Mark McKinnon is not happy. It’s a little after 8 a.m. a few days before the Iowa caucuses and one of his five-member film crews has been waiting in front of Ted Cruz’s closed Iowa headquarters since 6 a.m.
They’re in the wrong place. They should be across town at the dorm where Cruz volunteers are camping out. It’s an annoying glitch, costly especially in terms of time, for the political campaign veteran.
McKinnon, 60, a well-known Texas-based political image-maker who has run hundreds of campaigns and was a top strategist in George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, has changed sides. He’s gone from being a behind-the scenes operative to the mastermind of a new TV series, “Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth” on Showtime Sundays at 8 p.m. ET.
And time matters - the weekly program, which debuted in January, was airing its third show Jan. 31 about the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses coming the next day. It is a tight filming and editing schedule for what McKinnon calls a “real time documentary.”
“I had the original idea for it in 2002,” said the slightly built McKinnon - who always wears a cowboy hat, a bow to his Western roots - over coffee and oatmeal in West Des Moines.
The hat, invariably white, is McKinnon’s signature look and makes it easier for the camera to spot him in crowd scenes. “There is not a picture of me growing up in which I am not wearing a hat,” he said. And it’s not any cowboy hat, it’s an Open Road Stetson, with a narrow brim, a style his father wore and is considered more of a “gentleman’s hat.” He has two dozen of them, one black.
He notes that Lyndon Johnson wore this style and so do the Texas Rangers.
It reveals what it’s like to be in a political campaign.
McKinnon is the co-creator, co-executive producer and co-host. The show is a co-production between Showtime and Bloomberg Politics.
“I’ve always thought that there’s this fascinating world behind-the-scenes,” he said. “You have characters, drama, human emotion, pain, sorrow, humor that the public never sees.”
McKinnon, who was based in Austin for much of his career but now lives mostly in his native Colorado, has been associated with major political figures from both political parties, starting with Texas Democrats including colorful Texas Gov. Ann Richards in the 1980s and 1990s.
He became nationally prominent when he switched allegiances and became the chief media adviser to then-Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican, as he was launching his 2000 presidential campaign and worked with him through both successful campaigns and his presidency. McKinnon remains very close with Bush, a running buddy in Austin, and now shares Bush’s enthusiasm for cycling - joining the former president at Bush’s annual 100k ride for Wounded Warriors.
McKinnon also worked for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., early in his 2008 presidential campaign. But he stepped down because he did not want to work against Barack Obama whose election, he said, “would send a great message to the rest of the world.” He later changed his mind about not wanting to campaign against the African-American candidate and worked to prepare McCain’s vice-presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, for her debate with Joe Biden.
The fast-paced documentary aims to capture the tension and drama of this year’s campaigns. The first two episodes showed candidates weary on the bus, strategists working out their next moves, and the razzle-dazzle of thousands of people in a Donald Trump event. Trump, always critical of media coverage he says doesn’t capture the size of his crowds or the depth of his support, let the “Circus” team have three crews in the Pensacola Florida venue Jan. 20 with the hopes they would show what he wanted shown.
For Sunday’s show about Iowa, called “Tension City,” producers taped former President Bill Clinton campaigning for his wife Hillary Clinton and rival Bernie Sanders talking during downtime. They also taped scenes of Trump at the rally he held while skipping a GOP debate, and a self-promoting view of the release of the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll Saturday night. The polls showed both Hillary Clinton and Trump with narrow leads.
The crew never got to film the Cruz volunteers.
So, how’s “Circus” working out?
“It’s beyond my expectations and I had very high expectations,” said McKinnon. And viewers are finding the show. “We’ve got huge buzz,” he said.
But Variety chief TV critic Brian Lowry wrote, “The ‘Circus’ makes the classic campaign mistake of over-promising - described by Showtime as a trailblazing real-time political documentary series - and under-delivering. Because given the saturation coverage of the current election cycle, even a show assembled as close to air as this one risks feeling a trifle stale by the time Sunday night rolls around.”