Political Discourse, Then & Now

By Will, George F. | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

Political Discourse, Then & Now


Will, George F., Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


WASHINGTON

Half a century ago, the best columnist America has ever produced, Murray Kempton, lamented that the absence of honest passion was a shared characteristic of professional wrestling and American politics.

Kempton was dismayed because in 1952 the Eisenhower campaign hired an advertising agency. What would we come to next?

What Time magazine columnist Joe Klein thinks we have come to -- politics "gangrenous with cynicism" -- is summarized in the title of his invigorating new book, "Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid." Politics, he says, has become "overly cautious, cynical, mechanistic and bland," sins he blames on professional political consultants.

Klein's memory of what he craves -- the "natural," "personal," "spontaneous" politics of "freshness," "unpredictability" and "naked emotional intimacy" -- is of the brief, eloquent address Robert Kennedy made to a black audience, outdoors in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King died.

But that was elicited by a tragedy. If banality is the price we pay for the mostly mundane politics of a tranquil democracy, we should pay it gladly. The world would happily have forgone the most luminous episodes of democratic leadership -- Lincoln's, FDR's, Churchill's -- in order to avoid the catastrophes that elicited them.

Pericles would not have been Periclean if Athens' problem had been gasoline at $3 a gallon.

"It was," Klein writes, "Richard Nixon who really represented the future in 1968." That campaign, "pureed by pollsters" (a characteristically felicitous Klein phrase), was indeed a triumph of packaging.

But Klein neglects another 1968 campaign, George Wallace's, which was spontaneous, personal, even visceral, emotionally honest -- and repellant. When, during the first 2000 debate, Al Gore could not stifle the sighs that expressed his disdain for George W. Bush, Gore was being spontaneously honest.

And the country recoiled, rightly.

Klein says that "no pollster, indeed no hired political consultant, has ever taken so active a role in determining the style and content of a presidency" as Pat Caddell did for Jimmy Carter. His presidency-as-permanent-campaign, run "from a consultant's-eye view," resulted in a significant dumbing-down of the office. But that is how it began: Carter's politics of ostentatious "authenticity" -- his peanut-farmer-who-carries-his-own-luggage act - - triumphed over Gerald Ford's unfeigned naturalness. …

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