- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 15, 2006

POLITICS LOST: HOW AMERICAN DEMOCRACY WAS TRIVIALIZED BY PEOPLE WHO THINK YOU’RE STUPID

By Joe Klein

Doubleday, $23.95, 256 pages

Joe Klein, political columnist for Time magazine and author of “Primary Colors” and “The Natural,” has written a book about American politics that anyone who votes should read. By revisiting political campaigns of the last 35 years, Mr. Klein builds a case that the state of politics today is in many ways worse than what it used to be. That said, by any measure “Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid” is hardly a gloomy book.

Mr. Klein writes that the “problem with books lamenting the sad state of American public life is that they are mostly written by losers. That means they’ve tended to be written by Democrats in recent years, especially by academic sorts blind to the achievements of the conservative revolution led by Ronald Reagan.”

He continues, “this book is a lament nonetheless — and perhaps a bit of a screed, too.” Mr. Klein is simply “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 overly cautious, cynical, mechanistic, and bland; and I fear that the inanity and ugliness of postmodern public life has caused many Americans to lose the habits of citizenship.”

And no, it wasn’t always thus. Mr. Klein opens the book with a prologue that returns readers to the Sixties, a time when Robert Kennedy could walk into a black neighborhood of Indianapolis, break the awful news that Martin Luther King had been shot, and do so in language that was personal and passionate.

Mr. Klein writes: “Listen to Kennedy’s Indianapolis speech and there is a deep respect for the audience, which is not present in modern American politics. It isn’t merely that he quotes Aeschylus to the destitute and uneducated, although that is remarkable enough. Kennedy’s respect for the crowd is also structural, born of technological innocence: he doesn’t know who they are — not scientifically the way postmodern politicians do.”

For Mr. Klein, the villains in politics today are the handlers — the consultants who have consigned even those they helped get elected to the purgatory of what he calls the “permanent campaign,” a phrase borrowed from the title of Sidney Blumenthal’s 1980 book. Yes, politicians have been in thrall to advertising and public relations people and pollsters for decades, but things have gotten out of hand.

In a section of the book subheaded “Some of my best friends are consultants” (a fact which could change once this book hits the book stores), Mr. Klein quotes Bob Shrum, “one of the best speechwriters in the Democratic party,” about an event in the Truman presidency that operates as a metaphor throughout the book.

Of Truman, Mr. Shrum told this story: “In the midst of his acceptance speech at the 1948 convention, as he’s challenging the ‘do nothing’ Republican Congress, he says that he’s going to call them back to Washington on ‘the 26th of July, which out in Missouri we call Turnip Day.’” Shrum paused, and shook his head in admiration. ‘Turnip Day!’”

Mr. Klein writes, “Actually Truman was a day off. The old Missouri adage was, ‘On the 25th of July, sow your turnips wet or dry.’ But then, Harry Truman was riffing! He was working without a text.”

Later Mr. Klein writes, “For the purposes of this book, [Turnip Day] will represent all those tiny and not so tiny things … that give us real insight into those who would lead us. Bobby Kennedy quoting Aeschylus, Richard Nixon saying that we won’t have him to kick around anymore.”

But it also includes this observation about George W. Bush:

“[I]t was entirely disconcerting for me to watch Bush have the Turnip Day moment in the midst of the raw sewage that his campaign was pumping during the South Carolina primary. It came during a town meeting in Hilton Head. A sneering man asked Bush what he would do about ‘all these bastards’ being born to women on welfare. I’d seen many politicians use this question to slag the undeserving poor over the years. But Bush 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.’”

Gracefully and anecdotally, Mr. Klein moves from presidency to presidency, talking about the individual virtues and flaws of our leaders, taking special notice of the teams they assembled to get elected (and re-elected), giving an insider account of how members of campaign teams manage not just conflicting polling numbers, but conflicting personalities and the mammoth egos involved up and down the political food chain.

Some members of these political teams were more conniving than others — John Sears in the Reagan presidency comes to mind. Some were called to task, notably Bob Shrum and his handling of the Kerry campaign. Mr. Shrum refused to be interviewed for this book.

But Mr. Klein knows that after all his deconstructing of so many elections, his readers will expect him to offer a prescription for how to make things better. He writes, “Sorry. Not this time. Not in this book … I believe that the politicians themselves have to figure out new ways to engage and inspire us … or maybe just simple old ways, like saying what they think as plainly as possible.”

Then, interestingly, in the last several pages of “Politics Lost,” he allows William Bennett to give what could stand as the best summation of this lively, compelling book. Mr. Klein writes:

“I once attended a meeting of the Christian Coalition, featuring a Republican presidential cattle show. The master of ceremonies was the oft-controversial William Bennett, who prepared the audience for the event with the best political advice I’ve ever heard: ‘Some of the people who follow me onto the stage are going to say things that you will find very pleasing. They will speak about ‘our’ virtues and vices of the other party. They will speak about ‘us’ and ‘them.’ But in America there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There is only ‘us.’ And if a candidate tells you only things that you want to hear, if he asks nothing of you — then give him nothing in return, certainly not your vote, because he is not telling you the truth.’

In this splendid record of the often less-than-noble politics of the last three decades, that is not bad advice.

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