I’m not one of these people who can claim “some of my best friends are Republicans.” I think I know more black people than I do Republicans. I have two Republican brothers: One is a pocketbook Republican, I think, and we rarely talk anyway, and the other is a very intelligent and passionate Dick Cheney neo-con with whom I always vow never to talk politics, but always do, and it always ends badly, as it most recently did with us screaming at one another in the middle of a residential street at 2:00 AM and me going back to the bed-and-breakfast I was staying at with my wife and drinking a tumbler of warm vodka just to calm my nerves.
But that’s another story. Although, back when he was a McGovern Democrat, he taught me the single-best lesson I ever learned in bi-partisan bonhomie with his maxim, “Just because I’m a Democrat and you’re a Republican doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. So, I’ll hug your elephant, and you can kiss my ass!”
In short, even though I was one of the first to salivate over a McCain 2000 candidacy in 1998 when I discovered his middle-of-the-road positions on several issues and heard his delightful stories on Imus In The Morning (“Senator Goldwater once said to me, ‘John, if I’d beaten LBJ in ’64, you wouldn’t have had to spend all that time in that Vietnamese prison camp.’ I said, ‘You’re right, Senator. It would have been a Chinese prison camp.’”), there won’t be a McCain bumpersticker on whatever car I’m driving in November.
Every now and then, though, comes a Republican I don’t mind so much. Of course, the gold standard is Oregon’s late and beloved Governor Tom McCall. He pioneered land-use legislation, championied the nation’s first bottle bill; said of the state’s first urban high-rise, “This is very nice. Let’s not do it again,” and welcomed out-of-state visitors to come to his beautiful state, spend their money, “but please don’t stay.” If John McCain has Republicans like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham ready to bolt the party, if Tom McCall were alive and happened to become the party’s standard bearer, they’d be dousing the whole house in gasoline and dropping a lit Zippo in their wake.
I like Chuck Hagel, the Senator from Nebraska. I’ve got mostly nothing but good-feeling for that neo-Libertarian nutpouch, Ron Paul. Governors Charlie Crist and Bobby Jindal could very well wind up sharing the ticket with John McCain, and I wouldn’t have a problem with them. But I can take them or leave them.
Then there’s Ed Rollins. I really like old Ed, and I always have, even when he was working tirelessly to elect Ronald Reagan to a second term. In his 40+ years in American politics, Ed has been the quintessential gun-for-hire, but never a whore. He’s truly believed in every candidate he’s ever supported, even if he comes to regret it sooner or later. He’s had magnificent triumphs and cringe-inducing embarrassments. Unabashedly profane, no stranger to bottles of scotch, and long known as one of the worst-dressed men in Washington, forget George W. Bush–this is the guy you could sit down and have a beer (or, more likely, ten) with. He grew up a boxer and street-fighter in industrial California, and reading his autobiography, Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms, you get the sense of a bygone era in American politics–when it was all about bloody mano a mano pounding and a handshake afterwards.
He was a party man and loyal, but rarely to a fault. He once offended the sensibilities of Republican Iowa Senator Roger Jepsen, during a White House push for an AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia in 1981. They had to twist several arms to get the deal done, including Jepsen’s. When asked during a course he was teaching how they turned Jepsen, Rollins mentioned offhand, “We beat his brains in.” Unfortunately, the questioner turned out to be a reporter for the Des Moines Register, and Jepsen was outraged when the comments came out. Rollins was very nearly fired by the White House, which needed all the friends it could get in Congress. He was woodshedded and ordered to go make peace with Jepsen.
Jepsen would have none of it, though, and played the man scorned card to the hilt. Rollins finally snapped, “Senator, if you want my ass, you’ll get it. But…if I’m fired, I’ll find a candidate to run against you in the primary and I’m going to beat your motherfucking ass right into the ground. You’ve never had someone like me running campaigns in Iowa. I’ll bomb your ass back to the Stone Age.” That was the end of Jepsen’s bluster.
His first week in Washington D.C. working for Ronald Reagan, he became a grudging mentor of young Lee Atwater, who had stormed into the Capital as a skinny young kid ready to start putting notches in his belt. “Who the hell is this kid?, I thought. I figure Billy the Kid’s victims must have thought the same thing before he shot them down in cold blood.” Atwater was his deputy for the next several years, and Rollins was always suspcious that a knife could be jammed between his shoulder blades at any second.
He rarely copped to being intimidated by anyone. Except one person: First Lady Nancy Reagan. Rollins’ rough edges and rumpled appearance immediately aroused suspicion in Mrs. Reagan, who put a premium on Beverly Hills elegance in all of the President’s inner circle. Rollins knew all too well that if anyone could hand him his head, it was the First Lady. Once, when he was on the Presidential helicopter as it landed at the Reagan Ranch, the Reagan dogs mobbed Nancy a bit too enthusiastically, and knocked her ass over teakettle on the ground, raising her dress up over her shoulders. “In the seconds I had to make a decision, I knew there were only two choices. I could run over, solicitiously pick her up, and pull her dress down with as much aplomb as I could muster–and the First Lady would know forevermore that I’d seen her petticoats. Or, I could quickly climb back onto the helicopter and pretend I hadn’t seen anything. It was a no-brainer. I scurried back up the steps and hid inside the chopper while ranch hands and Secret Service agents dusted her off.”
The Reagan Years were the high-water mark of Rollins’ career as a political strategist. He backed Jack Kemp in 1988, and then made one of the most head-scratching political decisions of his life when he teamed with former Jimmy Carter Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan, to run H. Ross Perot’s campaign in 1992. He made another decision he would regret in 1994, running Michael Huffington’s failed campaign against Dianne Feinstein for the U.S. Senate seat in California, before leaving them to the ruins of their own making and joining George Nethercutt’s successful bid to unseat House Speaker Tom Foley in Washington state. He’s retired several times, but like any old pol, can’t stay out of the game for long.
He resurfaced again in 2008 working for the Presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee. “He’s praying for me, and I’ll help him brawl” (Huckabee responded, “He is! And I’m teaching him how to turn the other cheek!”)
“I admire the fact that he’s trying to change the environment,” Rollins says of Huckabee. “What I have to do is make sure that my anger with a guy like Romney, whose teeth I want to knock out, doesn’t get in the way of my thought process.” With that comment alone, he gets a thumbs-up from me.