YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Outtakes From the Spin Doctor's Notebooks : BARE KNUCKLES AND BACK ROOMS: My Life in American Politics. By Ed Rollins with Tom DeFrank (Broadway Books: $27.50, 386 pp.)

August 11, 1996|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarsky writes the Times' column "The Spin" and is author of two books on Ronald Reagan

Ed Rollins, a Republican political consultant with a mouth to match his ego, has written the ultimate kiss-and-yell memoir.

In fact, Rollins shouts it from the mountaintop: that his clients are emptyheads and scum, except those who listen to him. That their spouses are conniving, interfering neurotics. That his fellow consultants are greedy, unprincipled slime-bags, with the exception of a few who helped his career along.

He accomplishes his bloody task of character assassination with the funny, cutting one-liners and entertaining stories that have made him a much-quoted favorite of political writers for many years.

"Bare Knuckles And Back Rooms: My Life in American Politics," written with journalist Tom DeFrank, is a lot like drinking with one of his breed, listening to stories that get better with each round. But as the clock passes midnight and closing time nears, a thought nags at even the most alcohol-besotted brain: These stories may not be the entire truth.

What is truth, though, in a business based on lies, half-truths and imaginative spin? No doubt his victims hold an equally distorted view of reality, supporting their political and ego needs. What elevates this book considerably above the usual political memoir is not the recounting of old battles but the insight into the mysterious and devious mind of the political manager. This understanding helps explain why our political system has become so mean, and why so many people are turned off by it.

Rollins' credits include President Reagan's 1984 reelection; the 1993 election of Christine Todd Whitman as New Jersey governor; the Ross Perot 1992 presidential disaster, and Michael Huffington's failed California race for U.S. Senate in 1994.

With the exception of Reagan and a few others he admired, Rollins is condescending, at best, and mostly contemptuous of the politicians he has encountered. That's not uncommon among campaign managers. They look upon themselves as brilliant directors trying to get a good performance from someone they picked up off the street.

Among those for whom Rollins has great contempt is former President Bush. Rollins feels Bush treated him badly and pays him back with great relish. He quotes Richard Nixon as saying Bush wasn't a "real nutcutter," a quality that both Rollins and Nixon agreed was essential in politics. " 'There has to be a nutcutter to keep the troops in line,' Nixon said. . . . 'George Bush is a wimp and can't play the role.' "

With equal relish, Rollins recalls how Nancy Reagan referred to Bush "as 'whiny' and would mimic his speech patterns in off moments."

Nancy Reagan, on the other hand, was a real nutcutter, at least to Rollins, who was terrified of her. Rollins writes that when he was running Reagan's 1984 campaign, "She made it very clear she didn't like the way the campaign was going. She just hammered the crap out of me." After one session, another campaign advisor, Stuart Spencer, turned to Rollins and said, "She could smell the fear all over you, Rollins. You're doomed."

So it's payback time for Nancy Reagan, too. "Paranoid, high-strung and neurotic, she could make life miserable for everyone who had to deal with her, including me," Rollins writes. Still, he adds, "Ronald Reagan could never have asked for a more supportive spouse or better friend and advisor."

Mrs. Reagan isn't the only relative of a candidate on the Rollins' hit list. Christine Whitman's husband, John, was "arrogant" and her brother, Danny, comes out in the book as brainless. Rollins blames John and Danny for the controversial spreading of "street money" in African American neighborhoods to persuade local ministers to abandon their traditional Democratic get-out-the-vote sermons on the Sunday before the election. Rollins initially bragged about the effort in a breakfast with Washington reporters. But, in his book, he points his finger elsewhere since his boasting got him in trouble. This is in line with the campaign managerial precept of taking credit for success and blaming someone else for screw-ups.

Obviously Rollins couldn't obey one of his own "Rules of Campaign Combat" found at the end of the book: "Never get into a pissing match with the person or persons who sleep with your candidate."

Much of Rollins' scorn is heaped on Ross Perot, whom he portrays as "an extremely dangerous demagogue with delusions of adequacy who would have been a disaster in the White House." In one example of Perot's arrogance, Rollins said that he wanted him to talk to former Treasury Secretary William Simon, a well-known economics expert and entrepreneur. "There's nothing he can tell me that I don't already know," said Perot. Told that singer Willie Nelson had agreed to take part in a big campaign lunch, Perot said, "He's a dope smoker and doesn't pay his taxes. I don't want him here." One Perot confidante told Rollins that the candidate suspected even Rollins of being a CIA undercover agent, sent by President Bush to destroy the Perot campaign.

Los Angeles Times Articles