Fruitless search for political authenticity

Review Leadership

April 23, 2006|By STEVE WEINBERG | STEVE WEINBERG,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid

Joe Klein

Doubleday / 272 pages / $23.95

From the epigraph to the final page of Politics Lost, it is obvious that author Joe Klein is a lover of the elections business. The carefully chosen epigraph comes from Edward I. Koch, spoken during a campaign for mayor of New York City: "If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist."

When a journalist in Washington, D.C., writes a book critical of politicians, the tendency might be to yawn. But when the journalist is Klein, yawning is no temptation.

Klein is the ultimate political junkie, and, to the extent that any journalist can be called an "insider," he is an insider. He wrote the novel Primary Colors that caused such a ruckus inside the political establishment during the Bill Clinton presidency. He wrote a book titled The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton. Until recently, he wrote in-depth, insightful features about politics for The New Yorker. Currently, Klein is chief Washington correspondent for Time.

He thoroughly enjoys hanging out with politicians. So when Klein publishes a book-length diatribe about politicians, the world seems out of kilter. He is a lover, spurned by multiple partners. Although Klein identifies himself more as a Democrat than a Republican - more as least as a liberal than a conservative - his diatribe is aimed with equal vigor at members of both political parties.

Klein is angry about the lack of authenticity among politicians, about how they have allowed themselves to become programmed to say what will yield maximum campaign contributions and maximum votes, rather than sharing their true feelings.

The model authentic politician, according to Klein: Robert F. Kennedy. Klein opens the book with a speech by Kennedy presented to an African-American audience in Indianapolis, where Kennedy happened to be campaigning for the U.S. presidency April 4, 1968. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated an hour earlier.

Kennedy did not worry about polling data before presenting the Indianapolis speech; he spoke from his heart. The candidate castigated racism, blaming the political establishment in which he had served. Kennedy did not condescend to the crowd, quoting Aeschylus. That reference, Klein notes, would never survive a dry run today in a speech before a focus group.

"Kennedy's words represent the substance and the music of politics in its grandest form, for its highest purpose - to heal, to educate, to lead," Klein comments. He yearns for more such speeches but despairs that he will hear them, given the dominance of politics by "marketing professionals, consultants and pollsters who, with the flaccid acquiescence of the politicians, have robbed public life of much of its romance and vigor."

Klein is unable to leave the political beat permanently. When asked why, he sometimes says jokingly, "They don't have 12-step programs for political junkies." What he really is thinking, however: Maybe another RFK will appear, will give a similar speech.

"Not that I expect to see another campaign as gracious, eloquent and true as his brief flight," Klein says. "Kennedy's situation was unique. He had been liberated by suffering and family legacy. The personal doubts and rigorous internal moral colloquy that had burdened him throughout his life suddenly became a sword. He was able to take chances - to challenge his audiences and himself - in a way most politicians never would."

At times, Klein seems to idealize RFK and a few other dead politicians. But the book's integrity is saved each time, when Klein reminds readers that "the good old days weren't so terrific, either. Political greatness has always been the exception to the rule."

Still, greatness, or at least authenticity, seemed easier to achieve before the insidious, leveling impact of televised campaigning. Television campaigning made Al Gore seem stiff and phony during the 2000 race for the White House. The U.S. senator turned vice president offered nary a hint of the passionate environmentalist residing within. The market-tested blandness failed to defeat the intellectually inferior George W. Bush, who somehow achieved the authenticity of a down-to-earth good old boy despite his elitist upbringing.

After opening the book with Koch, Klein closes it by hoping for a contemporary plain-speaker like Koch or Harry S. Truman or RFK: "A politician who refuses to be a performer, at least in the current sense. Who doesn't orate. Who never holds a press conference in front of an aircraft carrier or in a flag factory. Who doesn't assume the public is stupid or uncaring."

Klein hopes that genuine leadership will accompany authenticity. Many voters do not want so much to be heard as to be led in a wise direction chosen by the candidate who occupies the White House.

To Klein, leadership means "telling us things we don't know and things we don't want to hear - the very opposite qualities from the market-tested political speech that arises out of polling and focus groups."

Steve Weinberg is a former Washington correspondent who writes from Columbia, Mo.

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