Microsoft's hired gun

Former Christian Coalition frontman Ralph Reed was lobbying for Microsoft while he was serving as a chief advisor to the George W. Bush campaign.

Topics: George W. Bush, Microsoft

Were you surprised to hear that the Microsoft Corp., home of those hard-working but culturally freewheeling computer nerds up in Redmond, Wash., had hired none other than former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed to lobby George W. Bush on its behalf? You probably weren’t the only one.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Microsoft hired Reed to get Bush to support Microsoft’s position in the Justice Department’s antitrust case if he wins the November presidential election. Reed signed on with Microsoft in the fall of 1998, but stayed on the company’s payroll after he became a senior advisor to Bush’s presidential campaign in 1999.

Reed’s consulting firm, Century Strategies, released a statement Tuesday stating that Reed has never asked Bush to take a position on the government’s antitrust case against Microsoft.

“Ralph said it was an error on his part,” said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan. “Neither the governor nor the campaign has been talked to or personally lobbied by anyone at Ralph’s firm about Microsoft.”

Given the “I didn’t do it and I’ll never do it again” apology that Reed issued late Tuesday afternoon and the stony-faced denials coming out of Bush headquarters in Austin, Texas, one can safely assume that the Bush people weren’t supposed to have heard about it either.

But just what was going on here anyway? Given the grief the software colossus has been getting from the Clinton Justice Department over its alleged anti-competitive practices, it’s really no surprise that Microsoft has leaned increasingly toward the sort of anti-regulatory, laissez-faire economic policy commonly espoused by Republicans. But Reed is known principally not for tax cuts but for opposition to abortion, gay rights and other tenets of the Christian conservative agenda. So what gives? What is a cosmopolitan outfit like Microsoft doing hooking up with Pat Robertson’s former right-hand man?

Reed was always more of a pol than a preacher, even in his heyday at the Christian Coalition. A young Republican political operative before he ever got involved with Christian conservative politics, Reed came to evangelical Christianity both as a personal religious commitment and as a strategy for mobilizing conservative voters. When Reed took the job of executive director at the Christian Coalition in 1989 it was little more than the organizational apparatus left over from Pat Robertson’s unsuccessful 1988 presidential bid.



By the 1990s, however, it had become one of the most powerful organized interest groups in American politics, due in no small part to Reed’s combination of rhetorical and organizational skills. Since Reed’s departure in 1997 the organization has gone into eclipse, with diminishing political influence and persistent financial troubles, a situation which was both a cause and an effect of Reed’s departure. After the 1996 election, Reed seems to have realized that the Christian Coalition’s best days might be behind it. And his departure greatly hastened the process. After leaving, Reed founded Century Strategies, a political consulting firm in Atlanta.

What’s really amazing about Microsoft’s decision to hire Reed, though, is not that a culturally liberal, cosmopolitan company like Microsoft would hire the cherubic former public face of the religious right. What’s really shocking is that Reed can still get clients to pay top dollar for his services even though his track record as a political consultant has been quite dismal.

Reed’s first go-around as a professional political consultant came in the 1998 midterm congressional election. After the votes were cast, Reed claimed that roughly half his candidates won their races. But that reckoning was only after he took into account an undisclosed number of clients whose identities he said he was contractually obligated not to reveal. In fact, almost every one of Reed’s acknowledged clients who faced a remotely competitive race lost.

To be fair to Reed, 1998 ended up a fairly disappointing year for Republicans all around. Though at one point it seemed Democrats might sustain terrible losses in the House of Representatives because of President Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, they actually picked up five seats. But few did quite as badly as Reed. More striking is that so many of Reed’s clients’ losing campaigns followed a similar trajectory toward defeat. Most started out strong, with heavy appeals on moral issues (something Reed strongly advocated), faltered in the stretch and, finally, resorted to a blizzard of low-ball (sometimes racially tinged) tactics before stumbling toward defeat.

One of Reed’s clients, Mitch Skandalakis, a Republican candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor, reacted to his slide in the polls by playing what one might call the D.W. Griffith card, launching a series of withering attacks on the alleged incompetence of the predominantly black administration of Atlanta. Skandalakis also aired an ad with an actor resembling his opponent, Mark Taylor, clad in a tattered robe, shambling down a hospital hallway at the Ridgeview Institute, a psychiatric and drug treatment facility near Atlanta. Skandalakis lost by a substantial margin and a number of commentators blamed Reed and Skandalakis for bringing down the whole Republican ticket in the state. (Taylor’s $1 million defamation lawsuit against Skandalakis is before a court-appointed mediator.)

Another one of Reed’s clients, Gary Hofmeister, a Republican congressional candidate from Indiana, ran an ad in which the face of his opponent, Julia Carson, who is black, melded into images of prison doors and hypodermic needles. Hofmeister, too, went down to defeat.

What was most striking about these gambits was not their nastiness, but their fecklessness. It’s bad enough to win with low-ball tactics; it’s unforgivable to lose that way. What’s also strange is that during his time at the Christian Coalition, Reed had frequently talked up the need for religious conservatives to build bridges to religiously committed black and Hispanic voters. Whether Reed was sincerely interested in inclusion is difficult to say. But he at least seemed to recognize the political necessity of expanding the appeal of the Christian conservative agenda.

So what happened? The answer may be that Reed just got desperate and fell back on some of the tried-and-true wedge-issue tactics he’d learned during his apprenticeship as a Republican political operative. “I don’t think [Reed] had seen quite as much live ammo as he thought, especially at the sub-presidential level,” said Alan Secrest, a Democratic political consultant who helped defeat three of Reed’s 1998 clients, including Skandalakis and now-former Alabama Gov. Fob James. “In 1998, when the context wasn’t quite as strong a determinant, you had to rely on swiftness of foot tactically. But his work was just heavy-handed. There was a lot of clumsiness.”

Given Reed’s less-than-stellar record as a campaign consultant, why is it that he continues to be in such high demand? One answer to this question is that political reporters are just lazy. Even after Reed’s embarrassing performance in 1998, reporters and talk-show pundits continued to quote him in their articles and book him on their shows as if he were still the political wunderkind who turned Robertson’s Christian Coalition into a political powerhouse.

Late last fall Reed was telling every political reporter in Washington that he had South Carolina’s Christian conservatives all sewed up for Bush. But when I started making calls for an article on Reed’s operation in the state, few of the local politicos thought he’d spent any time in the state at all. “I don’t know of anything [Reed's] doing in the state,” Lee Bandy, the dean of South Carolina political reporters told me at the time. “I don’t know what [Reed's] been saying. But I don’t sense a Ralph Reed presence in the state anywhere.”

A similar process seemed to influence the political candidates who retained him. His immense star power overcame his woeful batting average as an actual consultant.

But there’s more at work than mere laziness. With his boyish looks and carefully tailored phrases, Reed may not strike you as the most charismatic political figure on the national stage, but he is remarkably effective. I don’t think I ever really knew what it meant to be spun before I first spoke to Reed late last year. In December, I wrote an article about the work Reed was doing building up South Carolina as a “firewall” for Bush. I also suspected that Reed was making preparations to drop all manner of dirt on former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain using push-polls just in case McCain caught fire in New Hampshire, which, of course, he did.

I can’t tell you the specifics the two of us spoke about because part of the conversation was off the record. (The point at issue was rather similar to the firestorm today, with Reed trying to unsay something he’d said after it had become publicly embarrassing.) But in the course of our talk, Reed managed to convince me of something that I went into the conversation believing was demonstrably false. And I still think it’s false. I like to think of myself as pretty hard-nosed. And, truth be told, I didn’t go into the conversation positively inclined toward Reed. But he had me convinced. It was almost like I was under a spell.

After I hung up the phone it took about 20 minutes of thinking through what Reed had told me before I finally shook myself free and realized that what he had said was totally ridiculous.

It wouldn’t do to indict Reed on the basis of my own, albeit temporary, credulity. However, as a political operative he is a difficult-to-fathom mix of high-end political talk and low-ball campaign tactics who has seemed increasingly clumsy in recent years. The trouble for Reed’s clients is that his powers of persuasion are the roots of his strength and the roots of his frequent missteps. Maybe someone should tell Bill G. and George W.?

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>