Pollster Recalls World Leaders and Their Vows

Posted February 23, 2009 at 5:15pm

Stanley Greenberg’s new book, “Dispatches From the War Room,” is part memoir, part historical narrative and part introspective on the role of pollsters and consultants in modern politics.

But given the buzz words and vows made during and after the 2008 presidential campaign, it could also be seen as a history of how hope, a desire for change and promises to the middle class have won elections in the past — and how those who made those promises discovered that making good on their words is much easier said than done.

Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, writes of his experiences working with five men — former President Bill Clinton, former South African President Nelson Mandela, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. However, somewhat disconcerting themes appear throughout each narrative, including a need for hope, renewed commitments to the middle class and fixing a broken economy. These pledges are not troubling in and of themselves, but given the current political climate in the country, the struggles Greenberg recounts as these men attempt to effect the promised changes are unsettling.

Particularly stirring are scenes from the early days of the Clinton administration. The elation of having won a presidential race that put a Democrat back in the White House begins to fade as various approaches to economic problems divide the staff and issues become muddled.

Greenberg writes of his own frustration at the Clinton team getting away from its campaign promises, and he then recalls the former president’s declaration that, “We’ve lost track of why we ran.”

It’s difficult to not compare some of the language from Greenberg’s experiences to what is happening in Washington today, but Greenberg seems confident the Obama administration will stay on task.

“The sense of crisis has concentrated” efforts to improve the economy, Greenberg said in an interview. Obama is focused “like a laser” on the situation, and the “mandate is clearer” for what needs to be done than it was during the Clinton years, he said. Interestingly, “like a laser” is how Greenberg also describes Clinton’s economic focus in the book.

In “Dispatches From the War Room,” Greenberg moves deftly from Clinton-era Washington to politically volatile South Africa, where he worked on Mandela’s presidential campaign. The Mandela chapter is written with candor and emotion, as Greenberg describes his own internal conflicts at certain points of the campaign and his impressions of the politically sophisticated South Africans.

Greenberg’s straightforward style when describing the tense and oftentimes dangerous campaigning in South Africa and Israel drive home the gravity of the work being done there, and frame more recent political conflicts in those countries.

In a chapter about Barak, for instance, Greenberg’s description of what was at stake in the election is a stark picture that illuminates the intensity of Israeli politics: “This was about people being blown up in markets, bus stations, and nightclubs; it was about the existence and acceptance of the nation; it was about how Palestinians and Jews end their war; it was about whether this was a theocracy or secular democracy or something in between,” he writes.

Such insightful passages on the state of politics in these international campaigns distinguishes the book, making it a valuable and nuanced read. The insider details of each candidates’ war room offer insight into a complex political process, but the blend of private recollections, facts and historical and biographical context are what make the book work.

Riveting as his political war stories are, Greenberg goes further than personal anecdotes and glimpses at his former clients’ rise to power. He also examines the complex relationships between politicians, pollsters and the public.

In the opening pages, Greenberg poses what he calls “the most troubling question”: “Is it possible politicians are turning to pollsters, consultants, and spin doctors not to better align themselves with shifting public sentiment, but to manage or even defy it, to avoid the public’s ultimate sanctions on election day?”

The author acknowledges that pollsters and consultants are not held in high esteem. By his admission, such characters are often seen as sly, almost mythical figures in political campaigns. While the reputation is not entirely undeserved, Greenberg sees himself as a conduit between politicians and the people.

“My mission is to have people influence leaders, not have leaders manipulate people,” he said.

“I think people are smarter than that,” he said. “I came out of this impressed with how smart people are. They’re very hard to spin on things that are important to them.”

“Dispatches From the War Room” is personal, frank and thought-provoking, prompting reflection on the past and framing conversations about the future of campaigning and governing.