Romney's human shield

The campaigns end this fall, but their flacks will never go away. Meet Eric Fehrnstrom, enforcer on the GOP side

Published May 16, 2012 4:00PM (EDT)

      (AP/LM Otero)
(AP/LM Otero)

The only honest line in "Inside the Circus," the recent Politico e-book in which millions of nauseating Republican operatives lacerate each other anonymously during primary season, should be mounted on the computers of all "political news readers": "It is sometimes unclear whether political campaigns are run for the benefit of the voters and office seekers or for the professional consultants who earn their living from politics." Every other line in the book mostly goes like, and then the RNC flack whispered that the campaign flack didn't know what he was doing, but that one sentence about the "professional consultants" would be enough to make Jane Austen envious.

Whereas losing presidential candidates usually have their pick of well-paying sinecures, their consultants and flacks will need to preserve their reputations just well enough to get the next job. And so, especially near the end of campaigns, we get the anonymous leaks, recriminations and dramatic tales of late-night internal bickering in dim penthouse chambers that fuel Politico ebooks and "definitive" postmortems like "Game Change." Political consultants are never heroes, but some, usually those with fresh book deals but lacking in fresh narratives, will attempt to portray them that way. As the two Politico e-books released during Republican primary season already indicate, this election cycle's process of finger-pointing -- which consultant is most responsible for making Rick Perry "look" incompetent, for example -- is already well underway.

So let's try to tell the stories of the various campaign apparatchiks before the post-November mythologizing pushes all other narratives into the black hole of deleted history. We're going to bring you all the dirty tales of consultants, flacks and operatives connected to the Obama or Romney campaigns, showcasing all the kneecapping and fingerprinting and complaining that makes them the Great Minds that they are today. We'll start with Romney's personal slave, senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom.

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It's a tough call, but the most depressing thing we've seen in this early general election season is esteemed Romney and Obama senior advisers Eric Fehrnstrom and David Axelrod's penchant for trading juvenile, unfunny barbs on Twitter. This is how they spend their time, now, at the pinnacle of their political consulting careers. On April 14, for example, Fehrnstrom tweeted, "By not condemning Bill Maher, @davidaxelrod is signaling to supporters it's OK to keep up the attacks on Ann Romney. Shame." Axelrod replied, "@EricFehrn So until you have the guts to stand up to one of your own, you can take your studied outrage and stick it in...your Swiss bank!" This routine is beyond sad.

Much has been written about Axelrod both before and after his candidate won the 2008 election, the moment that crowned him as the reigning brilliant tactical genius of our time. But much less is known about his junior Twitter sparring partner, Eric Fehrnstrom, the challenger to his title.

Like Axelrod and countless others, Fehrnstrom learned the craft of professional trivial assholery in his previous career as a political journalist. He covered the police beat and state politics at the conservative Boston Herald for a decade. Former Herald editor Kevin Convey, sharing his memories of then-Romney communications director Eric Fehrnstrom in a 2008 Boston Phoenix profile, described his former colleague thusly: “My father used to talk about ‘pig-headed Swedes.’ Eric was a pig-headed Swede in the best sense of the term.” Which is exactly what the Herald, which has long considered it its divine duty to destroy Massachusetts Democrats' careers and lives, wanted.

As Fehrnstrom himself wrote in Boston Magazine years later, his finest journalistic moment involved snapping a photo of Democratic lady on vacation in Florida. It's scoops like these that show you precisely how thin the line between ideological tabloid writer and partisan campaign flack can be:

In December 1989, when the commonwealth was in the grip of a bitter cold snap and a fiscal crisis, the lieutenant governor, Evelyn Murphy, was on vacation in Florida. Since she was the candidate for governor, it could be argued that she belonged on freezing Beacon Hill, wrestling the state’s finances into shape. ... So we lined her up for a kill shot. I jumped on a southbound plane with a photographer, and we staked out Murphy on Sanibel Island, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. We found her soon enough, jogging along a road in shorts and a T-shirt. The next day, we splashed her picture across page one, her middle-aged thighs flouncing across more than 300,000 newspapers. It was a terribly unflattering photograph, an image that became one of those iconic campaign symbols, like when Mike Dukakis rode in that tank with a helmet strapped to his head, looking for all the Flying Squirrel, only more dour.

Ah, those halcyon days, when men were men and Democrats were Michael Dukakis and Evelyn Murphy, sitting ducks who'd soon find themselves ruined at the snap of an "unflattering" photo. But that chapter ended when Fehrnstrom accepted a buyout from the Herald's new owner, who according to him planned to "'de-emphasize' political stories, in 1994. He showed signs of remorse for his journalistic dirty work in that same 1999 essay lambasting reporters:

They write the same stories again and again, quoting the same pollsters and pundits, often migrating into Sunday-morning punditry themselves. After a while, they run on automatic. They even stop doing their own research, instead relying on political operatives who package stories for them, complete with photo ops and spin or, worse, blind quotes and low tips.

I was guilty of that, too. Hey, I was the guy who caught middle-aged, heavy-thighed Evelyn Murphy jogging down a Florida road in the middle of her winter vacation—exactly the kind of gotcha story that makes me wince when I see it now.

So Fehrnstrom, having made a name for himself by hyping trivial stories about liberal politicians' personal lives, decided to change careers. Henceforth, he would protect conservative politicians from journalists who wanted to hype trivial stories about their personal lives. He got his first job in politics as an aide to Massachusetts state treasurer and 1998 Republican gubernatorial candidate Joe Malone. It was there that he began honing the skills that have endeared him to Romney.

Ambitious Massachusetts GOP politicians frequently deal with a unique problem in that party's politics that, thanks to Fehrnstrom's current boss, the whole country is now familiar with: Whether to be pro-choice or pro-life, and how to flip back and forth between those positions depending on the circumstances of an election cycle. From the June 22, 1994 Boston Globe:

State Treasurer Joseph D. Malone, long a champion of the state's antiabortion movement, announced publicly last night that he has changed from an opponent to a supporter of abortion rights.

Malone, a rising Republican star in a state where opposition to abortion rights is considered a political liability, now supports both a woman's right to an abortion and public funding of abortions, according to his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom.

"A woman's right to an abortion is the law of the land, and Joe supports the law of the land," said Fehrnstrom. "Joe believes this should no longer be a political issue."

Fehrnstrom's eloquently fake explanation for Malone's "conversion" also eerily brings to mind President Obama's eloquently fake explanation for his own recent "conversion" to supporting same-sex marriage: "There has been a gradual evolution in Joe's thinking on the subject." A decent-enough line is a decent-enough line, no matter the party.

Alas, Malone's gubernatorial bid was unsuccessful, and Fehrnstrom took his slick liar skills to their natural home in the private sector, the advertising industry, where he wrote press releases about the delicious new "spicy" menu at Popeye's. His ability to lie on behalf of his employer must have caught Romney's eye: In 2002, the candidate offered him a job on his gubernatorial campaign. Fehrnstrom's been with Romney in some capacity ever since.

By all accounts, Fehrnstrom's most important role on Team Romney has been to prevent the hilariously awkward candidate from ever talking to anyone, because that automatically leads to problems. "He wasn't so much Romney's press secretary as his bodyguard," an "old friend" told GQ in a recent profile of Fehrnstrom, whose author added, "Once Romney was elected, he became even less accessible, with Fehrnstrom literally setting up velvet ropes around the governor's office to keep reporters at bay." It wasn't just the reporters. Shortly after Romney took control, Fehrnstrom went on New England Cable News and picked a fight -- an actual fight, with the shoving and the tussling and whatnot -- with a local mayor who'd been hollering about Romney for some time. It's confrontations like these that earned Fehrnstrom his reputation as, in GQ's words, "Romney's balls." Fehrnstrom will wave you away if you offered him this … compliment. But privately, he, like all other consultants, enjoys the reputation of the tough-guy enforcer, or testicle-having bulldog monster, or whatever the poison pens run with on any given day.

So that's been Fehrnstrom's last decade: Containing Romney's natural clueless clumsiness as much as possible and, when breached, trying his best to spin such behavior into something resembling goofy charm. When Romney directly contradicts his past positions on abortion, climate change, the auto bailout,, it's Fehrnstrom's job to come up with the impossible exculpatory line and deliver it to the press with a straight face. When Romney gives in to any of his grating tone-deaf rich-people pleasures, like flying on a private jet owned by Pfizer en route to a Republican Governors Association meeting, Fehrnstrom comes out and says, this is no big deal, why do you all think this is a big deal? When a reporter magically finds himself face-to-face with Romney and gets the opportunity to call him out on his lies, Fehrnstrom cuts it off and berates the reporter, "Act professionally. Act professionally! Don't be argumentative with the candidate." (Although it's best that to not get caught doing this on camera.)

In his rare non-Romney free time, Fehrnstrom -- who started his own consulting firm after Romney's 2008 loss -- serves as chief strategist to Sen. Scott Brown's reelection campaign. This, better than anything else, shows you the "convictions" from which these strident consultants folks select clients: His job with one client is to convince the electorate that Scott Brown is just communist enough to deserve reelection in Massachusetts; his other is to prove that Mitt Romney is a "severe conservative" who's prepared to destroy the world, if that's what it takes. His one job is to demand six years worth of tax returns from Brown's Senate challenger Elizabeth Warren; his other is to refuse to release more than two years' worth of Mitt Romney's.(Fehrnstrom's other serious duties for Brown include writing secret fake Twitter accounts of Brown's possible challengers, penning missives like “I promise to devote all my time in office to making gay videos. Shame on Scott Brown for focusing on jobs!’’ until he gets outed.)

Romney appreciates few things more than Fehrnstrom's grimy, bellicose loyalty, and that's probably the only reason he's still around after making that infamous Etch-a-Sketch gaffe on national television a few weeks ago. But Romney's rewarded him several times throughout his career. In 2005, according to a Boston Phoenix profile written a few years later, Fehrnstrom took over the Romney spokesperson job after the previous occupant, operative Julie Teer, had "lost a behind-the-scenes battle with Fehrnstrom." (Like most washed-up Republican operatives, Teer is now a vice president at the Susan G. Komen Foundation.) And then there was this lovely pension-snagging post that Romney bestowed upon his good friend, at least for a couple of days until it became the scandal that it obviously would become. From the same Phoenix profile:

A controversy toward the close of Romney’s gubernatorial term made much the same point. In November 2006, the Globe reported that Romney had appointed Fehrnstrom to the Brookline Housing Authority. The posting itself wasn’t lucrative (it paid only $5000 annually), but it would have made Fehrnstrom eligible for a state pension when he reached retirement age. And given his salary history — at the time, Fehrnstrom reportedly was making $160,000 — that pension would have been a whopper. (In Massachusetts, pensions are set by the recipients’ three highest earning years.)

Fehrnstrom has spent ten years taking bullets for Mitt Romney, and in a few months time, he'll either be remembered in political nerd history as the most brilliant tactical strategist of our time or the incompetent moron who didn't know what he was doing and singlehandedly ruined Mitt Romney's shot at the presidency. In the meantime, don't expect to hear much crowing from Fehrnstrom directly. That would be poor consulting work on behalf of a client. Only expect to hear it, and plenty of it, indirectly, following the insiders' unique moral code.

While researching this piece, for example, I kept coming across the same line in several pieces about Fehrnstrom: that he had come up with the devastating debate line that put Newt Gingrich out of contention in January's Florida primary but refused to take credit in the media. Yet if he was refusing to take credit in the media, then why did I keep reading about how this was his idea?

It's funny how they work.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

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