A Question of Character: Craig Shirley's Scurrilous Attack on Liberal Historian Rick Perlstein



Craig Shirley of the public relations firm Shirley & Banister, whose clients have included Sarah Palin, Dinesh D'Souza, Ann Coulter and Newt Gingrich. 

In a recent article about attacks on the character of historian Rick Perlstein, the New York Times dropped the ball of responsible journalism by giving equal weight to the claims of the attacker and the defense mounted by the attacked. So says the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan:

It’s as if The Times is saying: Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know. We’re staying out of it. Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency — and for good reason.

The incendiary charge against Perlstein, author of Invisible Bridge, the much-heralded book about the years leading up to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, was that of plagiarism, made by Craig Shirley, who would doubtless prefer to be credited as the author of his Reagan biographies, Rendezvous With Destiny and Reagan’s Revolution, than for the public relations smear work by which he actually earns his living. His plagiarism charge is based on instances in which Perlstein paraphrased and credited Shirley’s work. As plagiarism goes, crediting the source is hardly the standard method, but, as a p.r. man, Shirley knew that all he had to do was to make the charge and demand that the all-too-compliant mainstream media respond with its typical false-equivalency approach to all tensions between left and right, and it could go viral.

In her critique of the Times article on Shirley’s smear, Sullivan politely notes that that Shirley is of an “opposing political orientation” to that of Perlstein. Not hampered by such bounds of politeness, I can here assert that Shirley is the purveyor of the fruits of the most odious and untruthful of right-wing hacks.

Before we examine his client list, let’s examine what Craig Shirley does in his day job at his public relations firm, Shirley & Banister, and why he says he does it, here from an interview with the Washington Post’s Krissah Thompson:

“Everything we do is designed to move numbers, shape opinion, advance legislation, put people on book bestseller lists, stop legislation, whatever,” says Shirley, sitting next to Banister in the firm’s conference room. “It’s all designed to advance some type of philosophical goal.”

In the case of smearing Perlstein, that philosophical goal would appear to be for control of the Reagan narrative that Shirley himself has sought to shape in his two biographies. The narrative, of course, is that of Reagan as noble revolutionary, a narrative threatened by the Perlstein book, which sets the right’s idol in the context of the tumult of his times, noting his role as an apologist for Watergate and reviser of the outcome of the Vietnam War as a win for America. In Perlstein’s telling, Reagan is less the noble revolutionary than the canny beneficiary of a clueless political establishment and a nation in longing for a denialist reinventor of its recent history.

It is, however, hard to accept Shirley’s goal in blindsiding Perlstein as merely philosophical; it’s surely personal, as well. If one has appointed oneself as the chief storyteller of an era, it must be painful to watch a young upstart win accolades for killing your happily-ever-after ending (in which it is suggested that Reagan was divinely appointed) with, as several reviews have noted, an obsessively researched and exuberantly narrated tome that suggests otherwise.

(I have avoided using Shirley’s exact words from the conclusion of Rendezvous, lest I be charged with plagiarism, despite the attribution.)


Perhaps the most telling testament to Shirley’s philosophical scruples is his firm’s client list, which contains quite the collection of liars, smearers and hypocrites.

Among the most notable is Dinesh D’Souza, who was pushed out of the presidency of The King’s College, a right-wing Christian institution, after he was found to be having relations with a woman who was not his wife—and lying about just exactly when he had filed for divorce. (The filing was not made before the night he was reported to have shared a hotel room with the woman he described as he fiancée, who, as it turned out, was also married to someone who was not D’Souza.)

But hypocrisy is hardly D’Souza’s worst sin. One need only turn to his crockumentary, 2016: Obama's America, which advances D’Souza’s free-associating theory that President Barack Obama is driven by an anti-colonial, Britain-hating ethos bequeathed to him by his Kenyan (did you hear me, I said KENYAN) father—who, in reality, Obama never really knew—to get at the essence of D’Souza’s self-promotional genius, which is the stuff of which Lucifer is said to be the prince. Shirley & Banister promoted the film with great gusto, turning it into something of a box-office phenomenon. In fact, D'Souza approached Shirley with the idea for the film before he set about making it, according to Krissah Thompson.

The Associated Press did a fact-check of the assertions in 2016, finding these, among others, to take issue with:

— D’Souza says Obama is “weirdly sympathetic to Muslim jihadists” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He does not mention that Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the drone strikes that have killed dozens of terrorists in the region.

—D’Souza says Obama has “done nothing” to impede Iran’s nuclear ambitions, despite the severe trade and economic sanctions his administration has imposed on Iran to halt its suspected nuclear program. Obama opposes a near-term military strike on Iran, either by the U.S. or Israel, although he says the U.S. will never tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran.

If you had heard of this film, which was essentially a base-motivating piece of propaganda launched during the 2012 presidential campaign, before reading this article, that’s likely because of the work done by Shirley & Banister to advance it. Never mind that it’s a pack of lies. It has “a philosophical goal.”

Other Shirley & Banister clients include columnist and liar Ann Coulter, who I once heard refer to murdered doctors who had performed abortions as people who had “had a procedure performed on them with a rifle,” and who is currently trolling for attention by condemning the American Christian missionary doctor who contracted ebola for wasting his efforts on Africans. But, hey, it’s all in the service of a philosophical goal.

Other Shirley & Banister clients include the National Rifle Association, whose executive director, Wayne LaPierre, blamed the Sandy Hook massacre on gun-free school zones and falsely interpreted crime data to suggest violent gun crimes were rising at a time when they were not.

Then there’s the ironically named, anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, which helped defeat Rep. Steve Driehas, Democrat of Ohio, in 2010 by posting billboards that accused him of having voted for “taxpayer-funded abortion,” when he had done nothing of the sort. (SBA List’s explanation is that he had voted for Obamacare, which it falsely asserts covers “taxpayer-funded abortion.”) Let's not forget that font of truthiness, Sarah Palin, who advances conspiracy theories with aplomb. Again, all in the service of a philosophical goal.

The philosophy: winning by any means necessary.

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