Karl Rove/Robert Amsterdam: can PR experts really save the day?
Reputation management has always been a problem for political leaders. From kings to democratic presidents, politicians have tried to control their image in order to gain legitimacy.
Over the past ten years, a new kind of political expert has appeared: spin doctors. They build politicians' reputations and claim they’re able to do a lot more. Some even believe they can impact a court decision through media lobbying. Others have destroyed political dreams.
Karl Rove: when a spin doctor makes your day (and eventually your political career)
Karl Rove is probably the most famous spin doctor of our time. One of the sharpest American political analysts, he was the “architect” behind George W. Bush’ 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns.
Rove has since been nicknamed “Bush brain” as a recognition of his brilliant strategic abilities as well as an acknowledgement of George Bush’s legendary "stupidity."
Rove’s first strategic move was to turn Bush’s lack of experience and knowledge into a feeling of the “All-American” common sense, and to build a connection with American voters. Thanks to Rove's efforts, people loved Bush because they felt he was like them, even though he was the son of a former president, born and raised in the upper class.
Karl Rove was also one of the architects of America's “War on terror.” In 2002 and 2003 Rove chaired meetings of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), an internal White House working group established in August 2002, eight months prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This working group was charged with developing a strategy "for publicizing the White House's assertion that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States and that Iraq was developing Mass Destruction Weapons."
According to one unnamed WHIG members, the Washington Post explained that the task force's mission was to “educate the public” about the threat posed by Saddam and (in the reporters' words) "[to] set strategy for each stage of the confrontation with Baghdad." Rove's "strategic communications" task force within WHIG helped write and coordinate speeches by senior Bush administration officials, emphasizing Iraq's purported nuclear threat.
Alastair Campbell: Tony Blair’s Iraqi evil genius
No one denies Tony Blair was a much smarter political leader than George Bush. However, his relation with Alastair Campbell, his spin doctor, is no different than the Bush-Rove relationship described above. The only exception is that Campbell ultimately ruined Blair’s final years as a PM. The Blair-Campbell duet met many successes before failing on the matter of Iraqi war.
Campbell advised Blair for years, building his reputation and shaping the face of the New Labour Party. Over the years he became Blair's most trusted advisor and one of the most influential people in the UK. However, Alastair Campbell resigned during the Iraqi war, devastating Tony Blair’s reputation in the process.
In the run-up to the Iraq War Campbell was involved in the preparation and release of the "September Dossier" in September 2002 and the "Iraq Dossier" in February 2003. These documents argued the case for concern over possible weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Both have been criticized as overstating or distorting the actual intelligence findings. Subsequent investigations revealed that the September Dossier had been altered, on Campbell's orders, to be consistent with a speech given by George Bush and statements by other United States officials.
On September 9, 2002, Campbell sent a memo to John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, in which Campbell directed that the British dossier be "one that complements rather than conflicts with" U.S. claims. Later in 2003, commenting on WMDs in Iraq, he said, "Come on, you don't seriously think we won't find anything? He resigned in August 2003 during the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly, a weapon's expert who gave evidence suggesting the U.K. government "sexed up" the intelligence dossier leading to war in Iraq.
Robert Amsterdam: the failed egocentric defence strategy of a Russian oligarch’s spin doctor
Robert Amsterdam, an American lawyer specializing in lobbying campaigns for (the rich and famous) corruption inductees around the world, doesn’t like to remain in his clients’ shadow. Amsterdam, the first judiciary spin doctor, became famous with two high profile cases: the defence of Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and of Thailand's former Prime Minister and richest man, Thaksin Shinawatra.
In both cases, Robert Amsterdam chose to place himself as the main character of the judiciary drama and made a symbol out of his clients. Instead of dismantling the prosecution's weaknesses, he deliberately made his clients look like martyrs.
He claimed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for instance, was a pioneer of Russian democracy and a victim of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. He also pretended that Thaksin was the only democratic proponent in Thailand. Not the best way for them to be free.
Mixing true and false information in an attempt to attract media attention to his clients (and ultimately to him) made Robert Amsterdam a lot more than a spin doctor: it made him a propagandist.
This strategy is a dead end. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is still in jail in Siberia and Thaskin lives in exile. But Amsterdam regularly makes headlines.