Ep. 104 - Alex Castellanos

Update: 2016-12-12


Alex Castellanos, longtime Republican consultant, talks with David Axelrod about his childhood experiences in Cuba, the importance of storytelling and authenticity in politics, why he thinks Donald Trump could be an effective president, and what he believes will be the biggest challenge Trump faces in Washington.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the ballots cast than it has been a major figure in the Republican Party for decades as a an ad maker a strategist a commentator and in this past election he super PAC on behalf of Donald Trump I sat down with Alex the other day to talk about his candidate now the president elect and the future the in the house cus ya nos first off thanks for being a fellow at the Institute of Politics it was great great to have you there and thanks for being here you couldn't know lot of fun nothing more fun up the usual suspects like they do at the end of Casablanca always good to see them I want to touch you display to talk about about what's going on now but I'm really interested in your story and how you how you got to this point in where you started so and that's Cuba Cuba came here we came here sixty one January of sixty one and dad brought me and sister here and we had eleven bucks a suitcase and how'd you come over the Pan Am and we still you out actually they were looking for my father of Che about A was the kind of political correctness in for sure and he was on of the intelligentsia and all of that and kind of got people on board and he came around a dad and said mm which tend to use a doctor and had his own practice but he also did some work for Parke Davis pharmaceutical firm for DuPont that kind of thing and it came around a dad and said um hey Doc you know make sure you're with the Revolution and the dad was not political at all so he tried to explain that you just a doctor an M D That's not something he really paid a lot of attention to and she explained to him No Doctor you're either with us or against us and so I've been bringing home pictures of the brave Cuban soldier begun adding the cowardly American soldier from school color and type things because it's right around the Bay of pigs right well yeah and and they would at first they were trying the unit using the the teachers in all of that to indoctrinate the kids even at that early age and we did have that I remember that the teachers one de estos hey kids let's all close our eyes the eyes and pray to God for ice cream and of course we closer is no ice cream kids lists Asheville for ice cream yay we got ice cream and so stories like that that's really the reason that Mom and Dad got us out and you know the money the bank account the car in the garage now dead seen a picture of the quite nice now is now Hungarian Embassy maybe that's the way to sneak back one of these days lot of people are Hungarian are just hungry down there now but dad applied for his own visa to get out and that wasn't working so he had a friend sent him a Telegram doctor come quick to Miami we need help someone sick so Dad got out that way but my sister and I passport so we got out with Mom a few days later you you talk about Fidel in the and and Che and the push for conformity with the revolution of pre revolution you had that East had its own issues I used to call Cuba the aisle of cork because it was so corrupt but it still floated and most people of didn't pay any attention to Batiste you know he robbed and raped the island but as long as you didn't mess with the corrupt government they generally didn't mess with you and show it was a a tolerance that people had and they woke up one day to find out that ignoring that problem of lead to another one Cuba was one of those places were people thought it couldn't happen here and it did and I think precisely because people turned a blind item that East and in the countryside there there were there was a lot of discontent obviously that the that Fidel and Che in those guys you know there was there was there was some discontent certainly and there should have been with Batiste and the corruption the brutality of the butt but Easter regime but it doesn't take much to ferment a revolution Maya know it doesn't take a lot of people discontented just takes a lot of people sitting on the sidelines and really I think that was more the case in Cuba it was revolution adverse to tk was young against old change against the status quo those with thirty two years oh yeah and and so I think that was of it was the hope of something better be careful or choke for what was your feeling when you read the news have feed Ella had passed away all these years later I mean he's been a giant presence now for sixty years my first thought was I wish my mom and dad have been around to see that day they gave up so much to get me here enjoy the freedom that people are still denied in Cuba and how my life might have been so different if they hadn't been that courageous and I wonder if I would be that courageous in their situation did um did your dad was he able to re constitute his medical practice he came over and it took a year in Detroit Michigan they gave him a job there Parke Davis pharmaceutical firm of translating directions and pharmaceutical products from German to English because you had a year of English in high school and bought a dictionary America's a place we'd learn to do anything and of his first place we ever saw snow in Detroit Michigan and we had to call Dad at work and find out why people were throwing oatmeal off the field in Iowa I put snow in my package to bring home to show that out to Alia I was nineteen at the time embarrassing no but no yeah he got his license he became a country doctor in North Carolina everything from minor surgeries to delivering babies to you name it and that's But Dad when Dad came over here he burned his bridges he unlike a lot of people who stayed in Miami is that we'll be back one day these folks were Americans now and I think that may lead to years past speaking in the home oh yeah we spoke Spanish at home I had to learn Spanish in school and first grade here and you know when you're a kid your sponge you can pick up anything you to learn English not Spanish know it but well we spoke Spanish at home and my folks always told me that it went the other way learned to speak Spanish with a southern accent because we're up in North Carolina and we have had it all of this if at all tell me about how you developed your you pollute less and I should just say Paris radically that my first exposure to you was when I was young political consultant I've said this to Mike Murphy who was one of the early partners may yet be early partner and you guys were sort of if what the firebrand Young Turks conservative Turks that that was my first exposure to you guys but what happened between the time that you are in North Carolina coming along to that point that got you into politics well I was I was at Chapel Hill North Carolina at the University there where the skies always Carolina blue and I was headed for medical school ocean to be a doctor like mad and I thought philosophy an English major headache for medical schools you can see some tension geez after after thirty years shall be a doctor all have another wife to his station wagon go off on Wednesdays what a boring life I got to do something else so I dropped out of school dropped out of Caroline with him as a new political concern as to allow political consulting story started that way yeah wandering away from the established route and some friends sent me over to the Reagan campaign in nineteen seventy six in North Carolina is that you're kind of a conservative guy of that So You Think go talk to the speed had you thought alot about politics before I had never thought about politics hadn't done anything political and I expected ok politics what's that all go and I expected to see George Washington and guys in powdered wigs sitting and instead it was of you know Tom Ellis Carter ran a bunch of out of the beginnings of the conservative movement in North Carolina and it's interesting I showed up on a Wednesday ready to stuff them on the Lopes and they said Hey you've got a job in the youth campaign going to pay you five hundred bucks a month shop to work on Monday will have to think about that now and they call me back Thursday told me I've been promoted I was now Feel Man in the regular campaign making seven fifty of Jesus politic stuff is great you promoted before you go to work so that I got started in the Reagan campaign turned out to be the Helms organization in North Carolina that turned out to be the Congressional Club kind of one of the first political conglomerates that kept the resources in a corporate and club so that it could be transferred to other campaigns we invented direct mail in those days I started out the first company ever started with Jefferson marketing because you could send out paper and people would send back money it was like water into wine you want to ask you about that you obviously you started off sort of as a without any particular skills in this and had that happen to Madge make the transition from being the guy who got promoted twice before annuity was doing to a guy who was producing the mess it message oriented material the bar must have been pretty low I helped start each of the departments in what turned out to be after the Reagan campaign the Helms campaign Jesse helped us start each of the department and move on and finally ended up trying to help raise money and we started we didn't know that direct mail it already been invented so we invented ourselves again and started reading direct mail copy Amboy Direct Mail will teach you how to sell you know your turnips and blood and writing copy is good training for just about anything and after that came were you a writer did you would by nature I mean was at some later I was a reader credit being a good writer I think and know just the scariest thing in the world today to me is still blank piece of paper blank screen thing I love the most value the most fun the hardest to do but there's nothing better than the day when you written something that is you're right you when you're done reading after after you've cut open the vein and bled on the paper it's it's of saying wee common anybody writes for them then our pollster in that race was a guy named Arthur Finkelstein yeah sure let's mad genius Man genius and I've been a couple of years as the saucers Apprentice doing survey work all around the country and we're doing survey research hey here's your work for artwork for Arthur yeah follow him around the country given Survey Report Writing surveys no statistical background but you learn it then you find out okay here's the story we need to know here's here's the biggest and highest truth that we can find and well here let me help me with that speech well here's the kind of TV spot we ought to do help out a press release in the next thing you know you're making the TV spot and that's how I got and the things you know you use the word story it's a store it so it's a word I use a lot of it and it's always the case that the campaign that wins tends to have the more off the more compelling or impactful or incisive or discernible of story it's the journey of our life isn't it that's how we that's how we live our lives and give our lives meaning in a story this would we look for in others especially someone us and it's only being a media consultant politics is a is a vocation that is thousands and thousands of years old only the campfires or electronic now we sit around and tell our stories but it's nothing new you know it's a funny thing because we have this modern know we have all these modern accoutrements of politics Analytics that allow us to target finely in them improperly used they can really be destructive because you end up telling you end up with a lot of trees and no forests the easiest thing easiest way to lose a campaign is to deconstruct of the hardest thing to do is to find one big unifying elevating purpose and creating a great story Penn wrote that book a few years ago about you know they're in or merit much their hundreds my bro Mike Rose some things cycling Brendan and I thought this is awful how can you elect anyone President of America when you don't think there is an American when you think there are thousands of them and yes there are thousands of them but you gotta believe in one because that your gold a lead foot well and there has to be a premise that everybody can grab onto when you start with Reagan you know and he was a master storyteller and he adds I don't agree with them a lot of stuff as I don't agree with you in a lot of stuff but he but he did have a very very vivid portrait of America that he at that that really was evident in everything in all of his in all of his communications and that was really the key to his his success I think that the reason I got into politics in seventy six was Ronald Reagan and I have the immigrants view of America that this is the land of endless promise and limitless from two years and my folks told me that's where they brought me and then Ashley this guy running for President Ronald Reagan that makes you feel that I've always been attracted to that candidate that's what I like best about Mitt Romney the raid after nine eleven they're going to cancel the Olympics and Mitt Romney said No we can do this and and heed it and that kind of inspirational leadership I think is what the country is always hungry for this election it was Make America Great Again I was actually in the ruling by the church he stand at the airport not too long ago and they had two t shirts for sale seven ninety nine each overpriced and one of them was that run for President T shirt and the other one was a Hillary for President T shirt that rum for T shirt said make marinade America great again and the Hillary Clinton T shirt said Hillary for president when he's sixteen yeah people want to be somebody to lift their eyes over the horizon and so the moral of the stories that some subversive t t shirt maker has cured the cancer patient efficient when Hillary Clinton should I mean I mean I don't want to I Will let's talk about this right now I mean I want to talk in more detail after we get through a little of your history about the current campaign but since we're there do you think that ultimately was I mean we'll get into them some other factors you think the presence of a discernible story versus a not a discernible no discernible story I think that he was about America and I think that was actually decisive I can understand that a viewer from Hillary Clinton's point of view you'd say Small things beat you because in truth if a few small things Wisconsin cheddar a mile a second closely there are there a lot of small things that could use a lot of things good point too but you can also look at the big things and I think everybody who runs for president ought to have a campaign Donald Trump did or whether you agree with it or embrace it or not and I'm not sure she did of other and a campaign that meant something to you I once put this question on the survey who are the great modern American presidents mater within memory and I learn something from what I got back I got back to FDR I got back to JFK Reagan course and Bill Clinton and they all have something in common FDR twenty percent unemployment and bank failures in Who's he new Deal right we have nothing to fear JFK Soviet Sputnik oh my god the future belongs to them No no noo front here we're going to go to the moon in ten years because that's who we we have duct tape we can do these things Reagan Soviet again Ash heap of history no no that's for the Soviets we have a rendezvous with destiny even Clinton owns up thinking about tomorrow you know breathe Age Tue the twenty first century go in there all the same guy when you when Americans think of their great presidents they think of that kind of transformational leadership somebody is going to take a me into the future what who's going to lift my eyes over the horizon and take me to a better place Donald Trump had some of that in this campaign it's interesting to me though I I agree in the main that he had a easy discernible theme and make America great theme was one that everybody knew and understood he is a branding genius and he understood that and hers was sort of an atom eyes to kind of message and it was very much there for very much about her about her but the interesting thing to me and I don't I don't want to get you in trouble and ask you to agree a common cause of the ate you restrain as I've said as I said on TV the other day you could be the next secretary of want to screw this up but I will not serve but it's interesting because the truth is that I can think of a more sort of narcissistic candidate than Donald Trump of and yet he did have this thing out there that people grabbed onto it and somehow he got the voters who voted for him to invest in him you know he because of the brand that he had created as a potential solution to the things that they saw ailing was I was with a friend Bob from the other day who who said I wonder what would've happened if Hillary had not served in the Obama administration could she have been change of and it's an interesting little thought experiment it is it is it's it's hard to know a shoe n part of the Obama administration in two thousand and eight and she ran into some months of the some of the same problem you know I think that that there's that because I know are committed capitalists and you'll appreciate that I have to take a small break for a word from our sponsor and will be right back with Alex cus tennis racket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision to give the bank skip the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty let's return just to your story so at some point having tasted different aspects of messaging in campaigns direct mail of polling and qualitative research advising campaigns on strategy and message you decided to become an ad makers say the storyteller there isn't anything you feel the same way there's you're an old journal write the note telling the story is the most fun yeah and that's how you lead people from here to there yeah yeah but I mean you probably are people so how'd you get into this work at just did had you had you become an ad maker how did you get start working with fellow men came came up here to Washington I married writing direct mail copy to earn a living and his young in turn who work for Nick pack the first Conservative Political Action Committee Terry Dolan came over and said hey I've gotta make some TV ads do that and I said absolutely yeah and that he in turn was like right answer o Is there a young intern was Mike Murphy the only who knew less about making TV it's not actually during the Helms campaign what year was with this have been I think it was eighteen forty eight maybe when I was in that campaign and has started all the departments and I just kind of gravitated toward the work in with the TV in the campaign guess what was at eighty four eighty four from eighty three when we of nineteen eighty three until the election in November of eighty four we off the air except for a week at Christmas we were making a new spot every week and so what we do is read right spots during the day and go at it night and sometimes we make as many as five spots and I throw away the ones that didn't work and it was you or Murphy know this is your you this before I got up here I see and so I had it it wasn't quite like Bill Gates having access to the piano of a coding machine card machine that the university but I had this playpen in that campaign or I got to make a nice box I wanted to use them you know I learn by doing there's a Feller named her lah was a TV producer and director and we just teamed up and we made I think one hundred and fifty spots over that year yeah and after that you know underlines bold letters and circles around with the red in the bold that yet heavy handed stuff in there with a voiceover to match with the Voyager you needed the job I mean it was scary stuff but we learned a lot yeah well I think you know I've never been trained for a job that I've done which a lot of people would not find surprising as the sitter is a political strategist a lot of these things are just require you to dive by doing was which was the race was his eighty four or with the famous crumbling up of the notice that is you mention that yes tougher race that was the higher chances are that was our vegan six years later Zoe Grace Harvey an African American survival Connick figure mayor of Charlotte versus Helms I wish him a very racially charged rant I was up here in DC I was in with the Helms guys at that point has risen to that race well at the very end of the race Helms was about nine points down with a couple of weeks to go and Tom Ellis Carter and came up to DC brought the polling data that you know work on in we do and I sat down with them wrote that but that night we shot it's about time the spot yet you needed that describe this cry well it's a it's a fellow of the typical North Carolina voter white guy in a flannel shirt sitting at a desk and he's receiving a notice that he didn't get a job and all you see is his hands and crumbling up that letter and with that his future and a copy if I recall is you know knew you needed that job of but it went to someone else because of racial quotas at really fair Harvey Gantt says it is et-cetera And um but the spot that I tried to make with this with that was in it didn't occur to me I'm a Cuban guy it didn't occurred to me that this was I mean we we had the conservative base I was trying to make a spot for swing voters nine points down at the tail end of a race that to me it was a message that Martin Luther King and would have been comfortable with that no one should get a job or be denied a job because of the color of their culture Martin Luther King would be with you with that well but I would that no one should get a job or be denied a job because of the color of their skin and understand legally I still believe today I don't know if I would have the courage today being young and foolish in those days to make that spot um was Dick Morris in the mix well you know what I think everybody was in the mix at that hour with visiting have been in the mix of Ethan's are a lot of hands on that on that particular knife yeah yeah he I Dick Morris some years ago and one of his Republican periods when I was telling him that I went to work back to work for Bill back to work I remember Knicks should look the guy I'm worried about running for president is as governor of Arkansas because he's the most Kennedy esque future oriented guy out there in that field and Mara says Oh don't worry about him I've I've got some stories on him either he's run around the track with a bomb strapped to his back and I have the nadir
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Ep. 104 - Alex Castellanos

The Axe Files with David Axelrod