Bush adviser puts friendship before party ties
Once a rising star in the Democratic Party, Mark McKinnon may be the key to President Bush’s re-election campaign.
ARLINGTON, Va.--Mark McKinnon’s friends and colleagues were shocked when they found out early in the 1998 campaign season what he was doing.
McKinnon -- a former rabble-rousing, anti-fraternity student journalist at the University of Texas and a songwriter who once hit the road with Kris Kristofferson -- had signed up for a spotlight role with Gov. George W. Bush’s re-election effort.
At first, McKinnon couldn’t believe it himself. He was a tried-and-true Democrat. A long-haired, guitar-playing liberal.
What was he doing here? But to his own surprise, McKinnon’s ideological differences with Bush ended up not really mattering to him, or to the governor. When the two met in 1996, “we just immediately connected,” says McKinnon, who describes Bush as a “mentor in my life.” McKinnon specialized in positive TV ads that captured the humanity of candidates, and he had come to believe that character mattered more than policy positions. He liked what he saw in Bush.
Now, as the 2004 presidential campaign starts to kick up dust, he wants voters to see the same thing he sees in his Republican friend.
“I think if you sat down President Bush in a living room with some people for an hour and then sat Senator Kerry down for an hour, we’d win hands down,” he says, leaning back in his office at the Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters. “So I want to put him in more virtual living rooms.”
McKinnon, who is in charge of the president’s TV advertising, has over the years made a lot of people comfortable with having politicians in their living rooms. In 2000, he helped fashion Bush’s “compassionate conservative” image, showing the candidate in diffused light with a group of Little League ballplayers or blowing a line in a speech and then cracking up about it -- a regular guy with the kind of values that we like to think built America.
So far this year, however, McKinnon has been sent in an entirely different and darker direction, one with which he’s a lot less at ease. How he pulls it off will probably play a big role in November’s outcome.
A surprising friendship
McKinnon didn’t have to know George W. Bush to know that he didn’t like him. In 1988, McKinnon worked for Michael Dukakis during the Massachusetts governor’s unsuccessful presidential campaign against Bush’s father. That race, in which the younger Bush was intimately involved, left a bad taste in McKinnon’s mouth, especially the infamous Willie Horton ad about the Massachusetts prison furlough policy.
“I thought it went over the line,” McKinnon, now 48, says of the ad. “I thought the issue was a fair one. But I thought the construction of the ad was designed to incite racism.”
So when McKinnon shook hands with George W. Bush nearly a decade later, he planned on being cordial, and then moving on.
“I met him at a dinner,” he remembers. “He had been doing things that were a surprise for a Republican. On education, on immigration -- not your typical burn-everything-down Republican agenda like Gingrich. But I still went in with my guns loaded, not expecting to like him. But we just immediately connected. It really wasn’t about politics. He talked a lot about his family and his girls.”
At the time, McKinnon had recently gotten out of politics, taking a job at Public Strategies, an Austin-based corporate public relations firm. He had been a rising star in Democratic Party politics, but he wanted to do something uplifting, maybe make a documentary about education.
Public Strategies founder Jack Martin says of McKinnon, “He’s not a hater -- he’s a wonderfully nice human being.”
In a list of “Rules for Life” that McKinnon created for his two teen-age daughters, No. 3 was: “Be kind. There is no excuse or rationale for cruelty to others.” This positive nature put McKinnon at odds with what by the mid-1990s had become the prevailing ethos in American politics.
On top of that, having spent most of a decade on the road working on campaigns, he wanted to be home with his daughters and his wife, Annie, his high-school sweetheart, whom he calls “a guiding force in my life.”
“It’s one of those corny things where I can still remember the first time I saw her, walking down the stairs at East High School [in Denver], and I fell in love with her that second,” he says of his wife of more than 20 years.
It took a unique friendship with the governor of Texas to get him to return to the campaign trail in 1998. “I would say initially it was almost like a mentoring relationship, family-wise, him giving me advice about raising kids,” McKinnon says.
The friendship had a profound effect on McKinnon. “I would have been surprised if he’d gone back [to politics] in any other set of circumstances,” says Martin, “but I watched from the very beginning the bond that formed between Mark and George Bush, which really was and is personal. When he gets criticized by Democrats [for working for Bush], he absolutely doesn’t comprehend it. In his mind, this is about people and relationships and love, how he feels about others.”
There is a disconnect whenever Mark McKinnon talks tough. He certainly doesn’t look tough. He has a slight build and the kind of soft, empathetic eyes that surely turned more than a few girls’ knees to jelly when he was a student at UT. He is mellow, a folk musician by nature and experience, having written songs -- when he was still a teen-ager -- for Kristofferson.
But make no mistake: McKinnon is tough. He celebrated his 40th birthday by competing in a triathlon, and he earned George W. Bush’s respect by pushing the then-governor, always a fitness buff, to his limits during long runs in Texas’ brutal summer heat.
So far in the 2004 presidential campaign, McKinnon has needed every ounce of that toughness. In a strategy devised by Bush advisers Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Matthew Dowd, McKinnon has been charged with making TV ads that define for the public what John Kerry is all about. It hasn’t been pretty.
In an ad titled “Weapons,” which was recently released in swing states (few ads have appeared in Republican-safe Texas), soldiers lope in slow motion across a forbidding desert landscape as a portentous voice, familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a movie trailer, intones: “As our troops defend America in the war on terror, they must have what it takes to win.”
These troops, however, don’t. Their Bradley fighting vehicle dissolves into nothingness right before their eyes. A missile launcher disintegrates into a cloud of sand. A B-2 stealth bomber sweeps into view like an obelisk and -- poof! -- also disappears, leaving the soldiers exposed and vulnerable. The voice-over drones on: “John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror. ... [He] even voted against body armor for our troops on the front line of the war on terror.”
As the ad ends, a soldier in the foreground turns toward the viewer, his eyes imploring. By this point, we can read his mind: Don’t let John Kerry do this to us.
McKinnon isn’t about to back down from the charges the ad hurls -- even as he acknowledges that the spot can be easily misinterpreted.
“We say on that vote Kerry voted against the $87 billion for those troops,” McKinnon says, referring to the military funding bill last fall that Kerry voted against. “I don’t think anyone thinks that, as a combat veteran, he’s not for those things generally. But as a senator you’ve got to stand up and vote. You’ve got to live with your votes. That’s politics.”
That is politics, and a lot of people don’t like it. The New Yorker magazine has called Bush ads like “Weapons” “patently unfair and intellectually dishonest.” Kerry’s campaign points out that the senator voted for a large defense-budget increase in 2002 and has backed 16 of the 19 defense authorization bills since he’s been in the Senate, bills that total “more than $4.4 trillion in defense spending.”
None of which matters to McKinnon.
Attack ads, for Democrats and Republicans alike, are about scoring points, not context or substance. For McKinnon’s purposes, the last vote is the only one that counts. He doesn’t care whether Kerry’s was a protest vote against the administration’s overly optimistic pre-war cost estimates of the Iraq invasion and occupation or whether the senator simply hit the “No” button by accident.
“The bottom line is, there was an up or down vote to fund those troops in combat, and he voted not to fund the troops,” McKinnon says. “I think that is an absolutely legitimate charge.”
So much for folk songs
Growing up in Denver, McKinnon was obsessed, but not about politics. “Politics was never a topic of conversation around the house,” says his brother, Chris. What was a topic of conversation was music -- their baby sitter for a time was folk singer Judy Collins -- and McKinnon couldn’t get enough of it. He started playing guitar at a young age, and he was good enough by the time he was 16 that Kristofferson invited him out to Nashville. He went, without asking his parents.
McKinnon had some success -- he won the songwriting competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1975 -- but it didn’t take him long to realize that he didn’t have Kristofferson’s talent. After a few years of “playing around Texas and the Southwest in different permutations of bands,” he reluctantly enrolled at UT.
“I had a great time with it,” McKinnon says of his teen-age troubadour days. “I did it 100 percent, and then one day I looked up and realized I was probably on an arc to be headlining at the Holiday Inn in Round Rock when I was 45, so maybe I should try something else.”
That “something else” has given him a good life in Austin, with Annie and the girls and a small stake in a downtown nightspot. Democrats worry that, with the $50 million Bush ad blitz this spring and much more to come, it will also help secure the president a second term.
But in spite of Democrats’ cries of foul, it’s not clear that the ads have worked. After two months of relentless attacks from the Bush campaign, Kerry’s poll numbers have dropped only 5 to 10 points from his post-primaries high, with the latest Gallup poll putting him as the favored candidate of 49 percent of likely voters. Bush’s numbers, meanwhile, have held mostly steady during the ad blitz, with the Gallup poll listing him at 48 percent.
One lesson suggested in the poll numbers is that flag-waving and attacking the opponent are not enough.
That’s why McKinnon doesn’t think that “Bush as war president,” which is reportedly Karl Rove’s preferred emphasis, is necessarily the best theme to put forward, regardless of how things are going on the ground in Iraq.
“The one thing that people see about him all the time is the strong leader,” McKinnon says. “People believe that. I don’t think anyone is going to successfully make the case that he’s not a strong leader. That’s in the DNA, that’s baked into the pie. So we don’t have to do as much of that. The part of him that people don’t see as much is the real human person who is compassionate and human. I like to show that.”
This is the kind of message that McKinnon excels at crafting, and one that he feels deeply when it comes to Bush. In an article he wrote for Texas Monthly last year, McKinnon insisted that the “most successful political commercials today are ones that no one would even guess are political commercials. They’re more like documentaries -- they’re 30-second glimpses of a candidate’s soul and heart.”
Rod Kennedy, the founder of the Kerrville Folk Festival and a former Republican political consultant, hopes McKinnon gets back to such 30-second glimpses soon. “I don’t like the Bush ads so far,” he says. “It’s pretty early to go negative. I think if [Bush] would just concentrate on himself, he’d do a lot better.”
He might be on to something. It’s possible that turning McKinnon loose not on Kerry but on the man McKinnon’s come to admire -- a man whose friendship brought him, a lifelong Democrat, into the Republican fold -- could make the difference in what could be a very close election.
– By Douglas Perry, published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2004