Hillary Clinton has a coterie of influential advisers. There's her husband, über-Washington insider and former head of the Democratic National Committee Terry McAuliffe. There are A-list policy wonks like former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin. But perhaps the most important figure in the campaign is her pollster and chief strategist, Mark Penn, a combative workaholic. Penn is not yet a household name, but perhaps he should be. The campaign is polling constantly, and Penn's interpretation of the numbers will in large part decide her political direction.
Yet Penn is no ordinary pollster. Beyond his connections to the Clintons, he not only polls for America's biggest companies but also runs one of the world's premier PR agencies. This creates a dilemma for Hillary: Penn represents many of the interests whose influence candidate Clinton--in an attempt to appeal to an increasingly populist Democratic electorate--has vowed to curtail. Is what's good for Penn and his business good for Hillary's political career? And furthermore, can she convincingly claim to fight for the average American with Penn guiding strategy in her corner?
Despite the risks he poses, it's easy to figure out why Hillary clings to Penn. "They were the ones who said 'Make the '96 election about nothing except V-Chips and school uniforms,'" says a former Clinton adviser.
It was said that Penn was the only person who could get Bill Clinton and Bill Gates on the same phone line. Penn's largest client was Microsoft, and he saw no contradiction between working for both the plaintiff and the defense in what was at the time the country's largest antitrust case. A variety of controversial clients enlisted PSB. The firm defended Procter and Gamble's Olestra drug from charges that it caused anal leakage, blamed Texaco's bankruptcy on greedy jurors and market-tested genetically modified foods for Monsanto. Penn invented the concept of "inoculation," in which corporations are shielded from scandal through clever advertising and marketing. Selling an image, companies realized, was as important as winning a legislative favor. (continues....)
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(...continued) A host of prominent Republicans fall under Penn's purview. B-M's Washington lobbying arm, BKSH & Associates, is run by Charlie Black, a leading GOP operative who maintains close ties to the White House, including Karl Rove, and was former partners with Lee Atwater, the political consultant who crafted the Willie Horton smear campaign used by George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Black regularly disparages the Clintons; he has called Hillary a "martyr figure" and said Bill "tearfully embraced...government preferences for [a] homosexual lifestyle." In recent years Black's clients have included the likes of Iraq's Ahmad Chalabi, the darling of the neocon right in the run-up to the war; Lockheed Martin; and Occidental Petroleum. In the summer of 2005 he landed a contract with the Lincoln Group, the disgraced PR firm that covertly placed US military propaganda in Iraqi news outlets. The agreement, according to Intelligence Online, allowed the Lincoln Group to "tap into BKSH's extensive contacts in the Republican administration." When asked by The New Yorker if there was too much cronyism in Iraq, Black responded, "I just wish I could find the cronies."
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