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Politics Lost by Joe Klein

Politics Lost: How American Democracy was Trivialized By People Who Think You’re Stupid
by Joe Klein
Doubleday. 256 pp. $23.95

Joe Klein has been a high-visibility presence on the politico-media landscape for more than a quarter-century, but I have always had trouble getting him in focus. The blurriness probably owes something to the fact that as a political analyst he has appeared on a dizzying succession of platforms over the years: Rolling Stone, New York, the New Yorker, Newsweek, and (currently) Time, where he writes a weekly column. He can also be found chirping away on the television talk shows while also producing the occasional big book—the biggest by far being Primary Colors (1996), a political roman à clef obviously based on the Clinton presidency and signed “Anonymous.” The credit line changed when handwriting and other forensic experts demonstrated that the author had to be Klein, a dénouement that providentially gave the book another big burst of buzz just as the paperback version was being rolled out.

But my failure to have a coherent fix on Klein undoubtedly has deeper roots. I learn from passing remarks in Politics Lost that he began his professional life wedded to Left-liberal politics, souring on them at some point without, however, turning conservative. In other asides, he mysteriously identifies himself with our country’s “radical middle,” whatever that is. He seems mostly to have positioned himself over the years as supremely non-ideological, someone not particularly interested in evaluating the ideas served up by politicians but rather a handicapper whose main job is to tell us which horse is the best bet to win the political derby, and why.

It is therefore somewhat surprising to find that Klein’s new book is a lament for the decline of “substance” in American politics. The substantive issues, he tells us, are now enormous:

Big decisions are afoot—the economic changes wrought by globalization, the demographic changes made possible by miraculous medical developments, the probability of a long-term, slow-burning war against Islamist extremism—and big decisions have to be made about the nation’s future.

But, on Klein’s analysis, the political process is no longer capable of dealing seriously with issues of this magnitude. The process, he says, has been taken over and “trivialized” by a new breed of political professionals—campaign consultants, pollsters, media counselors, peddlers of focus groups, speech doctors, “image” shapers, and advertising men who have made themselves indispensable to all big-league politicians even as they have rendered it harder for office-seekers to address the issues themselves.

Klein is personally acquainted with many of the consultants in question, and appears to like and admire some of them, even while viewing their profession as an evil that is dragging down American democracy. In the book’s early pages, he serves up two stories of the olden days—the time before politicians were coached by professionals, and could still come across as authentic human beings.

The first, which opens the book’s prologue, is about a speech given by Bobby Kennedy in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Kennedy’s audience was a black crowd that had not yet heard the news of King’s death. In the space of a few minutes, and speaking extemporaneously, Bobby is said to have attained extraordinary heights of eloquence, delivering the bad news while also appealing for peace, love, and justice, recalling his own brother’s assassination, and along the way, somehow managing to quote Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the human heart.”

Klein, who was not himself present—he appears to be quoting from a tape of the speech—tells us that Bobby’s bravura performance represented the end of an era:

the last moments before American political life was overwhelmed by marketing professionals, consultants, and pollsters who, with the flaccid acquiescence of the politicians, have robbed public life of much of its romance and vigor.

Klein’s second story is about President Harry Truman’s acceptance speech at the 1948 Democratic nominating convention. This too was delivered without a script, and at the climactic moment Truman threw in an odd detail: “On the 26th of July, which out in Missouri we call Turnip Day, I am going to call Congress back and ask them to pass laws to halt rising prices, to meet the housing crisis. . . .” Klein is fascinated not by the list of what Truman was planning to demand from Congress but the reference to Turnip Day, which he sees as symbolizing the candidate’s success in presenting himself as a genuine man of the people:

The mention of Turnip Day was a throwaway, a tiny gesture, perhaps an unwitting one, a small seed of humanity planted in the public mind—but the seed blossomed into the “Give ‘em hell, Harry” persona that won one of the greatest upsets in presidential history that November.

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Klein has rather elaborate views about the importance of Turnip Day moments in politics, i.e., moments in which a candidate says something revealing, often offering clues to his own character. Politics Lost is replete with examples.

One is Ronald Reagan’s outburst of wrath when, during a 1980 debate in New Hampshire, the moderator tried to shut off his microphone. Reagan’s “I paid for this microphone!” is said to have guaranteed his win in the New Hampshire primary. Klein also offers examples of “negative Turnip Day moments” (thought to hurt the candidate), including John Kerry’s gratuitous reference, in one of the presidential debates, to the fact that Vice President Cheney has a lesbian daughter.

Having laid this foundation, Klein develops his case against consultants in eight chapters taking us through the presidential campaigns of the past 30 years. He begins with the extraordinary career of Pat Caddell, a youthful pollster turned consultant who gained Jimmy Carter’s confidence in 1976, and at age twenty-five could plausibly tell himself that he had elected a President. It was an article of faith with Caddell that voters do not care much about the big policy issues, and he no doubt felt vindicated by post-election polling indicating that Carter’s views remained unknown to about half of all voters. A month after the election, Caddell hit Carter with a 10,000-word memorandum on political strategies for incumbents. Its main point was that “governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign,” with endless polling required to determine what was working and what was not.

Caddell also had a lot to say about Carter’s style. He wanted the President to emphasize humility and informality, and offered numerous detailed suggestions (fireside chats, cardigan sweaters) that were duly adopted by the leader of the free world. The advice turned out to be disastrous. The American people did not want a humble President, Klein tells us, they wanted a leader. Partly because of his flawed performance, partly because of his own personality problems (he appears to have had a raging, uncontrollable temper), Caddell would gradually lose out in the competition for work advising the most promising candidates.

As Klein guides us through other presidential elections, we see more consultants falling on their faces. In the 1980 election, the Reagan Republicans began the campaign with John Sears as their lead professional, but Sears worked too hard at “managing” Reagan’s public performances, leading to a chorus of complaints (“Let Reagan be Reagan”) from the candidate’s fans, and ultimately from the candidate himself. Sears was fired soon after the New Hampshire primary.

In the Clinton era, Dick Morris, a consultant who had helped the President win gubernatorial elections in Arkansas, took polling to new heights, commissioning, among other things, a survey with 259 questions to help prepare one of Clinton’s State of the Union addresses. It appears that at one point, Morris’s polling data induced the Clintons to take a “cowboy vacation” in Wyoming rather than relaxing at Martha’s Vineyard. Identified by Klein as “the ultimate iteration of the consultant as snake-oil salesman,” Morris rode high until a supermarket tabloid photographed him with a prostitute during the 1996 campaign. He was quickly jettisoned.

A consultant who has apparently never been fired and who still commands considerable respect among Democratic politicians is Bob Shrum, who began as a speechwriter for George McGovern in the 1972 race and went on to advise a string of other presidential candidates: John V. Lindsay, Richard Gephardt, Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter (but only in 1980), Bob Kerrey, Al Gore, and John Kerry. Shrum is a committed liberal, and candidates who buy his services tend to talk a great deal about sticking up for the working man, the need for universal health care, and the awfulness of tax cuts for the rich. This may help explain his .000 batting average.

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For reasons left unexplained, Shrum gets far more respectful treatment from Klein than does almost any other consultant. The mystery might be significant, because the career of this particular political pro undermines one of the book’s main premises—namely, that consultants are somehow preventing candidates from expressing their ideas. The Shrum saga suggests a different perspective: candidates choose consultants whose ideas are compatible with their own, and the role of the consultant is not to tell candidates what to say but the more modest one of helping to get those ideas across.

Possibly because he himself is not much interested in the substantive ideas that drive political debates in the U.S., Klein nowhere makes a coherent case for the alleged decline of substance and seriousness in politics. The case he does make has more to do with what might be called the decline of “authenticity” in politics, i.e., the increasing difficulty of coming to know the real candidate when his persona is being shaped by image merchants.

But the distinction between real and unreal candidates proves elusive. Are we really to believe that Bobby Kennedy’s rhetoric on that fateful day in Indianapolis stamps him as genuine? Are we to take seriously Klein’s statement that in quoting Aeschylus to the destitute and uneducated, he was evidencing “deep respect for his audience, which is not present in modern American politics”? I would bet my bottom dollar that Bobby had quoted the same passage many times before, and that it just tumbled out of his mouth again, in that unscripted moment.

Most books describing some large social problem have a concluding chapter telling us how the problem might be solved. But Klein never gets around to imagining a political universe in which consultants do not play a large role. It would in fact be very hard to describe any such universe. Politicians have always trimmed their views to bring them more in line with the electorate they are appealing to, and consultants really do offer some useful expertise in the gauging of voters’ views.

Indeed, Harry Truman, presented by Klein as the ultimate in authenticity, almost certainly won in 1948 because he had bought into a strategic analysis prepared by the consultants James Rowe and Clark Clifford. These hired hands argued persuasively that the President’s only hope of reelection was an unabashedly populist campaign appealing to the economic interests of union members, Northern blacks, farmers, and middle-class liberals. It was plainly this document, and not a throwaway line in Truman’s acceptance speech, that created the victorious “Give ‘em hell, Harry.”

The crucial role of the Rowe-Clifford memorandum is well established, and one has to believe that Joe Klein knows about it. That he would nevertheless ignore it, preferring instead to lean on Turnip Day whimsy, may tell us something about his own authenticity.

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About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.




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