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Damage Control Guru Is ‘Spinning Dixie’

In his four previous Jonah Eastman novels, Washington, D.C., damage control guru Eric Dezenhall has proved adept at mining aspects of his past for literary inspiration.

For his fifth installment, Dezenhall continues this trend, this time turning to the universal rite of passage — first love — to inform aspects of “Spinning Dixie.” The new book catches up with the fictional “pollster as action hero” Eastman, now a White House press secretary, as he is drawn back to the Tennessee plantation Rattle and Snap, where as a youth his heart was first consumed with passion for the stunning Claudine Polk. Polk, who’s now in danger of losing her home to her conniving, estranged husband, asks for his help, and the ever-chivalrous Eastman stops just short of igniting a modern-day Civil War to help her keep her property.

It’s a hilariously preposterous plot filled with the colorful underworld figures and Batman-style capers that have come to characterize Dezenhall’s novels.

So was there a Claudine Polk in his life?

Absolutely, says the 44-year-old Dezenhall, a married father of two, who met his real-life first love as a high school senior when he took part in Washington Workshops.

“I ended up visiting her in Middle Tennessee,” the New Jersey native recalls. “One day she showed me a plantation very near her house. … The combination of the beautiful Southern young woman and this magnificent plantation was more than my 18-year-old brain could handle.”

While he won’t say who his teenage sweetheart is, Dezenhall notes that her mother showed up at a recent book signing in the Volunteer State.

“Spinning Dixie,” which alternates between 1980 and 2005, also includes plenty of details about life in the White House thanks to Dezenhall’s days as a junior aide in the late President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

“I took very detailed notes about the Oval Office,” from the direction the eagle’s head is facing in presidential seals to the thickness of the windows, Dezenhall says.

All in all, the book “was 27 years from conception to publication,” Dezenhall adds, noting that although it was intended to be the first of the Eastman series, “it was rejected early on.”

And Dezenhall shows no signs of slowing down. He is about to celebrate yet another release later this spring, “Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management Is Wrong.” Co-written with his business partner, John Weber, the nonfiction book delves into “what works and what doesn’t work” when it comes to handling potentially compromising situations and advises those in crisis to avoid mea culpas and apologies, which Dezenhall says “don’t equal forgiveness.”

Dezenhall, who says his reputation as the “pit bull of public relations” is mainly the invention of his opponents, was in the news recently when excerpts from e-mails detailing work he had done for the Association of American Publishers ended up in the pages of The Washington Post.

Is this perhaps a breakdown in the damage control process?

Not really, counters Dezenhall, who says he’s contractually bound not to discuss clients. “It meant there was a leak somewhere.”

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