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Review: Alpha Dogs, by James Harding

This article appeared in The Herald

It seems a little incongruous, even in this day and age, to find a book written by an Englishman – the editor of the Times, no less – so obviously couched in American phrasing and idioms. Yet not only is Alpha Dogs written for the American market, it is about the rise, in America, of a caste of professional strategists in politics and how they came to wield power in political campaigns around the world. Ultimately, it is about the homogenisation of the electoral process. The non-American reader might puzzle over a term like “lunch-bucket Democrat” but as Harding states, we are all fans of the West Wing now.

Whether that’s true, literally, the point is we all get what’s going on in politics. As citizens, we may absorb political messages but we also recognise the ways in which they are spun. The calculation behind each political move is analysed by journalists perhaps more even than policy itself. We see the hand of the image-maker and, by and large, we disapprove. Politics is a grubby business and the men of whom Harding writes, the pioneering “alpha dogs” of the firm Sawyer Miller, now feel guilty for having helped to make it more so. Disenchantment with democracy is the backdrop to their tale. As Scott Miller, an erstwhile copywriter and one of the founding partners in the group alongside David Sawyer, originally a documentary film-maker, comments: “We helped to make politics more crass.”

Yet as the men who would coalesce around Sawyer Miller in the 1980s honed their trade in the preceding decade, they were driven not by cynicism but by idealism. They believed in a new “electronic democracy” which would empower voters and challenge old party elites. They were thrill-seekers and adventurers, drawn by the lure of making money and making a difference; clever raconteurs and bon viveurs who were convinced the spunk of advertising and the wisdom of psychology could be applied to winning elections.

Sawyer Miller – monogamously Democratic in America – never once backed a candidate who made it to the White House (although several of its staff would go on to work for Bill Clinton in 1992 and then help the Labour Party to get elected in Britain by persuading it to eschew the doctrinaire left). Nonetheless they helped forge a prodigious modern industry, had greater global reach than any of their rivals and, importantly, reached deep into the world of business.

It was Mark McKinnon, a Sawyer Miller staffer who went on to run the advertising campaigns for George W Bush in 2000 and in 2004, who coined the phrase “alpha dogs.” Harding pinpoints its ambivalence, hinting as it does “at the brilliant and the dastardly, the inspiring and the manipulative,” and he betrays both relish and revulsion as he introduces us to a cast of men adept at qualitative polling, drafting simple messages and “going negative.”

The central figure is Sawyer, a suave New England aristocrat and New York clubman who we first meet cutting his teeth on television spots for the opposition Social Christians in oil-rich Venezuela in 1972. Sawyer and his associates learned their trade as they went along, both at home and abroad. In 1978 they engineered the re-election of Boston’s unloved mayor Kevin White by portraying his opponent, Joe Timilty, as lightweight. In 1984, the Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale proved to be unelectable as he refused to respond to the revolution in leadership wrought by Ronald Reagan. And Shimon Peres was another politician who failed to grasp the new personality politics being urged upon him.

Sawyer Miller’s breakthrough overseas was to come in 1985 with the ousting of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. The successful portrayal of Cory Aquino, in her own words “a housewife”, as a totem of peaceful democratic revolution, opened doors for the firm around the globe and in 1988 they assisted in the overthrow of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

Ultimately, however, the company lost its way as it became less and less scrupulous about who it supported. In the early 1990s it was tarred by association with governments in countries with records of serious human rights abuses, including Nigeria and Panama. It had also lost its soul, according to some staff, by involving itself in time-consuming work for corporate clients, often companies being investigated for fraud. Miller left and Sawyer was ousted by a group of four senior executives, who then went on to sell the company into a merger with an advertising firm. And they went on merging it with other agencies until they had built the biggest public relations company in the world: Weber Shandwick. As Harding notes, in little over a dozen years, Sawyer Miller made the journey from the idealistic to the banal.

Spin doctors have long since joined our political elites. If Harding teaches us anything it is that they are also now incumbents of a sort. The nature of what displaces them may well dictate the future of democracy.

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