early and often

Shilling for Thrills

In Lis Smith’s new memoir, principles are for purists.

Photo: M. Scott Brauer/Redux
Photo: M. Scott Brauer/Redux

Lis Smith entered politics after watching The War Room, the 1992 documentary about Bill Clinton’s successful bid for the presidency. She had an “itch,” the political consultant writes in her new memoir, Any Given Tuesday. The 2004 presidential campaign scratched it. First, though, she had to pick a candidate, and John Edwards drew her in. But why?

Other than a passing reference to Edwards’s supposed populist resemblance to Bobby Kennedy, Smith says nothing of policy. She spends more time on vibes. “Also, let’s be real: his superficial appeal was an undeniable factor,” she writes. Edwards was young, “with the shiniest light brown hair you’d ever seen.” He was well-spoken, with a sweet Carolina drawl. Smith, then a student at Dartmouth College, threw in her lot with all the vigor of youth. When she introduced Edwards at a campus event, the candidate praised her in public. “The high of that night was addicting,” she explains. “For years, I’d had my face smooshed up against the window of politics. After my first taste of what it was like on the inside, there was no way that I was turning back.” For Smith, politics wasn’t the means to a better end. It was a drug.

The Democratic Party is shaped by people like Smith, though few achieve her level of notoriety. To understand them is to understand something about the party itself and its limitations in bringing real change. Any Given Tuesday, out now from HarperCollins, can be as dishy as a political observer might hope, offering glimpses into the candidates, campaigns, and relationships that made Smith a niche public figure and an occasional target for the tabloids. On her motivations, however, it can be frustratingly vague. It seems she got into politics for the rush. Principles are for purists. What’s left is a void.

The absence matters. For some people, politics is an idealistic affair. They’ve got something real on the line: loved ones at risk, a community on the brink. In a country as radically unequal as our own, there are as many reasons to care about politics as there are blights on the national conscience. Then there are people like Smith. For them politics is a game without stakes, offering a path to personal self-actualization, a lot of money, and little else.

There’s a lack of pretense with Smith that can be almost refreshing. She’s a blunt writer, so when she’s cagey it’s obviously by design. A reader can infer a great deal from the beats of her prose; when she’s confessional, and when she holds back. We learn more about her relationship with Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former governor of New York, than we do about her personal convictions. She does have “core beliefs,” she writes, “and while they may have gotten more nuanced over the years, they haven’t fundamentally changed much.” She doesn’t explain what those beliefs are; we’re left to assume she has a generic commitment to the broad strokes of the Democratic Party’s platform. Beyond that there is silence, punctuated by noise. Her beliefs are her own, she says. “I’m not so arrogant and close-minded that I think everyone needs to share them,” she writes. “If I’d gone into politics to work only for people who shared 100 percent of my policy views, I would’ve spent the last eighteen years of my life wandering the political wilderness, searching for a unicorn.”

Compromise is inescapable in politics. There are few American politicians who approach my own leftist standards and probably none who share my views in full. When I vote, I vote my conscience, but it also feels like a concession. This is a moral dilemma most people face, but it does not appear to afflict Smith — after all, there is little point to having a political belief if you don’t think it should be shared by others. She, though, reserves disdain for the left and really anyone who insists on principles. “In recent years, especially, there has been this dogma of ideological purity pushed by some on the far-left wing of the party,” she complains. “If someone doesn’t support every policy on their progressive wish list, no matter how fanciful or unfeasible, no matter how politically toxic, they’re branded an enemy or a Republican in disguise.” Such a “smug, know it all attitude,” she continues, puts “more Republicans in office.”

The smugness emanates from Smith. It’s easier to attack the left, as Smith does in her memoir, than it is to admit the party’s big-tent strategy is failing. Like her, it’s often not clear what Democrats really stand for. Abortion rights? Democrats are for them until it’s time to campaign for Henry Cuellar. Worried about the climate? Good luck getting past Senator Kyrsten Sinema and her commitment to the filibuster. The GOP, by contrast, can boast a cohesive identity and a common set of goals. Backed by gobs of money, it makes a formidable enemy. Liberals and leftists alike are left with a feckless alternative, a state of affairs for which Smith and people like her share complicity.

The only exception to Smith’s cynicism is Pete Buttigieg, who she describes in hagiographic terms. Once again, though, his appeal is based on vibes. She’s impressed by his grasp of other languages, his goodness and sincerity. When Buttigieg is running to become chair of the Democratic National Committee, Smith watches him translate for Muslim families stranded at the Houston airport by Trump’s travel bans. “On my best, most superhuman day, I couldn’t even begin to fathom shifting between English, Dari, Arabic, and Spanish in one conversation,” she writes. “I’d worked with smart and talented people in politics — people whose talents far outstripped those of most mortals — but this was a whole new level.” Later on, when it becomes clear he can’t win the Democratic presidential nomination, she weeps. Deeper considerations are absent. Smith spends no time on what Buttigieg would do for the country he wanted to lead. Nor does she reckon with the outright hostility he inspired in so many others. Though he was the first millennial candidate for president, his cohort seemed to despise him almost as much as Smith admires him. He offered nothing in the way of substantive change and was committed instead to Establishment politics, which might help explain why Smith became so devoted. The party works for her as it is. Why disrupt a sure meal ticket?

Smith may prefer to keep her beliefs to herself, but her record is clear enough. She’s worked for centrist or moderate Democrats throughout her career. A brief stint with Bill de Blasio, a professed progressive, seems to be the exception, and Smith loathes the former mayor, describing him as “childish, intellectually lazy, overconfident in his own abilities, and annoyingly condescending.” That may well be true, and it would certainly explain why the unpopular de Blasio thought he should run for president. Nevertheless, his signature accomplishment — universal pre-K — ought to redeem his reputation somewhat, though it makes no difference to Smith. She feels she was treated badly by his team after the tabloids learned of her relationship with Spitzer.

On first reflection, Smith’s career decisions can befuddle. If Buttigieg moved her with his warmth and authenticity, why work for Andrew Cuomo, who famously possesses neither quality? It makes no sense unless we assume the worst. Cuomo paid; Smith followed. It’s a familiar enough story. Though perhaps ideology had something to do with it after all: Cuomo isn’t just an asshole, he’s an asshole who crushed the left until it was no longer convenient to do so. He supported the Independent Democratic Conference, which blocked progressive policy in the state senate until it formally disbanded in 2018 – not long before left-wing primary challengers chased most of its members out of office. Smith herself consulted for several members of the IDC over the years, so she likely knows the group benefited from Cuomo’s tolerance if not his outright approval. In 2014, sources told Politico that he was “deeply involved” and “absolutely” encouraged the caucus that “allowed the Republicans to remain in leadership even after the election of a Democratic majority.”

These days, Cuomo is impossible for even Smith to defend. She describes him as an egomaniac who lied to his own advisors about his sexual misconduct — though she sanitizes herself in the process, as Erik Wemple pointed out at the Washington Post. After Lindsey Boylan accused Cuomo of sexual harassment in early 2021, Smith writes that “Cuomo swore to the crowd advising him that nothing, nothing else would come out. It didn’t take long for us to see that he wasn’t being completely truthful.” Charlotte Bennett’s accusations then appeared days later, like a bolt of lightning. In truth, Wemple writes, “the investigative record tells a competing story … Whereas Smith’s book suggests that the Cuomo team was blindsided by Bennett’s allegations, it was actually bracing for them.” Smith would defend Cuomo to investigators well after Boylan and others had come forward.

Of Cuomo himself, Smith later writes, “I’d been willing to overlook Cuomo’s rough edges and obvious flaws — he’d done so much good in his eleven years as governor, and I’d seen plenty of the warm, caring side of him.” She continues, “But everything about the last several months had made me question my sanity and judgment. It made me wonder why I’d committed my life to a profession that was seemingly dominated by narcissists and liars.” The question hangs, unanswered. Perhaps we can venture a guess. To Cuomo all that mattered was power; to Smith, all that mattered was a thrill. When politics becomes the pursuit of a rush, adrenaline overtakes the public good. The result is moral failure, over and over again.

Lis Smith Searches for a Thrill