Politics Lost & Found

On politicking in the age of television and political “science.”

On November 9, 2006, two days after the U.S. midterm elections, Joe Klein sat down with AI editor Adam Garfinkle and executive editor Patricia Murphy to discuss the lay of the political landscape. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

The American Interest: Welcome, Joe Klein. Before we start in on Tuesday’s election and how the themes of your latest book, Politics Lost, relate to it, I want to go back some years, well before Primary Colors, and ask where you grew up, and what your folks did?

Joe Klein: New York City. I was born in Queens, and via upward mobility found myself out in the suburbs. But my parents wound up back in the city—Greenwich Village, in fact. My dad was a printer, and my folks were standard Jewish “CP”—Capitalist Pigs. The provenance as I grew up was really working class; we lived with my two grandmothers for the first years of my life. It wasn’t a privileged background.

AI: So I see your way up and out was to go to the University of Pennsylvania. When you were at Penn, did you ever run into George Gerbner, or any of the Annenberg Center experts in journalism and communications?

Joe Klein: No—it was the Sixties and I didn’t know I would become a journalist. My educational story is pretty simple: I got in, I partied, I left.

I got my real education through journalism. It’s been a sequential education, but that’s one of the things that makes it fun. It’s one of the reasons I’m still doing it rather than sitting at home writing novels.

AI: So if I asked you if there was any particular professor or book you read in college that made a difference…

Joe Klein: I could point to Murray Murphy, who was a 28-year-old full professor. I was an American Civ. major, mainly because the requirements were less stringent. He taught a year-long course about the South that really turned me on to American culture, history and sociology. We read a lot of C. Vann Woodward, and his essay, “The Burden of Southern History”, had a major impact on me. Woodward argued that the South was the only part of the country that experienced nostalgia because it was the only part of the country that had lost a war. The rest of the country was losing a war at that point—in Vietnam—and I wondered about the impact that might have on American culture. And, indeed, it’s been profound. I think all the politics I’ve covered over the past three-plus decades has been affected by our loss in Vietnam.

AI: You talk about the effect of Vietnam on American politics from time to time in Politics Lost. So let’s get right to the point of the book now, because it touches on a central theme that concerns all the people associated with The American Interest. You write, “I am fed up with the insulting welter of sterilized speechifying, insipid photo-ops and idiotic advertising that passes for public discourse these days. I believe that American politics has become caustic, cynical, mechanistic and bland, and I fear that the inanity and ugliness of post-modern public life has caused many Americans to lose the habits of citizenship.”

You then refer to what you call the “pollster-consultant industrial complex”, and take it all back to the influence of television by quoting Robert Kennedy’s speechwriter, Adam Walinsky, who said that “television ruins everything it touches.” Could you elaborate on the connection between what American politics has become, the role of pollsters and consultants, and the linkage back to television?

Joe Klein: In the old days, when Tip O’Neill was coming up, all politics was local. But with the advent of mass media, especially television, all politics became potentially national. When someone ran for president and realized that what he said in West Virginia could haunt him later in Minnesota, he began to be more careful about what he said. He also realized that these new media required performance values. You couldn’t sweat, Richard Nixon learned in 1960, and you had to shave.

Politicians also found out that they could advertise on TV in ways that reached far more people than the old door-to-door and first-class mailing methods ever could. It meant that politicians had to go to experts to teach them how to navigate this raging torrent. Over time, the ways of pollsters, especially their ability to target specific constituencies, became more sophisticated. The focus group was invented, or at least it was refined.

AI: Did it come from social science?

Joe Klein: Actually it came from corporate marketing. And I think that politicians—and journalists, too, by the way—were, as the professional political community, so to speak, overwhelmed by the supposed “science” of it all. “Political science” was always one of the funniest terms, I thought. But now we have the “science of polling”, a really hilarious term. That “science” was and remains entirely dependent on the questions asked, the selection of the sample, and the way the questions get matched to the samples. It wasn’t scientific at all, and it still isn’t. Polling has always reflected the predilections of the people asking the questions. But the overall result of all this is that politicians became incredibly cautious.

AI: And you start the book with a counter-example to show the contrast.

Joe Klein: I open the book with Robert Kennedy speaking in Indianapolis—one of the precipitating events for me getting involved in journalism—the night Martin Luther King was killed. He spoke for five minutes, extemporaneously, from his heart and from his gut. It was a brilliant moment, and incredibly moving. But it couldn’t happen now, even if Robert Kennedy were to suddenly materialize and someone were to get killed. If Bobby Kennedy had to go again into a crowd in Indianapolis, he would now know that 73 percent of African Methodist Episcopalians were opposed to gay marriage, and that 62 percent of women filling out Earned Income Tax Credit forms thought the paperwork was too complicated. He would know too much about them. There just isn’t the creative ignorance you had before.

AI: “Creative ignorance”; what do you mean?

Joe Klein: Let me put it this way: I don’t think we’ve lost all that much on the downside of American politics. Politics in America, and politics in a democracy generally, usually isn’t a very inspiring operation. It’s overpopulated by mediocrities. But we have lost something on the upside. Politicians no longer follow their guts; they follow their brains—and these are not stupid people, by and large. Politicians—the vast majority of them, anyway—no longer take chances to inspire us.

AI: There’s another dimension of television’s influence on politics that you raise in the book. You make the point that it costs a lot of money to buy TV ads. You point out that the consultants generally get a percentage of the media buys they make, which gives them an incentive to spend big and live large on campaign dollars. And it’s the high cost of the ads and the high price tag that comes with the prestigious consultants that have empowered the special interest groups of both the Left and the Right.

And it seems to be getting worse. The Campaign Media Analysis Group estimated that spending on advertising—TV advertising, in particular—was up about 150 percent from 2004. By mid-August spending already reached $311 million, and by November 7 it must have topped out at over $500 million. How do you read these numbers and the trends they illustrate?

Joe Klein: This trend you cite is a form of obscenity that has now moved into sheer dopiness. I’ll explain that, but first let me tell an anecdote from this year, just to illustrate how crazy it’s gotten.

Every couple of years, with every successive election, I find something new and profoundly depressing to worry about. This time what I found was that, at the congressional level, politicians weren’t even campaigning anymore. They were spending all their time on the phone, raising money to pay for the TV ads. They were doing this even into the fall, the times that they did campaign in the past. So I would call up a campaign from my office at Time magazine, and say, “Hey, I want to come out and watch your race. Are you going to be in any meetings where you talk to voters and answer questions, and stuff like that?” In the past the press secretaries would immediately say, “Oh yeah, we’ve got this event and that event scheduled”, and so on. This year, it was sheer panic, because they had nothing scheduled. Here was this bigwig journalist from Washington calling up and wanting to find out what’s going on in 7-Pennsylvania or 4-Connecticut, and they have nothing scheduled! And so they would race around trying to set up some kind of thing for my benefit. It’s reached a point of real insanity.

But let me tell you why it’s also dopey, because I think we’ve finally reached the end of the television era. Now we’re in a television/internet era in which politics is more interactive. We also have this fascinating invention, the clicker. So now, when people see these disgusting negative ads, they shut them off. When you look around through the country, those sorts of skuzzy ads didn’t pay off this year. There were some successes, like the defeat of Harold Ford in Tennessee, but I think that we’re really at the end of an era here. We’re at the end of the political pendulum swing, we’re at the end of the period where market-tested language has any efficacy.

AI: So what will the next era look like?

Joe Klein: Well, I know what I hope it will look like. There’s a reason why I’m doing journalism right now. I quit the New Yorker in 2000 as their Washington correspondent because I had covered seven presidential campaigns and I thought I was all done. I thought there was nothing more to watch, nothing new to see, and it had gotten so damned depressing. And then, on September 11, nine of my neighbors didn’t come home to the small town in Westchester County, just north of New York City, where I live.

A couple of things happened immediately. One was that the true forces of social capital in our town—namely, the women—set up a meal schedule for the nine families. For the next two months, they didn’t have to worry about dinner. Also, we heard that they needed shovels and gloves down at Ground Zero, so half the town headed to Home Depot and then dropped off the shovels and gloves at the fire station. And I thought to myself, even as I was doing this, “Wow, we’re going to be citizens again.” It was a terrible thing that happened, of course, but it was really exhilarating at the same time.

And then several of the widows came up to me at the memorial services and said, “Joe, you write for a living. We have infant children. When they get old enough to start asking questions, will you tell them why their fathers died?” Suddenly there was something new to learn. I had some sense of the Middle East, but I needed a better sense and I needed to really double down and learn about Islam, about U.S. intelligence and special ops. So I came back, and that’s why I’m working at Time. The fact is, I thought that would be a precipitating event for the rest of the country to come back, as well.

AI: It really hasn’t, though. I think a lot of people were hoping that there was a silver lining in terms of civic culture to what happened on September 11, but this President never asked anybody to do anything, except to shop or go on a vacation. That was a great lost opportunity.

Joe Klein: It was. A good part of my personal philosophy is communitarian. It’s interesting how, in the political discourse, you get people who talk a good game, but they are only talking part of the game. President Bush talked about faith-based social programs, and I was with him on that. That’s how I got to know him in the first place. I wrote a 7,000-word piece for the New Yorker on faith-based social programs in 1997. I was really impressed by a lot of them, and impressed by the fact that he cared about them. But for the President, those kinds of programs were important for poor people. That sense of community wasn’t important for the rest of us.

On the Democratic side, you have this bizarre circumstance where party leaders talk about the middle-class squeeze, but only in economic terms: Health care premiums are going up, college tuitions are going up, the price of gasoline is going up, and so on. But there’s a social component to the middle-class squeeze that the Democrats never talk about, which is that mom and dad are both working, they’re scared to death of what their kids are doing in the afternoon, and so they join a church for structure. Democrats just won’t touch that. They don’t understand that phenomenon. In my mind, they won’t be the majority party in this country until they do.

AI: You talk a lot about the Democrats in the book, and you talk about them with the voice of a disappointed former affiliate. You’re especially hard on the Democrats in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when they really screwed up in understanding and dealing with racial issues, confusing equal rights for all individuals with special rights for certain minority groups. Later you say that in the Senate there isn’t a single Democrat with the moral authority of Republicans like Chuck Hagel, John McCain or Rudolph Guiliani.

And yet on Tuesday the citizens of this country voted the Democrats into majority control of the House and the Senate. We all know that sometimes events can cause seemingly ordinary people to rise up to extraordinary circumstances. So who do you think might emerge from this victory to fill the void in a party that has been pretty much without ideas, and in search of its backbone on national security, for going on thirty years now?

Joe Klein: This was an election where the absence of ideas beat bad ideas. That might be the best we can hope for a lot of the time. But I think that Jim Webb speaks with a fair amount of moral authority, and that the emergence of Barack Obama is interesting, a positive force. But the Democrats still have to figure out the race issue. One of the important things Bill Clinton did for the Democratic Party—which had two huge problems, race and national security—was to finally get started addressing the race problem. But there’s much more that needs to be done. Because of gerrymandering—and especially racial gerrymandering, which is perhaps the greatest unlamented political scandal in American democracy—you have, in the House especially, a bunch of inner-city black machine politicians who are rising to positions of tremendous power that resemble, in my mind, the power of Southern segregationists who got elected over and over again when I came into this in the 1960s. And these black urban machine politicians are every bit as destructive. I really think that there’s a big moral issue facing Democrats, and that is, do we still make distinctions according to race, or not? I think it’s time Democrats stop doing that. I think it’s time that the Black Caucus dissolve itself.

AI: Was the formation of the Black Caucus a mistake from the very beginning?

Joe Klein: It was. Making distinctions by race was a mistake from the very beginning. I’ve spoken to a number of the younger African-American members of Congress who have electoral ambitions beyond the black community. And they are freaked by what’s about to happen. It’s a pretty simple guess that this Supreme Court is going to overturn affirmative action. So then what do you do? The impulse of the old guard—the Conyers, the Rangels and Maxine Waters—is going to be to just scream and march in the streets, and say that it’s time to do the march in Selma again…

AI: That would be unfortunate.

Joe Klein: Yeah, and that’s all so much baloney and salami. The other option is to do what might have been a good idea from the start, which is to do affirmative action by economic class: Give special breaks to the desperately poor regardless of color or race. The younger black politicians are scared to death that they’re going to get mau-maued by Harry Belafonte and the dinosaurs for even suggesting the dilution of race-based thinking about such subjects. If the Black Caucus really wants to do something useful, they should dissolve themselves and re-form as a “poor people’s caucus” that would be open to any white politician with a certain percentage of people living under the poverty line in his or her district. Or better yet, let’s forget all these damned caucuses.

AI: Now you’re sounding like what you label yourself in the book: a radical centrist.

Joe Klein: Right, or a flaming moderate.

AI: This magazine tends to lean in the same direction. It sounds oxymoronic until you realize that the old liberal and conservative paradigms can’t help us much with the kind of challenges we’re facing right now. They require a combination of bipartisan (or non-partisan) effort and often sharply new approaches: hence radical centrism. So what would be your ideal ticket for the 2008 campaign?

Joe Klein: I don’t want to name politicians at this point, because I don’t know how they’re going to run. It could be that Barack Obama fits my bill. In many ways Hillary Clinton fits my bill, although I don’t think she should be president.

AI: That’s a bit surprising, because you wrote a couple pieces lately, one not particularly friendly to Hillary and another that took Obama down a notch or two.

Joe Klein: Well, let me just talk about how I’m going into 2008 as a journalist. We journalists have been really stupid in the ways that we’ve conferred credibility on political candidates. We do it only in terms that you can quantify: How much money they’ve raised, how many endorsements they have, whether they’re running well in the polls. In 2008 I’m going to add a fourth test of credibility: If you don’t tell me something that’s uncomfortable for me, or that asks something of me, then you don’t have any credibility.

I posed that in my interview with Barack Obama. I said, “You haven’t asked anything of me with this book, The Audacity of Hope, which isn’t very audacious.” I called him out on alternative energy policy, which is a big area where we need some honesty. And I called him out on national health insurance, and the universal health insurance plan in Massachusetts, which seems to me a radical centrist sort of plan.1

He wasn’t ready to go there, though he made it clear he may well go there at some point. I really do believe that if it’s true that the American people have gotten hip to what market-tested language sounds like, and if they have gotten sick of these negative ads, and if 70 percent of them think the country’s moving in the wrong direction, they can make two and two equal four. They can accept that maybe we’re going to have to do some things that aren’t all that pleasant. And maybe a politician won’t have credibility this time unless he or she steps out on tough issues.

AI: It’s an interesting criticism you make of journalists. As you point out in the book, there were times in the last 25 years when consultants and pollsters essentially anointed candidates. You describe how politicos weren’t ready to endorse someone until they found out who the big consultants like Bob Shrum were going to work for. The same really is true, to a lesser extent, perhaps, of journalists, isn’t it? Tom Stoppard once wrote that the press is a stalking horse masquerading as a sacred cow, a line I’ve long since taken to heart. A lot of journalists understand very well the workings of the “pollster-consultant industrial complex”, but they rarely describe it in their work. So are journalists risk averse, too—like politicians and consultants are in other ways—in not wanting to describe this particular aspect of the sausage factory?

Joe Klein: Absolutely, especially in presidential politics. But let’s not forget something more important even than aversion to risk. None of these other factors matters nearly as much as character. Character is something you cannot quantify. I sympathize with many print journalists. Their job isn’t to assess character, their job is to go to the safest place. But for someone like me, if I don’t add this fourth criterion, I’m not doing my job. I don’t need consultants to tell me what’s going on in a political campaign. There are consultants I love talking to. Some of my best friends are consultants. And they’re smart and entertaining people. But I’ve got eyes and I’ve got ears, and I can live very well even if they hate my guts.

AI: Why do you think politicians pay so much attention to consultants, when they’re the ones who have come up through the ranks, they’re the ones who have run their own races before? When they get to a certain level, statewide or nationwide, why do they give up their judgment to the consultants?

Joe Klein: Well, I think that the consultants provide a really important function, and they can be used well. Bill Clinton used consultants very well. But you have to be able to know when to say, “I’m not going to do that; that’s not what I’m about.”

AI: For example, after Gore lost in 2002, he made a statement you quote, which was that “if I’m ever going to do this again, I’m going to speak from the heart and not listen to these guys anymore.”

Joe Klein: Which sometimes can be a problem, too. After all, John Kerry made exactly the same pledge after he lost. And what did he do? He just said, “I’m going to go to the left wing of the party and do whatever they want”, as if ideology could somehow be equated with authenticity.

AI: You also make the point, though, that there have been maverick types—you mention Ross Perot and John McCain, to some extent—who can go too far in the other direction because mavericks often have no ballast.

Joe Klein: Right. Consultants at their best can give you a sense of perspective. They can say, in effect, “Look, I know, Al, that you really want to emphasize global warming. And let’s keep on hammering it, but when you say this, it’s possible for people to interpret it as you saying you hate America, or something like that. So maybe you should drop that line.” That kind of advice is valuable. Kings and leaders throughout all of history have had their wizards. My only recommendation is that everybody running for office should have a better angel on their team to counteract the consultants—someone you really trust, someone you know loves you and cares about you and can either confirm what the consultants are saying or tell them no, you’re going someplace else.

AI: One of the things that struck me as I was reading the book is how important it is for candidates to sound optimistic about America. You quoted the Jimmy Carter “malaise” speech, and your own analysis of American politics suggests that some of what Carter said was accurate, even if still politically foolish. By contrast, a lot of Reagan’s “morning in America” optimism really was sociological nonsense, but from a political point of view worked wonderfully.

Joe Klein: It’s definitely true that optimism works better politically, but it’s also realistic. If you pull back the frame to the context of the United States of America in history, for a president of the United States to be pessimistic in public isn’t just stupid; it’s also wrong. If you travel the world and look at how people view the United States, even despite these past six years, they want to live here. And that’s because we’ve come closer than any other country in the history of the world to doing it right. When a politician speaks, it always has to be with that in mind, and the problem the Democrats have had is that they don’t have that in mind. The problem that Republicans have is that it’s the only thing they have in mind, and they don’t understand when things are going sour or soft and have to be changed.

AI: Or when large numbers of Americans are having real problems. If people are going to be told some hard truths and asked to make some sacrifices in 2008—your new criterion for candidate credibility—politicians are still not going to be entirely open, nor should they be. In a mass democracy, it’s not possible for leaders to always or often tell the unvarnished truth. There’s an inherent tension between what a mass democracy would ask of a leader and what’s effective and wise to say.

Joe Klein: There’s more to it than that in our case. We’ve been on a bender. I named a character in Primary Colors after this phenomenon: Orlando Ozio of New York. Machiavelli said that ozio is the greatest enemy of a republic, and ozio is Italian for indolence. And what we’ve had is a sixty-year run of relative peace and prosperity unlike any the world has ever seen. During that time we’ve lost our habits of citizenship, and it has become very hard to be a leader under those circumstances. One of the great problems we’ve had is not only that politicians have lost faith in themselves as a consequence of this, but they’ve lost faith in us. And you can put this together and say that they’ve lost faith in their ability to inspire us.

The reason that I wrote the book was to say that our bender has run its course and it’s time for politicians to be courageous again and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t know who or what we’re going to get to choose from in 2008, but I suspect that the Republicans are going to go through two years of deep soul-searching now. They’ve got to decide what true conservatism is. What we’ve had for the past six years hasn’t been true conservatism, but a kind of radicalism. And I think that the Democrats are going to have to face up to the fact that the lessons they learned from Vietnam about national security were the wrong lessons to begin with, and are now quite dangerous. They’re going to have to understand that they’ve been wrong on national security, that it isn’t mutually exclusive to be strong on national security and still want to create a national safety net for the information age.

AI: Last question: Joe, you’ve now hobnobbed with something like forty or fifty campaigns.

Joe Klein: …oh, more than that.

AI: You’ve spoken with innumerable presidential candidates, and half a dozen presidents, as well. When you think back on all this, what’s the one thing you’d tell the next president of the United States, starting in January 2009, not to do, and what would be the one thing you’d tell him or her—have to say that these days—to do?

Joe Klein: The one thing I’d tell him not to do is to not be pessimistic about the American people. And the one thing to do? Banal as it sounds, I’d tell him to reread Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.” Most of us learned it when we were kids and promptly forgot it. Believe it or not, a politician—Jim Webb, the new senator from Virginia—suggested I re-read it, and he’s absolutely right.

AI: So it’s Rudyard Kipling to the rescue again. Thanks a lot, Joe.

Joe Klein: My pleasure.

1. Michael Doonan reviewed the Romney plan in “Mass-ACHUsetts!” (November/December 2006).

Appeared in: Volume 02, Number 3 | Published on: January 1, 2007

Joe Klein is a columnist for Time and is the author of Primary Colors and more recently of Politics Lost.

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