Flashback. It's October 1994. Michael Huffington, "such a complete cipher he gave empty suits a bad name," sees his chances spoiled in the California U.S. Senate campaign. It is disclosed that his household employed an illegal immigrant.
What does this "carpetbagging megamillionaire" do, as his celebrated campaign manager, Ed Rollins, now tells the story in a memoir that often damns the very candidates he once championed? Huffington blames his wife.
And what does his "scheming . . . ruthless, unscrupulous" wife, Arianna Huffington, do? In secret, she deploys a dozen investigators to dig up similar dirt on Huffington's opponent, Dianne Feinstein--agents who locate and then deceive Feinstein's Guatemalan maid into thinking she had inherited $30,000. It is a cruel lie in which a rich man's campaign toys with a hapless domestic worker to gain photographs of the woman's immigration papers.
Winning is part of the game. But so is getting even. And Rollins, renegade Republican campaign consultant and hard-boiled TV pundit, is out this week to settle some old grudges and confess his sins. Not always in equal measure.
As campaign strategist for Ronald Reagan, Ross Perot, Huffington and many others, Rollins made himself famous and infamous in American politics. Particularly after he guided Reagan to the White House, he became one of the rare few consultants whose profile and reputation sometimes exceeded those of the candidates who hired him.
Now Rollins is setting fire to the last of his bridges in what he says is a valedictory memoir to nearly three decades in campaign politics, "Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms." Written with journalist Tom DeFrank, formerly with Newsweek, the book goes on sale Wednesday, only five days before the GOP national convention, and is excerpted in this week's Time magazine.
Other portions of the manuscript provided to The Times--covering the California race and the 1993 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign--read as if they also could be titled, "I'm bad, politicians are worse, and sometimes their families are worst of all."
A native of Vallejo, Calif., Rollins writes that he accepted the job of managing Huffington's 1994 Senate race "for the dough" and also to try and regain his reputation after two previous campaigns had left him damaged. Huffington ultimately lost after spending $28 million of his inherited fortune, but remains a name floated from time to time as a possible GOP candidate for high office in California. His wife, meanwhile, has become a notable figure in Washington's New Right salon politics, as well as a commentator and columnist, whose work appears regularly on The Times' op-ed page, among other places.
In his memoir, Rollins spares neither, offering a soap opera-noir account of the 1994 campaign in which:
* Huffington confided that he could not release his tax returns because his wife would discover he's even richer than anyone thought "and try to spend it all."
* Arianna Huffington was overheard ordering detectives to investigate and prepare a report on journalist Maureen Orth, who was writing a profile of her for Vanity Fair magazine.
* To accommodate Arianna Huffington's demands, "we were the only campaign in history with an in-house masseuse and personal chef, but no get-out-the-vote effort or field staff."
* After bruising fights among the Huffingtons and Rollins over the direction of the campaign in its closing weeks, Arianna Huffington turned on the charm and insisted that Rollins stay in the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach and take advantage of her personal masseuse. Then she inquired about the state of Rollins' marriage and offered "to supply me with 'company.' "
The Huffingtons could not be located Sunday for comment, although messages were left with Arianna Huffington's answering service.
But another figure mentioned in the manuscript immediately challenged one detail of Rollins' account. The Times, which Rollins contends "hated our guts," broke the 1994 story of Huffington's household worker. Rollins recounts a conversation with reporter Dave Lesher on the afternoon before the article was published in which the reporter declared, "Ed, your candidate's got a nanny problem."
On Sunday, however, Lesher said he never spoke with Rollins on that day--that his contact with the Huffington campaign was with Arianna Huffington and a campaign aide.
In the book's excerpts, Rollins also recognizes but does not resolve one of the contradictions of the modern celebrity hired gun: While supposedly serving democracy, the professional handler also can deepen public cynicism about it. As this book shows, the consultant sells advice but--even in his own mind--not always for public good. And loyalty is not part of the deal.