Consultant’s Career: From Shrum to Thomas Jefferson

Posted June 16, 2004 at 6:42pm

After helping political neophyte Capri Cafaro win a heated five-way Democratic House primary in Ohio last March, Washington, D.C.-based media consultant Julian Mulvey has turned his attention to a far more pivotal campaign in American history: the presidential election of 1800.

Mulvey’s first-ever off-Broadway play, “Rush’s Dream,” premiers at the HERE Arts Center in Manhattan’s SoHo tonight. It tells the true story of how Founding Father Benjamin Rush reconciled old grievances and rekindled the friendship between the nation’s second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who bitterly parted after a vicious, mudslinging election in 1800.

“This whole period of history was so fascinating for me, as both a consultant and a student of American government, I felt I couldn’t leave it alone,” said Mulvey, who conceived and wrote the play in 2003 as “a good off-year election project.”

Such avid interest in early American politics is fitting for a man who has spent the past four years developing “message strategy” for a slew of modern-day political candidates.

In 2000, Mulvey got his feet wet as a TV ad producer for Shrum Devine Donilon, the media consulting firm behind Al Gore’s presidential campaign. That year, he helped Jon Corzine (N.J.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Mark Dayton (Minn.) win Senate elections, and he worked on the re-election campaigns of Reps. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Tom Allen (Maine).

Mulvey went on to co-found eighteenth street MEDIA, which produced the Democratic National Committee’s highly publicized, highly criticized online flash animation cartoon “Social Insecurity.” There, he also directed an award-winning documentary, “Quiet Revolutionary,” about the life of civil rights-era federal Judge Harold Greene, before forming his own consulting firm, julianmulvey.com, at the beginning of this year.

Now, with an array of credentials and accolades under his belt, the British-born media consultant is turning an eye to the early beginnings of American politics.

A first-time playwright, Mulvey originally got the idea for “Rush’s Dream” while reading Joseph Ellis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Founding Brothers,” which documents the often turbulent relationships forged between such historical icons as the gun-dueling Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. After culling stacks of old letters from books and the archives of the Library of Congress, Mulvey composed the play’s dialogue using the original language from the correspondences of Jefferson, Rush, John and Abigail Adams, and other contemporaries.

Mulvey says he “burned the midnight oil” to write the play, often working from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. only to come into work exhausted the next day.

But his tireless effort yielded some interesting discoveries.

For one, Jefferson and Adams were certainly not above hitting below the belt in a political campaign. “Rush’s Dream” reveals these men embroiled in some of their most scurrilous exchanges.

In one scene, Jefferson’s hired scandalmonger, James T. Callender — who later turned on Jefferson by publishing rumors of his sexual liaisons with slave mistress Sally Hemings — writes of the incumbent President Adams, “He is a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Cafaro, the 26-year-old challenger to Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) whom Mulvey is hoping to elect, may have similarly nasty exchanges in Ohio this year. But Mulvey believes, if anything, negative political campaigning reached its nadir at the turn of the 19th century, not the 21st.

“We talk about political attack ads as if they keep getting worse each election cycle, but, quite frankly, you see the play and you realize they might actually be getting better,” he says. “Some of the things they were saying 200 years ago make the attacks that candidates throw around these days look like milquetoast.”

Writing “Rush’s Dream” has also allowed Mulvey to put his own work in contemporary American politics into a historical perspective.

“We imagine this period as a Golden Age, brought about by men of almost mythological stature, but that romanticized idea glosses over much of the real picture. The Founding Fathers had their own personal quibbles and insecurities like everyone. … In that sense, men like Jefferson and Adams were no different from the politicians of today.

“As much as things change, they stay the same,” he says.

“Rush’s Dream” plays in New York until July 4, exactly 178 years to the day Jefferson and Adams died within hours of each other.

Mulvey, who now plans to direct message strategy for Democratic Congressional candidate Joe Mayer in Minnesota and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley in Missouri, hopes to bring his play to Washington next summer.