speaker Tom Foley. In the book, even while claiming credit for managing Foley's defeat, Rollins at least makes it clear that Nethercutt refused to run the negative spots he urged upon him. He also lets us know that he did not spend much time at all on the Nethercutt campaign, because he was too busy working on the U.S. Senate campaign of Michael Huffington in California.
As it happened, I also warned Huffington about hiring Rollins, only because I had told a mutual friend that by hiring Rollins, Huffington would immediately alienate the entire black community of California. The friend, Armstrong Williams, agreed, and asked me to advise Huffington, which I did. Too late, Rollins was already aboard. Still, a one-armed jockey should have been able to bring Huffington home in 1994 against Dianne Feinstein, but Rollins instead ran him into the ground. A pleasant enough businessman, with a wife, Arianna, who is as soft-hearted toward the poor and needy as Jack Kemp, Huffington spent $35 million on his losing race with the negative campaign designed for him by Rollins.
It was their fault, to be sure. But now, in his book, Rollins blasts them both for being incompetent, and asserts that Arianna was obsessed with finding dirt on Dianne Feinstein and hired private eyes to snoop on her and several others. Rollins is beside himself in moral outrage for such behavior by his former employers. At one point, he recalls threatening to quit unless Arianna stopped hiring private eyes to snoop on reporters! Did any of this happen?
Of course not. Rollins made it up. While Rollins roamed around mismanaging all five campaigns that fall, the man he installed as the day-to-day campaign manager on the ground for Huffington, Jamie Moore, ordered all the research into the single inquiry as to whether or not Feinstein had hired an illegal alien as her nanny. When the Rollins book was published, an outraged Arianna Huffington collected affidavits from several people involved, threatening a lawsuit until she realized she was only going to waste more of her family's life on Rollins. One affidavit came from Ken Khachigian, one of the most respected political consultants in the business, who also advised the Huffington campaign. Khachigian now heads the Dole campaign in California.
Why would I take the time to read the book and write this account? It is because I fear that even those people who know how little of it is true will come away believing that some of it is. There is no reason for people to believe, for example, that Arianna Huffington routinely employs private investigators to pry into the private affairs of people she wants to get. Bob Merry's review of Bare Knuckles in The Weekly Standard the most savage that has appeared in the national press: "It isn't surprising that Rollins would be the consultant to bring the art of the memoir to a new low." Yet even Merry seems to assume that maybe she did. Worse, is Rollins's evil inference that maybe a rumor that he heard was true, that Michael Huffington was a closet homosexual. This was a practice occasionally employed by his mentor, Lyn Nofziger, in dealing with political opponents. Here is how we see Rollins using it on a man who was not an opponent, but the fellow who rescued him from political oblivion after the fiasco in New Jersey.
"Before long, what was flying was rumors. It began relatively tamely with innuendos about his sexual proclivities and took off from there. My first whiff of it came shortly after I joined up. I received a case of condoms from an old friend — industrialist Barney Klinger, a longtime Reagan supporter I'd gotten to know during those August trips with the President.
" 'lf you're going to sleep with the enemy,' Barney said, 'use protection. Remember when you're around Mike, protect your ass at all times.' It was a not-so-subtle hint to the whispers that Michael was gay ~ rumors Barney took great delight in spreading. I raised the subject pointblank one day in a meeting.
"'Do you think I'm gay?' Michael asked.
" 'It's totally irrelevant what I think, and I couldn't care one way or another. But the stories are all over New York, Houston, and Washington, and the press is starting to pick up on them. We're getting questions about it every day. If there are any bombshells out there, it's better to be prepared for them in advance. If there's any truth to it, the Feinstein camp will be the first to know.'
"I'm not going to answer any questions like that from you or anybody else,' he said, and the meeting was over. It was the most bizarre answer I'd ever gotten from a candidate. There was no sense of outrage at such a personal query. It wasn't that he protested too much; he didn't protest at all.
"He did react to a similar inquiry of mine after a story appeared in which a former staff member complained Huffington was always hugging him. He told me he always hugged his employes. I kiddingly responded that he'd never hugged me. 'You're too short,' he replied. I've never been more relieved to be short in my life."
Clearly, Rollins wants us to believe Huffington is gay, advertising a "rumor" that neither I nor any of my political friends had heard of until we read it in the Rollins book. It is certainly not "bizarre" that Huffington would refuse to discuss his private life with Rollins. It is bizarre that Rollins would elevate himself by dropping poison on a man who hired him at a time when he was already considered radioactive.
How does Rollins treat Ronald Reagan, his greatest benefactor? For the first time in this book, we learn that Ronald Reagan is foul-mouthed. Rollins recounts that while riding in a limo with the President in midtown Manhattan, thousands of onlookers cheered. Rollins asks him if he isn't overwhelmed by the experience. He looked at me with that infectious Reagan grin. "Just wait about half a block," he said. "Some guy will be flipping me the finger and yelling, 'Fuck you, Ron, you prick.' "
Of course, it did not happen. Reagan did use the expression, "flipping me the finger," but I talked to both Jeff Bell and John Sears, who worked with Reagan for years, and they both said it was inconceivable that Reagan would gratuitously add the rest of the remark. It is Rollins's way of making himself look bigger by making Reagan look smaller.
For Rollins to write this kind of trash, even for the reputed $1 million advance he got from his publisher, he has to be a truly sick man. But what does that say about the news media, which continues to elevate this sick man to a level of respect normally reserved for Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa. Look at today's editorial page of The New York Times and you will find Rollins pontificating on how Bill Clinton will suffer because of the loss of Dick Morris. I didn't read it. The Rollins by-line made my skin crawl.