Over 21 years into the 21st century, Ed Rollins is a name only remembered by political historians, beltway swamprats, and whatever I am. Actually, that’s a lie. Before I picked up this book, I had never heard of Rollins. Thanks to Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms, I will spend the rest of my politically aware life in awe of him, treasuring his insights and contributions, and applying them to my own.
I came upon this book while looking for another. Today’s era of partisanship and spectacular incompetence of leadership had taken me to a darker place, where I was drawn (and still am) to the darker sides of people we consider heroes, and also of interesting people we largely don’t. It’s easy to see the world as complex today in ways it wasn’t before, but the reality is that it was always complex and simplified only by a consensus of selective memory and hindsight. An example of such a “consensus,” so to speak, is the memory of Lee Atwater.
If you know that name, you will remember its association with some of the most infamously brutal and devastating negativity American politics has ever seen. The 1988 campaign to elect George H.W. Bush to the White House is remembered only for its scathing and searing attacks against Michael Dukakis, nearly all of which were unleashed, albeit indirectly by Atwater. His ads pulverized Dukakis for his furlough policy in Massachusetts that set free a convicted murderer named Willie Horton and allowed him to attack, rape, and rob another, as well as for an embarrassing photo op the Dukakis team arranged featuring him in an M1 Abrams tank.
Now I have long been of the opinion that Atwater’s tactics in 1988 were necessary; not because Michael Dukakis was some kind of dangerous radical or because it was some kind of transformational year, but because the mission and legacy of Ronald Reagan had to continue at just about any cost. They saved a Vice President from dooming himself, his Party, and his predecessor from being relegated to a merely pleasant mini-era in history. Ronald Reagan is the last president to be succeeded by a member of his own party, and those ads made that happen. Those ads are the reason Clarence Thomas sits upon the Supreme Court and has become its greatest, most righteous voice since Robert Jackson. Like I said; life is complicated.
But if you know Atwater’s name, you have most likely been taught that his political life is a troubled cautionary tale, and that his tactics brought shame not only to the presidency of Bush 41, but the nation as a whole for electing him. This is propaganda of the silliest kind, even if you don’t agree with me. Dukakis himself attempted to use the same tactics in the same year when he saw how effective they were against him (see Angel Medrano), and since then we’ve seen ads of Republicans like Paul Ryan rolling helpless grandmothers off cliffs. Nobody acted like those were off limits. And anything you might say about Lee Atwater and his attacks must take into account the legacy of “Daisy Girl” 1964 – aired against Barry Goldwater just after President Lyndon Johnson and his lies hoodwinked Congress into granting him the authority he wanted to intervene in the Vietnam War.
The audacious tenacity of Atwater may not necessarily be warranted in all eras, but it is certainly called for today. We have the worst inflation we have seen in 40 years. We have a wide open border that has resulted in anywhere from 3-5 million illegal crossings in less than two years. We have a military that the nation no longer admires, having become a new laboratory for social experimentation during and after the most humiliating withdrawals and ends to a war either in 50 years or ever. We have the worst crime wave in nearly three decades, born from summer 2020’s reign of terror in which cities burned, businesses were raided, ransacked, and looted, city zones were mobbed and “occupied,” and innocents were attacked. And all of these problems arrive to us not by happenstance, but against the backdrop, and in continuation, of one of the most disproportionate and hubristic governmental responses to a pandemic in the history of civilization. Our woes of today do not have a long, extensive history, but a shorter one – in which preexisting social, political, and cultural tensions that were manageable, even if ceaselessly dramatic, were aggravated and inextricably exacerbated by the diverging attitudes to Covid-19 and the draconian measures undertaken by privileged elites and their loyal minions supposedly in the name of “protection.” Against this, the Republican Party failed to protect the nation and the good people of the middle who were subjected to tyranny, terror, and the inherent taxation – both literal and psychological – that comes from such a deep rot within. To convince the dissatisfied and disaffected public that it has recognized these grave mistakes, that it understands the real pain experienced by ordinary Americans, and that it vows to restore accountability and never allow the country to fall into such a whirlwind of our own making again, the Republican Party can, by my estimation, easily be forgiven for the merciless nature of its messaging today.
If you’re looking for a “but,” you’ve missed my point. Everything written above is simply an honest explanation of my attitudes and preconceptions that drove me to seek out a book about the kid who was better known than anybody else in his time for scalping those he could instead have simply scratched. But as you can imagine, it is difficult to find a fair account. That’s when I found Rollins – a man to whom Lee Atwater was a peer and understudy until he wasn’t; a man who counted Atwater as both his most faithful lieutenant, and his most formidable and infuriating adversary. Rollins, however, as I would come to learn, is far more than that. He is perhaps the sharpest mind right of the center on all matters of politics, strategy, and the doings of Washington, D.C. He is a legendary consultant and former operative of the very political revolution I grew up admiring. He was the architect of the campaign that won the most electoral votes in American history, and the muscle behind nearly all of Reagan’s policy victories from 1981 through 1985. Other operatives, consultants, leaders, and advisors, left and right, are better known than he is, especially today. But they all have Rollins to thank for how they learned to do it.
How did he do it? Combat. Rollins’s book explains in no uncertain or ambiguous terms that to operate in politics is to take hits and hit back. It is to embrace an ugly bloodsport, to gravitate towards the thrills and challenges of fighting for a cause or a champion, and to steel yourself for an onslaught of punishment even when you’re successful. Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms is a book whose story is divided not by chapters, but “rounds.” Rollins fought enemies, allies, even his superiors and underlings. He fought in theaters and arenas as small as the college classroom and as big as America itself. He fought against his potential destiny of working a dock in Vallejo, CA for his whole life, and also against the recess of a great nation. He fought not because he is an inherently aggressive or pugnacious animal, but because it was wired into his blue collar upbringing.
The boxing metaphor is an ongoing theme that applies to the macro and the micro. Rollins describes everyone he encountered the way your coach would describe an opponent in the ring. “He has a mean left hook, but he’s partially blind to his right.” That’s the assessment you can expect him to give, and he gives it freely to just about anyone. He will tell you frankly when he thinks someone is overrated, or when he believes that someone’s skills have been overlooked. When he describes events in politics, such as a vote to sell radar planes to Israel or competing fundraisers before the 1982 midterms, he describes them in pure combat terms. His honesty is the virtue of the book but a vice of the man. Time and time again, these assessments and evaluations got him into hot water throughout his career. But as he writes them here, they are a series of little pictures that, taken together, add up to something of a small tragedy for an era.
At the time of his publication, though he does not explicitly say it, America lies in the wilderness. Rollins explains in depressing detail his disenchantment with Reagan’s second term and the direction of the country during Bush 41’s only term. In response, his own focus shrunk. He went from leading the greatest re-election bid in history to seeing that very White House fall to pieces from within in just two short years, hand the reins of the Revolution to a man who represented the opposite of nearly everything Reagan stood for, and then fade away to a bitter defeat by Bill Clinton and the Democrats. In his sullen state, he bought into Ross Perot and tried to revive what was left of Reagan’s energy that way. He failed. He did his part for the Party by helping Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey in 1993, and then George Neathercutt in Washington State in 1994, but the rest of the Republican Revolution that year passed him by. But by Round 15, the fight is over – not by a throwing of the towel, but a quiet exit. Rollins began his life in politics as idealistic as anyone had ever been. However much of that idealism he had left after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy (the first campaign he joined), it was gone forever by 1992. So ended, both for Rollins personally and America as a collective, an era that could have revived the country into an even stronger political, cultural, and financial state of being, but ultimately ended up looking scarcely different from the one that preceded it.
One of the next books I intend to read is Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Post-War Political Order by James Piereson. From what little I know of it already, books hardly get more “macro” than that. It is an account of our political history from the Founding era to the present that notes how democracies come about due to a strongly forged public consensus, which can endure even in a loosened form for generations until they eventually come undone. When such an undoing arrives, there exists opportunity for those who see it to revive and restore that pained nation and forge a new era of public consensus.
The two decades of hell America endured from 1963 to 1980, where the country first experienced recurring social and cultural warfare in its streets to rival nothing for a century, and then where everything became prohibitively expensive and depressing, resulted in the people looking inward for revival of their spirit. It could be found in movies like Rocky, Smokey and the Bandit, Star Wars, and Superman, and in the work of musicians like Michael Jackson. But politically, if that revival were to come from anywhere, it would come from Reagan. The Reagan era should have brought a decisive end to the unsustainable and inflationary folly of the New Deal’s expansionist welfare program as well as the social radicalism of the ’60s. But while it was still a great era, it failed to do that, much to America’s detriment, as it would eventually understand when the Obama era arrived. Although Rollins did not set out to explain this larger issue, Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms very much does. The White House in Reagan’s time (and especially in his second term) did not have a disciplinarian. It did not retain its fighting spirit after 1984. It snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after winning in a landslide for the ages, instead of the other way around, and the people running it by then were no longer Reagan’s but Bush’s. In this sense, George H.W. Bush really was a two-term president, with his first term spent as a Trojan Horse against Reagan. But when it came time for him to sink or swim as the head of his own White House, his bad habits of prioritizing loyalty over competence, and granting politically suicidal concessions to the Democrats in violation of his campaign promises, blew open the hull of the ship, split the Republican Party in two, and ushered in a Democrat who came within inches of passing a disastrous socialized health care plan until a movement that Bush had all but disavowed stopped it.
And so we drifted off into the wilderness, much like Rollins himself during the Bush 41 era. Rollins survived his rounds, but the Reagan Revolution did not.
Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms is not as ideological as my account of it probably makes it sound, and I don’t agree with everything in it. The Supreme Court is never mentioned even once. Reagan’s legacy overseas deserved a lot more consideration. Over a quarter century later, nearly every name mentioned by Rollins has become etched into memory because of things they were a part of later. Such is the nature of the constant storm and of those who dare to sail into it. Rollins himself has been both a Trump guy, a DeSantis guy, but probably most of all an anti-Romney guy. The partisanship that he decries in his closing has only grown since 1996 to the point where it is now regional in ways it had not been before. With the post-New Deal/post-World War II public consensus once again showing signs of impending doom, with the death of our veterans, and with the rift between the parties diverging in ways we have not seen since the Antebellum Era, the time may be ripe to resurrect, reform, and recreate the revolutionary conservative movement we last saw in 1980. To do so, we will need not only the ruthless creativity of Lee Atwater, but also the steely resolve that Rollins makes clear is needed for any fight. We will need the core fundamentals and practical wisdom you can find on every page of Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms. And we will need conviction to guide and lead from the great American middle.
Or, as Rollins himself says in Rules #12-13 in his Appendix: “Don’t tell your candidate what to believe; tell him how to say it;” and “If your candidate doesn’t believe in anything, don’t do the campaign; he’s going to lose.”