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Alpha Dogs: The Americans Who Turned Political Spin into a Global Business Hardcover – May 13, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
- Item Weight : 4.8 ounces
- Hardcover : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0374103674
- ISBN-13 : 978-0374103675
- Dimensions : 6.59 x 1.07 x 8.9 inches
- Publisher : Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (May 13, 2008)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #2,171,574 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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My only quibble is that the author (for whatever reason) doesn't take any kind of moral stance on the practice, nor do they stray too far into questioning the ideological premise of money influencing the democratic system. When the firm (the subject of the book) uses its powers to put positive spins on right-wing dictators, it is seen as all part of a mix (some days they work for the good guys, some days, the bad) and to me, that's not good enough. It's a travesty that money and advertising are used to sway public opinion, to obfuscate material issues, and gin up emotional issues. This is corruption. This is not questioned or explored sufficiently in this work.
The author writes on how Sawyer Miller's clients ranged from the Dali Lama and Vaclav Havel to Lech Walesa, Shimon Peres, Puerto Rico's Colon, Chile's Valdes, Ecuador's Borja, Bolivia's "Goni,"and Corey Aquino, and from Chris Dodd, Jane Byrne, and Scoop Jackson to Bruce Babbitt, as well as saintly domestic clients and international rogues known for alleged torture tactics. They worked for Amex, Drexel, BAT, Goldman, Resorts Intnl and more. The consultant who penned Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, also penned documents for Tony Blair, Boris Yeltsin, and Silvio Berlusconi. The author explains how politics became tactics instead of ideologies, and candidates were packaged like consumer products. In Harding's hands, we learn about the machinations of Black, Manafort ,Stone; Squier, Napolitan, Garth, Schwartz, Wirthlin, McCleary, Grunwald, Carville, Sawyer, Miller, and more.
Chapter 1 tells the story of the birth and growth of consulting by framing it within an exciting fly on the wall account of consultant Ned Kennan's (aka Nadav Katznelson) meeting with Boston's multi term mayor, Kevin White. Kennan, who focused on the driver's of voter behavior, loved to give bad news to the powerful, which he did to White, who was 20 points behind in the latest polls. In Chapter 2, we watch as Sawyer learns the limits of consulting, polls, personalities when he heads to Venezuela and tries to turn a pussycat of a candidate into a tiger. Chapter 3 relates the story of New Coke, its political-like battle with Pepsi, and the lesson it has for understanding polling results. By far my most favorite chapters were Chapters 4 and 5, which tell the stories of American political consulting in Israel and the Philippines. The account of Mrs. Aquino, the downfall of Marcos, and the roles of Cardinal Sin, Reagan, the U.S. media, certain Senators, and "American" consultants were so enlightening and suspenseful that I read that chapter a second time.
Briefly, to K.I.S.S. and Keep on Message, I recommend this as a lively informative and necessary read in this Presidential election year.
It's about the political spinmeisters who brought behind-the-scenes image consulting into its modern form. James Harding bores in on one particular political consultancy, Sawyer Miller. It's an excellent choice. The opening story about Sawyer Miller's counseling of Kevin White, the Irish mayor of Boston, is equal parts funny and insightful. ("Voters don't like you!" the consultant tells the candidate, while devising a strategy that helps him win anyway.) The consultants go around the world -- helping Cory Aquino oust Marcos in the Philippines, another riveting story -- and in and out of countless elections and boardrooms to find ways for candidates to get out the right message. It is not always pretty, what goes on out of view of the camera. From bare-knuckled fighting to seat-of-the-pants improvising, the tactics of a campaign invariably tell a memorable tale.
Harding is a knowing, graceful guide. He has a sensible grasp of politics and the unpredictable dynamics that rule virtually every campaign. His writing weaves subtle observation and sharp insight into the narrative with seeming effortlessness. He always offers just the right amount of historical background to any episode. He never gets bogged down in more policy than you want. Yet I really appreciated his smart, illuminating explanation of the politics in any situation his protagonists wandered into, and they did wander far and wide.
A highly enjoyable book.
The book's thesis is tempered by the fact that these guys seemed to be on the losing side of things more than the winning, but it's a nice snapshot of politics in the 80's and how polling and television ads were just starting to make their impact.
A book for political junkies only, most people won't be that interested.
Top reviews from other countries
By IAIN FRASER GRIGOR
MIGHT BROTHER Blair come back from the dead someday to British politics: a Prophet - a Saviour, indeed - recalled by his party and nation in their time of dreadful night? Might the Maid of Nanook gut the upstart from the Heart of Darkness as Alaska's very own Saint Joan: snow-white in lip-gloss and hockey sox, and hearing voices straight from God?
Might Kirkcaldy's Brown (re-branded, perhaps, as "Tiger") invert the force of gravity and lead his party into the next General Election - at the head of a Great Crusade for, er, the last voter afloat in the Blessed centre-ground of British politics?
Stranger things have happened in public affairs: and that is what this rather superb book is about. It tells the story of a group of talented political enthusiasts - mainly in the Sawyer Miller consultancy - in the United States of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, whose members thought that they could craft electoral campaigns and sell certain victory to progressive politicos.
They began, these self-styled alpha dogs, as idealists: or as Harding says in one of his many aphorisms, "Idealism, of course, is to politics what peer pressure is to smoking; it gets you started". Harding read history at university but he doesn't read like a university historian (which is something of a compliment). He is, in fact, a newspaper journalist, and his book reminds us of just how effective good journalistic writing can be.
The tools of his idealist-consultants were drawn from a fusion of old-style opinion polling and new-style market-research: with the lot packaged for, above all else, television. With them began the age of focus-groups, issue analysis, direct mail shots, motivational research, negative advertising, phone banks, image management, electoral data-mining, and all the other tricks of the modern political trade.
As Harding says, these consultants understood that ideology was dead and imagery was supreme, and they sliced and diced the electorate into targeted constituencies of very precise interest-groups. Overall, however, campaigns were to be kept very simple, with two or three basic messages anchored in one grand theme, which would relentlessly counter-pose upbeat Hope (that's Us) with downbeat Fear (that's Them, the alien Other).
Unsurprisingly, the approach worked rather well, just as it had in the Germany of the 1930s. But it did not always work, although the services of Sawyer Miller were eagerly sought at home and across the globe. Their clients lost every attempt at the American presidency, and Sawyer Miller also lost its candidates a string of congressional contests.
They would also lose in Argentina, though the candidate there was re-branded as "Tiger", to counter-act a negative public perception of his personality. They would bomb with a vengeance in Peru too, in an election which contrived to feature (on live television, as seems utterly appropriate) an incontinent monkey. Here, a disastrous campaign (for a disastrous candidate), let a plain and humble man with a truly terrible standing in the polls snatch the prize of presidency.
The consultants were also active in Israeli politics. One of them studied four thick volumes of electoral data for a weekend and then distilled these data to one clear, election-winning formula: Jerusalem. And thus, "Netanyahu railed against the government for putting Israeli lives at risk. He had campaigned on a simple theme, Jews versus Arabs - and he had won".
In the Philippines, the consultants of Sawyer Miller had their greatest triumph. Their candidate was Corazon Aquino, a rank outsider. But Aquino had God on her side in the (human) form of Cardinal Sin, who plainly told her, "You are going to be president. You are the Joan of Arc".
In fact, she knew nothing of politics (and even less of world affairs), but was quickly trained to stay on-message. And Aquino always dressed in yellow, for her advisers knew the power of colour: recalling the great Arthur Christiansen's advice to reporters on the post-war Daily Express that colour was an essential part of any good news story.
The same tricks were brought to bear in South Korea: find Fear and offer Hope, and then co-ordinate message-discipline to a ruthless degree (rather in the fetching television style of Hazel Blears). When Kim Dae-Jung lost there in 1992, he resigned from politics, and announced that he was now no more than a plain and humble citizen. This was at once seen as a huge opportunity in re-branding the leopard and his spots (and which may someday be seen to have a curiously British resonance).
"To his advisers, a phoenix-like resurrection in the election of 1997 suddenly seemed possible. They helped establish a Kim Dae-Jung Foundation. They lobbied the great and the good to submit Kim Dae-Jung's name for the Nobel Peace Prize. And by 1995, they started putting in place a campaign-plan for if and when Kim should choose to return to politics". In 1997, the plain and humble man who had retired from politics came back as humble Saviour of the nation: and won the presidency. As Harding says, "the Sawyer Miller Group was in its heyday".
But the end was near, for greed and internal rivalries were tearing Sawyer Miller apart, as is almost always the fate of high-rolling PR firms (however they style themselves). Politics was on the brink of the New Media Age, driven by mobile phones, channel proliferation, 24/7 rolling newscasts, and the gigantic possibilities of the Internet (and mobiles) for the harvesting of marketing data on political consumers.
The day of You Tube had come to politics, and amateur postings on it would help destroy Wendy "Trident" Alexander as Brown's regional governor in Scotland. The age of citizen journalism, micro-editionising in print, and narrow-casting a voter-focussed message was on the way: along with an astronomical rise in the cost of political campaigning. As Harding says with his closing words in this immensely readable and thoroughly researched book, "the work of the alpha dogs has only just begun".