Maverick Media, formed in 1998 as a political consulting super-group of sorts composed of top consultants, was created for the single purpose of electing George W. Bush as president. In the 2004 election cycle it took in more than $177 million from the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee, according to Federal Election Commission data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity.
The leader of the group is Mark McKinnon, a former Democratic consultant who previously worked with late Texas Gov. Ann Richards and presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts.
In 1996, McKinnon, who worked for the Austin-based public affairs firm Public Strategies Inc., announced his retirement from politics in a Texas Monthly article titled “The Spin Doctor is Out.” In it, he described his once and future profession as one of “incredible highs, devastating lows, sometimes feeling bulletproof, sometimes feeling that all the blood had been drained out of my body. I had no idea of the toll it had taken on me mentally and spiritually until I quit.”
McKinnon recounts his early history in politics, beginning with covering it for the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin — and how he got elected its editor: he said he won by leaking damaging information about one of his opponents to another, then “I sat back, watched them cut each other up, and coasted to victory.”
He also “spent several years in Nashville working as a song-writer with Kris Kristofferson. And was wildly unsuccessful,” according to his bio for Public Strategies, the Austin-based public affairs firm for which he of which he is vice-chairman.
In 1984, he joined fellow UT alumnus Paul Begala (who later authored Is Our Children Learning?: The Case Against George W. Bush) working in the press office of Senate candidate Lloyd Doggett. The Democrat “got creamed,” McKinnon said in the Texas Monthly article, but it was his introduction to another future consulting star, James Carville. He said Carville “looked like a prehistoric reptile and acted like a hyperactive twelve-year-old. But if you spent enough time around him and got over the initial shock, you could see that he was a flat-out political genius.”
McKinnon worked as the press secretary for Texas Gov. Mark White during the campaign that saw his 1986 defeat, then headed for Louisiana — a state known for colorful politicians — for his “Ph.D.” in politics, working for Buddy Roemer. A Democratic congressman running for governor, Roemer defeated Edwin Edwards, who had been in office since 1972, by portraying himself as an outsider ready to clean up Louisiana politics.
After working on the 1988 Dukakis campaign, which he describes as unfocused and “futile,” McKinnon returned to Texas to help Richards win her 1990 gubernatorial race. He was not with her four years later when she lost to Bush. At the time, McKinnon told the Houston Chronicle that “Bush ran a pretty error-free campaign.”
McKinnon’s 1996 retirement was, of course, premature; late in 1997, Texas newspapers began reporting that he was “in talks” with the Bush campaign, and in the spring of 1998 it became official.
In a 2005 interview with PBS’ FRONTLINE, McKinnon described warming to the Republican governor who would become his boss: “… [B]ecause I’d been drinking the Democratic Kool-Aid for years working in those trenches, my predisposition was not to like him. And I tried very hard not to like him because he was a Republican … [but] he was talking about issues that had typically been Democratic issues … this was so completely different than the old-style, Newt Gingrich politics that I had associated with the Republican Party, which was ‘Burn government down!'”
Ultimately, McKinnon said, it was Bush’s character that won him over. He told FRONTLINE “as it is so often in the president’s world, the fundamental ingredients of our relationship were really based upon friendship and loyalty [rather] than about money or consulting or professional engagement.”
After Bush’s gubernatorial re-election, McKinnon stayed with him for his first presidential bid, then returned to Public Strategies.
Maverick Media, with McKinnon as its president, was the 2000 Bush campaign’s media strategist, scripting and producing campaign commercials. Maverick brought together a number of political and advertising heavyweights, including Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer of the Republican advertising firm The Stevens and Schriefer Group, Public Strategies co-founder Matthew Dowd (also once a Democratic consultant) as director of polling and media planning, and Hispanic advertising guru Lionel Sosa.
In The Big Enchilda, his book about the 2000 campaign, Stevens described McKinnon’s devotion to Bush: “[W]hile I still reveled in the sheer combat of campaigns, the smell of napalm in the morning and all that, Mark had gotten back in the game for one reason — to help Bush.”
After the successful election, the team disbanded. But in 2004 its members reunited for Bush’s re-election campaign. “There was never really a discussion,” McKinnon told FRONTLINE. “It was just [that] this has always been a team, and we never stopped working and trying to help the president. … It’s a very close, tight-knit group that’s worked together for years, and the president just kept the team together.”
One of the more successful ads the group produced in 2004 was “Wolves,” featuring a pack of the animals as a metaphor for terrorism. McKinnon told FRONTLINE that he and Maverick had been testing metaphors for months before hitting on the idea: “People got it right away. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, wolves, terrorists — scary. Got it.'”
Another Maverick ad used grainy footage of Democratic opponent John Kerry windsurfing to illustrate what the Bush campaign described as his shifting messages on the Iraq war as he tacked back and forth off the coast of Nantucket.
A third commercial, which McKinnon told PBS “had the most impact” quoted Kerry on funding for the Iraq war: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” In an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, Kerry later called the remark an “inarticulate” statement. Maverick featured the quote in several ads and it became a major talking point for the campaign.
After the 2004 election, McKinnon returned again to his post as vice-chairman of Public Strategies. In 2005, he was nominated to fill a Democratic slot on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees American broadcasting abroad including Voice of America. After protests from Democratic senators reported by The Washington Post, the nomination was withdrawn and resubmitted to fill a Republican slot.
The Post and other papers have reported that McKinnon has pledged to help Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the 2008 presidential election, barring a run by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
This year, McKinnon and a bipartisan group of political and advertising consultants announced a new project, Hotsoup.com, a Web site to be launched in October. According to a news release, Hotsoup will offer readers “smart debate over the real issues, not the irrelevant and partisan discourse they’re getting now.”