RNC Wizard

Mark McKinnon: Meet the Man Who Made the RNC Happen

Enough with the criticism of Clint Eastwood. Mark McKinnon salutes the man who made the Tampa convention a success.

Eric Draper / Mitt Romney 2012

Liberals and the mainstream media are having a field day over Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the Republican National Convention, mocking it ceaselessly on cable. They’re using it just like the storm beforehand—doing whatever it takes to distract from Mitt Romney and the message he wants to convey. But no matter how crazy it drives critics, Clint pumped up the hall, showed people it was OK to poke fun at President Obama—and left ’em laughing in the aisles. No amount of post-game complaint can change the fact that the GOP—and convention organizer Russ Schriefer in particular—put on a hell of a show.

Heart, brains, and courage. It was all there for America to see on stage. And Schriefer was the man behind the curtain. Given the challenges faced by the party and its nominee, he proved to be a true wizard.

Fighting hurricanes of nature and man (Isaac and Todd Akin), not to mention the very difficult and divided factions within the GOP these days, Schriefer managed one of the most successful conventions in memory.

Russ is the second half of the well-known Republican consulting duo of Stevens and Schriefer, the media-and-strategy team that has held the reins of the Romney operation since the beginning. Stuart Stevens usually gets most of the attention, as he is a flamboyant character who writes for movies and television and participates in extreme sports. Schriefer is the quiet half of the team. But as anyone who has worked with them knows well, Russ’s talent and contribution are just as strong as Stevens’s. Like any great team, it works because they complement each other so well. (Rumors that the two were at war over the Eastwood appearance are greatly exaggerated.)

The problem with the nominating conventions, as I’ve recently written, is that they are anchored by tradition and legacy. It’s hard to break with both and do anything that seems truly modern and in step with today’s media and consumer demands. Russ ran the 2004 Republican convention (which media critic Tom Shales pronounced to be “more media-hip and glitzy than the Democrats’”), and played a heavy role in 2000 as well. We had dozens of conversations about how to change the format. Could we get outside the cavernous, impersonal building? Did it really have to be four days? And the answer was and is always, “No” and “Yes.”

So, let’s stipulate that if there weren’t decades of history and physics that don’t leave a lot options, it’s unlikely you’d sit down and decide in the 21st century to have four nights of speeches from lone figures standing in the middle of an empty stage in a huge convention hall with thousands in stadium seating and expect a lot of sustained public or media interest. But let’s look at this last week for what was actually accomplished.

Mitt Romney became not only the nominee of a now-united party, he became the leader his party, and quite possibly the country, needs. We already knew he had a brain, but we also saw his heart and his courage through the reflection of his wife’s love and the moving testimonials of those who have seen him quietly caring when no one was watching. His running mate, Paul Ryan, proved he is the man for the task ahead, serious and earnest, likeable and charming, and—most important—ready for a fight. The party also showed a deep and diverse bench of talent, from the unexpected stars Mia Love and Susana Martinez to the expected all-star performers Condoleezza Rice and Marco Rubio. And despite skirmishes on the floor over rule changes and distractions lobbed by Democrats and the media, the focus remained positive, and on the economy and the future.

“A convention is a circus on steroids where everyone from the man with the big mustache to the gang in the clown car has a disproportionately oversized ego,” said Jim Dyke, senior advisor to the convention. “Russ outlined a program that would communicate the critical policy positions that are the foundation for governing and the personalities that connect Americans with the character of our party and our candidates. He then executed the plan with a contagious calm.”

Beth Myers, Romney’s trusted head honcho who ran the vice-presidential selection process, effused, “Russ was absolutely the perfect person to run the convention for Mitt. He intimately understands both Mitt and the campaign, and he has Mitt’s full confidence. Russ crafted each night’s theme in order to tell Mitt’s story in a way that all Americans would learn about the man that you can’t see in sound bites and 30-second ads.

“Russ’s creativity and vision are what made this convention feel different. The warmth and intimacy of this large hall didn’t happen by accident—it’s a product of Russ’s drive to get everything right. From the lighting to the stagecraft to the programming. It’s creative, innovative, and reflects Mitt in every detail. The program, of course, is the heart of every convention. And the program told every facet of the Romney story—his family, his faith, his service, his business acumen. It’s a daunting task, and Russ got it all right.”

The Wizard got a strong assist from the convention program director, Anne Hathaway. “Every successful organization has a backbone that keeps all the parts functioning, and if not for Anne we definitely would have lost at least our head along with a few limbs,” said convention press secretary Kyle Downey. “Our success is a testament to both her skills, constant optimism, and friendship.”

It’s easy to criticize the Eastwood moment. But who among us would not have done the same if offered the most iconic actor in America today? Not me. He’s always delivered. He’s always made our day. And despite the mainstream media and liberal hysterics, I’ll bet a lot of conservative and independent voters found Eastwood’s routine refreshingly nonpolitical and authentic. And who knows how many people tuned in to see Eastwood and no matter what they thought about his performance, they likely stuck around to watch Romney’s speech and see a side of him they’d never seen. It was impossible not to be moved by the human moments like Mitt choking up telling the story of his father and the roses he gave his mother every day, until one day a rose didn’t show up and that’s how she knew he had passed.

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Schriefer is a big fan of politics and a consummate political pro, having now worked for four out of the last five presidential campaigns, and numerous gubernatorial and Senate races, including Chris Christie’s. But he’s also a fan of the theater, and serves on the board of Washington, D.C.’s Signature Theater. To pull off a successful convention, it took someone like Schriefer who has the vision and creativity of a theatrical director.

Schriefer oversees all the advertising for the Romney campaign. He produced the terrific Romney biographical film that Joe Scarborough dubbed “amazing.” And in his spare time, he oversaw the entire convention. He’s the quiet man behind the curtain. But, make no mistake, he is a wizard. And deserves a lot of credit.