Excerpts: Marvin Chernoff, the Columbia ad man and his life

May 4, 2014 

The career of Columbia advertising and public relations impresario Marvin Chernoff stretches from New York to Cleveland to Columbia, touching advertising, business, civil rights, the arts and politics. In these edited excerpts from his just-published Amazon book – “Unlikely Success – How a Guy Without a Clue Built One Hell-of-a-Business” – Chernoff talks about legendary political figures he met along the way.

Carl Stokes

Electing a ‘colored guy’

It’s 1967, Cleveland, Ohio. I had a small, thriving business selling calculators and business machines. At age 35, I had lucked out.

The late ’60s were troubling times, but they were exciting times as well. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement dominated the headlines. It was the summer of love, the Beatles, the off-Broadway hit “Hair,” and race riots. I had acquaintances who went South for civil rights and came home injured from beatings.

Everything happening in our country, it seemed, was tied to civil rights and antiwar activities. Although Cleveland was a Northern city, it still had racial problems. As a result, there were protests, marches, and eventually race riots.

One Sunday, I attended the Cleveland Ethical Society meeting and heard a speech by a young African-American who was running for mayor of Cleveland. His name was Carl Stokes. After the speech, I gave him my business card and told him that I would like to volunteer in his campaign.

Stokes was a young, engaging member of the Ohio legislature. I was moved by what he had to say about his hopes for Cleveland. To be frank, I was probably most interested by the prospect that this large Midwestern city, despite the great turmoil in the country, could elect a “colored guy” (to use the vernacular of the time) as mayor. Not only would Stokes’ success be good for the city, but the election of a colored mayor would be a giant national story.

Being involved in such a pivotal event was very appealing to me, but I had no idea how important it would be for me personally.

The campaign staff asked me to make phone calls and stuff envelopes. Thus, my initiation into the world of politics began.

The excitement of the campaign headquarters energized me. I found myself spending less and less time selling office machines.

The campaign manager, Charlie Butts, invited me to lunch one day. He was a young, white progressive who went on to spend most of the rest of his life in the state Senate. He told me that he was impressed by my instincts and wanted me to think about a problem the campaign was having.

Stokes was running against the incumbent Democrat mayor in a Democrat primary. Winning the primary in predominantly Democratic Cleveland meant that you won the election.

“They own the organization in the black community,” Butts told me. “They have all the precinct committeemen, and we have nothing. We need our own organization or something.”

I pondered the problem and proposed we develop an organization called “block captains.” I thought I had invented it, but a political consultant named Matt Reese had been doing the same thing elsewhere for years.

We called people from a directory that was in street order by house number until we found a volunteer willing to register people on a particular block and get them out to vote. We ended up with several thousand block captains. They were extremely dedicated people, mostly women, who came to rallies and received signed pictures of Carl Stokes, which I’m sure ended up in the corners of thousands of mirrors. It was a great success.

Registration skyrocketed, and Election-Day turnout was stupendous.

During the campaign, civil rights activists from around the country came to Cleveland to support our cause. We were blessed to be visited by two of the most celebrated orators in this nation’s history: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Rev. Jackson and his small church music group traveled through the black neighborhoods on the back of a pickup truck. They played some gospel music, and then Jackson would urge the crowd to get out and vote on Election Day. This went on for several weeks during the campaign.

On election eve, Jackson led a packed rally in the auditorium of a mostly black high school. The principal and the school board president were on the stage. They must have been horrified, I’m sure, when Jackson urged the kids to play hooky the next day, “Because you’ll learn a lot more by getting people to the polls than you will in class.”

Then Jackson started preaching. He preached with the cadence of a cool jazz performer. The percussionist behind him picked up the cadence. The saxophone joined in, and then the horns started wailing, all while Jackson preached. Everyone could feel the music in his deliver – the riffs, the bridge, the bebop, the improv. Everyone in the auditorium, especially the kids, got on their feet, dancing and shouting.

Election Day started at six in the morning. From then until the polls closed, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was driven through city neighborhoods in a convertible with a loudspeaker, encouraging people to get out and vote. His appearance that day in Cleveland had an immeasurable effect on the black community as well as the integration-inspired whites.

Voters in black precincts had been intimidated in the past. White police officers had stood in black voting precincts with arms folded in an effort to intimidate potential voters. George Forbes, a black councilman, assigned large black men to be his “witnesses” in those precincts. They stood, arms folded, alongside the police officers and made sure that everyone in the voting place knew they had holstered guns under their African dashikis.

Voting went smoothly.

Just before Election Day, I told the campaign manager about my amazing new product, the electronic calculator. I offered to bring in calculators to tabulate results if he would put me in charge of collecting the election night data. He said, “Sure.”

Shortly after the polls closed, the Associated Press and the city’s major TV station announced that our opponent, Ralph Locher, had won. The news devastated the hundreds of black people on the first floor of the campaign headquarters. They wandered around, murmuring and crying. They lost hope for a positive end to this long campaign and longer struggle. Meanwhile, up on the second floor of headquarters, there was a completely different atmosphere. Four volunteers were taking calls from block captains who reported the results from each precinct. The turnout in the black precincts was astounding. I kept sending messages to Carl Stokes saying that he had won.

Stokes came upstairs and asked me what was going on.

“Listen,” I said, “I understand that the other sources traditionally count the black precincts last. Our data shows unprecedented turnout there with voting that was almost 100 percent for you.”

In his autobiography, “Promises of Power,” Stokes wrote the following:

“I walked to the podium and declared myself the winner by more than 10,000 votes. The reporters were flabbergasted. No other vote projection system was giving me a win. But nobody else had Marvin Chernoff. Chernoff had a small business selling office machines. He came into our camp early in the campaign. By Election Day, he was volunteering more than full-time laborers to organize our volunteer workers and had become himself one of our most invaluable organizers.

“On Election Day he put together a system of 4,000 volunteers, with a minimum of three people working at each polling place. Chernoff was able to monitor every precinct in the city at two-hour intervals. An hour after the election, he was able to have dependable counts from the precincts he wanted and could predict our victory. Even so, his estimate was conservative. It was a remarkable performance.”

Soon, the media reversed their call and reported that Carl Stokes was, indeed, the victor. To those in the know, I was awarded “hero” status.

The victory party took place on two floors of a major downtown hotel. I have since concluded that black campaigns have the best victory parties. In the middle of the night, about 2 in the morning, when I had finally retreated to a hotel room to relax and savor the night’s events, I heard voices in the hallway.

“Marvin’s in the corner room,” I heard. Then there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, there stood the new mayor of Cleveland, Carl Stokes, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Stokes said, “This is Marvin Chernoff, the young man I told you about.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was standing in the doorway extending his hand.

“Congratulations, young man. You did a great job tonight,” he said in that famed voice.

I really don’t remember how I responded – probably in some sort of incoherent gibberish. But what a high it was. There, at the threshold of some ordinary hotel room, I experienced my life’s turning point.

After that indelible moment, I figured I would have a lot more fun working on campaigns than selling calculators.

The Clintons

Bill: “Passion, intelligence ... true political instincts”

Hillary: “A little shy”

After I formed Chernoff/Silver and Associates in Columbia, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was called to Washington to interview with a 32-year-old Arkansas attorney general who was running for governor of Arkansas: William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton.

We hit it off. I liked him immediately because of his passion and intelligence. And I like to think he saw something in me that was relaxed and confident and knew we would get along. That meeting triggered a two- or three-year relationship. Chernoff/Silver was hired to be media consultants to the Clinton for Governor campaign in 1978.

At the time, I was teaching a course in political science at the University of South Carolina. Students from that class who have run into me since then never fail to say, “I remember you saying way back in ’78 that this young attorney general named Bill Clinton was going to be president someday.”

I made that prediction because even though he was only 32, I couldn’t help but be impressed with his intelligence, knowledge, drive, and true political instincts.

Hillary was of a different nature during that first campaign. She kept her distance. She was building her own career in law and didn’t want to be identified as “the attorney general’s wife” or “the governor’s wife” or especially “Bill Clinton’s wife.” She insisted on being referred to as Hillary Rodham.

We got along, and one evening during the campaign, she called to tell me that Bill was too busy and too occupied to go to a movie. She told me that she was a big John Travolta fan and asked if I would take her to see “Saturday Night Fever” that night.

We sat side by side, eating popcorn, enjoying John Travolta’s dance moves. We both loved it.

I’ve often wondered, since then, whether it was Hillary’s influence that got Travolta the role of the Clinton character in “Primary Colors.”

Because she was so passive about that first campaign and, I think, a little shy at the time, it was tough to get her to appear as a supporter or spokesperson. Hillary agreed to appear only once that year in a television ad and then for only a few seconds.

Working on that campaign meant spending a lot of time in Arkansas. We were driving in a van through western Arkansas and Clinton was describing to me the fact that there are pockets of true populism in western Arkansas. He told me that when Arkansas seceded from the Union, there were counties in west Arkansas where the populist mountain folk, who didn’t believe in slavery, seceded from Arkansas. He asked our driver to stop when he noticed a farmer on a ridge riding a tractor. Clinton went up to see the farmer and engage him in conversation. After a few minutes, I was dispatched to get the candidate back in the van.

I stood by for a few minutes tapping my foot. The farmer had a very deep west Arkansas accent and no teeth on top, which made it difficult for me to understand him. I finally extracted the candidate, and on his way down the ridge, he said to me, “You see, Marvin, that’s exactly what we should be saying. Those are the things we should be talking about in this campaign.”

I agreed, even though I didn’t understand a word the farmer had said. But Clinton did understand, and I think what that guy said became a part of almost everything Clinton espoused during the balance of the campaign.

Out of the mouths of anyone can come the seeds of wisdom, and perhaps even a presidency.

During Clinton’s first term as governor, I attended the Southern Governors’ Conference in Louisville with him and some of his folks at his invitation. On the first night, Clinton suggested that we walk from our hotel to the Convention Center, about three or four miles away. The group that took the walk consisted of the governor, Hillary Clinton, his young chief of staff, two Arkansas highway patrolmen, and me.

He stopped to talk to a couple of firefighters at a fire station along the way, got wound up, and had to be dragged out to be on time for the meeting.

We continued to walk through a low-income neighborhood where the people guessed that, because of the highway patrolmen, one of us must have been a governor there for the convention.

Clinton was young with a full head of dark hair that contrasted with my age and my gray hair. Children came out of their apartments and gravitated toward the gray-haired guy, asking for an autograph.

Clinton said, “Go ahead, Governor, sign it.”

As a result, there are probably a few middle age people from Louisville wondering which state this guy, Marvin Chernoff, governed.

Rita Jenrette

“Her propensity for creating fiction”

I helped John Jenrette get elected to Congress from South Carolina several times in the 1970s. I became friends with John and his then-wife, Rita.

John was a dedicated, hardworking congressman who was very popular with the poor and black people in his district (in and around the Myrtle Beach area). If you visited those households, you would notice that many had a picture on the wall of Jesus Christ alongside a signed picture of John Jenrette.

There were two significant accomplishments during John’s tenure in Congress. First, he was elected Democratic Whip. Second, he was convicted for accepting a $50,000 bribe, the result of the FBI’s ABSCAM investigation in 1980.

John and Rita were married in 1976. Rita was smart and beautiful. She was admired by the D.C. crowd and cautiously accepted by John’s constituents. I, too, liked her but discovered her propensity for creating fiction.

The former opposition research director of the Republican National Committee wrote an article for the Washingtonian Magazine soon after she and John married. It was titled “Confessions of a Congressman’s Wife.” Among other things, she recounted that I, Marvin Chernoff, was best man at their wedding.

I called Rita and reminded her that they had a very private ceremony to which I was not invited. Not only was I not the best man, I wasn’t even there. She responded, “Oh, I didn’t think you’d mind me writing that. So many people like you, and I thought it would be good for the Congressman.”

I wasn’t sure whether I should have been angry or flattered.

After John’s conviction during the ABSCAM investigation, Rita gave an interview to Playboy magazine accompanied by a near-nude photo spread. In the interview, she told the world that she and John had made love one night behind a pillar on the Capitol steps during a break of an all-night session of Congress. She also appeared on the cover of Playboy in 1984.

Not long later, I learned Rita was writing a book. Oh my God, who knew what she would say? And about whom?

I decided that this was a good time to talk with Rita.

I arranged to have dinner with her in New York. When I knocked on her door in the Park Lane Hotel, I was introduced to two people, a man and a woman, sitting across from each other at typewriters, knocking out the book in her hotel room.

We went to dinner at Elaine’s, a hot spot at the time. They gave us a very prominent table, probably because of her celebrity status. It was certainly not because of her date’s status. During dinner, Rita asked, “Do you remember once telling me that you could elect anyone to any office if they would just keep their mouth shut?”

I responded, “No, I never said that. I don’t believe that, and it’s just not something I would ever say.”

She then asked if another consultant that John used would ever say anything like that.

I said, “I don’t know, but a comment like that would have more likely come from him than from me.”

She asked the waiter to bring a phone and called the writers in her room. She told them to change the quote from Chernoff to the other man. That’s the way it appears in her book, “My Capitol Secrets.”

Rita went on to appear in movies and TV shows. A few years later, she married an Italian prince. She now helps market the family’s line of fragrances and gives tours of their castle to dignitaries. John later remarried as well, and happily, to a retired teacher and education administrator. He is living in Myrtle Beach, working on his memoirs.

Boy, will that be a good read.

Lee Atwater

“Brilliant, but ruthless”

After I became a political consultant, I had many memorable encounters with people in the depths of one political movement or another. One such encounter was a chance meeting with Lee Atwater.

Sometime in the early ’80s, I was leaving breakfast at the Elite Epicurean restaurant, a popular political hangout in Columbia, and ran into Atwater in a front booth with two of his friends. He asked me to join them, and I did.

Lee was a brilliant but ruthless campaigner on the political right. His career included helping Strom Thurmond in races for the Senate. He helped Ronald Reagan’s campaign in South Carolina and joined Reagan’s administration. He was campaign manager for George H. W. Bush in his 1988 presidential campaign and was criticized by Democrats for the scurrilous but effective “Willie Horton” ad produced by an independent group that aired during this campaign. The ad criticized Bush’s opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis, for the prisoner release program in Massachusetts, which depicted criminal Willie Horton.

He went on to help define the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” and to become chairman of the Republican National Committee.

He and I were usually on opposite sides of the political fence, but I also knew him as a talented guitar player whose mother was a beloved teacher in Columbia. I remember once spending a couple of hours listening to him and his group play in a small, local club.

But that morning he wanted to trade war stories about campaigning. After a few innocuous stories, he said, “Let me tell you this maneuver I pulled off in the Carroll Campbell-Max Heller congressional campaign in ’78.” To this day, I wish he hadn’t. He’d probably agree.

Carroll Campbell was a legislator who, after beating Heller and serving in Congress, eventually became governor of South Carolina in 1986. Max Heller, his congressional opponent, had been a popular mayor of Greenville, the largest city in the congressional district and the heart of the Bible Belt.

Heller, a Jew, escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938. He ended up in Greenville and was elected mayor after a successful career in the textile industry. He was an effective and popular mayor. Heller entered the congressional race as a Democrat. Campbell was his Republican opponent.

“Max was really killing us in the polls,” Atwater said. “We took a poll to find something that would eat into his popularity. The fact that he was a Jew didn’t matter to people. The fact that he was an immigrant didn’t matter. The only time the numbers really flipped was when we asked if people would vote for someone who didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their savior.”

Atwater continued to revel in this story, even though I could see his colleagues cringing.

“Bam. That was it,” Atwater said. “I knew we had to get that out. But you know, Marvin, we weren’t going to be the ones to put it out, so I had this great idea. I met with this irrelevant third candidate, Don Sprouse, who was running because his wrecker service was denied a city contract. I met him in a department store parking lot, showed him the poll results, and told him we were going to have a news conference to say that Max Heller didn’t accept Jesus Christ as his savior. And then, just like I thought he would, he hurried to get out in front of us, held his own news conference, got plenty of coverage, and the numbers changed and we won.”

Campbell became congressman and then governor, and Atwater had another couple of wins in the Republican column.

I’ve always assumed he was talking with me as a fellow campaigner. He assumed that I wouldn’t see his acts as anti-Semitic but rather as the strategy of a smart campaigner.

Sometime later, during a Campbell gubernatorial campaign, I retold the conversation to my partner, Rick Silver, who retold it to a Jewish activist in town, who retold it to the Greenville News. A reporter spoke with me, and when he spoke with Atwater, he denied ever saying anything of the sort and even went on to suggest that I was lying because his client, Strom Thurmond, beat my client in a senatorial race. The New York Times picked up the story, as did The Washington Post.

In 1990, while still serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee, Atwater was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer and made arrangements for the end of his life. He told a number of people that a friend had sent him a Bible, and in those holy pages, he had found salvation. Atwater, it seems, had to make amends for some of the missteps in his life.

As part of the salvation effort, he wrote letters and called some of his former political opponents from his hospital bed to ask forgiveness for things he may have said or done. I was one of the calls.

After an apology for the “lie” statement, he even reminded me of some of the things I got wrong in my retelling of this story. He also told me the other two guys at the table that morning jumped at him after I left: “Why did you tell him that story? Don’t you know Marvin’s Jewish?”

Atwater formed a foundation to research brain cancer. I made a contribution, not necessarily for him but for the cause. That blew him away. He wrote to me that he was “flabbergasted.”

Lee Atwater died in March 1991 at the age of 40.

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