If political consulting biz ever goes South, Stevens can always write a book about it

December 14, 1994|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,Cox News Service

Stuart Stevens was reflecting on his place in Southern literature.

"I could write all my life and be about the fifth best writer from my ZIP code," he said.

In an interview, he recalled his home town of Jackson, Miss., where he was Eudora Welty's paperboy, an admirer of Willie Morris and the eighth-grade boyfriend of Beth Henley, who went on to write "Crimes of the Heart."

Which isn't to say that Stuart Stevens isn't making a name for himself. The New Yorker magazine recently dubbed him "a Republican Renaissance Man."

As a GOP political consultant, Mr. Stevens won 14 of 14 races in November, with candidates ranging from Gov. William Weld in Massachusetts to newly elected Sen. Jon Kyl in Arizona.

As an author, he has a new novel, "Scorched Earth," which Time magazine called "a funny, eye-rolling, knee-walking story of an incestuous Senate campaign in one of those nameless Southern states -- somewhere between South Carolina and Georgia, perhaps."

And as a TV scriptwriter, Mr. Stevens has written episodes for "Northern Exposure" and "I'll Fly Away" and created a never-aired ABC pilot for a Washington-based series called "Independence Avenue."

"It's not a bad balance," Mr. Stevens said of his multiple careers. "Writing, you're always by yourself. Campaigning is exactly the opposite. You're always with people. And it gives you a chance to go to all these weird places. South Dakota -- I did the governor's race there."

Mr. Stevens, 42, now divides his time between homes in Vermont, New York City and the Mississippi coast. On a recent visit to the nation's capital, he talked about politics, TV, books and growing up Southern.

"Mississippi is kind of the Ireland of America," he explained. "It's a place where nobody has any money, except for a few people who have a lot of money. Everybody drinks too much. It's kind of a dysfunctional place. Everybody is really into music and writing.

"It's kind of a kind of agricultural, alcoholic swamp that has this mystical sense of loss, like Ireland, and a self-aggrandizing quality."

During his boyhood, "politics was like the sexiest thing around. There was always civil rights stuff, the whole 'Mississippi Burning,' Hodding Carter . . . life and death literally."

After attending several colleges, he helped a friend who was running for Congress in Mississippi. Since Mr. Stevens had studied film at UCLA, he was enlisted to make campaign commercials.

"I told him, 'we watched old movies a lot at film school. We didn't, like, actually learn anything,' " he recalled. But the friend was elected, and Stevens discovered that other candidates would pay him well to help run their campaigns.

"Political consulting is a total profession of charlatans. Anybody can be a political consultant. All you have to do is say you're a political consultant. No one ever says 'No, you're not,' " he marveled.

His Stuart Stevens Group was busy this year, running winning campaigns for 14 Republicans, including Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Govs. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, William Janklow of South Dakota and Steve Merrill of New Hampshire. His only two losses came in GOP primaries, including the campaign of Florida's Jim Smith, who lost to Jeb Bush.

"What I like about political consulting is that it gave me a way where I didn't have to write stuff to make money," he said. "I didn't have to go work on a television show that I didn't really want to work on. That's what terrified me about going to Hollywood full time. You start working on something you like. 'Northern Exposure.''I'll Fly Away.' Then shows get canceled; you turn around and you're working on 'The Hulk.' It happens."

Mr. Stevens' first two books, "Malaria Dreams" and "A Night Train to Turkistan," were quirky, funny travelogues. He returned to his political roots with "Scorched Earth" (Grove Atlantic, $21).

The book "is not a political thriller in any sense," he said, but is "about the insanity of a campaign. It's sort of a Gothic, comic Southern novel."

Meanwhile, Mr. Stevens has already begun a "mating dance" with potential candidates for 1996.

He imposes a personal rather than philosophical litmus test in picking campaigns, choosing to work only for Republicans he likes. In deciding whether to hire him, he said candidates frequently ask, "How do I win this race?"

"My answer is, 'I just don't know.' Which scares the death out of some people," he said. "My whole method is you go in and get immersed in what the state is about and what the race is about and what the candidate is about. The biggest danger you can fall into is fighting last year's war next year."

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