TERENCE SMITH: A small library of analysis and reflection about the 2000 presidential contest has already been published, but now comes the first account written from the inside of one of the campaigns. Author Stuart Stevens moved from New York City to Austin in June, 1999, to work for George W. Bush.
A political strategist, media consultant, and ad maker for more than 20 years, Stevens was part of the team that fashioned the Bush media strategy. He was also the principal producer of the candidate's biographical film at last summer's Republican National Convention. In addition to his political pursuits, Stevens has written for television and magazine, and has published four books on topics ranging from the search for the perfect meal in Europe to a chronicle of his trek along China's ancient silk road.
His look back at campaign 2000 is entitled The Big Enchilada: Campaign Adventures with a Cockeyed Optimist from Texas who won the Biggest Prize in Politics.
Stuart Stevens joins us now. Stuart, welcome.
STUART STEVENS: Thanks very much. Great to be here.
TERENCE SMITH: You make, in this book, the Bush campaign sound something like a band of merry pranksters with a very happy-go- lucky attitude. And yet at the same time, of course, it was a $100-plus million operation that in the end proved to be very effective. So which...
STUART STEVENS: We could have been more effective, but yes.
TERENCE SMITH: So which is it, or which was it?
STUART STEVENS: You know, the Bush campaign... I think campaigns are like sports teams. They develop their own culture, their own internal dynamics. The Bush campaign's internal composition was such like any... Unlike any other campaign I had ever been involved in. First of all, everyone there was there because of their involvement with and commitment to George W. Bush. With a few exceptions like myself, you know, we weren't big hired guns. That gave it an unusual degree, I think, of intimacy, and a sense of kind of us against the world; and also being stuck down in Austin.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. I wonder what the atmosphere was, though, after the New Hampshire primary, when your candidate lost, big-time, to Senator John McCain?
STUART STEVENS: Well, I was convinced that people would get fired, like myself and others. I mean, Ronald Reagan won New Hampshire and fired people. We lost by 19 points, which is the most humiliating defeat in history, modern history. But you know, it was amazing. That afternoon, then-Governor Bush called in about a half dozen people and basically said, "look, you know, we're going to lose, we're going to lose bad. I'm not blaming anybody. Let's move on." He was in the... went about the business of sort of propping us up, rather than blaming everybody. And that set, I think, the tone for the campaign, that... You know, people talk about the loyalties within the Bush campaign and within the Bush administration. Part of it is that he is loyal, and so in turn people give loyalty.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, you talk and write a good deal about the preparation that went into the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, and particularly the speech, which was a very important speech for George W. Bush. You have a passage there-- I wonder if you'd read it for us-- describing how you worked on even the lighting in the hall.
STUART STEVENS: Yeah, this was great fun. "We decided to keep the convention hall dark during Bush's speech. The idea was to increase the drama of the moment, and to make it difficult for the network cameras to focus on anything but the guy who was standing on the stage. Normally the convention hall remains well lit; it enables the cameras to roam at will, looking for the best reaction shot, or what the networks think is the best reaction shot. It can be somebody crying, but it can be just as easily someone looking bored or distracted. That was the problem with staging a convention. You couldn't cast the damn thing. If we could have filled the hall with actors, I wouldn't have been so worried, but real people, well, they were unpredictable, and this was not a moment to leave anything to chance."
TERENCE SMITH: And in fact, it went very well. The speech went very well. Were you happy with the coverage?
STUART STEVENS: Yeah, we were happy. I thought it was a fabulously well-written speech. Mike Gerson and Karen Hughes wrote the speech together. And he worked at it.
TERENCE SMITH: You talk also about your frustration frequently at portraying what you thought was the real George W. Bush. Do you feel you ever got it right? Do you think the public has a good sense of him now?
STUART STEVENS: I think in the... Particularly in the second debate, which was a more informal debate, you got a very good sense of him: Relaxed, confident, sort of how those who knew him best saw him. He is a, I think, terrifically impressive individual. Sometimes it's hard to convey something real about somebody in the kind of kabuki play structure of the campaign, you know-- tarmac to tarmac, question to question-- and often efforts to break down that barrier -- when you go informal, when you spend more time with the press-- they end up biting you because you say something you shouldn't have, or the press spins it. It's a difficult thing to break through. You know, a lot of what modern campaigning is about is the interface, of course, between the press and the campaign.
TERENCE SMITH: And does the campaign end up viewing the press as adversary, ally, necessary evil? How would you put it?
STUART STEVENS: All those, at various times. It is a strange kind of often dysfunctional, enabling relationship where they need us and we need them, and at times we don't like each other. It's sort of like a family, in that you know that ultimately, come Thanksgiving, you're going to have to all sit around the same table, so you better not say too many mean things.
TERENCE SMITH: What's your feeling now, today, as you look at the way this White House, the Bush White House, is being covered? Do you think the impression of the George W. Bush that you know is coming through the coverage that he gets today as President?
STUART STEVENS: I think that the more people see of President Bush, the more they're going to like him-- the more that they get to see him in different circumstances. I think a degree of comfortableness is going to emerge.
TERENCE SMITH: But from the way you say it, it suggests to me as you don't feel the public has the vision yet that you have.
STUART STEVENS: No, I think that's true, they haven't. They haven't had a chance to. He has his own style, and one of his great strengths is his comfortableness with himself.
TERENCE SMITH: You write a good deal also about the art of spinning, spinning bad news into good.
STUART STEVENS: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me about spinning, how it works. How would you spin some bad poll numbers, for example?
STUART STEVENS: Well, the first thing to do is to plant the seeds of their accuracy, though of course, if they were good numbers, all you would do is talk about, like, "of course they're accurate." You want to raise doubts about that. And then the oldest trick, if it is a trick, is to place them in perspective, which means basically, "don't look at this, look at other stuff." You know, do averages-- "this is one bad poll, but then if you look at all this, there will be good polls." We were obsessed in the Bush campaign with the post-labor day Gallup Poll because that historically had proven to be an accurate predictor, and we talked this up because we thought we would be ahead. And then we had a bad three weeks at the end of august after the Democrats had a good convention, and we had this, like, sort of awful feeling that in fact we may be, you know, six, seven, eight points behind in the Labor Day poll.
TERENCE SMITH: And in fact?
STUART STEVENS: We were a couple of points behind, within the margin of error.
TERENCE SMITH: So your reaction was?
STUART STEVENS: My reaction was, hey, we can spin this, you know. We're within the margin of error. Ronald Reagan was a point behind Carter, and went on to a big win.
TERENCE SMITH: The whole notion of spinning... I wonder if you think it contributes to the cynicism that a lot of Americans feel about politics, about politicians, and about spin artists.
STUART STEVENS: Well, I think that what I do in campaigns, particularly media consultants, hopefully will go the way of Tammany Hall bribe masters in 30 or 40 years. We'll look back and we'll say, "how did the system produce these weird people that did these things?" I think there's a recognition universally that there has to be a better way. That's part of campaign finance reform, that's part of efforts to change the way campaigns are conducted. We haven't come up with the better way yet, but I think that that is part of changing the tone in Washington, trying to be less adversarial. What is worst is when the campaign continues into the politicking, and into the creation of laws, and hopefully we'll get beyond that.
TERENCE SMITH: It sounds as though you feel that somehow yourself, you're part of a cynical game.
STUART STEVENS: Very much so. And I'm very up front in the book about having enjoyed it. I don't....
TERENCE SMITH: It appeals to your baser instincts.
STUART STEVENS: It certainly... It had its appeal to the joy of combat. But I... Do I think it represents democracy at its best? Lord, no. And is there is a better way? You bet.
TERENCE SMITH: May be a subject for a second book. Stuart Stevens, thanks so much.
STUART STEVENS: Thank you.