Life & Culture

Interview: Stan Greenberg

One of the world’s most influential political advisers talks about his role


If you were to ask people for a list of their least favourite professions, traffic wardens would be up there, as would any remaining estate agents and, quite possibly, journalists. Also high up on the list would be spin doctors and pollsters — in other words, unelected political advisers. This troubles Stan Greenberg. For while some of the leaders he has worked for — including Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Ehud Barak — are thought of as significant, even great figures, they have been seen as diminished by the fact that they employed pollsters such as himself.

This is part of the reason that Greenberg, one of the world’s most eminent and experienced pollsters, has written Dispatches from the War Room about his experiences with the aforementioned leaders.

Greenberg, looking remarkably fresh despite having just flown into London from New York, accepts the view. “That is a real critique. There are those who, in American terms, set out to make sh** shine. The predominant motivation of those who have now come into political consulting seems to be the thrill of victory. They are less interested in ideology or in a political project. I don’t believe that is what I do.”

Actually, from his youth as a Jewish boy in Washington DC in the 1960s, Greenberg developed a strong liberal political sensibility. At university he also — for no reason he can put his finger on — began to have a powerful interest in public opinion. It would have remained an academic pursuit had Yale University decided to give him tenure as a professor. It did not, so he launched his career as a pollster and adviser and has not looked back since.

His role in the election of fellow Jew, Joe Lieberman, to the US Senate in 1988, alerted a young presidential hopeful called Bill Clinton to his abilities. He played an important part in Clinton’s 1992 election. “When I met Clinton, what was most interesting was that he was incredibly political. He loved the process — he loved winning people over. Those with an anti-spin-doctoring view see this as a weakness in leadership. But I have come to view it as a strength — that a leader wants to engage with the public and win them over — not as a psychological need, but in order to achieve the things they set out to do.”

This is where Greenberg sees his own role as different from that of a “spin doctor”. He feels most of the leaders he has worked with pursued policies they believed in and he used his skills to get the public to support them. “I had my own self-image as to why people were hiring me. I thought it was because I was a professor and had written sensibly on the subject. But through writing this book I discovered they wouldn’t have hired me if they didn’t think I could help them win,” he laughs.

Another leader who thought Greenberg’s skills could assist him to victory was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Greenberg had a long interest both professionally and personally in Israel — as an academic and a Jew — and he became an integral part of Barak’s attempt to bring peace to the Middle East, culminating in the Camp David negotiations of 2000. One of the things that impressed him most about Barak was, ironically, his decision to ignore Greenberg’s findings on one of the most central issues on which peace would be decided — that of Jerusalem. “I learned more from Barak than from anybody else, essentially because of Jerusalem. My polls showed opinion shifting but on the question of whether Jerusalem should be divided, it did not change. Two thirds of Israelis said they would not accept a divided Jerusalem.”

However, Barak felt he had to persevere with negotiations on this basis and he gambled that if the prize was big enough, the Israeli public would change their opinions. He was right, says Greenberg. “By the end of the negotiations we had a majority supporting a peace which included a divided Jerusalem. It taught me that, particularly with Jews at any rate, they will consider things that were not previously thought possible. When their leader said: ‘Look, this is the way to sustain the Jewish state,’ they were willing to move dramatically. It taught me that I couldn’t always trust my own polls or, rather, should treat them as a snapshot of opinion.”

Greenberg touches on a sensitive area for pollsters and advisers like himself. Although he chooses to work with people whose aims he is broadly aligned with, there will be times when he disagrees on policy. This led to a parting of the ways with Tony Blair on the issue of invading Iraq. “When they had a parliamentary vote on the Iraq resolution, in my gut I was cheering the votes against. But I was working for Blair. Overall I trusted him — I knew the reason why he was doing it. He believed in the existence of weapons of mass destruction and made a judgement about Britain and its alignment with the US. I disagreed, but his total project wasn’t about Iraq. We were trying to improve public services, trying to make Britain a more equitable country. But this was ultimately the issue on which we became more distant from each other.

“I wrote a memo to him in which I told him that you’re not going to be heard unless you address Iraq — you need to acknowledge publicly that you have learned from Iraq. He wasn’t prepared to do this, and ultimately another political consultant showed him a way of getting re-elected without doing that.”

However, he retains a huge amount of respect for Blair, who he first met in the early ’90s when the future Prime Minister was a boyish Shadow Home Secretary.

“Blair was pretty consistent the entire time. Even now, he has aged but his style is the same — very civil and generous. The interesting thing about him was the disjunction between his underlying personal and political project. With Blair, his religious side shaped his political logic but this was suppressed by himself and his team. Alastair Campbell beat him up for it. I think George Bush gave him the ability to bring faith into his politics.”

So, despite his denial in that famous Jeremy Paxman interview, did Blair and Bush actually pray together? “Yes, they did,” says Greenberg.


Born: May 10, 1945

Early life: Raised by parents Sam and Yetta in a predominantly black, working-class neighbourhood of Washington DC, Educated at Miami University and Harvard where he got a PhD

Career: While an academic, he campaigned for Democrat presidential candidate Geroge McGovern, and wrote on South Africa, Israel and Northern Ireland. After failing to gain tenure at Yale University, began to work as a pollster, first for Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman, then for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela

Family: Married to Rosa DeLauro, a member of the US House of Representatives. He has three children from a previous marriage

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