Over three decades ago I ran an unusual political campaign for the highest office in the land. Looking back on it now, it’s hard to believe I actually did it. I’ve often wondered if alien lizards took control of my brain. But I suppose I should take responsibility for it and admit that the devil made me do it.
The short version of the story is that I appeared on NBC’s Tomorrow Show in 1980 to suddenly announce—four years in advance—that I was a candidate for U.S. President for 1984.
As a result of this appearance on national television, a book contract followed the next day, plus endless radio and newspaper interviews, and I was off and running. I had no illusions about winning, but I guess I wanted to find out what it was like to run for national office—and to show that anyone could in fact run for U.S. President.
I was a rock musician at the time, so I ran a rock & roll campaign—improvising and jamming thoughout. In the end I technically didn’t win (i.e. I didn’t get enough votes—a ridiculous way to measure victory) and Ronald Reagan managed to eke out a 49-state victory. Yet Walter Mondale, who came in second despite spending $27 million, won only ONE more state than I did. And I spent only two hundred dollars (of my own money).
My legendary campaign motto—“Ask not what money can do for you, ask what you can do for money”—has stood the test of time and works just as well for 2016.
All in all, my campaign was a great experience—and I don’t regret for one minute spending all that money. But I think I have a legitimate complaint. I believe I was the first candidate in US political history who could claim a mind uncluttered by statistics, unencumbered by data, unbiased by facts, and unburdened of knowledge.
I was able to transcend any limitations of wisdom, judgment, and—some would say—character in order to reawaken an archetypal dream of a simpler America, where simple words (if repeated thousands of times) are all we need to grasp simple truths.
But in the years following my campaign, and especially in the last eight years, we’ve had a profusion of candidates who have stolen my playbook and adopted my fact-lite approach. But do I get ANY credit? Nooooo.
When Sarah Palin exploded on the national scene in 2008 with a knowledge-free response to questions of policy and governance, I was secretly proud of how closely she applied my blueprint for success. Yet she refused to publicly thank her obvious mentor.
In 2012 at least half the candidates in the presidential primaries read my book (The Running Game) and in 2016 probably most of them. And Donald Trump himself, who critics (unfairly) claim has never read a book, clearly read mine and even memorized entire sections of it. But what thanks have I heard from Donald? Crickets.
Ok, I just had to get that off my chest.
The business lesson? I’ve thought a lot about this. My conclusion is I didn’t think big enough. I didn’t invest in the dream. If I were to do it again, I’d quadruple my original campaign budget.