January-June 2004
Special Election Issue

With a little help from (U.S.) friends

U.S. political consultants have been involved in Philippine elections since the Marcos era, contributing their expertise in campaign techniques to homegrown politicians.
Joseph Napolitan, believed to be the first private U.S. consultant to work in the Philippines, helped in Ferdinand Marcos's 1969 campaign.

Joseph Napolitan, believed to be the first private U.S. consultant to work in the Philippines, helped in Ferdinand Marcos’s 1969 campaign.

WHEN the U.S. Democratic Party primary season opened in January, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry hardly looked like someone who could be the party’s candidate in the U.S. presidential election this November. Although already a fourth-term senator, Kerry was being outshone by Vermont governor Howard Dean, who the media had all but proclaimed the Democrats’ presidential bet.

But Kerry had a few surprises up his sleeve. Putting all his resources in Iowa rather than New Hampshire, Kerry posted an upset victory in the Midwest state — the first in a string of key wins. By the time the primaries ended on March 2, Kerry had emerged as the Democratic Party’s likely candidate to challenge President George W. Bush. And Dean? Well, he has begun stumping for his erstwhile New England rival, even proclaiming Kerry as the next president of the United States.

Behind Kerry’s come-from-behind showing is a team of advisers that includes Mark Mellman, president of the Mellman Group. According to the Boston Globe, the Mellman Group is now the “hottest” political consulting firm in Washington. Its website certainly lists an impressive array of clients, from U.S. senators, congressmen, and governors, to corporate clients like software company Intuit (the makers of Quicken) and United Airlines. Mellman himself, meanwhile, has been known to have exported his skills outside of the United States, at one time even doing consulting work for a prominent politician in the Philippines.

Swiss political consultant Louis F. Perron was told this by Mellman himself in the course of an interview the former was conducting for a study. But Perron says Mellman declined to identify his Filipino client — who may or may not have had the same kind of luck as Kerry — because the prominent consultant was bound by a nondisclosure pact that is popular among non-U.S. politicians.

Mark Mellman, a consultant who worked on Senator John Kerry's bid to be the Democratic Party's 2004 presidential candidate, has also recently done work for a Filipino politician.

Mark Mellman, a consultant who worked on Senator John Kerry’s bid to be the Democratic Party’s 2004 presidential candidate, has also recently done work for a Filipino politician.

Perron, who was in Manila recently to attend the World Association of Public Opinion Research’s regional conference, says that three of the 19 U.S. political consultants he interviewed for his study had been retained by Filipino politicians at one time or another. But this is not really surprising since the Philippines is a former U.S. colony and its elections are essentially patterned after those in the United States. Indeed, each election this country has ever held after World War II probably saw more than one U.S. political expert working in the shadows, shaping campaigns and drawing strategies for clients, most of whom were aiming for the presidency.

Now that the Philippines has more than 17,000 public positions filled through elections every three years, expertise from abroad may have become even more sought after. As Perron explains, “Modern campaign techniques…become more important if the number of elected offices is high.”

In fact, in a paper he presented at the conference here, Perron says that while Latin America (Venezuela, in particular) has become a big market for U.S. political consultants, Southeast Asia is perceived to be a fast-growing market — and may even become the biggest soon — all because democratic processes have been put in place in many countries in the region.

The Philippines, however, still tops the list when it comes to the country with the longest experience in hiring U.S. consultants-and heavyweights in the profession at that. Quoting a forthcoming book (Going International) by Dennis W. Johnson, associate dean of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, Perron names Joseph Napolitan as the first U.S. political consultant to work in the Philippines. “His involvement (in this country),” says Perron, “probably even marks the beginning of modern international political consulting.”

Napolitan would serve as adviser to nine foreign heads of state in the course of his long career. He also founded the American Association of Political Consultants and the International Association of Political Consultants. In 1969, he came to the Philippines to help in the reelection campaign of Ferdinand Marcos. Then already a veteran of the successful Kennedy and Johnson campaigns, Napolitan was said to have polished Marcos’s image and assisted in the soon-to-be-strongman’s overall campaign strategy.

Part of that strategy was to maximize the use of radio as a campaign tool outside of the greater Manila area (at the time, there were few television sets outside the capital). In addition, Napolitan supposedly suggested the shooting of videos on the Marcoses. As Perron tells, it, the Marcos campaign “secured 15 trucks outfitted them with movie screens and projects, and drove them from village to village” showing these videos.

Perron’s paper mentions U.S. media consultant Robert Squier as having worked with Napolitan. But Raymond Bonner, in his book Waltzing with a Dictator, says that Marcos had hired another Washington political pro, former Democratic Party national chairman Lawrence O’Brien, to work with Napolitan. According to Bonner, Marcos spent a whopping $50 million for his reelection bid, part of which was used to pay for the services of Napolitan and O’Brien.

AMERICAN involvement in Philippine elections by way of dispensing advice (and raising funds) of course predates Napolitan’s 1969 stint. But the U.S. experts involved in campaigns previous to that were not private political consultants. They were operatives of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and included the likes of Ed Lansdale, who prodded Ramon Magsaysay to run against President Elpidio Quirino in the 1953 race. Quirino’s administration was perceived as corrupt, therefore giving fodder to the burgeoning rebel movement of the Huks (Hukbong Magpapalaya ng Bayan). Washington considered Magsaysay, who was then the defense secretary, as one of its own, as well as someone who could contain, if not control, the Huks.

Col. Ed Lansdale was a psy-war expert from the Central Intelligence Agency who helped run the successful presidential campaign of Magsaysay (standing, right photo) in 1953.

Col. Ed Lansdale was a psy-war expert from the Central Intelligence Agency who helped run the successful presidential campaign of Magsaysay (standing, right photo) in 1953.

A psywar expert who was staunchly anti-communist, Lansdale justified his role in contributing both funds and advice to Magsaysay by saying, “I’ve been told not to do any politicking by folks in Washington, but hellsfire, there is a real political battle going on out here and you don’t win battles by sitting around.”

According to Bonner’s account, CIA director Allen Dulles offered the then colonel $5 million for the Magsaysay campaign. But Lansdale said he needed only $1 million, which was delivered to him in cash in a suitcase. The funds from Washington were augmented by business “donations” from U.S. corporations in the Philippines, such as the local Coca-Cola franchise.

“The CIA ran Magsaysay’s campaign as if the agency were the Republican or Democratic National Committee and he were its man for the White House,” Bonner writes. The CIA, he asserts, even drugged President Quirino’s drinks before he was to give a speech so that he would appear incoherent.

Assisting Lansdale in Magsaysay’s campaign were David Sternberg, a paraplegic who once shot an intruder “squarely in the forehead,” and New York lawyer Gabriel Kaplan who set up the Committee for Free Asia, which later became The Asia Foundation. Kaplan also set up the National Movement for Free Elections or Namfrel to make sure Magsaysay would not be cheated of the votes cast for him. Magsaysay, however, would not complete his term, perishing in a plane crash

Carlos P. Garcia, who succeeded Magsaysay, proved to be not to the CIA’s liking — he soon launched a “Filipino First” policy that encouraged an economic monopoly by Filipinos and practically shut out foreigners. Washington wanted “another Magsaysay,” and so the CIA’s Asia station chief, Joseph B. Smith, was dispatched to Manila to scout for one. He arrived in the country in 1958, posing as a civilian air force employee. One of the first things Smith did was put together a six-man senatorial slate in the 1959 elections, to which he funneled $200,000. Of this, $50,000 went to Diosdado Macapagal.

In 1961, the CIA decided to support Macapagal’s candidacy for president, pouring in a meager $200,000 but succeeding in getting U.S. businessman Harry Stonehill, a friend of the Garcias, to contribute P3 million. Of this, P1 million was used to convince actor Rogelio de la Rosa to give up his own presidential bid while the rest went to bankroll Macapagal’s campaign. Macapagal later gave Smith an autographed photograph acknowledging “gratitude for his services.”

Explaining the CIA’s involvement in the elections, Smith would later tell U.S. writer Stanley Karnow: “It was the American century, and we Americans had been chosen to do good in the world. We had a unique relationship with the Filipinos, special obligations toward them. The CIA was on the side of the angels, there’s no doubt about it. We hoped to bring a political, economic, and social revolution to the Philippines, break up the old oligarchy and promote genuine democracy.”

WASHINGTON decided to stay neutral in the Philippine elections in 1965, supposedly on the request of Philippine military and intelligence officials who had grown disenchanted with Macapagal. But the elections were by no means free of U.S. presence. According to Bonner, the United States probably contributed to both the Macapagal and Marcos camps. Both candidates also released biographies that were written by U.S. authors-Quintin Reynolds and Geoffrey Bocca for Macapagal the Incorruptible, and Hartzell Spence for Marcos’s For Every Tear a Victory.

Macapagal also retained the services of pollsters George Cohen, a stateless person of Russian origin, and Donald Muntz of Robot Statistics, one of the earliest polling firms to set up shop in the Philippines. Hired as Macapagal’s private pollster, Cohen withheld disclosure of the poll results showing Marcos leading Macapagal.

In the twilight year of his presidency, an increasingly unpopular Marcos hired Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, then a young public relations firm that had made a name for itself by helping sweep Ronald Reagan to the Oval Office. Bonner writes that Paul Manafort Jr., who had worked in the Ford White House, first checked with the Reagan administration before taking on the Marcos account. (Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly would later work for the 1988 Bush-Quayle campaign. The firm’s other clients included drug-connected Bahamian Prime Minister Oscar Pindling, a South African-supported Angolan rebel group led by CIA asset Jonas Savimbi, as well as cigarette giant Philip Morris.)

Marcos had called for snap presidential elections that pitted him against Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino, widow of the assassinated opposition leader Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr. Among the services Manafort rendered the strongman was to project Cory Aquino as being soft on communism and intent on throwing out the U.S. military facilities once she was elected into office. He also arranged for three U.S. journalists to go to the Philippines and paint a not-so-pretty picture of the opposition. In addition, his firm was able to veto names to be included in the State Department’s proposed list of members of the observer team for the Philippine elections. To ensure a “safe” team, it even had its own nominees included in it. For all these, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly received $950,000.

It would not be long, however, before the Aquino camp hired its own U.S. consultants. By then, the election was no longer just a battle for the hearts and minds of Filipino voters, but also a battle for support of the White House and the U.S. Congress.

It was Robert Trent Jones Jr., a golf course designer and a friend of the Aquinos, who tapped DH Sawyer and Associates for the Cory campaign. The firm, which was recommended by Michael Armacost, the No. 3 man in the State Department, waived its normal fee, which would have been about $250,000, says Bonner.

But there were other Americans involved in the Aquino campaign. Among those identified by Bonner are William Overholt, the Bankers Trust vice president based in Hong Kong, who served as an adviser to Aquino’s campaign policy committee, and journalist Mark Malloch Brown, who directed Aquino’s media campaign and prepared her for media encounters by playing the role of the nasty reporter. There was also New York-based public relations consultant John Scanlon, who did the lobbying with the media in the United States, including big names like Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather.

After Aquino was installed in office, her government hired Fil-American Aimee Laurel, who used to be associated for DH Sawyer and Associates but had since put up her own public relations firm, to handle the publicity of her trip to the United States. Laurel would also be hired later by Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada when they had their respective turns at the presidency.

IN THE coming elections, at least one prominent player is known to have once again engaged the services of U.S. experts. To help in her bid for a full term, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has hired Burson-Marsteller, the same international public relations firm that promoted the image of the Philippines during her November 2002 visits to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In the United States, the high-powered firm had arranged for Arroyo to be interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Washington Post, and New York Times editorial boards, Newsweek, the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Public Radio, and the CBS Early Show. According to O’Dwyer’s PR Daily, an invaluable resource on the PR industry, Burson-Marsteller was paid a hefty $447,000 for its efforts.

Were it not for the 2001 impeachment trial of President Estrada, in fact, Filipinos might not have even found out the participation of another U.S. political strategist, Paul Bograd, in the presidential bids of Ramon V. Mitra Jr. in 1992 and Estrada in 1998. The prosecution team had traced to Bograd a P5-million check Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson had issued out of the proceeds of jueteng, an illegal numbers game. Estrada would later admit that the U.S. media consultant was working for him.

Bograd had been introduced to Mitra and later to Estrada by banker Manuel Zamora, brother of Estrada’s executive secretary Ronaldo Zamora. In their book The Centennial President, Aprodicio and Eleanor Laquian’s recount a strategic meeting on April 2, 1998 where Bograd and Raul Esteban of the Philippine Survey and Research Center, a pioneer in media research, gave a briefing on the results of various pre-election surveys. “Since Paul’s role as a foreigner in the Erap campaign had been questioned by the government, we held the meeting at Club Pilipino,” the Laquians write.

But Bograd would continue to work for Estrada even after the elections, monitoring stories on the Philippines in foreign publications. Noting the preponderance of negative articles about the president, he proposed a “master government communication plan” to the former action-movie star at one point. Bograd’s expertise, however, proved to be inadequate to save a fast-sinking presidency.

Ferdinand Marcos hired a U.S. public relations firm in the twilight of his presidency.
Cory Aquino, shown here campaigning for Fidel Ramos in 1992, also availed herself of the services of a U.S. firm when she ran against Marcos in 1986.

Ferdinand Marcos hired a U.S. public relations firm in the twilight of his presidency. Cory Aquino, shown here campaigning for Fidel Ramos in 1992, also availed
of the services of a U.S. firm when she ran against Marcos in 1986.

THERE are at least two more famous U.S. political strategists who have worked for Filipino politicians: David Sackett and Richard Davis. To this day, however, they have honored the nondisclosure policy imposed on them on their Filipino clients.

It would have been interesting to know who benefited from the expertise of Sackett, who is among the top 20 consultants in the United States, having been instrumental in the expansion of the Republican majority in the House and the same party’s recapturing of control of the Senate. Sackett is a founding partner of the Tarrance Group based in Virginia that is considered as one of the most respected and successful Republican survey research and strategy teams in the United States.

Davis, meanwhile, is managing partner of Davis Manafort and had served as the national campaign manager of Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. Davis has also done extensive consultancy work outside the United States, particularly in Asia and Latin America.

Perron notes that although many consultants see no ethical problem in transferring U.S. campaigning techniques to other countries, a number of them feel that cultural differences pose a particular challenge in their work abroad. The Philippines is a good example of challenges a U.S. consultant can face with elections that are conducted far differently from those in his home country. Unlike those in the United States, points out Perron, elections here are festive occasions, negative advertising is not prohibited, and the Roman Catholic Church and women play important roles in politics. There is also voter fraud to contend with, as well as a populace that is becoming increasingly frustrated with politicians.

At the same time, the multiparty system here means the candidate will have to focus on mobilizing and turning out a strong base of supporters instead of courting swing voters. This turns elections into candidate-centered popularity contests. Perron adds, “Local leaders have their own source of patronage, apart from national (party elites). This further weakens parties because successful elected and reelected mayors and governors can run for higher office without the blessing of national party bosses.”

But these can also favor the foreign consultants. “The fact that parties are weak make election campaigns more important and opens opportunities for political consultants,” says Perron. “In the absence of stable parties, any politician with popularity and money can build a campaign organization.”

Perron says many U.S. consultants who have worked in foreign countries have contributed to raising the campaigning standards in their clients’ nations by helping develop the message of candidates in a systematic way, testing the message by using the right questionnaire and split sample, and training the candidate and the campaign to stay with the message. “A lot of knowledge transfer takes place,” says Perron.

To be sure, U.S. strategists have succeeded in making campaigning or political marketing almost an exact science, which they break down in three phases: exploration of the demand through focus groups, polling, analysis of socio-economic data, and opposition research; creation of the offer involving message and strategy development, creation of a slogan, negative attacks, mobilization versus persuasion strategy, and targeting strategy; and promotion of the offer in television, radio, newspapers, phones, direct mail and the Internet.

But sometimes, even a carefully calibrated move could backfire. Burson-Marsteller, for example, is said to have given inputs that later served as basis for a TV ad showing President Arroyo explaining to First Daughter Luli the challenges of being the nation’s chief executive, as well as the reasons why she wished to stay on as such. Done to help polish Arroyo’s image, the ad had the mother and daughter walking on the Palace grounds and conversing in English. Critics panned it as being out of sync with the majority of the voting population, which is poor and untitled. Two more versions of the ad have since been released, one of them showing the president with the masses, and talking in Pilipino in some parts.