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SPIN DOCTORS TO THE WORLD : THE SAWYER MILLER GROUP USES THE TRICKS OF POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS TO CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS, BIG BUSINESS AND ANY CLIENT IN NEED OF AN IMAGE LIFT

<i> Barry Siegel is a Times national correspondent. A collection of his articles, "Shades of Gray," will be published in March by Bantam Books. </i>

HERE IS A STORY JACK LESLIE PLAINLY ENJOYS TELLING: The then-president of Colombia, Virgilio Barco Vargas, is sitting one morning in February, 1988, in the private, wood-paneled library on the third floor of Casa de Narino, his country’s presidential palace in the old part of Bogota. Across from Barco Vargas are those who helped him get elected two years before--Leslie and other members of the discreet, low-profile New York-based firm called the Sawyer Miller Group. The subject under discussion is Barco Vargas’ desire to counter his country’s image as a compliant haven for the world’s largest drug empire, the Medellin cartel. The need to do so goes beyond matters of pride and prestige, for election-year rhetoric in the United States is mounting against Colombia, threatening critical foreign investment and trade relations. Barco Vargas wants people to understand that his country is indeed fighting the drug lords. He wants people to understand that his country is full of dedicated heroes and leaders. He wants people to understand that drug users in the United States are creating the demand for the cartel’s product. But Leslie has something of a problem: Before him is poll research showing that 76% of Americans think the Colombian government is corrupt and 80% want sanctions imposed. Sawyer Miller is a devout believer in poll research.

You can’t ignore those figures, Leslie tells Barco Vargas. You can’t just show what action Colombia is taking against drug dealers. It would look like propaganda. It won’t work. You have to appreciate public opinion on this. You are seen as a villain. First we must show you as a victim. Then a hero. Then a leader. Only after that do you point the finger at the United States for creating the demand for drugs.

Barco Vargas and his aides are hesitant--governments do not enjoy portraying themselves as victims--but understanding. The first ad, appearing that spring, features a photo of newspaper editor Guillermo Cano’s funeral. The next offers the photo of a memorial to those killed fighting the drug lords. The third, a highly stylized black-and-white television spot using existing news footage, depicts a bullet-riddled car, a coffin, mourners. Then, and only then, does a fourth ad finally swing the focus to the idea of United States demand. The photo is of a young woman snorting a line of cocaine, and the caption reads, “Drug User or Drug Terrorist?”

“Look at the press clips from then on,” Leslie says, recollecting that 1988 Colombia campaign as he sits now in his office at Sawyer Miller headquarters on East 60th Street in mid-Manhattan. “News stories, columns, editorials, all start talking more and more about demand.” Savoring the accomplishment, Leslie, a polished and collected 37-year-old, leans forward in his chair--brushing past bookshelves lined with titles such as “Milking the Public,” “Talking Back to the Media,” “The Third Wave"--and pops a videotape into a player. On the monitor, an “ABC World News Tonight” segment featuring Sawyer Miller’s television spot for Colombia begins. To get to his firm’s ad, though, Leslie has to endure anchorman Peter Jennings’ introduction. As he does so, much of the pleasure drains from his eyes.

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Jennings describes the spot as a “gambit.” Colombia, he says, “is waging a campaign to improve its image . . . with the help from"--here Jennings barely arches his brows and adds a faint inflection to his voice--"a Madison Avenue ad agency.”

Leslie studies the monitor sorrowfully. Jennings just doesn’t understand. Sawyer Miller is not an ad agency, not a PR firm, not a lobbyist, Leslie will tell you. What Sawyer Miller does is not dishonorable. “Cynical,” Leslie says, shaking his head at the anchorman. “Snide.”

SO IT OFTEN GOES FOR THE SAWYER MILLER GROUP, A FIRM that takes cocky delight in its deeds even while others find its agenda hard to embrace. Although only a campaign junkie is likely to have heard of the Sawyer Miller Group--for years it was among the top political media consulting firms for Democratic candidates--its name is now starting to pop up in the most varied and ambiguous of circumstances. Offering a blurred blend of research, management consulting, advertising, public relations and indirect lobbying--which, combined, it calls “strategic communications consulting” but others consider old-fashioned spin-doctoring--Sawyer Miller proposes to spread the techniques of American political campaigns to broader realms. The goal is nothing less than to shape how people act and think.

Look sharply around the edges of events, and you often will find the firm lurking. Albeit not always successfully, Sawyer Miller has worked behind the scenes on, among other projects, Drexel Burnham Lambert’s attempt to burnish the image of junk bonds, Safeway’s campaign to mollify employees after a leveraged buyout led to mass layoffs, Resorts International’s effort to assuage customers and creditors after a bankruptcy filing, Frank Lorenzo’s struggles at Eastern Airlines with labor unions and federal investigators, Goldman Sachs’ effort to improve the post-'80s image of investment bankers, Corazon Aquino’s battle for power in the Philippines, Shimon Peres’ presidential campaign in Israel, and Poland’s drive to install a market economy. To the considerable chagrin of the more devoutly Democratic Sawyer Miller staffers, the firm even helped Nancy Reagan counterattack Kitty Kelley’s biography.

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Such compromise is the price paid for the firm’s evolution. Started in 1972 as D. H. Sawyer and Associates by David Sawyer, who came out of the film documentary field, it was by 1975 getting substantive free-lance help from Scott Miller, then a creative star at the advertising agency McCann-Erickson. He formally became Sawyer’s partner in 1982. At its busiest, Sawyer Miller has handled up to 18 Democratic campaigns a season, including those of Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and John Glenn of Ohio (in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination) and Geraldine A. Ferraro, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1984.

The firm began backing away from politics in the mid-1980s, and last spring (by then Scott Miller had retreated from the growing company’s formal structure to work on his own) swore off domestic political campaigns entirely. New offices were announced for Eastern Europe and California, and new plans were laid to woo corporate clients. To signal its new bipartisanship, Sawyer Miller even welcomed a certified, consummate Republican to its ranks--Edward J. Rollins, the former political director in the Reagan White House. And for enhanced contacts with the news media, this firm of hard-charging, polished suits adopted the rumpled and irrepressible John Scanlon, an old-fashioned public-relations sort whose Irish charm masks legendary spin-doctor talents. Thus has commerce triumphed over partisan beliefs and conventional boundaries in this prime example of the new age of consulting. Sawyer Miller’s intent is to court corporate clients while still getting an occasional fix of political adventure in foreign lands that aren’t as yet jaded by American campaign techniques. If you can treat the voter as a consumer, why not the consumer as a voter? If you can sell candidates as products, why not products as candidates? Why not treat bankruptcy restructurings, image building and issue management as political campaigns? Why not look at consumers, shareholders and employees as “constituencies”? Forget the clients who want to increase market share or get their names in the paper or look pretty. Sawyer Miller wants corporations with specific problems that must be resolved within fixed deadlines--corporations with employees to win over, legislators to persuade, creditors to mollify. Our goal is to try to get someone to vote for us, Sawyer Miller people tell potential clients. Don’t corporations really face elections every day?

The irony in this drive to apply political philosophy to the corporate world is obvious: Not that many years ago politicians were borrowing from Madison Avenue; now Madison Avenue is borrowing from politicians. Whether this constitutes blazing innovation or reheated spinach, it’s the current fashion. Other political consultants (such as Peter Hart, Pat Caddell, Roger Ailes and the Republican firm Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly) have been making much the same kind of shift in recent times. Fleeing an industrywide recession, multiplying competitors, the cyclical nature of their business, a barrage of denunciations about negative attack advertising and candidates who neither listen nor pay their bills, they’re all following the money and solace. Corporations will pay many times more than politicians for the same work--$10,000 fees have been known to balloon to $150,000. “I got tired of climbing on planes five days a week to go somewhere and give advice to people who don’t want to hear it,” Rollins explains. “You sit down with a candidate, his best friend or sister walks in, says ‘no, that’s not the way.’ Then maybe I don’t get paid. By contrast, I sit down with a CEO, talk, act and get paid well. A CEO is more used to $500-an-hour fees. He doesn’t gulp. And paying that much, he will listen.”

David Sawyer, though, is not inclined to describe his firm’s new endeavor in this fashion--as a mere pursuit of comfort and deeper pockets. His, if you are buying, is a mission in the service of the new “electronic democracy.” “Because of mass communications and the legacy of the ‘60s, people now speak out, people can and will be heard,” he likes to say. “Eastern Europe in ’89 and ’90 happened because information had gotten through. What people think about their institutions is crucial to the institutions’ ability to govern. This is true in corporate life as well as politics. You need to pay attention to what people think and feel. Otherwise, you will lose support of shareholders, employees, consumers.”

As Sawyer speaks these words, we are sitting in his office, which is full of sleek black furniture, maroon carpets, glass walls and video equipment. At 55, he bristles with a frantic energy and tends to begin conversations in midstream, which is what he’d done just a moment before, when we had by chance crossed paths in the reception area on my first morning at Sawyer Miller headquarters. “The source of controlling the agenda is through the people,” he started saying, before I could find pen, paper or a chair. “With research, you begin to understand people’s attitudes, what moves them. You no longer can just run your company--you have to manage attitude and behavior. That’s what we do. We design strategies to affect behavior and attitudes of a particular constituency.”

Listening to Sawyer, I start imagining different ways people might respond to his words. There are those, for instance, who might find this kind of talk alarming, who might not think it such an attractive idea to “manage attitude and behavior,” who might not be delighted by the notion of spreading the key elements of modern political campaigns--the simple slogans, the negative attacks, the finger-to-the-wind posturing--to wider realms. Then there are those who might snort that Sawyer’s pitch is nothing but New Age babblespeak. Finally, there are those who might say (perhaps wistfully) that such firms just can’t accomplish what they claim.

Among those who might say these various things, however, you will not find quite as many corporations or foreign leaders as you would have in the past. Since 1985, Sawyer Miller’s staff has grown from 20 to 100, its gross revenues from $2.5 million to $18 million. This is still small potatoes compared to the traditional PR and ad firms, but Sawyer Miller and its competitors are on to something.

For better or worse, like it or not, these firms are responding to the character of their times. They are a symptom more than a cause--the beneficiaries of a media-saturated arena where the genuine, spontaneous act is increasingly seen as foolhardy, where every move or comment by anyone in public life arises from hours of focus-group canvassing and cautious calculation.

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“This is necessary work, and Sawyer Miller does it as well as anyone can,” says Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia who studies political consultants and knows Sawyer well. “The consulting firms are just capitalizing on what corporate America thinks it needs. The corporations are relying more and more on blue smoke and mirrors, putting far more energy into crafting image than products. . . . They are entranced with the idea of having George Bush’s campaign manager on board.”

Or as Sawyer puts it more succinctly: “I’m finally making some money.”

SUCH WAS NOT ALWAYS THE CASE. FOR A GOOD LONG TIME, CEOs’ eyes glazed over when Sawyer went on about “electronic democracy” and “empowerment.” Let me run my business without all this school-song, touchy-feely stuff, their responses would imply. When the tide started to turn in the mid-'80s, it was not so much the result of his pitch as it was the track record of Ronald Reagan. The Great Communicator had been doing for years what Sawyer Miller was now advocating, partly through instinct and partly through the guidance of people such as James A. Baker III and Michael K. Deaver. “The CEOs, watching Reagan, saw that if you studied the polls and managed your public relations, you could get power, you could get done what you wanted,” Sawyer says. “They wanted to be like Reagan.”

Then, more recently, came the barrage of leveraged buyouts, bankruptcies, evaporating markets, shareholder revolts and upheavals in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Sacred institutions such as banks and insurance companies foundered while business journalism expanded and toughened. CEOs, legislators and international leaders increasingly felt the ground collapsing beneath them. They needed something to grasp, however ephemeral. Sawyer Miller still gets a fair share of glazed-eye responses to its pitches, but not as many as before.

Often when the phones ring, it’s for “issue management " projects. Where once companies tried to influence public issues mainly by back-door lobbying on Capitol Hill, they now increasingly campaign directly for mass public support, which they believe will move the legislators more effectively. This is why you see more and more of those full-page ads where oil companies mellifluently address topics such as water rights, plant safety and healthy ecosystems for shellfish. “The old way involved hiring inside dopesters, people like Kissinger who can call Gorbachev,” says political analyst William Schneider. “The new way involves hiring these outside dopesters, who know how to use the media.”

Although Sawyer Miller people like to characterize this part of the firm’s business as their involvement in “public affairs,” it’s fair to say that their positions are shaped a good deal more by focus groups than by burning inner passions. The key here is Ned Kennan, a psychologist whose polling firm, KRC Research and Consulting, merged recently with Sawyer Miller after years of serving it as a subcontractor. A former special duties officer for Israeli intelligence, Kennan was one of the first to embrace such “qualitative research” as focus groups, mall intercepts and one-on-one interviewing. It was he who interested Sawyer in trying to understand how people think rather than just what they think. If you can understand how they think, after all, you can figure out how best to talk to them--how, as Kennan says, “to push the proper buttons that need to be pushed.” You can, for example, sell more potato chips to consumers worried about junk food by “giving them the permission structure to be pigs"--an advertisement full of happy fat people.

Armed with Kennan’s “message-testing research,” Sawyer Miller sets out to “create the environment” and “control the dialogue” with simple messages. Thus the fight by a consortium of financial companies for bank deregulation is distilled into the question “Why Is Government Trying to Bail Out Banks?” Sawyer Miller is not deterred by discouraging data: “Our research showed there was not a whole lot of interest in particular phone services,” Kennan says, referring to the regional telephone companies’ current campaign for freedom to shed marketing and manufacturing restrictions. “But when we listened carefully, we heard: ‘My goddamn country shouldn’t tell me I can’t have a choice. Who gives them the right to take the choice away from me? I’ll decide for myself.’ ” The headline on the resulting ad read “America Deserves a Choice.”

Ned Kennan tells me all this with such warm delight--with his shaggy gray beard, thick Israeli accent and convoluted Central European sentence structure, he competes with John Scanlon for the role of Sawyer Miller’s most charmingly colorful character--that I truly regret having to reveal something of an attitude problem about “pushing buttons” and “message-testing research.” I needn’t have worried. No matter what skeptical questions I raise--Aren’t you manipulating people? This doesn’t really work, does it?--Kennan remains undaunted.

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“I help people resolve their cognitive dissonance,” he says. “I’m really a roving anthropologist. I must understand society as a whole. I’m really trying to understand culture, how people think, how people feel.” Kennan paces across his office and raises his arms as if to take flight. “That’s what I am,” he says again, this time much louder. “A roving anthropologist.”

Next I visit Harris Diamond, who directs one of the biggest chunks of Sawyer Miller’s business--debt-ridden companies going through difficult corporate restructurings and bankruptcies in the aftermath of the LBO binge. There is a little irony here, for Sawyer Miller previously worked quite hard to polish the image of Drexel Burnham’s junk bonds, which are what led so many of these companies to their present troubles. Now Sawyer Miller’s task is to help the victims of this earlier campaign keep their “constituencies” in line while they slash work forces, divisions and benefits. Efficiencies in this milieu becomes the code word for layoffs. Employees who have watched company leaders become independently wealthy from an LBO only to put the company in a bankruptcy position because of the debt burden need to be “motivated.”

So again, Sawyer Miller does research. “We find out what the employees need to hear, what they need to know, what will motivate them,” Diamond explains. “We often find they want to know someone is in charge, that there’s a game plan. So we need to tell them there is one. The CEO must admit a mistake and explain how he will fix the problem.”

Diamond offers Safeway Stores Inc. as an example. The Oakland-based company hired Sawyer Miller to help in the aftermath of the brutal 1986 buyout, by a Safeway management group and takeover specialists Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., that resulted in 63,000 dismissals and layoffs. “Three years after the downsizing, CEO Peter Magowan was concerned about employee perceptions,” Diamond says. “We did a huge amount of research. We found tremendous concerns among employees about the future. Their company, instead of being No. 1, now was No. 5, and was owned by a company from back East. And Magowan was a multimillionaire from the deal. We approached the problem just as we would a political campaign. We had to show that Safeway will be No. 1 in profit, and that you, the employees, are going to be part of the team that does it. To do this, we designed a Peter Magowan campaign. He had a dozen focus groups with employees, which we filmed and showed to the rest. He held dinners. He went on the road. He sold the creed.” Once again I find myself facing the risk of dampening a Sawyer Miller partner’s enthusiasm. It seems necessary, though, for despite the firm’s efforts, the Safeway buyout remains one of the bloodiest and most reviled in recent times. A Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal series last year found that the LBO had generated a vast bitterness--even among employees handpicked by the company for interviews--and, at least indirectly, several employee deaths due to suicide and heart attacks. Meanwhile, the new owners watched their initial cash investment quadruple to $800 million. It’s hard to say whether a half-hour videotape of a CEO saying he’s sorry and we’re No. 1 would adequately “motivate” employees.

“There is human suffering, yes,” Harris Diamond says. “But efficient markets and businesses mean more wealth for society as a whole than do inefficient ones.” Diamond reflects on his comment for a moment. Now 38, he comes out of Greenwich Village grass-roots politics and campaign consulting for Democrats across the country. “Twenty years ago I would not have said that,” he admits.

Later that day, another Sawyer Miller partner, Ed Reilly, a former undersecretary for environmental affairs and director of policy for two Massachusetts governors, tells me about Sawyer Miller’s campaigns to win community approval for solid-waste energy-conversion plants. First build a coalition for the idea of a plant, Sawyer Miller advises. Sell the elements of safety. Establish the idea of economic benefits. Sell the fairness of the site selection process. Then, and only then, pinpoint the actual site.

“You are never going to get support in local site-specific areas,” Reilly explains. “That’s gone from the start. So you begin by building a broader coalition for the plant. Then you go to the site. You divide it from the rest of the larger community. How? Luncheon circuit, guest columnists, visits with editorial boards, university lectures. In other words, you control the dialogue, instead of letting the activists or the community do so.”

By now I’m feeling like a glum, unwelcome guest at a party everyone else is enjoying. As did the others, Reilly remains thoughtful and sensitive even when I suggest that Sawyer Miller people might be soldiers of fortune, that the company might have a certain disdain for the public.

“We have a good creative tension here,” he says. “We suffer. We fight here over what projects to accept. I hope we’ll always fight. Some nights, I go home very proud. Some nights I go home and wish I hadn’t spent time on that. . . . But I have no problem being part of a company that moves public opinion to reach a goal, if I’m comfortable with that goal. You gotta pass the smell test. We do care about public opinion. At least we give a shit about public opinion.”

SO GOES MOST OF MY WEEK AT SAWYER MILLER. TIME AND again, Sawyer Miller people tell me their stories with great pride and no trace of regret or apology. Their chief hesitancy about my visit stems from a fear of violating certain clients’ desire for privacy, not of revealing their penchant for “moving public opinion.” The downside risk clearly is outweighed in their minds by the chance to get wide exposure in a magazine article and thereby establish themselves as significant players in a growing business. So everyone is available, everyone is amiable, everyone is composed. Do I need more time? Would I like copies of their ads? If their wide-open solicitude masks the fact that I’m listening to their practiced spiels rather than watching them work, as we’d originally arranged, that’s OK--at least I am getting firsthand exposure to their skill at “creating the environment.” And occasionally, a bit of bristly concern and a glimpse of the underlying effort to control do emerge. David Sawyer showers his ex-partner Scott Miller with urgent phone messages when he learns I’m on my way to interview him. “What’s your angle?” inquire no less than five Sawyer Miller partners and directors, some with an edge in their voices, after my questions grow a little pointed; depending on what it is, explains Harris Diamond, he can offer sources to support or refute it. But even this baldly cynical vision of the truth as something shifting and malleable is revealed by Sawyer Miller people with a certain bemused insouciance. All in all, their boundless belief in themselves comes across as remarkably heartfelt.

“No, I don’t think we can manipulate. Mass communication is not a tool of but an obstacle to manipulation. TV empowers people.”

“The networks, the Baby Bells, the banking laws--all these projects involve industries where competition and diversity is stymied by outmoded regulations, so these are consumer-rights issues.”

“We represent the good guys, the white hats.”

“We help corporations develop a kind of soul.”

One young managing director, Lenny Stern, goes so far as to describe the diverse gathering of talent and tasks at Sawyer Miller as a “renaissance.” It sounds corny, he says, “but I’ve always been drawn to government, to public policy, to doing things in a positive way. This is a place that cares about things. You can be effective here. I feel very proud to be part of this place.”

What’s most interesting is that none of the Sawyer Miller people who say these things with straight faces are at all venal or glib or smarmy. They are, rather, thoughtful, informed, involved, witty, sophisticated, stimulating--among the best and brightest. Walking through Sawyer Miller’s corridors, I keep getting introduced to men and women with varying combinations of graduate degrees in international relations, psychology, business administration and law. There are China experts, linguists who speak six languages, seasoned world travelers, lawyers who have jumped from hotshot law firms, veterans of countless Democratic political campaigns, Capitol Hill wizards, onetime divinity students and parochial school teachers, former top advertising and public-relations executives and even an ex-New York Times journalist on hand to write ad copy. (“I’ll break the sentences into fragments, that’ll help lots right off,” he offers when his colleagues call for more “energy.”)

A good number come with progressive credentials of one sort or another. Jack Leslie is a former senior legislative aide and campaign strategist for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Mark Malloch Brown is a former political correspondent for The Economist who worked for four years at the United Nations on international refugee relief issues. Lenny Stern worked for the Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis campaigns. Mark Johnson is a former press secretary for the Democratic Party leadership. Bob Chlopak directed Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Group, Friends of the Earth and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. These are people who have prepared promotions for South American rain forests, for nuclear arms control, for Hands Across America. When the giant public relations firm Hill & Knowlton signed a contract to represent the Roman Catholic Church on the abortion issue, Sawyer Miller volunteered its services to Catholics for a Free Choice.

Disillusionment is one obvious explanation for why all this quality, caring talent now “creates the environment” mainly for people with lots of money who want to reap profits and wield power by polishing their images. It wouldn’t be hard to understand. Sawyer Miller, after all, watched one of its last domestic political campaigns--Harvey Gantt’s noble challenge to Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina--fall victim to a barrage of vicious mudslinging. Sawyer Miller people, though, rarely use words such as “disillusionment.” They instead tend to describe their shifting attitudes as a growth toward “maturity.”

“Centrism and statism are an abysmal failure everywhere,” says Peter Schecter, 32, who grew up in Italy and Latin America, studied international relations at Johns Hopkins and now heads Sawyer Miller’s international division. “Free trade with America is what will work. American business means growth, jobs, affluence. My attitude has changed as I see how the real world works.”

“The notion or image of greedy corporations ripping people off is just too simplistic,” says Mark Johnson, 31, the former Democratic Party spokesman. “All our clients don’t wear white hats. But none wear black hats. There’s lots of gray hats.”

Whatever explanation you accept--and you easily could accept more than one--Sawyer Miller’s evolution surely represents a sign of the times. Addicted to action, power and impact, these are people who have followed the heat--which certainly is not with the Democrats, the public sector or big government just now.

“We are the type of people who like to be involved in decision-making, in matters of importance,” Johnson says. “We can’t do that in government now.”

“Major policy is increasingly decided by corporations, CEOs, boardrooms,” says Chlopak. “In a time of paralysis of government, what affects people? You recognize that the private sector is the place to be. I mean, there’s no other place for me to go.”

One night, sipping wine on the rooftop terrace of his lower Manhattan co-op, taking in the unobstructed views looking northwest toward the city’s skyline and the Hudson River, Mark Malloch Brown begins to address such issues. Then his colleague John Scanlon arrives.

“We were just talking about how all us progressive Democrats have sold our souls,” Brown tells him.

“ ‘Sold your soul’ is a cliche,” Scanlon responds, not missing a beat. His eyes dance, his hands reach for a drink. “Better: ‘What soul?’ ”

OK, forget the selling-your-soul theme, I suggest. But doesn’t Sawyer Miller represent for most of you something of a . . . journey?

Brown’s expression is knowing and amused. “It’s nice to be winners,” he says.

IT WAS IN LATE 1985, JUST AS SAWYER MILLER BEGAN THE SWING into corporate work, that David Sawyer happened to meet Mark Malloch Brown. Then a polished, self-assured, 32-year-old Englishman educated in political economics at the University of Michigan and Cambridge University, Brown was working on a nuclear non-proliferation project that looked as if it were going to be blocked by conservative forces. He needed what he called “communications help,” but knew nothing of firms such as Sawyer Miller. When an intermediary put him in touch with Sawyer Miller, he was impressed, although, as he recalls it, “they had little international knowledge.”

Sawyer was equally impressed with Brown. There’s a role for U.S. consultants in foreign elections, he told Brown. Maybe we can work together. Each began checking around, working contacts, searching for a test case.

Just as with his shift to corporate work, Sawyer was following the market. It wasn’t a new one--for 20 years, Americans had been advising international candidates. But by the late 1980s, political consultants under mounting criticism at home were increasingly turning to foreign locales in search of more encouraging environs--environs, presumably, that did not yet have an attitude problem about market-tested sound bites and the local equivalents of Willie Horton and Pledge of Allegiance slogans.

This sometimes made for embarrassing situations. In 1984, in one early project, Sawyer Miller found itself working for Panamanian presidential candidate Nicolas Ardito Barletta, who enjoyed support in the United States but was also backed by Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega. A year after his election, Barletta was ousted by Noriega, which somewhat dispelled the notion that the election had been the fruit of open democracy and later provided ammunition for the late Republican political strategist Lee Atwater. “We did do media for Barletta, and it’s clear not just good media won that election,” Brown says now. “Noriega kicked out Nicky. It’s clear he (Barletta) was just a front man. When I joined Sawyer Miller, a condition was to terminate our relations with Panama. We did so in March, 1986. “

By then, they’d found their test case--Corazon Aquino’s campaign against Ferdinand E. Marcos in the Philippines. The connection was the acclaimed golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, who knew Sawyer and had designed a golf course for the Aquino family.

With Marcos still in power, Sawyer Miller was blocked in the Philippines and so began bouncing one simple message--"Marcos is incompetent, old, a crook"--off the U.S. news media. When Marcos responded, the Philippines media would cover him, and in doing so would have to repeat Aquino’s charges. The situation was truly bizarre, for Marcos in turn was being represented by the Republican political consulting firm Black Manafort, Stone & Kelly, while on the side Sawyer Miller was occasionally briefing the CIA. “We threw our negatives and blocked theirs,” Brown says, grinning at the memory.

After that, Sawyer Miller’s international division was off and running. The international specialists provided diplomatic strategy for a private Greek Cypriot freedom organization. In Latin America, they directed political campaigns in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia and Chile. When Lithuania declared independence and its prime minister, Kazimiera Prunskiene, came to Washington in May last year, Sawyer Miller helped her navigate the political minefield.

“President Bush didn’t want to see her,” Mark Johnson says. “The Administration offered a low-level State Department contact, and we refused. Instead, we set up a schedule of meetings on Capitol Hill and released facts of this situation. Bush then had to see her, and did. But she was treated rudely at the (White House) gate--she had to walk in, her purse was searched, her brother couldn’t come. I made sure the reporters saw and knew what was happening. “

Johnson tells this last story with great pleasure, and no wonder: Here they were, not just consulting, but brokering a deal. A new age of consulting indeed--much better than mudslinging. Aquino was calling for advice when an earthquake shook the Philippines, Barco Vargas was hosting them in his private study for an entire day, Ted Koppel was negotiating over clients’ “Nightline” appearances. Who else will be on the show with Barco Vargas? Sawyer Miller people demanded to know. What will be discussed? Will he have a monitor? An earphone?

When they talk about all this, Sawyer Miller people can barely contain their glee.

“You go sit with a CEO worrying about business and a candidate worrying about a campaign, and they are talking exactly the same way,” Brown says.

“Standard market researchers are bean counters,” Leslie says.

“We work with senior management--if it’s a policy-making tool, you’ve got to work with policy-makers,” Sawyer says.

Amid this celebratory atmosphere, I feel downright apologetic bringing up the most impolite question of all--about Sawyer Miller’s fundamental effectiveness. There has been a fair share of failures, though. Eduardo Angeloz in Argentina did not get elected; Safeway and Drexel Burnham Lambert and Frank Lorenzo did not emerge with untarnished images; Colombia did not avoid raised eyebrows when drug lord Pablo Escobar surrendered and entered his private luxury prison.

But communication strategists toil on a murky playing field. How do you measure success? Sawyer Miller itself gets tangled up with this question--to potential clients it trumpets its ability to “move the needle,” while to me it insists the public can’t be manipulated. Likewise, Larry Sabato thinks “human beings are frighteningly manipulatable,” but also believes that “corporations rise and fall on the quality of their products, candidates on the quality of their talent.” Welding together his contradictions, Sabato offers a conclusion: “At most, the consultants make a marginal difference. With the real bread and butter issues, you’re not going to change minds with glossy brochures. You can’t change minds with smoke and mirrors. I used to worry about their reach and impact, but after all my research, I don’t anymore.”

Rehearsed phrases and focus group policy-making, in other words, do not have quite the same impact as Boris Yeltsin’s spontaneously exhorting a Moscow crowd from atop an Army tank. The undeniable power of global communications needs a solid core. Which brings us, finally, to the matter of Mario Vargas Llosa and the 1990 Peruvian presidential campaign.

“Well . . . hubris,” is Brown’s answer when asked to explain the cause of Sawyer Miller’s hapless failure last year in Peru. “It showed the limits of what people like us can do, should be doing.”

“A touchy issue,” says Ned Kennan, looking away. “We didn’t really get to understand the people.”

“My painful experience,” sighs Ed Reilly.

Novelist Vargas Llosa had plenty of money to spend and a big lead in the polls. But in the first six months of Sawyer Miller’s consultant work, Vargas Llosa’s ratings dropped by half, from 61% to 32%. To the surprise of most political observers, he only barely edged the obscure Alberto Fujimori in the initial April, 1990, balloting. Then, to even greater surprise, he was swamped by Fujimori in the June runoff.

“Replace the concept of class and class antagonism with the concept of the political consumer,” Brown likes to tell clients. “An election isn’t always some inevitable play of historical forces.” But Sawyer Miller’s vision of a “global electronic democracy” peopled by “political consumers” simply disintegrated in the face of the more familiar realities of socioeconomic class division in Peru. Vargas Llosa and his coterie were affluent, educated, privileged and of light-skinned European stock, while the great majority of Peruvian voters were poor, uneducated, alienated and of dark-skinned Indian stock. It is generally agreed now that Sawyer Miller’s researchers and strategists failed to understand the intensity of this angry division, which they only deepened with an expensive barrage of both negative and soft-focus advertising. (A monkey, as symbol of the state bureaucracy, hanging from the rafters while defecating on a desk and a distant relative of Vargas Llosa singing a “feel good” song were among the most notorious spots). Right up to the moment when runoff exit polls yielded the first evidence of Fujimori’s 20-point landslide, Sawyer Miller still thought Vargas Llosa was slightly ahead or even.

“I would be less than honest if I said we weren’t surprised on election day,” says Reilly. “We were.”

Sawyer Miller “had no idea of what Peru is about,” is the way a Vargas Llosa aide put it to a reporter on election night.

As consultants will do with losing clients, Brown and Reilly direct a fair share of blame toward Vargas Llosa, but they also acknowledge their own failings. “You can put a mass media campaign in place, do polling, but when there is such deep tension, violence and resentment, you become the silly white man scratching the surface,” Brown says.

Of course, Brown can afford to be reasonable, for he knows that consultants don’t necessarily lose when their clients do. “It’s like investment bankers in the ‘80s, where the important thing was to be at the table,” he says with some delight. “It’s the same with us in Peru. It reinforced our image of being a principal player.”

A CRISP ENERGY, full of purpose, courses through Sawyer Miller headquarters these days. Secretaries regularly interrupt meetings to deliver critical phone messages. Appointments are forever being juggled. Knowing references--whom Gephardt lunched with, what Cuomo’s up to--are traded back and forth. The conversations hum.

“No, I can’t go to Madrid on Tuesday, I’m meeting with one of our biggest clients. . . . Any Friday. . . . “

“They’re starting to understand this is broader. . . . “

“We need a hammer to close this.”

“I had to roll two guys . . . “

“A healthy monthly retainer. . . . “

Fees are ample: Sawyer Miller charges some clients flat rates--Vargas Llosa a reported but probably inflated $1 million--while others are billed $150 to $450 an hour, with premiums added, against a minimum monthly retainer of $25,000 to $100,000. Senior partners’ earnings wouldn’t look too bad to most corporate lawyers. The future appears promising: Sawyer Miller’s new Eastern Europe office, based in Hungary, will aim at the expected rash of privatizations. Once Rollins has the Washington office up and running--Sawyer Miller is “in its infancy” there, Rollins allows--he plans to open the California branch in order to pursue the state’s lucrative plethora of referendum campaigns. Sawyer Miller’s competitors, meanwhile, are following similar paths. Those who can’t feel happy about all this just aren’t being realistic. That’s what Jack Leslie tells me: “To live in a dream world, where no one pays attention to facts of mass communication and democratization, is folly.”

Here, finally, is the angle these people would have me adopt--here is how they’d frame the story if the Sawyer Miller Group were their client. The suggestion is at first offered obliquely, but after days of hearing me mutter “layers of meaning” and “complexity” whenever they ask about my “angle,” the Sawyer Miller people are, by week’s end, regularly and with some agitation instructing me that to object to their firm’s rise is to deny democracy itself. “Democracy, that’s what this is about,” Ed Reilly says. “It’s the same process as getting up on a soapbox. You think there’s much more calculation in what we do than in the Lincoln-Douglas debates? In Jefferson’s writings? They’re all tools of communication--of moving public opinion.”

At first, I assume this likening of modern-day communications strategy to the extraordinarily erudite, three-hour-long debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas--this image of Sawyer Miller, up behind a lectern, squared off against, say, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly--is surely meant as playful rhetoric. After all, at the one working session I was allowed to attend all week, I witnessed not a colloquium on public affairs, but an exchange among partners and directors about how to promote Spain’s business interests during the 500-year anniversary in 1992 of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the New World.

This exchange was highlighted by a decision to emphasize Spain’s “vitality” and “vibrancy” rather than its ties to “the past” and “those old boats.” This exchange was also highlighted by the decision to jettison, from a collage of “vibrant images,” a shot of a Hispanic parade in the United States because “people are not going to believe Hispanic Americans are hard-working.”

Nonetheless, David Sawyer himself invokes this Lincoln-Douglas motif once more on my final afternoon at the firm.

“So what are you doing? What are these ‘soldier of fortune’ questions you’ve been asking?” he begins. The mid-July day is all sweltering chaos, over 100 degrees--at Madison and 60th honking taxis careen from curb to curb, huge trucks grind thunderous gears and thousands of people, yanking at their sticky clothing, push desperately for escape--but Sawyer, having bolted from the sleek cool of his nearby office, is weaving obliviously through the melee, shouting over the din as we approach a restaurant for lunch.

“My colleagues have been calling me, saying you’re asking whether they’re soldiers of fortune. What’s going on? What’s your angle? Is this going to be an expose? There’s very sensitive matters here. We rarely do this. I thought. . . . “

Sawyer’s words disappear, swallowed by the general cacophony, for he’s lunged several steps ahead of me. This is an uncommon moment--one of the few during my visit in which the firm’s confident composure falters. By the time we’re reunited, settled at a restaurant table, it is over.

“Most people are going on journeys in their lives,” Sawyer says with regained control. “There’s a natural progression. If Sawyer Miller has evolved, it reflects the evolution of America. That’s why so many bright, diverse people are attracted to Sawyer Miller. They’re here because this is what’s going on. . . . If only I could manipulate, we’d be paid lots of money, but there are so many others out there. I can only try to control the terms of the debate. If I don’t, someone else will.”

Sawyer’s eyes glint as he pauses to appreciate the implications of that notion. “They can’t manipulate because I’m around, and vice versa,” he concludes. “It’s just like the Lincoln-Douglas debates.”

The truth is, as an angle, it works. When you think it over, there’s no denying that Sawyer “has a story to tell,” as his people would put it. Are not he and his ilk indeed the modern-day equivalents of Lincoln and Douglas--what we have, circa 1991, in their place? Yes, exactly. So let’s get with the changing times, let’s not feel troubled by the rise of strategic communications consultants. They are at the parapets, debating each other and thereby keeping the public discourse honest. Trust them, don’t be cynical or snide. They are there, before us, up on the soapbox--even if we aren’t always aware we’re at a speech.


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