PROFILE: Shirley helps right-wing ideals reach new heights

Craig Shirley has toed the Republican line since he was eight years old. And now he promotes the party's major mouthpieces, bringing attention to the books of prime-time pundits.

Craig Shirley has toed the Republican line since he was eight years old. And now he promotes the party's major mouthpieces, bringing attention to the books of prime-time pundits.

There's something very patriotic about being in Craig Shirley's office. It begins with the neighborhood. Having forsaken the heady glitz of K Street's mirrored windows, Shirley spends his days instead on the other side of the Potomac, in historic Old Town Alexandria, VA. His office is a small, late 18th-century building, barely renovated, on a street originally surveyed by George Washington. A billowing American flag nearly whips visitors across the cheek as they step inside; long tables and Early American furnishings dot the interior. Symbols of patriotism are rampant. But like most people in Washington, Shirley's brand of patriotism may not be for everyone. Pictures of Ronald Reagan - some very, very big - adorn the walls. Signed posters of friends and clients such as Ann Coulter and former Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris watch over passersby in the hallway. Brochures boast high praise from the likes of the National Rifle Association (NRA), The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, and GOP uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. At the center of it all is Shirley himself, an affable man with a passion for coaching kids' lacrosse and putting Republicans in office. He's been doing both for as long as he can remember. "I've been involved in conservative Republican politics ever since I was a little kid," he reminisces. "I went door to door for Barry Goldwater in 1964." He was eight years old at the time. But Shirley is no Alex P. Keaton, lunging to the right in rebellion against his hippie parents. During the '60s, both his mother and father worked with the New York State Conservative Party in his hometown of Syracuse, NY, while he and his brother ran campaigns for Republican candidates in mock elections at their elementary school. As a communications consultant for the Republican National Committee in 1980, Shirley was sent around the country to media-train press secretaries in House and Senate races. Two of his trainees were now-departed Bush spokespeople Torie Clarke and Ari Fleischer. "Just goes to show people can grow beyond the handicap of having learned from me," he jokes. Shirley may be a communicator by nature (the chairman of the Massachusetts GOP reportedly took him aside while he was still in college and told him to go to Washington, which he did), but it took a shady business deal to force him into opening his own firm. In 1984, while working to reelect Reagan for the National Conservative Political Action Committee, "a small direct-mail firm that I had referred some business to said, 'We want to create a PR division, and we want you to head it." He accepted. Two days after they'd gotten his commitment, Shirley's new employers leveled with him. "They sat me down and said, 'We're heavily in debt and we're counting on you to bring in the business to keep us afloat,'" he remembers. "I stormed out." Years before Jerry Maguire did it, Shirley called all his clients to tell them he was severing his ties with the parent company, and asked if they would go with him. "They said, 'We hired you. So if you want to keep working for us, great.'" A suddenly independent Craig Shirley & Associates was born. No longer interested in having only his name on the door - "What would happen if I died?" he asks - Shirley promoted longtime employee Diana Banister to partner in 2002, and changed the firm's name to Shirley & Banister Public Affairs (SBPA). One of the few remaining independent agencies in Washington, the firm thrives largely because it has bucked the latest feel-good lobbying trend, bipartisanship. "I can always call Craig to find out where conservatives stand on things," says Fred Barnes, editor of The Weekly Standard and analyst for Fox News. "He's helpful to a lot of reporters that way." "We had a serious buyout offer last year, and it was because we're a Republican firm," Shirley says. Asked if they feel the sort of pressure toward bipartisanship that has other firms now scrambling to hire from across the aisle, Shirley and Banister both laugh. "If there is, we don't feel it," she shrugs. But where the firm has really made its name lately is in the booming market of right-wing books. Shirley and his staff are the secret behind the success of top-selling scribes such as Coulter, former FBI agent Gary Aldrich, and the NRA's Wayne LaPierre. Using a mix of talk radio, cable news, and conservative niche publications, SBPA has launched more books to the top of the bestseller list in recent years than Danielle Steele. "He helps these people get a lot more attention than they would otherwise," says Barnes. "And this is a period where there is a lot of competition among conservative books. Really, nobody does what he does." On September 24, Shirley turned 47. That's hardly old for the president of a public affairs firm in Washington, but he says he's intent on taking it a little easier from now on anyway. "I really feel like I've kinda gotten my second wind. I've torn away those things that were a distraction in my life. I used to serve on every board that I was asked on. Every youth board, every community board, every political board. I've gotten off most of those, and I've gotten it down to my business and my family, the things that are most important to me now. And I'm enjoying it much more." Barry Goldwater would be proud. ----- Craig Shirley 2002 President, Shirley & Banister Public Affairs 1984 Founded Craig Shirley & Associates 1984 Director of communications, National Conservative Political Action Committee 1982 Communications adviser, Republican National Committee 1980 Campaign director, Fund for a Conservative Majority 1978 Campaign press secretary, Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R-NH) 1977 Intern, Sen. Jacob Javits (R-NY)

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