Stuart Stevens On Taking The Field, From Football To The Presidency

Stuart Stevens On Taking The Field, From Football To The Presidency

Campaign operative Stuart Stevens talks about his new book, growing up in the South, football and boxing, running campaigns for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, and 2016.
Mitchell Blatt
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In 2012, Stuart Stevens helped Mitt Romney secure a prize many people covet but few ever win—a major party presidential nomination. Running for president, with its hectic schedule and close scrutiny, is a thankless pursuit Stevens says is “the least enjoyable experience that anyone voluntarily enters into available to an adult.” It’s even more so because he lost.

Stevens really likes to win. He did win in 2000 and 2004 as a consultant with the Bush campaigns and in state and local races across the country during his decades-long career.

After the Romney campaign, Stevens took a break to spend time with his father, resurrecting childhood memories of watching Ole Miss football games. He chronicles the experience in his latest book, “The Last Season,” released September 15. This is his sixth book. His previous books include three travel memoirs; “Scorched Earth,” a fictional novel about a Mississippi election; and “The Big Enchilada,” a memoir about the 2000 Bush campaign.

Here’s some lightly edited excerpts of a recent conversation with Stevens.

Give a brief summary of your book, “The Last Season.”

When I was growing up in Mississippi in the ’60’s, a lot of the way my father and I connected was through Ole Miss football. He had attended Ole Miss, and my mother had attended Ole Miss, and my grandfather had attended Ole Miss. I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and then Ole Miss played a lot of games at a big stadium in Jackson, which wasn’t far from my house.

In 2012, I did the Romney campaign. Afterwards, you end up thinking a lot about loss and what it means.

There was a connection that my father and I had. It was a special connection. We tried to maintain it over the years, with mixed success. I got busy with my life, and he was always busy with his life. In 2012, I did the Romney campaign. Afterwards, you end up thinking a lot about loss and what it means. I turned 60 during the campaign, and that December my father had his ninety-fifth birthday.

I wanted to take some time out and go spend time with both of my parents. My mother is age 86. We would go to all the Ole Miss games together for the 2013 season. That became the framework for this book, “The Last Season.” It’s sort of a meditation on fathers and sons and sports and growing up in the South. It’s also about the intersection of those two great forces that were powerful in the South when I was growing up, civil rights and college football, and the interesting ways that they are linked.

In the South, college football has played a role in social and political ways, much like rugby did in South Africa. In 1962 there were the famous riots at Ole Miss over James Meredith integrating the university, and that arguably was the last pitched battle of the Civil War. There were over 30,000 troops in Oxford, Mississippi. It was also the last year that Ole Miss won the national championship.

How are your father and mother doing today, two years after the start of that season?

My father is doing great. He’s probably going to outlive us all. He’s 97 now, and he’s a genetic freak. He’s doing great, and so is my mom.

One of the big issues in the South and the country this past summer was the debate over the Confederate flag. You mentioned in the book how the Ole Miss Rebels used to use Confederate imagery. They waved Confederate flags, and they had Colonel Reb as their mascot. How did growing up as an Ole Miss fan influence your views on the Confederate flag debate?

I’m not sure how old I was when I realized the Confederate flag represented something other than Ole Miss. It’s just something you saw at football games. I’m not sure when I was a kid—five, six, ten, twelve years old—going to games, that it represented the flag of the Confederacy. [To me] it was the Ole Miss flag. When you look back on it, looking at the ’62 riots, for example, they were probably instigated by this football game, Ole Miss versus Kentucky, that took place in Jackson, Mississippi, on the Saturday before the riots. [Stevens’ recollection of that game is included in his book.]

I’m not sure how old I was when I realized the Confederate flag represented something other than Ole Miss.

In those days, the Ole Miss band dressed in Confederate battle gray. They unfurled what they billed as the “largest Confederate flag in the world,” and [that day] Gov. Ross Barnett came out and gave…a speech at halftime on the middle of the field that was really a call to rebellion.

Seven or eight years ago, under the leadership of Chancellor Robert Khayat, the university began to phase out Confederate flags and phased out the mascot Colonel Reb [replacing it with Rebel the Black Bear]. I think it was a very positive development.

Today with the state flag, there’s a Confederate flag as its centerpiece, and I think if there was a referendum today, the vote would be to change it. There was a referendum 12 years ago, and the vote was overwhelmingly to keep it the same, but I think the climate has really changed. … Clearly it’s a hateful imagery to many Mississippians, and it should be changed.

Growing up in the South, living in New York early in your career, and traveling abroad a lot, how did your identity as a Southerner and as an American develop?

For my parents, there was always a great urgency to expose my sister and I to the bigger world beyond the “Magnolia Curtain.” I went to camp in North Carolina. In Mississippi, North Carolina was considered the North.

There was a whole world of Mississippians in New York, because so many people who felt ambitious felt that they had to leave Mississippi.

When I first moved to New York, over 90 percent of my friends were Mississippians. There was a whole world of Mississippians in New York, because so many people who felt ambitious felt that they had to leave Mississippi. It is a huge problem in Mississippi, and a lot of states, because there is no future there—no perceived future.

You begin to examine yourself and where you grow up much more closely when you are in a different culture. … I think it’s something I still struggle with today. It’s very definitional growing up in a place like Mississippi. It’s such a contradictory, complex world that you live in. Particularly when I grew up, the Civil War was still a looming presence. The Fourth of July was sort of a muted holiday, because that was the day that Vicksburg and Gettysburg had fallen.

Like every kid in every state everywhere in the world, you grow up with a sense of wanting to be proud of where you’re from. It’s a natural human instinct. But at the same time, you’re very aware that something terrible has happened. It’s that contradiction. I try to wrestle with it in my book. The contradiction of being proud of your home, but knowing that place had done something sort of terrible and that its defeat was a positive.

The Fourth of July was sort of a muted holiday, because that was the day that Vicksburg and Gettysburg had fallen.

There’s a sense of loss in Mississippi that I think is a sadness. Not loss in the sense that it was a tragedy to have lost the Civil War, but a sense that racism has cost the South so much and has been so painful. It’s the great American tragedy, and the center of that is the South. Mississippi went from being the wealthiest state in the country to being the poorest. Its wealth was based on agricultural slave labor. It’s very difficult to argue that the fact that Mississippi has suffered a lot has not in some ways been sort of a punishment that is just. But the problem is, it’s not just white Southerners. Now it hurts everyone in the South.

Some organizations say they want to hold up the mantle of their heritage, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and in 2014 you helped Thad Cochran beat back a primary challenge from Chris McDaniel, who had attended some of their events and was slated to speak at one. Can you speak about that campaign?

I’ve never known a campaign as flat-out weird and really tragic as that campaign. The whole incident of someone sneaking into the nursing home and taking a picture of Thad Cochran’s wife, whom I knew very well. The arrest. The tragic suicide of one of the people who was arrested. It was the most fantastical, emotional ups and downs, and just strangeness, that you can imagine in a campaign.

I’m really glad Cochran won. The aftermath when McDaniel was making allegations about Democrats voting was very ugly. It was preposterous. We don’t have any party registration in Mississippi. You think you’ve seen it all… It was one of the hardest campaigns I’ve been involved in. Our firm was involved in it. I went down for what I thought was three or four days to help out and ended up spending almost seven weeks.

On the allegations of “Democrats voting”:

What we’re really talking about is African-Americans. The last time Thad Cochran ran was 2008, when Obama was on the ballot. If you go to these precincts like South Jackson, which is about 99 percent African-American, Obama would get like 1,200 votes in that precinct, and Cochran would get 180.

Then when you look at the primary election, Cochran would get like 45 or 60 votes, and McDaniel would get like 15 votes. So I think overwhelmingly most of those people who were voting for Thad Cochran were people who had voted for him before. In that sense it wasn’t really getting new voters. It was getting voters who voted for Thad Cochran to vote for him again, which is about the easiest thing to do in politics.

In the runoff, there was a message being driven by the McDaniel campaign and by the press that whoever won the Republican primary would be the next senator, so it’s only natural that more Mississippians would want to participate in the runoff, if that’s where you’re going to pick the senator. So one of the oddities, historically, of that runoff was that it had an increased turnout over the first election. Overwhelmingly, most runoff elections show a sharp drop-off. It wasn’t just African-Americans voting for Cochran. It was a higher turnout for both candidates.

Talk about your football career in high school.

I was a running back and a linebacker. I was small but slow. I wasn’t very good. There was brief moment when I was big for my age, when I was 13, when I was about the size I am now, but I didn’t continue to grow. I always really loved it.

I stopped playing when I was in high school. It was a lot of things. There was a period in the late ’60s when it kind of wasn’t cool to be a big athlete. I just sort of lost interest in it. Afterwards I regretted it, and I sort of made up for it by playing rugby, which is sort of the closest thing an adult who is not particularly talented can do to playing football.

Do you think there is something about football representing perhaps more traditional cultural views?

I think so to some degree. You go someplace like Columbia University, particularly back then [when I lived in New York]. It was like if you went to a football game at Columbia you were doing something deliberately retro. I think a lot of that has changed. Maybe.

But there still is something uniquely Southern about football, the appeal, that is a jumbled combination. I think in part it is the violence of football, which appeals to a lot within a Southerner’s heart. There’s the fact that for many years there were not professional sports teams in the South, so [high school or college] football was everything. And the cultural identities that are associated with something like Friday Night Lights really work well.

Some people are concerned football is too violent, there are too many concussions, and some associate it with domestic violence, such as with the Ray Rice incident. Others have said there is a “war on football.” What do you make of it?

I think you have to divide those things up. Clearly we are learning more about concussions and the damage that is done, particularly with professional sports. I think it has something to do with players getting bigger, stronger—and no doubt it’s been an element before, but we’re more aware of it now. I don’t know what to say about it; it’s incredibly troubling. There was that player [Chris Borland, a San Francisco 49ers linebacker] who was in his second year and decided not to play pro football anymore because of it. And I can certainly understand that.

But then there’s this idea that the violence of football is somehow breeding violence, and I think that’s utter gibberish. I mean, there’s terrible shootings that are largely gang-related in Chicago every week. I think that those kids would be a lot better off if they were playing football. They’re not violent because they’re playing football. I think the virtues of being on a team and all of that so outweigh the dangers.

You’ve also done boxing. Would you say it has a similar appeal to football?

Yes, I think it does. The idea that you are going to go out and find a socially acceptable way to hit someone, especially for kids who want to let out some energy. In all these other areas of life, teachers will yell at you if you push somebody or if you hit somebody. If you do it on the football field, you get praised if you do it well. That’s sort of a transformational moment, and you can find an outlet.

And boxing is another sport where the violence is becoming so apparent. Look at the tragedy of Muhammad Ali. It’s troubling.

Does this appeal to violence go into politics, too, a kind of fight?

I’ve always loved in politics that you win or lose. I liked the definitiveness of it. I mean, I always liked winning a lot more than losing. I have never been somebody who had any desire to work in government. I was always a lot more interested in the taking of Baghdad than the running of Baghdad, and it’s why I’ve continued to do campaigns. It’s a very focused contest.

I’ve always loved in politics that you win or lose. I liked the definitiveness of it.

I can remember Maureen Dowd wrote a column during the campaign, and she said one of the reasons Romney wasn’t winning was because I didn’t care enough about winning or something. Everyone who knew me, including Mitt Romney, laughed at how completely off that was, about how my obsessions ran too much the other way, how I was completely consumed with the campaign. The only way I know to do campaigns is all-in, complete obsession.

As a political consultant, I have been accused—sometimes by conservatives—of only caring about winning. And I just laugh. As a political consultant, I laugh, because it’s like saying of a lawyer, ‘The only thing you want to do is win your case.’

Perhaps it speaks to a schism in the conservative movement. If you look at some of these races with Tea Party challengers, like McDaniel in Mississippi, Mourdock in Indiana, where they pick a candidate they say is more conservative and challenge the incumbent. Sometimes they say they want a “fighter.” Do you feel there is a schism between those who want to win campaigns and those who might pick a more bombastic candidate who “fights”?

I think in the Cochran-McDaniel race, Cochran was very much more a fighter than McDaniel, and I think if McDaniel worked harder and fought harder, he would have won. I mean, the first week of the runoff, Chris McDaniel just took off. He went on vacation. Thad Cochran was out there working his ass off at age 75. So I don’t confuse being a fighter with someone who is yelling. ‘Fighter’ is how hard you work.

And look, political consultants are not candidates. No one ever voted for or against a political consultant. We’re the hired help. We are hired for one reason: to help someone win. We are not hired to remind anyone of their deeply held beliefs. We are not hired to express our own beliefs. We’re hired to win.

There shouldn’t be a mystique about political consultants. There shouldn’t be any concern about what it says about a candidate if they have a certain consultant. It’s nonsense. I’ve never known a candidate who gave a damn what a political consultant thought about anything except how to win.

The 2008 Romney campaign was criticized for having too many advisors, then some said the 2012 campaign put you in too many roles. Was there an overcorrection?

No. I wasn’t the campaign manager. I’m sometimes referred to as the campaign manager. This is just people not understanding the campaign. Matt Rhoades was the campaign manager, and he did a fantastic job. We had fantastic Madison Avenue talent making ads. I ended up traveling a lot with Governor Romney, and maybe that was it. That would be a very incorrect view of it. There were hundreds, thousands of people who worked their hearts out for Governor Romney.

One of the things about Governor Romney is that he is very self-critical. It’s one of the keys to his success, I think, in many areas of life. He always asked if there was a better way. He likes to hear both sides of an argument.

After a debate, a lot of candidates want to hear about everything they did right. He’s the exact opposite. All he wanted to hear about was what he did wrong. We had something like 30 debates. After every one, he mentions how he didn’t feel good about one answer, one comment. He really works hard at it, thinking about how to improve. If you look at his life, every stage of his life, people who have been associated with him have loved being associated with him.

You helped George W. Bush and Dick Cheney with debate prep, too. What was the difference doing debate prep with them and with Romney?

Bush hated to do run-throughs. Before the first debate with Gore, I think we had one mock debate. Vice President Cheney, on the other hand, before the Lieberman debate, he had a dozen mock debates. He liked to do them at the same time of night that we had the regular debates. He wanted it for real.

I have pretty strong feelings on debate prep. I think the key is to understand the argument. Everyone always likes to have great lines. I have experience working with actors, writing TV shows [“Northern Exposure,” “Commander in Chief,” and as a consultant for the film “The Ides of March”]. And I know, it’s very hard even for actors to get the lines right on the first take. Very few actors do it on the first take.

And in a debate, you don’t have a second take. You have to understand the arguments. Every great line I’ve known someone to come up with on the spot in a debate, they came up with it as a result of that argument. Every canned line sounded like a canned line.

As far as the lines go, Dick Cheney had a few good lines. He said to John Edwards, “The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.”

I did all the debate preps with Cheney, and I never heard that line before he said it. He had a couple of lines like that. I did the debate preps with Rob Portman, who played Lieberman and then played Edwards, and I remember watching the debate with him, and we thought, “Where did this come from?” It’s usually like that.

On the Bush-Gore debate:

When we were doing debate prep for Governor Bush for the town-hall debate, Rob Portman played Gore. He walked up to him and got into his space in the debate prep, and Governor Bush just broke down laughing. He said, “No, Gore’s not going to do this. What are you doing?” Portman said, “No, he’s going to do it. I’ve watched him. I’ve studied him. He did it to Bradley. He’s going to try to intimidate you.” They had a little side bet over whether Gore would do it, and of course he did do it. That’s exactly what he did. Because we practiced it, it wasn’t something new, and Bush had a great response.

Having acted as a mock moderator with the Bush campaign, what do you think about the questions from the moderators at the Fox News debate? Were they fair?

Of course they were fair! First of all, there’s no such thing as an unfair question. It’s an absurdity to think that there’s an unfair question. You’re running for president of the United States. You’re not graded on a curve. Anything is fair game.

I thought the questions were excellent for the most part. It was a serious debate. One of my big complaints about the 2012 primary debates is that they became spectacles the way that they were promoted. And I’m against that. I’m actually against news organizations putting on debates. I think that serious organizations ought to have debates and they should be covered by news organizations. We don’t have a CNN-sponsored Labor Day parade. Why do we have a CNN-sponsored debate? The University of Iowa should have a debate. Heritage and Brookings should host debates.

Most of the complaining was coming from one particular candidate.

I think Donald Trump is sort of a ridiculous candidate. I think he’s done a lot of positive things. He’s helped create a lot of jobs. He’s paid a fortune in taxes. He’s given a lot to charity. Back in the bad old days, when people were giving up on New York, he invested in New York, and he was rewarded for it, as he should be. It’s true he’s promoted a lot of women in his business. I have a lot of good things to say about Donald Trump as a business figure. I think as a presidential candidate he’s sort of ridiculous.

Where the polls are now, I don’t think are where the polls will end up. I personally, and I wrote about this in The Daily Beast, I don’t think he will end up running for president.

Your article said you don’t think Trump will make the ballot in the primary states. In it, you said Trump “is not self-destructive,” but hasn’t he already done some damage to his brand with the comments that got him dropped by NBC and Macy’s?

That’s a fair point. I think there’s an intoxicating quality of running for president, in the same way there is when you find yourself on a hit TV show. How actors deal with fame is always a question. How do rock stars deal with being rock stars? There are levels of maturity you see. There’s a learning curve. I think that Donald Trump is intoxicated with being the president of the United States.

I think the fact that he is doing well at the polls is part of that intoxication. I don’t think that will continue. He’s someone who seems to do what he enjoys to do. God love him for it. But running for president is the least enjoyable experience that anyone voluntarily enters into available to an adult.

I’m very skeptical anytime someone says, “This time, it’s different.” It’s not different. This time it’s not different. I think saying you are for Donald Trump now and voting for him are two wildly different things. I don’t think Donald Trump wants to lose. Most people who run for president lose.

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist and freelance writer based in China who covers politics and travel. He is the editor of Bombs and Dollars and the lead author of Panda Guides' Hong Kong guidebook. He has been published at Washington Examiner.com, Daily Caller.com, The Hill.com, and Newsbusters, among other outlets.

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