Politics Without Passion
Half a century ago, the best columnist America has ever produced, Murray Kempton, lamented that the absence of honest passion was a shared characteristic of professional wrestling and American politics. Kempton was dismayed because in 1952 the Eisenhower campaign hired an advertising agency. What would we come to next?
What Time magazine columnist Joe Klein thinks we have come to -- politics "gangrenous with cynicism" -- is summarized in the title of his invigorating new book, "Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid." Politics, he says, has become "overly cautious, cynical, mechanistic and bland," sins he blames on professional political consultants.
Klein's memory of what he craves -- the "natural," "personal," "spontaneous" politics of "freshness," "unpredictability" and "naked emotional intimacy" -- is of the brief, eloquent address Robert Kennedy made to an African American audience, outdoors in Indianapolis, the night Martin Luther King Jr. died.
But that was elicited by a tragedy. If banality is the price we pay for the mostly mundane politics of a tranquil democracy, we should pay it gladly. The world would happily have forgone the most luminous episodes of democratic leadership -- Lincoln's, FDR's, Churchill's -- in order to avoid the catastrophes that elicited them. Pericles would not have been Periclean if Athens's problem had been gasoline at $3 a gallon.
"It was," Klein writes, "Richard Nixon who really represented the future in 1968." That campaign, "pureed by pollsters" (a characteristically felicitous Klein phrase), was indeed a triumph of packaging.
But Klein neglects another 1968 campaign, George Wallace's, which was spontaneous, personal, even visceral, emotionally honest -- and repellent. When, during the first 2000 debate, Al Gore could not stifle the sighs that expressed his disdain for George W. Bush, Gore was being spontaneously honest. And the country recoiled, rightly.
Klein says that "no pollster, indeed no hired political consultant, has ever taken so active a role in determining the style and content of a presidency" as Pat Caddell did for Jimmy Carter. His presidency-as-permanent-campaign, run "from a consultant's-eye view," resulted in a significant dumbing-down of the office. But that is how it began : Carter's politics of ostentatious "authenticity" -- his peanut-farmer-who-carries-his-own-luggage act -- triumphed over Gerald Ford's unfeigned naturalness.
Klein rightly connects the politics he dislikes with the fact that "an enormous special-interest industry seemed to sprout instantaneously in Washington, starting in the late 1960s -- lobbyists and researchers and fund-raisers" for this, that and the other faction. Well, yes: High-stakes government that directly dispenses trillions of dollars and influences, with tax benefits and regulations, the flow of trillions more, elicits a high-stakes influence industry. Thoughtful people who recoil from many repugnant aspects of contemporary politics should squarely face the fact that big government begets bad politics.
But now big government is going to fix things. It has discovered a duty to elevate our political discourse.
The McCain-Feingold law regulating the quantity, content and timing of political speech includes a provision requiring candidates to appear, at least by their voice, in their ads, saying the functional equivalent of this: "I'm [candidate's name] and I approve this ad." Such "stand by your ad" requirements rest on two assumptions, neither of which has anything to do with McCain-Feingold's ostensible purpose of combating corruption or the "appearance" of it.
The first assumption is that forcing close identification of candidates with their ads will discourage negative ads. The second assumption is that negative ads are bad.
The first assumption is dubious, because negative ads can convey true and useful messages, and because negative ads work and so will continue to be used. The second assumption is sinister: Government has a right to try to set what it considers the proper tone of speech in campaigns that determine control of the government.
One moral of this story is that aesthetic laments, such as Klein's, about the frequent tawdriness of democratic politics can incite improvers who will make matters worse. Still, Klein's high-spirited and morally serious book is a saunter down memory lane, through many political moments that will make you cringe and a few that won't, such as:
At a town meeting, a man demands to know what the candidate would do about "all these bastards" born to welfare mothers. The candidate, Klein recalls, "glared at the man -- he seemed truly angry -- and said, 'First, sir, we must remember that it is our duty to love all the children.' "
So spoke, during the hotly contested South Carolina primary in 2000, an indignant George W. Bush. Politics still has exhilarating moments.