Maverick rides again

Democratic media whiz Mark McKinnon left partisan politics behind until George W. Bush swept him off his feet

There he stands, in grainy, jerky images resembling an old home movie. Captured on rough film is George W. Bush in a line of Cub Scout troops, then posing for snapshots with boys clad in Little League baseball uniforms. More footage follows him out of an airport building marked "Davenport, Iowa. Elevation: 753," its burnt-orange brick façade suggesting another era.

Scenes shift from bleached color to sooty black-and-white. Bush, dressed in a white polo shirt, jeans, and a San Antonio Spurs cap, touring a Waco-area ranch he hopes to transform into his presidential retreat. Striding across the plain, sun-cast shadows on his face and clothes, he looks taller and heavier. He looks, for a split second, like his father.

Then the film flows to color and to Iowa. A father pulling three children in a wagon that has a "Bush for President" sign attached to its side. A young girl standing in the foreground, shy of the camera, giggling nervously, shuffling her feet and munching on a snack.

Mark McKinnon stares at the flashing screen with obvious pleasure. His Super 8mm footage has caught a bygone flavor that sparks memories of youthful innocence -- precious Sunday nights when Dad and Mom would thread and fire up the unreliable home projector for family movies; Hawaiian Punch and Jiffy Pop served on a TV tray.

McKinnon, hired by Bush to produce his TV advertising, spent much of the summer traveling with Bush, shooting film he can use as fodder for future ads. He is reviewing the footage inside the Austin office of Maverick Media, a consulting business he formed to produce political ads for Bush.

Maverick signifies a return to the political campaign wars for McKinnon, a wordsmith and image maker who for a dozen years worked exclusively for Democrats. A self-described anarchist in college who cursed conservative ideals just for kicks, McKinnon graduated to the spin-doctoring profession, where he could skewer Republicans for profit.

His list of past clients is impressive.

Former Gov. Ann Richards hired McKinnon to manage her media office for her 1990 Democratic primary. In 1991 McKinnon produced former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier's campaign TV ads, staying in Lanier's house for a week to get to know his client better. Before taping one ad, Lanier prepared to change out of his cardigan and put on a suit. McKinnon stopped him, realizing Lanier would appear more genuine dressed in his sweater. The consultant guided Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk to election as well.

McKinnon's keen eye also captured moments on camera that gave voters intimate glimpses into former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. In two unscripted ads shot for Bullock's 1994 re-election campaign, the lieutenant governor sat on a porch swing with his wife, birds chirping in the background. Bullock's lyrical ad-libs started flowing as McKinnon, who sat beside the camera, casually chatted with him about his goals. Bullock, who died in June, may not have even realized the camera was running.

"Look, I've had all the honors, just about every honor that you could have," Bullock said in one of the ads. "So I'm not interested in honors. Not interested in any more plaques. What I'm interested in is building Texas. For my grandson, your children, and his children. Make it a little bit better than it was, than the day I was born at 504 Craig Street in a frame house in Hillsboro, Texas. Front bedroom."

That ad arguably is the best McKinnon has ever produced.

McKinnon was considered one of Austin's elite campaign-media consultants when he jumped ship in 1996, declaring in an essay published in Texas Monthly that he had grown weary and wary of "desperate candidates, manic campaign managers, and the last-minute attack and response ads." Instead, he would work exclusively to further the political objectives of corporate clients, such as phone companies and utilities. It was hardly a holy cleansing of the soul, but at least it wasn't partisan politics.

As the 1998 election season approached, McKinnon turned down offers from Democrats such as lieutenant governor candidate John Sharp and comptroller candidate Paul Hobby. Then Bullock, who kept a close kinship with McKinnon after 1994, suggested he sit down with Bullock pal Bush, who was shopping for someone new to produce his TV advertising.

The two had a private lunch at the Governor's Mansion. "When I first met him, I didn't want to like the guy," says McKinnon, 44. "I had a Democratic history, and I went in with my guns loaded."

As McKinnon recalls the meeting, Bush asked him more about his family than about his politics. Each man is married and has teenage daughters, so they had plenty to compare. Bush accepted a cookie baked by McKinnon's child and wrote a note on governor's stationery telling the girl how much he enjoyed it. She has the note framed on her desk at home.

"It was one of those little touches that went a long way," McKinnon says. "He really is thoughtful about others. I left that meeting with the feeling that he was the kind of guy I could get in a boat with for a long trip."


Some Democrats who worked with McKinnon consider his union with Bush the unholiest of matrimony. To them, McKinnon is guilty of betrayal and selling out -- like a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan whose favorite tune suddenly becomes "Hail to the Redskins."

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