ALMOST a year ago Ed Rollins nearly self-destructed professionally at a Monitor breakfast. It was there that he told reporters that he had paid black ministers $500,000 to ``suppress'' the black vote in order to help Republican Christine Todd Whitman in her race to unseat New Jersey Gov. James Florio.
Ms. Whitman had won. But through this admission, which the next day he called a fabrication, Mr. Rollins was in deep trouble. He lost credibility. What candidate would hire a political consultant who couldn't be believed?
The verdict from politicians and the media was that Rollins's lucrative career was over.
Rollins, understandably, took it hard. He told friends that this was a blemish on his character that would follow him for life - no matter what he tried to do. He said he contemplated suicide. But not for long. Soon he was getting supportive phone calls from all over the country. In a recent phone call to me from Spokane, Wash., where his Republican client is running a surprisingly strong race against House Speaker Tom Foley, he said, ``I got up and moved forward with the support of a lot of good friends.''
So it is gratifying to write that the reports of Rollins's professional demise have been greatly exaggerated. He did wrong. From the beginning he admitted his full guilt. ``The bottom line,'' he told us, ``was that I repeated innuendos as facts. I didn't intend to mislead. But I did.'' But now it can be said: Rollins is alive and well and in possession of a repaired reputation that enables him to ply his trade once again.
I liked Rollins. He was not someone I knew well - except that he came to breakfasts from time to time, early on as a political adviser to President Reagan and then when he was working for the Republicans in Congress.
Rollins's political insights were valued by the press. He called a spade a spade, sometimes criticizing his Republican clients if he thought they deserved it. Once he even spanked Mr. Reagan for being too easy on GOP congressmen who had failed to support him with votes.
Indeed, I know of no other political consultant who had more respect among the media for his candor. No one ever said he told lies. Instead, he was known for being so truthful about political contests that he would provide accurate analyses even if in doing so he did not make his own side look good. He was a refreshing variant in a profession known for pro-client blather.
Had Rollins not had a reputation for integrity, he would not be back at work now.
``You build a reputation for working hard over the years,'' Rollins said, ``and people then are willing to forgive mistakes - as serious as mine have been.''
``It happened; I wish it hadn't,'' Rollins said to close our conversation the other night. But there wasn't that sadness in his voice that I had heard when we talked shortly after his fall from grace. The voice I heard was full of hope for his clients in several big races (including Michael Huffington in California and the challenger to Gov. Roy Romer in Colorado). He sounded happy. Clearly, Eddy Rollins is back in town.
I look back on that breakfast now and wonder how it all happened. How could Rollins out-and-out lie - something that he should have known would cause, as it did, a firestorm of controversy? Indeed, his words sparked two criminal investigations and three civil lawsuits.
But no one has come up with any evidence that Rollins's story had any truth in it.