How Could a Meeting Like Trump Jr.’s Happen? Easy: Campaigns Are Circuses.

By Craig Shirley | July 21, 2017 | 1:47pm EDT
Donald Trump, Jr. (Wikimedia Commons Photo)

What seems inexplicable on the outside looks like just the usual chaos to insiders.

Many years ago, a friend of mine — let’s call him Ed — was managing a congressional race. He was interviewing a young woman for a job with the campaign. While perusing her resume, Ed asked her if she had any special skills. Unhesitatingly, she replied, “Yes. I’m clairvoyant.”

Taken aback, Ed asked if she could give him a demonstration, and again she replied yes, and, as a demonstration of her talents, she said, “I see the two of us in that motel down the street making love this afternoon.”

Ed later told me, “And you know what? She was right!”

When I heard of the meeting Trump campaign staffers had with a Russian lawyer last year, like many of my brethren who have worked in campaigns, I was not surprised.

Weirdos and politics go together like peas and carrots: Strange, bizarre meetings. Strange, bizarre people. Clandestine operations. Inexplicable decisions. Things that in the light of day look strange, but in the heat of the moment seem perfectly rational. People often do things in politics that later can’t be explained. At least not always reasonably.

Years ago, an old campaign operative told me, “In politics, you can be an adulterer or a drunk. I chose to be a drunk.” Normal?

My wife Zorine was the finance director for a campaign many years ago that held a fundraiser where Jack Kemp was the special guest. The event, in Arizona, was designed to be a good, old-fashioned western hoedown with dancing and booze. Problem was the fundamentalist holy rollers supporting the campaign objected to the dancing and drinking. So they had the event, but with no booze, no dancing, and no fun. Campaign staffers are often more important than campaign plans.

There are constant gaffes like that in politics: In 1972, George McGovern was campaigning in New York City, where he went into a kosher Jewish deli and ordered a “glass of milk” to go with his corned-beef sandwich. That same year, his running mate, Sargent Shriver, was campaigning in a blue-collar bar and ordered drinks on the house, earning praise from the working-class patrons. That is, until he ordered a snifter of Courvoisier for himself.

Outsiders will never understand what insiders really know about campaigns. The best stories will never be written or see the light of day. “Campaigns are garbage moving in the right direction,” quipped longtime GOP operative Eddie Mahe. If you’ve worked in politics long enough, you’ve seen it all, from candidate’s wives deflowering young male staffers to shysters selling the magic formula for making candidates younger to Lothario candidates who kept inviting female staffers to join them in a hot tub. I was bemused by a recent story written by a longtime scribe for the Weekly Standard giving all sorts of free advice to the GOP. Humph. Reporters like to play-act at being campaign operatives, but until you’ve worked inside a campaign, you will never know what it is really like.

In 1964, the story goes that old man Igor Sikorsky, millionaire founder of Sikorsky Aircraft and a right-winger’s right-winger, was convinced the way to get Barry Goldwater elected president was to stop poor people from voting. He hired a couple of GOP operatives to seed the clouds over Philadelphia so it would rain — the theory being poor people didn’t vote when it rained. The day of the election dawned, and it was bright and clear over Philly. Meanwhile, the boxes of flaky dry ice they’d purchased to seed the clouds had coagulated into chunks. Their plane, a DC-3, took off and chased the few wisps of clouds over the City of Brotherly Love. Out of the cargo hold, they threw the chunks of dry ice at the few small clouds. “Do you think this will work?” said one of the crew. Replied Sikosky’s hire, “I don’t know, but maybe we’ll hit a few.”

The fabled pollster and political consultant Arthur Finkelstein has seen it all over the years. Finklestein always had a bias against using billboards in campaigns. He’s said this up front to many a candidate, often followed by an argument. Candidates love to see themselves on billboards, but one particular client of his agreed with the strategy. This candidate, too, eschewed billboards, but then told his pollster how he would win: “Potholders! With my name on them!”

Years ago, Newt Gingrich thought he’d broken new ground with a mobile campaign office. The young man he hired to drive it around the district quickly discovered he could have afternoon assignations without the cost of a “no tell” hotel room. The Winnebago was often spotted around the district parked in a grocery store lot, its springs bouncing to the beat of “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees, thus giving new meaning to the old campaign adage, “Politics is motion.”

The failed 1980 presidential campaign of California Gov. Jerry Brown was a movable laugh riot. When not eating raw cauliflower, he was doing things like telling supporters there was no such thing as a free lunch, at the very time he was plying them with … a free lunch. When not campaigning, “Governor Moonbeam” was often seen loitering around a Zen palace in the Golden State.

In 1982, a year after the attempt on his life, Ronald Reagan was on Air Force One on a campaign swing, dressing in his favorite suit, which was charitably described as “purple plaid.” Nancy Reagan hated the suit and began in on her husband, telling him how much she loathed it. She attempted to drag deputy chief of staff Mike Deaver into the crossfire, but he refused, saying, “I’m sick of the subject! I’m sick of talking about it!” Reagan pleaded how much he liked to wear it until Nancy said, “Oh yeah? Mike, tell the president what the staff says about his suit!” Reagan looked at Deaver and said, “Mike, what does the staff say about my suit?” Deaver replied, “Mr. President, the staff says if you were going to be shot, why couldn’t you have been shot wearing that suit?”

To paraphrase an old educator and philosopher, “Those who can, do, those who can’t, become over-the-top bell ringers.” Many will never know how fun it really is. Or how a silly little meeting with a Russian lawyer could possibly be just that — a silly little meeting and nothing more. The bystanders and alarmists scream the sky is falling, it seems, to give a little excitement to their otherwise mundane and limiting lives.

Stu Spencer, a longtime political adviser to Reagan, once said, “Working in politics is like running away and joining the circus.” And indeed, it is. It’s just not for everybody.

So the Trump campaign hands should pay these critics no mind. They will never know how much fun it is to be in the crazy arena, to know victory and defeat.

Craig Shirley is the author of four books on Ronald Reagan, most recently "Reagan Rising." His new book "Citizen Newt" is scheduled for release in August 2017.


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