Joe Klein explains why politicians think you're stupid, how the presidency lost character and how we can bring it back.
After 37 years of campaign coverage, Joe Klein has developed a strong narrative on why it is that politicians are no longer engaging voters. In his new book Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You're Stupid, Klein charts the rise in influence of consultants and pollsters in the presidential campaign. According to Klein, parallel to this rise has been a decline in the substance and quality of candidate.
Klein recently came under fire for a comment on ABC's "This Week" in which he argued that nuclear weapons should be kept on the table in negotiations with Iran. After offering a further clarification of his remark in this interview conducted with AlterNet last week, Klein published a further explanation on Time.com. In "A Mea Culpa, Sorta", Klein states that he regrets his remarks, but writes that left-wing bloggers have been overly vitriolic in their attacks because he is not a "lock-step liberal."
In conversation with AlterNet, Klein explains his perspective on how our campaigning system has come to be in ruins, and how his politics have changed over time.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did the idea for the book come about?
Joe Klein: I've been doing this for 37 years. You don't do this kind of work for that long if you're a cynic. The dirty little secret about many political reporters and columnists is that we're romantics. I don't do it to watch politicians screw up, although that's sometimes fun. I do it for the moments when they do something inspirational, challenging or give me something new to think about. I realized that during my career, those moments had been rapidly disappearing, particularly over the last 10 years. I wanted to think about why that had happened and write a book about it to make people aware of this in the hopes that things can get better again.
OR: Can you explain the title, Politics Lost?
JK: The politics that's been lost is the spontaneity and humanity that politicians often stumbled into in the past. You don't see that so much anymore. I'm not saying that there was a Golden Age of politics, but there were individual cases of politicians who really had heart like Robert Kennedy and Harry Truman.
OR: Can you give an example of a politician stumbling upon humanity?
JK: When I was a senior in college, Robert Kennedy was just beginning his presidential campaign. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Kennedy had a rally scheduled in the inner city of Indianapolis that night. When he landed in Indianapolis, the police chief told him not to go in there, and that he wouldn't be protected by the police if he did. His staff told him not to do it, but he did. They handed him talking points, but he rejected them. He wanted to speak from his own heart.
These were the days before cell phones, and the crowd gathered didn't know that Martin Luther King was dead. He has to tell them. He tells them, and when you listen to the recording, you hear the most remarkable sounds of anguish that human beings can muster. Kennedy calms them down, and at the climax of his speech, he quotes Aeschylus to this unbelievably angry, poor, frustrated and undereducated crowd. Seventy-six cities went up in flames in the next few days, but not in Indianapolis.
OR: Why couldn't that happen today?
JK: Now, even someone as remarkable as Robert Kennedy, who had experienced the anguish that he had, would have a tough time doing it. He'd know too damn much about the audience. His pollsters would have given him their top three issues and their bottom three issues, and his consultants would have given him the results of inner-city focus groups, explaining what ways to speak to them would be best -- and maybe some religious references. Aeschylus certainly would not have survived a focus group.
OR: The subtitle of your book is "How American democracy was trivialized by people who think you're stupid." How have we come to be seen as stupid?
JK: I named a character in "Primary Colors" after this phenomenon -- Orlando Ozio, the governor of New York. Machiavelli said that "ozio" was the greatest enemy of a republic. "Ozio" is Italian for indolence. He was worried about how a republic stays coherent when it's not at war. We've had 60 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity. During that time, we've lost the habits of citizenship.
OR: You think there has to be crisis in order for citizens to be engaged?
JK: Yes. I think that we've seen that historically. I believed that 9/11 would change everything. It certainly did for me. I was semiretired from the New Yorker and had decided that after the 2000 campaign, I was going to write books. Then, I went to this town north of New York City in the suburbs. Nine people didn't come home that night. It was this remarkably transformative experience for all of us. Within hours the people in the town, mostly the women, because they're the repositories of social capital, had set up a system of feeding the affected families for the next couple of months -- so that they never had to worry about where the next meal was going to come from.
We had heard that they needed shovels and gloves at Ground Zero, and all of a sudden, the front of the fire station in Pelham was loaded with shovels and gloves. For me, the really transformative moment was when we had the memorial services. The widow of an investment banker came up to me and she said, "You do this for a living. I have two children under the age of 2. When they get old enough and start asking, could you tell them why their father died?" After that, I decided to come back and start writing columns again for Time magazine. I decided that I wanted to learn Islam, the Middle East region, and the U.S. military and intelligence policy. That's what I've doing ever since. But the disappointment was that this wasn't a transformative moment for everyone else.
OR: When you say everyone else, do you mean people in the political sphere or Americans at large?
JK: In the rest of the country, in the media. We wound up covering the 2004 election the way we covered every other election -- as if it were bread and circuses. The president told everybody not to worry and to go shopping, which I thought was disgraceful. But here we are, in 2006, and the president is at around 32 percent approval in the polls. Two-thirds of the country thinks we're going in the wrong direction. I don't think you can paper over the fact that we're in some trouble. Our reputation in the world is in the toilet, and we're facing some pretty big problems at home that are going to have to be dealt with.
I hoped that, by writing this book, I would draw people's attention to the things that they're not getting in presidential campaigns. Also, I have this vague hope that people have come to understand what market-tested language sounds like. When a politician comes to you and says, "Rather than a policy of family values, we need policies that value families" -- that's baloney. My hope is that, in 2008, there's a new threshold for seriousness among candidates. If a candidate doesn't tell you something you don't want to hear, that candidate shouldn't be credible. If a candidate doesn't ask anything sacrifice from you, or common action, then that candidate is not credible.
OR: You argue that, in the course of the evolution of the consultant, the American public has been depicted as stupid. Do you think that we actually have become stupider?
JK: I think that we've gotten lazy. I think that politics is a distant cloud on a very bright sunny day that is contemporary America.
OR: Do you think presidential candidates are getting stupider along with the process?
JK: The real tragedy of what's happened here is that they've lost faith in us, and they've lost faith in themselves. Al Gore wanted to talk about global warming in the 2000 election. One of the things that launched me into this book was a dinner I had with some of his consultants a couple years after the 2000 campaign. I asked why didn't he ever talk about the environment, since that's something he's really passionate about and speaks about very well. They said they told him not to. I said to myself, "Holy shit."
They said they told him they wouldn't get one other electoral vote if he talked about the environment. They had him talk about the Democratic perennials: health care, education and jobs. Those are important issues, but they're "blah blah blah" issues if you're not really passionate about them. I asked these guys if they thought about the fact that he might have been a far more effective candidate if he had talked about the things that he really cared about -- that maybe he wouldn't have seemed so cardboard and stiff. Tad Devine, who was one of the consultants said, "That's an interesting thought."
OR: That's pretty disturbing.
JK: It is disturbing. Even more disturbing to me was John Kerry in 2004. Kerry is a guy that I've known forever. A lot of his old friends from the movement, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, are friends of mine. I knew that he came out of the anti-war movement, and that he had stood at this remarkable event in Detroit in 1971, the Winter Soldier Investigations, where many of his comrades very emotionally confessed to committing atrocities. In the spring of 2004, Abu Ghraib came along.
I figured that if there's ever going to be something that John Kerry is going to step out and be eloquent on, it was this. Nothing happened. He made a couple of perfunctory remarks about disturbing images, Americans shouldn't do this kind of thing, we have to investigate. But he didn't do any more than that. Even after, a month later, the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department issued a memo that went through the White House, to the Defense Department, changing the rules of interrogation to allow practices that any normal human being would call torture. And he never mentioned that.
OR: In retrospect, do these candidates realize this failure? You mention in the book that Gore said that he will never again let consultants reign him in or keep him from talking about what he's passionate about.
JK: This is a very interesting question. Gore, Kerry, Edwards, have all said the same thing: They will not allow themselves to be managed by consultants in the future. And I think Kerry is speaking more freely now. But when he's asked, like he was on Meet the Press, "What went wrong?" he says he should have busted out of the federal finance system so that he could have fought back against the Swift Boat ads. What's he talking about? He wound up with S15 million in the bank. And also, that's consultant thinking. You don't respond to the Swift Boat ads with another ad -- you respond with a candidate who is strong, courageous and credible.
He should have called up Bill O'Reilly, or someone like that, and said, "Look, Bill, have me on. Ask me anything." During the course of that campaign, his staff, as opposed to his consultants, often made suggestions that were like that: Go down and talk to the Southern Baptist Convention and say that there's going to be things we disagree on, but that there are an awful lot of things that I'm talking about that your congregations are going to find important. But the consultants said it's better not to go there. The most powerful line that a consultant can deliver to a candidate is, "Well, don't you think that might offend this group?"
OR: In the book you trace the changing role and impact the consultant has come to have in campaigns, can you briefly explain this evolution?
JK: I'll give you three plot points: First, they come in and start playing a major role with Nixon in 1968. In part because, for the first time with television, every audience was potentially a national audience, and they feel that they need experts to steer them through this raging torrent of information. The next plot point comes in 1976 when Pat Caddell, who is all of 26 years old, sends Jimmy Carter a 10,000-word memo on how to govern. This guy is just a pollster. Up until that point, consultants and pollsters were only about getting you elected, not about how to govern. Caddell says in that memo that you're going to have to wage a continuing political campaign if you want to succeed in the presidency.
That's when the permanent campaign is born. And from that day to this, consultants have been in the driver's seat to the point where, in the Bush administration, which I call the final squalid perfection of the permanent campaign, they had a consultant up until last week in charge of policy: Karl Rove. Consultants and statesmen and policy people look at life through different ends of the telescope. A guy like Karl Rove wants to win the "news cycle" -- that's the loathsome expression that they use -- or they want a message of the week. But there isn't any thinking in much longer or broader terms than that. The job of a leader is to plan policies out and see them into the future. The job of a leader is to look into the history of Iraq before you invade it and discover that it was three separate provinces, and that it had only been ruled brutally, and do we really want to have to impose that kind of brutality on the place?
OR: Do you think politicians can win elections on policy issues?
JK: Certainly on the legislative level. Congressional races are largely fought on the issues. Presidential politics is something entirely different because you're inviting a stranger into your home for the next four years. The presidency is the most intimate office. He lives in your kitchen or your TV room or your bedroom. Presidential elections are far more decided on character than most other elections. This is something that Republicans have realized practically from the beginning, and Democrats have somehow never quite understood. Issues are important in that context, but only in so much as they illuminate the character of the candidate.
OR: Do you think Americans recognize a good president when they see one?
JK: I was working for the New Yorker in 2000, and I went down the row of editors and asked them what the difference was between George Bush and Al Gore's prescription drug plan for the elderly. They couldn't tell me -- which is like most people. But they had a pretty good sense of the character of the candidates and where they essentially stood in their intellect. New Yorker editors tended to think that George Bush was kind of nailing it in and tightly controlled, while Al Gore was very uncomfortable but very smart. In 2004, it reached the point where you had a one-sentence election. John Kerry's sentence was, "I voted for it before I voted against it." Bush had the most perfectly focus-grouped sentence in presidential history, which was, "You may not agree with me, but you'll always know where I stand."
Let's parse that: "You may not agree with me." Translation: The polls are saying that they don't like any of my policies, they're against the war in Iraq and they think the economy is in the toilet. "But you'll always know where I stand." Translation: As opposed to that other guy who wind surfs and says that he votes for things before he votes against them. It's pathetic that at a moment of real import, after September 11th, in the midst of a war that is disgracing us in the eyes the world, the presidential campaign comes down to voting for someone because you disagree with them, but you're not so sure you can trust the other guy.
OR: How can we bring sanity back into the process? How can politicians reach voters?
JK: I'm banking on the fact that the polls are where they are now for a reason. I think the public understands that we have a mess here. I'm hoping that that translates into more creative skepticism on the part of the public, a demand that these politicians show us a little of their humanity. My fear is that all over Washington, politicians are going to read this book and call their consultants and say, "Let's plan something spontaneous." I think Americans are pretty good judges of character, and I think people are concerned about the amount that it costs to drive, global warming, their health insurance, why on earth we're overseas, how we're going to recover our reputation, and how we're going to pay for the retirement of my big, fat, self-indulgent baby boom generation.
OR: How has the role of media changed in the coverage of campaigns?
JK: At a certain point, our natural skepticism lapsed into cynicism. The toughest story that you could write, the hardest story to get past an editor was a positive story about a politician. Over the years, I found that when I wrote favorable things about politicians, I would be accused of being in the tank to them. In fact, in 2000, when I was covering the elections for the New Yorker, I conducted this little thought experiment to see how often I would be accused in print of being in the tank to one politician or another.
I was accused of being in the tank to Bill Bradley because I really liked his universal health care plan. I was accused of being in the tank to George W. Bush because I agreed with him on faith-based programs, which I had written about for the New Yorker. I was accused of being in the tank to John McCain, because we were all accused of that. The one place that I really failed was with Al Gore, where I missed that global warming speech. I would have happily been in the tank to Al Gore on the issue of global warming.
OR: What about new media? Is it intensifying that cynicism?
JK: The cable news networks brought us bread and circuses in the '90s. There is a whole generation of young Americans who think that political discourse is Eleanor Clift yelling at Pat Buchanan. That's dangerous. I don't want our political discourse to be seen as a debate between Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore. It's also limited the ability to compromise in Washington. When you have the hardliners in each party, which represent very small fractions of the general population, really driving the debate, and in the position to bring the wrath of god down upon their candidates if they deviate from the party line, it makes it harder to come up with a compromise on something like immigration or health insurance.
I saw Newt Gingrich a couple of weeks ago in New Hampshire, facing a Republican audience, and he was asked about Intelligent Design, and he said that it's perfectly fine philosophy and probably should be taught in philosophy classes, but it has nothing to do with science and shouldn't be taught in science classes. He said that knowing full well that I was there, and that that line would probably appear in Time magazine and that, the day after that, it would be on the desks of every evangelical leader in the country. Newt is a way outsider at this point, a long shot. I want to see the frontrunners saying things like that.
OR: Who do you think was the best president in your career?
JK: Bill Clinton because he moved the Democratic party past some narrow and counterproductive positions on social policies like crime and welfare.
OR: How did he do that?
JK: Just by the force of his personality. The most amazing thing about him is that he was able to discuss complicated issues in ways that normal people could understand. I always knew when he was about to do it because he would get more folksy. He's drape his arms over the podium, and then he'd tell you about free trade. When you look at the work of his presidency and the impact of tiny little negotiations that he would have every year with congressional Republicans on issues like Head Start, daycare vouchers and the earned income tax credit, this guy turns out to be the best president in the history of the country as far as the working poor are concerned. I really miss having a president who cares about the detail of the policy.
OR: Have your politics changed over the course of your career?
JK: Yes. I was in the streets in the '60s -- with the civil rights movement, anti-war movement. I still believe all of that is true. But over time, the world has changed. The biggest change in my politics has come as a result of something that both Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton were tellling me in the '80s: We're moving from the industrial age to the information age, and the government is going to have to move along with it. A lot of the traditional policies that liberals have favored, especially domestically, are industrial-age policies. Inner-city schools, public schools are like an assembly line: You go from English to history to science to math. In the information age, you need a system that more resembles a computer network that is more customized and freer. To my mind, one of the greatest obstacles to that happening have been the teachers' unions -- a core constituency of the Democratic party.
I also believe that the way you get to universal health insurance is not through a single-payer system, which would be the old-line liberal way of looking at it, but through an individual mandate system that would be tremendously progressive in terms of how much people paid. Essentially, society would be paying for the working poor, while rich people would be paying for their own health insurance without the current deductions that we have, and it would be voucherized. Mitt Romney just did that in Massachusetts. I really believe that that's the future.
My basic values, though, have stayed the same. I believe that humankind is improvable, and that you can take common action for the common good. The greatest thing that we've lost during the time that I've been covering politics is that sense of community and common good. Ronald Reagan said that government isn't part of the solution but part of the problem, and that became the central philosophy of the Republican Party. It's a direct line from him saying that in the late '70s to Hurricane Katrina. If you think government is part of the problem, you can't govern well when there's a crisis. The means by which I go about things may have changed; I'm more moderate about the use of force. I believe that there are times when the use of force in the rest of the world is appropriate, but only if acted in the context of an international group, either the U.N. or NATO.
OR: You recently commented that we should keep the nuclear option on the table in negotiations in Iran. Do you want to clarify that remark, or do you stand by it?
JK: I made a mistake on two grounds. First of all, diplomats who are friends of mine say of course you keep the option on the table, but you never actually mention nukes. If I said I think all options should be kept on the table, and Stephanopoulos said, "What about nukes?" my diplomat friends say you avoid it daintily. You say, "Well, I can't see us getting to that point." But the fact is that it's incumbent on the military to study every contingency: What happens if the Iranians buy a suitcase bomb from dissident Soviet scientists and explode it in New York City? Then you have to think about all sorts of options. But the main reason that I screwed up was this: I didn't put it in context.
The real context is this: I don't believe that the Bush administration has the credibility to take action on its own against anybody at this point given the disaster of the last five years. What I was talking about was this theoretical filigree, and you can't do that on television. If we were in a coalition, if there was a united NATO action and we had been attacked in a nuclear way by Iran, then we would have to have that contingency available to us. But it was stupid for me to do that on TV. Not to mention that I've been to Iran, and I've got a lot of friends there. I don't want to see them nuked.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an assistant editor at AlterNet.