Sam Patten had to survive getting nearly stabbed to death, twice, in order to live long enough to write the memoir he will publish on Oct. 3. Fans of Maine politics and international political intrigue should be glad he did, because “Dangerous Company: The Misadventures of a ‘Foreign Agent’” is a captivating tale of Patten’s path from Maine Republican hand to globe-trotting political operative. Patten’s story reads a bit like Forrest Gump, only with more sex, booze, and sketchy Russians, with Patten often at the center of some of the biggest triumphs and most embarrassing scandals in American foreign policy.
For those who don’t know, Patten, a Maine Wire columnist, is a longtime Maine Republican hand with deep experience working as a political consultant internationally. In 2018, when Special Counsel Robert Mueller was hunting for Trump-Russia collusion where there was none, the aging former FBI Director was desperate for any scalp he could find. He found one in Patten, who pleaded guilty to failing to fill out some paperwork under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a federal law that requires you to disclose if you’re lobbying in America on behalf of a foreign entity, as Patten was for a Ukrainian political party. He became just the ninth American ever convicted under the law. The case had nothing to do with Trump, and Patten served some community service. I haven’t asked Sam whether he counseled at-risk youth on how to motivate Sunnis to vote or picked up roadside garbage on Route 1 to fulfill his community service penance, but his indisputably greater service is to political history in the form of Dangerous Company.
Patten’s story, to wit, has been told primarily by young American and British newspaper reporters, and cable news producers. Dangerous Company is his effort to tell the full story, and a full story it is. The former staffer to Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, and President George W. Bush, also ran campaigns in Russia, Romanian, Thailand, Iraq, and Nigeria. From that vantage point, Patten is uniquely positioned to depict how the world-straddling democratic revolution Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in his 1835 work, Democracy in America, unfolded across the globe, often in response to attempts by the U.S., for better or for worse, to export democracy.
Patten’s memoir is a reminder that politics is made of moments. Like the moment a reporter surprises him on camera with the arrest report from W’s 1976 D.U.I. (Do you know how drunk you had to be to get a D.U.I. in Maine in 1976!?!) Or the moment Patten hires five strippers to playact as phonebankers in front of Channel 8’s cameras to make it look like the Collins for Governor campaign had a real GOTV operation. Or the moment a truck bomb detonation threatens to upend Iraqi elections. Or the moment Russian President Vladimir Putin became the first foreign leader to call Bush after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, a moment Patten believes changed the U.S.-Russia dynamic for a decade or more.
Those moments and many, many more are catalogued in vivid relief as Patten tells the story of his life, a life that lives up to the title of his memoir. Without spoiling a story well told, Patten has survived some harrowing ordeals as a foreign political consultant, including the aforementioned truck bombing in Iraq’s “Green Zone” and the two occasions where assailants decided he needed a few holes poked in him. There are some lighter moments, too, such as when then-Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, walked in on Patten shagging an Iraqi political operative in a D.C. bar bathroom.
For those who aren’t students of international political development, some of the chronicles of democracy promotion abroad may seem like inside baseball. Even if you’re not familiar with the kings, kingmakers, gangsters, operatives that make up the characters of the book, these chapters nonetheless provide a window into how American foreign policy, despite the lofty rhetoric about ideals and freedom and democracy, often takes the form of covert political schemes, fueled by cigarettes and whiskey, carried out by men like Patten. One theme that runs throughout the book is whether this business of foreign policy is just that — business — or a genuine attempt by Patten and others to spread a little good in the world. Patten, for his part, treats the subject with candor, acknowledging both his own youthful naivete and the darker side of American nation building.
Closer to home, Patten’s tale offers previously unknown information about the various investigations that targeted former Republican President Donald Trump during his presidency. If you were tempted to believe that the various Congressional and Special Counsel probes into the Russia conspiracy theory were silly, partisan, and never grounded in reality, Patten will do little to dissuade you of the notion. Consider that an initial Congressional probe asked Patten, who had worked within the territory of the old Soviet Union for more than two decades, to produce every communication he’d ever had with a Russian. Consider also that Patten was, figuratively speaking, crucified for doing less than an iota of what the American people now know Hunter Biden was doing at the very same time. And Patten, unlike Biden, actually speaks Russian and had experience in Ukraine.
Patten’s ties to the villains of the Trump Era, like Paul Manafort, made him an irresistible target for the conspiracy-minded left-wing media and their allies in the U.S. Senate. Now, Patten offers his own perspective into the controversial Cambridge Analytica, his former employer, as well as his dealings with Manafort. While Cambridge Analytics hasn’t surfaced on CNN or MSNBC since it stopped being useful as a way to scare liberals into voting for Joe Biden, the U.K.-based firm did spawn relentless news coverage and even a Netflix documentary for its tech-savvy use of Facebook user data to influence politics. The Rachel Maddows of the world wanted us to believe that Cambridge Analytica was the center of some dark conspiracy to manipulate elections with vaunted “psychographic profiles.” But Patten’s account of working with the firm, from the Pacific Northwest to Mexico and Nigeria, shows more a disorganized consulting firm that had discovered a clever way to use Facebook data, even if it was dubiously obtained. Patten watched the firm implode from Mexico City.
Patten is too young to be called a relic, but his life story still feels like it’s something from a distant past, a distant America. The America of his early years was a nation that could still raise up idealistic young men, evinced of their country’s true exceptionalism and virtue, and lead them to sacrifice a life at home to serve a higher purpose abroad. In this way, Patten serves as an archetype of the endangered, perhaps extinct, American spirit that thrived when American primacy went unquestioned—a blend of adventure, idealism, and bravado that considered nothing impossible in the face of America’s altruistic might. While Patten grew up in the glory of an America that had just triumphantly won the Cold War, he returned home to a country more focused on domestic political enemies and self-flagellating condemnations of once honorable American ideals.
Patten spins a fast-paced narrative — tour de force is apt, even if it’s cliche for a book review — blending a cynical worldly humor with keen insights into the human condition and political philosophy. But there is an element of tragedy here, too, as we see the story of a young, hopeful, and ambitious man labor to bring the blessings of democracy to far-flung corners of the world only to find himself practicing the dark arts of politics more as a mercenary than a missionary. We see a father and a husband struggling to cope with the stress and tumult of a rootless life of uncertainty. And, ultimately, we see a man who returns to his home country after a long career abroad only to become collateral damage in an American political system that increasingly resembles a professional wrestling match where all the contenders have osteoporosis and early stage Alzheimer’s.
In the end, the question that lingers for the reader, and for Patten, too, I’m sure, is whether it was worth it? Not just his own adventures and sacrifices, but the whole quarter century of American endeavor. So much blood, sweat, and treasure hurled into supposedly noble purpose has produced, with the benefit of hindsight, a weakened, tarnished America that holds little of the promise it did when Patten first set off for Kazakhstan. The profound questions the book stirs only undergird this well-written tale of a man who has, unlike inumerable cloistered writers in modern America, actually lived a life worthy of a memoir.