BEFORE HE EARNED his reputation as one of the best ad men in politics, before he wrote for several major television shows, and long before he became Mitt Romney’s top campaign strategist, Stuart Stevens found himself in Cameroon, face to face with a machine-gun-wielding soldier looking to shake him down. It was 1988, and a few weeks earlier, Stevens had deposited himself in the nearby Central African Republic to pick up a friend’s Land Rover and drive it back to France. But the trip was a disaster from the get-go. Local officials confiscated the car and refused to release it. Weeks passed before he could find a roadworthy replacement. By the time Stevens finally got moving, he discovered that his maps were unreliable, the roads nearly impassable, and the local bureaucrats inhospitable. Distances drivable within a few hours in the United States gobbled up days.
And then Stevens arrived at a military roadblock in Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital. “When [the soldier] jerked the bag from my hands and spat, ‘Open!,’ tottering back on his heels, I realized he was drunk,” Stevens wrote in his book Malaria Dreams. Stevens surveyed the soldier’s comrades; they were all drunk. Soon the two men were locked in a tense back-and-forth, with the soldier lifting each possession from his briefcase, and Stevens shaking his head no. Eventually, the soldier settled on a tape recorder. “You give to me!” he shouted, snatching the device. Stevens stopped his hand. “Twelve hours ago I would have parted with a small item, say the three-dollar penlight,” he explained, “but now I was steeled to see it through.” They stared at each other; the other soldiers stiffened. Finally, Stevens’s African driver had the sense to slip the looter a bribe, and the showdown ended. The soldiers waved the car through.
“I found myself enjoying the moment,” he wrote of the snag. “Everyone had said I was crazy to go to Africa, that there were dangerous sorts of people and situations worth avoiding. Now, at least, I’d found a bit of both.”
The story has all the elements of a classic Stevens tale: exotic scenery, surly natives, a faint whiff of violence, and, of course, a slightly preposterous hero. As an adolescent in an affluent, liberal enclave of Jackson, Mississippi, Stevens idolized British travel writers like Evelyn Waugh and Peter Fleming (brother of Ian) because their stories offered a temporary escape from the provincialism of the Deep South. These authors would implant themselves in the harshest locales on the planet with little knowledge of the terrain or culture, even less in the way of equipment, and no particular expertise in survival. (Graham Greene’s contribution to the genre is titled Journey Without Maps.) And yet somehow they would always find their way back to civilization with a wry expression and a charming narrative to convey.
It is impossible to miss the influence of these writer-adventurers on Stevens, who has published three books about his journeys across Europe, Asia, and Africa. In 1984, he decided to complete all ten races on the Worldloppet circuit, a series of cross-country ski marathons, in a single eight-week stretch. Twice, he finished a race on a Saturday afternoon and had to catch an overnight, transatlantic flight to compete in another one Sunday morning. In preparation for the legendary Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race, a 1,200-kilometer odyssey, he once put himself on an elaborate steroid regimen and documented the experience for Outside magazine. In 1997, he published Feeding Frenzy, a chronicle of his month in Europe dining at each of the 29 restaurants with claims to three Michelin stars. “It seemed like a ridiculous notion,” Stevens told Charlie Rose. “I think by doing things to excess, you kind of, like, can crack them open and have fun.”
Stevens approaches politics the same way: as an all-consuming, quasi-physical challenge that he can play for laughs when the election’s over. Though his sensibilities suggest a faint Toryism—in his travel books, he periodically bemoans the influence of modern civilization and its corollary, the bureaucratic state—he is far too idiosyncratic a character to embrace an ideology or align with a movement. “Stuart prides himself on being not captive to any particular interest,” says Rachel Klayman, his editor, who recalls Stevens telling her he planned to vote for Barack Obama in 2008. (“Rachel’s a great editor and is passionate in supporting the president. But I have never voted for a Democrat and didn’t vote for Obama,” says Stevens, who otherwise declined to comment for this piece.) If the reigning fashion is to view elections as life-or-death struggles, Stevens, who doesn’t even regard matters of life and death as life-or-death struggles, sees them as an exhilarating form of sport.
Which makes it all the more peculiar that Stevens has been directing strategy for Mitt Romney, perhaps the most cautious homebody of a candidate in recent memory—a candidate who has never tempted a Cameroonian firing squad, but who, as head of Bain Capital, was known for flapping his tie to signal his accelerating heartbeat over underperforming deals. It’s a shock that the two men can hold a conversation, much less partner on a presidential campaign. But the truth is that, deep down, Stevens and Romney aren’t so different after all. And therein lies the problem.
MOST POLITICAL CONSULTANTS refer to Washington as if it were some far-off province they could barely find on a map, even as they secretly delight in their Beltway existence. That’s not the case with Stevens. Although his firm, The Stevens & Schriefer Group, is located in the capital, he has always steered clear of the city, preferring to commute irregularly from New York and Vermont. “I used to joke in the D.C. office that you had people who worked at the company who had never even met Stuart,” says Ashley O’Connor, a longtime collaborator and fellow Romney aide.
It’s the company-town drabness that Stevens finds oppressive. “In most cities, it’s mandatory to be sexy,” he once told The Baltimore Sun. “In Washington ... [i]t’s considered a breach of conduct to be sexy. Just go down to 19th and K ... the women are all walking around in Reeboks.”
Stevens is, by nature, a dilettante, a man who breaks out in cold sweats at the thought of specializing. This may explain why he attended four universities—and why, even though he loves the adrenalin-rush of politics, he prefers it in small doses, freeing up time to train, travel, and write. At times, he cultivates these interests simultaneously. “I remember in the middle of a campaign, he sat on conference calls while hiking with some Arctic explorer,” says one former Stevens & Schriefer employee. “Or he’ll be downhill skiing on a conference call on his Bluetooth and you’ll hear the snow whisp.”
Stevens rarely even commits to one version of a hobby. Explaining his interest in triathlons, he once wrote, “Why be good at one sport when you can be unimpressive at three?” In addition to his travel books and magazine writing, he has written a novel about two brothers on opposite sides of a Senate race and worked as a screenwriter on shows like “Northern Exposure” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
Stevens’s political career began as a bit of a lark. In the mid-’70s, he interned in the congressional office of Thad Cochran and became friendly with Cochran’s chief of staff, Jon Hinson. When Hinson later ran for Congress, he enlisted Stevens to make his ads. Other than the internship, Stevens had little political experience to speak of. But his years of wandering included a stint in film school, and Hinson figured he knew his way around a camera.
The whole campaign had an amateurish “Hey, let’s put on a play” quality. Hinson was an enormous underdog, having drawn as his opponent John H. Stennis, the son of the legendary Mississippi senator. To fill out the staff, Stevens enlisted some of his high school classmates, persuading one who had worked at a local TV station to sign on as press secretary. But Stevens’s amateurishness proved to be an asset. He rejected the norms of political ad-making—or, rather, was unaware of them—and affected a winning quirkiness. Hinson’s introductory spot began, as one campaign aide recalls it, “Hi, you don’t know me, but your last three congressmen did,” before touting the benefits of his Capitol Hill experience. Hinson pulled off the upset.
Even as he ascended the top ranks of consultants, this unrefined vibe was the key to Stevens’s success. Unlike most political veterans, he didn’t bog himself down in ideology or lingo. His clients came off more like network TV characters than C-SPAN stiffs. In the mid-’90s, he reprised the feel of the Hinson ad on behalf of a Pennsylvania candidate named Tom Ridge. “[W]hen I announced for governor, a Philadelphia newspaper called me ‘A guy nobody’s ever heard of, from a city nobody’s ever seen,’” Ridge said to the camera. “[B]ut that’s OK. I’m used to it. I grew up in public housing till my mom and dad could move here.” At which point, Ridge’s mom pokes her head out of a doorway and says, “Tom, put your hat on.”
Above all, Stevens’s dabbler sensibility gave him an enviable range of skills. He was not so much an ad man as a creative consultant with a filmmaker’s eye and a screenwriter’s sense of pace. Stevens is, for example, quick to adopt film techniques—like the Steadicam, a tool he imported from TV sports coverage to shoot subjects in motion. Not surprisingly, he excels at the more cinematic projects that candidates undertake. Working on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1995, Stevens put together a 14-minute biographical video replete with a Ken Burns-like voice-over and a reenactment of Dole’s war wounds.
Throughout the ’90s, Stevens’s fellow consultants bristled at his snobbery and knocked his lack of heft. But it was hard to argue with his results. In 1994, the year that cemented his reputation, he compiled an impressive 12-0 record, including several victories in Democratic-leaning states.
A few years later, Stevens’s longtime friend and collaborator Karl Rove introduced him to an up-and-coming governor named George W. Bush. The two men hit it off, and Stevens and his wife eventually moved to Austin so he could work on Bush’s presidential campaign. This naturally inspired another book, The Big Enchilada, which is perhaps the first-ever travelogue situated at the highest levels of presidential politics.
Though the campaign is Stevens’s narrative vehicle, the book reads like one of his African capers, with Stevens noting all manner of anthropological curiosities and outrageous characters while serving as his own best foil. (“Years ago, I had learned that the secret to success in political consulting is to work for candidates who were going to win anyway,” he confesses.) In Stevens’s hands, the race is the latest in a series of ridiculous undertakings—practically a stunt—which the book’s subtitle more or less announces: “Campaign Adventures with the Cockeyed Optimists from Texas Who Won the Biggest Prize in Politics.” There is barely a hint of the cosmic importance that might attach itself to such an enterprise.
Stevens’s previous travel books had sold relatively well and received critical acclaim. But The Big Enchilada fell flat. Within his publishing house, Simon & Schuster, there was a sense that the public didn’t want to read about a few charming rogues from Texas in the aftermath of the wrenching recount, no matter how deftly executed. The campaign books that became best-sellers, like Jeffrey Toobin’s treatment of the standoff in Florida, satisfied people’s desire for more partisan, muckraking stories.
Stevens was disappointed. It was the first nonfiction book he’d written in years that The New York Times didn’t review, and he believed he was shunned for political reasons. “I know Stuart was very convinced that the fix was in,” says Klayman. Before the book was released, Stevens had sent it to Al Franken in hopes of scoring a blurb. They had met a few times on the campaign trail, and Franken had always been gracious. But Franken declined the request. According to Klayman, he wrote back a “pugnacious” e-mail panning Stevens’s breezy depiction of the recount.
Ironically for someone who had devoted much of his professional life to politics, Stevens was suddenly finding the Bush-era too ... political. Many of his friends from writing and television were liberals, and he never had trouble getting along with them. They’d gush about how well-read and cosmopolitan he was, how he shattered their mental image of a Republican gunslinger. But now politics was inescapable. Suddenly the entire country seemed to array itself on one side or the other of a cavernous divide.
Not long after the 2000 election, Stevens attended a dinner party with several prominent journalists, including an editor at The New York Times and a former editor of George magazine. It was a dreary affair. A guest cornered him on the balcony and hectored him about the recount. Over dinner, his companions couldn’t stop talking about the campaign. Stevens had always enjoyed these gatherings as a chance to escape politics. He weakly tried to change the subject. He looked like he would rather be anywhere else in the world.
The devil-may-care routine had begun to run its course. The only one who didn’t fully grasp it was Stevens himself.
FOR THE 2008 ELECTION, Mitt Romney hired an all-star team of strategists representing some of the finest minds in Republican politics—and, when he lost, he concluded it was a terrible idea. With so many smart people in the room, it was nearly impossible to stick with a decision.
The next time around, Romney knew he wanted one chief strategist. And he knew he wanted that person to be Stuart Stevens, whom he first considered hiring while running for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 and had briefly employed during his previous run for president. Romney was impressed by Stevens’s smarts and felt they had more in common than met the eye.
There was a minor hitch, however: Stevens had gradually been losing his appetite for politics. He complained that campaigns were taking longer and longer, crowding out his extracurricular thrill-seeking, while critics increasingly panned his firm’s ads as formulaic. “I got the sense that, after the Bush campaign, he might be thinking about hanging up his six-gun, hanging up his spurs, and doing something else,” says Peter Matson, his literary agent. But Stevens was up for one last romp if he would be leading the mission. “He wasn’t going to do [the Romney campaign] unless he was going to be The Guy,” says one former colleague.
As it happens, the relationship between Romney and Stevens has proved remarkably stable. They’re both hyper-literate and often pass books back and forth. “Stuart sort of has this intellectual connection with Romney,” says the colleague. They’re also fond of quoting movies to one another—Annie Hall and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are favorites—and share an impish sense of humor. Getting off a plane in New Hampshire in 2011, Romney turned to Stevens and, according to an e-book by Mike Allen and Evan Thomas, cracked: “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done by, like, twenty times. ... I just had no idea. Why didn’t somebody tell me?” Without missing a beat, Stevens replied, “You didn’t ask me.”
Romney and Stevens spend hours together working on speeches, which both men take pride in, and on debate prep, which Stevens essentially masterminds. When Stevens comes across a detail he deems useful for Romney—as when he discovered that Rick Perry had advocated eliminating Social Security in his campaign book, Fed Up!—it’s only a matter of time before Romney transmits it to the world.
The ongoing banter has also produced more ambitious ideas, including a small-town bus tour that Romney kicked off in June. The trip, a kind of rolling tribute to Americana, was partly inspired by Romney’s fond memories of his family outings. John Steinbeck allusions, a favorite of Stevens’s thanks to their Depression-era resonance, featured prominently in Romney’s kick-off speech.
But just because Romney and Stevens get along doesn’t mean they’re a great team. In fact, they have similar blind spots. Consider their take on what Romney’s stump persona should be. Stevens likes his politicians simple and unadorned, in keeping with his aesthetic style. Even as he has depicted his boss as an economic fixer, Stevens has sought to contrast Romney’s plainspoken good-guy-ness with a remote and self-regarding president. Romney has clearly embraced the motif. After a major economic speech by Obama, Romney told a crowd in Wisconsin that “he’s a very eloquent person and is able to ... tell you that night is day and day is night. But people know better.” Romney even played the speech for laughs: “Yesterday, the president gave a speech—a very long speech,” he said in New Hampshire. He repeated the joke at several campaign stops.
Certainly, there was a time when a Republican nominee could control his own narrative with relative ease—or, at least, with enough advertising dollars and straight-faced conviction. George W. Bush’s 2000 convention film, which Stevens produced, bathed him in a dusty authenticity as he surveyed his ranch and discoursed on leadership. The glow lasted all the way through Election Day. But somewhere between the Florida recount and John Kerry’s swift-boating, a whole liberal industrial complex—cable channels like MSNBC, watch dogs like Media Matters for America, blog partisans like Daily Kos—began hacking away at the artifice. It has left Romney, already less believable in the just-folks role, badly exposed.
Stevens’s indifference to this shift—and to the partisan bloodlust that fuels it—helps explain how the campaign was caught flat-footed by allegations that Romney hadn’t severed his ties to Bain Capital until 2002, three years after he’d initially claimed. “The headline story above the fold in The [Boston] Globe: ‘ROMNEY STAYED LONGER AT BAIN’ ... is totally, totally misleading,” one Romney adviser complained to me. “Maybe the newspaper’s got an angle because of political bias or because it sells copies—who knows what?” But the Bain story didn’t reflect the sudden vindictiveness of the mainstream media. It reflected the holy-war relentlessness of the left. As The Globe later acknowledged, the story was initially driven by enterprising bloggers at the liberal websites Talking Points Memo and Mother Jones.
It wasn’t the only time the campaign has been out of step with the new hair-trigger ethos of American politics. Last fall, Romney released a commercial with video of Obama announcing that, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The ad, which Stevens conceived, was incredibly dishonest—the footage was from a 2008 campaign appearance in which Obama had quoted a McCain adviser. But Stevens convinced Romney that their ethical obligations would be fulfilled by distributing a press release explaining the origin of the quote.
It didn’t work. The ad sent both the White House and the campaign press into hysterics. For over a week, pundits clucked about the spot’s egregiousness. John King, CNN’s pathologically neutral correspondent, called it “reprehensible.” NBC’s Brian Williams featured it as a case study in “how dirty this campaign will be.” Stevens could hardly believe the blowback—it was an ad, after all, a mere act of propaganda. What was the big deal?
AND THEN there is the right. Ever since Romney first started running for president in 2006, he has struggled to deal with the influence of conservatives in the GOP. Among Romney’s many sins: his once-progressive positions on abortion and gay rights; his vote for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the 1992 presidential primary; and, most of all, his Massachusetts health care reform bill, which became the model for Obama’s.
There’s also the lingering feeling that Romney doesn’t really go in for ideology of any kind. No one who qualifies as “severely conservative” would ever think to describe himself that way, as Romney did earlier this year. In his various incarnations as a candidate, he has campaigned as a progressive, a conservative, a technocrat, and a populist, suggesting his deepest attachment is to winning.
Unfortunately for Romney, his chief strategist isn’t much better at navigating the minefield on the right. Stevens’s signature approach to dealing with conservatives is to slog through the primaries while conceding as little to them as possible. In 2007, he briefly worked on John McCain’s campaign for president. At the time, McCain was the moderate and Romney was challenging him from the right. Stevens urged McCain to go relentlessly negative—“you have to keep your foot on his throat” was his mantra. The idea was to solve McCain’s problem with his base by eliminating the conservative threat. But the McCain brain trust was perplexed. “The base’s concerns with John had nothing to do with Romney,” said one McCain aide. “It didn’t make logical sense to us.”
In 2012, Stevens sought to reprise the attack strategy for Romney, except with an added wrinkle. Rather than simply knee-cap his conservative rivals, Romney would also channel the country’s frustration with Obama. This would appeal to the base, which considered the president illegitimate, without alienating general election voters, who considered Obama’s economic policies a failure. Romney could capture the nomination without moving rightward. He wouldn’t even have to renounce his own health care plan so long as he was sufficiently scathing toward Obamacare.
Somewhat unusually for a presidential candidate, Romney has been deeply involved in hashing out his own campaign strategy. “Romney plays a big role in the strategic direction,” says one Romney aide. “Stuart is the artiste.” And Romney liked what he heard. He was especially hesitant to abandon his health care record and was heartened that Stevens urged him not to.
The problem was that the plan badly underestimated the fever on the right. “I don’t think [Stevens] understands the base at all,” says the McCain aide. “He tends to take [the base] for granted. ... There’s no art to what they’re doing.”
Romney’s anti-Obama posture never felt like enough for conservatives—it didn’t help that he kept calling Obama “well-intentioned.” During the primaries, Romney was forced into harder-line positions than either he or Stevens would have liked in order to fend off the likes of Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Worse, Romney has doubled-down on those positions ever since. If the normal trajectory for a candidate is to edge toward his base during the primary and the center during the general election, Romney has accomplished something closer to the opposite.
While speaking at a private fund-raiser not long after locking up the nomination, Romney suggested that he might make his tax plan ever-so-slightly more progressive than he’d previously hinted by scaling back deductions for the wealthy. But conservatives howled when two outlets reported the remarks, and the campaign spent the next 24 hours in retreat. A surrogate had to explain that Romney was just “discussing ideas that came up on the campaign trail,” not contemplating a “change in policy.” The following evening, Romney stood before a Tea Party group in Philadelphia to offer abject assurances. “Taxes by their very definition limit our freedom,” he said. “They should be as small as possible.” In recent months, Romney has made similar bows toward conservatives on health care and immigration.
On one level, any strategist working for Romney would have faced a nearly impossible finesse-job in a GOP primary, given the candidate’s impure ideological past. But Stevens, who finds few things more alien than the fervor of a true-believer, is uniquely unsuited to the task. Stevens failed to see that irate conservatives would be more skeptical if Romney moved right under pressure from opponents—as he did in response to Perry, Gingrich, and Santorum—than if he’d done so on his own terms at the start of the campaign.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country sees a candidate yanked around by his most extreme supporters, a spectacle that can’t easily be explained away. In May, after The New Republic wrote that Romney had moved far right on immigration during the primaries by running a series of negative ads on the issue, Stevens insisted to the author that “the Romney campaign has not run any ads on the issue of illegal immigration.” When she cited a video in which Romney lacerated Perry for granting in-state college tuition to students who entered the country illegally, Stevens conceded that there had been a “Web video,” but maintained there had never been a bona fide ad. The exchange recalled a line from The Big Enchilada, in which Stevens quipped: “I was confident we could come up with a spin. You could spin anything if you did it with enough confidence.”
The irony is that Stevens’s view of the race as a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy is largely sound. Despite sustaining a monthlong attack on his record at Bain and his personal finances, Romney remains roughly even with Obama, according to recent polls. With the economy continuing to sputter, the only major development during that month was a New York Times poll suggesting diminished confidence in the president’s economic management. But as long as Romney lets his base pin him to so many deeply unpopular policies (tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of Wall Street, the voucher-ization of Medicare), Obama can turn the contest into a death-struggle between right-wing radicalism and middle-of-the-road progressivism pretty much at will.
The race is far from over, but friends in the publishing industry have already approached Stevens about writing an insider account of the 2012 campaign. There are any number of reasons why the book won’t happen, not least of them is Romneyworld’s all-powerful code of omertà. But the biggest is surely that, with unemployment so high and the country so raw and divided, it’s hard to find the comedy in this race, even for an accomplished send-up artist like Stevens.
Then again, it’s not impossible to imagine Stevens stirring up some mischief a few years down the line. Sometime after the campaign ends, there will be another highly charged, partisan event: an HBO docudrama revealing the gory details behind George W. Bush’s domestic spying efforts, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, two New York Times reporters. When the film debuts, it will almost certainly dredge up all the anger and bitterness of the Bush years. The former president and those closest to him will undoubtedly dislike it. And when the credits roll, they may discover something a bit surprising: The screenwriter for the project is one Stuart Stevens—the very same Stuart Stevens who had so much fun helping to elect Bush in the first place.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.
This article appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.
*Correction: This piece differs from the print version, which refers to a “documentary revealing the gory details behind George W. Bush’s domestic spying efforts.” In fact, it is a “docudrama.” We regret the error.