In cases like this it’s always best to begin with the hagiographer:
“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?
The quirkiness of that question gives this book its charm. Klein takes pains not to be aridly high-minded, not to come across as a killjoy scold. Of course, he’d like American democracy to tackle big problems and offer brave answers. But he approaches politics less as an embittered crusader than as a disappointed fan. What he wants, above all, is for it to be more spontaneous, more authentic, more human.”
It is no exaggeration to say that Peter Beinart wants Joe Lieberman to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 2008. Once this is understood everything else becomes painfully obvious. The destruction of the American left has clearly obsessed Beinart, Klein, Peretz, Kinsley and their ilk for some time. And Kos be damned, they’re not about to give up on that goal
In explaining how those qualities were lost, Klein — the anonymous author of Primary Colors , now a Time magazine columnist — provides a highly entertaining tour of how political consultants progressively hijacked the presidential campaigns of the last 40 years. In a pundit-dominated culture strikingly devoid of historical memory — where many commentators barely know why Michael Dukakis lost, let alone why Hubert Humphrey did — Klein’s granular understanding of the political culture of the 1970s and ’80s is unusual and impressive. His description of Patrick H. Caddell — the tortured genius who began polling for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign while still in college, dominated Democratic politics in the Carter years and grew so disgusted with the kind of campaigns he had helped invent that he committed professional suicide in the 1980s — is both a model of historical excavation and a crucial backdrop for understanding operatives such as Bob Shrum and Karl Rove, who oversee our often tawdry, brain-dead politics today.
Pat Caddell a “tortured genius”? Well if you buy that one then you obviously bought Klein’s repeated denials that he wrote Primary Colors — until it was no longer profitable to continue to do so.
“Another great strength of Politics Lost is that, whether by accident or design, it models the kind of political discourse Klein would like to see. Against the neutered, white-washed language that dominates contemporary American political life, Klein counterposes his own edgy, raw and often hilarious rhetorical style. Again and again, he uncorks one-liners so good that the reader stops to savor. Carter was “as serious as cancer and as colorful as cement.” “The 1970s were the 1960s for nerds.” Dukakis “hailed from the National Public Radio wing of his party.” In their obsession with the minutiae of environmental policy, Democrats “had trouble seeing the forest for the tree huggers.”
Take that Jon Stewart! Why the man’s a veritable H.L. Menken lite.
“Better yet, in contrast to the antiseptic, cookie-cutter campaigns he mocks, Klein’s writing is intensely personal. He is frank about his own biases and changes of heart, as well as his hunger to enjoy politics again. And if at times the book borders on self-indulgent — with Klein quoting Klein — its personal quality also makes it appealing. Klein criticizes savagely, but not from detached, Olympian heights. Instead, he portrays himself as yet another disillusioned baby boomer, seeking — along with such generational contemporaries as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John F. Kerry — to understand what happened to the excitement and idealism of their ’60s youth.”
As someone who actually lived through the sixties, and can remember it in great detail, the “excitement and idealism” Beinart is blathering about unfolded in the early 70’s. The 60’s were all about being cool. Nothing else.
Oh, unless of course you were black or a “Freedom Rider.” Beinart et cie are as white as the Republican National Convention. And they’re not getting on any bus when a Lear jet’s available.
“Politics Lost is tougher on Democrats than Republicans, and for good reason. As Klein shows, political consultants are at their most debilitating when the politicians they serve lack the courage of their convictions. And in recent years, it is Democrats who have been more ideologically insecure.”
–because they haven’t been listening to the likes of Joe Klein.
“In 1976, Klein writes, Ronald Reagan hired a fancy consultant named John Sears, whom he didn’t know and who didn’t share his right-wing instincts. But when he ran for president again in 1980, Reagan fired Sears, trusting his long-time confidantes — and his own gut — when it mattered most.”
Yes. And we all know what a “gut issue” Iran-Contra was for Ronnie. And what he (which is to say she) needed weren’t “consultants” but rather basic PR the better to paper over his rapid brain deterioration. That plus a supine press and (as they used to say in Roveland) Mission Accomplished.
“By contrast, Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 lacked the self-confidence to fire the consultants who kept them from saying what they really believed. Gore, a passionate environmentalist, wanted to talk about global warming. But when he did, he was sabotaged by his own advisers, who forced him back to poll-tested standbys like Social Security and prescription drugs — and, in the process, turned him into a robot.”
Imagine that, folks — a robot invented the internet!
“Kerry’s anti-Vietnam activism went to the core of his political soul. But high-priced consultants such as Bob Shrum considered the subject too risky to mention. So Kerry didn’t tell Americans about this crucial aspect of his political and moral development and left the Swift Boat Veterans — who smeared the decorated vet as an America-hating traitor — to do it instead”
While the sound of chirping crickets eminated from Chez Klein.
“Klein rightly flays Gore and Kerry for not being true to themselves. But he is also harshly critical of the old liberal orthodoxies that Democratic political consultants devote so much time to camouflaging. All of which raises a large and difficult question that he never quite answers: How can contemporary Democratic candidates be personally secure in their beliefs when their party is not? Even if Democrats could liberate themselves from the intellectually and morally stifling grip of consultants like Shrum, would they have any coherent ideology to espouse?”
Basic democratic policy and competent management skills beat “coherent ideology” every time.Except of course in Kleinland where the “gut” rules the brain.
“The coming years may well provide an answer. Particularly in the Democratic Party, the revolt against the consultants is in full flower. The party’s Web-savvy, activist base loathes the caution and phoniness that has characterized recent Democratic campaigns. And as that base proves able to deliver money as well as votes, future presidential candidates will be increasingly tempted to ditch focus-group mush-speak and talk from the heart. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) is clearly pursuing that strategy; former North Carolina senator John Edwards vows that he will too, and in the greatest irony of all, a newly unplugged Al Gore might even do so as well. “
And we all know what a tragedy that would be for the Kleinerati. After all, what IS Al Gore but a Vampire?
“It is a good bet that whoever emerges as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s main challenger in the 2008 primaries will emulate Sen. John McCain’s campaign in 2000 and Howard Dean’s in 2004. So on the Democratic side, at least, Klein may get his wish: Politics will become more blunt, more free-wheeling, more fun. Whether authenticity leads to victory, however, is less certain. Democrats may be learning to speak from the heart. But in a party that has been confused about its core beliefs for almost four decades, no one can be entirely sure how that will sound. “
One can only be sure that if it doesn’t sound Republican Klein will rip its throat out with his bare hands.
“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. “
In other words we’re going to be there indefinitely and Joe’s quite happy about that. As Gore Vidal pointed out in his appearance at this year’s Los Angeles Times Book Fair, isolationism was a central tenet of our founding fathers, and an agressive return to it is precisely what’s needed today.
Klein wouldn’t have like Thomas Jefferson any more than he does his great grandson seeing as both have minds mind rather than guts. .
“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
Mike was obviously referring to Elaine May’s screenplay. The movie was rather teriffic — especially considering the trashy hack job it was based on.
“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.”
How many times, Joe? How about once an hour on the hour? That’s being real lenient.
Many (yours truly included) will never accept any apology whatsoever, you bloodthirsty pig.
“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. “
“What makes you think I’m a fan of the current President?”
How about everything you’ve ever written about him. Take “the courage of his convictions” for instance. What courage? What 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. “
Needless to say, Tom Frank reviewed the book VERY carefully. For intance, consider the way he notes–
“fixed idea in Mr. Klein’s mental universe is a persistent disdain for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. This, too, is common sense for certain self-designated spokesmen of the 60’s generation (remember the annoying “rebel capitalist” meme of the late 90’s, in which the libertarian New Economy was supposed to be the final flowering of the counterculture?), and Mr. Klein duly assails “the mopey left” with their “down-on-America pessimism.” He laughs off “state-run health care” as a “vegetarian notion” and, as he has done in his other books, heaps contempt on traditional liberalism—on the economic issues like education, wages and Social Security that once linked the Democratic Party to its working-class base. Economic liberalism, Mr. Klein yawns, is boring stuff—“jobs, health-care, and blah-blah-blah,” is how he summarizes it at one point—pure boilerplate platitude that only a consultant could love. It smells of “nativism, isolationism, protectionism, paranoia.” Besides, it flies in the face of nature and historical inevitability, seeks to “preserve the past by ‘fighting’ to protect the manufacturing jobs that were skedaddling to countries with lower labor costs.” And, of course, it almost never wins elections.”
and then —
“In a 1995 Newsweek story on this “radical middle,” Mr. Klein was specific about what it entailed: “government needs to be replaced,” he wrote then. “It needs to be privatized and voucherized.” (In Politics Lost, it’s worth noting, Mr. Klein puts the word privatize in quotation marks, as though it was another irrational fear of those crazy libs.) And this, presumably, is what Democrats will do when they learn how to be strong and defiant. It’s only when Democrats are most like Republicans on the economic issues—when they offer voters the least amount of choice—that they’re being most radical, most funky, most true to themselves.”
and then —
“The only episodes for which Mr. Klein criticizes Mr. Clinton, of course, are the episodes in which he acted like a liberal—specifically, his first two years as President, when it’s said he tried to “govern from the left” and thereby made possible the Republican triumph of 1994. (After this disaster, the story goes, a wiser Bill Clinton turned away from “class warfare,” moved nobly back to the center, to victory and to the eternal gratitude of his countrymen”
“Mr. Gore’s entire career in politics may have been that of a consummate “New Democrat”—defending NAFTA on TV, running the “Reinventing Government” initiative, helping found the Democratic Leadership Council, even—but a canny observer like Mr. Klein remembers that for a period in 2000, Mr. Gore’s Presidential campaign adopted the slogan “The People Versus the Powerful” (his consultants “seduced” him into using it), and so the reader is forced to conclude, again, that “populism” had some role in his defeat—along with the related disadvantage of never seeming “like a credible human being.” So important is it, apparently, to answer evidence contradicting this thesis that Mr. Klein dredges up forgotten electoral minutiae like the fact that Mr. Gore actually got a big bounce in the polls after he unveiled the “People Versus the Powerful” slogan in his convention speech: “But it wasn’t so much the words that made it work.” Of course not. What the public was really excited about was the way Al Gore kissed his wife after his convention speech—that, and his choice of the super-centrist Joe Lieberman to be Veep. Everyone loves that guy.”
and best of all —
“But all this is complicated and difficult to follow. As it happens, there’s a much simpler way to make sense of Politics Lost. It’s this: The Democratic Leadership Council is always right. This is the real master narrative behind this confusing collection of anecdotes. When figures associated with the centrist D.L.C. show up in Mr. Klein’s text, you can be certain they’re going to turn out to be helpful or insightful. They will get the last word in revealing the screw-ups of rival consultants; they will be hailed for their wisdom; they will be greeted as the author’s “best friends in politics.” And to guess how Joe Klein is going to interpret a particular campaign or historical incident, you need only know what the D.L.C. has said about it in the council’s various publications or the op-eds of its leaders. Read deeply enough in the D.L.C.’s works and you will find it all: the straying, chastisement, redemption and eventual sainthood of Bill Clinton; the departure of Al Gore from the path of centrist righteousness and his resulting destruction; the dangerous wrongness of Howard Dean; and even Mr. Klein’s use of the word “populism” to signify economic liberalism of the New Deal/Great Society variety, which is a D.L.C. trademark. Joe Klein loves to gripe”
And now back to the griper.
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 context 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.
But why bother? Joe “can’t imagine” a “multilateral action by the UN and NATO” to make a first strike. And neither can anyone else. But it takes no imagination whatsoever to see that if President Low-Normal does indeed nuke Iran, Joe will be praising the “gut” that pushed the button.
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.
Don’t you love the “not too free”? Al’s gotta watch that”gut” y’know. He’s not a Republican.
But you’ve gotta watch it too Joe. Lookee here —
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…
Good job, Tuscon. But what’s with the “respect”? Joe doesn’t respect you at all.
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.
In other words Joe Klein has no time for serious historical analysis. He’s got a job to do. And by jingo (in every sense of the term) he’s gonna get right out and do it. Because he hates the American left, like the Good Republican he really is.
Thus endeth the lesson.