THE GURUS | Ken Rietz
Head of 'The House'
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Back in March, when Fred D. Thompson's presidential candidacy was just a possibility, but one with seemingly unlimited potential, a small group of veteran Republican insiders began meeting regularly in the dining room of Thompson's McLean home to plot his coming-out.
"Picture your kitchen table with four or five laptops, a printer from Home Depot, and somebody going out every day to get food from Boston Market, Balducci's or turkey sandwiches from home," said one regular participant.
The architect of the group was Ken Rietz, a longtime Thompson pal and former operative for Richard M. Nixon who has spent two decades as a prominent Washington image-maker. Working with Thompson's wife, Jeri, he recruited GOP strategist Mary Matalin; Ed McFadden, a speechwriter for John D. Ashcroft when Ashcroft was attorney general; Mark Corallo, a well-known Washington press specialist; pollsters John and Jim McLaughlin; and Tom Collamore, a former Altria executive whom Rietz put in charge of operations. Nelson Warfield, Robert J. Dole's former spokesman and Rietz's neighbor, was there, too.
For weeks that stretched into months, they argued about how to turn a Hollywood actor and onetime senator into a presidential candidate, and how to get a campaign off the ground. "From the beginning, we've wanted to find a way to help people who want to support Fred -- this massive group of volunteers out there -- how to connect them with the campaign in a nontraditional way," Rietz recalled.
Eight months later, the team that Rietz helped assemble is largely gone. Thompson has had to reinvent his campaign repeatedly, and even his allies have questioned the way it has been run. But before the series of high-level staff departures helped undermine Thompson's entry into the 2008 race and raised questions about how serious a candidate he would be, the Rietz effort appeared promising.
As Rietz planned it, Thompson's campaign would be run by people wise in the ways of Washington but able to think beyond the Beltway. It was a campaign that would be radically different, unencumbered by the typical pressures of a big-budget organization. With technology, the team members believed, there would be less need for Thompson to attend every rubber-chicken campaign dinner.
On May 15, they showed what they meant. On the Drudge Report, Corallo and McFadden saw a story about filmmaker Michael Moore's trip to Cuba and his challenge to Thompson to debate him. Within an hour, the pair filmed a cigar-chomping Thompson in a biting, 38-second response: "A mental institution, Michael. Might be something you ought to think about."
They posted the video to a news Web site called Breitbart TV, and it became an instant hit. It was the epitome of the rapid-response, new-media ideas that Rietz and the others thought could shake up the 2008 White House race.
"Those were heady days for the campaign," said one staffer who later quit. " 'This is all working. We got a trillion hits on the Michael Moore video. We don't need to do the traditional things that a campaign does.' "
It was also the last time that the Thompson campaign did anything remotely like it.
For months, the group debated how to announce a formal candidacy. Positive press soon turned negative as advisers mishandled questions about Thompson's lobbying efforts for an abortion rights group. Evangelical leaders started to question Thompson's commitment to their issues, while donors wondered whether to put money on a candidate who wasn't even in the race yet.
At the heart of the problems, though, was the team that Rietz had taken a lead role in assembling. Amid bickering and infighting over operations and strategy, many of the people whom Rietz persuaded Thompson to hire were soon fired or left in frustration during a disastrous summer of conflict and chaos inside the nascent campaign.