There is a sad, fascinating, hilarious article in The Atlantic about Frank Luntz, a “public-opinion gure” who has been a highly effective servant of the Republican party since the largely content-free, package-rich Contract With America triumph of 1994. In the article, Luntz reveals to Writer Molly Ball that he is having some sort of crisis–in this case, an existential crisis that strikes to the very core of his being. Luntz, who possesses the ad man’s minor genius of being able to come up with a phrase that crystalizes the inchoate feelings of the masses, has come to the conclusion that Americans not longer persuadable–that “America is too divided, President Obama too partisan, and the country in the grip of an entitlement mentality that is out of control.”
Ball captures Luntz deep in a funk of disillusion. Writes Ball, “It was what Luntz heard from the American people that scared him. They were contentious and argumentative. They didn’t listen to each other as they once had. They weren’t interested in hearing other points of view. They were divided one against the other, black vs. white, men vs. women, young vs. old, rich vs. poor. “They want to impose their opinions rather than express them,” is the way he describes what he saw. “And they’re picking up their leads from here in Washington.” Haven’t political disagreements always been contentious, I ask? “Not like this,” he says. “Not like this.” Luntz knew that he, a maker of political messages and attacks and advertisements, had helped create this negativity, and it haunted him. But it was Obama he principally blamed. The people in his focus groups, he perceived, had absorbed the president’s message of class divisions, haves and have-nots, of redistribution. It was a message Luntz believed to be profoundly wrong, but one so powerful he had no slogans, no arguments with which to beat it back. In reelecting Obama, the people had spoken. And the people, he believed, were wrong. Having spent his career telling politicians what the people wanted to hear, Luntz now believed the people had been corrupted and were beyond saving. Obama had ruined the electorate, set them at each others’ throats, and there was no way to turn back.”
I’ve met Luntz on two occasions, and he is impressively smart, the kind of guy who is so much smarter than anyone else in the room that he literally squirms with impatience when his clients are slow to see the end point that he knows they will eventually reach ten minutes ahead. But his disgruntlement is that of a pop tunesmith whose songs aren’t selling ever since thee kids started listening to that damn rock and roll. Luntz is a confirmed free marketeer, and he seems to be having trouble adjusting to the fact that many people have concluded that the free market has not delivered the prosperity it has promised.
Or maybe it does deeper. Luntz is nothing if not a creature of Washington, of the point of view that power derives from finding the right combination of words. But starting with Reagan, and then continuing on through Gingrich, DeLay, Palin, Bachmann, the Tea Party and so on, Republicans have used words to gain power–and then to delegitimate power. And as far as the entitilement culture goes, it is ingrained nowhere more deeply than on Wall Street.
Luntz has a squat build, a big slab of a face, and a mop of light-brown hair. His affect is by turns boyish and hangdog. People meeting him for the first time always comment on the loud sneakers he typically pairs with slacks or a suit. This is by design: He began wearing them, he says, to divert people’s attention from his considerable girth. He found he enjoyed collecting designer sneakers, and now has more than 100 pairs—all of which he wears, even though some are rare editions worth more than $1,000. Luntz is a collector. Before moving to Las Vegas this month, he spent most of his free time in a $6 million mansion in Los Angeles crammed with American political artifacts and politically themed decor. It also has a bowling alley. Luntz’s house in Northern Virginia is similarly crammed, but with pop-culture collectibles. (He also keeps an apartment in New York City.)
Luntz lives alone. Never married, he tells me he is straight (and that no reporter has ever asked him about his sexual orientation before), just unable to sustain a romantic relationship because of all the time he spends on the road. “My parents were married for 47 years. I’m never in the same place more than 47 minutes,” he says. When I point out he’s chosen that lifestyle, he says, “You sound like my relatives.”
Luntz did political polling for Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary campaign and Ross Perot’s independent presidential bid, but he became truly famous when he hitched his star to Newt Gingrich, helping draft the Contract With America and advising Gingrich’s crusading Republican majority. He considers Gingrich and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, another former client, his most important political mentors. In the ’90s, he became known as the man who could sell any political message by picking the right words. “Estate tax” sounds worthy and the right thing for a democracy to do, but “death tax” sounds distasteful and unfair. “Global warming” sounds scary, but “climate change” sounds natural or even benign. Luntz became a well-compensated speaker, TV commentator, and convener of on-camera focus groups, which he led with manic curiosity to shed light on what the people really thought about political debates and presidential speeches. “It’s not what you say,” goes his oft-repeated slogan, “it’s what they hear.”
Luntz is famous not just on television—he has talking-head contracts with both CBS and Fox News, a rare arrangement—but among the political and business elite. When he walks into the Capitol Hill Club, he is beset by Republican members of Congress wanting to talk to him and soak up his aura of celebrity. He boasts that he speaks to at least one Fortune 500 CEO every day. Yet, in his telling, he is still the little guy, the outsider, the schlub—half anxious, half awed by the trappings of power. He tells of being summoned for a conversation with Bill Clinton and being unable to enjoy the honor of the occasion because of the panic he felt at the president’s vise grip on his shoulder. “This is Bill fucking Clinton, asking me to deliver a message to the Senate majority leader, and I’m about to faint,” he recalls, ruefully. “Because I understand the significance of this conversation, and I am not worthy of it.”
Luntz’s work has always been predicated on a sort of populism—the idea that politicians must figure out what voters want to hear, and speak to them in language that comports with it. He proudly claims that his famous catchphrases, like branding healthcare reform a “government takeover” in 2010, are not his coinages but the organic product of his focus groups. The disheveled appearance, the sardonic wit, all add up to a sort of tilting against the establishment, an insistence that it listen to the Real People.
But what if the Real People are wrong? That is the possibility Luntz now grapples with. What if the things people want to hear from their leaders are ideas that would lead the country down a dangerous road?
“You should not expect a handout,” he tells me. “You should not even expect a safety net. When my house burns down, I should not go to the government to rebuild it. I should have the savings, and if I don’t, my neighbors should pitch in for me, because I would do that for them.” The entitlement he now hears from the focus groups he convenes amounts, in his view, to a permanent poisoning of the electorate—one that cannot be undone. “We have now created a sense of dependency and a sense of entitlement that is so great that you had, on the day that he was elected, women thinking that Obama was going to pay their mortgage payment, and that’s why they voted for him,” he says. “And that, to me, is the end of what made this country so great.”
“It seems like the Democrats are going so far overboard, and the Republicans are going nowhere. So I’m mad at both of them.”
To my ears, this sounds like rather standard-issue up-by-your-bootstraps conservative dogma. But to Luntz, it not a matter of left or right. He periodically comes under attack from the right for not toeing the Republican line, and has been critical of the party’s right wing. “It seems like the Democrats are going so far overboard, and the Republicans are going nowhere,” he tells me. “So I’m mad at both of them.” Increasingly, he says, he seeks to maintain relationships with members of both parties. His closest friendship in politics today, he says, is with a Democrat, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (disclosure: Bennet is the brother of Atlantic editor in chief James Bennet). “It’s not weird,” Luntz says. “He’s just a decent guy. We play foosball.”
Luntz’s political ideas, as far as I can tell, amount to a sort of Perotian rich man’s centrism, the type of thing you might hear from a Morning Joe panel or a CEOs’ retreat. We’ve got to do something about the deficit, for our children’s sake. We ought to have universal healthcare, but without forcing people to buy insurance through the government. We need immigration reform, but that doesn’t have to include a path to citizenship. The bankers who contributed to the financial crisis ought to be in jail, but we ought to stop demonizing the financial-services industry. To the tycoons who embrace them, these kinds of ideas are not partisan or ideological at all. They’re the common-sense plans we’d all be able to agree on if Congress would stop bickering and devote itself to Getting Things Done.
Most of all, Luntz says, he wishes we would stop yelling at one another. Luntz dreams of drafting some of the rich CEOs he is friends with to come up with a plan for saving America from its elected officials. “The politicians have failed; now it’s up to the business community to stand up and be heard,” he tells me. “I want the business community to step up.” Having once thought elites needed to listen to regular people, he now wants the people to learn from their moneyed betters.
Luntz’s populism has turned on itself and become its opposite: fear and loathing of the masses. “I am grateful that Occupy Wall Street turned out to be a bunch of crazy, disgusting, rude, horrible people, because they were onto something,” he says. “Limbaugh made fun of me when I said that Occupy Wall Street scares me. Because he didn’t hear what I hear. He doesn’t see what I see.” The people are angry. They want more, not because we have not given them enough but because we have given them too much.
Luntz is not sure what to do with his newfound awareness. He’s still best known for his political resume, but politics hasn’t been his principal business for some time: He still advises his friends here and there, but he no longer has any ongoing political contracts. (Corporations and television networks, not politicians, are his main sources of income.) He goes to as many NFL games as he can, where he sits in the owner’s box courtesy of onetime client Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, with whom he has developed a close rapport. “I don’t like this. I don’t like this,” he says, meaning D.C., the schmoozing, the negativity, the division. At football games, “People are happy, families are barbecuing outside, people are playing pitch and toss. A little too much beer, but you can’t have everything. They’re just happy and they’re celebrating with each other and it’s such a mix of people.” The first week of football season, he went to four games in eight days: Sunday night, Monday night, Thursday night, and then Sunday again.
Luntz would also like to break into Hollywood as a consultant, but he can’t get his calls returned. He can’t figure it out. He thinks it must be a partisan thing. In every other industry, he says, 90 percent of his presentations result in a contract. But in entertainment, he pitches and pitches and pitches (he wouldn’t tell me which studios or shows) and things seem to go well, but then there’s some excuse. Not this time. Not the right project.
If he could, Luntz would like to have a consulting role on The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama. “I know I’m not supposed to like it, but I love it,” he says. He feels a kinship with Jeff Daniels’ character, the gruff, guilt-ridden, ostensibly Republican antihero, who is uncomfortable with small talk and driven by a “mission to civilize.” “I love that phrase,” Luntz says. “That doesn’t happen in anything that we do.”
When he’s at home in Los Angeles, The Newsroom is the high point of Luntz’s week. He turns off his phone and gets a plate of spaghetti bolognese and a Coke Zero and sits in front of his 85-inch television, alone in his 14,000-square-foot palace. “That’s as good as it gets for me,” he says.
But today, Luntz is late for his afternoon talk to a D.C. lobbying shop. “Am I whining?” he asks. “Just say it if I am.” I tell him it sounds like he’s going through something very real, very human. “I am nothing if not human,” he says, breaking into a grin. “I’m super-human. I’m a human-and-one-fifth. My God, if I’m not careful, I’ll have to go not to the big and tall but the big and bigger store!” And then he walks away toward the elevator, off to do his soft-shoe routine for another audience of the rich and powerful.