Who Turned Political Spin
Into a Global Business
By James Harding
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 252 pp.
few years ago, I wrote a long article on Karl Rove’s history of dirty tricks that got a lot of attention in a place I didn’t expect: Australia. The radio and television producers calling from Down Under explained that the negative style of politics that Rove is famous for was dominating their national election. They were calling halfway around the world because they were looking for information on the source. I’d never thought of American politics as a form of cultural imperialism, but indeed it is one: like the early American settlers who spread smallpox to the Indians, American political consultants have carried their methods across the globe.
How this happened is the subject of James Harding’s book, Alpha Dogs: The Americans Who Turned Political Spin Into a Global Business. Harding, an editor at the Times of London, tells the story of David Sawyer and Scott Miller, a documentary filmmaker and ad man, respectively, who teamed up to establish an unlikely consulting firm in the late 1970s that Harding credits with spurring this dubious form of globalization. Sawyer and Miller weren’t the first political consultants to work abroad. But during the 1980s their firm became the biggest. “They seized upon the opportunity of taking the American campaign ethic overseas,” Harding writes, “and became the progenitors of a discreet international industry in American political know-how.” At its height, he claims, the Sawyer Miller Group touched more than a billion people in twenty-six countries—a bigger global reach than McDonald’s.
Like a lot of successful people in politics, the firm’s founders came into the field almost by accident. Sawyer had just completed an Oscar-nominated documentary about mental patients when he was approached by a Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate to shoot a biopic in the newly fashionable verité style. He soon found himself in heavy demand. Miller was a frustrated Madison Avenue star—he coined the phrase, “Have a Coke and a smile!”—who longed for meaningful work in a smaller firm. The pair quickly gained a reputation in Democratic circles as being masters of the emerging medium of television, which was revolutionizing the world of politics.
Sawyer Miller enjoyed modest success in U.S. politics, but the 1980s were not banner years for the Democratic Party. David Sawyer had worked as a consultant in the Venezuelan election of 1973. As television spread throughout Latin America and other parts of the world, consultants like Sawyer skilled in producing televised political ads found they could market themselves in foreign countries, often for a lot of money. Soon, Sawyer Miller consultants were jetting around the globe and running polished, American-style campaigns in places like the Philippines, Colombia, Israel, Nigeria and Sudan.
It was a glamorous lifestyle that even captured Hollywood’s attention. The 1986 Sidney Lumet movie Power (reportedly Rove’s favorite) starred Richard Gere as a jet-setting political operative and playboy whose character was based on David Sawyer. In addition to the glamour, Harding sees a strain of crusading idealism. He argues that one important effect of the Sawyer Miller consultants was to help usher in democracy in places like the Philippines and Chile, which lacked it, by getting new leaders elected.
While true in a limited sense, Harding imbues his subjects with high-flown principles they seem not always to deserve. Though Sawyer Miller was considered a Democratic firm domestically, they often didn’t hesitate to work for less-than-progressive “darker” regimes abroad, including dictators in Panama and Sudan. They were quite upfront about why. “I just want to be clear,” a Sawyer Miller consultant tells a new recruit. “What we want to do, what I want to do is make a shitpot full of money.”
As the 1980s progressed, money became an ever-greater focus. Sawyer Miller took on more corporate work, carving out a niche in corporate crisis communication that included tobacco companies and many of the major insider-trading defendants on Wall Street. Its dwindling roster of political clients tended toward the unsavory. The firm was listed among the “Torturer’s Lobby” in a report issued by a Washington think tank. As one disillusioned partner noted when he finally left the firm, “Good fees never come with good causes.” In the end, Miller quit and Sawyer was pushed out by cutthroat junior partners. The firm was eventually subsumed by a public relations conglomerate.
By the time of Sawyer Miller’s demise, however, global political spin was a crowded, competitive field. What’s most striking about Harding’s deeply researched and well-told book is how pervasive and indistinct American- style politics abroad really is: aided by U.S. consultants, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi touted a “Contract with the Italian People” drawn up by the same team that designed Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” A few years after Bill Clinton was elected on the refrain, “Opportunity, Responsibility, and Community,” his advisors had Britain’s Tony Blair parroting the same phrase. And if the continuing calls I get from the other side of the world are any indicator, the politics of Rove remain alive and well in Australia.
Harding also offers convincing evidence that foreign work has had important effects on U.S. politics that remain little understood. In the mid-1990s, for example, Israel abandoned its party-based method of choosing a leader in favor of the American system of electing one directly. The 1999 Israeli election that pitted Ehud Barak against Benjamin Netanyahu featured a veritable all-star team of U.S. consultants, including James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Bob Shrum. Determined to prevent his candidate from being branded “soft on terrorism,” Shrum highlighted Barak’s military record and battlefield valor, and sought to portray the incumbent Netanyahu as an out-of-touch and overly ambitious pol. It worked for Barak, who won a sweeping victory. But it failed five years later when Shrum ran essentially the same campaign for a U.S. presidential candidate, John Kerry.
After the 2001 election, Israel decided that American-style politics was perhaps not such a great thing after all; it returned to the old system of electing its prime minister by party. In that, it is a rare exception. For better or worse, the effects of the revolution Sawyer Miller set off in the 1980s have spanned the globe and seem far too deeply entrenched to undo.