We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Washington public-relations man Eric Dezenhall grew up in a middle-class, Jewish and Italian neighborhood in southern New Jersey where most people—including him—had friends or family members who were “connected to the rackets in some way.” It was on those streets that Dezenhall learned his earliest lessons about the exercise of power.

One day, Dezenhall was beaten up by a group of bigger kids, right about the time the first Godfather movie was released. “I had bought into the whole Mafia schtick,” he recalls. “I ran home to my grandfather and uncles, believing that justice could be summoned. They were totally uninterested. They said, ‘You went on a street with bigger boys, which means you were stupid, and you were beat up, which means you were weak. What could we do for you? You’re on your own.’”

Dezenhall, now 39, eventually graduated from Dartmouth and went to work for the Reagan White House press office during parts of 1982 and 1983. There, Dezenhall learned how to parry journalists skeptical of the president. But it was his days on the fringes of mob life that seem to have done the most to mold his dog-eat-dog understanding of the world.

When Dezenhall founded his own PR firm, Nichols-Dezenhall, in 1987, he broke ranks with the rest of the industry. Rather than practicing “happy PR,” as he dubs it, Nichols-Dezenhall took a brass-knuckled approach, representing big companies under attack for controversial behavior, such as polluting. Nichols-Dezenhall scrutinizes the backgrounds of the accusers—often plaintiffs’ lawyers, journalists, and stockholders—and, if the firm considers the information relevant to the dispute, exposes their motivations to the public. (Dezenhall says he did a “quick Internet search” on me before sitting down for an interview.)

“Corporations live in mortal terror of being seen as ungentle,” says Dezenhall, who lives in Bethesda. “They live in fear of a nun with a guitar showing up at their annual meeting to protest something. But that nun isn’t always innocent.”

It’s a controversial way to make a living; few other PR professionals have followed Dezenhall’s lead. Dezenhall does set limits on whom he’ll accept as a client: The client must either be repentant or unjustly accused, not simply guilty and in need of a cover-up. By definition, this rules out the Mafia; Dezenhall says he doesn’t find the mob “even remotely cute.” But he recently did the next best thing to working for the mob: He published a novel, Money Wanders, that imagines what it would be like to be the mob’s hired spinmeister.

“A lot of the characters and settings are based on what I grew up around,” he says. “It’s unlike the movies, where the viewer knows everything. In real life, it’s not like they received monthly statements from Dean Witter. It was the kind of thing you were never allowed to discuss, which only made it sexier. So, when I got older, rather than becoming less obsessed with it, it turned into this free-floating interest of mine to figure out who these characters were.”

In the novel, Dezenhall gives the Mafia the best spin he can come up with—that it is victimized by the all-powerful authorities even though it practices an honorable, Robin Hood-style populism. In real life, though, Dezenhall doesn’t buy it. “Where The Godfather was wrong was in its romantic imagery—the characters of Shakespearean proportions,” he says. “Vito and Michael were far more talented than real mobsters. I look at actual mobsters and see schnooks who didn’t have a choice between Dartmouth and the boardwalk.”

When Dezenhall made his own choice between those two options, he recalls, the buzz in the neighborhood was equivocal at best. “When I got my White House job, there was an intense mixture of pride and punishment,” he says. “They told me, ‘Good for you, you little bastard.’” —Louis Jacobson