The Agony of Frank Luntz

Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Frank Luntz does not want the buffet. We are on the top floor of the Capitol Hill Club, the members-only Republican hangout a block from the Capitol, where a meaty smell is emanating from steam trays. Today's main course is ham, and Luntz shakes his head.

There's also fish, the host offers—mahi mahi. No. "I'm 0 for 2," Luntz says mournfully.

"Roast chicken," the host says, but it's too late; he's lost him. "Boring," Luntz says, as we head for the elevator to the full-service dining room in the basement.

America's best-known public-opinion guru hasn't suddenly gone vegan. Luntz—the tubby, rumpled guy who runs the focus groups on Fox News after presidential debates, the political consultant and TV fixture whose word has been law in Republican circles since he helped write the 1994 Contract With America—has always been a hard man to please. But something is different now, he tells me. Something is wrong. Something in his psyche has broken, and he does not know if he can recover.

"I've had a headache for six days now, and it doesn't go away," he tells me as we take our seats at a table downstairs. "I don't sleep for more than two or three hours at a time. I'm probably less healthy now than I have ever been in my life." He's not sure what to do. He's still going through the motionsgiving speeches, going on television, conducting focus groups, and advising companies and politicians on how best to convey their message.

But beneath the surface, he says, is a roiling turmoil that threatens to consume him. He orders a chicken pot pie, then berates himself for not choosing something healthier. In recent months, he tells me, he has often contemplated quitting everything; he has spent long weeks alone, unable to sort out his thoughts. Frank Luntz, the master political manipulator, a man who has always evinced a cheery certainty about who's right and who's winning and how it all works, is a mess.

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And yet, over the hour and a half I spend talking with him—the first time he has spoken publicly about his current state of mind—it's hard to grasp what the crisis is about. Luntz hasn't renounced his conservative worldview. His belief in unfettered capitalism and individual self-reliance appears stronger than ever. He hasn't become disillusioned with his very profitable career or his nomadic, solitary lifestyle. His complaints—that America is too divided, President Obama too partisan, and the country in the grip of an entitlement mentality that is out of control—seem pretty run-of-the-mill. But his anguish is too deeply felt not to be real. Frank Luntz is having some kind of crisis. I just can't quite get my head around it.

A few weeks after our lunch, Luntz tells me he's made a move. He has changed his principal residence from Northern Virginia to a condo overlooking the Las Vegas Strip, and he's contemplating a sale of his company, Luntz Global LLC, the details of which he is not at liberty to discuss. Las Vegas, he says, represents "my chance to be intellectually challenged again" by a place that is "the closest thing to a melting pot America has to offer." As fresh starts go, it's not much, but Luntz hopes it will bring some new clarity.

* * *

The crisis began, he says, after last year's presidential election, when Luntz became profoundly depressed. For more than a month, he tried to stay occupied, but nothing could keep his attention. Finally, six weeks after the election, during a meeting of his consulting company in Las Vegas, he fell apart. Leaving his employees behind, he flew back to his mansion in Los Angeles, where he stayed for three weeks, barely going outside or talking to anyone.

"I just gave up," Luntz says.

His side had lost. Mitt Romney had, in his view, squandered a good chance at victory with a strategically idiotic campaign. ("I didn't work on the campaign. It just sucked, as a professional. And it killed me because I realized on Election Day that there's nothing I can do about it.") But Luntz's side had lost elections before. His dejection was deeper: It was, he says, about why the election was lost. "I spend more time with voters than anybody else," Luntz says. "I do more focus groups than anybody else. I do more dial sessions than anybody else. I don't know shit about anything, with the exception of what the American people think."

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."

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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 other's throats, and there was no way to turn back.

Why not? I ask. Isn't finding the right words to persuade people what you do? "I'm not good enough," Luntz says. "And I hate that. I have come to the extent of my capabilities. And this is not false modesty. I think I'm pretty good. But not good enough." The old Frank Luntz was sure he could invent slogans to sell the righteous conservative path of personal responsibility and free markets to anyone. The new Frank Luntz fears that is no longer the case, and it's driving him crazy.

* * *

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."

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Luntz is famous not just on televisionhe has talking-head contracts with both CBS and Fox News, a rare arrangementbut 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 schlubhalf 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."

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.

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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.

Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.


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