Pinkerton: The Pat Caddell I Knew

Democratic pollster Pat Caddell speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Pat Caddell, who died on February 16, was to me one of the nicest—and most interesting—people I have ever met in politics.  

The broad outlines of Pat’s life are well known. Born in 1950, he got his start in politics in the mid-60s, as a self-taught pollster forecasting local elections in Jacksonville, Florida.   

After graduating from Harvard, he got his big break as the pollster for George McGovern’s presidential campaign. And while McGovern went down to a landslide defeat in the 1972 general election, the fact that he won the Democratic nomination as an insurgent outsider is still a considerable achievement—and Pat deserves his share of the credit. 

Later in the 1970s, Pat served as pollster and strategist for Jimmy Carter, another long-shot candidate for the White House. In fact, Pat first met Carter when the latter, then the governor of Georgia, was angling to get on the national ticket in ’72.

Four years later, with Pat’s help, Carter not only won the nomination, but also the November election.  Indeed, Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s campaign manager and future White House chief of staff, told The New York Times in June 1976, “You know why Jimmy Carter is going to be president?  Because of Pat Caddell—it’s all because of Pat Caddell.”

Jimmy Carter meets with his staff at the Americana Hotel in New York on Tuesday, July 14, 1976. From left facing camera: Pat Caddell; Jerry Rafshoon; Carter; his son, Chip and Jody Powell. Back to camera is Pat Anderson. (AP Photo)

After Carter’s victory, Pat was established as a big wheel in Democratic politics, consulting on dozens of races, including the 1984 presidential campaign of Gary Hart and the 1992 presidential campaign of Jerry Brown.    

In addition, he advised on many movies and TV shows, from Air Force One to Bulworth to The West Wing. He also did corporate consulting, including for the 1985 debut of “New Coke”—admittedly, one of the most disastrous debuts in marketing history.  

From there, Pat seemed to drift to the right. In the 1990s, he was openly critical of the Clinton administration, and in the 2000s, he appeared as a regular on Fox News. He was also well known to Breitbart News readers, having written many articles for this site, as well as appearing many times on Breitbart News’ SiriusXM radio shows.  

Yet in his mind, Pat was always the same man. Till the day he died, he revered Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was well familiar with Ronald Reagan’s quip, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.” And while Pat never left the Democratic Party, he had Reagan’s jaundiced eye toward many Democrats; newer kinds of liberals had supplanted their 20th century commitment to fair play and civil rights, favoring instead avant-garde social issues and sinking into swampy corruption. (Of course, Pat didn’t have any higher regard for most Republican pols.)  

All his life, Pat’s big idea was that there was a radical middle, ignored or ill-served by both parties. That is, there were millions alienated voters, neither truly liberal, nor truly conservative, mistrusting both parties, waiting to be tapped. And if a politician could reach them, there would be a new burst of positive and constructive energy coming from the vital center. 

Pat once told me once that back in 1976, he had pitched a national political TV show, to be entitled, “We the People”; it would be a sort of national tele-town hall.  It’s the idea that Ross Perot seized upon in his 1992 campaign, and others since, even as the Internet has displaced the telephone.   

In the meantime, Caddell was crafting the identity of a hypothetical hero candidate, whom he dubbed “Senator Smith.” That was an homage to Jefferson Smith, the character played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 Frank Capra film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  

In Pat’s vision, a new Sen. Smith would, as in the film, be both a fearless truth-teller and a fierce populist.  Amusingly, one political figure Pat eyed for the Sen. Smith role was then-Sen. Joe Biden. In fact, Pat worked on Biden’s short-lived 1988 presidential campaign, although Biden didn’t actually make it into 1988; his candidacy dissolved amidst accusations that he had committed weird acts of resumé-fabrication and political plagiarism. Indeed, Pat once told me that more than anything else, it was the Biden race that soured him on the nouveau Democratic Party. (And as for Pat’s opinion of Biden himself, well, that was even worse.) 

As anyone who had ever met him—or watched him on TV—knew immediately, Pat had an intense, even overwrought, personality; to him, everything was “titanic,” or “seismic,” or “unprecedented.” And so when pols failed to live up to his standards, or their standards—or any standards—he wasn’t afraid to call them out. And in politics, that can be costly; as they say in D.C., Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.  And so that’s why Pat lived the last decades of his life in Charleston, South Carolina. 

Yet wherever he went, Pat was always, down deep, an idealist. Borrowing Walt Whitman’s famous phrase, he believed that “America is the greatest poem” and that the nation, rejuvenated with better leaders, would always be a “nation announcing itself”—that is, a nation remade and strengthened.  In that vein, Pat could quote lines spoken by FDR from memory, such as his acceptance speech at the 1932 Democratic convention: “Let us all … constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage.” 

To be sure, Pat was often irascible, even cranky. But he was never nasty. He knew a lot, and had a lot to say—and if most people couldn’t keep up with him, well, that was a challenge he had to overcome, with as much patience as he could muster. As he would say to himself, channeling some childhood memory, “Count to ten, Patrick.” 

So if Pat has now run his last race, there’s still the issue of his America—and our America. In his last years, Pat was troubled by what he saw, but always hopeful about what the country could become.  

Yet perhaps most of all, he was always the keen analyst. As he told The New York Times in September 2017 about the new Trump administration: 

People in Washington in the political establishment who think we’ll get rid of Trump and go back to normal have made a terrible miscalculation.  That’s not going to happen.  The paradigm shift that we went through in 2016, it’s still in motion.

Yes, America is always in motion, and so, for all of his 68 years, was Pat. And now, finally, he’s at rest.  And this nation is a stiller place. 

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