Book World Live
Tuesday, May 2, 2006; 3:00 PM
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? . --
Political commentator Joe Klein was online Tuesday, May 2, at 3 ET to field questions and comments about his new book and the state of American politics.
Joe Klein is a columnist for Time magazine and well known as the anonymous author of "Primary Colors."
Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.
Los Angeles, Calif: Are consultants really the problem with our political discourse or are the candidates and politicans themselves?
There is, after all, a perverse and democratic logic to using the tools of consultants like polls and focus groups -- a candidate can theoretically see what is most important to people and what kinds of messages resonate best.
Doesn't the problem with our political discourse reside in candidates who slavishly adhere to the opinions of a consultant because they don't have any ideas or convictions of their own rather than candidates who employ consultants to refine, target, and polish a message that is firmly and sincerely their own?
Joe Klein: You're absolutely right--politicians have the choice not to listen to their consultant. The good ones do that all the time. I think the great tragedy is that politicians have lost faith no only in the public, but also in their own sense of judgment, in large part because of all the "scientific" data they receive from their consultants...
Arizona Bay, Ariz: For those who are fairly young and just starting to really get into politics, has politics always been this way? Has there always been as many scandals as this current administration has had? It seems like every week it's something new with these guys.
Joe Klein: There's a;ways been scandals. I recommend that you read Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's book THE GILDED AGE for a hilarious look at Congress in the 19th century. What's different now is the absence of spontaneity.
Crestwood, NY : Seemingly out of the blue, in the last State of the Union, Bush condemned "Isolationism," which is a political philosophy without a home in either of the two major parties.
Now we get a strange poll which claims that a party pledging to build a wall on the southern border would outperform the GOP.
Do some pundits think that isolationism, in the inglorious tradition of a Buchanan, or Gerald Nye or whoever, could make a comeback in the wake of a failure in Iraq?
And how do you answer cynics who say that our troops are never leaving Iraq no matter what because we're pouring a fortune into permanent military bases and a Bagdad embassy the size of Disneyworld?
Joe Klein: About a month ago, I wrote a column about this. I'm afraidd that the combination of Iraq, illegal immigrants and economic competition from China and Indian will lead to a new nativist, isolationist, protectionist populist movement.
As for Iraq, it certainly would be nice if the President made it absolutely clear that we'll be leaving Iraq when the situation is stabilized.
Greensboro, NC: How can we make politics more interesting to the public?
Joe Klein: More honesty from politicians. I know, I know...hopelessly romantic, but there it is. If people think politicians are talking straight--especially about the very real problems we face right now--they might be more willing to listen carefully.
Columbus, Ohio: Dear Mr. Klein,
I saw an interview with you on C-SPAN over the weekend and I wanted to ask you about something you said towards the very end of the segment. Both you and the interviewer said you were tired of all of the speculation about the upcoming Presidential race, in particular about who each of the respective parties' nominees would be. Isn't this part of the fun? Hasn't this become the real invisible primary, as opposed to the year's worth of pre-primary fundraising that used to be called the invisible primary? I thank you for your time.
Joe Klein: Yeah, it's part of the fun--but not ALL of the fun. Aand I've done enough of these elections to realize that I'm nnever more stupid than when I make predictions. A good part of the fun for me is to be surprised by moments of courage and eloquence from the candidates, rare though they may be...it's only after hearing them speak that I can begin to make judgments about who's a plausible candidate.
Nashville, Tenn: I followed the last campaign like it was the new designer drug, and through it I kept thinking to myself that John Kerry lacked a certain genuine quality. I always felt he had a deep ceded pacifistic bent that he never let show in any discussion on Iraq or the ongoing struggle with Islamic Fundamentalism. Do you think this was because his consultants told him trying to stick up for his values would not sit well with voters in Ohio and Florida?
Joe Klein: I describe this in great detail in the book. Kerry's consultants advised him never to talk about Abu Ghraib or the Bush administration's torture policies, for example. Sadly, he listened to them.
Des Moines, Iowa: Since I live in the center of the political world, I think it shows Iowa voters take politics seriously. I saw the Parade magazine thing on Sunday, and since you know Hillary so well, what do you think would happen if she is challenged by Condi in 2008? Would it be about issues, or just a catfight?
Joe Klein: My guess is that both would have trouble winning their respective nominations--in part, because I have so much faith in Iowa voters. Hillary will probably come roaring into Iowa in 2008 as Howard Dean did in 2004...and then she'll have to convince Iowans that she has the skills for the job. And she'll have to answer this question: What exactly is HE (Bill) going to be doing in your administration? Is it going to be 2 for the price of 1 again? And isn't there a constitutional amendment that says we don't do that in America anymore?
Rockville, Md: Any thoughts on Stephen Colberts performance at the White House Correspondence Dinner? The same performance that has gotten barely any attention from the media. Wonder why?
Joe Klein: God, I've seen so much on Stephen Colbert's performance even in the MSM. Sounds like it was a hoot. Wish I'd been there--book tour is hell on my social life. I'm a big Colbert fan, though.
Beeville, Tex: Without meaning offense, how responsible do you yourself feel for contributing to the political environment of canned political discourse? After all, you wrote Anonymous at a time when all political reporting seemed to center on undermining a sitting president.
Joe Klein: I always thought Primary Colors was a tribute to larger than life politicians. As for Bill Clinton, if I've been criticized for anything in my career, it's being too favorable towards him. Primary Colors was a novel. No harm was intended. When Mike Nichols bought the film rights, he said: "There is no villain in this book." Amen to that.
Yonkers, NY : Hmmmm... honesty. You mean like Mondale in 1984:
"He -Reagan] won't tell you that we're going to raise taxes. I just did."
How'd that work out for Good Old Walter?
Joe Klein: Different era now. My guess is that 1. people are ready for straight talk because they've come to understand what phony market-tested language sounds like and 2. They understand we're facing some very serious problems in this country. At least, that's my hope.
Kansas City, Mo: You are tired of speculation? Wow, have you seen the media circus in the past year, and I mean, look at the names listed on the Dem side and the GOP side.When has there been such a wide open field on both sides? Maybe 1960 (with JFK, Johnson, Humphrey, McCarthy and even Adlai Stevenson) compared to Nixon, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Goldwater (I think).Yes, there were 10 candidates running for the Republican side in 1999, but only Gore and Bradley on the Dem side. So when has the field been so cluttered in the past?Speculation might help clean up the clutter if the national polls are any indication:McCain, Rudy, Rice, Allen, RomneyvsClinton, Warner, Bayh, Edwards
Are these the names we will see on the ballots in 2008 as we chose our candidates?
Joe Klein: Yes, yes half the known world is running for president--all the more reason for the likes of me to keep our mouths shut and let the politicians speak for themselves. When they start speaking, I'll start listening and let you know what I think. But let's get thru the 2006 election first.
Birmingham, Ala: Are you working on any more fiction? I loved "Primary Colors?"
Joe Klein: Yes, well I've got a little something percolating in my brain...hope you saw my second novel, The Running Mate (shameless plug, but hey, I'm in book-selling mode.)
Rochester, NY: You write "As for Bill Clinton, if I've
been criticized for anything in my career,
it's being too favorable towards him."
That may have been true six months ago, but
now you're primarily criticized for
suggesting that we should consider using
nuclear weapons against Iran.
Joe Klein: How many times do I have to apologize for that? Check out Time.com...I do believe that we can't take any options off the table in an international confrontation. But I also believe that the Bush administration has no credibility to act unilaterally--and, indeed, that we should only go to war with an internationally-approved alliance like the UN or NATO, which is why I opposed the war in Iraq.
Clemmons, NC: As a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who just wrote a paper and used your recent TIME column about the downfall of politics being consultants, it was a breath of fresh air to not feel like the downer amoung my "political" friends. Do you feel that you receive more criticism because you see the downfall, admit it and write about it and what do you think an individual can do to become involved with the "good guys" and still be respected in the entire political spectrum?
Joe Klein: Actually, I'm optimistic that things are about to change. I think that the rise in internet use and other forms of interactivity is going to force the candidates to think on their feet more. I wrote Politics Lost because I beleive we're ready to move onto a better, more forthright kind of politics.
Washington DC: I'm a former New Yorker, and I dont understand why Rudolf Giuliani is being referred to in some circles as "secular". Is he running against Al Sharpton & Robert Drinan?
Joe Klein: It means that he isn't in the thrall of the religious right. And since when was Al Sharpton religious?
Rochester, NY: You write "My guess is that 1. people are
ready for straight talk because they've come
to understand what phony market-tested
language sounds like." Don't you think it
is just as likely that the same people who
came up with the phony market-tested
language will just come up with a better
imitation of "straight talk" to fool voters?
On this topic, I know you're fan of this
president -- do you consider him to be a
Joe Klein: What makes you think I'm a fan of the current President? I've criticized him on everything from the war in Iraq to his tax cut policy to his failure to ask sacrifices of us, especially when it comes to the need for an alternative energy policy. But it's interesting: I do believe George w., Bush is a politician who doesn't always follow the polls. He's been willing to go up against the base of his party on immigration, against popular opinion on social security reform...and if he were a creature of the polls, he'd be skedaddling out of Iraq right now. I disagree with most of his policies, but he does have the courage of his convictions.
New Orleans, La: Mr. Klein,
Did you see the Thomas Frank review of your book? Did you ever actually listen to Harry Truman's "Turnip Day" speech, or was the folksy name enough for your purposes?
Joe Klein: Read the book. Read my columns. I'm a supporter of many of Truman's policies--multilateralism overseas, universal health care (using the Mitt Romney model), progressivity in the tax code and in old-age entitlements. Somehow all this escaped Mr. Frank. Seems he reviewed the book without reading it very carefully.
Rochester, NY: You write "I do believe that we can't take
any options off the table in an
international confrontation." So that means
we shouldn't take nuclear weapons off the
table, then? Could you explain your
position a little more clearly, please?
Joe Klein: Again, I am opposed to any first use of nuclear weapons. If ever used, God forbid, it should be in the ccontext of a multilateral action by the UN and NATO--and I can't imagine that sort of approval absent a first-strike against us. But all options should always be on the table...just as they were during the cold war. Oh, and by the way, I've been in favor of diplomatic recognition of Iran--and North Korea and Cuba--for more than ten years now. You can look it up.
New Orleans, La: My question was: did you actually listen to the Turnip Day speech when writing your book?
Joe Klein: Yes.
Cheyenne, Wyo: Mr. Klein:
Thanks for all of your good work.
You write that Vice President Al Gore was too heavily influenced by his campaign advisers in 2000. Some would say the Al Gore of today, speaking passionately and frankly about the war and the environment, has shed all of that. If he does run, do you feel he'd continue to speak candidly, or would he simply slip back into the old habits that a modern-day campaign seems to demand?
Joe Klein: I think Gore would run a much freer campaign this time....but not too free, I hope. Part of what people look for in a president is judiciousness--and sometimes Gore has seemed a bit too angry in his post-consultant free-wheeling persona. But I think the substance of much of what he's saying, especially on environmental matters, is excellent.
Just Moved Down to Atlanta: In your book (which I opened last night and reluctantly made myself put down at 2:30am), you wrote that Jimmy Carter stood for himself; for getting elected. This suprised me as the common perception of Carter is that he is man who deeply cares about issues--foreign affairs, poverty, race relations, ect. This perception seems to have grown since the Clinton Administration.
How do you reconcile the difference between the Carter who stood for Carter and the Carter as he is often perceived?
Thanks and great book!
Joe Klein: I quoted his advisor Gerald Rafshoon as saying Carter only stood for getting elected. In retrospect, it does seem that he's known--and spoken--his mind better as an ex-president than he did when he was in office.
Washington, DC: I recently saw Camille Paglia at GWU and she said that one of the problem with politics today is it is completely souless. Would you agree?
Joe Klein: Yes.
Tucson, Ariz: Joe,With all due respect, I think you are one of the last people to be talking about the state of American politics. Anybody that engages in this "the Left hates America" rhetoric are among the greatest threats to civil discourse.
When will people realize this is pure rubbish?
I am liberal and I bleed the red, white and blue. I love my country. It is not unpatriotic to point out flaws in your government's policies in hopes of fixing them. It is my patriotism that drives me to these lengths. I believe in America.
However, over the last few years, America has seriously lost its way. We blundered a golden opportunity after 9/11. Since then, political discourse in America has devolved into legitimizing torture by DEFENDING it.
Instead of granting legitimacy to an illegitmate characterization of the Left, why aren't we talking about real issues?
War profiteering and waste in Iraq, domestic spying (which is illegal in my opinion), a president that is shoring up power of all three branches in his hands, secret prisons...
Joe Klein: I never said that the left hates America. I said the Left sometimes indulges in "hate America" rhetoric, especially when it comes to foreign policy. I've said that some on the left have the knee-jerk assumption that America is always wrong when it uses force--and that others on the left seem to assume that America is a malignant force in the world. I respect your patriotism and your right to criticize the government--I do it myself just about every week in my column. But I have no time for those who assume our country is somehow evil.
Anonymous: The Democrats have appeared to be a party without leadership since Clinton left office. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Republican party in a similar state by 2008. I hate to think about it, but what would an election (and subsequent presidency) look like if conducted by two visionless, leaderless parties?
Joe Klein: Pretty dreadful...which is one reason why I wrote the book. I think it's long past time for leadership--and my litmus test as I go off to cover the 2008 campaign is tthis :Is the candidate willing to tell us something inconvenient? Something his or her base won't like? Something that asks a sacrifice of us?
Baltimore, Md: I'm afraid that my interest and passion for politics waned when the Bushies came scratching around in 1999. The consultants (Rove et al) are so cold-hearted and Machiavellian that I don't have the stomach for it as much anymore. I'm looking forward to reading your book. Do you discuss this?
Joe Klein: Yes, at length. Especially in the last chapter.
Joe Klein: That's all for now. I really appreciate these questions--and the Washington Post for giving me the opportunity to answer them. I'm also available to answer your question at Time Magazine's website. Again, thanks so much for your interest in my work and my book.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.