The people running Bill Clinton’s campaign for President would prefer you didn’t know about Mort Engelberg. Engelberg, 54, is a nice fellow--smart, articulate and passionately devoted to the candidate he has served since last fall.
But Engelberg is a Clinton advance man. And in the world of modern politics, advance men are somewhat like secret agents--people whose very existence is best concealed for the sake of the mission.
Consider the risks of exposure.
Advance artists are a campaign’s field scouts and minesweepers. Working several days ahead of the candidate’s schedule, they ensure that each rally, each speech, each pause along the trail is marked by huge, squealing crowds, an inviting setting and flawless logistics.
If their painstaking efforts were unmasked--if the public knew that elaborate choreography, not a candidate’s magnetism, often accounts for a successful campaign event--then the spectacle might seem fake, the politician little more than a carefully placed prop.
“The key to the job,” explains Andy Paven, an advance man for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, “is to make everything seamless and, above all, to stay invisible.”
Mort Engelberg has mastered this trick, which is not too surprising given his trade. Engelberg is a Hollywood movie producer, and his keen eye, resourcefulness and unflappable style have made him a vital leader of the Clinton advance team.
For more than a year, Engelberg has volunteered for the Arkansas governor, taking a break from his lucrative career in the film business to live an advance man’s nomadic, caffeine-driven life on the road. It is not his first such stint--he did the same for Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Dukakis in 1988.
But this run for the White House has brought Engelberg considerable acclaim--particularly for the July bus tour Clinton and running mate Al Gore took through part of America after the Democratic Convention in New York.
Conceived by Engelberg and several other staffers, the six-day journey was designed to extend the fizz and momentum bubbling forth from the convention. Delivering the candidates to cornfields, town squares and truck stops, the camera-friendly tour reinforced their image as regular guys concerned about the struggles of regular Americans.
“The bus tour was a home run,” declared Jim King, whose 30-year advance man resume includes Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. “Mort has an extraordinary eye. He saw the chance to put the candidate with real people in real places and it worked.”
Mickey Kantor, Clinton’s campaign chairman, agreed. “Mort is an extremely creative person,” said Kantor, who recruited Engelberg and has known him since they were boys growing up in Tennessee. “Unlike most of us, he can conceptualize an event--see it and feel it--and figure out how to make it look right.”
Engelberg dismisses such praise. His self-effacing manner is among the first things one notices about the man: He may be a Mercedes-driving movie mogul, but this is a person who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight. “Advance work is really like plumbing, and I’m just one tiny cog in this big, big operation,” he says with a flip of his hand and a humble half-grin. “The important thing is the candidate and what he’s saying.”
Few would disagree. But what if an advance man stumbles? What if the sound system fails, a setting sun makes the candidate squint, the motorcade breaks down or passing air traffic drowns out a speech? These may seem like minor mishaps, but they are the stuff of advance man migraines. One such glitch can stain or spoil a campaign appearance, leaving a poor impression that can be hard to shake.
Occasionally, the consequences are far more grave. Take, for example, one of the classic advance horror stories, the one in which Dukakis tried to look tough by putting on a helmet and climbing in an M-1 tank.
“There are a few of these legendary nightmares we old advance people always talk about, and the tank is one of them,” Engelberg said, practically shuddering at the memory. Engelberg says he was not involved in the tank ride, an event at which few Dukakis veterans even admit to being present.
“He looked silly in that tank, but they were trying to make a statement about Dukakis and defense, so it seemed logical. It just proves that you don’t always know what the picture will say,” Engelberg said.
(The Republicans gleefully used the footage as grist for their campaign ads, and some observers estimated that the gaffe cost Dukakis 10 points in the polls.)
On a recent September Saturday, Engelberg savored a rare break from the campaign grind at his modest white house in the Hollywood Hills. He looked tired--his sad-dog, blue-gray eyes appearing a bit bleary beneath a thatch of thinning gray hair. A slight paunch hung from his tall frame--traveling has separated him from his Exercycle--and he smoked heavily but guiltily, using a curled palm to swipe repeatedly at fugitive puffs floating toward a visitor.
With harpsichord music as his soundtrack, Engelberg sipped an iced coffee and sought to explain why he would sacrifice the comfort and glitz of movie making for the anxiety, stale pizza and sleep deprivation of a political campaign.
“For one thing, it’s not entirely altruistic,” he said, calling the work “therapeutic” and “wonderful relief” from Hollywood. “L.A. is a one-industry town, and everything here is ‘how did your picture do’ or ‘how did your friend’s picture do’ or ‘are you gonna make this deal or that deal?’
“You have one constituent in the movie business and that’s yourself. Whereas in politics--and I know this sounds pretentious--but politics is about something. Picking the next President, that’s a pretty important thing.”
Early on, it also felt like a difficult thing for Engelberg and other Clinton loyalists. When Clinton launched his campaign last October, he was “really an unknown--a governor from a small state whose candidacy didn’t seem to make sense on paper,” Engelberg recalled.
“There was a campaign organization there, but not much of one--you were lucky if you could get picked up at the airport. . . . It was lonely and it was frustrating. I had become convinced this was the man who should be President and it took awhile for the world to catch on.”
Now, however, the mental scrapbook is filled mostly with positive moments. One came on the first night of the post-convention bus tour, in the town of York, Penn.
Clinton’s 28-vehicle convoy--scheduled to arrive at their York hotel at 8 p.m.--was three hours late. No advance promotion had been done for the hotel arrival, Engelberg said, but when the cavalcade arrived “there were almost 4,000 people standing there in the heat in the middle of the night, just waiting.
“That was a real high point, because it became clear to me that there was some magic going on with these guys (Clinton and Gore) that had nothing to do with me,” Engelberg said. As the crowds continued to exceed expectations along the bus route, he started “a running joke with a CNN reporter, who said all these people were actors we’d hired to follow us from place to place. Well, I’d like to take credit for the crowds, but I can’t.”
Engelberg is not hugely famous in Hollywood, but the movie business has been good to him. The first film he produced was “Smokey and the Bandit,” the 1977 Burt Reynolds-Jackie Gleason hit that was a giant moneymaker. (“It’s certainly not Citizen Kane,” Engelberg says, “but I guess it struck a chord.”)
His credits also include “The Big Easy,” “Russkies,” a Steve McQueen movie called “The Hunter” and more than a dozen other pictures.
Before his cinema days, Engelberg spent a few years as a journalist before moving to Washington in 1961 to work for the director of the newly formed Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver. Later, he followed Shriver to the Office of Economic Opportunity, the headquarters of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and the spark for Head Start, VISTA and other landmark programs.
In 1967, Johnson’s domestic initiatives began suffering under the funding strain caused by the Vietnam War, so Engelberg left, signing on with MGM. He later worked for United Artists, assisting on numerous James Bond films.
As the campaign winds into its final weeks, thoughts of the future are spinning through the minds of all Clinton staffers, who are betting their candidate will be the next White House tenant and wondering where they might fit in. After past campaigns, Engelberg always returned happily to Hollywood. This time, he’s not sure where he’ll land.
“The joke is that maybe there will be a new Cabinet position--secretary of the movies--and I might do that,” he says. “In all seriousness, nothing has been offered and I don’t know what I’d do if something was. But it’s going to be an exciting time in Washington, with a lot of dynamic, innovative people. So who knows?”