The Agony of Frank Luntz

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.

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.

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

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