Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover, two old friends of mine who share the byline on one of the best newspaper columns going, have published a pair of books that speak volumes about the estrangement even the most sympathetic of observers feel from today's political culture.
Germond's book is a memoir of 40 years of covering politics, with the offbeat title, "Fat Man in a Middle Seat," a reference to the place unsympathetic airlines too often placed his bulky frame. It is filled with wonderful anecdotes of two generations of politicians and the reporters who covered them--a great read.
But the undercurrent of "Fat Man" is the growing disillusionment Germond has felt about the field to which he has devoted his journalistic life. The chapter on the last three presidential campaigns he has covered is titled simply, "Hitting Bottom."
"I have not given up on politics, however," he assures readers on his final page. "I still nourish the notion that one of these years they will get it right and we will elect someone to the presidency who will bring out the best in the country. We might even find a leader willing to take an unpopular position occasionally because it is the right one to take, then set out to persuade Americans of that fact. That has been known to happen, but not lately."
His partner, Jules Witcover, explains why, in a book titled "No Way to Pick a President: How Money and Hired Guns Have Debased American Elections"--an angry, uncompromising survey of the steady debasement of the political coin. Witcover, whose first campaign was the Eisenhower-Stevenson race in 1956, has a multi-part answer to the question: Why don't we have candidates of stature anymore?
He says the cost of a presidential candidacy--in time, money and privacy--has grown so great that many of the ablest politicians flee from the prospect of running. The 1999 experience--in which a half-dozen credentialed Republicans were forced to the sidelines before a single vote was cast and such Democrats as Dick Gephardt, Bob Kerrey and John Kerry took a pass--will raise that barrier even higher.
Second, he says, the gantlet of primaries--and especially the insane crowding of contests early in the calendar year--has made it nearly impossible for the public to take a measured view of those who do run. Irrational momentum has replaced careful judgment.
Third, he says, the campaign finance system with its incalculable costs and unworkable regulations has forced anyone who wants to run for president to cheat one way or another. And this problem, he notes, has grown worse in every cycle.
Fourth, he says, the political system--not just the presidential contest--has fallen under the sway of "hired gun" consultants "who may or may not have a close attachment to the candidate and who are driven primarily by the lure of influence, money or notoriety, or all three."
Fifth, he says, the "hired guns" have instilled a "campaign mentality that preaches that anything goes. Whatever it takes to win is done, the only caveat being that one's tactics should not be so egregious that they backfire."
And finally, Witcover says, "The news media that traditionally played watchdog, holding the candidates and their handlers to account for what they say and do, has been reduced to being either bystander or accomplice in the artful manipulation of politics by the hired guns."
"This depressing state," he concludes, "is not what our Founding Fathers envisioned. They never foresaw the election of the American president evolving into an all-consuming competition for campaign funds to feed a political technocracy dominated by people whose first and often only loyalty is to themselves--to their own influence, power, celebrity and greed."
Defenders of today's politics could argue that the Founding Fathers were elitists who distrusted the people and disliked the hurly-burly of politics. They could argue that money and manipulation always have been part of presidential campaigns.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss what Germond and Witcover say as the ramblings of old reporters pining for a nonexistent golden age. They love politics and have a soft spot for political scoundrels. What they miss, as I do, is the leavening influence of candidates who have confidence in their own values and viewpoints, who respect their opponents and who conduct their campaigns in a way that set the stage for governing, rather than poisoning the atmosphere with an overdose of the venom that produces public cynicism.