Strength in unity: Frank Fahrenkopf sides with bipartisanship.
A candid shot with Ronald Reagan during the '88 Republican National Convention.
Fahrenkopf chipped off this piece of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
This sculpture features Ronald Reagan's signature and thumbprint.
Fahrenkopf was gifted these dice from the American Gaming Association.
BY ROLAND FLAMINI | May 8, 2013 | People
The walls of Frank Fahrenkopf’s Washington office serve as a facebook of power in DC. Pictured there are photographs, both candid snapshots and official images from front-page news, of politicians and headliners from the past 40 years, including every president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. And they all—Republicans and Democrats alike—have had warm words for Fahrenkopf. But wait. Didn’t Fahrenkopf chair the Republican National Committee for six years, from 1983 to 1989, the longest tenure for a RNC leader in the past century?
Yes, but that was then—well before Washington insiders’ main occupation became stabbing each other in the front. Fahrenkopf moved to the center stage of politics in DC at a time when, as the 73-year-old observed in a recent interview, Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan battled each other all week, but drank whiskey together and swapped Irish jokes over the weekend.
Today Fahrenkopf makes every effort he can to carry the torch of bipartisanship. He serves as founding cochairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit organization set up jointly by the Democrats and the GOP to sponsor and produce the televised face-offs between White House aspirants. (The current Democratic cochairman with Fahrenkopf is former Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry; Caroline Kennedy is on the board of directors.) Fahrenkopf has been there from the commission’s start in 1987. To date, that’s 26 presidential and vice-presidential debates—and a parade of stories, such as when George H. W. Bush was famously caught on camera glancing at his watch during a question from an audience member. Washington commission member Pamela Harriman, a Democrat, “grabbed my arm and said in her very English accent, ‘Frank, it’s over, it’s over,’’’ he recalls. (It was: Bush lost.)
Over the years, Fahrenkopf says he has witnessed a turn away from conciliation in Washington. A rancor has soured the political atmosphere and, in part, the problem is that lawmakers don’t get to know each other these days. “The most dangerous place in Washington is Ronald Reagan National Airport on a Thursday night,” he jokes. “If you’re not careful, you’ll be trampled by all the [members of Congress] rushing to their planes to leave town. They don’t stay [in DC] anymore; their families don’t move here. What’s missing somehow in this town is people getting to know each other, and you can’t trust someone if you don’t know them.”
The other change has been the disappearance of the political center, the bridge builders who “used to… bring the parties together to work out solutions under difficult circumstances,” Fahrenkopf says. “There used to be moderate Republicans, most of them from the northeastern states, but they’re all gone. There used to be Blue Dog [conservative] Democrats, but they’re gone, too.”
With more than half of voters saying the debates influence their decisions at the polls, the stakes are high for the two mainstream political parties, now more than ever before. And with January’s inauguration in the rearview and candidates’ names already being tossed around for the next campaign cycle, Fahrenkopf is thinking strategically about how the candidates should spar in 2016. “The challenge for the commission going forward is that we have to get more [diversity and engagement],” he explains. For instance, he says the last campaign’s formula of dividing the debate into six 15-minute segments (to give the candidates more time to discuss each issue) worked well enough to use again, but the group will “take a look at whether to retain the town hall format,” which he thought seemed slow and had uneven questions. He would also like more variety among the moderators: “We’ve got to get some younger people in there.”
When he is not running the presidential debates, Fahrenkopf spends time on his other job, as president and CEO of the nation’s gaming lobby. The Brooklyn-born attorney sits atop the American Gaming Association, an organization representing the interests of the nation’s $35.7 billion commercial casino industry. On occasion, that means staying officially neutral, as he did with the recent controversy over Maryland’s Question 7 referendum on whether to expand commercial video lottery gaming. Though the issue had association members on both sides of the fence, Fahrenkopf will allow that “the pattern all over the country is that building a gambling facility creates a business boom of jobs and higher [tax revenues].”
Given his insider’s knowledge of local and national politics, Fahrenkopf seems to be a suitable candidate for public office. So why hasn’t he run? “I prefer to be the Wizard of Oz,” he says. “I would much rather be behind the scenes.” He says his next project is to try to “improve the political mood” in Washington to foster bipartisan progress. If he succeeds at that, he’s going to need more wall space.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREG POWERS
September 26, 2018
August 29, 2018