Perspective from Larry Rasky: I met Dale Leibach around New Year’s 1980. A few weeks earlier I had been invited by my mentor, the legendary political PR wizard Ed Jesser, to join the press staff of Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign in Des Moines. It would be the beginning of my long love affair with the Iowa caucuses, the place where politics evolves to its highest art form every four years. Four years earlier…
I met Dale Leibach around New Year’s 1980. A few weeks earlier I had been invited by my mentor, the legendary political PR wizard Ed Jesser, to join the press staff of Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign in Des Moines. It would be the beginning of my long love affair with the Iowa caucuses, the place where politics evolves to its highest art form every four years. Four years earlier, Jimmy Carter, with the help of Dale’s then-boss, the late-great Jody Powell, had used a surprising victory in the then-virtually unknown Iowa caucuses, to propel him to the presidency of the United States. Things ain’t been quite the same ever since.
Dale had been shipped in with a cadre of young White House staffers to fortify the ranks of the Carter campaign in the all-out-war that was unfolding between President Carter and Senator Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination. The fact that the campaigns were just ramping up about a month or two before the caucuses is one small measure of the evolution of presidential politics during this brief moment of time. As I write, the Ready for Hillary crowd is already out there trying to set up shop in every village from Sioux City to Davenport.
Like a lot of the new recruits in both campaigns, I had just come off the 1979 Boston mayoral race, one of the premier farm systems for national campaigns. One of my heroes, Jack Germond, called politics “an export industry in Boston.” My candidate for mayor and still my friend, State Senator Joe Timilty had been the first major elected official in Massachusetts to endorse the peanut farmer from Georgia when he first ran four years earlier (Teddy was not running in ’76), giving Joe loose control over Massachusetts patronage during Carter’s presidency, a fact which didn’t amount to too much from the Georgians, but did land me a job on the campaign.
Anyway, I was in awe of Dale and my new colleagues. They were smart, quiet, relentless and savvy about giving reporters the information they needed without saying too much. Political press was very personal in those days. Relationships mattered.
When we got to Iowa then, we had no cell phones, let alone smart phones. There were no laptops, no desktops, no search engines and no e-mail. We could have as many as two dozen surrogates (first family and cabinet-level officials) traveling the state at any one time. Each one required a daily schedule to be typed out on a Selectric and hand delivered to the hotel rooms of the press corps camped out around Des Moines or the local TV stations in whatever market was near the event site. One of my main jobs was heading out with our hand-held reel-to-reel to record the surrogate speeches. I would come back to the office, listen to the speech, find a useable 30-second sound-bite that I would splice out of the speech, attach it to two blank tapes on either end, run a wire from the tape recorder to a telephone and send out the audio one caller at a time to every radio station in Iowa that would take it and claim it as their own.
In 2007, as I was traveling the same state one day with then-Senator Joseph Biden, I looked down at my Blackberry (how quaint!) to notice a blog (unique in those days) by Jeff Zeleny, then making his mark covering the campaign for the Times. The headline read something like: Campaign Surprise: Times Endorses Biden. I opened it immediately.
The story read that the very first newspaper endorsement of the 2008 Iowa caucuses had gone to Joe Biden. It was in the fall as I recall so it was very early for a newspaper to be endorsing. And picking Biden over Clinton, Obama and Edwards was no small thing, especially to us.
I realized at that moment how much things had changed. Every reporter and every operative in the state would be opening that message simultaneously. Then I realized something else. It was not the New York Times that had made the endorsement. It was the Storm Lake Times in Storm Lake, Iowa.
Still, it was a big deal. Every media outlet was in some ways an equal when it came to delivering a piece of information. If you were on somebody’s RSS feed or Google Alerts, your name mattered and the news about you or from you travelled fast. And that was just in the press, let alone the disintermediated field operation, a fact the Obamites were well aware of. The political business had changed forever. The rest of the world would soon follow.
Dale, back to Washington after Reagan beat Carter, soon joined Jody Powell in building the first great, truly-modern PR firm, which became Powell-Tate. Eleven years ago, he teamed up with his immensely-talented, former colleague Amanda Deaver to found Prism and, with Dale’s former, White House colleague, the veteran ABC News executive Rex Granum built it into one of the great public affairs shops in our nation’s capital, the home of public affairs.
I returned to Boston in 1980 and opened my first consulting firm and in 1982, thanks to an introduction by my Carter campaign colleagues John and Rick Rendon, was introduced to Joe Baerlein, who was running Evelyn Murphy’s ground-breaking campaign for Lieutenant Governor. Fifteen years later, on my second company, I got into a discussion with my friend Mr. Baerlein about teaming up and today, seventeen years down the road, with our amazing partner Ann Carter, our longtime chief lieutenant Caroline Baker, Joe’s then young colleague George Cronin, who himself has become an indispensable partner, and many others past and present, we’ve built a pretty good firm ourselves.
And now, after a lot of lessons learned and a lot of discussions over the years, we’ve decided to put Rasky Baerlein and Prism together. This isn’t the first time the group of us talked about doing this. Dale and I stayed friends and, over the years, worked together on campaigns and helped each other with clients. But, with the evolution and opportunities in our industry, it is definitely the right time.
We’ve all changed some over the years and learned a lot about the way technology can be used to change public opinion. But some things haven’t changed. Relationships still matter. Doing business with people you trust still matters. To clients, to the media and to us.