I’m a huge fan of American politics, and one of the guys I find most fascinating is also one of the guys I found most repellent; Lee Atwater, the Republican Party strategist par excellence, who’s legend was so great that an author of fiction, Larry Beinhart, wrote a famous novel, American Hero, the premise of which is that Atwater, on his deathbed, gave instructions to “fake a war”, Gulf War I, to get his candidate, George H.W. Bush, re-elected as President.
Yes, on his deathbed he actually made a Damascian conversion to some form of humanity, but this was a guy who lived his life by the most abhorrent set of rules, and thought politics was war, and a dirty war at that. Not a nice guy, in other words.
Atwater, who some say was the greatest political operator of all time, once told his team that campaigns have one very basic premise; “You choose the ditch you are going to die in.”
What this means is simple enough, I guess. You pick the broad outlines of your strategy early, the absolute fundamentals, and you put everything you’ve got into them. Once you’ve started, once you’ve chosen those, you stick to them no matter what.
If you’ve screwed up, then so be it. You don’t just live with it … you die with it too.
Because nothing is worse, and more guaranteed to turn a defeat into a rout, than changing your whole focus in the middle of the game. It makes you look dumb. It makes you look indecisive. It makes you look weak.
I’ll get back to that, and to Lee Atwater, shortly.
Earlier this week, Dave King was granted fit and proper person status by the SFA, in a decision that was scandalous and heaps disrepute on the whole of our national sport. The people responsible for it are hiding behind a media that, by and large, is supporting their decision, for reasons of their own.
Some of them are too scared of King to protest strongly.
Others think King is the answer to all their prayers.
It’s clear the press, in general, has no intention of making an issue of this.
I cannot adequately express my contempt for them enough, them and the governing body, for their cowardice on this issue.
I also wonder what my own club is doing in the face of this.
I’ll leave that issue alone for the moment, but it needs revisiting and I’ll do it in due course.
The media has asked that we move on from this, in their arrogant way, because they already have.
They find us tiresome I guess, we who’re dedicated to giving the sport a better future, which is something beyond their narrow comprehension, as focussed as it is on a two-team system.
Actually, as we know, many of them are focussed only on one of those teams.
One team, and the shabby reincarnation of it, has been the fulcrum of this game for far too long, but for the last three years in particular.
Now Dave King sits at the helm of the board at Ibrox, where the media have wanted him since the hour Craig Whyte put the OldCo into the shredder.
He faces a mountainous task.
The media has no real interest in asking him how he’s going to tackle the difficulties in front of him, perhaps because they want to believe so much in the fairy dust he’s sprinkling.
They allow him to make vague claims, in the same way they allowed Whyte to, and then Green, as if nothing has been learned.
Nothing really has.
The King Camp has already pitched out its tents for the world to see. The club that rose from the shallow grave of the one that died, crippled by debts and in the end by a tax fraud, is now in the hands of a guy who treats money as cavalierly as the bankers who wrote the cheques for David Murray and whose own tax crimes are a well-known fact.
They have, quite literally, picked the ditch they’re going to die in.
The strategy is simple; raise money as fast as they can, and spend it even before it’s all the way through the door.
Chase Celtic, and European income.
If all that fails (and what could possibly go wrong?) what then?
Liquidate? Start again?
Well, the door is open for that, of course.
There appears to be no strategy beyond those simple concepts, although part of the licensing criteria on which the SFA just passed this joker is that clubs demonstrate some form of financial plan.
Let’s not allow minor details like that to get in the way, though, eah?
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
King, as I said, has coached all this in the vaguest terms possible. He has hired a PR company to get his story straight in the media, and they are performing with aplomb.
None of his pronouncements are being given the scrutiny they deserve, although he’s already shown a glib and shameless ability to slither out of past commitments and change his mind on the hoof.
Nevertheless, in true Atwater style the fundamentals stay the same.
I started this piece with Atwater for a very specific reason.
He was the pioneer of negative, nasty, politics. His “example” inspired the likes of Karl Rove and George W. Bush to play the game rougher, and tougher, meaner and more full-on than it had ever been played before.
Today the effects of what they unleashed dominate politics not just in the United States but across the world.
We just had a UK general election won, and lost, on the most destructive Atwater style tactics a British election has ever seen, playing on bigotry, fear, hatred and personal attacks.
These guys play in the dirty end of the field. That’s how they win.
Their example didn’t just infect politics, their chosen field.
Their work, their style, became study hall material for other professions, like business, like the law.
And some of their students are to be found right here in Scotland, at firms like Jack Irvine’s Media House, which famously suggested to its last Ibrox client that they try and push anti-Celtic stories as a means of weakening our club and diverting attention from scandals inside their own walls.
I’ve seen Rangers managers do the most atrocious things, and then claim a mantle of dignity.
The club has never had much shame. It was always all about winning.
There is no question in my mind that King and his people, but especially King, who’s war against the tax man in South Africa was waged in a way Atwater and Rove would have called their own, will be willing to do all of that, and more, in the coming months.
Atwater knew about people.
He knew about symbolism.
He understood speaking to the base, and appealing to the deep seated fears and hates swirling about in the electorate.
Watching a documentary about him recently, I was intrigued when one senior writer on a national newspaper watched an old political ad Atwater and his people had made and noted something interesting about it, something he said struck him at the time, and convinced him that the game had changed and descended into the gutter American politics has come to know.
The ad was about prison reforms, and in it a group of inmates is walking, head down, through a prison gate.
You know from the commentary that these are dangerous men, the sort you have to be on the look out for.
But just one of them raises his head to glare up at the camera, and the inference in this is so blatant, so vulgar, so deplorable, so in-your-face, that it’s almost stunning to think this ran in a national campaign in 1988 and not in some slimy turf war from the Deep South in the 50’s.
The guy who looks up at the camera is, of course, black.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out what the message is, and who the ad is designed for.
Atwater talked about “the southern strategy” in a famous recorded interview, where he discussed how he’d advised Reagan on the core message of his first Presidential campaign, in 1980. That campaign started in a place with historical significance; Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where, in 1964, three civil rights workers had been murdered by Klan members, including the local sheriff and his deputy.
The decision to go there was shamefully cynical, very deliberate, as was the language used.
In Atwater’s notorious interview, he dissects some of that, talking about how the use of the N word was no longer permissible, but you could talk your way around it, by discussing “bussing arrangements” and “states’ rights” and “welfare spending” … all things that were perceived as being more about race than economics or politics.
I thought of that listening to John Brown earlier in the week, talking on Radio Scotland.
Brown, as we all know well, is almost institutionally stupid and inarticulate to a fare-thee-well. Yet he was ridiculously aggressive during the interview, going on the offensive right from the start, something which is right out of the Atwater playbook.
If you ever get a chance, watch the footage of Bob Dole, who ran against Bush Snr for the Republican nomination, come apart as he faces a barrage of negative, Atwater inspired, questions at a press conference.
His anger is undisguised.
His disgust is written on his face.
All very natural … but not very Presidential.
Which is what Atwater was counting on.
Brown was clearly trying to elicit the same type of response from the men on the panel.
He seemed to be trying to pick a fight with Jim Spence, who he ludicrously accused of having an anti-Dundee bias, and he questioned the integrity and journalistic skills of Tom English, and he slated both of them for scrutinising King but not scrutinising previous directors.
This might not be regarded as unusual for Brown, but he seemed almost determined not to discuss the actual issues in a rational way … as if he was opeating on the level of a professional, who knows a shouting match generates heat but doesn’t allow answers to key questions. It’s a “plague on both your houses” thing, where the listener eventually switches off.
And it was very nicely done, too.
And yet, there was even more for the seasoned spin watcher to chew on.
Imagine my surprise then when he started using crudely refined language to decry the media and their lack of scrutiny of previous Ibrox boards, referring to them more than once as “Green and Whyte.”
That’s their names, right?
Yes … but his tone suggested something more, making those words into something deeper.
And I heard that and thought, “Hello … someone’s been briefing Brown, and giving him some scripted lines.”
It plays to the conspiracy theorist; that Rangers were destroyed, and Sevco brought low, not by spivs and chancers but by a co-ordinated campaign.
Yes, it’s a nod to whispers of the Unseen Fenian Hand.
Crude, but the way it was phrased … well, Brown is nowhere near smart enough to have come up with that on his own.
That kind of subliminal, not quite coded, speech … it’s out of his league.
It reeks of what some in the public relations business call “dark” or “black” PR.
Remember, the audience at large is not the intended target of such drum-beating.
It’s meant to play for a very specific audience, to the core support, to the base.
And we’re going to hear lots of it in the weeks to come.
Coded language. Veiled threats. Play the man, not the ball.
All semblance of rational discussion of what’s happened or what is coming will be completely drowned out by the squealing of the asylum inmates. I mean, what other reason is there for putting someone like Brown on the radio in the first place?
He is semi-rational when he’s at his best, and at worst a snarling nutjob right out of Bampots Central Casting.
Did they expect a serious discussion? What did they expect him to say on the show?
All this has a twin purpose, of course.
First is to make sure that King, and his club, are allowed to continue bending the rules and flaunting the regulations well into the future.
Two members of the Ibrox board should never have been declared “fit and proper” and I predict that the abuse of our system is only just starting and the PR war will be relentless.
But secondly, when you create “enemies” outside the club, generating headlines where you’re picking fights and stirring trouble then no-one is looking inside or asking questions of you and yours.
Did you wonder why the club, for no reason at all, at the loss of income at a time when they’re skint, decided to get into a very public spat with the SPFL over ticketing arrangements for the playoffs? Think about it. You’ll see the pattern emerge.
It’s because the media “beast” can only eat one thing at a time.
The old maxim in PR and politics says that “either we feed the beast, or the beast feeds on us.”
So you create conflicts where there are none.
You keep the hacks busy writing drama, and all the while you get the time and space and freedom to do whatever the Hell you’re doing behind the scenes.
Mark my words, no matter how appalling Sevco are on the pitch, their media and PR operation is already fully functioning and running at speed, and whatever state they end up in on the field they are going to give us the fight of our lives off of it.
And why not? Look at the world through their eyes.
They’ve seen the governing body capitulate completely. The media is either fully on board or too scared to criticise. The clubs who share the game with them seem powerless or unwilling to insist on the application of the rules.
Right now, the field looks clear. The opposition looks weak.
Atwater once said “Perception is reality.”
At this moment, we perceive Sevco the same way.
But a wounded animal can still lash out.
They would do well not to underestimate us.
I would strongly advise we do not underestimate them.
On the field they will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis.
But off of it … well, if things go as I suspect they will and the club hurtles towards the wall, this time the Ibrox operation will not go down quietly, and do its fighting afterwards as they try to claw their way from the grave.
No, they will try to scorch the Earth first, to take the whole game into the abyss with them, and with our present governors I would not bet against them inflicting epochal damage before they are done.
If they are going to die in the ditch, I suspect they won’t want to die there alone.
Be warned. And get ready.
You ain’t seen nothing yet.
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