John Rendon is one of the most powerful men in the world, but the PR specialist rarely comes of out of the shadows
Why are we all obsessed by lists? Take a look at the news agenda of any particular week and the media is full of them. This week it’s been lists of Oscar nominees. Next week it will be lists of candidates in the Iraq election. And the latter will be heavily influenced by a man whose name should come near any list of the world’s top power brokers. Not Bush or Blair, but the shadowy figure of John Rendon. Never heard of him? That’s the point.
John Rendon didn’t get where he is today by hogging the limelight. Rendon’s biggest skill is remaining semi-invisible and anonymous, lurking in the shadows behind the headlines he makes. No journalist has managed to get more than two words out of him (“No comment”). But believe me, he is the most powerful man in the world. So who is John Rendon? He’s a PR man. But he’s far more than that. He’s the PR man the US government relies on to spin its military and political adventures around the world. And it’s not just America. His company, the secretive and slightly sinisterly named Rendon Group, has other foreign governments among its clients.
Rendon likes to call himself an “information warrior” and a “perception manager” except that doesn’t really explain anything. I can tell you what he’s done, however. Remember the liberation of Kuwait in the first Gulf War, when victorious US troops rolled into the capital to be greeted by hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags? Ever wonder how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hold of their Stars and Stripes? That was Rendon. Over the past 20 years the Rendon Group has been involved in American military interventions all over the world, from South America (Colombia, Argentina) and Central America (Panama) to the Caribbean (Haiti), the Middle East (Iraq), Africa (Zimbabwe) and Europe (Kosovo). Its website has a home page with the slogan “Information as an element of power” but it could just say “Information is power”.
Clearly these guys do a little bit more than selling sleazy kiss-and-tells to the tabloids. The trouble is, the British media obsession with fluffy PR has fed our celebrity obsession to the point of overload. But there’s a whole hidden world out there: in the corridors of power there are PRs pushing the public’s buttons, changing people’s perceptions, feeding scraps of information and disinformation for unseen clients who will always deny their association.
John Rendon is the king of these invisible power brokers, a semi-autonomous opinion former who shapes the way we think without us even knowing about it. He was taken on long before Desert Storm to persuade Americans that a Bad Thing was going on in a faraway land called Kuwait and that the only way to fix it was to get in there and kick some Iraqi ass.
Yet John Rendon remains a mystery to the American public which buys the information he sells it. I first became aware of him when I was researching a book four or five years ago. There’s never been much press about him, which immediately made me think he must be a good media operator, because good operators with interesting clients never look for headlines. And they are very good at not disclosing what they really do. (Hence the guff about information managers and perception warriors to throw you off the scent.)
Like a real-life Zelig, Rendon has had his finger in the pie of every key US intervention of the past 20 years. Study them and you’ll find him in the margins. In Panama, helping to broker the transition of power after Noriega’s capture. In Kosovo, keeping a lid on ethnic conflict when the troops went home. In Kuwait in 1991 and in Iraq right now, making sure the elections go the way the US government wants them to go. He softened the Yanks up on the idea of the first Gulf War before it even happened because the guys who wanted it to happen wanted to make damn sure they had the voters on their side before the body bags came home. And that was Rendon’s job. Not that they got to see any body bags on US TV, of course. That was probably Rendon’s job too.
One area of information that Rendon is strangely sketchy about is his own background. He started out as an election campaigner for the Democrats, beginning with Michael Dukakis’s campaign to become a senator in 1974. By the 1980s he was masterminding Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign. But in the mid-1980s he made the sudden and lucrative switch to working for private clients outside the US. Soon he was working directly for the CIA, carrying out George Bush Snr’s orders to mount a covert anti-Saddam campaign in 1991. Hence the emergence of the opposition Iraqi National Congress which Rendon created, named, packaged and fed $12m of CIA cash over a five-year period, according to highly respected sources.
These days he is less covert but just as active. In 2001 he won a contract to handle the PR aspects of US military strikes in Afghanistan – another way of describing propaganda. The following year the Pentagon hired the Rendon Group to assist its own new propaganda agency, the Office of Strategic Information, which was later publicly disbanded amid claims it would engage in “black” propaganda.
In June 2003 Rendon reportedly went to work for the joint chiefs of staff, providing “strategic communications counsel, media analysis and consultation support services”. The results are impressive, as anyone can deduce from US opinion polls, such as the one where two-thirds of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks and eight out of 10 thought Iraq had nuclear weapons. If there was a position of chief propagandist, then Rendon is it.
He’s also an incredibly creative, very powerful and (presumably) enormously rich man, shaping and forming world opinion. He’s leaking and spinning as we speak but you’ll never see him do it, never catch him, although his fingerprints are everywhere. The problem is that he’s not accountable to anyone. And because he’s in there doing their dirty work, the people who are accountable – the politicians and generals – can do more or less whatever they want without suffering the consequences if it goes wrong. That’s why he’s so powerful. He doesn’t need to get re-elected. He doesn’t need to base his work on expediency. He just does what he’s told to do and gets on with it away from the public glare. He’s Dr Strangelove.
So beware the unseen hand that, in this modern media age, shapes our lives. And note that Napoleon Bonaparte, of all people, said: “There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind.” There is a great business in shaping the mind and, let’s face it, Mr Rendon will be happy if he slips off a few lists.
Mark Borkowski is the chief executive of PR agency Borkowski