Episode 35, with guests Chris Lehane and Bill Heyman

Chris Lehane and Bill Heyman are our guests this week.
Show produced by Katherine Caperton
Original Air Date: November 19, 2011 on SiriusXM Satellite Radio “POTUS” Channel 124
Listen to the show by clicking on the bar above.
Show also available for download on Apple iTunes by clicking here

Welcome, Chris Lehane, to membership in the Writers Guild of America!

If you’re like me, Chris, your mailbox is each day happily filling up with Oscar-worthy screeners to create at-home post-Thanksgiving film festivals that spare yourself and Andrea a few nights at the multiplex.

And why is one of America’s most enigmatic political communications consultants now a card-carrying member of the WGA? Take a peek below at the trailer for the upcoming film KNIFE FIGHT from Myriad Pictures, starring Rob Lowe, directed by Bill Guttentag and written by Guttentag and none other than the Master of Disaster, Chris Lehane.


Lehane joins us on Polioptics this week to talk about his foray into screenwriting but also to press the rewind button on his own remarkable career that began in his home state of Maine learning the dark arts of what’s known in the trade as “Oppo Research.”

Lehane in the scrum

Oppo Guys are those who first find, and then try to bury or exhume, depending on their client’s motivations, the deepest darkest secrets of those running for, or trying to hold onto, public office. Their methods are largely clandestine. Their firearm of choice is the Blackberry. From his early years at the White House lifting the lid on what Hillary Clinton once called the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy to his current incarnation in California serving political, corporate, entertainment and sports clients, you can find Lehane in the highest echelon of the top tier of the craft.

It’s night and day from what I did at the White House, where Adam Belmar and I focused our work on what goes on in front of the camera: the settings, the stagecraft, the moment that the world would share, seeing the President being “presidential.”

But what happens when the President is not so presidential? And bad behavior isn’t the province alone of land’s highest officeholder. Senators, governors, congressmen, even defensive coordinators, can find themselves, as Lehane says, “in that deep, dark unspinnable place,” often by their own hand, or own Twitter account. We could run through the litany of names brought low in only the last twenty years, and the variety of transgressions they committed, but we’d be here for a while.

And whether the insinuations are fair or not, the accusations fly, often borne through fingerprint-free document drops conveyed to a receptive reporter’s desk by an Oppo Guy. You don’t know where they’re coming from. You don’t know, for sure, how many grains of truth they contain. But you need help. Who do you call? Maybe, the Master of Disaster.

During the Clinton years, when he and his partner, Mark Fabiani, first earned their monicker, Lehane was hold up in warren of offices in the Old Executive Office Building, combating the worst that Bill and Hillary Clinton’s accusers could dredge up about their character. It’s fair to say, looking back from 2011, that both President and Secretary Clinton survived the worst fusillades of the 1990’s to fight many other days.

So did Lehane. He came out from behind the scenes, offering his trademark one-liners, to serve as Al Gore’s press secretary in 2000. As pithy as his one-liners were, however, they couldn’t reverse the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court. He emerged again with John Kerry in the early stages of the 2004 campaign, another effort that hit hard times against the rival oppo guys.

But it’s the scores of victorious skirmishes that never make the headlines that’s why Chris is today constantly in high demand: by politicians, corporations, entertainers and sports franchises. Trouble brews. Opportunity knocks. Lehane’s a fixer. You’d love to get him to write a book and dish on everything he’s seen and heard in what he calls “the room inside the room” – but that would kill the business model.

Rob Lowe: resemblance to Chris Lehane “purely coincidental”

So instead he’s turned to fiction, through the medium of film, to bring us behind-the-scenes of the most vicious form of political combat. His script for KNIFE FIGHT, which along with Lowe stars Carrie Ann Moss and Jamie Chung, is an auto-biographical amalgamation of some of Lehane’s diciest donnybrooks. Adam and I kidded him, as most will, that in Rob Lowe the movie put on the marquee a guy who would need more prosthetic body parts than Leonardo Dicaprio in J. EDGAR to pull of a lifelike resemblance to Lehane. “There are obvious differenes when it comes to the cut of our jibs,” Lehane told me.

But as you watch the available cuts from the movie, a person familiar with political communications at the highest levels comes away with a sense the Rob Lowe really lives for this type of role, just as his did in the character Sam Seaborn in Aaron Sorkin’s THE WEST WING. Indeed, Lehane and I had an exchange after our show taping show in which he thought of Lowe’s character in KNIFE FIGHT, Paul Turner, as what Sam Seaborne might have become after he stopped working for President Josiah Bartlett in the White House.

(West Wing aficionados will recall that Seaborne’s stated reason for leaving the West Wing was to run for public office)

Here is some more of what Lehane related after the show about why Lowe was cast for the role:

“Rob really is perfect for the role at a number of levels.

“First, he is very talented at his craft. As all of us who have written speeches and one liners, a sound byte can sound good on paper, but it takes a talent to make it really sing).

“Second, Rob has an intuitive feel for politics — he really does get it. In the film, there is a real commitment to verisimilitude. It always drove me nuts to see a political film or show where the talent didn’t “get it,” akin to watching an actor play a baseball player who has never actually thrown a ball or swung a bat.

“And, third, he really follows politics and understands how the game is played — and in a number of places made suggested changes that were right on.”

Those who’ve every worked with, or be spun by, Chris Lehane recognize the signature cadence: as always, offering crisp talking points in easily digestible (and numbered) bullets to go down smoothly in a reporter’s notebook like a well-crafted Northern California micro brew.

* * *

Lets face it: most young people who graduate college with a great liberal arts education and make their way to Washington D.C., eventually working in the press or communications office of a congressman, senator, or even the President of the United States, are unlikely to be dubbed the Master of Disaster by Time Magazine or find their name on IMDB as the screenwriter of a big time movie starring Rob Lowe.

Bill Heyman

For the rest of us, there’s Bill Heyman.

Bill is, literally, a towering figure in the world of executive search firms specializing in corporate communications. He founded his firm, Heyman Associates, in 1989, and ever since has served as a mentor, coach and headmaster of a what amounts to a finishing school for campaign-hardened spokespeople who are ready to ply their trade in the private sector. If he thinks you’ve got what it takes, Bill can match you with some of the best companies and organizations in the world that are constantly on the lookout for communications skills that transfer fairly seamlessly from campaign headquarters.

Indeed, most of the large public companies in the U.S., and around the world, maintain communications departments larger, often by many times, than the White House Press Office.

In highest demand today, according to Bill, is mastery of social media and online video that form the lifeblood of the most hyper-connected electioneering efforts. But equally important, Bill notes, is that candidates be able to adapt to a corporate setting, fitting in with the culture and earning a seat at the table. Companies are decidedly not like campaigns in their they’re in it for the long haul rather than just a six to twelve month cycle, and want to grow and develop their staff into longtime and loyal employees.

After leaving a campaign or government press shop, most staffers depart into one of the following categories: 1) they make a career out of Washington-based press roles and move from office to office; 2) they find something to do for a few years and await the next campaign; 3) occasionally, they go into the media themselves; 4) they go on to graduate school, eventually emerging from what Doug Sosnik calls “the communications ghetto”; 5) theyt join — or form their own — consulting or PR firms, or; 6) they move onto roles with corporations, non-profit organizations and even sports teams. For the last category, Bill has a lot of advice, much of which is available at the Website of Heyman Associates:

“Most of the characteristics (of successful corporate communicators) were obvious: the ability to write and speak well and knowledgeably on issues; having a strong business/commercial sense, the ability to problem-solve, and being able to think strategically.

“Frequently high on the list was a requirement for strategic-thinkers who also could implement the ideas and lead the staff-charge to get the job done. The demand clearly is for a “General” who can stand with the front line troops.

“Our informal conversations, as well as discussions at client conferences, also note an emphasis on several other critical skills: having proven leadership skills and the ability to build a strong team; being a consensus builder; and being sensitive to cultural differences.”

There’s a lot more of this in Bill’s essay, “Today’s Successful Senior-Level Communicator — What It Takes” which is posted online.

Heyman Associates also has a great periodic newsletter for prospective candidates and clients, Positioning, the latest editions of which are available here, here and here.

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