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THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Paddy's a Hack--and Proud of It

August 13, 2000|TERRY McDERMOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Politics is a foreign country, one Americans don't often visit.

At times, it can be an especially weird country. Not exotic weird, like Tibet; there's no yak butter in the land of politics. Politics is more blank and unknowable than that; Bulgaria, maybe. You know it exists but almost nothing else about it.

However distant from normal life it can appear, there are people who live in the land of politics, normal people, more or less, who choose to be there. People like Paddy McGuire.

McGuire worked his first political campaign in first grade and had his first paying political job at 17, when he dropped out of high school to manage a legislative campaign in Anchorage. He hasn't been out of politics since.

McGuire is a political hack. This is not a title to be conferred lightly. In political country, hack is an honorific, a term of respect earned along with the frequent flier miles.

There are a lot of hacks in town this week. A national political convention can be many things--a celebration of common goals, an explanation of ideology, an advertisement of promised leadership. Parties use conventions for these and various other, sometimes noble, purposes. On a less lofty plane, a convention is always a gathering of hacks. Hacks use conventions to do exactly what they do back home--talk to other hacks. It's a quadrennial class reunion.

McGuire arrived in town Saturday, a member of the Oregon delegation. He looks normal enough--a big, beefy goateed Irishman, pale in the way of Northwesterners, but not washed out like a pol whose only color comes from the cigar stains.

Put him in his element, though--in a storefront campaign office, in the back booth of a hotel bar, anywhere on a telephone--and the old pol comes screaming out.

"As far back as I can remember, politics was part of my life," he says.

There's a hierarchy in hackdom. At the top are the strategists, people like Karl Rove in the Bush campaign and Carter Eskew in Gore's, the guys who lay out the broad themes of a campaign and devise means of achieving them.

Next are the pollsters and media savants. The pollsters feed data to the strategists, who shuffle it off to the media folks to shape into messages. Pollsters and media experts often double as strategists or graduate to that level later.

The next rank down consists of fund-raising professionals and communication spin-masters, which is pretty much where the glamour positions end.

It isn't until you drill all the way down to the bottom of the hierarchy that you get to somebody like Paddy McGuire.

McGuire does field work.

This is the trenches of politics. If, as Jesse Unruh famously said, money is the mother's milk of politics, field work is the boiled vegetables.

Field workers staff phone banks, walk precincts, stuff envelopes, knock on doors, stand outside supermarkets registering new voters.

They're grunts. Even among the grunts, there's another pecking order. The absolute lowest level of sentient creatures in politics is where McGuire has spent much of his political career--doing field work not for a campaign, but for state party organizations.

Why would anybody do this? It pays abysmally. You're never home. You're disrespected even within your caste. The simplest answer, hacks say, is it's fun, a place you can get your hands on the machinery. Party hacks build organizations.

When McGuire first arrived in Oregon as a field worker for the Democratic National Committee, "the state party had all but ceased to exist. There was an office and a desk and a telephone that somebody occasionally answered."

McGuire did what field guys do. Political parties at some level are nothing more than lists of names. McGuire started making lists, then got in his car and drove out to see everybody on the lists. He went to every county in the state, even the counties where the list consisted of three names.

It's been fashionable in this media age to downplay field work. Some campaigns have no field staff, or just enough to keep volunteers busy. But, the hacks will tell you, election majorities are built from thin slices of voters. You stack up enough slices and you win. Party hacks are stackers.

Growing up, McGuire and everyone who knew him assumed he would one day run for office. He discovered instead that he liked operating behind the scenes, a place where you could play the great game out of the glare.

"I thought I could have a greater impact there," he says.

Gaining Recognition Among State Politicos

He grew up mostly in Juneau, the country's smallest state capital. After he managed that legislative campaign, all the politicos in the state knew about McGuire.

At 19, he was made assistant sergeant at arms in the state House of Representatives. The house had a rule that all members of the body had to be in the chamber before business could be conducted. This meant that the easiest way to kill a piece of legislation was to leave. McGuire's job was to go find legislators and haul them back.

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