NOVEMBER 5, 2007
One of the little-foreseen consequences of the Internet era is the
decline of an august institution called the spin room, the place to
which campaign aides run after each presidential debate to talk up
their boss's performance. There was a time, not too long ago, when
the typical spin room looked like the floor of the New York Stock
Exchange on a day that the Dow was in freefall. But, with campaigns
now mostly engaging in e-mail combat, and with reporters rushing to
post instant wrap-ups on their websites, there's little appetite
for face-to-face interaction. You could have taken a reasonably
sound nap in the spin room after several recent debates.One such debate took place at Dartmouth College in late September.
The first high-profile spinner on the premises, Mark Penn of the
Clinton campaign, stands around in his pinstriped suit for five or
ten minutes before a reporter even asks him a question. Tradition
has it that an eminence like Penn must be trailed by a grunt
carrying a large sign with his name on it. This is so he'll be
identifiable amid the mob of reporters crowding the room. But
tonight it looks like some kind of sight-gag.
Maybe ten or 15 minutes later, a dark, droopy-shouldered man with
graying brown hair struts into the room, wearing ratty jeans and a
tweedy-looking blazer. Though he has no sign-carrier, the man would
be immediately recognizable to most veteran reporters as Joe
Trippi--the guru behind Howard Dean's miraculous rise and (some
would say) his fall. Trippi became a minor celebrity during the
2004 campaign, when he used the Internet to set fund- raising
records for Dean and lead a rebellion of peasant-bloggers. Problem
is, there don't appear to be many people who covered the '04
campaign in the room tonight. For several minutes, the only people
questioning Trippi are me and an earnest British journalist, who
sounds like he's following his first U.S. election.
Trippi is in an expansive mood nonetheless. John Edwards, whose
campaign Trippi now more or less oversees, has had what, by all
accounts, is the best night of the three major candidates. But the
real topic of conversation is Barack Obama, who disappointed once
again. Trippi is eager to join the speculation about what's going
on with him.
Most campaign sharpies speak in sound bites. An unusually helpful
one will toss in some tactical insights or off-the-record gossip.
What makes Trippi so compelling is that he spins out full-blown
theories, which he narrates with great passion. Perhaps his most
famous theory was immortalized by the journalist Richard Ben Cramer
in What It Takes, his epic about the 1988 campaign. It starred Dick
Gephardt in the role of Dick Gephardt and former senator Paul Simon
in the role of Bambi, and it concluded with Trippi telling Cramer:
"So, in the NBC debate, Gephardt takes out a .357 Magnum and blows
Bambi's head off."
Tonight's theory goes something like this: For the better part of a
year now, the press has treated Obama to fawning coverage, the kind
of attention that would cost you half a billion dollars to buy
yourself, and even then it wouldn't be as effective. And, yet,
after a brief moment of upward movement, Obama is back to around 20
percent in many state and national polls. "So, somebody's got to
explain to me-- I don't care if he's got
$400 million," Trippi says. "You can't replicate what the media did
At a certain point, I feel obliged to ask about the Obama
organization in Iowa, which the scuttlebutt says is the most
sophisticated of all the major candidates'. That's when I'm
reminded of a second thing reporters love about Trippi: his
distaste for the norms of campaign syntax. I see a small grin form
on his face, and Trippi, whose voice normally sounds like a
combination of Kevin Costner and Kermit the Frog, lapses into his
best prisoner-of-war impression: "Their organization is formidable.
I don't know how we're going to overcome it," he says.
The Brit's jaw drops. "That's your quote?"
"I'm saying that ironically, just so you know," Trippi responds.
"That's my quote, except it's ironic."
A few feet away, I see a rival spinner's eyes widen.
The last time I showed up at Trippi's farmhouse on the Eastern Shore
of Maryland was February of 2004. It was not long after Howard
Dean's spectacular meltdown in Iowa, which had led to Trippi's
ouster, and the mood was grim--for both of us. A few months
earlier, I had proclaimed the Dean campaign a juggernaut and Trippi
its driving force. True, I was hardly the only journalist to get
caught up in the moment. But I was probably the only journalist who
went on about it for 7,000 words. With a picture of Trippi on my
magazine's cover. Under the headline: the man who reinvented
campaigning. We sometimes struggled to make eye contact.
At the time, Trippi was being accused of everything from botching
Dean's Iowa strategy, to spending the campaign into the ground, to
lining his own pockets with outsized consulting commissions. Many
of these charges turned out to be either false or overstated, and
Trippi spent much of our interview debunking them. But the truth
was that, for a man whose boss was once such a sure bet it almost
seemed pointless to hold the primaries, Trippi didn't seem that
broken up about the way things had turned out.
At least not about Dean per se. Prior to Trippi, campaigns had
mostly used the Internet to do the same things they'd always
done--raise money, send information to voters--only slightly more
efficiently. Trippi had used the Internet as an interactive tool,
making people feel invested in the campaign the way they felt
invested in other online communities, like blogs and chat rooms.
These supporters would then recruit friends and relatives,
effectively doing the campaign's job for it. What really weighed on
Trippi was the idea that this online movement might be dismissed as
a fad. "All I want for someone to say is this thing worked," he
bleated. He seemed to take comfort in the dozens of letters pouring
into his mailbox from Deaniacs around the country-- via "snail
mail," ironically. One typical letter read: "Until you made Howard
Dean a known candidate and got me involved through the Internet ...
I was only stewing in my anti-Bush rage, not understanding how we
could ever get his ass out of the White House." The letter ended
with a reference to a tearful call Trippi had placed to msnbc as he
drove home from Vermont: "P.S. I listened a bit to the [Deborah]
Norville interview last night, and felt your pain as you choked up
It's safe to say that the mood had lightened by the time I trekked
back to Trippi's house a few weeks ago. His wife, Kathy Lash, and I
made small talk while Trippi sat on his couch wearing paint-stained
sweatpants and a ratty t- shirt, barking orders into a cell phone.
Trippi shooed her away once he hung up. We had less time than he'd
expected, he explained. Edwards was getting off a plane at five
o'clock and Trippi needed to have a memo ready for him by then.
Trippi's road back from the Dean debacle was almost as conventional
as his rise was unorthodox: He wrote a book, launched a new
consulting firm, advised a few foreign candidates and domestic
campaigns. What looked like a fad in early 2004 was, by 2006,
clearly the future, and Trippi's services were increasingly in
demand. (Leonardo DiCaprio will reportedly play Trippi in a
forthcoming movie version of the Dean campaign.) Trippi
guest-lectured at Northwestern for a class taught by Obama
strategist David Axelrod, and the two men briefly discussed how he
might join the campaign. Several weeks later, Trippi met with
Clinton strategist Howard Wolfson to discuss a possible role in
Hillaryland. When neither option panned out, an acquaintance put
Trippi in touch with John and Elizabeth Edwards. He flew down to
North Carolina for a three-hour conversation and accepted a job
with Edwards a few weeks later.
Trippi is that rare species: a basically honest guy who often sounds
like he's bullshitting you. There are times you're so certain
Trippi is telling a tale you practically roll your eyes. Then you
go back and verify the details ... only to discover it's true. To
wit, a story Trippi told me about John Vinich, a former U.S. Senate
candidate in Wyoming. In 1988, Vinich overcame a nearly 20- point
deficit in the final weeks of his campaign against Senator Malcolm
Wallop. "We made this five-minute spot. And it croaked Wallop, just
croaked him. ... It was just a masterpiece. One of the greatest
things I've ever done," Trippi recalled. The ad featured a
newscaster reading reports of Wallop's numerous sins: accepting
$5,000 from the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a man who condones mass
marriages; flying on the Moonies' jet; etc. "And so [the night of
the election], no one can believe it. Vinich is going to be the
U.S. senator from Wyoming. I mean, this is like out of nowhere."
Later, I pulled up a New York Times article from November 10, 1988.
Sure enough, Vinich and Wallop were headed to a recount after most
observers--the Times included--had written Vinich off. (Wallop
eventually pulled out the victory.)
This is the dilemma I face as I try to figure out how, at some point
this summer, Trippi's role within the Edwards campaign evolved from
media and Internet consultant to chief strategist. The story I hear
from people close to the campaign is that Trippi moved to fill a
vacuum that existed when he came aboard. Edwards's nominal campaign
manager, David Bonior, was a distant figure-- more like a
traditional campaign chairman than a day-to-day manager--while many
of Edwards's top aides from 2004 had undergone major life changes
(babies, weddings, high-powered jobs) and were reluctant to move to
North Carolina. By July, the campaign was hemorrhaging money, and
Trippi lobbied the Edwardses to hire two close associates: Chris
Kofinis, who became communications director, and Paul Blank, who
became deputy campaign manager. The move stopped the bleeding--and
effectively consolidated Trippi's control.
But, of course, you can't just tell a reporter you've taken over.
Here's what Trippi says when I ask if he's the guy in charge: "You
know, I'm not. I never wanted to run the Dean campaign in the first
place, and I'm not running this thing. ... I couldn't, even if I
wanted to." Then he pauses to acknowledge his own track record with
Dean, where he also started off as a consultant and ended up as the
boss. "Even if I didn't want to run this like I didn't want to run
the Dean campaign, and I was sort of thrust into it, I can't play
that role. I'm really one of the three strategists for the thing,
with [pollster] Harrison Hickman and [the other deputy campaign
manager] Jonathan Prince."
The thing to understand about Joe Trippi is that being an underdog
is absolutely central to his identity. Trippi's parents divorced
when he was three months old, and his mom worked two waitressing
jobs to put food on the table. Twenty-two years later, he dropped
out of college to work as an organizer for Ted Kennedy's
presidential campaign. It is, in other words, no surprise that he
would see himself as an outsider. What's sometimes surprising is how
pervasive the feeling is. At the height of the Dean phenomenon,
when the world was ready to crown Dean the nominee, Trippi favored
allusions to For Love of the Game, a movie about a washed-up
pitcher on a lousy team who somehow pitches a perfect game against
the Yankees. "We stink!" the Deaniacs would yell, adapting a line
from the movie. "But we're the best team in baseball right now."
Or take his decision to join the Edwards campaign. Trippi first
turned down the offer after meeting with John and Elizabeth in
North Carolina. It was probably a wise decision, given that he
suffers from Type 2 diabetes. (He also recently developed diabetic
neuropathy, a condition that triggers an intense stabbing
sensation; Trippi takes anti-seizure medication to control it.) A
few weeks after declining the job, Trippi heard the rumor that
Elizabeth's cancer had recurred and Edwards was getting out of the
race. "I've got msnbc going ... and, um, you know, I'm laying back
like this, going yeah, that's really too bad. I really liked them.
... So they walked out and said they were going to keep going."
Trippi was floored. "Here I am, feeling all sorry for myself with
my anti-seizure medicine, and they can go." Finally, Trippi said to
himself, "Dude, you're fifty-one. You spent your whole life trying
to make a difference in politics. And you can make a difference
with them. And they're going to soldier on with this. Get up. Go to
the phone. Call."
In this sense, Trippi's way of framing campaigns is almost a perfect
extension of his personality. The Dean campaign delighted in
attacking the Democratic establishment. Trippi quickly honed
Edwards's message along the same lines, which meant turning fire on
Hillary Clinton. An e-mail Trippi sent out in September called
Hillary a "corporate Democratic insider" and said that "there isn't
an American outside of Washington who would not be sickened" by a
fund-raiser she planned to hold involving lobbyists and members of
Congress. Edwards himself began channeling Dean, too. At a debate
in August, Edwards took a veiled shot at Hillary so Dean-like it
shocked some of his staffers. "You will never see a picture of me
on the front of Fortune magazine saying, 'I am the candidate that
big corporate America is betting on,'" Edwards said, alluding to a
cover story about Clinton. "That will never happen. That's one
thing you can take to the bank."
Even Trippi's personal dealings are colored by his
Jedi-versus-Death-Star worldview. The Dean campaign famously split
between Trippi and his tech-savvy loyalists, on the one hand, and a
corps of Vermont hands on the other. Trippi (probably correctly, in
retrospect) came to view the Vermonters as a dark force plotting
against him. The Edwards campaign, too, has developed Trippi and
anti- Trippi factions--with the latter composed mostly of veterans
of Edwards's first run for president. "If you weren't there for the
last cycle, it's not weird for you," says a former aide with ties
to the old guard. "But, for people who were there, there have been
One of the things you often hear said about Trippi is that, out of
every ten ideas he has, one or five or nine will be brilliant (the
numbers vary according to how the person feels about him), and the
rest will be disastrous. The trick, according to this view, is to
have people around him who can screen out the duds.
I think this is true but incomplete. The Democratic primary Trippi
is perhaps most obsessed with is 1984, when Gary Hart challenged
Walter Mondale. Trippi talks constantly about the race around
Edwards campaign headquarters, and he brings it up with me, too. On
February 28 of that year, Mondale enjoyed the largest-ever lead by
a non-incumbent in a nationwide poll. "Look at the banner headline
in The New York Times," Trippi tells me, searching for the article
on his laptop. "It's 'Mondale Leads Rivals by Record Level.' It was
Mondale fifty-seven, Jesse Jackson eight the morning of the New
Hampshire primary." And, yet, Hart somehow won New Hampshire and
went on to give Mondale the fight of his life.
On one level, the story is another example of Trippi's sympathy for
the underdog. But what's curious about it is this: Trippi actually
worked for Mondale that year. Listen to him tell it often enough,
and you get the impression that there's something else going on.
You begin to suspect Trippi would rather lose in style than win
boring or ugly--as though he were not so much an operative as an
aesthete who just happened to work in politics. Trying to engineer
a spectacular victory--trying to pitch that perfect game--may cause
you to crash and burn from time to time. But that's the price you
pay for art.
The night after the Dartmouth debate, I happened to overhear Trippi
at the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire. He was having a heated
phone conversation with another reporter, and, after he hung up, I
tapped him on the shoulder. "Great night for you guys last night,"
I said. He looked frazzled. "Man, you guys just don't understand
what we're trying to do with this public financing thing."
The "public financing thing" was Edwards's announcement earlier that
day, during an interview with CNN, that he planned to accept
federal matching funds. The decision would give him an infusion of
cash but impose strict spending limits. The press immediately
interpreted it as evidence that the campaign was broke, leading to
two days of negative stories. What left most people scratching
their head wasn't the decision itself--if you're broke, you're
broke, there's no way around it--but the timing. It was mystifying
that, at precisely the moment Edwards had put Hillary on the
defensive and was riding high, the campaign would raise unprompted
questions about its own viability. It had Trippi's fingerprints all
The fallout was swift among Edwards's money men. "I had thirty to
forty phone calls in a period of a couple hours," says Fred Baron,
Edwards's finance chairman. "[Trippi] apologized; I accepted. ...
It likely won't happen again." Still, some in the campaign smelled
blood and, over the next few weeks, worked to marginalize one of
When I later asked Trippi about the public financing announcement,
he seemed contrite. "I was one of the people that argued for doing
it that day. ... Harrison [Hickman] argued against it and should
deserve credit for being right. " But there had been a rationale:
Throughout the campaign, Edwards had been hectoring Clinton about
taking contributions from lobbyists. Each time he did, Clinton
would say that spurning lobbyists wasn't the answer; the answer was
public financing. Now that Edwards was going to have to take public
financing anyway, why not call her bluff? That's where Trippi came
in. "We had just had a great debate night. So now: 'Join us. You
said public financing. We're going to do it. Join us, or tell the
American people why you didn't mean what you said, '" he explained,
suddenly perking up. "What we didn't expect was the cynicism of the
press corps, which never even went and asked her. I mean, to this
day, I don't think there's a single reporter who went and said,
'Hey, he's doing this, are you going to join him?'"
It was a highly questionable assumption: Hillary had made it clear
for almost two years that she would be opting out of the public
financing system. Why would any reporter bother asking her about it
now? But, you had to admit, the logic had a certain elegance. You
could almost imagine some alternate universe where the press had
grabbed the story and spent the next two days pestering Hillary,
not Edwards. It was the same universe where Gary Hart had beaten
Walter Mondale and Howard Dean had won Iowa. That this universe
never existed didn't necessarily detract from Trippi's enjoyment of