The ultimate endorsement of Ed Rollins from fellow political consultants came, he said, “totally out of the blue.” Last month, the veteran Republican strategist received a call from a friend, the pollster Ed Goeas, informing him that the American Association of Political Consultants planned to induct Rollins into its hall of fame.
“I didn’t know they had a hall of fame,” recalled Rollins.
Like athletes and musicians, the notoriously knifey and ruthless class of political consultants recognize the giants among them. Since the hall of fame’s creation, in a year the association cannot remember, 18 consultants have sporadically been inducted. A Web site is in the works. An actual hall is not.
For now, honorees have to settle for an afternoon of accolades and war stories in a Washington hotel ballroom.
On Thursday morning, Rollins, 67, sported a dark suit, purple tie, black loafers and freshly trimmed white goatee in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, the site of the 20th-annual Pollie Awards and conference. The basement conference space was festooned with programs and cardboard cutouts, featuring the motto “Cracking the Code of Today’s Politics” along with a tuxedo-clad James Bond-style character aiming an American flag.
Reclining in an upholstered chair, Rollins proudly spoke about his long career in politics: He served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, managed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide reelection campaign and led the presidential efforts of Jack Kemp, Ross Perot and Mike Huckabee. That last one, Rollins said, is somebody he’d probably work for again, if the former Arkansas governor and potential 2012 candidate so chose. Rollins fondly recalled the actor instincts of Reagan and the winning ways of Christine Todd Whitman as governor of New Jersey. (After that 1993 victory, Rollins bragged publicly about suppressing the black vote but later recanted.)
Rollins reminisced about how his candidate bounced Democratic Speaker Tom Foley from the House, insisting that “it was a clean campaign.” Asked about his dirtiest wins, he folded his hands and lowered his head in thought.
“I’m not deliberately going blank,” he murmured. He waited a little longer. None was forthcoming.
Had there been disappointments? Sure. The 2006 Senate run of Florida’s Katherine Harris “was a total disaster.” The Senate campaign for Michael Huffington in California “was fun, except for Arianna,” he said, referring to his backstage contretemps with the candidate’s then-wife Arianna Huffington.
For the most part, his survey of past colleagues and competitors saw many honorable friends and foes. “The only one I find to be a despicable human being is Roger Stone,” he said, referring to his former employee in the White House and one of the most divisive of political consultants. “He’s bad for the trade.”
(“I’m surprised they are inducting him into the hall of fame,” said Stone, “because prior to his figurehead position in Reagan’s ’84 campaign, he had never managed a statewide campaign. The man is essentially talentless.”)
Downstairs, consultants toted swag bags filled with chocolate bars from a company called Opinionology, plus caches of red, white and blue jelly beans. Attendees perused booths hawking various electoral wares. A Kentucky-based company called Elite Graphics gave out shot glasses and raffled off a custom bottle of Maker’s Mark. (They also offered breath mints.) A company called MVP (Marketing Via Postal) Group displayed a video of mail being delivered to the music of C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat.” The U.S. Postal Service occupied a neighboring booth, offering fliers explaining “10 Ways Direct Mail Can Help Give Your Campaign a Winning Edge.” (No. 4: “Reach virtually any voter in the U.S.”)
As Rollins made his way downstairs, accepting the congratulations of well-wishers, consultants flocked to breakout groups to glimpse into their profession’s future.
In the Executive Forum Room, near the restrooms, the sound guy dozed off in the back of the “Online Video Hideouts” talk, in which Todd Harris of Something Else Strategies heralded the brave new world of online spin. “Anyone who wants to argue it doesn’t work, I want to run a campaign against you,” he said.
In the Roosevelt Room, an attendee asked panelist David Avella of GOPAC, how much direct mail was appropriate for a local campaign to drop. “How much money you got!?” Avella asked. “How much money you got?!”
At noon, all the convention-goers gathered for the Hall of Fame Awards Luncheon. As waiters served vine-ripened tomatoes, organic greens and mozzarella, 2008 inductee Ray Strother, a Democratic consultant and author of the memoir “Falling Up: How a Redneck Helped Invent Political Consulting,” took in the proceedings from the sidelines. Being inducted into the hall overshadowed all other accolades, he said.
“The finest honor you can have is to be honored by your peers,” said Strother, 70, as the emcee acknowledged him from the stage. Strother waved and pointed out the small table propped up as a raffle prize next to the emcee. Strother had crafted it from a fallen cherry tree and what the emcee called “African blood wood.” Asked when he had taking up woodworking, Strother sternly replied: “That’s not carpentry. That’s art.”
As Rollins took a seat among his family members, John Phillips, chief executive of Aristotle, offered an anecdote about an adolescent aspiring political consultant who had recently asked for advice. Phillips said he had a snarl for the upstart in their journeymen profession: “Stay away from our daughters.”
A knowing chuckle rumbled among the consultants.
Waiters cleared what remained of the servings of chicken roulade, and the program advanced to former South Dakota senator George McGovern introducing the one of Rollins’s fellow inductees, Morris S. Dees, whom the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate credited for securing his nomination. Rollins, McGovern said in an across-the-aisle aside, had been a Hall of Famer “even before today.”
Doug Bailey, the co-founder of the political publication Hotline, stood to praise the second inductee, Roger M. Craver, poking fun at the righteousness of Craver’s campaign messages. “When will all the killing stop,” Bailey said, jokingly. “First the Jews. Now the whales.”
By contrast, Rollins’s ascent to the lectern was preceded by a cue to dim the lights. Ken Burns-style piano music filled the room and two large screens lit up to show a video. Yellowed stills depicted Rollins as the young boxer who won more than 160 amateur fights. Shots of him older and stockier followed. He was shown conferring with candidates, hoisting arms in victory, holding forth on Sunday morning talk shows. There were testimonials from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R). “The first rule was: Don’t get me, don’t get Rollins in any trouble, because I survived five years with [Lee] Atwater,” Barbour said. “Did I ever get him into any trouble? Yeah, but Ed didn’t need any help.” The elected officials and colleagues joked about his advanced age — Barbour quipped that “I thought this was AARP” — but mostly the Rollins intimates called him the best political consultant and friend they ever had.
The lights came up and so did Rollins.
“This is truly, truly a great honor,” he said. “And Senator McGovern, if I had known you wanted to come to the White House, I would have invited you over. I had the old Nixon hideaway office. We could have drank a little booze and listened to the tapes.”
Rollins hailed his friend, the conservative direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, whom he ribbed about stuffing mailboxes. And he offered a teasing admission: While the Democratic inductees may have wanted to change the world, “I just wanted to be powerful and rich.”
Then the aging pugilist, too, turned earnest, and emoted about how all political consultants respect one another deep down, because unlike the candidates they elect, they live “in the trenches.”
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we make the country better. I have watched the great freedoms that we have and the great freedoms other countries want to have like us. So much of it comes because of this profession.”
“I’m very flattered by this award,” concluded Rollins, who said that he would put the glass trophy in his living room, next to his bust of Ronald Reagan. “It means so much to me.”