Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Wisdom from Joe Klein's Politics Lost, Part 1

A month ago, I was asked to name the three most recent books I had read. I could only name two—Bob Woodward's State of Denial and One Party Country: The Republican Plan for Dominance in the 21st Century.

I explained that I am a voracious reader, but of newspapers, magazines and blogs, but I was chagrined.

Accordingly, I've since digested three books, all of which I'll blog about by quoting or summarizing the passages I underlined. Here's the first, which was inspiring, highly informed, balanced while retaining conviction, yet not wholly persuasive; that is, Joe's thesis works best if applied selectively rather than comprehensively. (Disclosure/self-promotion: as an editorial intern at Time in 2004, I did some research for Joe on this column.)

Here's the thesis (excerpts follow after the jump):

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 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. . . .

[What we need is] not just the intermittent bolts of unmassaged oratory but also the spontaneous moments of honor and cowardice, the gestures, the body language, the smirks and sighs—that gave us real insight into those who would lead us. It encompasses Bobby Kennedy quoting Aeschylus and Richard Nixon saying that we won't have him to kick around anymore.

1. On Ronald Reagan (paraphrased):

Once, when Reagan aide Michael Deaver handed his boss some questions Deaver had planted with a friendly audience, Reagan tossed the questions into the trash. "Mike, this won't work," he said. "You can't hit a home run with a softball.

2. On Republican vs. Democratic messaging:

Ronald Reagan had given his party the gifts of simplicity and clarity and, as we have seen, a coherent belief system that could be explained in sentence fragments. Military Strength. Low Taxes. Traditional Values. The Democrats, by contrast, were the party of the complex, clause-draped sentence: "We need to spend money on Head Start programs in order to... [ellipsis in original]". . . .

Democrats slouched toward public pessimism—the middle class was always suffering silently, the poor neglected, the environment degraded—but they were philosophically optimistic: humankind was improvable, reform possible, government could help make things better. Republicans, by contrast, were publicly optimistic—the United States was exceptional, the greatest country in the world, and anyone who said otherwise was unpatriotic—but privately realistic and often pessimistic: people were who they were, the poor would always be with us and there was no sense trying to change them. . . .

In public, Reagan's 1984 "Morning in America" was countered by Congressman Richard Gephardt's 1988 "it's close to midnight and getting darker all the time". . . . In 1968 . . . an academic named William Gavin, who would later become a White House speechwriter, sent Richard Nixon a memo about communications strategy: "Voters are basically lazy, basically uninterested in making an effort to understand what we are talking about." He went on to discuss the difference between intellectual and emotional appeals: "Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand."

3. On impressions vs. policies:

In the television era, fleeting impressions counted far more than cogent policies. Fleeting impressions were all most people had time for. Presidential politics was all about character... [ellipsis in original] or rather, the appearance of character. . . . [I]t wasn't about the economy, stupid.

It was about the appearance of caring about the economy, stupid.

4. "The best political advice I've ever heard," from William Bennett to a meeting of the Christian Coalition:

"Some of the people who follow me onto the stage are going to say things that you will find very pleasing. They speak our our 'virtues' and the 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 thing 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."

5. On fund-raising:

"Do you want to know what I do all day?" he [Alex Sanders, the Democratic sacrificial lamb in the 2002 race for Strom Thurmond's South Carolina Senate seat] asked me. "I sit at a desk with a telephone. A woman named Ashley Newton sits across from me with pieces of paper called focus sheets and a stopwatch. She hands me a focus sheet and a phone number and some vital information about a potential contributor. I call the number. She starts the stopwatch. I have six minutes to make the sale. I'm supposed to make ten calls per hour. So I start out like this, 'Hello, my name is Alex Sanders and I'm running for the United States Senate. Have you ever heard of me in your whole entire life?' Then I chat with him for a moment about life at his horse farm or whatever. I tell him I know about the horse farm because I have a focus sheet with all this information. And then I say, 'I'm not calling to ask for your vote. It'd be a waste of time to ask for a single vote. My purpose is far more humiliating. It's the chemotherapy of a political campaign. It's painful... [ellipsis in original] Wouldja give me some money?' If they say yes, I tell them I have two more questions, and these are far more humiliating than the last. 'First, I am so sorry to have to ask but, when you gonna send the money? Can you send it today?' And then I say, 'Now this last question is so embarrassing that I can hardly bring myself to ask it, but... [ellipsis in original] How much?' And before they can think about it, I jump in and say, 'How 'bout a thousand bucks?'