Monday, November 24, 2008

Alexander Hamilton

Ah, the ‘Golden Age’ of American politics. Newspapers defined the issues in measured, non-partisan tones while statesmen debated the issues, transcending personal attacks and invective as they traveled the land.

Having just finished Ken Chernow’s fantastic bio of Alexander Hamilton, one thing is clear –

It never happened.

Our gauzy impression of the Founder’s era is wishful thinking. Newspapers back then were vicious, partisan purveyors of every conceivable rumor, easily the equal of today’s Internet, only slower. Meanwhile, the Founders made insider deals in backrooms while engaging in all manner of political skullduggery. Some, including Hamilton and Jefferson, even did “have sex with that woman.”

Make no mistake, though – they were giants. Moreover, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it was an unusual bit of extra ordinary luck for the Founders to exist together in their singular place and time. Charles de Gaulle noted that “The graveyard is full of indispensible men,” but Chernow’s book makes it hard to imagine any of it coming together without George Washington.

Hamilton’s story is a fascinating, distinctly American one. Born to a single mother, he endured an impoverished, tumultuous childhood in the West Indies on St. Croix. But he showed great promise at an early age, and a group of wealthy local merchants pooled their resources to send him to New York to attend what became Columbia University. Hamilton called New York City home for the rest of his life. Today, his life size portrait looms in the background at City Hall whenever the Mayor of New York holds a press conference.

Hamilton had talent and drive in great abundance. He left college when the Revolution began, earning a reputation for bravery in battle, and quickly rose to become Washington’s right hand man at the age of 21. Back in combat, he personally led one of the final charges of the war on British positions at Yorktown.

In Washington’s first term, it was Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, more than any other American before or since, who laid the foundation for our modern American economic system. (Two years ago, when Atlantic Monthly listed the 100 Most Influential Americans in history, Hamilton was ranked 5th, and was the first non-president to be listed.) The clash between Hamilton’s vision of a manufacturing base with a strong federal government and Jefferson’s state-oriented, agrarian outlook defined the politics of the age. Jefferson got more and better ink - both then and now - but today’s U.S. is much more Hamilton’s country than it is Jefferson’s.

Now about that “Golden Age”…

The Founders cut back room deals. In fact, in a small New York room while the city served as the new nation’s temporary capital, Secretary of State Jefferson and Hamilton cut the Granddaddy of all American political back room deals. To bind the states more closely to the central government, Hamilton proposed that the federal government assume and pay the Revolutionary War debt of the states. This was obviously tempting to the states, but Jefferson saw what his colleague was up to. So he agreed to what was called “assumption” – as long as Hamilton agreed to place the new permanent capital in the south, on the Potomac River to be precise. The deal was done.

There was all kinds of maneuvering. Hamilton, with the approval of Washington, worked hard to repair relations with England, seeing trade with the Mother Country as a key way to build a strong economy. Amazingly, at the same time, Secretary of State Jefferson was conspiring with France (where he served as ambassador for many years) to undermine the English, passing along privileged information from cabinet meetings and generally working to thwart Hamilton’s efforts to cultivate them.

They fooled around. Before there was Monica, the widower Jefferson carried on at Monticello with his slave Sally Hemmings, while Hamilton got around as well, despite a loving relationship with his wife that produced several children. One particular dalliance of Hamilton’s with a woman named Martha Reynolds, exploded in public view in 1796 in…

…The vicious, partisan newspapers. Newspapers in those days were political vehicles more than news sources. The Jeffersonian papers reveled in the delicious details of Hamilton’s affair with Mrs. Reynolds. They also “exposed” John Adams’ plan to re-establish the British crown in North America by marrying his son to the daughter of George III. (Don't feel bad for Adams - after a falling out between the two, he rarely missed a chance to point out that Hamilton was, well, a "bastard".) Incredibly, even Washington was the subject of partisan abuse, like any other common pol, during his second term. Meanwhile, the Federalist newspapers denounced Jefferson for the “rape” of his slave.

Tough stuff – never mind Hamilton's deadly duel with Aaron Burr, who at the time was sitting Vice President of the United States!

I highly recommend the Chernow book. It will reinforce how fortunate we have been as a nation, and it will cure you of that longing you’ve had for a Golden Age of American Politics – something that never happened.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Notes on Last Tuesday…

It says something good about America that my kids (ages 9 and 11) don’t even give it a second thought that an African-American has been elected President of the United States.
A sad end for John McCain, a genuine American hero who I voted for twice over the years. It’s troubling that what McCain endured for his country in Vietnam, and how he understands patriotism, are viewed by too many as out-dated relics of an ancient era.

McCain’s defeat recalls this nugget - almost always true - from an old-timer late one night many years ago in a smoke-filled Providence campaign headquarters: “Who wins campaigns? The guy who runs the best campaign!”

George Bush dealt McCain a tough hand. But in both tone and execution, McCain’s effort was unworthy of him. In contrast, Obama’s campaign was the best presidential effort I’ve seen in my lifetime. (How do you quantify that? Obama is the first Democrat to break 51% since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and only the second since Harry Truman in 1948.)

The GOP base McCain inherited from Bush and Karl Rove was a stone around his neck. That base is careening perilously away from the new mainstream in American politics and heading over the cliff into “Fringe Valley”. To placate that base, McCain had to say things he knew better of, and pick the unsettling Sarah Palin. Twenty years ago, when Jesse Jackson was winning Democratic presidential primaries, I used to wonder if a Democrat could say what had to be said to win the nomination and still win in November. Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis confirmed that the answer was "No.” Now, McCain’s campaign makes me wonder if the GOP hasn’t created a similar, self-defeating dynamic.
In my little town of East Greenwich (pop. about 13,000) I had the chance to work with some neighbors on a school bond referendum for a new middle school that proved, again, that a good campaign almost always wins. The amount in question, $52 million, was a daunting amount for a town our size, made even more so by the current economic climate. Further, voters had already rejected a similar plan two elections ago. But starting in the summer, a small, focused group of volunteers began to identify supporters over the phone. This is a grueling process, but one that makes the difference between victory and defeat. In fact, in local races, there is no substitute for phone banking and door-to-door campaigning. It doesn’t matter what else you do: a candidate that doesn’t do those two things might as well just roll the dice. And challengers who aren’t prepared to invest the time and effort in these two things should seriously reconsider running at all.
It was heartening to win with 65% of the vote, particularly with a tiny budget of only a couple thousand dollars raised on the Internet. My old rule of thumb for local races was that the campaign should expect to spend $2 to $4 per voter, with most of that money going to direct mail. But just as the Internet is making mainstream news outlets struggle for relevance, the ‘net is also helping save local campaigns thousands of dollars by allowing them to bypass the Post Office and communicate directly with voters. Direct mail is still an important tool, but in a local race it becomes a lot lower priority – our campaign didn’t do any, and didn’t suffer for it. (We didn’t do any newspaper advertising, either.)
The Rhode Island GOP continues its march to extinction, winning only 10 of 113 legislative seats. Sure, I know New England is rough terrain for Republicans, and I know that the larger turnout in Presidential election years is tough to overcome. Still, I wonder how many of them relied on mail, earned media and other indirect communications to make the kind of personal contact that only doorbells and volunteers on telephones can create.

If you’re not directly touching voters – like Barack Obama or the Taxpayers for EG Schools – you’re probably not running the best campaign. And if you're not running the best campaign, you're probably not winning.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

“Pretty Good” Government

I’m all for “Good Government” (even though “Pretty Good Government” sometimes gets better results), but the recent fracas about the process surrounding the hiring of Providence School Superintendent Tom Brady (one of the best in the business) reminded me of a true story about President Teddy Roosevelt’s seizure of the Panama Canal Zone from Colombia. After the deed was done, Roosevelt asked Attorney General Philander Knox to author a legal opinion justifying the audacious action. To his immortal credit, Knox responded “Mister President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.”

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Red Sox Are. Are You?

In the end, there are two kinds of companies: There’s the “Company Policy” Model. Their answer to any request that deviates even slightly from “Company Policy” is a resounding “NO.”

These are the places that won’t let your six-year old use the clearly visible restroom, even though his bladder is bursting. Why? Because Company Policy says it’s for Employees Only.

(A friend of mine gets even by asking to use the restroom after his purchase has been rung up. If the answer is “no” he puts the wallet away and leaves the merchandise on the counter.)
This isn’t necessarily a characteristic of big companies – this kind of self-defeating behavior is the norm at enterprises of every size. These companies are not centered on the customer. In fact, they seem to give off a vague sense of doing you a favor by taking your money.

The other model is the “Disney World/Nordstrom” model. At these places, they find a way to say “YES.”

Well, add the Red Sox to the Disney-Nordstrom list. Here’s why: We took our two kids to a rainy, damp Fenway Park Friday night. (Wakefield was awesome; Sox win 7-0.) Our seats were a few rows beyond the reach of the overhead cover. When we asked Alicia, the usher, if we could sit in some empty seats under the cover in order to keep out of the rain, she said….YES, without thinking twice. When the ticket holders showed up in the 4th inning (Who shows up in the 4th during a pennant race?!) we moved. By then, the rain had stopped and the night was saved.

Here’s to the Alicia, and the Red Sox, who understand that it’s all about the customers.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

She’s Dead. No She’s Not. No, wait…yes, she is.

Some media moved quickly to correct their erroneous stories (using anonymous sources) announcing the death of an Ohio congresswoman. As soon as the corrections got out, though, she actually died.

Reminded me of my old publisher who said “Be first, but be right.”

And another thing – why would you use an anonymous source in these circumstances in reporting a death? It’s unfortunate, but the rush to declare someone dead puts journalists in an unseemly light.

Monday, July 14, 2008

What’s it worth to you?

After a rough ride on the fast ferry from Quonset Point, RI to Martha’s Vineyard, an unhappy customer took the plane to Providence and a cab back to Quonset to get his car. Once there, he asked the ferry owner for his money back. The ferry owner told him to, basically, pound sand.

From there, the one-way passenger wrote a letter to the Providence Journal. So now, everyone can Google ‘Vineyard Fast Ferry from Quonset Point’ and get all the gory details in the letter which comes up fourth, before you even have to scroll down.

So what do you do? In the old days, “pound sand” was probably a safe answer. Now, the business owner may be better off very quietly refunding the handful of complaints along these lines (and they probably are very few). Refunding a dozen tickets a year is less harmful to the bottom line than having this type of letter on the web. However, once the refund number gets too high, you’d have to rethink things.

Of course, in a world where no good deed goes unpunished (and unpublished), the now happy ex-customer would probably reward your generosity by writing a letter to the paper praising you for graciously refunding their money - unleashing a deluge of similar requests.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

PR Opportunities in Disguise

Opportunities for great PR are everywhere. Take the local business weekly’s annual “40 Under 40” feature where – you probably already guessed it - they honor 40 local leaders who are under 40. Each of the honorees is interviewed, resulting in 40 nice, glowing profile stories in a special section of the paper.

Here’s what I tell my friends who usually make up about half the honorees every year (everybody knows everybody in Providence): What the paper is really doing is giving you an opportunity to help them write a great marketing piece about yourself. After it’s published, the opportunities are endless - post it on your website (company and personal), post it where you use social media, e-mail the link to friends, clients, prospects, etc.

A chance like this makes taking a few minutes to prepare for the interview a good idea. Think of the message you want to relay, then use your answers to reinforce your theme(s).

And one last thing – take a minute to go back and see what the reporter has done in the past. It can’t hurt to mention the “good job” they did on a recent story, or see what questions they’re inclined to ask. (BTW - The ‘Favorite Movie’ question is a perennial for 40 Under 40, so don’t kill the gravitas by blurting out “Talladega Nights!”)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Great American Story

Katie Vongphoumy came to America from communist-ruled Laos in 1982 when she was only 20. She had been trying to get here for a long time. Her first escape attempt as a teenager failed, and she ended up spending two years on a slave labor “farm”, partaking in the utopian paradise created by the winners of the wars of the 1970’s in Southeast Asia . On her next escape attempt, Katie made it to Thailand, and then America. Katie and her husband Sam, also a refugee, settled in Rhode Island and had four daughters. On Monday, their oldest daughter Juliet did something no other girl has ever done – she won the state high school golf championship, beating all the boys by two strokes.

Juliet is only a freshman at LaSalle Academy, and “a peanut” to boot – five feet tall, a shade over 90 pounds. It was funny to hear the discussion on local radio the day after her win: “And she doesn’t even belong to a country club!” Imagine that! Juliet “plays out of” Button Hole, a great place that uses golf to teach inner-city kids important lessons about life (and a client of New Harbor Group). Apparently, you can learn to play just as well at Button Hole as you can at a country club.

Seeing the picture of tiny Juliet playing a shot against a backdrop of trees on the course just reinforced that it’s all about heart. I was grateful to Juliet and her family for reaffirming – again – the American Story: sacrifice, hard work, focus, drive, commitment…success. And it doesn’t matter where you come from.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Innocent? Or Not Guilty?

Some chatter around here about the Providence Journal’s banner headline after two local business execs were acquitted in a high-profile corruption trial proclaiming them “innocent”. Yes, the actual legal term is the less-exculpatory “Not guilty”, but the “innocent” tag has it’s roots in journalistic tradition. Here’s how it was explained to me in my reporting days: back when newspapers were printed with letters or entire words “inked” on little blocks of lead, newsrooms used “innocent” because if the “not” block (of “not guilty”) fell out or malfunctioned during printing, the headline in the next edition would say that the acquitted was “guilty”. There you have it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Show me the Money

What does it cost to run for office in Rhode Island? That’s one of the questions that will be raised at a campaign school for new candidates scheduled for this Saturday. In the General Assembly, this summary of what every candidate raised and spent during the 2006 elections offers a good idea of what kind of fundraising is involved. Minus the leadership, the average House member raised $12,160 in 2006 and spent $15,366 to win. In the Senate (again, less the leadership), the average winner raised $19,621 during the election year and spent $24,090.

Not surprisingly, winning is a little more expensive for newcomers. The four Senate first-termers spent $29,000, $39,000, $40,000 and $50,000 respectively to win. Of the eight House first time winners, four spent between $20-$25,000 and two spent about $10,000. Another, who had held a different office before, spent $8,700. Finally, a first-timer with no opponent spent only $1,265.

Every candidate will tell you that fundraising is the most onerous part of the job. But the numbers – particularly in the state Senate – show that it’s a must, if you’re serious about winning.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Don’t Try This at Home!

Some “unauthorized candor” about Hilary Clinton, coupled with an amateurish attempt to go “off the record” got one of Barack Obama’s advisors bounced from his campaign recently. The advisor, Samantha Power, observed that the junior senator from New York is “a monster, too—that is off the record—she is stooping to anything.” You would think that someone at Power’s level would have known better.

“Off the record” is one of those terms that often gets tossed about too casually – and with dangerous consequences. When we conduct media training for clients, we usually caution against the “off the record” approach. Instead, if there’s something that needs to be conveyed to the reporter without fingerprints, we’ll usually work with the client and the reporter to safely pass the information along without someone poking their personal or professional eye out.

Power’s primary mistake (there was more than one here) was not to get explicit agreement from the reporter about conditions before saying the thing that she didn’t want attributed to herself. Another danger in going “off the record” is that there are numerous variations and interpretations of the term. The lack of clear, universally understood definitions can be very dangerous for the interviewee, who – for a lack of clarity about the agreement - may see their name on-line in minutes next to a quote that could end their career, etc.

One more thing – Powers looks like she’s wasting an “off the record” chip to merely make a personal attack. I’d recommend against that.

Slate did a nice job in considering the ramifications of going “off the record”. The State Department’s web site offers the most succinct summary of the rules I’ve seen (although I have some questions about their definitions).

My advice, in short – don’t try this at home!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Nothing: Often a Good Thing to Do, Always a Good Thing to Say

I rarely suggest that someone decline an interview. After all, with preparation and discipline, an interview can be a good way to deliver your message.

But there are exceptions. For instance, this train wreck on the Today Show where Matt Lauer slices and dices Drew Peterson, the Chicago area cop whose last two wives (he’s had four) have either been murdered (Wife #3) or disappeared(Wife #4). After noting the “coincidence”, the interview gives Lauer an opportunity to matter of factly restate all the evidence against Peterson, and to devastating effect.

Lauer: “How do you respond?”

Peterson: “How can I respond?” or “I can’t respond” or “I don’t know how to respond to that.” Brutal.

But it only gets worse (or better for Lauer) when Peterson’s lawyer sits right next to him, and says more than once “I have to step in here” or “That’s a loaded question.” Next time Drew, while I know it’s good for your lawyer’s business, don’t bring him on the Today Show with you. (Actually, Peterson’s lawyer may be the only guy to benefit from this PR disaster.)
Here’s my question: Why on earth would he agree to this interview?

Well, here’s some experience-based speculation: Sometimes, people get fond of seeing themselves in the media, and forget to ask the basic question “Will this help me or hurt me?” Peterson has shown particularly bad judgment, with a profile in People magazine and an appearance on a radio talk show entitled “Win a Date with Drew Peterson”. Wow.

Peterson may also have fallen for the Today Show producer’s siren song that he would have a chance to “tell your story.” Sometimes, people like Peterson seriously overestimate their ability to talk themselves out of anything. (Here, it’s the job of someone like me to gently say “In reality, you stink at this.”) Also, for this to work, you actually need a good, credible story to tell. In Peterson’s case, not so much.

The only rationale I can think of is the following, and it’s a stretch: let’s say Peterson gets off. This interview will raise his profile in case he writes a book, and, he hopes, increase sales.
Other than that, I’m at a complete loss.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Why the Marines are the Marines

Every great organization has its legends. These stories define the mission and the traditions of the group, and set a standard of performance that current members can strive for. They also encourage others to want to join.

Few groups take more care with their legends than the U.S. Marine Corps. Every Marine knows the stories of the Marines who came before, and no Marine wants to be the one who fails to meet the standard of performance as defined by these legends. Every Marine aspires to be a worthy successor to the Marines who came before.

I’m reminded of this because today marks 63 years since the Marines landed on Iwo Jima in the Pacific during World War II. When the Marines tell their story to new recruits (like me 25 years ago) the story of Iwo Jima is right at the beginning. (The Marines even use video of the famous flag raising on the island in their advertising.)

Telling the Iwo Jima story makes sense for the Marines. It’s a story of great courage. Of the 81 Congressional Medals of Honor (the nation’s highest honor) awarded to Marines in WWII, 22 were awarded for action on Iwo Jima. This is more than for any other battle in American history. The Naval commander Admiral Chester Nimitz said of the Marines on Iwo “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” When you read the citations for the Marines (and five sailors) who received the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima you will see what he meant.

It also makes it clear that the Marines’ central mission is dangerous, sometimes brutal. During the six week battle for the eight square mile island (about the size of Pawtucket, R.I.) 6,800 Americans were killed. One out of three Americans who landed on the island was killed or wounded. All but a couple hundred of the 22,000 Japanese defenders fought to the death.

When I consider Iwo Jima it’s not long before I get to a sense of gratitude and pride. Gratitude towards the men who fought the battle – combined with the pride of knowing that despite all the distractions a prosperous democracy can create, thisnation still produces men and women who are worthy successors of the Marines on Iwo Jima.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

On Second Thought…

We love to complain about “The Media”, but what would happen if there were no journalists and no press coverage? After all, there’s a reason why independent journalists are at the top of government target lists in totalitarian regimes (see; Russia, Zimbabwe, China, etc.). Recently, I worked on a successful anti-recall campaign in a rural New England town, just outside the suburban ring of both Boston and Providence. This geography means that the community in question falls “into the cracks” when it comes to newspaper coverage.

Officially, the town is covered by three dailies (and a monthly shopper). But the reality is that it is too far from the center of each paper’s gravity to get much daily coverage. The journalists at the three papers, all skilled and conscientious, just didn’t have the time to make covering this town a high enough priority to matter. The result of this diminished scrutiny on the local body politic was interesting. Some folks saw an opportunity to cut governmental and political corners that they might not have if the possibility of daily scrutiny was higher. The caliber of political discourse and the degree of accuracy in town politics declined as well, while the local police department was outwardly political in a way that I had never come close to seeing before. And almost all of this went uncovered, falling like a tree in the forest.

So complain if you will – and there’s plenty to question – but a brief foray into a world without (much) media scrutiny reminded me of Churchill’s wry defense of democracy – it has it’s drawbacks, but it’s better than the alternatives.

While we’re here, a couple things worth reading – in “The Media”:

- Christoper Hutchens considers the role of his writings in the decision of a young soldier to enlist – and that soldier’s death in Iraq.

- The New York Times makes the case for the rule of law as central to the American Ideal.

- The Providence Journal’s Froma Harrop exposes the tawdry “value proposition” of the Spears Family Business.

- An extreme rarity: a thoughtful, reasoned piece about immigration.