Opinion

The dangers of being an ambitious young political or media operative

It's hard to succeed. It's easy to fail.

Last weekend, a conservative blogger in Mississippi named Clayton Kelly was arrested for allegedly sneaking into a nursing home to photograph the wife of Sen. Thad Cochran (R), who suffers from progressive dementia. Two other Mississippi men — one of them a local tea party leader — have since been arrested on conspiracy charges for allegedly taking part in the plot.

Anyone interested in the unseemly details regarding why this might make sense strategically as the hotly contested June 3 primary approaches can read what I've written and said. (It centers around rumors that Cochran has long had a relationship with a woman and staffer who is not his wife.) But let's go bigger. Why do people to do such mean-spirited things in the name of politics in the first place?

Good people are susceptible to temptation. This sort of thing isn't merely reserved for the depraved.

This is not a popular argument among establishment Republicans:

There is, of course, a lot of daylight between excusing something and explaining it. And my intent in explaining this sleazy incident is not to engender sympathy for the alleged perpetrators, but instead, to encourage all of us — especially anyone working in politics and journalism — to guard our hearts.

Conservative leader Morton Blackwell (a friend and mentor) has said that upon filing for office, "every candidate promptly loses about 30 I.Q points." People do irrational things for political gain. Watergate wasn't rational. Nixon was already gonna win by a landslide.

Politics has become #war. And if one buys into that paradigm, it explains why so many political operatives think they are warriors in an epic battle. In actual war, the ends justify the means. Soldiers do whatever it takes to survive, succeed. Wrongheadedly, many people in politics think campaigns have the same stakes, and thus the same rules. Because this is the only thing that matters and a week from Tuesday it won't matter anymore. Just win baby!

Ambitious activists, operatives, and even journalists are all susceptible to the same delusions of grandeur, and are under the same amount of stress and sleep deprivation.

As James Carville and Paul Begala point out in Buck Up, Suck Up ... And Come Back When You Foul Up, most elections are zero-sum games. This is different from almost any other business. "Believe us," the say, "if you could only buy one brand of soft drink — and you were stuck with your choice for four years — the cola wars would make political combat look like a Girl Scout jamboree." This becomes magnified when you consider that highly trained professional adults are heading the soda corporations, while most political campaigns are often run on a shoestring, and thus, end up delegating a tremendous amount of responsibility to ambitious young people — and a coterie of local volunteers who are either so ideologically motivated (or have nothing better to do) that they are willing to spend their weekends putting up yard signs.

And it's not just campaign operatives. Ambitious media types fall prey to the same patterns of behavior. Digital media has lowered the barrier of entry. Anyone can publish. And many young bloggers see operators like James O'Keefe become famous for ambush interviews and guerrilla journalism. In O'Keefe's case, his work has made a real difference, taking down ACORN and an NPR executive. But other botched stings have landed him in hot legal water. Still, it's easy to see how a young person coming up might look at someone like O'Keefe and get delusions of grandeur. Instead of lionizing the shoe leather reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as past generations did, up-and-comers today may see risky gambits as their best shot at catapulting to the top, where fame and adoration await.

As a writer, I am sympathetic to how an ambitious yet naive young blogger might think it's glamorous and dangerous to do something like this — and how, in that moment, he might cross a serious legal and ethical line. I found this excerpt from a recent news report to be especially revealing: "Clayton Kelly’s wife, Tara, and his attorney, Kevin Camp, said Kelly was ambitious to make a name for himself as a political blogger..."

Or, speaking of bad ideas, as the builders of the Tower of Babel said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves..."

More from that news report:

Tara Kelly said she told her husband "it wouldn't be a good idea to take pictures of this woman … If my grandmother were in there, I wouldn't want someone taking her picture."

But she said "Clayton thought this was the big scoop he needed to get his blog off the ground." [Hattiesburg American]

There is a rush when you get a Drudge link. There is a rush when you get invited on Morning Joe to talk about something you wrote. And it's not surprising that people are willing to do some pretty heinous things in ill-conceived attempts to get that fix. If you have ever wanted to be someone — to do something — you can identify with this.

Politics and the media are both full of young and ambitious people who don't get paid terribly well, but want to do something big and bold — to make a name for themselves. Both businesses tend to glamorize rule-breakers who not only get away with their risky maneuvers, but earn plaudits for them (Lee Atwater for operatives; Hunter S. Thompson for would-be gonzo journalists), and both exist in a sort of "wild west" where pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable is deemed necessary for success. Both are fueled by caffeine, alcohol, and too much testosterone. This is a business where people are heralded for their ability to "spin," where attacking opponents is an acceptable and expected part of the game.

Another reason the temptation is so seductively dangerous today: When I was a kid, I assumed that in order for me to go to jail, I would have to do something egregious. I mean, I would have to basically go out and buy a gun, then get in a car and drive to a bank, and then put on a ski mask, and then go in and rob the joint. But the real world isn't so clear. What this Mississippi blogger has allegedly committed might turn out to be a felony. But campaigns do unseemly things all the time. Some of it is psychological warfare, and some of it is just stupid. As I'm writing this, it appears someone has found out that Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is going to Los Angeles, and that it would be fun for her to be greeted with "Abortion Barbie" posters when she got there. An older example: During one of the 1960 debates, JFK staffers secretly turned up the thermostat so that Nixon would sweat (Nixon's team had apparently tampered with the heat earlier).

Depending on who you are, these are clever examples of operatives hustling and outmaneuvering their opponents, or childish and mean stunts. But who even knows if they are legal or ethical?

The incident in Mississippi represents the culmination of many things. We have the convergence of media activism (with the rise of alternative media and blogs), the ever-present problem of campaigns and journalism being stacked full of ambitious young people, and the trend of political campaigns being viewed as tantamount to military battle, meaning that every election is viewed as an existential threat to one's side.

The big lesson is that young political and media operatives ought to be careful. Being virtuous isn't just a touchy-feely thing; in politics, it's a survival strategy.

Surround yourself with friends and family and activities (church, sports, etc.) that have nothing to do with your work. There's a reason cults like to cut you off from these things; they keep us grounded.

Do a lot of thinking and introspection now — before the heat of a campaign and the maelstrom of political #war — about compassion and humanity and right and wrong. Even if you do this hard work, you'll still make mistakes (God knows I have). But you'll be much less susceptible. Waiting until you're in the heat of a campaign to decide what kind of person you are is sort of like waiting till it's 2 am and you're through a six-pack to decide whether or not you're going to be faithful to your wife. By the time you get around to deciding, you've already made the wrong choice.

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