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There's no business like ... politics.

An insightful social theorist--Jay Leno--once said that politics is show business for ugly people. And from the way Hollywood and the media portray political insiders, the difference may seem barely skin deep.

Political consultants are usually cast as heavies; mysterious, rich, powerful. They pull the strings, and governors, senators--even presidents--jerk and shudder like marionettes.

But the truth? Ah, that's the rub. Or, more precisely, that's where the rubber meets the road. Parodies, like news stones, would be funnier if they weren't meant to be ... well, real.

Barry Levinson's flick, Wag the Dog, is a case in point. It uses the awesome talents of Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro in a motion picture about a president who, only 11 days from reelection, is hit with a sex scandal.

The president's panicky staff brings in DeNiro's character, a bearded, rumpled, cynical political consultant--so far, so good--who comes up with a strategy: distraction. To divert the public's attention from the breaking sexcapade, he proposes a war. Oh, not World War II or Vietnam, mind you. Just a little war. Against Albania. Sort of a video game with live music.

He enlists an accomplished moviemaker, played by Hoffman, to produce the war. It is a job Hoffman attacks with combat relish. As if he were Ziegfeld staging The Follies, Mr. Hollywood assembles directors, studios, cinematographers, lyricists, actors--you know, the tools of modem warfare--and sets up a tactical sting.

To make a short story even shorter, it works--despite numerous technical difficulties. The moral here is that political consultants don't just package reality, they create it from scratch--just like film producers. Although, when it's done in show business, it wins a Golden Globe; when it's done in an election, it's fraud.

The truth is that reality does matter in serious political campaigning, even if it's packaged and often twisted.

This relates to the recent news report on the "profits" made by President Clinton's political consultants. It was calculated that total fees received by the '96 consultant team--which included an array of strategists, media producers placement agencies, creative shops and pollsters--exceeded $7 million. These consultants are thus being portrayed as the main beneficiaries of the funds produced by the campaign's often scandalous pursuit of contributions. They're presented as unaccountable manipulators who are corrupting politics by the big profits they pull from it.

Anyone who knows anything about consultant fees in high pressure businesses--be it legal, public relations, advertising or investment banking--would laugh at the fees collected by most political pros, even the more expensive ones.

Advisers to a winning presidential candidate are usually the best and most experienced--or at least, the luckiest--in the business. Comparable corporate consultants, who rarely tackle projects as complex or as specialized as a presidential campaign, earn fees that dwarf the $7 million sum.

When determining consultant "profits," one must be careful with the numbers. Many reporters are about as careful in this exercise as Hollywood script writers are when hyping the supposed influence of campaign gurus.

An itemized $500,000 entry on a campaign finance report that's paid to a media consultant does not necessarily mean that the consultant has "made" $500,000, although frequently the implication is that they have. To know what a consultant makes, you must first determine whether the payment was a fee (or retainer), a media buy or a reimbursement of expenses.

If it's a fee, it's income to the consultant. Out of it, the consultant pays his or her own business overhead (rent, staff salaries, phones insurance, supplies, etc.). In the case of pollsters, those costs eat up most of the money.

If it's for a media buy, that means at least 85 percent of it goes into the coffers of TV and radio stations, newspapers and billboard companies--not into the consultant's pocket.

Media consultants are agents. They buy ad time and space with the campaign's money and may keep up to 15 percent as a placement commission to handle the buy This commission, which is occasionally negotiated downward to somewhere between seven and 12.5 percent, is in accordance with recognized advertising industry standards. On large ad buys, commissions usually generate much more money than it will actually cost for the agency to administratively handle them; the extra "juice" becomes in effect, the consultant's fee for creative and strategic services.

In addition to media commissions, campaigns also pay consultants as a pass-through for expenses that include things like postage, printing, production studios, film editing, video tape, list rentals, graphic design and photography. Unfortunately, those category distinctions are often blurred by generalized, imprecise campaign finance disclosure criteria.

The point is that most of the cash being reported as going to consultants may end up going to others. If that reality isn't taken into account, then a distorted picture can easily be drawn by a reporter bent on dark characterization.

It's the same distorted picture of political professionals that was evident in Wag the Dog. And that gets everybody off on the wrong page when assessing the power and roles of people in this most unusual and misunderstood business.

In politics, as in Hollywood, reality bites. Fortunately, so do dogs.

Ron Faucheux is editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections magazine. E-mail comments to
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Title Annotation:On the Record; political consultants
Author:Faucheux, Ron
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 16, 1998
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