As a consultant, I often get book recommendations that are aimed squarely at my professional background. Case in point, someone recently suggested I read Confessions Of A Political Hitman: My Secret Life of Scandal, Corruption, Hypocrisy and Dirty Attacks That Decide Who Gets Elected (And Who Doesn’t) by Stephen Marks.
Being somewhat of a scholar when it comes to books about campaigns, especially those written by consultants, I immediately searched for it on my library’s app. (Plug for your local library and their ebook app. Mine has helped me immensely during the pandemic). Not available there or via iBooks, I did the next best thing and snagged it from Amazon. When I first broke into the business, I read Raymond Strother’s Falling Up and Ed Rollins’ Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms.
Now, this isn’t a review of Marks’ book. Instead, I wanted to explore what these books can teach us about being a good consultant. What’s the point aside from a peek at an industry we all operate in? Is there anything this prose can tell us about the industry at-large?
These are distinctly different from even the classics of the genre like Theodore White’s The Making of The President 1960, The Selling of The President 1968 by Joe McGinnis, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail ’72 and What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer about the 1988 White House race.
And that doesn’t even take into account the Jack Germond and Jules Witcover books about ’80, ’84, ’88 and ’92, or even something like Robert Caro’s second volume of his series on Lyndon Johnson, Means of Ascent, which is largely focused on his 1948 race for Senate, or even books like John A. Farrell’s Tip O’Neill and The Democratic Century, which has many great passages about the burgeoning role of national funders, and the rise of the consulting class.
Moreover, the cottage industry of books that purport to unpack the inner workings of a presidential administration, or the multiple and various memoirs of governors, senators or members of Congress. (Quick plug for the political book with the greatest title of all time: former Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers’ The Best Lawyer in A One Lawyer Town).
Next up is Rick Ridder’s Looking For Votes In All The Wrong Places: Tales and Rules From The Campaign Trail. One of the best things about being established in the business, and learning someone in the biz whom you don’t know has written a book is that it can function as a way to become better acquainted with them. Upon discovering and reading this one via my handy library app sometime over the summer, I sat down and dashed off a note to Rick telling him that I enjoyed the book, and he sent me back a signed copy. He’s also agreed to be a guest on my podcast, which mines some of the same veins as these books.
One of the things that strikes me about all of these memoirs is the way that with little-to-no prep or guidance, a bit of ingenuity and luck, plus some innate smarts — both book and street — someone can catapult into the upper echelons of the biz. Because aside from some pithy strategies dispensed by our elders, à la Will Robinson’s 10 Rules for Campaigns, there really isn’t a handbook or even much of a roadmap. Most of it boils down to “don’t fuck this up,” followed by years of people from all strata of the business and public yelling at you for doing just that.
While Rick’s book comes with the humor, he does manage to impart some wisdom we can all use. Also, bonus points for the part where he tells his parents that he wants to be a political consultant, but isn’t even sure what the heck that is.
It charts Rick’s ascent from volunteer/staffer on George McGovern’s ’72 presidential campaign to a consultant pioneering referenda for the purpose of legalizing pot and gay marriage — and later helping bring American campaign techniques to the world.
Organized into 22 chapters which double as Rules of Engagement for anyone who wants to work in politics, Looking For Votes In All The Wrong Places is an engaging romp through the real life of campaign professionals – budget problems, crappy headquarters, cold coffee, and gumption. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and doesn’t purport to have invented the job. All in all, it will ring true to any professional, and maybe it will help you explain to your parents, or that group of college students you’re speaking to what your job really entails.
As for news you can use: Read Rule #20 from Rick’s book and take it to heart. I’ve lost more clients by trying to tamp down our swag budget — “chum” in Rick’s words – for signs, pens, church fans, and T-shirts than I ever have via errors in strategy or bad messaging.
David Mowery, aka The Chairman, is Founder of Mowery Consulting Group based in Montgomery, AL. He is the host of The Now More Than Ever Podcast available on iTunes and wherever fine pods are purveyed.