How Chris Lehane, revered by some and reviled by others, gets the campaign consultant job done
Sunday, October 24, 2004
There's no reason for Chris Lehane to be smiling his crooked-tooth grin, let alone one bordering on glee.
Billed as "Democratic political consultant" on one side of the split screen, Lehane is enjoying his five-minute presidential race "debate" on "The Big Show With John Gibson," one of the cable shout-overs that thrive on the Fox News Channel. He lives for intellectual combat, beamed live nationally.
Or maybe it's because his Republican opponent has just lobbed him the talking point he's been waiting for about John Kerry's war service.
"Your guy wanted to run this campaign for some unknown reason on Vietnam and guess what, now he has to take his medicine," said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, all eye rolls and harrumphs. "You have to get out of Vietnam."
Sitting in a San Francisco television studio with a Financial District backdrop, Lehane waits, eyes focused directly ahead, and then launches. Vietnam was a fundamental character test for Kerry and President George W. Bush, he says, smile gone. "One chose to serve, rescued people, was shot at. The other, well, first of all, he was a cheerleader when he couldn't make his high school football team. Then he went down to Alabama to avoid serving."
Calling out the leader of the free world as a cheerleader and draft dodger is vintage Lehane. And the punch line is funnier delivered in his nasally honk of a wisecracker's voice. The same mouth that once got him reprimanded by his old boss, Vice President Al Gore. (As Gore's presidential campaign spokesman, Lehane compared Florida's secretary of state to "a Soviet commissar" during the 2000 recount.)
And, if Lehane weren't just freelance punditing on Fox, his comments might have made him, as has happened on a few occasions, the focus of the story, which doesn't help the person he represents.
Then there's the larger question: Why is Lehane here defending Kerry at all?
Lehane, 36, left Kerry's campaign a little more than a year ago, frustrated that it wasn't aggressive enough, say those close to the situation -- a complaint that has dogged the Kerry campaign since the Republican convention.
For a man trained in the "hit back harder than you got" bunker of the special counsel's office in the Clinton White House, Lehane wanted Kerry to be more aggressive toward then-surging Howard Dean last year. Like the way Lehane compared Dean to the former glad-handing Iraqi information minister after Dean said he "suppose(d) it's a good thing" Saddam Hussein was toppled.
But that was April 2003. By September, when Kerry's campaign wouldn't change, Lehane left. "If I were working for the Republicans, the day that Kerry dumped Chris Lehane is one day that I'd be celebrating," said Dan Schnur, a veteran Republican political consultant and past top strategist with U.S. Sen. John McCain during the 2000 campaign.
"He's the best the Democrats have got," Schnur said.
Both Lehane and the Kerry campaign have said the parting was amicable. Ever the loyal Democrat, Lehane says nothing bad about Kerry, and nothing about the way they parted ways. In fact, he repeatedly goes on TV to defend him.
And he doesn't need the cash. He and partner Mark Fabiani, dubbed the Masters of Disaster for their work defending the Clinton White House from Whitewater to Lewinsky, earn up to $100,000 a month for pulling their clients out of public relations quicksand. Their roster includes everyone from "Fahrenheit 9/11" filmmaker Michael Moore to "those close to" Kobe Bryant to Fortune 200 companies. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom regularly -- if informally -- seeks his counsel, as the mayor's press secretary, Peter Ragone, is a Lehane protege.
Lehane lives in San Francisco's Richmond District, and from either there or his North Beach office regularly fields 150 calls a day from reporters, political flacks and officeholders -- much of it just to riff off ideas. He trades another 100 BlackBerry volleys daily with Fabiani. His wife, Andrea Evans, a high-powered San Francisco attorney and new Newsom appointee to the Commission on the Status of Women, enforces a "no cell phone or BlackBerry" rule so they can enjoy their time together.
They have more of it now. Four years ago, on the morning after the nation's most chaotic election night, Lehane was at the center of the world. On election night next week, Lehane will be on another planet. He'll be watching the election returns with his wife and 7-week-old son, knowing there's a chance that Kerry -- the one whose campaign he left -- could become the new leader of the free world. Regrets? "Not at all," Lehane said over Peet's coffee recently at the Ferry Building. "I'd be thrilled if Sen. Kerry won."
Perhaps that's just spin; it's often hard to tell with a professional spinner. While those close to Lehane confirm he doesn't regret his departure, Bush-bashers frustrated with Kerry's timidity in responding to attacks may regret it more.
The reason Lehane is at peace may be hard to believe after listening to two years of partisan spin in America's slog to elect a president. It seems that even the most partisan spinmeisters have principles.
Kids don't grow up wanting to be political operatives. And it's not like there were a lot of positive role models back in the '70s, when Lehane was growing up in New England. Unless they wanted to be a Watergate "plumber" like Donald Segretti.
Born in a small town near Lawrence, Mass., both of Lehane's immigrant grandmothers worked in the local mills, searing into him a lifelong soft spot for labor issues. His Sicilian grandfather built roads with Depression-era work programs and worked for the telephone company plant. Early in his childhood, the family moved to Kennebunkport, Maine -- vacation home to the Bush family -- where Lehane's father ran the state's Head Start program and his mother was a bookkeeper. The Bush family always treated the locals well, he said, with George the father and Barbara Bush speaking at Lehane's high school.
In high school, Lehane worked as a bellhop at a local hotel George H.W. Bush frequented. Lehane remembers bringing food into a senior strategists meeting in the summer of 1988, one chaired by Bush's aggressive chief strategist, Lee Atwater, a man still reviled among Democrats for his race- baiting Willie Horton ad.
Back then, Lehane was more interested in playing for the Boston Celtics. Despite a 5-foot-7, 150-pound frame, Lehane was an all-Western Maine basketball point guard with a sharp competitive edge. "When we'd lose," Lehane said, "I'd come home and lock myself in my room."
He attended prestigious Amherst College and interned several summers in Washington for Democratic Rep. Joseph Brennan, who as Maine's governor had been impressed with Lehane's father's child care programs. Being in Washington fused his passion for helping people with his love of intellectual combat. Coming from a state with a population not much larger than the East Bay, he was raised in a homey environment where you return calls and connect with people on a personal level.
As a Harvard Law School student, Lehane ran Brennan's gubernatorial campaigns, and was Maine's Clinton-Gore political director in 1992. For his last two years of law school, Lehane rarely attended class -- or even lived in Boston. Running a campaign seemed so much more educational, not to mention fun. But he remained at Harvard long enough to meet another sharp, young law student named Andrea Evans.
At Harvard, Evans and Lehane first got to know each other when they teamed up in a negotiations class against what they both call a "very arrogant" classmate. Assigned to negotiate the sale of a house with an aviary, the two quickly realized their opponent didn't know what aviary meant.
Lehane and Evans sold the house for a price much higher than its value, and their opponent was so infuriated he never spoke to them again. Lehane, meanwhile, graduated in the top half of the class in 1994.
In 1995, Lehane was brought into the White House as part of a rapid response team developed to deal with the growing number of investigations into the Clinton Administration. His mentor was Fabiani, the former deputy mayor of Los Angeles to Tom Bradley, who had joined the White House as a special counsel.
When Fabiani arrived, the White House was on the defense, with the press getting testy from the administration's slow response to the Republican- initiated investigations.
Fabiani had a different approach to handling scandal: Give reporters the documents they request; return all calls, even from the more hostile journalists; and keep on the offense. Instead of rebuttals, when you find out you're going to be attacked, deliver a "prebuttal."
Through the investigations, from Whitewater to Lewinsky, the mantra was sports-related: No free layups. Don't let the other side score an easy point on your undefended goal. "You take your hit and you move on," Fabiani said from Los Angeles, where's he's based. "Because most of the time, the stuff they were looking into wasn't that interesting. But you don't keep revisiting it.
"Chris got it right away," Fabiani said.
It helped that Lehane built a rapport with reporters by returning their calls. He was funny, engaging. Gave reporters nicknames in manner that's downright George W. Bushian. (There's "The Thrill," "Wild Dingo," and nearly everybody is "Doctor.") He remembered details about their families, and his alliterative quips were the quotes political reporters on deadline dream about.
Given his expertise in the law, public relations and politics, he gift- wrapped stories with well-documented opposition research. One of his first efforts, produced in conjunction with the Democratic National Committee, garnered mixed results.
In 1995, the White House counsel office produced a memo, "Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce," commissioned by Fabiani and written by Lehane in perhaps his first burst of nationally recognized alliteration.
The 332-page report -- all but 2 1/2 pages are newspaper and Internet clippings -- was the first to outline the "conspiracy commerce" theory later popularized by former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's infamous quote about a "vast right-wing conspiracy." The report traced how "fantasy can become fact" through "a media food chain" that begins in ideologically conservative journals and think tanks. After stories generated there are posted on the Internet, they're frequently picked up by British tabloids.
Then conservative U.S. papers like the Washington Times and right-wing talk radio report on what the Brits are saying. Republican Congressional members see the stories, get huffy and order inquiries. Now that the issue is cloaked with Congressional legitimacy, the mainstream media covers the story unflinchingly.
Among Clinton loyalists, the memo, which surfaced in 1997 after the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times wrote about it, confirmed their long-held beliefs in the origin of many of the investigations of the president. In defending it, White House press secretary Mike McCurry told reporters the point was to "let us show you how this circle works so you can understand the genesis of some of these stories."
Conservatives ripped it. In New York, a group of conservative writers and activists formed "The Fabiani Society" in mock honor of the report; they have cocktails and speakers once a month.
Others were harsher. Stephen Hess, the well-respected presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told the Chicago Tribune that the report was "bizarre, paranoid and irresponsible."
"Anyone who has spent time with the Washington press corps knows that this is not how reporters get their information." To the Washington Times, Hess said, "If it had been done under Ronald Reagan, this would be on the front page of the New York Times. It would be an outrage."
By the time the story broke, Fabiani had left the White House after Clinton's 1996 re-election to start a private firm in Los Angeles. Still, the Masters of Disaster left the Clinton White House with a legacy open to interpretation, depending upon which side of the fence you sit.
"Their greatest accomplishment was that they kept Clinton in office," said Republican consultant Schnur.
And their lowest? "That they kept Clinton in office," Schnur quipped.
In 1999, Lehane joined Gore's campaign as its press secretary, and in May 2000 he helped recruit Fabiani.
Their daily effort to control the 24-hour news cycle took on the planning of the D-Day invasion. With hundreds of reporters needing to be fed, there could be no favorites -- especially among the handful of newspapers that influence the mainstream media's agenda. It's a game of ego-stroking, and Lehane understood that print reporters get very angry if they wake up and see a story they don't have in a competitor's paper.
When it came time to announce Gore's vice presidential nominee, everybody wanted the story first. Impossible. The solution: Release the nominee's name shortly before 7 a.m. to the Associated Press, which doesn't deliver a product to the doorstep, and then at 6:58 a.m. to the TV networks, so they can say they "heard it from the campaign" and don't have to say "The AP is reporting." Then to the traveling press so they can all have their story for the next day's paper. Nobody gets beat.
But Lehane and Fabiani had bigger challenges, ones that sound familiar to Democrats today. They wanted to go more aggressively after Bush with a message that said, "Does George Bush have what it takes to get the job done?" Campaign leaders vetoed it. In retrospect, Fabiani said a few weeks ago, "We failed to come up with that one sentence to describe the perils of a Bush presidency. They did. They said [Gore] was an exaggerator who was going to say whatever it took to get elected."
Critics have a larger question.
"These guys are supposed to be the best and the brightest, but what have they won?" said Melanie Morgan, a conservative talk show host on KSFO in San Francisco and one of the leaders of the drive to recall former California Gov. Gray Davis (Lehane worked against the recall). "Gore didn't win the presidency. Davis was recalled. I used to be afraid of these guys, but not anymore."
Lehane's response to such comments: Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000.
Nevertheless, it was after that election, Fabiani said, the two made a vow. "The next time, if something is going so badly wrong, you owe it to the candidate to tell him what's wrong." And be ready to leave if that advice isn't taken.
It was during the 20-hour-long days and intensely competitive atmosphere of a presidential campaign that Lehane cemented his reputation with the national press corps. Though many loved him as a breath of fresh air, others loathed him for being "a mercenary."
Several national reporters asked not to be identified, knowing they probably will have to deal with Lehane again in the small world of elite consultants and top reporters. Their complaints were similar:
Said one who worked with him since the Clinton Administration: "He burned a lot of bridges with the Washington press corps in the 2000 campaign. He is an operator more interested in his own image than his candidate's."
Some said Gore was too inaccessible for the last part of the campaign. Another said they would play reporters off each other. "He'd tell me that (one media outlet) was playing a story on page one, so why aren't you going with the story. But they were never playing it on page one."
Fabiani waves off the criticism. "The campaign is such a hothouse environment. You're going nonstop for 18 months, and people build up certain feelings about the candidates."
"That stuff goes both ways," said Newsom's press secretary Ragone, who has known and worked with Lehane for several years. "Reporters will tell you, 'If you give that story only to me, I'll put it on page one.' "
Mindy Tucker Fletcher, his counterpart for the 2000 Bush campaign, developed a strategy when appearing with Lehane on one of those split-screen TV debates.
"He's got that Northeastern way of talking really fast, so one of my strategies was just to let him rant, rant, rant," said Fletcher, who now works for a public relations agency. "I'd get more done just saying nothing and rolling my eyes.
"You know, there're Republicans who say, 'I hate that Chris Lehane,' and I'm sure there're people in Democratic circles saying the same thing about me, " Tucker said. "But most of them don't know him. He's just doing his job."
To those on his side, Lehane was invaluable. During the 2000 primaries, Donna Brazile, then Gore's campaign manager, was quoted as saying that Republicans would "rather take pictures with black children than feed them."
Republicans wanted Gore to fire her. Brazile's first call for help: Not to Gore. To Lehane.
Within hours, he put her in touch with retired Gen. Colin Powell to explain what happened. By being able to foresee the lifespan of a bad story, like this, colleagues marvel at Lehane's ability to short-circuit a five-day bomb into one.
"I knew he'd have my back, and he'd spin it right," Brazile, now a CNN commentator, said. "He is so smart, so knowledgeable, and if you want to bend the ear of one of the top reporters, he can do it."
When the 2000 race didn't end on election day, Lehane, "wanted to fight Florida out -- not solely in the courts -- but in the streets. A terrible injustice had been done, an election stolen and the consequences were going to be who was in power and how they would shape the world for four years."
But the campaign and Lehane thought it would be better to send the more avuncular types, like former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, to appear before the cameras in Florida so not to cast the recount in a partisan light. Lehane stayed put until the Supreme Court ended the race Dec. 12.
It was physically exhausting. Lehane lost 15 pounds. Evans barely recognized him. Practically the only time he had taken off that year was to jet off to the Amalfi Coast to propose to her. Even that was a photo op. Afraid to travel with the engagement ring, Lehane knelt on one knee, a few feet from the Mediterranean Sea, and presented her with a Polaroid of the ring.
Then again, much of their life was long distance then. They would go weeks without seeing each other. E-mailing multiple times a day only goes so far.
"It's a very hard life," said Evans, who started dating Lehane in the mid- 1990s, when she was doing criminal defense work at a politically connected Washington, D.C., firm that represented mostly Democrats. "[We were in] the same sort of siege mentality. I guess, in a way, we bonded over that."
As calm and sweet as Lehane is hyper, Evans has never seen her husband upset or even sad. The only time she's seen him upset was when his Sicilian grandfather died last year.
While other Gore staffers wallowed for months after the election, Lehane and Evans went to the dog pound right after he conceded. "I said, 'Give me the one that has the least amount of time left,'" Lehane said.
Then they figured it was time to leave Washington. At its heart, Washington is an industry town, and the industry is politics. "It's all they do, it's all they talk about. It can be suffocating," said Evans, who got her undergraduate degree at Stanford.
Evans offered Lehane three choices: New York, Los Angeles and her favorite, San Francisco. She has family here and Fabiani's consulting business was taking off in Los Angeles. "People here [in San Francisco] are interested in the same things as Washington, they're engaged, but they have other things in their life to talk about, too," Evans said.
Professionally, Lehane and Fabiani soon had a high-profile California client. Gov. Gray Davis gave them a $30,000-a-month public fund contract to help Davis "communicate" better about California's billion-dollar energy crisis.
Bad move. Republicans fumed about paying a public relations operation out of state coffers -- especially with the state losing billions in the crisis. Plus, the two were consulting with an energy company. Critics said their paychecks should have come out of Davis' campaign funds. The state controller refused to pay them.
Again, Lehane had become part of the story. Something he shrugs off as being "part of the business. People are interested in process and personality."
Fabiani agrees, and adds: "But we probably shouldn't have accepted the contract."
By then, their private business was booming. Out of public view, corporations from Microsoft to Cisco hire them to keep them out of the news. Lehane helped work to prevent the recall against Gov. Gray Davis last year, saying it was "the work of disgruntled right-wing losers." Some of the disgruntled took offense.
"It's all just gutter politics. They will attack viciously," said recall- leader Morgan. "But you have to let that slip off your back or else you'll go nuts."
Losing the recall didn't hurt their private business, as corporate clients continued to call. Their jobs aren't always about the money. The pair turned down an offer from Enron for philosophical reasons, say political insiders. (They are promoting the pro-labor Proposition 72 on the Nov. 2 ballot for next to nothing.)
By 2003, Lehane was being recruited for Kerry's campaign. He took on the role of a volunteer adviser, remaining in San Francisco.
Kerry, like him, is a New Englander, and Lehane desperately wanted Bush out of office. But when the early momentum surged behind Dean, the first and loudest candidate to question Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, Lehane wanted to go after the former Vermont governor. When campaign leaders refused, he left.
Lehane won't talk about it.
Fabiani said it was one of the only times he has seen him down. "He was bummed out by the way the Kerry situation ended," Fabiani said. "By the end of last summer, based on the direction it was going, he realized that it wouldn't change.
"Republicans will do whatever it takes to prevail. You can't go out and be genteel about these things," Fabiani said. "Chris' view turned out to be fundamentally right."
But, said Fletcher, on leave from her job to advise the Republican Party in Florida, "a campaign is about more than one person. You can even have a good team in there, but you've still got to have a candidate who wants to do the right thing."
Speaking in general about Democratic campaigns -- via e-mail, where Lehane tends to be more introspective -- Lehane said Democrats need to toughen up.
"Democrats too often are handcuffed by their ideology," he wrote. "We want to offer 32 point programs that could be implemented immediately, we want to debate the merits of Part B of Medicare, we want to have a substantive discussion as if we were sitting in a seminar at Harvard.
"But we are lined up against an opposition that does not believe in government or being intellectually honest or bringing our country together, but are far more concerned about winning at all cost.
"We go into these campaigns as if we are playing chess and they go into it as if it is a WWF steel cage match to the death.
"At the end of the day, the elites (consultants, elected officials, staff) in both parties are going to be fine -- who is left out in the cold are those people who don't have a voice but who stand to lose an awful lot if there is not someone in power looking to see how government can be a tool to help improve their lives by giving them a real chance and a real opportunity."
Fabiani had been consulting with another Democratic challenger, Gen. Wesley Clark. So had Lehane's wife, in her first foray into campaign politics. Within a month, Lehane joined as a strategist for the political neophyte, again fueled by his desire to defeat Bush. Besides, he liked Clark -- "The General" as he refers to him -- and it didn't hurt that he'd be closer to Evans in the campaign's home base of Arkansas. Though some criticized the jump to a rival campaign, many insiders shrugged at the switch, as political operatives pass through campaigns like holiday shoppers through Macy's front door.
Clark began surging in the polls before the early primaries, taking a more aggressive stand against Dean and others. The press began making tougher inquiries into Dean's record, and his campaign sagged.
Shortly before the New Hampshire primary, a story about Lehane appeared on the front page of the New York Times, saying that he "had become a target in a fight among Democrats about whether opposition research is going too far."
Again, Lehane had become part of the story.
His wife hated it. "Chris gets credit and blame for things that he had nothing to do with," Andrea said. The story also described him as "frenetic, colorful and some say devious."
But other Democratic consultants, even those unaffiliated with campaigns, declined to elaborate on the Democratic internecine warfare that came after Lehane switched camps.
"Chris can be very aggressive, and about 98 percent of the things that Chris does are positive and effective," said Matt Bennett, Clark's communications director. "He was great at focusing our message, and then making sure we stuck to it."
When Clark pulled out in February, felled by the then-steamrolling Kerry, Lehane and Evans returned to San Francisco from Arkansas. Evans was pregnant. And Lehane left the sidelines.
Filmmaker Michael Moore contacted Lehane to run interference for "Fahrenheit 9/11." Moore had supported Clark in the primaries. It was a way for Lehane to go after Bush, this time from "Poliwood" -- the vanguard of a rush of Hollywood-made political films.
"A lot of people saw the movie and we introduced a lot of things into the debate," Lehane said. "Like now everybody knows about 'My Pet Goat.' [the book Bush continued to read to school children even after being informed of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks]."
As the summer came, he began to speak out more for Kerry. Evans preps him for his TV appearances, which he does without notes. She fires a couple of questions at her husband, and tells him when the jokes fall flat.
When asked to do something he never does -- think of something he's regretted -- Lehane flashes that smirky, crooked-front tooth smile and laughs. It's a nonverbal spin move. He can't.
"It's just not in my personality to look back. I make my decisions, live with the results and move one," he said.
"Ah, if the Celtics would have given me a shot," he said.
If Bush wins re-election, Kerry supporters might look back and wonder "what if?" even if Lehane won't. Until then, Lehane will continue to be "positive and bullish on the Kerry campaign."
And spinning via e-mail into the night...
"... fundamentals are all still working to their advantage (namely, country is not going in the right direction and that is specifically a result of Bush's decisions -- bad econ plan, no health care plan, let Bin Laden escape, squandered standing in the world, no plan for Iraq/tragedy of 1,000 soldiers killed), Kerry is a great closer, Bush can't run from his record ... fundamentally a dead-heat election and Bush can't sustain a lead if this campaign is framed around his failed leadership, as Kerry is attempting to do right now ..."
E-mail Chronicle staff writer Joe Garofoli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page CM - 12 of the San Francisco Chronicle