Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

Bill Clinton has given us frequent lessons in spin. South Africa’s Nelson Mandela has shown the advantage of getting ahead over getting even. Less fortunate leaders like Newt Gingrich have been taught to only talk when it improves the silence.

Expect a raging egotist, entranced by his own affairs, and you are seized with the unfamiliar pleasure of having someone probe with quick interest at your own most intimate longings, plotting your course even before you have done so yourself. Expect to be wooed with favors, and he captures you instead with a breathtaking request. His real knack, as Machiavelli taught him five hundred years ago, lies in getting you to do things for him. Eerily and against your will, you discover that the more you do for him, the more loyal you become, the more you want to invest in his career. Expect a figure of dark passions, fired by revenge, and you meet someone with cold-blooded shrewdness, an uncanny bent to bring the most hated enemy into the tent with him. Expect an argument, and you are blinded by the quick concession; yes, you are right on the larger “principle”—it is the smaller, more tangible points that seem to interest him. Expect a swell, born to well-placed connections, and you meet someone heir to another sort of legacy: the inner drive to meet those he needs to meet. Expect a narcissist, and you meet a person who not only exposes his faults but has learned, adroitly, to brandish and exploit them. Such curious, even quirky behavior sets the political animal apart from the pack. And it’s what gives certain men and women decisive power over others.

I have gained something even more valuable than a healthy Rolodex of connections: the knowledge that success is only rarely based on the luck of looks, money or charisma. There is energy, of course. All great pols have that. But what drives this energy is the willingness to learn and do whatever is necessary to reach the top. The more they succeed at their trade, the zestier they become. John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon were rivals for office, but they had one great love in common: the contest itself.

In every field of endeavor there are people who could easily be successful but who spend their entire lives making one political mistake after another. They become so absorbed in themselves that they ignore the very people they would most like to influence. Rather than recruit allies, they limit their horizons to missions they can accomplish alone. Instead of confronting or seducing their adversaries, they avoid them. In making important deals, they become obsessed with intangibles and give away the store. They become crippled by handicaps when they could be exploiting them. Some might say these tendencies are only human. But such tendencies that pass for human nature, our hesitancy to ask for things, our unease in the face of opposition, are instincts for accommodation rather than leadership, the reflexes of fear. By following them, we trap ourselves. We teach ourselves to stay in line, keep our heads down: the age-old prescription for serfdom.

In the Depression days of 1931, the Dodge had become a boarding hotel, accommodating several U.S. senators and at least one Supreme Court justice. It also housed a less glittering tenantry. Two floors below the lobby level, there stretched a long corridor of cubicles, all sharing a common bath. At night this dank underworld came alive, percolating with the dreams of young bright-eyed men lucky to be working for the Congress of the United States. One of the subterranean residents was a gawky twenty-two-year-old giant with elephantine ears who had just become secretary to Congressman Richard M. Kleberg, Democrat of Texas. Just two weeks earlier he had been teaching high school in Houston. Now, his first night at the Dodge, he did something strange, something he would admit to biographer and intimate Doris Kearns in the months just before he died. That night, Lyndon Baines Johnson took four showers. Four times he walked towel-draped to the communal bathroom down along the hall. Four times he turned on the water and lathered up. The next morning he got up early to brush his teeth five times, with five-minute intervals in between. The young man from Texas had a mission. There were seventy-five other congressional secretaries living in the building. He wanted to meet as many of them as possible as fast as possible. The strategy worked. Within three months of arriving in Washington, the newcomer got himself elected Speaker of the “Little Congress,” the organization of all House staff assistants. In this, his Washington debut, Johnson was displaying his basic political method. He was proving that getting ahead is just a matter of getting to know people. In fact, it is the exact same thing.

Before I came to understand the workings of Capitol Hill, I had a hard time comprehending how someone like Lyndon Johnson could rise to such heights. The man was hopeless on TV, sweating and squinting at the TelePrompTer with those ridiculous granddaddy glasses. His notorious personal behavior—flashing his appendectomy scar, picking his beagles up by their ears, conducting business enthroned on the john—did nothing to improve the image. Yet there he was in the turbulent 1960s telling us, his “fellow Americans,” of the grand plans he had for us. Like many a college student of the era, I was stymied by the riddle: How in a functioning democracy could this figure have climbed over dozens of appealing, able and engaging men to make war and shape peace? In the years ahead I would come to appreciate how Johnson’s mastery of person-to-person dealings, what professionals refer to as retail politics, worked so well in the world of Congress and why it works so well in other organizations. Lyndon Johnson grabbed and wielded power not in the bright glare of TV lights but in the personal glow of one-to-one communication.

For Lyndon Johnson, Capitol Hill would be a wonderland of retail politics. The critical factor was the small number of people he had to deal with. In this sense it resembled the politics of any institution, whether it be a business corporation or a university faculty. Where FDR made his mark giving “fireside chats” to millions of radio listeners, LBJ worked his magic in the flesh. The smaller the group, the better. Though he spent a decade in the House of Representatives, Johnson did not become a powerhouse until reaching the Senate. It is easier to retail a hundred senators than 435 congressmen. “From the first day on, it was obvious that it was his place—just the right size,” his longtime aide Walter Jenkins remembered.

To clock Johnson’s political ground speed in that body it is necessary to mark only two dates. He joined the Senate in 1949. He had won the job of top Democratic leader by the end of 1952. Johnson’s march to power in the Senate began just as it had in the basement shower room back at the Dodge: he went directly to the source. To succeed at staff-level politics, he had checked into the hotel with the biggest block of votes. His grab for Senate leadership began the same way: getting a hard sense of where the power lay. As Theodore White put it, LBJ displayed an instinct for power “as primordial as a salmon’s going upstream to spawn.” Brains as well as instinct were at work. While the minds of other newly elected senators in 1948 were awhirl with the cosmic issues they would soon be addressing in debate, Lyndon Johnson concentrated on the politics of the place. After all, the Senate was just like any other organization he had joined. There were the “whales” who ran the place, and there were the “minnows” who got swept along in their wake. One of the lessons Johnson had learned during his apprenticeship years in the House was the importance of party cloakrooms.

The word “cloakroom” is in fact a misnomer. Members have had offices, where they can presumably leave their coats, since the early part of the last century. The contemporary function of the cloakrooms, which are closed to all but members and a few trusted staffers, is that of daytime hangout. In addition to the snack bars and the well-worn couches, the cloakrooms house a vital set of congressional switchboards and the trusty “manager of phones.” Despite his title, this person is far more than a functionary. Better than anyone else, he knows the answer to that relentless question of Capitol life: What’s going on? He knows when the day’s business will end, what’s coming up tomorrow and whether the scheduled Friday session is worth staying in town for. If you want the scuttlebutt, or simply to read the mood of Congress, you know where to go. What gas stations are to small southern towns, cloakrooms are to the Capitol. In every business there are such spots, where people forced to play roles in the workplace stand at ease and discuss the well-recognized realities.

The cloakroom is Congress’s water cooler. Lyndon Johnson, the country boy from Texas, knew the importance of such hideaways. The first thing he did after his election to the Senate was summon to his congressional office the twenty-year-old page who answered the phones in the Senate Democratic cloakroom. His name was Robert G. “Bobby” Baker, and Johnson knew this particular young man’s talent for sizing up the strengths and weaknesses of those who relied so much on him. Baker would know which senators liked to work hard and which ones wanted to get home or somewhere else. He knew the habits, the schedules, the interests, the social demands and the political priorities. That first meeting, which Johnson convened even before he was sworn in as senator, lasted two hours. “I want to know who’s the power over there,” he demanded of the page, “how you get things done, the best committees, the works.” Years later, by then an aide to Johnson, “Bobby” Baker would make a name for himself as the premier Washington wheeler-dealer. Though scandal would later lead Johnson to disown him, Baker—a man who knew the good, the bad and the ugly in senators’ lives—was a huge and valued asset on LBJ’s rise to the top. What Johnson learned from his new young friend was not far from what he expected: that all senators are not created equal, that within the world’s most exclusive club there existed an “Inner Club” of southern senators led indisputably by Richard B. Russell of Georgia. Jealous of its influence, this Inner Club would smash anyone or any group that challenged it. Lyndon Johnson decided then and there to “marry” Richard Russell. He could not, of course, be too obvious in his courtship; there were other men of ambition who had tried that and learned the pain of unrequited love. Johnson would be more discreet. His first move was to get appointed to Russell’s committee, Armed Services. This would give him the excuse he needed to spend a lot of time around the senior senator without appearing to be currying favor. That first gambit proved to be enormously successful. He soon managed to make a name for himself on Russell’s committee by going after waste and inefficiency in the Pentagon. He had found a way to be both a supporter of a strong national defense and a critic of the military establishment. Johnson pursued his relationship with the powerful Georgian beyond the professional level. Russell, a bachelor, would have both breakfast and supper at the Capitol dining room. “I made sure that there was always one companion, one senator, who worked as hard and as long as he, and that was me, Lyndon Johnson,” he reminisced at the end. “On Sundays the House and Senate were empty, quiet and still, the streets outside were bare. It’s a tough day for a politician, especially if, like Russell, he’s all alone. I knew how he felt, for I, too, counted the hours till Monday would come again, and, knowing that, I made sure to invite Russell over for breakfast, lunch, brunch or just to read the Sunday papers. He was my mentor and I wanted to take care of him.” It was not merely a friendship of utility. Johnson came to develop a tremendous respect for his patron. Years later he would say that the Senator from Georgia should have been president. But Johnson clearly had his own agenda. While still a freshman senator, he was perfecting a brand of politics still celebrated among political veterans as the “Johnson treatment.”

Where the modern, wholesale politician has a tendency to broadcast to those he is addressing, as if each human being were a particle of some great undifferentiated mass, Johnson kept close track of the differences among people. He always made a point to know exactly whom he was talking to. Like the future Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill and others of the old breed, he tried to be a kind of political traffic controller, always aware of the direction not only of his own vector but of all the other little dots on the screen. It may seem all the more surprising that a man with his towering ego should have climbed to such heights by studying the inner as well as the outer needs of others. Yet it was his willingness to focus on other people and their concerns, no matter how small, that contributed to the near total communication Johnson enjoyed with those he sought to influence. Jack Brooks, a Texas congressman who had been a close friend of LBJ and knew the “Johnson treatment” firsthand, told me that it came down to an extraordinary ability to concentrate the entire mind on his target’s immediate situation. “Lyndon Johnson would convince you that your concern, no matter how small it might seem to other people, was the most important thing in the world to Lyndon Johnson.”

“Now, I used to be a young man like you,” Johnson began, standing so close that King’s glasses were fogging, “and I know what it means to be working for someone else and yet wanting to get on and be your own boss. What’s your training?” When King said he had been a newspaperman, Johnson was unimpressed. “Not much money in that. You should go to law school. You can always go back to journalism if you want to, but you’ll have the degree.” King never knew for sure why the great man had summoned him for this thirty seconds of predawn fatherly counsel. What he does recall vividly is the picture of himself, the don’t-take-shit-from-no-man Larry King, dutifully lugging the Senator’s baggage down the stairs and then going back to ask whether there was anything more he could carry. Johnson had not only transformed an adversary into a bellhop, he had also recruited a future minion to the LBJ campaign team.

Theodore Sorensen, who wrote great speeches for John F. Kennedy and stayed on briefly after Dallas, described the Johnson method of personal dealings this way: never bring up the artillery until you bring up the ammunition. In other words, to gain a senator’s vote on a bill, Johnson would spend days studying every conceivable source of motivation. When he was ready, he would just happen to bump into him. The fellow never knew what hit him. Few were immune to the treatment. Paul H. Douglas, the great economist who became a great senator, was once opposed to LBJ on a pending vote, but doubted his own sales resistance. “I’m not going out on the floor,” he told an aide. “He’s going to convince me.”

The secret to Johnson’s success, then and later, was his jeweler’s eye for the other man’s ego. Just as he had patiently introduced himself to one staff aide after another at the Dodge, the future Senate Majority Leader would give the same personal attention to his colleagues in the 1950s. Even as president he would employ the same exhaustive method in gaining approval of the most massive, historic legislative program since the New Deal: Medicare, civil rights, tax reduction and trade expansion. These landmarks were a tribute to this one man’s commitment to political retail. When it came to winning, LBJ had the patience and the humility to work each legislator one at a time. “JFK would call five or six,” House aide Craig Raupe recalls; “LBJ would take nineteen names and call them all.” Such painstaking retail paid dividends: where the dashing wholesaler John F. Kennedy had been stalled in his tracks on Capitol Hill, the Great Retailer would get his way. Lyndon Johnson was an avid student of others’ success. He wanted to learn all the tricks. “What’s his secret of getting ahead?” he would ask. “How did he do it?” This is not to say that LBJ’s attention to the personal was based on altruism. He loathed Robert F. Kennedy, but this did not stop him from studying every habit of John F. Kennedy’s brash little brother once Johnson became president himself. He knew that Bobby liked to stay up late at Hickory Hill discussing weighty issues of art and politics with his highbrow friends. Johnson always made a point of setting his appointments with the younger Kennedy at 8 A.M. sharp: better to have the little fella as groggy and vulnerable as possible.

When several of the country’s editorial writers began writing high-toned critiques of Administration policies in the late ’60s, LBJ invited a coterie of them to lunch at the White House. Upon their arrival, they were escorted to the West Wing swimming pool. There they beheld, to their shared dismay, the President of the United States splashing away in his altogether. After protesting their lack of swimming suits, the now fully intimidated men of letters permitted an intimacy of communication with the Commander in Chief they had never anticipated when leaving their desks that morning. They could never again scold him with the same impunity. When it came to establishing rapport with someone, LBJ would say and do exactly what he divined was necessary. But there are limits to political retailing, as Johnson soon discovered. In the late 1950s, while the new-breed John F. Kennedy was laying the public-relations foundation for wholesale victory in the important presidential primaries, Johnson was counting on the relationships he had developed in the Senate to carry the day. Unaware of the emerging power of the media, he would sit in a room checking off the list of Senate supporters, acting as if they could deliver their states like precinct captains. “I’m okay in Arkansas, I’ve got McClellan and Fulbright; I’m okay in . . .” The man who assembled a national strategy won the presidency; the one pursuing the insider’s method became his VP.

Often, Johnson would be on the verge of going wholesale politically, then allow his instincts to pull him back. White House counsel Harry McPherson tells how Johnson would often encourage him to write a presidential speech that captured the “big picture” of the Great Society’s goals, and then insist that his aide include Johnson’s record in adding to the number of chicken inspectors at the Agriculture Department. As long as he lived, LBJ was unable to grasp the power of television. Veteran journalist Martin Agronsky, then correspondent for CBS, recalls being summoned to the family quarters of the White House to be told by LBJ himself, eating a late supper in the kitchen, that he wanted CBS to give live coverage to an upcoming dinner he was having for the nation’s governors. The dinner would include a question-and-answer period that would give Johnson the chance to make a public case for his Vietnam policies. Agronsky called Fred Friendly, chief of his network’s news division, and hastily organized the program. On the night before the broadcast, Agronsky was again summoned to a kitchen scene at the White House, but this time Johnson wanted the program canceled because Mrs. Johnson thought that putting the dinner on television would “abuse the hospitality of the White House to the governors.” Johnson was willing to pass up this rare prime-time TV opportunity in order to ensure his personal courtesy toward the governors, their wives and, last but not least, Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson.

When Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976, he ran against Watergate, bureaucracy, red tape, the arrogance of power and the establishment. All of this was conveyed in a single code word, “Washington.” Carter’s decision to “run against Washington” was a brilliant bit of political positioning. It allowed him, a member of the party that had dominated Washington for most of the previous generation, to posture as the “out” candidate. It gave him the populist edge that carried him to victory against a well-liked Gerald R. Ford. But his mistake was allowing this anti-Washington posture, so formidable out in the country, to hinder his effectiveness once in the capital. It is one thing to run against institutions. It’s another to declare war against the very people you are going to have to work with. No president can carry out a program if the Congress refuses to pass it in the first place or if the bureaucracy refuses to support its vigorous execution. “People don’t do their best work while they’re being pissed on,” an old Washington hand once remarked to me.

In crafting his early White House image, Jimmy Carter made much of his effort to deflate the “imperial presidency,” which had become a major national concern during the years of Vietnam and Watergate. One stunt was his decision to abandon the convoy of limousines and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in the inaugural parade. A less successful gambit was his selling the presidential yacht, Sequoia. For years, presidents have found that nothing else loosens up difficult members of Congress like a quiet evening cruise down the Potomac. As one White House lobbyist put it, getting rid of the Sequoia was the “stupidest thing Carter ever did.” It gave the new President a short blurb in the newspapers for being careful with the taxpayers’ money; it cost him a great deal more at the retail level. Ronald Reagan did it differently. He, too, ran against “Washington.” More than that, he said that “government is not the solution to our problems, it is the problem itself,” not a phrase to win the hearts and minds of the city devoted entirely to the business of government. Yet, learning through Carter’s mistake, he did not make a vendetta of it. No one ever got the message that the new President was aiming his barbs at him. The first thing Reagan did after being elected was attend a series of well-planned gatherings in the homes of the capital’s most prominent journalists, lawyers and business people. The initial event was a party the President-elect and his wife, Nancy, gave at the F Street Club. The guests were the “usual suspects” of Washington political society; in other words, they were mostly Democrats. “I decided it was time to serve notice that we’re residents,” Reagan told The Washington Post’s Elisabeth Bumiller. “We wanted to get to know some people in Washington.” They went to dinner at the home of conservative columnist George Will, where they met Katharine Graham, publisher of the Post and bête noire of recent Republican Administrations. Next, they attended a party thrown by Mrs. Graham at her home in Georgetown. All this sent a clear signal: the Reagans and their people had come to join Washington society, not scorn it.

Each year, the members of the House of Representatives, Republicans and Democrats together, hold a quiet little dinner in one of the employee’s cafeterias. It is sponsored by the men who manage the House gym, a congressional gathering place, like the cloakroom, where the members are cloistered from the outside world. There younger members play pickup basketball. Older members get rubdowns in the steam room, a place Tip O’Neill never went to without a handful of cigars to pass out. At the gym dinner, the fare is top-of-the-menu diner food—steak, baked potato, salad, apple pie for dessert. There is no program. The members simply come, serve themselves from a buffet, grab a beer and find a seat at one of the many long tables. They talk, greet friends—many former members make it back for the evening—eat, talk some more and leave. In an immensely political world, where congressmen send stacks of “regrets” every day of the week, attendance at the gym dinner is huge and enthusiastic. When I attended my first such dinner in 1981, I was surprised to see two other guests: George Bush and Ronald Reagan, the latter in a sporty glen-plaid suit. They had come for no other apparent reason than to share a drink and have their pictures taken with the members. George Bush, a congressman in the ’60s, knew the significance of the dinner and what a hit his new boss would make there. He knew that the members would be particularly taken with the fact that Reagan had come to an event that was an inside affair, off limits to the media. Jimmy Carter never attended a gym dinner.

Reagan, whose contempt for government dwarfed Carter’s, was not about to make personal relationships suffer because of political or philosophical differences. He made an effort to win over that permanent Washington “establishment” that can either help an Administration or grease its decline. Despite the fact that he continued to campaign relentlessly against “Washington” as if he had never visited the place, he didn’t feel the sting of local rebuke that was visited on his predecessor. The lesson is obvious. If you want to do business with someone, don’t forget the personal aspect. The problem with new-breed pols is that in learning the skills of broadcasting they have forgotten the skills of schmoozing.

President George Bush spent the afternoon of April 3, 1989, autographing baseballs. The fan joining him at the Orioles–Red Sox season opener, signing his name to the same balls, was Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. The visitor kept telling everyone that Bush, the ’48 Yale captain, was “one of the world’s great baseball players.” How did George Bush win the Persian Gulf War? This is how. When Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded defenseless Kuwait in 1990, friends like Mubarak and others whom Bush had spent years cultivating were money in Bush’s bank. These were people he could get on the phone to quickly talk turkey, close acquaintances he would galvanize into the greatest wartime coalition since World War II. It wasn’t our Patriot missiles that sent Hussein’s army racing back to Baghdad. It was the posse that George Bush built.

Like Lyndon Johnson, who arrived in D.C. a third of a century earlier, Clinton wasted no time getting to know as many people as possible. He began running for freshman class president his first day on campus. He continued the same relentless networking at Oxford, at Yale law school, and as a volunteer in the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern. All the while he recorded the names and small details about people that would later testify to the bond they had shared. By the time Clinton ran for U.S. Congress in 1974, he had a box of restaurant napkins and other wildly assorted scraps containing the names, telephone numbers, and addresses of classmates, professors and political activists, all stockpiled for this moment of opportunity and exploitation.

Every employee, from general counsel of the most prestigious committee to the guy driving the subway cars between the Senate office buildings and the Capitol, owed his job to a particular senator. Sons and daughters of friends back home operated elevators that had been automated for years. There was even a well-dressed young man who sat all day at the basement level of the Dirksen Senate Office Building; his job was to wait until a member of the world’s greatest deliberative body emerged from the elevator. He would then rise from his chair and ask whether the gentleman or lady intended taking the Capitol subway; if so, he would push a button on the wall behind him, alerting the subway car drivers. Then he would return to his chair. To get anywhere in this sprawling bureaucratic plantation you needed to have a “patron.” To find one, you needed to know which of its patrons, 100 senators and 435 members of the House, to cultivate and what to say to them. No patronage, no job. I myself came to the Hill with the general ambition of working my way up the political system. My immediate goal was to become a legislative assistant to a congressman or a senator, the job Ted Sorensen had held with John F. Kennedy. I wanted to end up where he had. With two hundred dollars left over from my Peace Corps “readjustment” check, I started to knock on doors.

Since I had no connections, I made a list of Democratic congressmen and senators from the Northeast. My initial targets were those congressmen serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee. I figured they might go for my two years’ experience in third world development. Soon, after distributing fifty or so résumés along the halls of the Capitol office buildings, I began to sense what I was up against. I began looking for some small edge. Having gone to a Jesuit college in Massachusetts, I searched the Congressional Directory for members of a similar stripe. Exhausting the Democrats, I began looking to the Republicans. The important thing was to get a job. I was getting down to my last hundred dollars. Finally, I got wind that Representative James M. Collins, a redhot conservative Republican from Texas, was looking for a legislative assistant. Here was one liaison not destined to endure. From the moment I walked into the interview, it was culture shock. Attired in a Sun Belt suit, gleaming white shoes and the kind of haircut they give at barbershops with Old Glory in the window, Jim Collins discharged a lightning verdict: “I would say that people of my district, and I don’t mean any offense by this, would be put off by your way of speaking.” Then, turning to his aide: “Roy, wouldn’t you say that people from back home coming in this office would look at this young man and figure he brought back some idealistic notions with him from the Peace Corps?” Finally he asked, “Who do you know?” When I mumbled that I knew a guy working in a patronage elevator-operator job, he realized I had my work cut out for me. He then offered some advice that bolstered my growing beliefs about political retail.

“You should try some of the Northeastern, big-city offices. I’ll bet there are a good number of congressmen who would like to have someone with your background working for them.” The decision behind us, Congressman Collins added some sage wisdom. “Politics,” he said, “is just like selling insurance door to door, which is what I used to do before getting into this business. Some people will go for you and some won’t. You knock on a hundred doors, you get nine people to invite you back for a sales pitch. Of the nine, three will buy the policy. You only have to sell three people to do all right, but you’ll never find those three unless you knock on the hundred doors to start with.” Two weeks later, lightning struck. With eighty dollars left in the till, I went to work for Senator Frank E. Moss, Democrat of Utah. His top aide, Wayne Owens, who went on to become a member of Congress, had been an assistant to the late Robert F. Kennedy, and, sure enough, Wayne liked my background in the Peace Corps. Needing someone with a knowledge of economics, he offered a tryout. I was to take home with me a letter that the wife of the director of the Utah Symphony had written to the Senator asking about the tax situation of people working for nonprofit organizations. On Monday, after a feverish effort to secure the correct information from Internal Revenue, I was given my reward: I was to be a Capitol Hill policeman, with a daily watch running from 3 to 11 P.M. I was to spend my mornings and early afternoons working in Senator Moss’s office. “At least it will put groceries on the table,” said my new friend Wayne. He had a point. To win the race, you must first register as a starter. My education in politics and life had begun in earnest. I had learned my first lesson in political retail: the importance of one-to-one relationships.

Through a quarter century in Washington, it has been my experience that most opportunities result from a single, identifiable human being. From 1981 through 1986, I enjoyed an exciting and highly visible stint as senior aide and spokesman for House Speaker Tip O’Neill. I would never have gotten that position, which brought me into the thick of top-level Washington, had I not (a) been one of President Jimmy Carter’s speechwriters and (b) worked with a fellow named Martin Franks. Marty had been research director for the Carter reelection campaign. When the Reagan crowd came to town, he became director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. One of the first things he did was ask his boss, Congressman Tony Coelho of California, to hire me as a “media consultant,” which really meant helping Speaker Tip O’Neill, the classic political retailer, fend off the attacks of the world’s greatest political wholesaler, Ronald Reagan. Within three months, O’Neill’s then top assistant went on to public relations, and the Speaker gave me his job. More than that, he gave me his trust. The next six years allowed me the kind of rough-and-tumble view of Washington politics you could never get with a political science Ph.D. The chain extends further. I had been named a presidential speechwriter in 1979 by Hendrik Hertzberg, to whom I had been introduced by a friend of mine from New York, Robert Schiffer, a successful investment banker and public servant, whom I had originally met while working in a campaign in Brooklyn six years earlier. I went to work in the Carter White House originally because a friend, Patricia Gwaltney, had been named to a top position at the Office of Management and Budget to work on Jimmy Carter’s pet project, government reorganization. I had met Pat as a fellow staffer on the Senate Budget Committee, to which I had been named by the committee chairman, Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, on the strength of a phone call from my earlier boss, Senator Frank Moss of Utah. “You want a good man? Here’s a good man.” In Washington, as in most places, building a career is the same as running a campaign. What distinguishes it from an election campaign is the size of the audience. Retail is the name of the game. To get ahead, there is usually one identifiable person who matters. Get that person’s vote and you’ve won the prize.

This is how it works in politics and in most other places. If there is another way to get a job than getting someone to give it to you, I have yet to come across it. Just as the legendary Lyndon Johnson demonstrated to us in the john of the old Dodge Hotel, the trick is to find your target and zero in. It’s not who you know; it’s who you get to know. The applications of this rule are universal. I did not set off to work my way through the Washington political world by getting a job as a moonlighting Capitol cop under the patronage of a Mormon from Utah, but it worked out that way. The same ladder of personal relationships has permitted my rise in journalism.

Tip O’Neill, even his adversaries would admit, rarely lost touch with the tangible needs of his fellow Irish in Massachusetts who kept him in office. His long rise to one of the country’s most contested positions through a half century of successful elections was built on something hard and elemental. It is the nugget of wisdom prized by all great political figures: to understand and influence your fellow man, don’t focus too much on the grand, intangible issues; keep a tight watch on what matters most to him or her personally. Tip O’Neill had a favorite phrase for this principle: “All politics is local.” If you want to understand how a politician behaves, look at what affects him at home, back where his voters are. Politicians use the same hard-nosed approach in dealing with one another: if you want to hurt someone, hit him where it matters to him the most, in his own backyard.

When Congressman William J. Hughes of New Jersey won his first election, back in 1974, he began holding “town meetings” to keep in touch with the people at home. At the first such meeting, held in his home area of Salem County, the freshly minted legislator opened with a statement of his congressional duties. “I represent you at the federal level,” he said. “I don’t take care of your potholes. I don’t pick up your trash.” When it came time for questions, a woman in the first row raised her hand insistently. “Well, I want to tell you,” she began, “they’re supposed to pick up my trash on Thursday afternoons and they never do and the dogs get into it.” “You know, madam, as I indicated to you, I’m a federal legislator,” Hughes told her. “I work on the federal budget and national issues. And what you should do is contact either your mayor or your local commissioner of public works.” Without a hint of sarcasm, the woman looked her hot new congressman directly in the eye and said, “I didn’t want to start that high.” If there exists a sacrament of baptism in the secular world of politics, it is administered in such public moments as this. The cold water of truth is splashed in the face of every young pol: you don’t tell people what to worry about; they tell you. Sometimes the “All politics is local” admonition gets delivered with a vengeance.

Lawton Chiles, the longtime senator from Florida, rejected the well-tailored dark blue suits so fashionable in D.C. “When I dress like that,” he once told a staff member, “no one comes up to me at the airport to say hello.” That’s why Chiles wore country-cut suits. The man who won election by walking the length of Florida wanted to remain in appearance as in reality the same fellow the folks elected. Without necessarily knowing it, the Florida Senator was observing a basic political tenet first publicized by Niccolò Machiavelli in 1513. Machiavelli warned future politicians, in The Prince, to stay close to the people they are ruling. If the politician is “present, in person, he can discover disorders in the bud and prevent them from developing,” he wrote almost five centuries ago, “but if he is at a distance in some remote part, they come to him only by hearsay and thus, when they are got to a head, are commonly incurable.” In 1981 Congressman John Breaux of Louisiana offered a more outrageous display of the “All politics is local” rule. He confessed to a reporter that he had been influenced to support the Reagan Administration’s historic tax and budget policies with the promise of higher price supports for sugar, a major product of his state. Asked whether his vote could be bought, he replied brightly, “No, but it can be rented.” The idiom and the ethic were appreciated back in Louisiana. Congressman Breaux is now Senator Breaux.

FDR’s son James described the Roosevelt–Kennedy summit in hardball terms. According to him, his father laid it on the line: the President would be only too glad to help the young Kennedys get ahead in politics, but for the ambassador to desert the national ticket would be to ruin those boys’ careers before they had begun. Great salesman that he was, FDR had found the unique selling point.

It matters little what terrain you are competing on; the key to winning over allies is to focus on their sensitive points. A college student should focus on that great audience of one, the professor. With the right amount of attentiveness the student can discern what the teacher thinks and cares about most. The notes taken in class are the best possible guide not just to the course but to the person giving it. The same goes in the world beyond school. Regardless of your religious or philosophical preference, you cannot afford to be a solipsist, someone who believes he exists alone in the world. Focusing on your own ego is a guarantee of failure. The smart politician never takes his eyes off the other fellow’s ego.

Contrary to what many people assume, the most effective way to gain a person’s loyalty is not to do him or her a favor, but to let that person do one for you. Again, it was Niccolò Machiavelli who in sixteenth-century Italy discovered something basic about human nature. He observed that when a city was besieged for many months, when the people had lived through tremendous hardship within the city’s walls, when they had suffered horror and hunger in defense of their prince, they were all the more loyal to him. They felt even more bound to him afterward, “looking upon him as under an obligation to them for having sacrificed their houses and estates in his defense. And the nature of man is such as to take as much pleasure in having obliged another as in being obliged himself.” Or, in another rendering of Machiavelli’s wise admonition, “Men are by nature as much bound by the benefits they confer as by those they receive.”

Those who give you one helping hand very often make a habit of looking out for you further down the road. We tend naturally to remember the people we “discover” along the way and seek to ensure that they prove us correct. When you ask someone for help, you are implicitly asking people to place a bet on you. The more people you get to bet on you, the shorter your odds—and the larger your network of rooting supporters is going to be. But many people hold back because they see each request for help as an admission of weakness and each assertion of self-reliance as a sign of strength. This do-it-yourself mentality can be lethal. It can limit and isolate a contender, denying him allies. The little secret shared by smart politicians (and appreciated in at least one other profession) is that people get a kick out of being propositioned. The smart politician knows that in soliciting someone he is not so much demanding a gift or service, he is offering the person the one thing he himself wants: the opportunity to get involved. The candidate asking for a campaign contribution or a vote is simply offering a chance to join in the political action, to be part of his success. He is selling stock in himself, and in the process he is creating a network of stockholders. What the successful politician has is the ability to approach a perfect stranger to ask not just for his vote but for his time, effort and money. He has no hesitation in accosting a wealthy woman at a cocktail party and asking her for five thousand dollars, or in asking others to drop everything and devote themselves to his advancement, saying, “I’d like you to work for me for the next six months as a campaign volunteer,” knowing that it means the recruits would be working around the clock for little or no pay and with no guarantee of a job even if their candidate wins. Politicians develop the attitude admirably and most crudely extolled by that great California assemblyman Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh: “If you can’t drink their booze, take their money, screw their women and vote against them in the morning, you don’t belong in this place.”

This willingness of one man to go out and boldly ask was the secret fuel of the Kennedy juggernaut in the late 1950s. It explains how a forty-three-year-old senator with no role in the national party or the Senate leadership could snatch the presidential nomination from the party establishment. What the Senator from Massachusetts did in the campaign was unprecedented: he applied his local technique of political retail to the presidential race. He sent his campaign director, Lawrence O’Brien, out into the country simply to ask county chairmen, small-town mayors and state AFL-CIO treasurers to support him for president of the United States. No one had ever asked them before. “As I look back on my travels, the thing that amazes me,” Larry O’Brien recalled, “is that we had the field almost entirely to ourselves. No one representing Johnson or Humphrey or Symington [the other candidates for the Democratic nomination] had preceded me to the state houses and union halls. As I moved from state to state making friends, I kept waiting for the opposition to show up, but it never did.” On July 13, 1960, Kennedy won the nomination. At ten-thirty the next morning, he offered the other spot on the ticket to Lyndon Johnson. The Texan had played it very rough as adversary for the nomination, attacking him not only for his poor attendance record but also for his bad health, reporting that Kennedy suffered from a secret terminal disease. Kennedy knew, however, that he needed the Texan as his running mate in order to win big down South. Political experts agree that if he hadn’t made that extraordinary decision, Richard Nixon would have been president eight years sooner. Just as the Kennedy forces had proven during the long battle for the nomination, the willingness to ask can be the greatest of all power plays. As Lyndon Johnson put it later, even he was overwhelmed by Kennedy’s request. “It took a pretty big man to walk down two flights of stairs to ask that of a man who had opposed him all the way down to the Panama Canal.”

People don’t mind being used; what they mind is being taken for granted. Tip O’Neill often told a story from his first and only unsuccessful run for office. The year was 1934, when, still a senior at Boston College, he ran for a seat on the Cambridge City Council. On the day of the election, he met a neighbor who said she was going to vote for him even though he hadn’t asked her to. O’Neill was surprised at her statement. “I’ve lived across the street from you for eighteen years,” he told her. “I shovel your walk in the winter. I cut your grass in the summer. I didn’t think I had to ask you for your vote.” He never forgot her response. “Tom, I want you to know something: people like to be asked.” The fact is, the more favors asked, the more supporters recruited. People who pour their souls and their bank balances into another’s destiny cannot afford to be too critical. They simply have too much invested. As Machiavelli suggested, great careers are like great wars: the sacrifices call for further sacrifices.

Even the richest contributor is in a sense a political groupie. The low-numbered license plate symbolizes, after all, a connection with power; the simpler, the better. Membership in the “Eagles Club” was conferred on loyal Republicans in 1980 for giving Ronald Reagan $10,000. If you pay the required amount, in other words, you are not just a contributor, you’re a dues-paying member of a real in-group. A politician will help get someone’s daughter into a good college, and the constituent will soon forget (remembering only the other child that the Congressman failed to help with). The same person will never forget, however, that he gave money to the Congressman’s campaign. There’s an interesting asymmetry in the way contributors and politicians refer to each other. The benefactors call the recipients “friends”; the recipients call the givers “contributors.” Many people spend their whole lives resisting having others do favors for them. In doing so, they forfeit not only the gift directly offered, but something far more important: the power that comes from receiving. Never forget the basic accounting principle at work here: an account receivable is an asset. Those who have helped you in the past are more likely to help you again. Professional fund-raisers value above all the “contributors’ lists” of earlier campaigns; their scientifically tested hypothesis is that, when asked, people tend to “back up their bets.” Your goal should be to make yourself other people’s asset, to build your own “contributors’ list.” We live in a debtor society in which citizens, like their governments, build their lives on a whole network of obligation—taking out a mortgage, going to the bank for help to buy a car, etc. Yet the same logic that applies to buying a home or a car or financing a college education is ignored when nonfinancial lines of credit are involved. The greatest untapped reserves of energy are not under the Arabian Desert or off the north slope of Alaska; they lie in a hundred million underappreciated hearts. The worst sin of a campaign manager is to let a potential volunteer leave headquarters without being given something to do. Make your cause the other fellow’s hope. Hope thus becomes his asset, your opportunity. The more he invests, the more likely he will be to reinvest again and again.

People love to be asked—for advice, for help, for attention in any form; it makes them feel more valuable, more real. It cements a bond. Just as it is hard to vote against a guy who just slept on your couch, how can you knock the guy you’ve been advising?

From the outside, politics seems a cutthroat world. Those who run for office stop at nothing. They will question an opponent’s motives, his patriotism, even his character. What seldom gets noticed is the deep, feudalistic code that binds the combatants together. To fight the good fight, you need to know that your back is covered. “Loyalty is everything in this business.” From a Tip O’Neill—from any of the old breed—this is not Pollyanna. If you travel to Washington, D.C., you will be struck by one great difference from the other great cities of twentieth-century America: not the presence of monuments, but the absence of smokestacks. Unlike other capitals whose politics visibly depends on a sprawl of factories and assembly lines, Washington produces just two things: the paper currency that we all use and the political currency that politicans use. Deals are what people make in Washington, deals pure and simple. A senator tells his colleague that he can count on him for support in getting funding for some crucial public-works project in the other senator’s state. He is expected to deliver. If he doesn’t, his word becomes worthless. The value of making a deal with him becomes worthless; so does his seat in the Senate. If he doesn’t deliver, he can’t deliver for his people at home. His “effectiveness” begins to get questioned around his state.

If there is one mighty lesson to draw from politicians, it is this: nobody trusts a traitor. A man can be a great fighter for his country, he can play a decisive role in a brilliantly decisive battle, as one great American did in the War for Independence, but if he betrays his friends, he becomes a Benedict Arnold. Even in the age of corporate head-hunting, it is one thing to change jobs, and another to show lack of loyalty to someone you once served. Nothing is more self-defeating than trying to win the faith of a new employer by betraying the trust of a former one. Nothing is more impressive than the fierce competitor drawing the line on such betrayals. As Senator Eugene McCarthy once said approvingly of speechwriter Richard Goodwin, who had served him and then had gone to work for his adversary Robert Kennedy when the latter entered the presidential race, “Dick’s the kind of man who changes uniforms without giving away the signals.”

Loyalty is not simply a virtue, but a building block of political strength. We can come to command strong alliances by (1) learning the interests and ambitions of others, (2) mapping our way toward helpful relationships, and (3) cementing those relationships with reciprocal support and benefit. Loyalty is the linchpin of this network of support. More is at stake here than political retail. Betrayal not only destroys relationships, it destroys a reputation.

A relationship of mutual trust can be shattered by something well short of outright betrayal. People lose faith in their allies long before they hoist the enemy flag. Ask any politician and he’ll tell you how fickle constituents can be. This is why smart politicians make repeated efforts to demonstrate their loyalty to the people who support them.

People judge the quality of a relationship in terms of recent evidence. Just as a Christmas card can maintain a personal or business tie, the lack of one can undo it. Politicians can teach us the importance of regular political fence-mending. When they campaign for office, they establish a symbiotic relationship with people and set the tone for an enduring bond: just as they are campaigning neighborhood to neighborhood, they will serve in office on the same basis, returning to the people, checking in with them, listening to what they have to say. Most important, they will keep the relationship up-to-date through a regular show of concern.

The Battle of Saratoga was the decisive victory of the American Revolution. When it was over, and General Burgoyne had given his sword to General Gates, the two armies’ officers sat down together at a dinner opulent even by today’s standards: ham, goose, beef, lamb, “great platters overflowing with many vegetables,” and plenty of rum and hard cider. Had I read of this quaint scene when I was younger, it would have struck me as absurd. Here, after all, was a group of presumably passionate warriors, who just hours before had been aiming their muskets at each other’s heart, sitting around a table having a pleasant supper together. That was before I spent almost three decades working among politicians. When you look at that meal at Saratoga from a politician’s viewpoint, the scene in the American “winner’s tent” makes perfect sense. What better way to dampen the fighting passion of the Redcoats than by sending the message that losing isn’t so bad after all? Those Yanks aren’t such bad blokes once you sit down and share a cider with ’em.

First-rate politicians often take on Horatio Gates’s attitude. Just as he had “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne over to his tent for that delightful get-acquainted evening, so the great congressional pros have awed me over the years by their sheer capacity to deal with opponents of diametrically opposed views. On countless occasions I have seen a member cross the chamber of the House of Representatives and, having just exchanged red-hot words with an adversary, pat the same guy on the back, trade some irreverent joke, ask about the family and head out through the lobby. Once again there is more at work here than good fellowship. “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies,” the nineteenth-century English prime minister Lord Palmerston said. “Our interests are eternal and perpetual.” Like great countries, great politicians remain on speaking terms even with their fiercest opponents, and for very sound reasons. First, it shows strength. Nothing can be more unsettling to an opponent than some casual chitchat from a guy whose head you have just tried to tear off. Second, it offers useful information. The more you meet and listen to the other side, the more you learn what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling about you and your side as well as about theirs. Most important, you might just have to work with that guy someday. The opponent in one fight is often the valued ally in the next. The astute politician always keeps the lines of communication humming. As Kirk O’Donnell, Tip O’Neill’s trusted counsel for many years, put it, “Always be able to talk.”

The smashing success of Ronald Reagan’s first term is a testament to this rule of power—and no one knows this better than those of us who were on the other side of the Capitol Hill firing line. Before going to the White House in 1981, Reagan had spent most of his career in large organizations. As a contract actor with Warner Brothers and other big studios, as an executive of the Screen Actors’ Guild and as a corporate spokesman for General Electric, he had been taught that each member of a big organization has his own part to play. Unlike Jimmy Carter, who except for his tour with the Submarine Service had spent most of his adult years running a small farm and warehouse, Reagan had never been a lone entrepreneur. This difference in professional background typified their presidencies. Where Carter spent a good part of his day in self-imposed solitude, doing huge amounts of paperwork and listening to classical music, Reagan worked with a team. As a corporate man, he knew right up front that he did not have to, indeed could not, run the whole thing himself. He never had. When he did Knute Rockne or The Santa Fe Trail, there was a producer to pull things together, writers to knock out the scripts, directors to keep the action moving, publicity boys to do the hype. The star, of course, was at the center. And, say what his critics will of him, the old trouper knew his strengths. When he arrived at the White House, the Great Communicator brought a solid crew with him, a crew recruited for the very purpose of making the most of the star’s own talents: good writers, plenty of PR help, even a good director, Michael Deaver, a master of camera angles and backgrounds out on “location.” It was Deaver who set the tone for the general-election campaign by picking that wonderfully evocative spot for Reagan’s Labor Day campaign appearance in 1980—the candidate in shirt-sleeves with the Statue of Liberty at his back. Long before Lee Iacocca had brought back its luster and its place of honor in our American myth, Deaver had seen the Lady’s patriotic launching potential. In a medium where pictures are worth a thousand words, Ronald Reagan had the best location scouter in the business. Ronald and Nancy Reagan also knew the new President’s weaknesses. He had a huge administrative task before him: a giant bureaucracy to be tamed. That would take a kind of talent that Reagan had never claimed. He would need a strong chief operating officer who could run a tight ship and have the right kind of political strength. To keep the star looking good, he would need more than his conservative philosophy; he would need a good measure of moxie as well. They already had their idea man, Michael Deaver, and their ideologue, Edwin Meese III. What they now needed was a genuine producer, the kind of guy who could pull everything together and throw a little class into the mix. They found their man in James A. Baker III. It was a brilliant recruitment. In the months ahead, it would be Baker who would field-manage the new President’s 1981 legislative triple play: the largest tax cut in history, the largest defense hike, and the largest cutback in domestic spending. Even old-time Reagan hands would admit grudgingly that the President could not have pulled off this feat without the gentleman from Texas. What made the initial decision to hire Baker and then to move him into the top spot so spectacular was the man’s political background. For years, Jim Baker had been Ronald Reagan’s greatest nemesis.

By putting Baker in the staff chief’s job, Reagan demonstrated that important rule of power: Keep your enemies in front of you. A shrewd politician does not banish his adversaries but follows the more primitive custom of taking hostages. The appointment of Jim Baker was as much a triumph for the new President as it was for his first White House chief of staff. The crusading outsider had co-opted a prince of the powers-that-be, with close ties to the remnants of the party’s Eastern establishment and to the national press corps. Jim Baker, who went on to become Secretary of the Treasury, will be remembered as a superb packager of Reagan’s legislative plan, smoothing his West Wing colleagues’ rough ideological edges and winning respect from the Washington media. To the congressional opposition, he was a courtly professional, the “good cop” in the Reagan White House. Many a potential irritation was avoided by a respectful and confidential drop-in at the Speaker’s office. To reporters, Baker was the “White House pragmatist,” someone who would give it to them straight.

Reagan’s initial master stroke was not simply in hiring Jim Baker but in putting his old adversary in a position where he could not do well unless his president did well. In the West Wing, intercom distance from the President, Baker’s success would be measured entirely in terms of Reagan’s own accomplishments. Had he started out with his own department or agency, Baker would have had the opportunity to create his own fiefdom, to establish a separate reputation and constituency. The newspaper profiles of Baker might have been headlined “The One Bright Light in the Reagan Cabinet” while the President’s own agenda died in gridlock. As chief of staff, Baker was fully leveraged. Baker’s achievements could only enhance his boss’s; he had no choice but to make the Reagan Revolution a winner. The idea of bringing old rivals into a new Administration did not begin with Reagan. Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Wendell L. Willkie in the 1940 election, then made him special envoy to Britain a few months later. The purpose was clear: Willkie had attacked Roosevelt’s close support of Britain during the campaign; now he was being used to reassert a bipartisan thrust to FDR’s policies. Later in the decade, Harry Truman commissioned former President Herbert Hoover to oversee a complete review of the federal organizational structure. In tapping Hoover’s acute managerial and engineering ability, the Democratic President was also giving his Administration some needed credibility on the growing “waste and corruption” issue.

It would be hard to imagine Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan permitting a subordinate to publicly carry out policies that were out of step with the presidential agenda. Facing reelection, it is hard to imagine them not making anyone they appointed damned aware that the president might yank their chair any minute they were on the job—regardless of what had been said up front about their being “free to run their own departments.” More to the point, if someone in LBJ’s time had tried to play hardball with the President, the White House chief of staff—Joe Califano, that is—would have recommended that his boss show the underling how the game is played!

Jimmy Carter ignored the “Keep your enemies in front of you” rule and paid for it. Like most people, he was inclined to keep potential adversaries at arm’s length. The result was crippling. Having defeated the Democratic establishment on his way to the Oval Office, Carter soon found that same establishment standing smugly on the sidelines, rooting for his downfall. His Administration found itself cut off, not only from the emerging American right, but also from the forces that usually accommodate a Democratic presidency. Observe the contrast. Reagan put Jim Baker into a position where his interests had to coincide with the whole Administration’s; Carter gave Califano the independence to build a seceding empire. Instead of subjecting him to the limits necessary to handle so proven and headstrong a man in partnership with so well connected a bureaucracy, Carter gave him free rein, allowing a situation to develop in which Califano would respond only to direct order from the President.

History is partially to blame. To avoid the creation of another Nixon-style “palace guard” at the White House, Carter made it clear up front that he didn’t want his staff directing the Cabinet. The result: he deprived himself of day-to-day regulation of his own executive departments short of an in-person presidential investigation and command. Since situations often develop where the president cannot permit himself to get involved personally, this creates a giant power vacuum.

In hiring Califano, Carter observed the same axiom that Lyndon Johnson had cited in retaining FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in office: “Better to have them inside the tent pissin’ out than outside pissin’ in.” But the Georgian had ignored the great Texan’s corollary, “Hug your friends tight, but your enemies tighter—hug ’em so tight they can’t wiggle.” This lesson counts in all professions. If you want to hire the best people in any line of activity, check out those working for your fiercest competition. Talent is talent, and no matter how hot the rivalry, never forget that you are likely to need the other guy’s help someday. It would be surprising, in fact, if you can’t do some business with him somewhere down the road. Besides, hiring your rivals shows nerve. It not only builds your reputation and resolution but frequently weakens theirs. Our first impulses prod us, of course, to avoid those who act against us. Life is short, after all. Who needs the hassle? Such an attitude is fine for those whose number one objective is to make their days as pleasant and stress-free as possible. It’s also a prescription for avoiding power, not acquiring it. A businessman who fails to meet with his rivals throws away golden opportunities not just for useful scuttlebutt but for useful contacts. Being ill at ease in a rival’s company doesn’t just put a big crimp in your style: it’s hard to deal if you’re not even at the table! The strong leader rejects the path of least resistance. Rather than shun opponents—“I’m not speaking to those fellas”—he coopts them, thus keeping tabs on what they’re up to, gauging their emotions and generally intimidating them. Ted Sorensen saw Jack Kennedy do this to his political critics. “When someone was knocking him, he always let him know that he knew.”

Despite a reputation for endless intrigue, wise politicians co-opt their enemies. When this proves impossible, they move with the same cold resolve with which they strike alliances, defeating adversaries not by flailing blindly but by concentrating their own forces. Rather than a desperate charge “over the top,” they dig the trenches deeper, work their networks wider. Rather than trying to weaken their opponents, they strengthen themselves. Inevitably, those most intent on reaching their own goals gain a valuable by-product: a greater capacity to render justice. Like Ronald Reagan, the infrequent golfer, they keep their eyes on the ball, their minds on their destination. When angered, they throw their golf clubs in the same direction they’re headed, so that they can retrieve them on the way to the hole.

Always keep your eye on the goal. Accumulate power, and the opportunities to render justice will fall onto your plate. It takes brains and, most important, time.

In 1992, Bill Clinton introduced a new weapon to presidential politics: the war room. Its mission was to meet and repel each incoming salvo whether it targeted the candidate’s Vietnam draft record, his non-inhaling experiments with marijuana, or the latest “bimbo eruption” from his sexual past. The war room’s youthful commandant was George Stephanopoulos, who had learned the tragic vulnerability of a presidential candidate who sits by and lets his enemies say terrible things about him.

In June, a right-wing critic spread the rumor that Dukakis had been treated for depression. Dukakis’s instinct was to invoke the doctor-patient privilege, making it appear he had something to hide. When the Republicans hit him with the prison furlough issue, he sought feebly to place the blame on a Republican predecessor who had left office fourteen years earlier. When the Bush people let fly with the Pledge of Allegiance issue, Dukakis responded with legalisms, what one aide called “a first-year law school recitation.” Mike Dukakis failed to understand the emotional power of the charges being made against him. Only afterwards did the Dukakis forces fully recognize their failure. John Sasso, the governor’s trusted aide, realized that the campaign’s failure went beyond tactics. Their real mistake, he admitted months later, was in not understanding the role that values played in the Bush assault. “Certain issues pack more weight than only the substance of the issues themselves. They carry a message about personal values, of deep belief and strength, of character, and even the aura of leadership. Our candidate was hurt badly on the subject of values. Who would have dreamed that Mike Dukakis—whose own father used to cry in his love for country—would be judged as short on patriotism?” Leave no shot unanswered. The price Dukakis paid for breaking this hardball rule was staggering. “In this crazy business, at least in our times, a lie unanswered becomes the truth within twenty-four hours,” noted Willie Brown, who was then Speaker of the California Assembly and later the mayor of San Francisco.

Dukakis refused to counter the image of a bleeding heart liberal. Asked in his final TV debate with George Bush if he would back the death penalty for someone who raped and killed his wife, the Democratic presidential candidate answered in the negative and left it at that. Before a huge American audience, he confirmed his image as someone too bloodlessly elite, too educated, to punish the bad guys. Indeed, he sounded like someone who might very well let murderers out for the weekend. George Stephanopoulos took notice of what had been done to Dukakis, what his man allowed be done to him that nasty summer and fall of 1988. “When I arrived, we had a seventeen point lead. Then came the summer assault. The Bush campaign, led by Lee Atwater, opened up a disciplined, ruthless and sustained series of attacks on Governor Dukakis’s record and character. Flags, furloughs, the Pledge of Allegiance. By August’s Republican convention, our lead was gone, our candidate was a caricature and our campaign was effectively over.” On November 8, 1988, Bush defeated Dukakis 54 percent to 46 percent—an 8 point edge. A quarter of the American electorate had changed its mind about who it wanted as its next president. Stephanopoulos went to work for Bill Clinton four years later fully alert to the lethal nature of an unanswered charge. “The purpose of the war room was not just to respond to Republican attacks,” he later explained. “It was to respond to them fast, even before they were broadcast or published, when the lead of the story was still rolling around in the reporter’s mind. Our main goal was to ensure that no unanswered attack reached the people.”

Pepper now realizes that his best tactic would have been to start early and hit Smathers with everything he had. When his opponent leveled the “traitor” charge, he should have hit his former protégé as a liar and an ingrate. “I should have said, ‘If he’ll double-cross a friend, he’ll double-cross you.’ ” Pepper believes that he could have destroyed Smathers’s credibility had he released the story of his superpatriot challenger’s shameless efforts to win release from the Marines so that he could get a head start in postwar politics. If the Senator had fought back with any degree of ferocity, the “Red Pepper” campaign might have lost its bite. Instead, the campaign became a model, especially for an ambitious candidate at the other end of the continent. In the later months of 1950, it became clear that a young California congressman had studied the Smathers campaign in some detail. Richard Nixon dubbed his opponent, Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas, the “pink lady.” Nixon’s agents printed a campaign leaflet pairing Douglas’s voting record with that of the radical Congressman Vito Marcantonio of New York City. Years later, the document known as the “pink sheet” made Nixon the pariah of the nation’s liberals. But as in Florida six months earlier, the charges stuck. Thus began Nixon’s Senate career. When someone makes an unfair attack, the onus is on the victim to set the record straight. In these days of twenty-four-hour cable news reporting, a damaging wire story can be on the air within the hour. Any story, particularly a negative one, travels at the speed of light, creating an electronic paperstorm flying in every direction. A sad rule of thumb is that most people believe that if any shot goes unanswered it must be true. Fortunately, there are as many good defenses as there are good offenses. With daring and a good bit of humor you can leave your critic wishing he had kept his powder dry.

Some of the most memorable campaigns in history have been won by the victims of slanders. In each case, what swept the election was the successful counterattack, the cleverness in calling “Foul!” In 1970, Senator Frank Moss of Utah was charged by his Republican opponent with supporting violent demonstrations by students against the war in Vietnam. Moss destroyed the man by running full-page newspaper ads displaying a letter he had sent to the young demonstrators supporting their objective but urging them to avoid violence. Across the top of the page the headline read: “Here’s the Famous Letter.” It won the election.

In September 1986, Joseph P. Kennedy III took his opponent out of a Massachusetts congressional primary with a similar riposte. During a televised debate, his hard-charging rival asserted that the nonprofit oil-importing company run by young Kennedy was doing business with the terrorist government of Libya. “Let me ask you a straight question: Are you in hock to Muammar Qaddafi?” Kennedy looked at his aggressive opponent and replied with an icy calm that won a lot more points than red-faced anger, “Let me just explain to you something about Libya. Libya offered Sirhan Sirhan asylum after he killed my father, and for you to think for a second that Citizens Energy or Citizens Research Corporation would have anything to do with any oil coming out of Libya is just totally off base.” As they say in Boston, end of story.

In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt was running for a fourth term against the extremely aggressive Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, who had made his reputation as a throw-the-book-at-’em prosecutor. But even in the last months of his life, FDR knew how to turn the tables. Abandoning his above-the-battle stance to focus on just one of the charges against him, he sent Dewey flying. The Republicans were claiming that Roosevelt had abused his office, that he had, among other things, dispatched a destroyer to retrieve his dog, allegedly left behind on a tour of Alaska. Speaking at a Washington black-tie dinner given by the Teamsters’ Union, the President rose to make a few truly classic remarks. Instead of showing righteous indignation, he delivered a one-man burlesque of the whole affair. “Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me or my wife or on my sons,” he said. “No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala.” The chuckles began to rise from the audience. “Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them,” FDR continued as the laughter crested. “You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the tax payers of two or three or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious.” His voice heavy with mock mournfulness, the President concluded, “He has not been the same dog since.” By attacking Roosevelt, the Republicans had hoped to draw him out of the White House into a head-to-head with Dewey. With the President’s tongue-in-cheek rejoinder, their strategy withered. As the Democratic National Committee announced in the aftermath of what became quickly known as the “Fala speech,” “The race is now between the President’s dog and Dewey’s goat.”

“Whaddaya hear?” For a good part of the 1980s, that was the first thing I’d hear from Tip O’Neill in the morning. He’d switch on the vacuum cleaner whenever I entered his back-room office. “Whaddaya hear? Anything special out there?” Then would come the silence, the long impatient pause lying heavy in the morning air. That would be the cue. People who worked for him would sit there, edgy as prizefighters, ready to punch that silence to death. We would throw everything we had at it: every mental clip from the newspapers, that morning and all through the weekend. I would hit the interesting points made on the interview and talk shows, what the national columnists had said. If the President had done anything or I had heard that the White House might be intending anything, that, too, would come rushing out. Then there was the internal news, the scuttlebutt, the complaints in the cloakroom, the shots taken at “the leadership” at meetings, every possible tidbit about what “the Republicans” were up to. After this short history of the world, what was there to say? Then more relentless silence. Finally I would feel the pull of one last great inhalation of facts, figures and gossip. “Anything else I ought to know?” When another aide, whether the general counsel or the rawest intern, entered the room, the challenge would be thrown up anew: “Anything special, Kirk?” “Whaddaya hear out there, Jack?” This was how Tip O’Neill, victor in fifty straight local political ballotings, unchallenged Speaker of the Massachusetts legislature and unchallenged Speaker for ten years of the U.S. House of Representatives, began his day. In a world where information is money in the bank, the tough old Speaker had begun the daylong negotiation for every cent he could get his giant hands on.

Tip O’Neill loved information and dismissed those who lacked it. “That guy would ask me how to vote on a quorum call,” he said of one hopelessly unaware former member. And while O’Neill respected his staff, even bragged about us, there was one failing he would not suffer: being out of the know. For a leader and his lieutenants not to know what “the members” were up to was the national equivalent of that worst political sin, losing touch with the people back home in the district. For the leadership, the House is the district. To watch Tip O’Neill listening in a meeting or quietly intimidating his staff was to understand silence as an art form. The few syllables emitted from this huge and demanding presence would bring a flood tide of words rushing desperately to fill the void. Men and women who rise to power in large organizations, whether public or private, political or corporate, succeed through a keen understanding of the institution and its members, gained not by speaking but by listening, not by barking commands but by asking the right questions.

For years, I thought my old boss’s refusal to permit television coverage of those colorful events represented both a stubborn resistance to change and a foolish abdication of a powerful daily opportunity. Had he let the electronic media into those regular morning briefings, Tip O’Neill could have grabbed a bigger part of the daily Washington coverage, become an even grander figure in the capital’s passing political scene. It took the suicidal experience of a successor to teach me how sage the old boss was. When Newt Gingrich came to power in 1995, I thought him the state-of-the-art Speaker. All press conferences would henceforth be open to TV coverage. Instead of hiding his daily brilliance under a bushel basket, Gingrich would be heard each time he opened his mouth. Then came the inevitable catastrophe. Each day the network cameras would descend on the Speaker’s press conference armed with the daily story. Whatever had happened earlier in the day—a hurricane, an unfortunate remark by a colleague, a scandal—Speaker Gingrich would be asked for his reaction. Before long, Gingrich would be associated in the public’s mind with bad news. Eventually, given his penchant for the attention grabbing remark—“Men like to hunt giraffes”—Newt Gingrich would be the bad news. Finally, because of his vast unpopularity, he would be gone from the news and the Speaker’s chair altogether. “To the degree I was too brash, too self-confident or too pushy,” he told the House of Representatives the year he left it, “I apologize.”

Dick Gephardt is a House leader who, like Tip O’Neill and unlike Newt Gingrich, knows the value of letting others do the talking. He rose to power over his fellow House Democrats largely on his willingness to be an audience for them. While other Congressmen did the preaching, the ribbing and the towel-snapping, Gephardt listened and laughed. He became an expert on his colleagues, knowing how they thought, what they cared about, what made them tick. He also became the best head-counter in the House, able to call the yeas and the nays within three votes of the final result. “I ain’t never learned nothin’ talkin’,” Lyndon Johnson used to say, and this old-breed political motto still guides even such young-men-in-a-hurry as Dick Gephardt. More than courtesy is at work. The Missouri Congressman listens to his colleagues with a power that most politicians cannot command at the top of their lungs. Silence doesn’t just win you hard intelligence; it can make things happen. Real power on Capitol Hill is wielded by men who know that silence can be a sharper tool than rhetoric and that noise is rarely tantamount to action. Don’t let the high ceilings and the chandeliers fool you. There are only two businesses conducted on green felt tables: pool-sharking and lawmaking.

The senator who wins at legislative deal-making is rarely the man with “new ideas.” Far more frequently he is the one tough enough to endure the process. Edmund Muskie won not because he was the smartest man in the room—although he may well have been—but because he was willing to be the last man in the room. Muskie’s rule was as dry as leaves: Only talk when it improves the silence. Getting legislation passed his way, not just the titles but line by line, was Muskie’s obsession. While others postured, he listened, speaking up only when a favorite program was threatened. When his colleagues became restless, he waited. His waiting was legendary; his staff nicknamed him “Iron Pants.” For him it was not the debating points or the statements of conscience and position or the media attention, but the bill itself. Time was Muskie’s soul brother. Where his counterpart in the House would draft a budget plan in three days, Muskie’s committee would take that many weeks. Each of his great environmental bills took two years, an entire Congress, to be enacted. The Clean Water Act took forty-five days of markups and forty-four sessions of the House-Senate conference. Once, in a battle over the Clean Air Act, Muskie seemed ready to let the U.S. auto industry shut down. Under an existing statute, the assembly lines would be halted on environmental grounds unless Congress passed remedial legislation. His adversary at the time was Congressman John D. Dingell of Michigan, a legislator known for his avid support of the auto industry. When told that failure to reach agreement with the House would mean a shutdown, Muskie gave a brief but classic response: “There aren’t any auto works in Maine.” Muskie’s celebrated temper added a barometric factor to his conferences with the House. A conferee’s greatest asset is a reputation for being “difficult.” Normally, Muskie wore a Mount Rush-more countenance. But when he wished to feel goaded, his temper would erupt in stages: first, a minor tremor, then a greater burst, then progressing up the Richter scale to a full, shattering explosion. Few people wanted to see it run its course. Three centuries ago, La Rochefoucauld wrote an assessment that fits Muskie precisely. “Fortune sometimes uses our faults for our advancement,” he wrote. “Some people are so tiresome that their merits would go unrewarded were it not that we want to get them out of the way.”

Edmund Sixtus Muskie was a man who judged his success very coldly. On my last day on his staff, I told him that if ours were a parliamentary form of government he would have become prime minister. Like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, he was a great legislator. In a system where the legislative leader was also the head of government, the hugely productive Senator from Maine would have eventually taken his place at the top. Listening patiently, Muskie looked at me and then said in a voice as dry as the rocky crags of Maine, “But we don’t, do we?” Refusing to speculate, Muskie remained fastened to the real world of the U.S. Senate and his own strengths in contending with it. For him, even his volcanic temper was an “element of style.” When the crunch came on an issue, he possessed an unlimited vat of righteous indignation. “Why should I compromise?” he would yell. “I don’t need a bill that bad.” As politicians go, Muskie was a heavyweight, if a flawed one. He became a “senators’ senator” because of a maddening degree of concentration and an awesome inner rage that he found a way to make productive. Alexis de Tocqueville, that great French chronicler of American democracy, observed the power that men such as Muskie have in wielding political influence. “We succeed in enterprises which demand the positive qualities we possess, but we excel at those which also make use of our defects.”

In any negotiating situation, the race is rarely to the swift. Congress rarely completes its annual business on schedule, because as in any other deal some key members recognize that they can wait out their opponents. The negotiator who keeps his powder dry usually enjoys a decisive edge.

May 9, 1940, was a terrible day in British history. Hitler had just invaded Holland and Belgium. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement lay in ruins. Summoned to the Cabinet Room at eleven o’clock that night, Winston Churchill listened to Chamberlain trying to make his fateful decision on the succession. His shattered government could no longer retain the confidence of Parliament or the British people. Chamberlain was now admitting the inevitable. The choice had come down to Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who had warned for a decade of the need to challenge Hitler, and Lord Halifax, the appeasing Foreign Secretary, a peer and therefore a member of the House of Lords. The three were now seated in the Cabinet Room. Later that night, Chamberlain would have to present to King George VI—who liked Halifax—his resignation and perhaps his recommendation for a successor. “Can you see any reason, Winston,” the Prime Minister asked, “why in these days a peer should not be prime minister?” Usually I talk a great deal, but on this occasion I was silent [Churchill wrote later]. As I remained silent, a very long pause ensued. Then, at length, Halifax spoke. He said that his position as a Peer, out of the House of Commons, would make it very difficult for him to discharge the duties of Prime Minister in a war like this. He spoke for some minutes. By the time it was finished, it was clear that the duty would fall upon me—had in fact fallen upon me. On this, the momentous conversation came to an end. Winston Churchill, whose voice would provide the wartime roar for the British lion, said absolutely nothing. He simply gazed silently out the window, onto the street below. The next day, Britain had its greatest prime minister.

The more you practice, the better you get. Ask a pro for a favor and he’ll return the question: “Why didn’t you ask me sooner?” The implication is benign. The retort implies not only a certain congeniality but also a mild slap of rebuke. You were the one who blew it, not he. One of the biggest mistakes you can make when dealing with a pol is attaching significance to words he does not actually say, to commitments he does not actually make. Senator Warren Magnuson, the man who spent all those poker evenings at the Roosevelt White House, had a delightful method for fielding difficult questions from constituents back home. As he wandered through a crowd, people would be calling out to him, “What about the tax bill?” “What about that consumer protection agency?” “How do you stand on gun control?” To each and all he had the same masterly response, “Don’t worry about me. I’m all right on that one.”

Swaziland is a small independent kingdom in southern Africa. As a Peace Corps volunteer in that country, I sat in a government office late one morning waiting for our monthly meeting with the minister of commerce, Simon Xhumalo. Around the table sat a tense group—government officials, United Nations advisers and a handful of American volunteers, all involved in the country’s program to encourage small business. Morale was low: the ministry seemed disappointed with the progress being made, and some of us were frustrated by the enormous job, made more difficult by cultural differences and lack of realistic communication from the top. Something was ready to blow. Finally, the Minister took his place at the head of the conference table, his eyes sharply scanning the assembled English, Americans and Swazis. As usual, his pudgy neck was constricted by a bright white shirt, its collar a full size too tight. Then he spoke, in words which proved that the politician’s craft knows no cultural boundaries. “All the people in this room have one thing in common,” he said, the whites of his eyes flashing from one testy face to the next—just enough pause to mature the moment. “We are all dissatisfied.” He then embarked on a long agenda of frustrations, sprinkled lightly, then more heavily, with the thwarted ambitions his people had for their country. It was brilliant politics. Rather than deny the anger that filled the room, he had saluted it. Rather than deflect criticism, he joined in the protest. In a situation that seemed to demand he play defense, he rushed blithely to the attack. Yes, we are dissatisfied. Yes, we are frustrated, because, yes, all of us are united in our ambitions for this country of his. That grandly eloquent final point was the kicker. For if we were not frustrated by our inability to get something done for the Swazi people, then we must be moved by concerns about our own interests and convenience—something none of us would or could be willing to acknowledge.

Simon Xhumalo, minister of commerce, industry and mines of the kingdom of Swaziland, was teaching a vital political lesson to those who had come to show him some tricks of economic development. In a surprising number of circumstances, the best way to achieve the goal is to concede the argument. Okay, he was saying, you are all upset with the way things are going around here. Guess what? I agree with you. Like the drab architecture of their government buildings, the concession on principle was a hand-me-down of late British imperial policy. The maneuver was executed as follows: Faced with unruly Asian or African colonials dead set on independence, the defenders of the Empire would delay until the pressure for freedom was irreversible. Then, a few minutes before midnight, Whitehall would offer the colony its independence in exchange for a few concessions. The nationalists would get to have their own flag; the British would retain control of the port and the power plant. “Yield to a man’s tastes,” Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in 1835, “and he will yield to your interests.” There has been no slicker practitioner of this old Tory bargaining tactic than Ronald Reagan. There is no better teacher of how to get exactly what you want by telling the other guy exactly what he wants to hear. His most virtuoso turn of this trick was displayed in selling Congress on the MX missile in the spring of ’83. Like a weather-beaten old skipper, Reagan used the gale force of his opponents’ arguments to tack across the wind, selling the MX by making the case against it. To appreciate the scope of this achievement, imagine for a moment all the bombs dropped by both sides on Europe in World War II. Think of all the newsreel footage beginning with the Blitz: the assault on Normandy and the race through France, the brutal terror of the Eastern front, the carpet-bombing of Germany, the destruction of Cologne and Dresden. Now combine all these mental pictures into one giant explosion, the combined destructive power of all the bombs dropped by the U.S. Army Air Forces, the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe in one convulsion. That was the force of one MX missile. Yet the weapon was fatally flawed. At 200,000 pounds, it was impossible to hide. By the time it was deployed, Soviet satellites would have already have each one in their cross hairs. This dangerous vulnerability gave the MX its use-it-or-lose-it aspect. If fired first, its ten warheads would strike ten targets. Undischarged, it would become a choice target: a ten-strike in the game of nuclear terror. One Soviet silo-buster could zap ten American warheads in a single strike. What results from the deployment of such a weapon is a Dr. Strangelove mind-set: to be useful, missiles like the MX had to be launched and on their way within minutes of first warning or else be smothered in their underground cribs. As they used to say in the old West, this makes for an itchy trigger finger. The early and decisive critics of the MX were not moralists of the far left, but moderates who believed that the country should be building its strategic capability on a sounder basis. Instead of gigantic, immobile systems like the MX, they argued, the United States should deploy smaller, lighter missiles that could be placed on mobile launchers, thereby evading detection. Rather than inviting a first strike, these “Midgetmen” missiles would make it impractical by miniaturizing, multiplying and moving the targets. A nation armed with a large number of these weapons dispersed secretly throughout its territory could deter attack by threatening retaliation with much of its nuclear firepower still intact. In the face of these arguments, President Reagan launched a major campaign for the MX. Congressmen and senators were brought to the White House for hi-tech briefings. The President made a prime-time TV address to pitch the product, using state-of-the-art video graphics. He told the people sitting in their living rooms that they should not worry about the MX’s appalling vulnerability. His experts had solved that problem. To avoid being cornered into “using or losing,” he would place all one hundred MX missiles so close together that an attack on one would create such an explosion that it would destroy any other Soviet missile entering the area. He called it “dense pack.” The speech was a clinker. People began referring to “dunce pack.” All the Soviets would have to do, some critics said, was equip their missiles with a timer: the warheads would converge over the MXs and detonate simultaneously. In an effort to make the MX less of a sitting duck, he was simply offering the enemy a flock of sitting ducks in one nest. Reagan critics, such as Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, were delighted. “In every beauty parlor and barbershop in the country people were saying to themselves, ‘I finally understand this dense-pack thing and it’s the stupidest idea I ever heard of!’ ” Congress agreed. Meeting in a lame-duck session called by the President, the House voted to postpone the MX issue until the following spring. The lame ducks had disposed of the sitting ducks! But the President was not ready to give up. Having failed to sell the MX on its merits, he reversed field. Rather than fight his critics, he joined them—rhetorically, that is. Yes, the arms race needed to end. Rather than stockpiling more nuclear weapons, the United States and the Soviet Union should be reducing the number of their missiles. In fact, we should work toward eliminating such weapons entirely. Yes, his critics were right about the matter of vulnerability. The big multiheaded missiles like the MX should be replaced by small, single-headed missiles that could be concealed on mobile launchers. This second concession was showcased in a report by the President’s Commission on Strategic Forces, chaired by General Brent Scowcroft, which acknowledged the need to deemphasize the multiwarheaded missile. It said that Midgetmen, which could survive a first strike, were the wave of the future. In fact—now hear this!—deployment of the MX was an essential catalyst of the transition. To get Midgetmen, we needed to deploy MX as an “interim” approach, a bargaining chip in moving the Soviets toward more “survivable” weapons. And with this, Reagan carried the day. Congressional moderates were so thrilled with their success in “educating” the President on their new-breed Midgetman doctrine that they buckled to his demand for the MX. Such congressmen as Wisconsin’s Les Aspin and Tennessee’s Albert Gore, Jr., proud of their arms-policy sophistication, fell hook, line and sinker for the presidential ploy. In exchange for a philosophical concession applying to the future, they bought the President’s position on the only tangible issue on the table. Within a few months it became clear, however, that the Administration had no intention of pursuing the reformers’ approach. When the arms reduction talks began, the President’s negotiating team let it be known that the single-warhead, mobile missile would be the first item up for elimination. The result was embarrassing. In voting to deploy the MX, key members of Congress adopted a policy of eliminating big, land-based, multiheaded missiles and a program of deploying them. Fifty “bargaining chips,” each carrying the explosive power of two hundred Hiroshimas, would crouch ready for action under the windswept plains of Wyoming. The popular view is that Ronald Reagan was a last-minute compromiser who waited until the eleventh hour of a negotiation before grudgingly agreeing to the other side’s demands. Actually, the compromise was far less than met the eye: it was a surrender not on the substance but on the principle at stake; he gave the impression of compromise by telling his adversaries what they wanted to hear. Oftentimes, he simply recast his final argument in his opponents’ words.By conceding the main theories at issue, Ronald Reagan turned a defeat in late 1982 to a spring victory in 1983. By packaging his objective in the language and premise favored by the opposition, he carried the day.

The conventional view is that politicians like to argue and that they like to win arguments. Actually, they often have other priorities. The smart ones focus less on the principle than on the objective, the tangible result at issue. When sitting down to deal, they always separate the principle at stake from the actual stakes. Then, with the air thick with melodrama, they concede on the principle—and rake in the chips. As Machiavelli advised, a great leader must be both lion and fox. In cutting taxes, Reagan loved to play the lion. In prosecuting an immensely unpopular war all those years, he showed he could also play the fox.

Nineteen seventy-four—Jimmy Carter’s last year as governor of Georgia. Sharing a beer one night in the Governor’s Mansion with his media adviser, Gerald Rafshoon, Carter was in a serious mood. He moved from the personal business they had been discussing to the big picture. “We’ve got to really start thinking about the themes for this presidential thing. I think I’ve got them pretty well worked out,” Rafshoon recalled him saying. Then on a long yellow legal pad Carter wrote down what he saw as his assets: not a lawyer southerner farmer 300 days a year to campaign (would be out of office) ethics not part of Washington scene religious That night and in the many months that followed, Rafshoon and the others in the small Carter cadre joked that most people would consider the points on that legal pad to be downright liabilities. “But I think we can make them into assets,” the Governor had said that night, and he went on to prove it.

Rather than hide those aspects of his background that would conventionally make him ineligible to run for president, Carter brandished them. In the two-year campaign that would take him to the White House, he perfected his litany: “I’m not a lawyer, even though I have great respect for them, and my son is a lawyer. I’ve never worked in Washington. I’m not a senator or a congressman. I’ve never met a Democratic president.” He would even tease audiences with his reverse-chic credentials as a political dark horse by describing a recent poll that asked people about the various big-name Democrats currently “being mentioned” as possible presidential candidates. Carter would then recite the roll of honor in complete deadpan: Senator Hubert Humphrey, Senator Henry Jackson, Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, Governor Hugh L. Carey of New York, Governor Jerry Brown of California. “There’s even a Georgian on the list, who scored a one percent in the poll,” he would add with a smile. Pregnant pause. “His name is . . . Julian Bond.” Carter knew the conventional view of what a presidential candidate ought to be: a lawyer, a senator or governor, someone with foreign-policy experience. He also recognized that public attitudes are more flexible. People would accept a candidate with a vastly different claim on the office. The important thing was for the candidate himself to explain his somewhat offbeat résumé. Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, trusted the same political principle: it’s always better to be the bearer of your own bad news.

For the first time since the campaign began, there seemed to be a possibility of Walter Mondale’s upsetting the popular incumbent. If Reagan tripped in their second confrontation, a groundswell could emerge for a more nimble national leader. Reagan’s own corner men were plainly worried. James Baker, White House chief of staff, released the President’s most recent medical report, attesting to the fact that he was still “mentally alert.” One of his key strategists, Lee Atwater, mapped a contingency plan, to be executed if the President did as poorly in the second debate as he had done in the first: a countrywide firestorm of attacks on Mondale’s support of big social programs and opposition to new weapons systems. The Atwater memo also called for Reagan’s people to dismiss the debates as a “bizarre ritual” which had no place in a civilized choosing of presidents. The feared Reagan fiasco was to be smothered by a “fog machine.” The memo continued: “If it’s clear that the President did badly, then it’s our job to obscure the result. The single most important mission of the fog machine will be to shift the emphasis to Mondale, and to drive up his negative rating.” Meanwhile, the stage was set for the second debate. There would be only one issue: age. There would be only one focus: whether Ronald Reagan showed any signs of his earlier “rambling.” Henry Trewitt, a Baltimore Sun correspondent sitting on the debate panel, got right to the point. Citing the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, he reminded viewers that no president knows when he might have to face an endurance test of prolonged stress, one that would demand high energy and quick judgment. Did Reagan feel he “would be able to function in such circumstances”? Reagan was ready. In a tone of mock seriousness he replied, “I will not make my age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The election was over. Even Mondale had to chuckle—even though he knew that his campaign’s one brief, shining moment of opportunity was dissolving in the laughter and applause he heard all around him. Reagan’s comeback had produced an irresistible ten-second “sound bite” for local and network news broadcasts, one that would be repeated and repeated in the days that followed. His own pollsters recorded a positive response from viewers that “went off the charts.” In one sentence, the old showman from Hollywood had killed the only issue that might have kept him from a second term.

In slaying the age issue, Reagan had also demonstrated an important lesson of politics: if a question has been raised publicly about your personal background, you need to address the issue personally. “Hang a lantern on your problem” applies with equal force to cases where you’re selling yourself one-to-one and when you’re targeting a broader audience. Retail or wholesale, the one durable truth holds: when in doubt, get it out. If you’ve done something your boss is not going to like, it is far better that you yourself bring him the bad news. It gives him a perfect opportunity to let off steam. It shows that you are not trying to put one past him. Most important, it protects him from being surprised and embarrassed by hearing it from someone outside. Bad news has a habit of spreading. It is always better to create your own trial scene than to let someone else rig one up.

In 1960 the Democratic candidate for president faced persistent questions about his Roman Catholicism. Many people believed there would be an inevitable conflict between JFK’s loyalty to the nation and his fidelity to his church. Never before had the voters of this predominantly Protestant country ever allowed a Catholic to gain the presidency. It was heatedly argued that on matters from education to foreign policy John F. Kennedy would be taking his marching orders from the Vatican. Kennedy set out to disarm his opponents with his handicap. He went to a well-publicized meeting of a group of Protestant ministers in Houston. The staging of the event was important: traveling to Texas in the first week of the fall campaign, casting himself as the defendant in the case, submitting to be judged by the people who were considered his most skeptical jury. To underline the David-and-Goliath aspects, Kennedy’s people made two decisions. First, the candidate would go to Houston alone. Second—as Robert Strauss, who was advancing the event, remembers being ordered to do by Lyndon Johnson—put the “meanest, nastiest-looking” of the Texas preachers right up in the first row. The national television audience would have no trouble choosing whom to root for. Kennedy’s message came across clear and appealing. He described America as a country “where no Catholic prelate would tell the President—should he be a Catholic—how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.” This is a country, he said, “where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.” He concluded by saying that he would resign the presidency if he ever felt that his conscience conflicted with the national interest. That outlandish promise served a critical purpose. It gave a brilliant line of intellectual retreat to those whose concern about a Catholic president rested not on any visceral bigotry but on the easily imaginable tensions—divorce, birth control, capital punishment—between secular office and religious discipline.

By appearing before the Houston ministers and answering all reasonable questions, he left his opponents with only the unreasonable ones, such as, Does the United States really want a Catholic president? Anyone who opposed him on religious grounds now was simply a bigot. Sam Rayburn, a doubter before the Houston gambit, felt that Kennedy, the lone gladiator who had walked into the lions’ den, had not only avoided being eaten himself, he had triumphed. “As we say in my part of Texas, he ate ’em blood raw.” Kennedy had brilliantly “hung a lantern on his problem.” He had established the terms under which he would be judged, had set his own trial date, and had assembled the jury. In an odd way, his own wonderful bit of daring made the judgment at Houston a peremptory acquittal. The Kennedy family would soon put the rule to another use. When Edward Moore Kennedy, the President’s youngest brother, ran for the Senate in 1962, he was attacked by his opponent in a televised debate as a man who “never worked a day in his life,” a shot that went to the heart of his candidacy. “If your name were Edward Moore, you would not even be a candidate,” his opponent said just as the debate went off the air. Kennedy had had a silver spoon forced down his throat. The next morning, fate—or strategy—intervened. Kennedy would spend the rest of the campaign telling the story of the hardworking fellow who approached him as he was making the rounds of factory gates and asked, “Hey, Kennedy, are you the one they said last night never worked a day in his life?” On being assured that he was correct, the veteran dockworker had something to say to the bright-faced young candidate: “Well, let me tell you something, young man, you haven’t missed a thing.”

This story was identical to one that Kennedy people circulated when JFK was running in the West Virginia primary two years earlier and that always drew a chuckle and knowing looks of agreement from working-class audiences. The little tale drew attention away from the candidate’s qualifications—which were thin at the time—to the far less vulnerable matter of wealth. Why should anyone be blamed for being rich? Wouldn’t everyone like to be? By facing up to the question, Kennedy had claimed the right to frame it his way. He had pulled the silver spoon from his mouth and held it up for appreciation.

Anyone who has ever worked in public relations will certify that it is better to take the initiative in acknowledging problems, whether they involve your client or a product. The makers of Tylenol discovered the wisdom of this argument after being victimized by bottle-tampering. They gained public sympathy and respect by dealing with the problem openly; stock values were hardly affected. Management gained tremendous goodwill for their product by being open with the consumer even when it hurt. When in doubt, put it out. “It goes against human nature,” Jimmy Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell wrote after his White House years, “to stand up of your own free will and volunteer information that is bound to cause nothing but trouble.” But as Powell learned in the Iranian hostage-taking and other crises, it is also the only proven means of minimizing the situation. “No matter how smelly it seems to be at first, it always gets worse as it ages.” This is one rule that Ronald Reagan failed to learn from his predecessors. When his own Iranian arms scandal broke in late 1986, with the disclosure that his agents had been selling arms to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Reagan attempted a cover-up; then he blamed it on his national security staff; then on his chief of staff, Donald T. Regan. Finally, four months later and twenty points lower in the polls, he admitted to a mistake. This is one case where he should have learned from history. John F. Kennedy never stood higher in the nation’s opinion polls than in the days and weeks after he took sole responsibility for the Bay of Pigs. Where Reagan’s refusal to step forward caused months of bad press and congressional investigations, Kennedy’s decision to cut his losses made him more popular than ever. “By taking full blame upon himself,” wrote his aide Ted Sorensen, “he was winning the admiration of both career servants and the public, avoiding partisan investigations and attacks, and discouraging further attempts by those involved to leak their versions and accusations.”

Talk to any Wall Street analyst and you will hear plenty of stories about how much time, effort and creativity companies spend managing expectations and the reaction to their performance. When their stock moves up, it’s good news; when it drops, it’s “profit-taking”—good news again! Politicians call that spin.

If anyone needed spin, it was Richard Nixon. He had been elected to the House six years earlier by attacking his opponent’s associations with the American left. He had exposed the Communist ties of Alger Hiss and then reenergized his red-baiting to take a Senate seat in 1950. Two years later, he was the Republican nominee for vice president, running mate to the great World War II hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. Now Nixon was in the middle of a political firestorm. Four days earlier, the New York Post, at that time a liberal newspaper, had carried a two-line banner: “Secret Rich Man’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” At first the young Californian flailed helplessly. When his campaign train was attacked by hecklers, he desperately tried to attribute the fund scandal to his earlier success in cracking the Hiss case. “Ever since I did that work, the Communists and left-wingers have been fighting me with every possible smear.” It was understandable that Nixon would lose his cool. First of all, the fund in question was not generically all that different from those kept by many other politicians. Moreover, not a penny had gone toward his personal use. But none of these points seemed to matter at the time. The man who had built a career fishing in troubled waters was now foundering in a political typhoon.

In the ensuing days, Nixon was increasingly pressured to leave the ticket. On Saturday, September 20, the New York Herald Tribune, the voice of the Republican Party’s establishment, was blunt: “The proper course for Senator Nixon in the circumstances is to make a formal offer of withdrawal from the ticket.” Nixon could see the handwriting on the wall: Eisenhower wanted him dumped. That same day, the Eisenhower team called on Senator William F. Knowland, a Californian and an anti-Communist, to join the campaign train. Nixon’s substitute was being wheeled into place in broad daylight. When the press asked Eisenhower whether Nixon would remain on the ticket, he told them that his running mate had to be “as clean as a hound’s tooth.” On Sunday, more bad news. Harold Stassen, then a figure to be reckoned with in national Republican circles, sent Nixon a telegram urging that he offer his resignation. Governor Thomas E. Dewey, the key man behind the Eisenhower candidacy, called Nixon with a proposition. The vice-presidential nominee should plead his case before the American people, in a nationwide television broadcast. It would not be good enough if the reaction to the program was 60 percent for Nixon and 40 percent against. “If it is ninety to ten,” Dewey said, “stay on.” Nixon could see that he was being set up to take the fall. Later, Eisenhower himself called. “Tell them everything there is to tell, everything you can remember since the day you entered public life. Tell them about any money you have ever received,” Ike insisted. “General,” Nixon asked, “do you think that after the television program an announcement could then be made one way or the other?” “Maybe,” Eisenhower replied. Nixon went through the roof. “There comes a time in matters like this when you’ve got to either shit or get off the pot.” Ike, not used to such language from a junior officer, was noncommittal. “Keep your chin up,” he said.

Nixon spent the day on the speech. With the broadcast just four hours away, he was about to leave his hotel. He had been discussing with Murray Chotiner, his longtime campaign manager, and William P. Rogers, his future Secretary of State, how the viewing audience should be urged to register their verdict on his public defense. The phone rang. The caller was a “Mr. Chapman,” the code name for Governor Dewey. Reluctantly, Nixon took the call. Dewey: “There has been a meeting of all of Eisenhower’s top advisers. They’ve asked me to tell you that in their opinion at the conclusion of the broadcast you should submit your resignation to Eisenhower.” Nixon: No answer. Dewey: “Hello? Can you hear me?” Nixon: “What does Eisenhower want me to do?” Dewey: “What shall I tell them you are going to do?” Nixon: “Just tell them that I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m going to do, and if they want to find out they’d better listen to the broadcast! And tell them I know something about politics, too.” That night, before the largest TV audience in history—it was estimated at 58 million—Richard Nixon surprised his enemies. “My fellow Americans,” he began, standing in front of a desk, “I come before you tonight as a candidate for the vice presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity has been questioned.” He then gave his huge, fascinated audience “a complete financial history.” Taking the audience back to his youth, Nixon listed all his assets: A 1950 Oldsmobile A $3,000 equity in his California home, where his parents were living A $20,000 equity in his Washington house No stocks, no bonds, nothing else In his melodramatic appeal, Nixon rhetorically undressed himself. In an age when American families were still extremely private about their financial matters, he was telling the American people exactly what he was worth, down to the last penny. At a time when having a mortgage was still viewed as somewhat embarrassing, he was listing his debts on TV! Historian William Manchester chronicled the Checkers episode: “Here, clearly, was a man who knew what it was to worry about getting the kids’ teeth straightened, or replacing the furnace, or making the next payment on the very [television] set now tuned to him.” Nixon was also setting up the spin. He was admitting that he needed outside help, that he could not finance a political career on his own resources. It was fine that the Democratic nominee, Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, “who inherited a fortune from his father,” could run for national office. But in a democracy “a man of modest means” should also be able to make the race. By confessing his slight resources, he was shifting attention from the question of propriety to that of class. “It isn’t much,” Nixon said after reviewing his entire financial situation, “but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours. I should say this—that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat.” Nixon was revving. He described how someone had sent his daughters a cocker spaniel and how Tricia had named it Checkers. “I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.” This was just the preliminary. People who think they remember the “Checkers speech” forget what came next. Having mawkishly bared his soul, the beleaguered candidate now took advantage of the credibility he had gained. The main thrust was counterattack. Rather than be nailed on the defensive, he dictated terms to his accusers. “Now I am going to suggest some courses of conduct. First of all, you have read in the papers about other funds. Now, Mr. Stevenson had a couple. I think what Mr. Stevenson should do is come before the American people as I have, give the names of the people that have contributed to that fund, give the names of the people who put this money into their pockets at the same time they were receiving money from the state government, and see what favors, if any, they gave out for that.” Now to his vice-presidential opponent. “As far as Mr. Sparkman [Senator John J. Sparkman of Alabama] I would suggest the same thing. He’s had his wife on the payroll. I don’t condemn him for that. But I think he should come before the American people and indicate what outside sources of income he has had.” Nixon turned the issue from impropriety to the candidates’ willingness to disclose. By undergoing the humiliation of a body frisk, he made financial disclosure a standard for office. In that competition, Nixon had finished the race before the others had left the starting gate. The spin now had reached full torque. “I would suggest that under the circumstances both Mr. Sparkman and Mr. Stevenson should come before the American people, as I have, and make a complete statement as to their financial history. If they don’t, it will be an admission that they have something to hide.” Something to hide! At this point, General Eisenhower, watching the broadcast in Cleveland, jabbed his pencil into the legal pad he was using to take notes. This Nixon character was talking about him! If candidates were expected to make their taxes and other papers public, that would include Ike’s own tricky finances, particularly the special legislation Congress had passed shielding from taxes the income he was still receiving from his wartime memoirs. And now here was his running mate threatening to splash the whole thing onto the front pages. The next morning the great man met his new, hardball friend in West Virginia and declared, “You’re my boy!”

It’s fair to say that a great deal of reputation-building rests on Wabashing. It is very often based less on reality than on appearance, on making people do things they don’t want to do by making them think they want to do them. As Harry Truman put it, “A leader is a man who has the ability to get other people to do what they don’t want to do and like it.”

During the 1982 political season, pollster Peter Hart told congressional Democrats to emphasize issues like the economy and Social Security. The more they got such issues into the headlines, the better they did in the polls. Conversely, he warned the party leadership to stay away from the budget issue. Say what they might about the growing deficits under the new Administration, Democrats simply were not credible on fiscal responsibility. People thought of them as spending too much money and raising taxes too high. President Reagan’s pollsters must have been telling him the same thing. The White House staff did everything they could to focus attention on the budget issue. In 1982 the President went to Capitol Hill for a “budget summit” with the congressional leaders of both parties, bringing with him a huge White House press corps and its vast array of TV cameramen and still photographers. For two hours the Chief Executive met with the leadership in what was to be a cavalcade of public relations. The President and the Congress had not reached agreement in more than a year; they were not going to get further in two hours.

The real action was outside the room. With the thousand-strong press corps packed behind security ropes, White House press spokesman Larry Speakes moved among them, throwing out news morsels like a trainer feeding the dolphins at Sea World. The President’s decision to “walk the extra mile” to find an agreement was going to pay big dividends on the evening news. Merely by moving the regular weekly meeting between the President and the Congress from the White House to the Capitol, Reagan’s PR gurus had made the same old story of fiscal politics into a big item for the networks. The results followed the script exactly. “Budget” became a term of major journalistic importance. The President was seen to be “doing something” about the deficit. To make sure no one missed the imagery, the White House added numbers to the picture. Chief of Staff Jim Baker held a full-scale briefing at 5 P.M., just in time for the evening news, just in time to put the right spin on the story: Congress was just sitting on its collective duff; Reagan was trying, at least. And how it paid off. While the “budget summit” of 1982 did not reduce the deficit by a cent, it won tremendous points for Reagan on the tube. His pollsters had tagged the budget issue as a winner for Republicans. So long as the word “budget” appeared in the headlines, the GOP regained support. It didn’t much matter what was happening to the budget—in this case, nothing at all—so long as it was being talked about.

Rule: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Just as the Republicans were smart to play up the budget as a no-lose issue, they were stupid to continue harping on the Social Security question. The more they did, the weaker they appeared. There’s a great old political story passed down over the years: An elderly woman tells a reporter that she intends to vote against Senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican candidate for president: “He’s the guy who’s going to get rid of TV.” “But, madam,” interrupts the reporter, “I think you’re making a mistake. Senator Goldwater is talking about getting rid of the Tennessee Valley Authority, TVA.” “Well,” the elderly woman persists, “I’m not taking any chances.” As we saw earlier, it is important to admit your failings—not in order to gain ground on your opponent, but to put the issue behind you. Having admitted your weaknesses and your opponent’s strengths, the only things left to debate are your strengths and your opponent’s weaknesses.

Lowballing. Here is a classic example of the sort of public-relations foreplay that politicians can teach their fellow citizens. The concept is clear enough: the best way to impress the fans with your slam-dunking ability is to set the basket at eight feet instead of the regulation ten. Watching you stuff the ball through that secretly stunted hoop, the folks at home will think it’s Wilt Chamberlain out there. In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Eugene McCarthy, then a relatively unknown United States senator from Minnesota, beat President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primaries. It was that come-from-behind defeat that brought Senator Robert F. Kennedy into the race and drove Johnson to announce his retirement a few weeks later. Now, that is what people think happened in the political snows of ’68. What really happened is quite different. Lyndon Johnson not only won the New Hampshire primary of that year, he did it without campaigning and without even having his name appear on the ballot. Voters going to the polls had to write in LBJ’s name, and despite that inconvenience, despite a sharp inflation and a terrible war, he still went on to beat McCarthy, a man who had been campaigning in the state for months. But the press was fixed on the idea that if the apparently academic midwesterner gleaned a substantial vote against the incumbent President, that was tantamount to victory. McCarthy’s losing vote of 42 percent surpassed these expectations. The press became so intoxicated with the David-and-Goliath angle of the contest that they could not bring themselves to score the victory when it actually went to Goliath.

As we see in this case, lowballing is a blunter cousin of spin. Mondale “won” Super Tuesday because his campaign manager had sold the media on the notion that surviving and winning were tantamount to the same thing. McCarthy “beat” LBJ back in ’68 because he simply managed to set a low level of expectations. Spin is a curve ball. Lowballing is more like a fast ball. If you throw the message hard enough, it’ll get past just enough of the batters for you to win.

Four years later, in the same New Hampshire primary, Edmund Muskie defeated George McGovern 46 percent to 37 percent. The press declared McGovern the victor. A prime reason was that a Muskie campaign worker had foolishly said, “If we don’t get fifty percent, I’ll slit my throat.” McGovern’s people were far smarter. By presenting their candidate to primary voters as the antiwar idealist and picturing Muskie as the prisoner of the political center, McGovern’s people built the notion that their man could claim victory if he won any sizable vote whatsoever. After all, he was not really playing the usual political game of going for the center. By the 1980 primary season, lowballing had become an art form. Faced with a challenge for the nomination by Senator Edward Kennedy, President Carter sent his people off to work the Iowa caucuses, where Carter had scored such an impressive vote four years earlier. A seasoned Carter press spokesman, Edward Jesser, had a particular mission: to convince the traveling political press corps that Ted Kennedy had it wrapped up in the Hawkeye State. As caucus day approached, the conventional wisdom had it that Ted Kennedy “had the best organization on the ground ever seen in Iowa,” a phrase beautifully concocted by Jesser, whose weeks of drinking with reporters and bemoaning the strengths of the Kennedy effort were triumphantly paying off. When Carter eventually beat Kennedy by a ratio of three to one, it blew the Last Brother so far out of the race that he was forced to give a major campaign address at Georgetown University which transformed a serious try for the presidency to a last hurrah for liberalism. The man who two weeks before was the favored national candidate was forced to offer himself as a forlorn idealist, a late-model Adlai Stevenson. Jesser, the man who did more than anyone else to jack up false expectations of a Kennedy juggernaut, returned East, dispensing his legendary farewell to the land of wheat and corn: “Will the last person leaving Des Moines please turn out the lights?”

A few months later, I took leave from the White House to serve as Carter campaign spokesman in the Pennsylvania primary with an assignment similar to Jesser’s in Iowa: to play the expectations game, convincing the press that even if Kennedy won the state it was no big deal. After all, the challenger had spent a tremendous amount of time there and pushed all the right buttons politically—paying a courtesy call on Cardinal Krol, eating Philadelphia soft pretzels on Broad Street, doubling up on the radio call-in shows. Carter, meanwhile, was following his “Rose Garden strategy” of staying in the White House and tending to the Iran hostage crisis. Lowballing came easy here. People already believed that Carter was going to do badly. He had lost the big primary in neighboring New York, an awkward and visible sign of the nation’s dismay at his inability to free the Americans held by the crazed “students” in Teheran. The real campaign was being waged by the crowd in Iran, with Carter losing it. But some people could still see straight. When I attempted to lowball Carter’s chances in Pennsylvania, Robert Shogen of the Los Angeles Times had had enough of it. “I’ve known people who have said they are going to lose and they still lost,” he said.

Nevertheless it worked. Buoyed by Jerry Rafshoon’s brilliant and devastating man-in-the-street TV ads, which painfully exposed Kennedy’s personal problems, Carter barely lost the state. Because the vote count was extremely close and took much of the night, the challenger did not even “win” in the first editions. The Philadelphia Daily News, a tabloid, filled its entire front page with one word: “Squeaker!” That was the best Carter could have hoped for. Kennedy, the man who was supposed to win by divine right, had gotten caught in a stalemate. Ronald Reagan made a career of such tricks. He lowballed his opponents longer than anyone can remember. Playing the aw-shucks average citizen standing up to the government and the political establishment, he did the road show of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington almost as many times as that great old movie has been revived. As Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, the man he beat in 1966, once wrote, “In continuing to call himself an amateur or ‘citizen’ politician, Reagan applies the same logic the Soviets do when they declare their Olympic athletes to be amateurs despite overwelming evidence to the contrary.” At each stage of his career, Reagan let the press, the public and, most important, his opponents believe that there is less there than meets the eye. When Reagan ran for governor the first time, the incumbent’s people felt they could easily handle the “ex-movie actor.” In 1980, the Carter people thought his background would make him the easiest opponent to defeat. When Reagan was inaugurated, he was greeted by Speaker O’Neill with the words “Welcome to the major leagues, Mr. President.” As the years of partisan combat lengthened, both men would reappraise their original estimates. Tip O’Neill would recognize a brilliant media-age politician. Reagan would see the Speaker’s Harris Poll figures climb to 65 percent at a time when his own fell below 50 percent.

Every executive knows the importance of setting modest projections for sales and output. Just as a baseball team that finishes in the cellar has nowhere to go but up, so a firm that is bumping along below the zero line is exactly the kind of career opportunity an eager beaver should want. In any profession, the lower the threshold of success, the greater the chances for success.

As the young Winston Churchill discovered in his early political career, the worst thing a politician can do is promise something he cannot deliver. In World War II, he gave the worst-case scenario to the British people. Following the British evacuation of Dunkirk, he gave what might have been his finest speech. Imagining a Nazi invasion of England, Churchill promised that his countrymen would “fight on the beaches . . . on the landing grounds . . . in the streets . . . in the hills . . . We shall never surrender. Even if,” he continued, “which I do not for a moment believe, this island, or a large part of it, were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas . . . would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the Old.” There was romance in those words, but brilliant politics as well. In suggesting the very worst, the wartime Prime Minister was ensuring his own government a sufficient claim on British patience. Battles might still be lost, because the people were prepared to endure the worst. The smartest thing anyone in a position of responsibility can do is pick a modest short-term goal, in this case avoiding annihilation of the British Commonwealth. Once he has delivered on this goal, he can proceed steadily to even greater undertakings, and triumph magnificently. As Lee Atwater, the Republican strategist who served both Ronald Reagan and George Bush, put it, “David is still getting good publicity for beating Goliath.” Sandbagging.

This is the corollary of lowballing. One of the most effective means of diminishing your opponent’s stature is to advertise his strengths, to set unreasonable expectations of his potential. This is how Ronald Reagan’s advisers set up Jimmy Carter in the general election. The dominant issue of the campaign, as everyone remembers, was the kidnapping of fifty American diplomats in Teheran. Fearing that the incumbent might be lucky enough to spring the hostages before Election Day, the Reagan team revved up the rumor mill; the press and the public could expect an “October surprise.” Carter and his people, Reagan headquarters muttered, had a plan to gain the Americans’ release in the final month of the campaign. Had Carter succeeded he would have found the media inoculated, the political gain minimized by the imputation that the hostages had been released on a political timetable. In the end, Carter was luckless. The hostages stayed in Teheran. It was the White House that changed hands. For those of us who recalled the “October surprise” story on Election Day, it was just one more insult added to the injury, one more nail in Jimmy Carter’s political coffin. The nastiest trick you can pull on any competitor is to build him up beyond his capabilities. One of the means by which Democrats maintained control of one house of Congress and recovered the other during the Reagan years was the chorus of admiration at the President’s charm and communications skills. By freely admitting what a brilliant and popular “communicator” the President was, by singling out Reagan the man, they were isolating his popularity from that of his political party, cutting off his coattails. That left the Democrats holding tremendous governmental power even in a time of conservative popularity. Readers of The Last Hurrah might recall a sandbagging coup of Mayor Skeffington’s. To punish an old Brahmin who had fired the mayor’s mother from a housekeeping job, he appoints the man’s idiot son fire commissioner. Within a matter of weeks, the poor fool has become a public joke, as well as a public menace. The Irish mayor had found a way to return very publicly the humiliation that was visited on his own family by the Yankee elite a generation earlier: raw justice dispensed not by tearing down his adversary’s family but by devilishly building it up.

Readers of The Last Hurrah might recall a sandbagging coup of Mayor Skeffington’s. To punish an old Brahmin who had fired the mayor’s mother from a housekeeping job, he appoints the man’s idiot son fire commissioner. Within a matter of weeks, the poor fool has become a public joke, as well as a public menace. The Irish mayor had found a way to return very publicly the humiliation that was visited on his own family by the Yankee elite a generation earlier: raw justice dispensed not by tearing down his adversary’s family but by devilishly building it up. In both lowballing and sandbagging, the principle is the same: create a handicapping system that makes any success of yours seem bigger than it is and your opponent’s victory much smaller.

Creating new commandments. When Eisenhower entered politics in 1952, he sought to maintain the aura of battlefield hero he had won as supreme allied commander in World War II. As his grandson David put it many years later, it was difficult for him to be impressed with the honor of getting more votes than somebody else after having received the Nazi surrender near Rheims cathedral. To stay at the peak of national popularity once he was in office, Ike needed to keep himself above the tawdry bickering of intramural Republican politics. But he also faced the vexing problem of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. McCarthy, the mad genius of public opinion, had continued his hunting of alleged Communists in government despite the transition to a Republican presidency. While Eisenhower eventually helped arrange the backstage maneuvers that led to the Senator’s decline, he developed a gimmick for avoiding public brawls with Tailgunner Joe. He would respond to press questions about McCarthy’s escalating outrages by declaring his practice of “not engaging in personalities.”

Lyndon Johnson knew the same trick. In 1964 he was confronted with what seemed the inevitable imposition of Robert Kennedy—the holdover attorney general—as his running mate. To LBJ, this would have been a capitulation to a brutal turn of events: history would record him as the Kennedy family caretaker, a retainer who kept the seat warm until the younger brother could get into position to reclaim it. To put Bobby on the national ticket would have been tantamount to accepting a mere regent’s post under the Kennedy dynasty; for a man who had long felt patronized by the late President’s brother, this would have been the final humiliation. The trick was to find some way of not picking RFK and, at the same time, not offending the Kennedy family’s adoring legions throughout the country. After months of wrestling with the problem, the grumpy Texan found his solution. He went before the White House television cameras to announce in what became the new standard for arbitrary commandment-creation: “I have reached the conclusion that it would be inadvisable for me to recommend to the convention any member of my Cabinet or any of those who meet regularly with the Cabinet.” Washington insiders knew full well that the target of this new precept for vice-presidential selection was Bobby Kennedy and Bobby alone. The sweeping nature of Johnson’s statement had managed, however, to obscure some of the vindictiveness of the blow. The maneuver got the Kennedy albatross from Johnson’s back for four years.

At the outset of the 1980 presidential election, candidate Reagan’s greatest worry was not Jimmy Carter, burdened with inflation and the Iranian hostage situation. His problem was his own long career as a right-wing political commentator who had been unafraid to make bold but perhaps impolitic remarks. “We should declare war on North Vietnam,” he had once declaimed. “We should pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home for Christmas.” Then, of course, there was his proposal in ’64 to make Social Security “voluntary.” Had his Republican opponents gone after this baggage with any kind of gusto, he would have been out of the race in the early going. Even if he had won the primaries, his competitors for the nomination would have given the Democrats so much ammo that even a weakened Carter might have beaten him in November. The trick, therefore, was to keep George Bush, Howard Baker, Bob Dole and his other opponents from getting too tough on him. The ingenious device Reagan introduced to the political stage was something that he liked to brandish Moses-like as the “Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” Never mind that in 1976 Ronald Reagan had kicked the bejesus out of an incumbent Republican President of the United States to advance his own career. A cheery new dispensation was in effect. If Reagan was going to beat Carter in the fall, he needed a bye through the preliminary tournaments. Refusing to criticize Bush or Baker or Dole or John Connally or Phil Crane, he focused all his fire on President Carter. When his GOP competitors refused to play by the same rules, he cried foul. Reagan pulled another commandment out of his hat in early 1987 when it came time to change chiefs of staff. Rather than ask Donald Regan to resign, he used a photo opportunity to tell the press that he “never talks to a person who decides to go back to private life.” Instant commandment! The President’s hint was hard to ignore, even by a relentlessly ambitious man like Regan. Nevertheless, it gave the Chief Executive himself a way to sidestep responsibility for Regan’s resignation, which came within a matter of days.

Passing the buck. This is the much-maligned old American expression for shifting responsibility for a tough call to someone else. President Truman added to its infamy when he placed that famous plaque on his desk reading “The Buck Stops Here.” What we tend to forget is that Give-’em-hell Harry made so many tough decisions—from dropping the atom bomb on Japan to firing General Douglas A. MacArthur—that he also made quite a few enemies. He left office with a popularity rating in the low twenties. Given his record, it is no wonder his successor in the Oval Office let Truman take that plaque back to his library in Independence. As president, Dwight Eisenhower displayed a genius for delegation. His wartime service had taught him better than anyone else in the world how to get other people, other nations if necessary, to do his work for him. During the late 1950s, when Eisenhower’s farm policies ran into trouble, it was Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson who took the heat. The same went for foreign policy. When Ike did something unpopular abroad, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles took the flak; it was his name that people tagged with a policy reversal. And to handle his press relations Eisenhower hired the best presidential press secretary in history, James Hagerty. On many occasions, it was Hagerty’s job to serve as the White House press corps’ punching bag. Here is how Hagerty himself described it: “Eisenhower would say, ‘Do it this way,’ and I would say, ‘If I go to the press conference and say what you want me to say, I would get hell.’ With that, he would smile, get up and walk around the desk, pat me on the back and say, ‘My boy, better you than me.’ ” Ronald Reagan specialized in a new form of buck-passing: the commission. For a man opposed to bureaucracy, he displayed a remarkable proclivity once in office for creating little boards and panels, all of them salted with Democrats, to take the heat for controversial decisions. There was the Kissinger Commission on Central America, whose job was to rationalize U.S. military aid to that region. There was the Packard Commission, to co-opt the push for defense economizing. There was the Social Security Commission, whose job was to sell the country on higher payroll taxes and a delay in cost-of-living adjustments. There was the Scowcroft Commission, to sell Congress on the MX missile. Finally there was the Tower Commission, to look into the Iranian arms-for-hostages deal. Even in the latter case, Reagan was able to use the commission gambit to his advantage. The Tower Commission was mandated to focus on procedures and organizational structure, not on policy. It necessarily pointed the finger at those staff people responsible for executing policy, not at the big-picture people such as the President. When there was no commission to take the heat, Reagan flipped the hot potato to his staff. For years, the White House press corps had an infallible way of telling whether Ronald Reagan won or lost a vote on Capitol Hill. If he won, the Gipper himself would appear triumphantly in the West Wing press room, and the event would be open to full press coverage. If Reagan lost, his spokesman Larry Speakes or one of his less-known deputies would appear. In such cases, of course, no cameras would be permitted. “Success has many fathers,” John F. Kennedy once said, “but failure is an orphan.”

Inchon landings. We now turn to the ultimate PR flanking maneuver. Nothing confuses the opposition more than a raid behind enemy lines. In 1950, American-led UN forces were pinned down at the bottom tip of Korea by the invading North Korean Army. Rather than fighting an inch-by-inch counterattack against hardened positions, General Douglas MacArthur executed a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon. Within days he had recaptured Seoul; within two weeks all of South Korea had been liberated. Like generals, politicians are remembered for their surprises. They earn particular respect when they outflank their opponents by seizing the political ground to the enemy’s rear. A wonderful example of a political Inchon landing was executed by Harry Truman. In 1948 the President looked like a loser. He arrived at the sweltering Democratic convention in Philadelphia the underdog in every poll, a man who had no prayer of election. Truman’s speech, largely extemporaneous, unleashed the now famous give-’em-hell style that was to be identified with the biggest political upset in American history. Yet the real corker of the evening was not what Truman said but what he announced he was going to do. Reading through the list of Republican campaign promises on medical care, housing, price controls, aid to education, Truman declared that he was going to call the Republican-controlled Congress back for a special, unscheduled session to make good on their platform commitments. “Now, my friends, if there is any reality behind that Republican platform, we ought to get some action from a short session of the Eightieth Congress.” Caught totally off guard by Truman’s gambit, the sulking Republicans ended up accomplishing nothing during the special two-week congressional session. As the Congress finally adjourned, Truman gave them a final punch to the midsection. He called a press conference to declare the retreating legislators the “do-nothing Congress” that had just completed its “do-nothing” session. When America voted in November, the Democratic President managed to confound every major opinion poll and every well-known commentator in the country. By this one flanking maneuver he had put the Republicans on the defensive: instead of being in the position of national critics, they had become the incumbents, the party responsible for getting something done pronto. If they cared so much about their platform, let them pass it!

Richard Nixon pulled a similar Inchon landing in the 1970s. Throughout his career he had blistered Democrats for advocating admission of Red China to the United Nations. The mere mention of the idea got a person branded as a left-winger, “soft on Communism.” In fact, no one was louder in these assaults, going back to the “Who lost China?” era, than Nixon himself. He had spent much of the 1950s blasting those who saw room for accommodation with the Chinese mainland. “I think it is wishful thinking to predict a split between Red China and the Soviet Union,” he said. Yet what secured Nixon’s place in history was his decision to open the door to China in 1971. It was his spectacular trip to Peking that year, secretly advanced by Henry Kissinger, that shocked his opponents and made believers of people who had disliked the man for decades. Richard Nixon had done something his rivals would not have dared do for fear of Richard Nixon. The irony was not lost on his critics. “American conservatives, because no one doubts their hatred of Communism,” the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith has written, “have more easily come to terms with reality and made more sensible bargainers with the Soviets and the Chinese than American liberals, who, as ever, have lived in the fear of being labeled ‘soft on Communism.’ ” Hubert Humphrey would have been pilloried if he had traveled to Red China and stood around toasting Chou En-Lai and the rest of the gang. For Nixon, the venomous anti-Communist, the opening to “Red China” may have been the accomplishment that salvaged his public record. Rule: To confound the competition, seize the ground behind them. Nothing spreads panic quicker than the dread realization that the enemy has penetrated your lines and is operating to your rear.

For President Bill Clinton, the 1994 elections were a rough slap in the face. His party lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954. The Clintons’ maladroit handling of the health care issue had cost Democrats a political preeminence it had taken them four decades to amass. But Clinton refused to die. Rather than join his fellow Democrats in defeat, he took adviser Dick Morris’s advice to “triangulate.” “Parroting the rhetoric of the congressional Democrats,” Morris explained, “would merely be sharing the storm cellar with them, waiting until the Republican twister passed safely by. Adopting the Republican agenda begged the question. The President needed to take a position that blended the best of each party’s position.” “Triangulation” worked. Clinton won reelection in 1996 even as the Republicans kept control of Congress. The only losers were the congressional Democrats that Clinton had cut loose to fend for themselves. In the parlance of politics Clinton’s maneuver is called positioning: A) decide where you want to be in relation to the voter. B) put yourself there. No one did this better than the man they called “The Great Communicator.”

On the night of January 25, 1983, President Reagan arrived at the Capitol to deliver his annual State of the Union address. As usual, the Speaker’s office served as his holding room in the moments before he entered the House chamber. Shaking hands with the staff, he noticed Congressman Don Edwards in the room adjoining, scanning a text of the President’s remarks. “How did you get that, Don?” he asked his fellow Californian, and learned for the first time that bootlegged copies of his speech text had gotten to members of Congress. Armed with copies of the speech, Democrats on the House floor were indeed planning to bushwhack the President. They found a line in which that fiercest of Republicans seemed to admit for the first time it was the government’s responsibility to do something about the towering unemployment rate. For months, Reagan had argued for “staying the course”; high unemployment rates, he promised, would be driven down by the 1981 tax cuts. Yet in his prepared text there was a line that could easily be read otherwise: “We who are in government must take the lead in restoring the economy.” The Democrats had hatched a plan. As the President read the line, they rose in a standing ovation. For a moment Reagan seemed to be caught off guard. The message to the country was sharp and sound: they were cheering the President’s grudging admission that it was up to his Administration to do something. Reagan paused, waiting for the applause to abate, acknowledging the little tease from the Democratic back benches with a long, good-natured smile. Then, with perfect Jack Benny timing, came the haymaker: “And there all along I thought you were reading the papers.”

The Democrats, thinking the President was referring harmlessly to the speech texts many of them had been following and sometimes annotating for response, erupted in laughter. They had failed to see the mischief. To the people back home in their living rooms, the barb was unmistakable: the legislators were just a pack of typical, feet-up-on-the-desk, newspaper-reading, cigar-chomping pols. Reagan had got his “studio audience” to provide a laugh track for the joke of which they themselves were the butt. A week later, he pulled a similar number, this time employing the White House press corps as his studio audience. In the midst of an afternoon press conference, his wife, Nancy, wheeled in a birthday cake. The President was seventy-two. As he cheerily began slicing pieces for all those assembled, ABC’s Sam Donaldson barked out, “But you understand we won’t sell out for a piece of cake. No deals.” Pause. “Oh,” the President said, looking directly at Sam, “you’ve sold out for less than that.” Donaldson’s colleagues roller-coastered with laughter. Finally someone had outzinged their smart-aleck colleague. There was another, unspoken message to those at home: the President was telling Washington reporters right to their faces that their coverage was tainted by special interests, that they were ready to be “bought”: an affirmation of what right-wing critics had been saying about Big Media for decades. Not only that, but he had got them to laugh at the truth of what he was saying. As he had done on the floor of Congress, he positioned himself not as a player in the Washington game but as a detached, observant critic of the not-so-reputable scene around him.

Ronald Reagan is a man of the media: the Great Wholesaler. This is not meant as a criticism. My grandfather-in-law, Henry Stueck, was a lifelong salesman. His favorite maxim is, “There are only two professions: statesmanship and salesmanship.” With respect, I’d say there is only one—and Ronald Reagan mastered it. Other leaders taught us the Horatio Alger truism that you can be anything you want to be, go as far as you want to go. The Great Wholesaler taught us the video-age equivalent: you can position yourself anywhere you want to be.

This is hardly meant as a criticism. It is the secret of this immensely successful man’s career. Where other politicians cannot wait to be seen as political professionals, the man from the West had a smarter ambition for the 1980s: to stay an outsider. The rule he taught was that anyone, individual or corporation, can establish a position at will. A new CEO can make himself “just another employee of the firm” or its aloof and commanding eminence. Avis can rent huge numbers of cars by saying “We’re No. 2” and thereby appeal to the underdog in all of us. Pepsi-Cola can call itself “the drink of the new generation”; Coke can position itself as an American “classic”; in both these cases, the soft-drink company is battling for a greater market share by positioning itself in an era marked by rapid cultural change. Ronald Reagan knows the same game. Far from being spontaneous, his status as a political outsider was the result of conscious strategy. He has positioned himself to increase his market share, not by trying to be “one of the boys” but by being part of the TV audience he cherishes. The first person to recognize this Reagan play was, not so surprisingly, the first to face him politically, former Governor Pat Brown of California, the first man Reagan ever beat for public office. “He is the self-appointed leader of ‘us,’ ” wrote Brown years after his 1966 defeat by Reagan, “and the enemy is always ‘them.’ ” Most of Reagan’s critics have failed to digest this. They knock him as a “B-movie actor,” ignoring not only the quality of his present performance, but his earlier career. Ronald Reagan did not take up a role when he entered politics; he simply continued to play the role he had played so many years in private life.

For years we watched the Washington press corps grill Nixon, Ford or Carter. We saw our presidents sweat and grimace like the accused in a murder trial. Nixon, in particular, always looked as if he had just been hauled in from the lockup. From the beginning, Reagan was determined to make things different. He and his advisers never lost sight of the primary message sent in any presidential news conference: who the President is. First of all, he was likable, relaxed, still the host of his television show. He was not some loner who hid away in a White House back office. And to convey this message, he exploited some off-camera tools of the TV age. Did you ever wonder how Reagan at his press conferences always seemed to know the names of the reporters? It was as if he spent a lot of time hanging out with the boys. The truth was, he used the White House press corps to persuade the audience at home what a regular guy he was. No matter who the reporter, no matter how obscure the newspaper, the President always seemed to know “Joe” or “Bob” or “Ann” on a chummy, first-name basis. Those who were shaken by Reagan’s lack of attention to other matters—the Iran-contra hearings come to mind—may have been surprised. But where his predecessors spent the precious minutes before press conferences prepping themselves on government policy, foreign and domestic, Ronald Reagan had a seating chart, and before going on camera he checked a closed-circuit-television monitor scanning the Joes, Bobs and Anns. He was thus able to get a fix on the location of each reporter with whom he intended to exchange a few pleasantries or thrusts that evening. Having matched nicknames with faces, and faces with seats, he was ready to go on the air.

Reagan’s system wasn’t foolproof. At a press conference in early 1984, the President looked down into the audience and called out, “Pat!” The intended target, Patrick McGrath of the Metromedia network, said later that at first he couldn’t believe the friendly diminutive was addressed to him. He had no reason to assume that the President knew his name, especially since he was quite clearly looking at the row just behind, but after a moment of uncertainty McGrath stood and asked his question. Let’s face it. There is no way in the world that a reporter, blinded with the prime-time national TV camera, is going to try anything “tricky” at such a moment. With the boys back in the newsroom hooting and stomping, the man in the spotlight is not about to kill the fun. Besides, after a guy gets called on—by nickname, no less!—by the President of the United States, his job becomes a tad more secure than it was a few seconds before.

Speaker Tip O’Neill received a letter once from a lady upset about the dangers posed by the President’s apparent determination to give forty-five-minute speeches without notes. What would happen, she worried, if the President were to make a mistake on a matter of grave international importance? But of course there was nothing remotely impromptu about such addresses. Whenever Reagan addressed Congress, the House had to recess an hour and a half early to give White House communications aides time to rig up the President’s remarkable TelePrompTers. Unlike previous presidents, Reagan had his two prompter screens arrayed very wide apart. This allowed him to pivot from one to the other, giving the appearance of addressing the entire chamber while keeping the prompters themselves safely out of camera range. The public at home saw only a man giving a polished oration, addressing both sides of the audience. The President, debonair in his contact lenses, gave no indication that he was reading. In fact, the prompters, set intentionally high, helped him appear more youthful by keeping his eyes wider open. Only rarely, in an occasional wide shot, did we see the two glass plates. But on our home television screens they looked like bulletproof security shields. The President took his TelePrompTer with him wherever he went, but it would be a mistake to ascribe the Great Communicator’s skills to technology alone. He was, first of all, a skilled and professional performer who did not skimp on rehearsal time, spending vital hours at the front of the White House family movie theater mastering his material. By the time he delivered his speeches, his command was so great that TV viewers could not even see the pupils of his eyes pause on the TelePrompTer screen; his rotation was so smooth that it looked to all appearances as if his eyes were locked on his audience, not on the words being projected on the glass. Above all, he never forgot that he himself, not “supply-side economics” or “strategic defense,” was the most important product. Backstage monitors were there to help him appear more “regular” and less regal. The space-age TelePrompting and those contacts of his made him more personal in his broadcasts.

When Reagan used such techniques, he was positioning himself with enormous science, establishing himself in the public mind not as an aloof head of government but as the man next door. Every action was designed to make him appear close to the people and distant from the government. Where his predecessors identified themselves with the attainment of government power, Reagan posed as a visiting citizen. Announcing for reelection, he referred to the presidency rather distantly as “the office I now hold.” When he went on vacation, he made no bones about it. Visualize the competing lifestyles of the two most recent presidents from California. When Richard Nixon went home, he held court at “the Western White House.” In other words, he brought the office with him. Remember the pictures we saw of Nixon in California: a solitary man walking the beaches of San Clemente, head bowed with the burdens of high office, wearing black wing-tipped shoes. When Ronald Reagan went home, he went to the “ranch,” wore plaid shirt, jeans and boots, and rode around in a Jeep. We spotted him, through a telescopic lens, on his way to clear brush or repair a fence. Tucked back in those mountains, he made no pretense of being a chief executive on leave: there was an engaging quality of playing hooky from the job. Yet Reagan was the man who had sought great office for more than two decades, the man who presided over the largest bureaucracy in American history. Pundits have spent years trying to figure out how Ronald Reagan escaped responsibility for the government’s problems and mistakes. The simple answer is that he refused to be seen as part of that government. He rejected it the way some organisms reject foreign tissue. Ronald Reagan did not rise to the presidency, he redefined it. He made it not the job of running the government—those chores were left to dispensable figures such as Alexander Haig or Margaret Heckler or Don Regan—but simply the job of being Ronald Reagan. He was, of course, by no means the first American politician to engage in a bit of political positioning: he simply refined the technique. George McGovern won the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination largely because he positioned himself ideologically, making it clear that he stood to the left of every other candidate on the issue of Vietnam. This position gave him the troops to wage a successful campaign against the party’s more prominent leaders, which unfortunately made it easy for Richard Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew to claim the political center a few months later.

In the same way, Senator Gary Hart jumped to an early if brief lead in 1984 by positioning himself as the breezy candidate of “new ideas,” the representative of a new generation of Democrat. Wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and boots—shades of Reagan?—he engaged in a little “photo opportunity” in which he threw an ax at a tree stump. The real target was the gray, entrenched “insiders” of the Democratic Party establishment. He used his L. L. Bean image as a direct shot at Walter Mondale, the lawyerly Brooks Brothers candidate. The former VP himself admitted that he came off as rather “official.” Ronald Reagan sought and accomplished a far more subtle positioning. It is important to recall that this enormously popular man came to office facing a grave set of challenges. Starting with Lyndon Johnson, the public had seen four presidencies destroyed within twelve years by Vietnam, Watergate, Iran. Reagan was determined to define the office, not to let it define him. Ronald Reagan had witnessed the bitter undoing of a president who had tried to carry too much baggage. Rejecting the role of head of state, Jimmy Carter had made himself entirely a head of government. Having denied himself the grander trappings of office—he ordered that “Hail to the Chief” not be played at his arrivals—he allowed himself to take personal responsibility for everything that went wrong. Faced with double-digit inflation, he created a White House “Office of Inflation.” When fifty Americans were taken hostage in Iran, he allowed the quest for their release to swallow his entire presidency. He carried the burdens of office as he did his own garment bag. Ronald Reagan made sure the public knew from the start that he was elected to work in Washington, but he was not of Washington. He would be the country’s head of state, not some national custodian answerable every time the power failed or the toilet overflowed. He had said in his acceptance speech, “Government is not the solution to our problem, it’s the problem.” He would not allow himself to become part of that problem, never let anyone doubt that Ronald Reagan’s home was in California, not Washington, D.C. As late as August 1986, he was able to attend the Illinois State Fair posing as some cowpoke from the West. “One of the great things about being at this state fair,” he told an appreciative crowd, “is that maybe I can tell a joke they wouldn’t understand as well in Washington.” In moments like this, Ronald Reagan was not simply setting up a criticism. He was portraying himself as something subtly different from a conventional chief executive. He was placing himself not in government but at some unique point—previously uncharted—between government and us. This gave him valuable distance when disaster struck, when programs failed, when his appointees did embarrassing things.

It was no accident that Reagan chose the previously overlooked medium of radio to address the nation each week. Each Saturday he chose a different topic, but the message was generally the same. No matter what was ailing the country, those who tuned in at 12:05 P.M. EST heard the same offstage “they” being called on the carpet. Each Saturday, that Iowa-trained radio voice came to us bristling with complaints about government—the dread purveyor of deficits, crime, red tape and other evils. Listening to him, it was easy to forget that this Paul-Harvey-on-the-Potomac was the head of the federal government. As a disembodied voice—the White House refused to allow the broadcast session to be televised—he became a kind of national neighbor, concerned as we all were about the way things were going. The timing was critical. Since Saturday is not a workday, the President was off duty, removed from the Washington power structure. The radio addresses presented a perfect opportunity for Reagan to skip town on whatever ticklish issue was hovering above the Oval Office. It was across this back fence that the President was free to denounce the shabby treatment given his good friend James G. Watt at the hands of the media and the far-out environmentalists. Tuning in, one would never know that this indignant commentator was actually the same man who had briskly snapped up the former Interior Secretary’s resignation for having made some insensitive, well-publicized remarks about his appointment of “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple” to a federal advisory panel.

His proven ability to reposition himself a safe distance from official Washington had protected him again and again from the traditional dangers of incumbency. When an American barracks was car-bombed in Beirut, the President stepped aside from the disaster: the Marines could not be blamed, because they were in the process of fortifying the barracks area, but “like a kitchen being refurbished, it’s never done as soon as you would like.” In a subsequent State of the Union message, he gave a pointed reminder that Congress had authorized the placement of troops in Lebanon, ignoring the fact that he had for several months made support of his peacekeeping mission an acid test of patriotism. Previous presidents have held tight to the trappings of office, but Ronald Reagan had fought hard to keep free. His role as author of the federal budget is one example. The President who never submitted a balanced budget went twice to Capitol Hill during 1982 to lead balance-the-budget rallies. Standing at the head of the angry crowd, he presented himself simply as an average citizen, concerned, just like everybody else, at the rising flood of red ink. Two years later, the man who had presided over a doubling of the national debt stood comfortably at his alma mater, Eureka College, and demanded, “Politicians at the national level must no longer be permitted to mortgage your future.” Reagan’s mastery of positioning has to be envied by his predecessors.

Think back to the 1968 Republican national convention. The party’s nominee for president was giving the speech of his life. Having finished with the main body of his address, he shifted pace, becoming uncharacteristically intimate with the national audience. Switching to the third person, he began to narrate the story of a boy growing up with limited prospects in a small town in southern California. His voice began to quake. “He hears the train go by at night, and he dreams of faraway places he would like to go. It seems like an impossible dream . . .” Now the climax. That boy with his head on the pillow at night listening to the Western Pacific rush by, that dreamer of the “impossible dream,” was now standing before the thousands of delegates. “Tonight he stands before you nominated for President of the United States of America. You can see now why I believe so deeply in the American dream.” Even Nixon-haters were impressed. It seemed totally spontaneous, but behind the scenes there was craft. In a hotel room later that night Nixon allowed himself some credit for the speech’s great close. “I’d like to see Rocky or Romney or Lindsay do a moving thing like that ‘impossible dream’ part, where I changed my voice, he said to aide William Safire. Reagan’s an actor, but I’d like to see him do it.”

In 1999, Vice President Al Gore was challenged for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination by former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. At a black-tie “roast” of Bradley held years before, Gore had teased his future rival with the following tale: Senator Bradley came to the Senate with his reputation as Princeton All-American and National Basketball Association star preceding him. Invited to make a speech at a large banquet, the confident legislator sat at the head table waiting to make his address. When the waiter came around and put a pat of butter on his plate, Bradley stopped him. “Excuse me. Can I have two pats of butter?” “Sorry,” the waiter said, “one pat to a person.” “I don’t think you know who I am,” Bradley said, “I’m BILL BRADLEY, the Rhodes scholar, professional basketball player, world champion, United States senator.” The waiter said, “Well, maybe you don’t know who I am.” “Well, as a matter of fact I don’t,” Bradley said. “Who are you?” “I’m the guy,” the waiter said, “who’s in charge of the butter.” In the world of power, there’s always someone in charge of the butter.