The Smackdown Candidate
Showtime! The contender, dressed in black, was working the crowd amid sporadic chants of "Linda! Linda! Linda!" Wading across the floor of a bustling ballroom, she flashed an arsenal of practiced moves: here, a handshake or a hug, there, a whisper and a sharp nod of her blonde head. It was a Friday evening in May, and some 1,500 delegates had convened in Hartford for the Connecticut Republican Convention, where they would be voting to endorse one of several candidates for an open U.S. Senate seat. Linda McMahon was gripping, grabbing and locking up support. As a competitor, McMahon had the advantage of wealth—she was promising to spend $50 million to win the seat—and an improbable self-made biography. But what really set the first-time candidate apart at this gathering of town bosses and selectmen was her ease with small-bore politicking. She was playing the audience like a seasoned performer.
This was no surprise, considering how McMahon made her fortune: in the raucous, crass, crowd-pleasing world of professional wrestling. Over more than 30 years, she and her husband, Vince, built a scruffy promotion company into a $1.2 billion empire of staged violence called World Wrestling Entertainment, known to fans (and the stock ticker) as the WWE (WWE). But while Vince, a blustery showman, was transforming TV programming, giving the world characters like Hulk Hogan and The Rock, and taking a lead role in his own wild spectacles, Linda stayed mostly. "I knew I was more suited to the boardroom," she says, "than I was to the television screen." Now that is changing as she steps into the arena of politics and tries to forge a legacy apart from the family business—an enterprise that, despite its passionate and free-spending following, still operates under a cloud of elite disdain.
It says something about this year's anti-Establishment mood that, even before she walked into the ballroom, the wrestling millionaire was already considered the Republican front-runner. Although Connecticut is a reliably liberal state, the race's Democratic candidate, Richard Blumenthal, kept making high-profile mistakes, and McMahon's supporters were predicting that she would be able to tap the same current that carried unlikely insurgents like Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown into a Senate seat long held by Democrats. "She went from zero and built up that corporation," said delegate Carol Teodosio, who began uncommitted, but had been won over by McMahon's outsider message. "She can deal with the Senate. She's dealt with testosterone before."
First, McMahon, 61, had to take care of the competition at the GOP convention, which included two Tea Party types, well-known money manager and financial market doomsayer Peter Schiff (campaign slogan: "Schiff Happens"), and volunteer firefighter Vinny Forras, whose principal qualification—he had responded to the World Trade Center on September 11—was touted by supporters wearing yellow fire helmets and carrying a banner image of the smoking ruins. Her most serious opposition came from Rob Simmons, a grayed ex-congressman with a moderate record. Simmons had promised to quit if he didn't win the party's endorsement, and McMahon was trying to drive him out of the race. Already she'd obliterated his early lead in the polls with a fusillade of expensive ads. "You know how much money I've spent on advertising?" Simmons said, as he canvassed the delegates for last-minute votes. "Zero."
Simmons sounded more overwhelmed than defiant, though, and all around him his opponent's financial edge was apparent. The ballroom floor was crawling with buzz-cut young men wearing Bluetooth earpieces and "Linda" golf shirts. "She's got an army here," said one impressed Republican, surveying the scene from the sidelines.
McMahon's foot soldiers were reporting back to a computer-filled war room down the hall, where Ed Patru, a Washington political operative who serves as the campaign's communications director, was counting votes and assessing intelligence. Hearing something he didn't like, Patru barged from the room with an aggravated look. "It's dirty politics out on the floor," he growled. Simmons' supporters, Patru claimed, were spreading rumors that a TV station was about to break news of a scandal from McMahon's past. While it wasn't true, it wasn't unbelievable, either.
McMahon was pitching herself to the convention—and by extension the state of Connecticut—as the very model of a successful Republican businesswoman. Her opponents were replying, in essence: take a look at the business. The field of wrestling is fertile ground for muckrakers. Over the years the WWE has been buffeted by periodic waves of scandal over steroid abuse, premature deaths, and allegations that their product was spoon-feeding raunchiness and violence to children. And at nearly every turn, the McMahon family gleefully embraced an outlaw image, at least on TV, playing a scheming, evil, brawling bunch of cretins in the parallel universe of their wrestling shows. The formula translated splendidly into ratings and revenues for the WWE. But now, as Linda McMahon enters a very different sort of contest, one for the public's approval, she faces a daunting challenge. She has to convince voters that the sordidness was all just make-believe.
Professional wrestling grew out of the freewheeling culture of traveling carnivals. Before Vince and Linda McMahon came along, wrestlers appeared on dingy and disorganized regional circuits, hewing to fraternal traditions with a distinctive vocabulary. The good guys were called "baby faces" and the bad guys were "heels"; the paying customers were "marks," and when they cheered or booed, that was "heat." Wrestlers were never supposed to break "kayfabe," the illusion that all fights were in earnest. If the body slams were faked, however, the rough-and-tumble of the business has always been real. Over three decades the McMahons have seen off all challengers, including some with much deeper pockets, through guile, tough tactics, and most of all, a superior understanding of the audiences' appetites.
The McMahons met as high school sweethearts back in rural North Carolina. They began small, in the 1970s, working for Vince's father, a small-time promoter. They went bankrupt early on after Vince took a risk on financing a stunt—an Evel Knievel motorcycle jump of the Snake River Canyon—that fizzled. But when the McMahons stuck to what they knew, wrestling, they made a formidable tag team. Linda held the purse strings, while Vince pulled the puppet stings, creating characters that roused the crowd—who "got over," in wrestling argot.
Vince, the impresario, is about getting a reaction from everything he does. At press conferences he's been known to declare, "Wall Street can kiss my ass." Linda was the one who smoothed things over and handled the details, playing the firm, financially conversant emissary to network executives and investors. ("I always think of Margaret Thatcher," the wrestler Bret Hart once said when asked to describe her management style.) In her new career, she's proven to be adept at what political professionals call messaging. Sitting one afternoon in her Stamford campaign office, a demure alternative to WWE's gaudy nearby headquarters, Titan Tower, McMahon told me she learned how to communicate in those early days when wrestling was still a barnstorming operation advertised on posters given away to local fire stations. "The only way you actually made money when this business was first beginning was ticket sales for live events," she said. "So you had to really develop a strong grassroots connection."
Back then the company didn't take in any revenues from TV; wrestling promoters would pay stations to broadcast their events during scheduling dead spots, fanning interest in their live matches. But it wasn't long before the McMahons realized that their product was perfect for the new, programming-deprived medium of cable TV. They persuaded the USA Network to start airing a weekly show featuring wrestlers like Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and the Iron Sheik, and replaced the simplistic heroes-and-heels formula with elaborate storylines—"angles," as wrestlers call them—that unfolded over a series of showdowns, building up to special events like the yearly WrestleMania. Soon, wrestling was the highest-rated draw on cable.
While Vince came up with the characters and charted their shifting allegiances, it was Linda who figured out how to monetize the drama. The WWE trademarked wrestlers' stage names, signature holds, and catchphrases—everything down to The Rock's distinctive cocked eyebrow—and licensed them to market T-shirts, action figures, books, and movies. Linda helped launch the brand into pay-per-view events, now a major source of revenue. When state athletic commissions began to pressure the business with regulations and taxes, it was Linda who came forward with the heretical public admission that wrestling was just an act, no more a sport than a magic show. "We got a lot of pushback from some of the older guard," she said. "But that was really the launching point for the company to start moving into more mainstream entertainment."
As the WWF's brand of entertainment grew in popularity, however, it came under attack from the self-appointed forces of decency, people like Senator Joseph Lieberman and the conservative watchdog L. Brent Bozell III, who called the McMahons "despicable people." The McMahons weren't deterred. Vince created a send-up group called Right to Censor, and told Playboy that he found Lieberman "scary." (Bygones appear to be bygones: Lieberman, an Independent who holds Connecticut's other Senate seat, recently said he'd consider endorsing Linda McMahon.) A more serious threat, during the 1990s, came in the form of the WCW, a rival league financed by cable baron Ted Turner, who stole Hulk Hogan and many other marquee performers away from the McMahons. Vince responded by dispensing with Hogan's kid-friendly style of cartoonish combat, emphasizing darker characters like the beer-swilling braggart "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the macabre Undertaker, and the masked fiend Mankind. During this period, the so-called attitude era, the onscreen action became increasingly bloody and risqué, with angles featuring Satanism, sexuality, and smackdowns of scantily clad women.
The biggest heel of the attitude era, as the story developed, was Vince McMahon himself. He played a caricature of a Machiavellian wrestling league boss and occasionally descended into the ring to do battle with his archenemy, Steve Austin. Over time, the rest of the McMahon family got into the act. Son Shane, who in his day job headed the company's digital strategy, once took a 50-foot leap from scaffolding to the ring during a fight with the wrestler The Lethal Weapon. Daughter Stephanie, now the company's vice-president for creative development and operations, played a rebellious brat who cavorted with the hated Hunter Hearst Helmsley, or Triple H, and was often serenaded by crowds chanting "slut, slut, slut."
The McMahons say the routines were all in good fun, if not good taste. "It was almost one of the first reality series, if you would," Linda said. "It was real people, who were a real family, having these interactions in a ring." The bawdier the stories got, the more the McMahons were rewarded by the audience—and the markets. In 1999 the WWE, which changed its initials after a trademark suit by the World Wildlife Fund, went public. The McMahons, who held 83 percent of the company, were soon worth almost $1 billion on paper. (The stock has since had ups and downs, although it now trades just below its original offering price.) The company also absorbed the stumbling WCW. Attitude ruled.
A decade later, the family's exhibitionism is returning to haunt the McMahon campaign. Linda never much liked to be on camera, but her rare appearances—the one where Vince drugged her so he could frolic with one of his "divas," the one where she slapped Stephanie for plotting against the family—were memorable. The WWE has tried to scrub all evidence from the Internet, but McMahon's opponents are finding ample material to work with.
"I really don't think anyone in Sacramento expected Arnold Schwarzenegger to walk into the capital...shooting machine guns out of each hand," McMahon told me. "I do believe that people can definitely separate soap opera from reality." Still, part of Vince McMahon's genius has been his facility for blurring the lines between the two. In the 1990s, for instance, he fought a bumpkin character called "Billionaire Ted" in the ring, and at times the family's real-life storylines have turned distinctly surreal. In 1999 the onscreen character Stephanie McMahon was married to Triple H in a ceremony at a Vegas drive-through chapel that occurred while she was unconscious. Four years later, Stephanie got married in actuality, while happily awake, to Paul Levesque—better known as the wrestler Triple H. "That was life imitating art," Linda said.
"It's the wrestling business," says columnist Mike Mooneyham, co-author of Sex, Lies and Headlocks, a history of the WWE. "Sometimes it's hard to differentiate reality and fantasy."
The line gets decidedly blurry when it comes to the character of Vince McMahon. A library of tell-all books, including Mooneyham's, depicts him as a visionary who nonetheless bears similarities to the tyrannical figure he plays on TV. WWE wrestlers are employed only as independent contractors without health benefits, and their salaries, determined by their drawing power, start at a minimum of $75,000 and range up to $1 million a year, though they can make substantially more with bonuses. McMahon maintains tight control over wrestlers' appearance schedules, career arcs, even their names, and he makes and discards stars with ruthless decisiveness. He's made plenty of enemies in the process. Ring of Hell, a 2008 book by Matthew Randazzo V, quotes numerous named and unnamed former WWE employees who say that Vince McMahon has encouraged a workplace culture of rowdiness, infighting, and rampant abuse of drugs, both recreational and performance-enhancing. "These books are written by authors who benefit financially from sensationalizing WWE's past," says company spokesman Robert Zimmerman. "Neither Mr. McMahon nor the WWE intend to comment on wild allegations attributed to unnamed 'sources' contained in poorly researched books."
No one disputes that the McMahons rose to wealth on the backs of freakishly muscled men. For years the company has been dogged by scandals over steroids. In the early 1990s a series of federal investigations implicated stars like Hogan and Roddy Piper. And Vince, who admitted to having used steroids himself before they became illegal, was charged with conspiracy to distribute. He was acquitted at trial, and the company enacted a steroid testing program. It was abandoned after just five years. In 2007 testimony to a congressional committee, Linda McMahon said this was done, among other reasons, to create "a level playing field" with the WCW, Turner's organization. "He had no drug testing of any kind, and the fact was that he was paying talent much more," she told me. (There is some dispute about whether the WCW did actually test.) "We had come off the trial, we had good solid superstars, and we didn't think it was an issue."
It was only a decade later, after the death of wrestler Eddie Guerrero from a heart condition likely exacerbated by steroid abuse, that the WWE enacted a new drug policy. In a preliminary round of testing, 40 percent of its roster turned up positive. Vince said he was surprised. At first, the company's new rules had significant loopholes. Wrestlers were allowed to perform while serving their suspensions for drug use, on the theory that sitting out was a lesser punishment than being beaten in the ring for no pay. Later, after the wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his family and hung himself, leaving behind a steroid stash, the policy was tightened. Now wrestlers are barred from the ring after a positive test, their names are announced, and contracts are terminated after a third offense.
Despite the new policy, the congressional investigation concluded in 2009 that the WWE had "not taken adequate steps" to address steroid use in its ranks. In his testimony, Vince McMahon made it clear he was not convinced that such performing-enhancing drugs were even dangerous, saying "the FDA hasn't bothered to tell me or anybody else." The company chairman, who cuts a remarkably bulging figure for a 64-year-old, also refused to answer when asked under oath whether he'd used steroids in the prior 11 years. "Mr. McMahon believed that questions invading his personal and medical privacy were inappropriate and offensive," says Zimmerman.
Although there's been some scaremongering, research has linked steroid use by athletes to liver, cardiac, musculoskeletal, and reproductive system damage, as well as psychiatric effects. When I asked Linda McMahon about the issue, however, she said she shared her husband's doubts. "There's some evidence sometimes of muscle disease, or cardiac disease, but it's really hard to know because you didn't know the condition of the performer's heart, or whatever, prior to," she told me. "So I still don't think we know the long-term effects of steroids. They are continuing to study it more and more, but I don't believe there are a lot of studies out there today that are conclusive."
For all their on-camera posturing against the elites, the McMahons have long been engaged in a flirtation with the forces of respectability. Over the years the WWE has tried to translate its brand to mainstream ventures like a football league and a Times Square theme restaurant. Both were expensive debacles. The company is currently expanding into movie- making, signing up former Oscar nominees like Ed Harris and Patricia Clarkson to star alongside wrestlers. The films are part of a broader push to tone down the WWE's attitude. After years of defending the company over its racy content, which once prompted advertisers like Coca-Cola (KO) to pull its ads, it was apparently Linda and Stephanie who decided it was time for less misogyny and gore. Revenues have been hit by the recession, as well as by competition from the authentic blood sport of mixed martial arts, and the McMahons calculated that audiences and advertisers want something more family friendly.
The McMahons own an $11 million Greenwich estate and have become accepted members of Connecticut society. Lowell P. Weicker, a former GOP senator and governor, is a member of WWE's board. The current governor, Jodi M. Rell, paved the way for McMahon's entry into politics by appointing her in early 2009 to the state board of education, over the objections of some in the legislature who questioned her wrestling background. McMahon told me that brief experience gave her a taste for public service, which matured into a desire to run for the Senate as she watched President Barack Obama enact policies that encumbered entrepreneurs with taxes, regulations, and obligations to provide health-care benefits. "It was just one thing after the other, after the other," she said. "We need, I believe, more representative senators and congressmen and women who are more in tune to the people who sent them to Washington." She's pro-choice, against repealing President Bush's tax cuts, and skeptical of the bill sponsored by Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) that would place new rules on the banking industry and create a consumer protection agency, which she calls "just another added layer of bureaucracy."
Although the WWE has sponsored voter registration drives, and McMahon appeared alongside The Rock at the 2000 GOP convention, people who know her say her interest in the Senate came as a surprise. "No, I didn't ever sense that this is the direction that she wanted to go in," says Weicker, an admirer who is nonetheless unsure if McMahon's prepared for the harsh business of campaigning. "She's already seen enough to know that she's got a rough road ahead."
In her short time in politics, however, McMahon has shown herself to be a formidable combatant. When she launched her campaign last September, her initial target was Dodd, a Democrat who was expected to run again for his seat. She aired a series of commercials attacking the senator as an out-of-touch incumbent who was beholden to special interests. Facing declining poll numbers and the prospect of a free-spending opponent, Dodd dropped out of the race in January, making way for a far more popular Democratic candidate, Richard Blumenthal, the state's long-serving Attorney General.
Blumenthal's entry to the race seemed to make McMahon's challenge far more difficult, but in May The New York Times rocked the campaign with a front-page story describing a series of occasions in which the Democrat, who served in a stateside Marine reserve unit during Vietnam, seemed to imply that he'd actually fought in the war. Suddenly, McMahon wasn't the only candidate with phony battles to explain. In the aftermath, an item posted on her website—and hurriedly taken down—crowed that her campaign had planted the damaging story, although The Times asserted that it did its own digging. McMahon's spokesman says the campaign's involvement with the leak was limited to sharing research with the newspaper, including a tape of one of Blumenthal's appearances where he apparently misrepresented his record. The Times got its own copy of the tape. "We made a strategic decision before the convention to put our fingerprints on this story," Patru says. "We believed it would send a message to the delegates."
Still, a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in late May, after the news of the Vietnam flap sank in, gave Blumenthal a 25-point lead and showed that more voters had a negative than a positive view of McMahon, an unusual and troublesome result for a first-time candidate. Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says that in McMahon, Republicans have "a candidate who made her millions peddling sex and violence to kids, hiding widespread steroid abuse, and sending her employees into dangerous situations in exchange for their glory and her profit. Democrats chose a crusading Attorney General with a long record of delivering for Connecticut families. I'd take that matchup any day of the week."
McMahon's supporters are undaunted and confident the gap will close once an onslaught of commercials allow voters to get to know her—and her opponent—a little better. At the state convention, Republicans were positively giddy over Blumenthal's embarrassment. Many wore stickers emblazoned with the Attorney General's face and the word "LIAR," and jokes about ersatz valor abounded.
The endorsement vote, when it came, was seemingly about as rule-bound as a wrestling match. The candidates and their supporters worked the crowds until the very last minute, twisting arms and striking deals. After the first round, with McMahon close to the 50 percent threshold she needed, the presider announced, bafflingly, that everyone would now have a chance to change their votes. A cascade of delegates came forward, and one by one the announcer called out shifts to McMahon. With the prize within reach, the whole McMahon family—which has stayed far in the background for the campaign—appeared on the floor. Vince was there, spry and broad-shouldered in a light gray suit, and so were Triple H and Stephanie, looking very pregnant with the couple's third child, and Shane, who recently left the WWE and has been rumored to be exploring several sports-related investments. Swarmed by cameras, the clan clustered around Linda in disciplined silence, ignoring all questions from the throng.
Linda nervously bit her bent finger; it was hard to keep count of all the vote switches. "One more, right?" Vince said, as yet another was called out. When she reached the magic number, Linda silently pumped her fist, and then led the entire scrum on an impromptu procession across the ballroom. The presider scolded her for creating an undignified hubbub, but her audience loved it, clapping and shouting her name.
McMahon accepted the endorsement beneath an arch of red, white, and blue balloons. She graciously thanked Rob Simmons, who a few days later announced he was suspending his campaign, and took aim at the wounded front-runner, Blumenthal. "I venture to say," she declared, in her slight Southern twang, "we're going to land a smackdown on him come November." To her side, Vince beamed. The character was getting over.
"My family has not been part of this campaign or anything, [but] I wanted my family there at the convention," Linda told me a few days later. "It was a great night. It was not political theater, it was family emotion. We have a strong, close-knit family...despite all the dysfunction we've displayed over the years on television."