The media in the back of the plane were snarling about never getting to the candidate, the protective skein of handlers in the middle compartment was playing liar’s poker and in the very front sat Dan Quayle, safely alone with his thoughts in his flying cocoon.
Then the plane landed, the journalists rushed off to file the handout of the last speech and the candidate and his Secret Service guards raced off into the Washington night. Finally, when all had gone, out ambled the apparently forgotten, rumpled man who had won the poker game. Looking out of place in his sport shirt and gray Leatherette jacket--more like someone the Secret Service would arrest than escort--came Stuart Krieg Spencer, eye twitching and lips smiling, both uncontrollably.
Coarse of tongue, brilliant and immensely respected by his peers this 61-year-old veteran of 30 years of campaign wars, is in every visible way opposite to the candidate he now must mold. No one helped Spencer get into East Los Angeles Junior College when he came home from the big war, and no one ever suggested he was good looking or WASPy enough to slip easily into the right fraternity or elected office. Nor could his father be relied on to place that always helpful call, since he ran off when Spencer was born.
What Spencer has he got the old-fashioned way: hard hustle, hard work and cutting corners--something that only makes him chuckle. There may be a bit of the rogue about him, but warts and all, he has the respect of the most seasoned political reporters, many of whom see in him the best and the worst that American democracy now has to offer.
The making of Dan Quayle--possible vice president and maybe President--takes place primarily in the brain of Spencer, an ex-Alhambra High School tailback who began politicking for a living by hustling Mexican-American votes for the Republican ticket as a Richard M. Nixon apparatchik, back in the 1950s.
Not Easily Daunted
“That was tough; this is a killer,” he says of his current effort to make the young senator from Indiana seem potentially presidential. But the man who tried to make Nelson A. Rockefeller appear humble, Gerald R. Ford clever, Ronald Reagan informed and Manuel A. Noriega democratic, is not easily daunted.
He is perhaps most celebrated for having directed the transformation of Ronald Reagan from grade B actor to governor of California and then President. “I don’t know if he was grade B. I don’t know anything about acting” is Spencer’s demurrer, delivered with the famous wink-cum-twitch indicating that, of course, he knows a great deal about theater.
Spencer has his dramatic tricks, as he revealed in a strategy session tape recorded during the 1984 Reagan presidential campaign. In that conversation, Spencer announced that the Reagan Administration had run out of ideas and programs and that there was “nothing in the pipeline.” But not to worry, a series of carefully staged photo opportunities dutifully covered by television cameras will restore the luster of vitality and leadership, he promised. And they were covered.
Now comes the Quayle campaign and the business is similar. Only Quayle is no Ronald Reagan, tricks or no tricks. Yet Spencer is giving it his best. The candidate is artfully posed in supportive settings, identified with high-sounding patriotic themes and kept at a safe distance from reporters’ prying questions. The campaign itinerary is carefully chosen to take in only those spots where America works free of racial, class and economic tension.
A recent tour through Florida and Georgia, states with large minority populations and profound social problems, managed to be as white bread as a 1940s flick, with blacks appearing only in bit parts as hotel maids and porters. A high school was picked not inside Atlanta, with its public school population 90% black, but in the virtually all-white suburbs, where there are 20 black students out of 2,000.
Why doesn’t Quayle ever talk about, let alone visit, economically depressed areas instead of the endless tour of upscale suburban shopping malls? “Dan Quayle doesn’t know about cities. He doesn’t know who lives there, ghettos, traffic, race, crime, housing, all of that stuff, but we’ll teach him,” Spencer said. “My team is working on it.”
The point, as Spencer frequently has observed, is to “set the agenda.”
What that means is that nothing is left to the chance of the open arena, if it can possibly be avoided. And that includes the pathetically meager spontaneity that used to be associated with press conferences. Quayle recently has made himself available to reporters for brief sessions on his campaign plane, and held a formal press conference last week. But the one before that was more than a month ago in Oklahoma City. That’s when Quayle called the Holocaust an “obscene period in our nation’s history” and added lamely: “I didn’t live in this century.”
Since then, public question-and-answer sessions have been restricted and Quayle’s answers are carefully rehearsed by Spencer.
Stresses Good Offense
But there’s more to it than safely rehearsed answers. Spencer has what he calls “my guys” in place, with a long history of working together and all are steeped in the conviction that the best defense is a good offense.
Ken Khachigian, who was in on the 1984 strategy session, now writes all of Quayle’s speeches, lauding God and country and denouncing the American Civil Liberties Union as a handy substitute for the old international communist conspiracy. “Soviet bashing is out,” Spencer concedes, “Reagan’s going to Moscow took that away from us.” Massachusetts bashing, however, is in.
Spencer was picked to run the GOP’s vice presidential show before Quayle got the nod, and he lets intimates know that George Bush could have made his life much easier. “First, we had to shut that John Birch father of his up, and then the National Guard thing hit. But we’re working it through,” Spencer said.
Quayle has made his allowances for Spencer, as his political manager has committed the sin of getting himself unfavorably into the news. In the vice presidential debate Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was able to point out that Quayle’s handler has worked for Noriega, Panamanian strongman and the alleged “drug kingpin.”
Named in Indictment
Justice Department documents revealed Spencer’s Orange County consulting firm was paid more than $350,000 during 1985 and 1986 to help the Panamanian government controlled by Noriega improve its image in the United States. The general was indicted early this year by two federal grand juries in Florida on charges of narcotics trafficking.
To Spencer, it was all just being “a political pro,” a quality Quayle says he admires in his adviser. “I believe that his political experience and political guidance has been and will be valuable to me,” the senator said. End of topic. Spencer’s kind of client.
The more malleable the clay the easier the task of the artist--and Spencer is an artist. “It’s never a science,” he said ruminating on his line of work. “It’s always an art.”
It’s also blindly partisan. “We like to win. That’s the way we approach the world. Beat the other guy; we’re operatives . . . . (Candidates) just have to have the R for me. The bad guys are the D’s. In the old days we called them Saints, Sinners and Savables. Saints were us, Sinners were the other side and Savables were those clowns in the middle we’d try to get.” That’s still the strategy, although now they are called Reagan Democrats instead of clowns.
He expresses contempt for the Michael S. Dukakis campaign, which he judges to be a prisoner of the new political technology rather than its master. “You’ve got to use polls. They’re a piece of equipment you use. But it’s still an art form. I find time after time, with the years I’ve got, when I instinctively feel something in my gut and I go against it, I’m wrong. I get blown out, even if I’m going with the poll. You got to go with your instincts.”
Praises Command of Art Form
“No one in either party comes close to Spencer’s command of the campaign art,” says Jim Lake, former Reagan press aide.
Spencer’s first and perhaps last “genuine hero” was Nixon, the congressman who represented his home district and then went on to greater things. But Spencer was shocked by Nixon’s 1960 loss to John F. Kennedy and thought it was because of TV. This was the first time that the medium had exhibited such power, and the lesson was not lost on young Spencer and his partner-to-be Bill Roberts, now dead.
“I was in a black VW and I’m listening to the debate on radio and I thought Nixon did great,” Spencer recalls. “Then I saw some of the tapes of it and you had a whole different picture. Yeah, we could see that TV was here to stay. We were young enough that we could see that TV was going to be it. Our predecessors never had to deal with that. We knew that we’d better figure it out and bring the right people in that knew about it.
“Mastering TV and--along with computers--using census data for political purposes are probably the biggest contributions Bill and I made to the art form. We also were the first to tie survey research, which was very green and raw in those days, to census data, which we termed PIPS--Precinct Index Priority System. Now it’s called targeting.”
San Gabriel Campaign
His first serious campaign was in pursuit of a San Gabriel Valley congressional seat for John Rousselot, an open member of the John Birch Society, an organization which believed that the Eastern Establishment, led by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller, was part of the international communist conspiracy. No big deal when four years later, Spencer managed Rockefeller’s California campaign against conservative idol Barry Goldwater.
“Hey, they asked us and the Goldwater people didn’t,” is the way Spencer handles any sense of contradiction. A job’s a job.
Birch Society Issue
The next one was with Ronald Reagan, the actor, who some powerful people in Los Angeles thought might make a fine governor. Again, as with Rousselot and Quayle’s father, the problem was that some people suspected that Reagan shared the Birch Society’s views.
“Well, in ’65, ’66, the first question we had to face was the Birch question. He was not a Bircher; he was a conservative. The Birch Society was a highly visible issue, and Reagan knew that the opposition would try to tie him to the Birch Society, probably in the same manner that Bush is trying to tie Dukakis to the ACLU. And we came to the conclusion that we didn’t need a long convoluted description when asked the question.”
Reagan was his own man, he would say, and, as Spencer put it: “If there is any similarity between what I’m advocating and what they believe, they are accepting my premises and my philosophy. End of paragraph. Now when someone asks the question the second time, the answer is mimeographed and is on a sheet in the back of the room, and you can pick it up on your way out.” And so was the art of political stonewalling born.
And then there’s the trick of lowered expectations. “The second thing was, the guy is an actor. Every time he’s up there, he’s working from a script. So, as we ran him up the state and he gave his stump speech, we opened it with questions and answers. People could ask him questions and the media, which is observing the vignette would say: ‘Huh, not bad. The guy knows something.’
“Every now and then, he’d forget where he was. Once he was on top of the Eel River and didn’t know he was there. But he has this great faculty for making everybody laugh when he makes a mistake. He doesn’t get flustered or anything like that.”
Spencer acknowledges that Quayle is not yet as disarming in his mistakes, but “we’re working on it.” He insists that Quayle has a sense of purpose similar to Reagan’s, something that earned the great communicator voters’ respect even when his command of facts didn’t:
“He could emerge as the next leader of the conservative movement. He is more hawkish than Reagan on defense issues and he cares a lot about the family values stuff.”
But Spencer is also quick to assure that Quayle is not so far right as to threaten the delicate line that successful Republican candidates must thread between those who want a moral restoration of what they perceive as traditional values and a baby boom generation that cringes at the thought of restrictions on its consumer sovereignty.
Once, eight years ago, Spencer summed up that tension during a lunch with a Times reporter at the Chanteclair restaurant near Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. Asked if Reagan’s recent victory meant that his supporters in the Moral Majority were about to take over the country, Spencer said: “Hell, no, they’re not going anywhere.”
Asked how he could be so certain, Spencer replied: “Because this here is Reagan country and there is more cocaine sniffing and fornicating within a mile of this restaurant than there is in the borough of Manhattan.”
‘Probably Still True’
Reminded of that statement in an interview last week, Spencer said: “It’s probably still true.”
Not that Spencer was condoning such behavior, but he considers himself “pragmatic” on the social issues, meaning there are limits to government’s ability to moderate private transgressions. Anyone who has spent as much time in Newport Beach as Spencer knows that.
Yet on the stump, Quayle--reading lines approved for him by Spencer--can sound like a Cotton Mather as he trumpets a message of cleanliness and godliness: “Pensacola is a community of true believers,” he told a Bush-Quayle rally. “You believe in God, family, the American flag, the Blue Angels and traditional moral values. So do I. So does George Bush.”
Did this mean that belief in God was a prerequisite for loyalty, patriotism or support of the Republican ticket? When asked about those lines Spencer and Khachigian (who wrote the speech) dismissed them as so much rhetoric--something that you do for the campaign that has little to do with how you run the country.
Spencer has seen the men at the top and he is not overly impressed by the distance from Alhambra to D.C. “It didn’t hit me until I did Ford’s campaign in ’76. A little old hick from Alhambra, I came back here and got involved with all these high-powered clowns and I lost. But, jeez, I did a hell of a job. We came from 33 points down. And I said, you know, I can play with the big guys. And I was at peace with myself--have been ever since then. I’m no expert, I’m no genius or nothing, but I can play with the big guys.”
Just what playing with the big guys has to do with choosing the best leader for the world’s biggest military and economic power is not altogether clear in Spencer’s ruminations, but he also believes “things can’t go on this way--too much money, too much hype. The public is going to object.”
But he certainly doesn’t act like a man who feels guilty. Spencer did not invent the awesome power of communications through direct mail and television and he cannot, therefore, be held accountable for the trivialization of politics which those forces have permitted, if not engendered. Nor is any of this completely new: Nixon lost the debate with Kennedy because he perspired.
Call it “the politics of the moment,” as Spencer does, but that smooth hustling after the perfect sound bite is not new, it is merely perfected. What is new is that a line has been crossed. As in physics, a series of quantitative changes eventually gives rise to a qualitative change. Heat metal degree by degree and it remains the same--until the moment it melts.
Getting on the Tube
“We are getting into moment politics,” Spencer says, “into a moment world. Moment politics is to sell ads, I guess. You play up the thing for the moment. You don’t do a Bill Moyers piece. You play something for the moment and it gets viewership and people buy ads for that. That’s what sells, so we play moment politics to get on the tube.”
Is something happening to American politics before our eyes, a reporter asks the man who has seen it all. “Yeah, it is moving rapidly.”
Is it dangerous? “I can see dangers in it, yes.” Spencer replies. “Like fast foods: too much cholesterol. It’s bad for your political mental health not to be able to sit down and think about something a little more--to be spoon-fed it in moments. I would say that’s not good. A democracy has to survive on a little more thoughtfulness. That’s the danger of it.”
And, then, the saving Spencerism, only this time without a wink or a smile: “I’m as guilty as anybody.”
Times researcher Nina Green contributed to this story.