McCain And The IRI: It’s All About Relationships, Baybee (slight update)

What to say, what to say? How odd to see the NY Times write up McCain and the International Republican Institute (IRI). Not that McCain isn’t riding IRI as a presidential platform. When he arrived at IRI and began his purge many of us at the time believed that was the whole point. A signal about his ambitions.

Another strobe light flashing his leaning over car windows working the posh but more discrete street corners of Vice City. Great mental imagery. And on top Charlie Black et al.

The netroots focused a while ago on his use of IRI for ‘soft’ participation in the Imperial City money machine. A universe away from blatant influence peddling or coercive punishment ala the Hammer. But in politics, you know what they say, when you are explaining you are losing.

Still, festooning medals on the corporate dime? Informational discourse only in the most debased QVC-esque universe. Which is what D.C. is. *Our* kvetch is the NYT ignores or obscures the reality of our political economy. Lobbying and suborning virginal governance via influence are not so simple. Or always the same.

The Times’ justified reply? ‘Hey, Stiftung, it’s not our job to make every article a precis for political science 405.’ So let’s skip all that. And just drill down to the fun stuff.


We’re surprised the NYT took time to even acknowledge IRI. Or that IRI warranted it. Back in the day, IRI would have killed for such attention.

When the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) was created in the early 1980s we believed for years the only real value came from funding the AFL-CIO’s affiliates. These people gave return on the investment. For example, they funneled support to Solidarity and Lech Walesa on the ground. AFL-CIO affiliates smuggled in funds, underground television and radio equipment, etc. Union organizations understood old style, pre-Warlord liberal democracy. They could rebuff Soviet rule and recognize those rare cases around the world where true communist ideology posed a threat. Eventually, NED and its affiliates grew to justify their existence. Per infra, just another leaf in the wind.

A Baby!

Tiny IRI began modestly in staff, budget and location. Sort of like Harold and Kumar Go To Heritage Foundation For An Excellent Symposium — except that in the beginning IRI *was* in Heritage’s building on Mass. Ave. The IRI’s activities were as the NYT described — directed at Central America. Believe it or not, stuff happened besides sitting around a pool in Miami with Freedom Fighters wealthy Nicaraguan Somoza exiles. Or circulating posters of Rambo (as lionized by MORton Kondrake at The New Republic) with Spanish pro-Contra phrases.

We have a hazy memory about something more. Could be wrong because it might have just been an idea floated around after too many hefeweizen beers with alot of people. We seem to recall the complete works of Thomas Payne may have been translated into Spanish. To be provided to affiliated freedom loving organizations in the region. So there’s that. And even when staff changed, IRI did give a back channel from the region to ‘believers’ in Washington.

IRI’s growth from embryo to today’s McCain platform should not be taken for granted. These organizations and their staff, if successful, have a time honored trajectory. They start modestly. The letterhead really is the organization. They list more famous people to get in a door, etc. People outside the organization seldom know that letterhead ‘grandees’ rarely if ever return a staffer’s phone call. Sometimes they forget they are even ‘involved’. The organization to survive must (a) hang on temporally ; and (b) generate publicity for its ‘advisory board’, etc. If this happens, then the next spiral happens. A slightly more prestigious persona enters, notches up the advisory board a level, and so on.

Our Baby Is All Grown Up

The NYT may not realize the scope of IRI’s achievement. Organizations in this upward spiral initially do not get attention from corporate lobbyists. Fortune 100 companies do not throw money around even today. Annual budgets are carefully weighed to the $1,000 in pecking order, etc. A new organization usually can expect no money. And they often don’t get much attention from their ‘boards’. A Catch 22.

Smart staff figure out a metaphysical ju-jitsu shell game. Outside funders (corporate or foundational) must be convinced to back X (dinner, conference, award, etc.) while packaging X as great for the board, etc. Even then it is hard to get the initial $5,000. That’s a big deal. $10,000 is party time. The $15,000 and $25,000 cheques? Usually only for those with demonstrated clout: putting our people in the same room with those people — or that man. There really is a sort of Build Your ‘Institute’ Now! playbook on this.

Exceptions? Of course. Imagine a newly powerful politician, megawatts above McCain, is associated with a newly formed 501(c)(3) a decade agp. Our politician cites the organization and its work in speeches. Later, a junior staff member goes to a trade group. They get a future vision of how society globally will be operating in 10-15 years. Vision stuff, not quite mescaline. The trade group sees the vision. The embryonic 501(c)(3) gets shortly thereafter a cheque an order of magnitude beyond the $25,000 level. A true rarity then. (The Hammer et al. blew past that, of course. Just set up a shingle. Those cheques came in the mail slot).

IRI followed the traditional upwards spiral in the zeitgeist of money and access. Already blurred distinctions between 501(c)(3) or (c)(6) just disappeared. Angels on the head of pin. (In theory, 501(c)(3)s are tax exempt because they do not lobby and are ‘educational/research’; 501(c)(6) organizations lobby and thus not tax deductible. Heritage is a 501(c)(3), so were some of Abramoff’s shells). We report. You decide.

Our Baby’s Pictures

When we dealt with his political operation, office and Committee staff we never saw the next step in the Times’ implication — that ‘soft money’ relationships affected decisions. Even when we watched one party wish it could be that simple at a given moment. In fact, our memory is the opposite. We still smile remembering McCain around 2000 up to 2003 sail right into wind — while also gleefully spiking Trent Lott and others in the eye. Truly spectacular stuff.

Sadly all before 2004. Now just all grainy family pictures with the baby. Faded memories. Before he remembered his real ‘mission’.

The Times piece is like the cover of one of those gloriously tacky grocery store magazines. The ones that catch celebrities in their bathing suits without makeup. Unflattering, just bad, bad PR optics. We all check it out even if pretending to be above it. McCain’s maverick teflon fell off long ago. These new pictures are the maverick without makeup. Ain’t pretty. Tweety’s Man Crush is elsewhere.

The Boy King naturally seizes the issue. But for us, how entertaining to watch Dole 2008 handle it all.


  1. Tbilisi says

    Indeed, and I’m glad you be.

    I do not have much familiarity with branding, marketing, etc (other than as a target thereof). But the book interested me because I am intrigued at how the ‘brand’ approach has become almost universally accepted as a LEGITIMATE way to explain complex societal phenomena, e.g. of the ‘al Qaeda brand,’ the ‘Obama brand,’ the ‘American brand, when branding, marketing, et al are, by definition and by design, exercises in thought control/manipulation for some pre-specified ends, and clearly not a mechanism for truth-seeking or explanation.

    And, since I see this blog as a complex social phenomenon in historically specific circumstances, I was glad to see me mitten-handed attempt at irony above fall so flat.

  2. DrLeoStrauss says

    Interesting link, and multilayered comment.

    Should one layer refer to the aesthetics of the regimes identified, it is a concept long understood decades and decades ago by artists, art historians and aesthetic historians. ‘Mainstream’ historians have never really understood the dynamics, even as truncated and summarized in that review. Perhaps the book is better developed.

    Another layer to comment explicitly refers to the ‘brand’ here. No worries. It is not and has not been ‘weakened’ as you phrased it. There is no interest in ‘brand’ creation at all — although that concept itself is a branding of sorts. (Being somewhat familiar with marketing, brand identification, viral campaigns and the like).

    Net net? We is what we is.

  3. Comment says

    “We seem to recall the complete works of Thomas Payne may have been translated into Spanish.”

    Most Republicans we know like their copy of Tom Payne to be in English, unread, bound in leather, with dust, and with the Age of Reason strangely missing. No all – just most.

    Payne, Gallatin, Bache – all libs – The French symps were the libs. If the pamphlets back then were bloggers, it’s pretty easy to guess who would line up on which blogroll

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