The modern conservative movement grew out of opposition to communism and a drive to reclaim individual and economic liberty. In that time, the intellectual leaders of this movement—from Russell Kirk to William F. Buckley—have been immortalized in the conservative canon. However, the kinetic energy of the movement was supplied by millions of activists and professionals, many of whom never got their due and whose names seem destined for the dustbin of Washington political history.
Enter Arnold L. Steinberg, a long time politcical consultant who was one of those men who made a career of advancing conservative principles during the headiest time of the movement. His new memoir, Whiplash! From JFK to Donald Trump: A Political Odyssey, is a lengthy, anecdote-driven grand tour of the American Right, and serves as a textbook for campaigns, with a deep knowledge of the personalities, issues, and strategies that helped launch and kill careers over the last 40 years.
Steinberg was born and raised in Los Angeles, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who owned a grocery store. He attended public schools. He repeatedly uses the term “government schools” for their overreaching bureaucracy. He first became involved in politics as a 13-year-old when he rode the bus to downtown Los Angeles to volunteer for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, but eventually Barry Goldwater became his candidate and there was no turning back.
During the 1960s, opposition to communism was the glue that held the conservative movement together. Steinberg recounts a time when he debated communist Bettina Aptheker on the campus of Cal-Tech. While he fails to mention how this opportunity came about, he gives us insight into how to debate an extremist that can easily be used today: “Insist the communist defend the violence and repression of communist regimes. Find a rhetorical line they won’t cross.”
Throughout Whiplash!, Steinberg repeatedly mentions his role in helping to elect James L. Buckley, brother of William F. Buckley, to the U.S. Senate in 1970. Buckley was elected on the Conservative Party ticket and won an unlikely victory over Democratic Rep. Richard Ottinger and incumbent Republican Sen. Charles Goodell, who had been appointed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller following the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
In discussing the Buckley campaign, Steinberg offers numerous insights in running a campaign in a big state with a diverse population. He stresses the importance of establishing coalitions with public servants such as police and firefighters and the ethnic and religious auxiliaries of those services. Steinberg explains the importance of developing relationships with the print and broadcast media, including weekly newspapers, which had been roundly ignored by previous campaigns.
Even in a winning campaign, there are setbacks. The Buckley campaign’s radio and TV advertisements ended with the tagline “Isn’t it time we had a Senator?” The tagline was meant to appeal to President Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority. Some on the left decried the tagline as divisive and even racist. It was one of the first times Steinberg would feel the sting of a racism charge in a campaign, even when it did not apply.
Steinberg also managed Robert K. Dornan’s campaign for Congress in California in 1976. Dornan, who went on to serve in Congress for 18 years, was known for his staunch defense of the right to life and his equally rigorous opposition to pornography. Prior to the election, Dornan travelled to West Virginia to speak at a rally on the content of school textbooks. Dornan’s Democratic campaign opponent, Gary Famillian, aired a radio advertisement with the sound of gunshots telling listeners that Dornan went to West Virginia to incite violence.
At Steinberg’s recommendation, Dornan filed a defamation lawsuit against Famillian. The suit was filed at the end of the day on a Friday and immediately leaked to the press. The weekend coverage was intense and beneficial. In order to gain a psychological advantage, Dornan named as many Famillian aides as possible as defendants. They were all served with the lawsuit in the middle of the night. The tactic worked when a young aide who was named as a defendant became racked with guilt and came forward to state that Famillian himself knew the claims in the advertisement were false. According to Steinberg, a settlement was reached and Dornan used the money to make a down payment on a house.
In 1986, Steinberg helped actor Clint Eastwood win the election for mayor of Carmel, California. It generated national coverage, but as Steinberg notes, Eastwood was by no means a shoo-in. The world-famous actor had name recognition, but the small, supremely liberal community believed Eastwood would not devote sufficient time to the part-time position. Steinberg made certain that Eastwood met every single voter in the small town. He also arranged for Eastwood to avoid the national media covering the campaign, and he only spoke to the local media. The lesson of downplaying celebrity to win an election shines through.
Steinberg’s career also went beyond politics, including his role in testifying in court as an expert witness. When four Los Angeles police officers were set to be tried for the videotaped beating of African-American motorist Rodney King, the police officers’ union motioned for a change of venue. Steinberg found that the potential jury pool was significantly prejudiced against the officers. He also recommended holding the trial outside the Los Angeles media market. The change of venue was denied, but his expert testimony was instrumental in persuading the appellate court in ordering a change of venue. The trial was moved to Simi Valley. The officers were acquitted—though it resulted in the now infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots.
While the book is loaded with facts, a number of glaring errors will annoy readers, such as the statement that the film Milk was released in 1988 (actually 2008). Famed New York Times columnist R.W. “Johnny” Apple is misidentified as “A.W. Apple.” Furthermore the 640-page book’s tiny print could cause eye strain.
Whiplash! introduces the reader to every major player in the conservative movement, including direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, conservative movement historian Lee Edwards, and former legislator-turned-criminal justice reform advocate Pat Nolan. Many of the people Steinberg interacted with left significant marks on politics or public policy. The book is like the family tree of the conservative movement.
For this, Whiplash! will appeal to students of campaigns and the lessons learned through victory and defeat. A fitting addition to the conservative bookshelf at any rate.
Kevin P. McVicker is Vice President of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Va.