"Them that's going, get in the goddamn wagon. Them that ain't, get out of the goddamn way."
-- David Carmen's favorite quote, from "The Bear" by William Faulkner
DAVID CARMEN IS A YOUNG MAN WHO CAME TO WASHINGTON SIX YEARS AGO TO GET married, make a living and grow up. He is seated at his desk in front of huge glass windows that converge in the corner behind him at 17th and K. He is 30 years old, short, with a slight but constant slump in his shoulders. His voice is like gravel, his hair is a memory. His suit is European, dark blue with a subtle purple stripe, expensive. His tie is Armani. Camel filters are his cigarette, and the smoke rises off his ashtray and seems to disappear into its own reflection in the glass atop his desk, which is appropriate because the slippage and similarity between image and reality is David's business -- political public relations.
His firm is Carmen, Carmen & Hugel. Last year, it billed $1.5 million. Not bad for a novice. David laughs an ingratiating, relaxing laugh. He's a good talker, David, and today -- for many days, really -- he has sat and talked about himself and about the mysterious ways of Washington.
He's describing the education of David Carmen -- how one smart young man got ahead in Washington using everything from brains and hustle, to friendships and favors, to competence and connections. Oh, maybe David is self-aggrandizing, sees himself writ large in the scenes of his life, but then who doesn't? David isn't a big Washington dealmaker; he's still a young and aspiring dealmaker. But he has done better than most in his journey from simple to sophisticated knowledge of Washington. And for those who admire people like David, his journey is a primer. For those who despise people like David, it is a warning.
This is David's Principle: Washington is about results.
Nobody in this town cares how hard you work or how smart or how nice you are. This is no family. People care about results. In Washington, you are in the wagon or you are out of the wagon, out of the way. You make things happen or things will happen to you. These are shallow aphorisms for the young and the hungry, but they can't be ignored. Always remember Harry Truman's remark, "If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog." David laughs. He really doesn't believe Truman, not yet, anyway. He must still remind himself to be that cynical, impersonal, purposeful. He still shakes his head and wonders at the very idea of it.
But, he says cheerfully, "You have to play to stay."
THE SPEAKER PHONE IN DAVID'S OFFICE IS BEHIND HIM, and because he faces forward at his desk when he talks to it, there's a weird sense that he's talking to a ghost or maybe God. But no, he's talking to Sidney Blumenthal, a reporter for The Washington Post's Style section. It amuses David that Blumenthal is a liberal while David is a right-wing conservative whose PR firm handles press for T. Boone Pickens Jr., Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick. But ideology matters not here; results matter. Years ago, David convinced Blumenthal, then a reporter for The New Republic, to write a profile of David's boss. It was the first big story that young press agent David Carmen ever placed. Blumenthal went on to become an expert on conservative politics and eventually moved to The Post. "All of a sudden," David says gleefully, "I had a buddy at The Washington Post." David genuinely likes Blumenthal. But he is also a good man to know.
"Sid," says David, in that exaggerated way speaker phones make people talk.
"David," says Blumenthal, who genuinely likes David.
"I think I have a really hot one, but it's really sensitive, and it can't ever come from me. Like, go to jail for me."
David and Blumenthal are speaking in the arcane language of source and reporter, and they both laugh. David's style smacks of a joyful irony about the criss-crossing nature of enemies and allies in Washington. He isn't mean or slimy, but relaxed and droll. He has a gentle, likable, intimate way of putting people at ease, inspiring trust. It's the psychological equivalent of draping an arm around a person's shoulder, leaning into him, whispering in that conspiratorial way. This all comes naturally and sincerely to David, but in Washington it's also his best weapon in a game that's all about making people recognize that it is in their interests to do what you want them to do.
David tells Blumenthal his tip, which is juicy -- about the faltering marriage of one of Washington's most powerful men. The tip never makes it into the paper, but that won't bother David. He's just being friendly, keeping his line to Blumenthal open.
Says David, "The whole town does it."
DAVID CAME TO WASHINGTON BECAUSE HE GOT SCARED -- scared at his youthful discovery that people's lives don't always follow desire's script.
His father, as fathers do, had tried to tell David this for years, wanted him to be a lawyer. David had other ideas. He saw himself as a rebel. At the elite Phillips Exeter Academy prep school, David was part of the counterculture gang. Some teachers feared he was part of the campus marijuana drug culture. David smiles and says unselfconsciously: "I engaged in all the tenets of the youth culture."
David's father, Gerald, was a self-made man who had become wealthy as the owner of tire stores in Manchester, N.H. But Gerald Carmen never lost his Jewish working-man's style -- even as he rose from tire store owner, to state Republican chairman and architect of Ronald Reagan's 1980 primary victory in New Hampshire, to head of the General Services Administration. David's father was a Republican's Republican, and without much thought David had worked the streets for conservative Republicans since he was a boy.
So it was wildly ironic to David that at Exeter -- filled with kids from America's richest families -- everybody seemed liberal. He hung with the intellectual crowd, wrote a novel, acted in campus plays. David was not so much a conservative then as an iconoclast. He delighted in making fun of classmates for, say, wearing $300 boots to an anti-Nixon rally. Exeter had a coat-and-tie dress code, and David mocked it by wearing coats and ties that clashed.
"David was always an operator," says Myra Donnelley, a friend and former Exeter classmate. "He was a bad boy, very charismatic. He delighted in exploring the rules of the game, the boundaries at Exeter." But David always had a charm that let him get away with it. A lot of his Exeter friends were eventually kicked out, but not David. He was a hybrid: a rebel who skirted the rules, but who was still named dorm proctor by the faculty. When Harvard, Yale and Stanford all rejected him, though, David became convinced that his rebelliousness at Exeter had led to bad faculty evaluations that had kept him out. It was a cost this rebel didn't want to pay -- and David suddenly wished he had studied more, rebelled less.
David finally took his dad's advice and went into pre-law at the University of Chicago. But he hated it and soon rebelled again. He transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York to study theater. His father went nuts. How will you get a job with a degree in what, theater? After graduation in 1980, David moved to Boston, where he worked as a stagehand, directed little theater and finally wrote and produced his own play, "Bobby Brown: Brass Tacks for Spring Chickens," a sci-fi adventure in which a blind kid invents a machine that makes him see and then gets kidnapped by evil German scientists.
On opening night, David was behind the audience watching the last scene -- Bobby Brown being blown up by the military-industrial complex -- when a winch operating a stage elevator gave out. David's girlfriend, Alexandra, reflexively reached out to stop it and cut off the tip of her left index finger, blood everywhere.
She took the accident in stride, but David fell into a funk, had nightmares. It wasn't Vietnam or a death in the family, David knew that, but the accident was still a dose of cold reality in his fortunate life. Here he was, 25, too poor to pay the lousy heating bill, no health insurance! And David liked money, always had, lots of it. He enjoyed buying Alexandra extravagant gifts. He wanted to marry. David told himself: Broadway actors make $30,000 a year -- and that's Broadway! It was a cost this rebel didn't want to pay.
You might say David was scared straight.
He'd never wanted to enter politics. That was his dad's thing. But he called Dad, then head of GSA, and asked if he could get him a job. Dad did, at the Republican National Committee. This was David's plan: He and Alexandra would move to Washington, get married, save some money -- and then head for life in the theater. In the eternal struggle between father and son, David felt horribly defeated. But his father, who had fumed at his son's offbeat interests for years, didn't feel victorious. No, he felt oddly saddened that David had traded in his youthful dreams for an $18,000-a-year job.
"PAGE!" DAVID SUDDENLY HOLLERS INTO THE NEXT office.
An old college friend of David's is looking for a job as a TV producer, and when Page Lee, David's assistant, hustles in, David asks her to call Hal Bruno, John Ellis and Marty Plissner, political news honchos at ABC, NBC and CBS, and ask them to set up interviews for David's friend. Only a few years ago, David would never have sought such favors.
"I would die before I asked someone to do something for me," he says.
David did favors, all right, as many as he could, whenever he could, whether or not he thought a favor would be returned. He had been nurtured in politics, had a sixth sense for its back-scratching dimension, knew that doing favors in politics was like doing good works in the Bible: They will be returned many-fold. But David believed that asking for favors was different -- asking for favors was a sign of weakness.
He was wrong.
David explains: People mistakenly think favors are like toothpaste in a tube -- the more favors you use, the fewer favors you have left. Not so. The more favors you request and the more favors you do, the more potential favors are created. See, when you ask for a favor, you're making it easier for someone to ask you for a favor -- and you want people to seek favors because then they'll do favors for you, in an ever-expanding circle. The modern word for this is "networking," a technocratic term conveniently devoid of the ethical ambiguities of people feathering one another's nests.
Says David, "I just take networking for granted. It's the vehicle by which everything happens in Washington. I don't know anyone who has ever gotten a job who didn't know somebody. It's like a secret little race track, and only some people have a key. It's a big network. That's how I got my jobs."
But no luck this time. David's friend got two interviews, no job.
DAVID MOVED TO WASHINGTON IN 1982 AND WENT straight to Sy Syms discount designer clothes. On his mother's advice, he bought two $99 suits -- one dark blue, one dark blue pin stripe. Then he bought "the uniform" -- blue blazer and tan slacks. (His father tells this story: Once, when David's mom and dad were invited to sit in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center, they arrived to discover that all eight male guests, including David's father, were wearing blue blazers and tan slacks.) David bought rep ties for $10, black tie-shoes -- the big, plain, shiny kind -- and a half-dozen 100 percent cotton, Oxford button-down white shirts for $12.95 each. His father had them monogrammed, just like his own shirts.
David's big mistake was that he bought a brown suit, a nice suit, one he really liked. But everybody gave him grief. "A brown suit!?" they'd ask. "Ronald Reagan wears brown suits," David would say. It was no use. David, who had once mocked the dress code at Phillips Exeter, relented and put away the brown suit. But he did get one big sartorial break: His mom ran across a Polish knockoff of a Burberry overcoat at a little place in Georgetown, $99. David had never even heard of a Burberry overcoat, but other people sure had. The first time he wore it to the Republican National Committee, where -- to David's amazement -- everyone dressed exactly as his mother had dressed him, he was assaulted with comments: "A Burberry?" or "Hey, a Burberry!"
David marveled. The remarks came not from women, but from men.
The RNC turned out to be everything David had feared -- a huge, depersonalized maze. His office was in a storage closet, with the protective padding still on the walls. David, whose job it was to create a computerized data bank of quotes from potential Democratic presidential candidates, was flabbergasted to learn he was expected to write memos under his superiors' names -- as if they had written them! Ideas were weapons. Even the quotes David selected for his data bank led to arguments among RNC experts vying to decide which quotes would go or stay. Ideas, David learned, often rose or fell on the names of the people suggesting them. "Whose idea was that?" he'd joke. "We'll decide if it's good after we know whose idea it was."
With amazement, David told his old friend Myra Donnelley that everyone in Washington seemed to have "an angle" -- and that gossip seemed to be the glue that held the city together. In Washington, David said, he couldn't even go out with people after work for a few beers, because he was afraid he'd get relaxed and say something that would later come back to haunt him. Donnelley was shocked: This was the same David who used to yell to the waiters, "More champagne!"
For all the petty maneuvering, it seemed to young David -- brash, confident, impatient -- that nothing ever happened at the RNC, that ideas floated around for months and then disappeared into the ether. Philip Kawior, in charge of RNC research then, says David's political instincts were sometimes frighteningly brilliant. But David -- trying so hard to dress and act the role of a good bureaucrat -- was still too much the iconoclast to really fit in. Then he made the mistake of asking his boss, William Greener, for a raise.
"We have our raise reviews in November," Greener said.
"But do you think I deserve a raise?" asked David, pressing.
"Yes, but we have our processes." David's job just wasn't worth more than the $22,000 he was earning, Greener said, no matter how well he did it. If David wanted more money, he'd have to get a new job or wait for a promotion.
Now, this conversation comes as no shock to anyone who has worked in an organization with "processes," but David was confused. Was he being shown the door? All of a sudden, David found himself back in the job market -- and once again, David's father played the angel. His dad told Marc Holtzman, then executive director of a new group forming to plug Reagan's conservative agenda, that David was looking for a job. The group, Citizens for America, was the brainchild of Jack Hume, a California millionaire and one of Reagan's most trusted personal advisers. Lewis Lehrman, the former president of Rite-Aid drugstores and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in New York, was its head. David met Holtzman and Lehrman and was offered a job at $30,000 a year. David stood tough for $33,000 -- and he got the money.
David was elated: Standing tough was risky, but it paid off.
Today, a more seasoned David Carmen smiles and says, "What I didn't understand was that Lew Lehrman had presidential ambitions." For him, it was smart to have the son of New Hampshire's Gerald Carmen on his payroll -- just in case Lehrman ever made it to the 1988 New Hampshire presidential primary.
So much for standing tough.
Maybe he should have asked for $38,000.
DAVID CALLS CHRISTINE DOLAN, POLITICAL DIRECTOR for CNN.
"Hi, I've got a story for 'Inside Politics.' "
Today's tip: The rumor is that a staffer for Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole messed up and got lousy film footage from Dole's campaign announcement. Dolan appreciates the tip, but knows it's too insignificant to use.
She asks, "What else is going on around town?"
David is a trusted source for Dolan. He doesn't waste her time, any reporter's time, with bad tips. And unlike many right-wing politicos, Dolan says, David understands that reporters aren't out to get conservatives, that reporters just want a good story, that they'll deal with the devil to get it. Sure, David's self-serving, out to help his clients -- in this case Republican presidential hopeful Jack Kemp. But he isn't misleading. And that's the way to a reporter's heart. "David has a seductive, charming personality and is straight with you," says Dolan, who has since left her job at CNN. "In Washington, these people aren't a dime a dozen." Minutes after David's conversation with Dolan, David's secretary comes on the intercom: "A friend of Christine Dolan's on 3."
"A friend?" asks David, perplexed.
Dolan's friend -- a social friend, not a journalism colleague -- wants, well, a favor. Does David have any idea how she can get vacation accommodations on short notice at St. Barthe'le'my? Since David became well-to-do, he likes to vacation on the island in the French West Indies and often talks about its beauty. St. Barth is expensive, but it has little poverty so David isn't racked with what he calls the "poverty guilt" he feels vacationing in, say, Jamaica. But David has no inside track to hotels on St. Barth.
Sorry, this is a favor he can't do. He would if he could.
WITHOUT EVER BEING TOLD, DAVID GOT THE POINT: AS press secretary for Citizens for America, his job was to sell the Reagan agenda -- and Lew Lehrman.
With its million-dollar budget, CFA launched local chapters in congressional districts in 1983 in an effort to set a more conservative tone to public debate on everything from Reagan's budget cuts to the landing of U.S. troops in Grenada. David was by now a confirmed conservative, and he relished his job at CFA. But David also attended to his other job: He made sure local TV stations had camera-ready slides of Lew Lehrman. Eventually, David compiled a computerized list of 12,000 journalists across the country.
He told Alexandra, who had become his wife, "I'm 30 feet over my head." Alexandra enjoyed the new life, found it exciting to meet people she'd only read about. But she didn't enjoy the layers of intrigue at every party, the phone ringing late into the night. "We're getting further and further from theater," she once told David. "We'll never go back."
But David loved it. Every morning, he felt as if he were being strapped into a linear accelerator -- and rocketed through the day. With Lehrman, the living definition of a Type A personality, there was never a down minute. Car rides to the airport were used for interviews with local reporters. The few minutes before takeoff were used to make three or four phone calls from the terminal. David used to lose his wallet a lot, show up late for appointments. There was no time for such indulgences now. David learned the hard way.
One day, he and Lehrman were at New York's La Guardia Airport on their way to Chicago to unveil new CFA television commercials backing a Reagan plan to rejuvenate the cities. When the plane door closed behind them, David realized he had left the TV tapes in the terminal.
"Lew, Lew, I forgot the tapes!" he said, and he could see the little vein on Lehrman's temple begin to pulse. "Open this door!" David said sternly to the plane's attendant.
David thought fast. He lied. "I'm with the networks. I have live feed for the news tonight from Chicago."
David looked at Lehrman and saw that vein pumping. He thought fast again. "The truth is we're on a mission for the White House."
"Take your seat, sir."
David did, despondent. Almost too calmly, Lehrman said, "Dave, I'm sure this is the beginning of a long relationship, but the fact that we've spent $40,000 on this project and the films are not going to Chicago with us is not good." David could not speak.
The tale did have a happy ending, though. The tapes came on the next flight, and David offered an airport cabbie $50 if he got David and the tapes to the press conference in downtown Chicago in 17 minutes. The guy flew like a madman, his left wheels riding on the median strip, 19 minutes! David tipped him $70 -- and the show went on.
It struck David that political operators are a lot like stage directors. Hundreds of details swirl about seemingly out of control, the unexpected always happens, microphones or lights fail, people get sick or quit, relatives die at the wrong times. But in the end, nobody wants to hear it.
David realized: "Only the show matters."
DAVID RINGS UP FRANK LAVIN, THE NO. 2 POLITICAL affairs guy in the White House. Lavin is 30 years old and a friend of David's. They had talked a while back when Lavin called to ask David to set up a meeting between Lavin's White House boss, Frank Donatelli, and David's client Jeane Kirkpatrick. Yes, Lavin could have called Kirkpatrick directly, but he did David the favor of putting him in the middle, making David a player.
"Hi, Frank, a couple of things . . ."
David has read in the paper this morning that Jon Breen, the man in charge of the microphone at the 1980 Republican debate in Nashua, N.H., is about to retire. That was the debate in which Reagan got Breen's name wrong but still stole the show with, "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green." Wouldn't it be great publicity for Reagan to call and wish Breen good luck?
"Will you put that out over there?" David asks.
Lavin does, but Reagan never makes the call.
NOTHING WORKS LIKE THE PERSONAL touch.
So everyone David met -- everyone who had or could someday have anything to do with CFA -- received a note afterward. "It was so nice to meet you last night . . ." At receptions, David slipped into the hallway and wrote names on matchbooks. Every name, along with a phone number, went into what a friend of David's called the "nuclear Rolodex." David even had perks of his own to hand out. When CFA needed TV ads done, for instance, he steered the contract to Mike Murphy, a young campaign consultant David had met through Craig Shirley, a young campaign consultant David had met at the RNC.
David was frenetic. Every reporter, big-time or small-time, got a note after meeting David. He discovered that reporters -- even the stars -- often answer their own phones. And he discovered that reporters -- even the stars -- respond to "the personal touch." If David mentioned a detail from a reporter's recent article or column, he noticed that the reporter usually perked up. David might clip a reporter's article, jot a note in the margin and send it to him out of the blue. He once did this with Washington Post White House reporter Lou Cannon, circling a passage and scribbling, "You got it right." David couldn't believe how easy it was to move from the storage closet at the RNC to meeting America's leading journalists -- George Will, David Broder, Jack Germond.
If David had by now learned that only results matter in Washington, he also was learning that only people make results. His father and the RNC's Greener had taught him the first rule of dealing with the press: NEVER LIE -- refuse to answer, admit you don't know, say you can't answer, but NEVER LIE. And during the '84 Republican convention, David saw the power of telling the truth.
CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl called David before CFA's planned "spontaneous" demonstration during Jeane Kirkpatrick's speech to the Republican convention. As ever, the idea was to promote, this time through Kirkpatrick's hawkish image, conservatism -- and Lew Lehrman. Stahl told David that the "CBS Evening News" was going to report that Kirkpatrick would switch from Democrat to Republican during her speech. David suspected that the White House had leaked the tip to pressure Kirkpatrick to do this. He told Stahl that Kirkpatrick would not switch. CBS got it right, and Stahl thanked David.
Later that night, she interviewed Lehrman on national TV. She recalls this as a coincidence -- Lehrman must have been standing on the floor in the sector she was assigned to cover. But David considered it a coup -- especially since Stahl asked Lehrman the Big Question: Was he running for president in '88? Lehrman graciously brushed off the inquiry. But for Lehrman and David, the interview had gone according to script.
Says David, "Lew wanted to be asked that question."
The lessons kept coming fast and furious.
While on vacation, David was tracked down by a reporter. David was angry that his trip was interrupted, and when the reporter charged that CFA was a front for Ronald Reagan, David lost his temper. "Reagan doesn't use us so much as we use him," he was quoted as saying. Not smart.
Lesson: In Washington, you are never on vacation.
David jumped at the chance to help Sidney Blumenthal do a New Republic profile of Lehrman. But the story was not uncritical. It described the conservative big-money network that had helped create Ronald Reagan, and it explained how that network planned to keep conservatism alive after Reagan was gone. Yet the article still shot Lehrman to national prominence. CFA distributed 500 copies.
Lesson: A story with "good stuff" and "bad stuff" is better than a puff piece -- because the bad stuff makes the good stuff credible.
David was in a bar in Dallas late one night with Ward Sloane, then assistant political news director at CBS. Sloane looked at David and said, "You know, the amazing thing is that you get to be friends with people and then comes the day you have to do them in." Says David, "He wasn't talking about me, but even an idiot would have seen that he meant me."
Lesson: In Washington, you have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
Finally, David learned that even allies have conflicting interests. He was at a large, private CFA reception where President Reagan was speaking. David happened to be looking at Ed Meese when Reagan mentioned that as many as 1,000 terrorists, many of them Iranians, were assembled in Lebanon readying for suicide-bombing missions -- and Meese's face dropped.
David was sure Reagan's remark was "news." He also was sure that Reagan hadn't meant to go public. Yet for David -- an employee of an organization that ardently backed Reagan -- the slip-of-the-tongue presented a tempting opportunity. David had been looking for a hot news tip to ingratiate himself with Lou Cannon.
This was David's dilemma: To do his job promoting Reagan's cause, he needed good press contacts. But to get good contacts, he needed to help the press do its job, too. So David did it. He called Cannon and told him what Reagan had said. He also told him he had seen people tape-recording the speech. Cannon confirmed David's tip with several sources and listened to portions of Reagan's taped remarks. The next day, David picked up the paper to find a front-page, above-the-fold story by Cannon: "Reagan Says 1,000 Readied As Mideast Suicide-Bombers."
"I had two thoughts," David says now. " 'There's only 365 headlines a year, and I got one.' The other was, 'Am I a leaker?' " An aide to Meese soon called David and charged that someone at CFA had tape-recorded Reagan's speech. David denied the accusation. Fortunately for David, the aide asked no more questions.
Says David, "He didn't ask if I leaked it."
That quick, David had become a player.
THE INTERCOM CRACKLES AGAIN: "MAX ON 6."
Max is Max Hugel, a former covert operations chief for the CIA under William Casey, a Republican muckety-muck in New Hampshire and, with David and his father, a partner in Carmen, Carmen & Hugel. David wants Max to do him a favor today, but David can't exactly ask Max to do it. David is an unpaid consultant to Jack Kemp's presidential campaign, and he wants the Manchester Union Leader to publish an op-ed article by Kemp about his opposition to an oil import fee -- a hot issue in New Hampshire, where the fee would raise heating bills. This morning, David called Kemp's press secretary, John Buckley, and offered to call and ask Union Leader Publisher Nackey Loeb, whom David knows, to run the article.
No, Buckley said, he thought David should wait; Kemp had enclosed a note to Loeb. The conversation was tense, the two men fencing politely over turf. Finally, David promised Buckley he wouldn't call Loeb, and he won't. But the ethics get murky if, let's say, Max Hugel were to call Loeb. David won't out-and-out ask Max to call -- that would break his word to Buckley. But David tells Max about their talk, hoping he will think to call.
Max doesn't bite.
DAVID WAS SOON OUT OF WORK AGAIN.
He lost his job at CFA in 1985 after his patron, Marc Holtzman, quit as CFA's executive director to run for Congress. Holtzman lost despite the help of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who helped raise $135,000 for the young man whose former organization had helped raise her political stock. In short order, CFA's new director forced David out. Lew Lehrman -- a combination rabbi and professor to David -- let the new man do it. Nothing personal. Lehrman just didn't believe David was ready for the top job yet. David was angry then, but today he says, "In Washington, a new Number 1 gets his own Number 2. I should have known that."
David got a kind of sweet revenge, though. A few months later, Lehrman fired much of his new staff. When The Washington Times ran a story quoting sources blaming the shake-up on Lehrman's "unstable" behavior, David was furious. He complained to a Washington Times editor that the story was one-sided, but the paper stood by the article. So David called his old New Republic contact Sidney Blumenthal, who was by now his new Washington Post contact. Blumenthal checked the story with other sources and wrote an article reporting that Lehrman had acted after discovering "lavish spending" and financial mismanagement.
David moved on -- with his father again as his angel.
"Well, here's your law degree," his dad said as he handed David a $25,000 check to start his own public relations business. Lehrman hired David as a CFA consultant and Jeane Kirkpatrick signed on for press consultation. Holtzman persuaded a friend, a Philadelphia lawyer, to hire David, too. Mike Murphy, to whom David had steered the CFA TV ad contract, gave David free office space while he looked for offices.
By now, David knew that in Washington image is often reality. Wasn't politics a lot like theater? David decided, what the hell, he'd rent digs on K Street, Washington's Lobby Inc. -- at $5,000 a month, up to $22,000 a month today. Then he did something else gutsy: He had the plain wooden door to his new offices ripped out and spent $7,200 of his $25,000 installing glass double doors. Inside those doors, visible from the hallway, he hung a life-size photo of Ronald Reagan waving from the steps of his helicopter. David then hung historic, nonpartisan photos on the walls -- Franklin Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, a photo from John Kennedy's funeral, a picture of a young Ronald Reagan at a Harry Truman rally. But the picture that leaped out at people -- the crustiest conservatives always move quickly away from it and on to the next photo -- was that of several dozen kids, filthy and exhausted, in a turn-of-the-century sweatshop.
It was a subtle message: David was fashioning himself as a new conservative, unembarrassed by America's past, proud that these children -- and their children's children -- eventually entered the American mainstream.
David opened his business in May '85.
By July, he was $100 from bankruptcy.
Today, his time will cost you $250 an hour.
Working for conservative causes, David's firm took off. He paid back his dad the first year, and when Hugel and his father joined the firm, its success was assured. For his clients, David staged press conferences, orchestrated letter-writing campaigns, wrote and filmed TV commercials. He handled press for Republican Joyce Hampers in her losing campaign for Massachusetts treasurer. She had hired David over far more experienced press consultants because when she called him one day, he flew up and was at her doorstep the next. He did controversial TV ads for the National Right to Work Committee that showed a gorilla -- representing the power of organized labor -- speaking before Congress. David landed an account with corporate raider T. Boone Pickens' United Shareholders Association, a Washington-based group aimed at offsetting the power of management in American corporations. And as the New Hampshire primary approached, David, so well connected through his father, handled press for the brief presidential campaign of Republican Paul Laxalt. Then he went with Kemp.
David worked constantly. He wanted a racy Datsun Z, but bought a black Oldsmobile 98 -- getting a good deal through his uncle's dealership. He needed a car that made him look older, more serious, a car he could use to pick up clients. He hired a driver because if he drove and parked himself, he couldn't always make it to three receptions a night. He got a car phone. He often scheduled two business breakfasts -- at 7:30 and 8:30 -- at the Hay-Adams Hotel. He learned that if he didn't want to meet with someone, he could propose a 7 a.m. breakfast -- almost nobody agrees to a 7 a.m. breakfast. He still dressed dull as ever, trying not to offend. And he discovered that Exeter was a surprise bonus. Jack Hume, CFA's founding father and Reagan's friend, was an Exeter man, and he always mentioned it when they met.
"It was a badge," says David, and only a select few wore it.
David's three years in PR on his own have been three more years in the linear accelerator, and he has loved it. He's 30 years old, and he's a player -- a supporting player but still a player. Today, he comes away from most of his Washington encounters having seen a lot -- or imagining that he has seen a lot. He analyzes everything into infinity. He'll analyze a person's clothes -- is he too dapper or not dapper enough? He'll analyze a person's drinking -- does he drink at lunch because he's confident of himself or because he can't stop himself? Right or wrong, David has become very confident of his perceptions.
He organized what has come to be called the Loeb Dinner, at which Vice President Bush honored deceased Manchester Union Leader publisher William Loeb, who had mercilessly attacked Bush in his newspaper for years. Getting Bush to agree to honor his old enemy was a coup. David tells of a dramatic meeting between himself and Bush strategists Lee Atwater, Ron Kaufman and Robert Teeter. Atwater tried to muscle David into promising that Loeb's widow, Nackey, would say nice things about Bush in return for Bush's appearance. David felt intimidated as hell, but he made no promises. "Lee," he said, "I don't work for the vice president, you do."
The Bush people don't remember the meeting this way at all. They say they can hardly even remember it, but certainly there was no effort to intimidate or exact promises. But it was a big meeting -- maybe it loomed larger in young David's mind.
David laughs hard at that.
David also tells of the time Robert Dilenschneider, chairman of the huge New York public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, called and asked to meet him. When they met at the Four Seasons Hotel bar in Georgetown, Dilenschneider said David's father had told him about the great work David was doing. Dilenschneider said he'd like to bring David on board at Hill & Knowlton, which represents many of America's largest corporations. In passing, he asked how David's work with Boone Pickens' anti-corporate-management group was going. David later went to New York to talk again, and Dilenschneider asked David to be sure to take copies of the literature in the outer office. On the plane, David read the material -- almost all of it anti-corporate-takeover literature. In short, anti-Boone Pickens literature. At the time, David thought he was being paranoid, but today he's sure Dilenschneider was either trying to take him out of the game or to gather reconnaissance on Pickens' operation.
"He should relax," Dilenschneider says. "I didn't even think of that."
David laughs hard at that, too. His education has been too good to relax.
THE INTERCOM AGAIN: "MARC IS ON 1."
"David, good morning. How was the Ski Ball?"
"It was fine. I went home early."
WASHINGTON'S SKI BALL IS AN ANNUAL YUPPIE CHARITY event for the U.S. Ski Team. David went the other night, but he went alone. He and Alexandra separated last spring, and David is still adjusting. "She thought David had compromised too much on his artistic dream," says David's old friend Myra Donnelley. David says only that the break-up of his marriage was more complicated than that and that it is private. But when the marriage ended, David did ask himself, "What have I done with my life?" He worked all the time, even Sunday mornings. He'd even become close friends with other young political operators in town. David had come to Washington to get his feet on the ground, and now they were implanted. He got ulcers. But David still loved Washington. He had come full circle. "I never used to understand my father," he says, "and now I do."
David's new confidence has changed him. He goes only to important receptions, finding it more efficient to meet people in their offices. He limits his power lunches to a quick 50 minutes. He even gave his father the black Olds 98 and bought a red Porsche 911 convertible -- used, but still $25,000. He began wearing European suits, double-breasted with wide, fashionable lapels, suits made of subtle but unusual weaves. He switched to Armani ties -- they have that new wavy feel, weird but arrived, Establishment artsy. And when he recently noticed that his black, knee-high stretch socks were wearing out, he decided to go all the way, buy socks with color patterns in them. David was tired of blending in, never standing out, never offending -- he wanted to rebel again. He still won't wear that brown suit he liked, but he says, "Now, if people don't take me seriously for driving a Porsche, that's their problem."
David has found a place, Washington, where it seems that he and people like him can have it all. They can sincerely believe in something -- liberalism, conservatism, whatever. They can be important, have real power, make a difference -- and they can be rich, too. All these things motivate David, perhaps they always did, back when he decided it wasn't worth being a rebel if it meant he couldn't go to Harvard or Stanford, back when he decided theater wasn't worth it if it meant living on $30,000 a year. Today, David says, "Just because you have a six-figure income, drive a Porsche and wear nice clothes doesn't mean you've sold out."
The price? Well, there is a price.
"It can be a rootless existence," David says. "You aren't even your job. You're your next job. You're who you are about to be -- somebody on their way out or somebody on their way in." In Washington, David says, real players can't stay in any job for more than a few years. If they do, they disappear, become irrelevant -- the worst fate. You move or you cease to exist. In Washington, the eternal verities are upside- down: Motion is substance, change is stability.
"There's a tendency to run from people when they're down," David says. "So many people are dependent on being connected with people who are up. Your boss isn't the only person who's going to affect your future. It's your next boss. To be secure, you have to read the wind, and the players are constantly changing. And your next boss may not like your old boss." Washington, David says, is a town full of "new friends" -- people who won't be there when the wind changes. "To stay permanently," he says, "you have to be willing to adapt."
David handles only conservative candidates and causes now, but who knows? Someday, maybe he'll take a Democrat into the firm, a retired congressman whose job it would be to lobby Democrats on the Hill or in a Democratic White House. To stay, you must adapt. "I think he's more resigned to paying the piper," says Myra Donnelley. "He's very pragmatic now. Some things you do to get things done. It was disappointing to David."
When David was growing up in politics in New Hampshire, it was the Washington types he despised -- the guys with the assertive manner, the fancy suits, the quick and certain talkers, the obsessive achievers. David hasn't missed the irony. "I have criticized this in an earlier life," he says, "said these people are empty. But, really, that is laziness talking, that's just not right. Why put down people who are more organized than you are?"
But still, David doesn't only want to be a Washington type. He can't imagine anything worse than a Bob and Liddy Dole marriage, a Washington power-couple marriage. He cringes at the thought of marrying a woman who has only known him since he became what he is today. When he and his wife split, David began dating old girlfriends from his theater days, began spending more time in New York with people who, as they say, knew him when. A woman friend once visited him in Washington, and later a Washington woman said, "You know, David, she just doesn't fit in." David liked hearing that.
He's even become obsessed with getting back to theater. He's working on a play he plans to produce and direct off-Broadway next fall, a big-idea play about man's insatiable search for self-knowledge, an avant-garde play with Amelia Earhart and Sir Isaac Newton as the main characters. He has spent $15,000 working with a playwright on the script, commissioning the rock-jazz music that will go with it. He insists that he has never regretted coming to Washington, that making a lot of money has opened doors for him in theater. But David's close friend Mark Barasch, a New York guitar player whom David knew in his other life, says that over the years David has often said he is sorry he left theater, that he envied and respected Barasch for not giving up.
But David isn't leaving town.
No, politics is like theater, theater is like politics. He'll stay.
A FINAL SCENE . . .
Bob Gray is a legendary public relations man in Washington, and David is in Gray's magnificent Georgetown office overlooking the Potomac, plugging a friend who is looking for a job. Suddenly, Gray reaches into his desk drawer and pulls out a draft copy of President Reagan's upcoming 1988 State of the Union Address. Gray is working on a section of the speech, which is about as close to the heartbeat of Washington as any PR man could ever hope to get.
"We're working on this thing on line-item veto," Gray says.
He's searching for sexy instances of pork-barrel projects in the federal budget that Reagan can cite to prove that Congress should give the president line-item veto authority to reduce the deficit.
Well, says David, by chance he's working on that exact question for his very first client, CFA. He'll send over a dozen examples this afternoon. Now, the chance to help Bob Gray write the State of the Union Address doesn't come along every day, and David gets his office right on it. And from the list he supplies, President Reagan actually uses two examples -- federal funds for cranberry and wildflower research. After the speech, there's a holy furor, with Democrats whose districts get the money attacking Reagan and defending the projects. But that is to be expected.
This is a David coup.
David Carmen and those like him are always in motion, always making a call, doing a favor, dropping a tip. Most of it never pays off. But then -- because you were there, because you were ready, because you were in motion -- it just happens: You are two lines in the State of the Union Address.
And suddenly, euphorically, you are a player. You are in the wagon.
Suddenly, you exist. ::