He served three Republican presidents and worked in two Cabinet agencies, but Ed Rollins, 53, son of a Vallejo, Calif., shipyard worker, saw himself as "a blue-collar guy in a white-collar town. I always felt the need to prove myself." The former strategist—who now makes his living as an international consultant—lives in Bronxville, N.Y., with his wife, Sherrie, an executive vice president at ABC, and their 1-year-old daughter, Lily.
In politics, is it okay to play dirty?
You play by whatever the rules are. It's like boxing or football. If some guy is hitting you low and getting away with it, you hit him low to stop him. We'd all like to run clean campaigns, but that's not the way the game is played today. My obligation to candidates is to help them win, because if they win they get to govern.
Does that mean anything goes?
There's a danger to violating the rules, because if you get caught you've damaged your candidate. I always say, let's assume what we're planning will backfire. When you throw a punch, you have to be ready for the counterpunch.
How much were you driven by your ego?
A lot. I make no pretense. You need a healthy ego because you're going to get battered. You've got to be a take-charge guy. You can't run a campaign as a democracy. But it can get to where you like to see yourself on TV, pontificating. And that becomes a defect, as it was in my case. I got to like the sound of my own voice.
You write about "defining your candidate." Define yourself.
I'm a strategist, a big-picture person, but unfortunately my legacy is probably tainted by controversies. I think my legacy is that I played the game hard, I played it with the best, and I always tried to be honest about who I was.