As I sat in the dark watching George Clooney play Mike Morris, the Presidential candidate in ‘The Ides of March,’ I began to tense up. It was all coming back to me now.
Campaigns were months of endless days, take-out food, no sleep and no time to do your laundry. You were not like other people with a job. It was a cause! It demanded your full attention. Nothing was more important, not even your family.
I have worked on two Presidential campaigns when I was younger and a Democrat. There were many other campaign jobs through the years, including Senate races, but there is something special about the race for the White House. From the outside it looks chaotic. But the movie made a few things clear.
First, working on a Presidential campaign is like being in love. Second, it is the closest thing to being in organized crime without the bullets. Third, Clooney is this Democratic generation’s version of Warren Beatty.
Walk into a campaign office and look at the people. They are in love with the candidate. It usually doesn’t involve sex but sometimes it does. But it is adoration! He can do no wrong. He is perfect! He can save the world! You have to believe that in order to endure the stress. The more campaigns you work for, the more jaded you become. But there are still moments, even for the professionals, when you still believe in the magic.
You always remember your first time, right? It was 1980 and I was living in New York and working as a consultant to an elected official, Andrew Stein, the Manhattan Borough President. Andrew called me and told me he was going to be the first Democrat to come out against the re-election of Jimmy Carter. Carter had voted against Israel in the UN and
this was New York. Stein was supporting Ted Kennedy. He wanted me to write the foreign policy section of his statement, and I had to do it in an hour. It was for the New York Post. This was before everyone wrote on computers. I wrote it and read it to his assistant over the phone, who typed it. It was in the Post the next morning.
From then on we were in full campaign mode. It was “The Restoration,” the last Kennedy brother who rightfully deserved the Presidency! They wanted me to go to Philadelphia to help the Kennedy campaign with fundraising and events for the Pennsylvania primary. They got me an apartment to stay in but there was no pay. It was for love! It was a Kennedy, how could I say no? This was history! I got to meet the Senator several times. I went campaigning with Bobby Kennedy Jr. I met Jackie at a fundraiser. We won Pennsylvania! We won New York!
I have to admit I did get caught up in the drama of it all. Although the reasons I wanted Carter out was the Iran Hostage Crisis, the wrecked economy and Israel.
The campaign wanted me to go to California for the Primary, but they couldn’t afford a ticket so they asked me to pay for it. I felt bad but I couldn’t do it. I was no longer in love. But there were plenty of others who were organizing caravans of cars to drive to California to work on the last primary. I went to the Convention at Madison Square Garden and heard Kennedy make that great speech.
I knew he was going to lose. I was also there when Carter made his acceptance speech. There were people making jokes and laughing during the speech including my friend and I.
I voted for Ronald Reagan.
When I look back on the experience there are good and bad memories. It is good to work for a cause you believe in, but I don’t think a lot of the people who work on campaigns are realistic. The smartest thing I did was not put the cost of the plane ticket to California on my credit card when I knew Kennedy was going to lose the nomination.
The Jerry Brown campaign was in 1991-92. Brown was smart, articulate and trained by the Jesuits. Having an argument with him was like being with your sharpest professor. He asked tough questions. We beat Clinton in seven states. But we know who became President. That was a campaign of true believers. I was used to tough east coast campaigns. The Brown campaign had a motivational speaker when we opened our headquarters, who asked us to find our purpose or something. I was a little confused. But I stayed with Brown until the Convention. I had to, because Oliver Stone was a Brown delegate for Jerry and my job was to handle his press at the Convention in New York. I had a great time, but that was the last Presidential campaign I worked on. It took up my whole life.
My priorities were off. During the Brown campaign, I was in Connecticut visiting my family and scheduled to travel with the candidate in New York which was only an hour away. I was on the phone with the scheduler in California. I had the phone in one hand and my baby nephew Dovid in the other. The baby and the phone began to fall from my hands.
For one second I actually debated grabbing the phone first. But of course I held onto Dovid and let the phone crash to the floor. However Dovid is convinced I let him go because I only care about work. The fact that I could even hesitate, shocked me. How did I get to the point where I could think the election was more important than a baby? Dovid
still doesn’t believe me.
Spoilers Ahead ***
Why do I think politics is close to organized crime? At the end of ‘The Ides of March’ the seasoned campaign manager Paul, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, meets Steve (Ryan Gosling). Steve is the younger media guy who out maneuvered Paul, but he wants to have a beer with Steve. Paul wants to show him has no hard feelings – he actually admires the way Steve pulled off a coup in a Presidential campaign and won.
It brought back a scene from ‘The Godfather’ in which Hyman Roth, the old gangster, reminds the young Michael Corleone, “this is the business we have chosen.” Roth knows that Michael ordered the hit on his protégé, Moe Green. But he says “I didn’t ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business.”
Who could forget that scene with the bullet through the eye! Throughout those movies, deals were made, and people were betrayed, but the business of gambling, prostitution and drugs went on.
In politics, deals are made, people are betrayed but the business of the campaign goes on. There are always fights. Each operative is trying to get the candidate’s ear and outmaneuver the other operative. People hated each other at times. Of course, the volunteers never saw this. It was always a united front to them. It was one big, happy family to get our guy elected so we could change the world! It is like high school. But the one thing a campaign professional knows is that there is always another campaign. People hire their friends on campaigns like on movie sets.
Why do I think Clooney is the Democrats new Warren Beatty? For many years, Beatty was the Democrat’s biggest movie star. He took time out from his movie career to work for George McGovern in 1972. He is smart, articulate and everyone was hoping he would run for office one day. Does this sound familiar?
Clooney looks the part of a Presidential candidate. When he was making his campaign speeches in the film it was straight out of the Obama playbook. He started talking about getting off of oil and the new technologies that would create jobs in the future! He didn’t say “green jobs” but we know he meant it. I was going to laugh and shout out, ” you mean like Solyndra” but I remembered I was on the Westside of L.A. and in danger of bodily harm.
I never worked with Clooney but I did work with Beatty. He campaigned for Mark Green in New York in the 1986 Senate race against Al D’Amato. Of course we were crushed like 60-40 and Beatty didn’t show up election night. But I don’t blame him. He worked hard, signed autographs, posed for pictures and raised money for Green. He knew
the issues. So the Clooney thing is not news to me. He looks so Presidential!
I thought ‘The Ides of March’ was entertaining and did approximate the tensions of a campaign. It brought back a flood of memories for me. But I could see the double cross coming a mile away. And I figured out how Gosling’s character could win way before he did. They say these movies about politics are always about an innocent losing his soul because he wants to win. I knew he would do it. If his guy wins, he goes to the West Wing. To him, winning is everything! I’d rather watch it on screen. When it is over and the lights come up I get to go home.