Among Washington’s power elite the darkly handsome Gerald Rafshoon is known as “Rasputin.” In a way it is justified, for he has been given complete and ruthless control of President Jimmy Carter’s public image. Inevitably that has meant tinkering with policy. Confronted with this impression of him, Rafshoon runs a hand through his black curly hair and denies that he and the mad monk have anything in common. “I am not a magician,” he says. Then he laughs. He is trying to play down his role in the White House. His ultimate success, he knows, depends on
staying in the shadows.
Apart from handling the Carter election campaigns—for Georgia governor and for president—Rafshoon’s background lies in gimmicks and publicity. He is best remembered in the promotion trade for the poster showing Elizabeth Taylor in the arms of Richard Burton, selling the film Cleopatra. Now, as assistant to the president for communications, he is advising Carter on how to deal with Congress, which bills to veto and which to sign. He is even suspected of influencing the president’s decisions on such volatile issues as the
Middle East and the crisis in Iran.
No one pretends that the 44-year-old advertising man from Atlanta knows much about foreign affairs or is even concerned with the rights and wrongs of domestic issues. He is simply an expert at making Carter look good.
The dangers are obvious; the president may be tempted to swap substance for style. But Rafshoon plays them down. “I don’t think you can make a person’s image, as such,” he says. “You can define it, perhaps, and I try to do that, but you can’t make it up out of whole cloth. My job is to help articulate and explain the central themes of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But I’m not a policy type and I certainly don’t make the decisions. If I ever told the president to veto some bill for the sake of his image, he would laugh at me.”
That said, it is instructive to look at events. Rafshoon joined the president’s inner circle of advisers just six months
ago, at a time when Carter was running threateningly low in the popularity polls. Capitol Hill had just sent a controversial defence authorization bill down to the White House. Carter didn’t like it because it contained funds for a new nuclear carrier that he opposed, but he was prepared to sign the bill because he feared the political consequences of a veto. Enter Rafshoon. He urged the president to go ahead with a veto—it was just what he needed to help him look stronger in the public eye. “The president was leaning that way anyway,” Rafshoon says now. “And when Jimmy Carter follows his instincts he does well.” If Rafshoon had not been there the defence bill would probably have passed and, rightly or wrongly, the United States would now be building a nuclear aircraft carrier. That is the sort of power the publicist wields.
There have been many other subtle ways that the
Rafshoon influence has been implemented. Earlier this fall, domestic policy chief Stuart Eizenstat recommended that the president announce personally the new proposal for $250 million in benefits for Vietnam-era veterans. Rafshoon stamped on that idea. He argued that Carter should not get personally involved because it was a “no win” situation—veterans’ groups were sure to attack the program for falling short. So Vice-President Walter Móndale was trotted out to present the plan, and when the veterans began screaming that it was “too little and
too late,” Móndale, not Carter, got the flak.
Rafshoon is prepared to sacrifice anyone to help the president. When he first arrived he found that Carter’s chief adviser on women’s issues, the feisty Midge Costanza, was causing trouble by generating publicity on controversial issues such as the laws concerning abortion and homosexuality. Almost at once Rafshoon cancelled all of her pre-arranged television interviews and had her move into a tiny basement office. As a result, Costanza resigned. Then three of the president’s top speechwriters resigned in November after Rafshoon insisted on going over all their work and changing it without consultation. He has replaced them with his own men.
On a more visible level, Rafshoon has also persuaded the president to reintroduce some of the trappings that were dropped when Carter first came to the White House and wanted to give the
impression that he was “just an ordinary guy.” For the first time since the inauguration the band is playing Hail to the Chief when the president approaches, and long black limousines are back in use.
Since Rafshoon took over, the president’s popularity has graded its decline, then climbed impressively. Was he responsible? “Nonsense,” he says with a snort. “It was Camp David and the good record we compiled in Congress, not anything I did.” Nevertheless, he shudders in acknowledgement that he has been credited with being the guiding hand—some say evil genius—behind much presidential action. As The New York Times pointed out recently, his name has become a verb. To “rafshoon” something in Washington today is to politicize it for the image it would create. Congressmen who lose battles with the White House often claim they have been “rafshooned.”
His current salary of $56,000 is small
compared to the $235,000 he took out of his two companies, Gerald Rafshoon Advertising Inc. and Rafshoon Communications, in 1977. “But when the president called me I felt that I had to answer,” he says. “How can you say ‘no’ to the White House?”
The closeness of the Carter-Rafshoon relationship, first in Georgia and now in Washington, is particularly significant. “During the primaries,” says former campaign worker Jack Kaplan, “Jerry used to take a lot of the credit for Jimmy’s victories. And one night he was doing just that at a party. Then he looks over his shoulder and sees Jimmy Carter. So Jerry lifts his glass toward Carter and says, ‘But we couldn’t have done a thing without you, Jimmy.’
“After the election, Jerry gets a letter from Carter, which reads, ‘I’ll always be grateful for being part of the triumph of the Rafshoon agency.’ ”
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