One on One: A penny for his thoughts

Pollster and political consultant Greenberg gives a glimpse into the mind-sets of five world leaders.

Stanley Greenberg 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Stanley Greenberg 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Stanley Greenberg is what cynics could call a "spin doctor," and what many admirers consider a kind of miracle-worker. Indeed, in today's world, political strategists - who serve as consultants and pollsters to the high and mighty - enjoy a special status all their own. An elevated, star-like one. But Greenberg, 64 - who is married to House of Representatives member Rosa DeLauro - says that what he does is more complicated than the proverbial alchemy attributed to his ilk. And a lot more time- and brain-consuming, to boot. Particularly for someone like him, who is of a particular breed: not merely a sloganeer or electoral-climate assessor, but rather an ideologue in his own right - a left-wing one, that is - who tries to translate his worldview into votes for his clients. And what an illustrious clientele it is. Among the more notable in his gallery of famous figures are former US president Bill Clinton, former South African president Nelson Mandela, former British prime minister Tony Blair, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and former president of Bolivia Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada. It is these men - whom Greenberg assisted in achieving the victories that put them at the helms of their countries - who are the protagonists of his seventh and latest book, Dispatches from the War Room: In the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders. Here to promote the book, deliver the keynote address at Environment 2020 (a conference on "Challenges, Innovations and Corporate Social Responsibility," cosponsored by the Environmental Protection Ministry and other organizations) and have meetings connected with the Israel Project, a nonprofit public-diplomacy outfit that explains Israel's case to the international media, Greenberg says he felt it necessary to be interviewed by The Jerusalem Post during his trip. "It's one of my primary sources of news," he asserts, laughing, as he does repeatedly throughout our conversation. "You know, it pops up on my screen all the time. And you can quote me on that." Do you have to agree ideologically or politically with a public figure before you go to work for him? Yes. I try to work for people I'm at least broadly aligned with. But it's not always an ideological choice. There are other reasons to work for a leader - because he's the more honest candidate, or a reformer. So, for example, in Eastern Europe - and even in Latin America - where there's ideology that doesn't make any sense, because you have the former communist parties that were not really progressive in the same sense that we understand it. We, therefore, have worked for parties that were not necessarily on the Left ideologically. But we tended to work for the democratic parties, with a lower-case "d," because they were the ones pushing democratic liberties, the rule of law, markets and so on. It's interesting that you mention the Eastern European democratic parties with a lower-case "d," because they often are at odds with the US Democratic Party - with a capital "D" - with a tendency toward a conservative worldview, due to their having lived under oppressive communist regimes. Has this not posed a problem for you? Well, you're right in one sense. But part of my political project was a Democratic Party that could appeal broadly to working people, including ethnic Catholics. These are people who, in Eastern Europe, were more socially conservative, and tough on defense, postures which derive from their anticommunism. Our company - Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research - has been very focused on Bill Clinton's new Democratic Party, that is actually strong on national security. All of this makes Eastern Europe quite comfortable for us. Indeed, in your book you describe your efforts to help Clinton return disgruntled or disillusioned Democrats to the fold. Right, and it works both ways. I mean, Clinton knew what I was writing about and where I thought the Democratic Party needed to go. This is one reason he hired me. The other was that I'd helped Joe Lieberman in his race to become US senator, and upset the very popular Republican senator from Connecticut. And Lieberman ran as a moderate democrat. So Clinton saw the argument I was making, but also that I was able to win an election with those ideas. Let's talk about Ehud Barak in this context. You helped him beat incumbent prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the 1999 election. Now, a decade later, he is joining Netanyahu's government, after suffering a heavy blow in the last election. How does this move on his part jibe with your worldview? Leaders are complicated. So am I. They go into government, and have to deal with all kinds of challenges that I couldn't have conceived while running their campaigns. It's impossible to start at the end of the story, and ask myself whether I would have gone to work for this one or that one had I known what they were going to do at a later date. Take Tony Blair, for example. He and I became somewhat more distant over time, partly because of the Iraq war. But I deeply respect him. And, whereas I don't accept the reasons that George Bush used for going to war, I do believe that Blair believed the intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction. In other words, I understand why he went in, and accept his sincerity - even though I don't agree with him on it. So, if you were to ask me whether I would have rushed to work for Blair, considering his alliance with Bush, I would say that, given the totality of the experience, what I knew of Blair as a leader and given our relationship over time, that I remain loyal. And so I remain loyal to Ehud Barak, as well. Have you seen Barak on this trip? Yes I have, and I gave him a copy of the book. Did he discuss his joining of the government? I wouldn't want to talk about what we discussed in our conversation. But I understand why he joined, and I think it was a good decision for Israel. What I don't know is how it will play out politically - whether it was a good decision for the Labor Party. But the alternative was a narrow, right-wing government, which would have been very difficult for Israel in the current period. If you were advising him at this time, and he were to say to you, "My joining this government is better for the country and for a stable coalition - not to mention the fact that I'll be defense minister," and then ask you what it would do to his chances of becoming prime minister again one day, how would you answer? I have no idea. But what I know about Israel is that everything here turns out in unpredictable ways. As opposed to in other countries? Yeah, I think people in other countries lose and go away. How many times did Shimon Peres lose? And how many times did the press write, "That's it. Shimon Peres will never win an election. He can't win an election; he can't win a primary; he can't win a secret ballot of the Knesset to become president"? And now he's a very esteemed president. What did people say about Netanyahu, after his defeat, and after his mandates were reduced to 17? You know, he was supposedly finished. But now he's about to be prime minister again. And [Yitzhak] Rabin was disgraced and had to resign, yet came back and is now esteemed. And let's not forget [Ariel] Sharon, of all people, with his controversial history, starting with Lebanon. I have to tell you, I don't know of another country where the leaders have such durability. Each time you take on a new client, how hard is it for you to learn the ins and outs of his or her political system? How long did it take you to grasp Israel's? Is polling different in different countries? It's quite hard in the beginning. When you first come into a country, you have to be humble about what you know. So, I'm careful about what I say. Nor am I the only voice in any particular campaign. But I'm a fresh voice. Sometimes you need someone who is not part of all the old battles. Not locked into position. Someone who sees things in a fresh way. So, there's a useful role for someone who doesn't know much. But you can't do this job in a sustained way unless you become deeply familiar with the surrounding culture and society - and involved in multiple elections. In Britain, I've been through three successful general elections, and I've also been through many here. It's very common for outsiders with opinions to be told by Israelis: "You don't understand. Things are different here." As an official advice-giver, have you encountered that attitude? Well, people say that in South Africa, too. But they probably say it more in Israel than in other places. And it's probably a little truer here than elsewhere. The issues that one addresses in politics here are so fundamental. I mean, most democratic countries have resolved the major constitutional questions. Here, on the other hand, you're always debating the fundamentals - such as where the borders of the country should be drawn; whether this is a religious country or a secular democracy; and the role of Israeli Arabs. Issues of war and peace. All the time. Not just when there's a war in Iraq or Vietnam. The consequence is that everything here is more intense. The voters are more intense. You can't go to an Israeli focus group without everybody engaging in deep debate. Everybody's smarter than everybody else. Does this make it harder to target focus groups here, or to formulate survey questions? On the contrary. When we did Camp David, we were dealing with very complex issues that were part of an agreement. I'm not sure we could have asked these surveys in other countries. With the focus groups it's not so difficult, because you can describe the issues and give the participants an opportunity to talk about them and ask questions. But on a phone survey, even when asked about a complex agreement or about particular provisions of that agreement, people were able to respond. And so I think it's actually easier in Israel than elsewhere. Speaking of Camp David, Barak's critics from the Right accuse him of having brought the country to near destruction with his generous peace offerings, which resulted in the second intifada. His critics from the Left blame his arrogance for the failure of the negotiations. His defenders from the Left argue that his vision for peace will eventually bear fruit. His defenders from the Right claim that the accords were a ploy to expose Arafat's real motives. What is your view? Barak says of himself that the whole thing was a ploy to expose Arafat. But I don't believe that, which is why I have enduring respect for him. I believe he was determined to go to Camp David in order to offer and achieve a comprehensive agreement, not to expose Arafat. Why wouldn't Barak simply say that this was his goal at the time? Well, he suffered a difficult defeat, after gambling everything. At the outset, he formed a government with Shas, rather than with Likud, in order to be able to push the peace process forward. He even went to Camp David without a government, because the government had fallen. And he failed. I view this as a brave act. I believe he was thinking of Israel's long-term interests, not employing a tactic to show up Arafat. We all know that any agreement that is ultimately achieved will follow the lines that he proposed. How much of what leaders do is actually driven by their countries' interests, and how much by their personal ambitions? There's a conception of great Israeli leaders. And Barak frequently talked about [David] Ben-Gurion, [Menachem] Begin and Rabin, all of whom reached agreements with Arab neighbors and made bold compromises to secure Israel's future. I think he viewed himself as following that tradition, and that governed his actions. But if you're asking where one draws the line between a leader's vision and his self-centeredness, the answer is that I don't know. What I do know is that none of these leaders would be here if they weren't more ambitious than everybody else - and self-centered. A leader has to convince himself that he, more than anybody else, should be on this stage at this moment in time to bring about this change. So, it's a complex mixture. They all have ideals and a mission, but they are also ambitious and hard-driving - and push a lot of people aside in the process. You talk about "bold compromises." In the last few years, we seem to hear those two words lumped together. Can you envision using the adjective "bold" or "courageous" to define something that is the opposite of compromise - such as the refusal to give in to Hamas blackmail over Gilad Schalit, or the recent bombing of the weapons convoys in Sudan? Sure, but those examples are in different contexts. Blair, for example, was able to convince a public in Britain to support a very unpopular George Bush and a very unpopular war, at least at the outset. But, where Israel is concerned, there is a history of having to achieve peace agreements with neighbors that were bitterly opposed to them. Now, instead of reaching a peace agreement with your enemies, conquering them - if you think that's an option - might be a bold course. But, given the direction of Israeli policy and relations with the rest of the region, I doubt there are many people who think that's where we're going. On the other hand, in dealing with Iran and other issues, compromise isn't nor should be associated with courage. Moving on to you personally, in the book, you take issue with the perception of your profession as "spin" or "magic." Why? There is a sense that pollsters and consultants have some secret power. In fact, there are pollsters and consultants who perceive themselves in that way - or who exaggerate the mystique in order to enhance their power. And there are many instances of their manipulating words to make them mean things that they don't. This kind of thing diminishes politics. Can you give a concrete example of word manipulation? In the US, when Republicans were advancing the privatization of social security. What they were actually doing was freeing up young people from paying for the retirement of old people. What they called it was "intergenerational responsibility." Another such term was "healthy forests" - what they called their policies against the environment. Why do leaders become so dependent on you? Leaders hire me and others to help them win - though I have a more elevated view of why they should hire me. But that doesn't mean that they're wholly dependent. Leaders frequently ignore our advice. And whether or not they win an election, you often don't know what ultimately produced their win or loss. What happens is that if they win and you're there, you take credit for every decision that produced the victory. But usually a campaign involves hundreds or thousands of decisions. We strongly advised Barak against running the second time. We told him he was going to lose. But he ignored that advice, I believe, because he wanted to carry on negotiations. If you had been advising him during these past elections, what would you be telling him now, as he enters the Defense Ministry? That he needs to be explaining why he joined the government - not just as a backroom deal for the purpose of holding on to his seat, but as something critical for Israel. Has he not been explaining it? He's a military person. He tends to take action and let the results and their meanings reveal themselves. But a political leader has an obligation to engage with people and this is a good opportunity to be explaining where Israel's going, where he's going and where he wants to take the Labor Party. What do the leaders described in your book think of what you wrote about them? I have a note from Clinton saying that he liked his chapter. And when I saw him, he told me he was reading the other chapters and enjoying them, as well. These are not authorized biographies. And I purposely did not interview any of the leaders at the beginning of the process, in order not to be guided by where they wanted this thing to go. However, I did go back and interview them after I had an underlying theory about each. Political leaders spend so much time defending themselves, and have reflex reactions to questions that they've been asked hundreds of times before. I thought that the only way to get something new was to come back to them with a theory I had developed, and get their reaction to it. In Blair's case, my theory was that his Christian faith was much more central to his identity and politics than his party or his campaign staff were willing to recognize. And that a lot of the struggle over figuring out a message had to do with the fact that he was being driven by faith and we were all being driven by Labor Party dynamics. Blair accepted that theory. In fact, he said that he was much more likely to read books on religion and philosophy than on politics. It turns out that during his campaign, he had weekly meetings with a group of people who shared his thinking on faith, from which he drew inspiration. Is that at the root of his affinity to Bush? Yes, but it's a very different kind of faith from that of Bush - in some ways the opposite of it. Blair thought the individual could not prosper without community, and there were certain kinds of problems that individuals could not address. That's why he thought any nation needed the global community to address the fundamentalist evil that al-Qaida represented. This is the opposite of Bush's thinking. He put the individual and the nation ahead of community. So, the two of them came at it from different points of view, but I'm sure it's the reason why he instinctively aligned himself with Bush. Speaking of alignments, whom did you support in the Democratic primary? I was one of the few people in America who was neutral. But, as I say in the book, I was not unhappy with Barack Obama's winning and Hillary's losing. I was more upset by what happened to Bill Clinton in the process. He got mangled, and there are still issues to be addressed there. Do you think Obama's appointing Hillary secretary of state is similar to Netanyahu's embracing Barak as defense minister - to bring in a rival, as a way of averting a threat? I hadn't thought about it that way, but there's something to that. Also, it's a way of bringing someone in who has his or her own power base. Barak, like Hillary, has got standing. And so, here, you're creating a government that has an additional force, which is why I'm sure there are a lot of Likud people unhappy about it. It shifts the center of gravity. The same goes with bringing Hillary into the cabinet. If former prime minister Ehud Olmert settles his legal issues, will he make a comeback? Now that his world view has shifted to the left, if he were to try to hire you to help him get reelected, would you accept the offer? I don't rule out his making a comeback. As I said, political leaders here never die; they always manage to come back. And I'm comfortable with the views that he's expressed in the last year. But my first loyalty is to Barak. It's Barak who gave me an opportunity to work in Israel. It's Barak who gave me the opportunity to address all the issues in my life, including my Jewishness. It's Barak who called me when I was with my father at a hospice, and said, "Give him a hug from the prime minister of Israel." Barak gave you the opportunity to address your Jewishness? How did that happen? I spent most of my life in rebellion against my synagogue, my parents, the rabbi. I would practically get hives if I went into a synagogue. So, I was more than very secular. I have vivid memories of my mother sitting with me and reading [biblical] texts. I would say, "I can't believe they're saying this!" And I remember my mother saying, "Don't try to understand what it says; just read it!" There was a lot of tension. So, for many years, I was distanced from being Jewish. But, when Barak asked me to do his campaign in 1997, and I first began to come to Israel and work with him, it had a big impact on my rediscovery of my Jewishness and of my parents. After the 2001 elections, I really didn't do much more in a sustained way in Israel. But then, the Israel Project helped me take this to another level. In what way? I have become conscious of being a Jew in other contexts. As an adviser to leaders around the world, I begin to consider in what way I am just like those Jewish advisers to the Ottoman, or even medieval, leaders. I wonder how similar my role today - whispering numbers into leaders' ears - is to the role of those Jewish financial advisers of the past. So, I think of my Jewishness much more today. This doesn't make me any less averse to fundamentalist, ultra-Orthodox Judaism. But my Jewish identity is more prominent. Today, I want to be involved in helping the Jewish community - with an emphasis on Israel.