Killjoy Was Here

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Reviewed by Peter Beinart
Sunday, April 30, 2006

POLITICS LOST

How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You're Stupid

By Joe Klein

Doubleday. 256 pp. $23.95

It is no exaggeration to say that Politics Lost represents the culmination of Joe Klein's life work. It spans every presidential campaign he has covered. It draws on sources nurtured over his three decades as one of the country's leading political reporters. And its topic has clearly obsessed him for a very long time: Why is American politics no longer fun?

The quirkiness of that question gives this book its charm. Klein takes pains not to be aridly high-minded, not to come across as a killjoy scold. Of course, he'd like American democracy to tackle big problems and offer brave answers. But he approaches politics less as an embittered crusader than as a disappointed fan. What he wants, above all, is for it to be more spontaneous, more authentic, more human.

In explaining how those qualities were lost, Klein -- the anonymous author of Primary Colors , now a Time magazine columnist -- provides a highly entertaining tour of how political consultants progressively hijacked the presidential campaigns of the last 40 years. In a pundit-dominated culture strikingly devoid of historical memory -- where many commentators barely know why Michael Dukakis lost, let alone why Hubert Humphrey did -- Klein's granular understanding of the political culture of the 1970s and '80s is unusual and impressive. His description of Patrick H. Caddell -- the tortured genius who began polling for George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign while still in college, dominated Democratic politics in the Carter years and grew so disgusted with the kind of campaigns he had helped invent that he committed professional suicide in the 1980s -- is both a model of historical excavation and a crucial backdrop for understanding operatives such as Bob Shrum and Karl Rove, who oversee our often tawdry, brain-dead politics today.

Another great strength of Politics Lost is that, whether by accident or design, it models the kind of political discourse Klein would like to see. Against the neutered, white-washed language that dominates contemporary American political life, Klein counterposes his own edgy, raw and often hilarious rhetorical style. Again and again, he uncorks one-liners so good that the reader stops to savor. Carter was "as serious as cancer and as colorful as cement." "The 1970s were the 1960s for nerds." Dukakis "hailed from the National Public Radio wing of his party." In their obsession with the minutiae of environmental policy, Democrats "had trouble seeing the forest for the tree huggers."

Better yet, in contrast to the antiseptic, cookie-cutter campaigns he mocks, Klein's writing is intensely personal. He is frank about his own biases and changes of heart, as well as his hunger to enjoy politics again. And if at times the book borders on self-indulgent -- with Klein quoting Klein -- its personal quality also makes it appealing. Klein criticizes savagely, but not from detached, Olympian heights. Instead, he portrays himself as yet another disillusioned baby boomer, seeking -- along with such generational contemporaries as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John F. Kerry -- to understand what happened to the excitement and idealism of their '60s youth.

Politics Lost is tougher on Democrats than Republicans, and for good reason. As Klein shows, political consultants are at their most debilitating when the politicians they serve lack the courage of their convictions. And in recent years, it is Democrats who have been more ideologically insecure. In 1976, Klein writes, Ronald Reagan hired a fancy consultant named John Sears, whom he didn't know and who didn't share his right-wing instincts. But when he ran for president again in 1980, Reagan fired Sears, trusting his long-time confidantes -- and his own gut -- when it mattered most. By contrast, Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 lacked the self-confidence to fire the consultants who kept them from saying what they really believed. Gore, a passionate environmentalist, wanted to talk about global warming. But when he did, he was sabotaged by his own advisers, who forced him back to poll-tested standbys like Social Security and prescription drugs -- and, in the process, turned him into a robot. Kerry's anti-Vietnam activism went to the core of his political soul. But high-priced consultants such as Bob Shrum considered the subject too risky to mention. So Kerry didn't tell Americans about this crucial aspect of his political and moral development and left the Swift Boat Veterans -- who smeared the decorated vet as an America-hating traitor -- to do it instead.

Klein rightly flays Gore and Kerry for not being true to themselves. But he is also harshly critical of the old liberal orthodoxies that Democratic political consultants devote so much time to camouflaging. All of which raises a large and difficult question that he never quite answers: How can contemporary Democratic candidates be personally secure in their beliefs when their party is not? Even if Democrats could liberate themselves from the intellectually and morally stifling grip of consultants like Shrum, would they have any coherent ideology to espouse?

The coming years may well provide an answer. Particularly in the Democratic Party, the revolt against the consultants is in full flower. The party's Web-savvy, activist base loathes the caution and phoniness that has characterized recent Democratic campaigns. And as that base proves able to deliver money as well as votes, future presidential candidates will be increasingly tempted to ditch focus-group mush-speak and talk from the heart. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) is clearly pursuing that strategy; former North Carolina senator John Edwards vows that he will too, and in the greatest irony of all, a newly unplugged Al Gore might even do so as well. It is a good bet that whoever emerges as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's main challenger in the 2008 primaries will emulate Sen. John McCain's campaign in 2000 and Howard Dean's in 2004. So on the Democratic side, at least, Klein may get his wish: Politics will become more blunt, more free-wheeling, more fun. Whether authenticity leads to victory, however, is less certain. Democrats may be learning to speak from the heart. But in a party that has been confused about its core beliefs for almost four decades, no one can be entirely sure how that will sound. ยท

Peter Beinart is editor-at-large of the New Republic and the author of the forthcoming "The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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