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Not Our Fault

By Russ Smith | Posted 6/14/2006

Joe Klein, the veteran reporter, columnist, and author, published a book two months ago—obviously timed for the November midterms—that is the most cynical, disingenuous, and hypocritical treatise on the state of American political life that I’ve read in the past year. (I’m discounting intentionally provocative figures like Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Michael Moore, and Rush Limbaugh; Klein at least attempts to be serious.)

Klein, who currently handicaps political races for Time, is a well-traveled media bigwig: He started out at Boston’s Real Paper decades ago, migrated to Rolling Stone, New York, Newsweek, and The New Yorker, and is a staple on network and cable political gabfests. After anointing Bill Clinton as the front-runner in the 1992 Democratic primaries for New York, falling for Clinton’s charm and command of issues, he then turned on the former president with the terrific novel Primary Colors. Born in 1946, Klein’s own politics have morphed from McGovern-like liberalism to more centrist views, and in the process has accumulated fame and wealth. Now, as he envisions giving up the horse-race chase of politics, Klein offers both a lesson to readers and an apology for baby boomer behavior in Politics Lost.

It’s the subtitle of the book that gives Klein’s game away: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid. He’s referring to the army of political consultants, pollsters, focus-group supervisors, sound-bite experts, wardrobe and makeup handlers, speechwriters, and fundraisers who play such a huge part of any candidate’s campaign. Not surprisingly, Klein neglects to indict journalists like himself—insulated in a Washington/New York/Boston bubble, where they socialize and live in a claustrophobic atmosphere that’s as isolated from most of the country’s citizens as the U.S. Senate—for contributing to the dumbing down of public debate.

Politics Lost begins with the legendary address Robert F. Kennedy gave to an Indianapolis audience on the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, two months before he’d meet the same fate in Los Angeles after winning California’s Democratic presidential primary. Kennedy kept his remarks brief, knowing he’d be delivering the stunning news to an all-black audience, and ditched his standard stump speech, appealing to the assembled to remain calm and help heal the racial divisions that rocked the United States in that decade. Klein writes: “Kennedy’s words stand as an example of the substance and music of politics in its grandest form. . . . [but also] marked the end of an era: the last moments before American public life” was hijacked by the men and women who package and sell candidates.

Klein, like every RFK biographer, notes that the New York senator quoted the Greek poet Aeschylus, which added to the “romance and vigor” of his statement. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that Kennedy’s admirable plea was in reaction to an extraordinary event.

The well-traveled sage is also myopic in bemoaning the reality of the “Permanent Campaign” that presidents now wage—he traces this to Jimmy Carter, but it was really Bill Clinton who perfected the art—by refusing to admit that, like so many facets of American popular culture, politics has evolved from the days of his idealistic youth. Joe Kennedy, patriarch of the famous clan, boasted that he’d sell his son John in the 1960 election like a box of laundry detergent, and indeed used the tools available at the time to defeat Richard Nixon.

Klein is also guilty of gross hyperbole. For example, he writes, “In 1974, the Republican Party seemed as comatose as the Democrats would be in 1994.” It’s true that Newt Gingrich and his colleagues shocked the political establishment by winning Congress for the GOP, but the results of those midterm elections were predicted by almost no one. In contrast, the ’74 Republicans knew they were headed for disaster that year with Nixon’s resignation over Watergate.

The symbiotic relationships between journalists and the politicians they cover are revealed on numerous occasions during the course of Politics Lost. Klein, who wasn’t alone in his hagiographic commentary about John McCain in 2000 when the Arizona “maverick” was challenging George W. Bush for the Republican nomination, recounts a conversation he had with the senator in New Hampshire that year. McCain tells the columnist that he’d led “a very, very flawed life.” Klein is sympathetic, trying to comfort the candidate by telling him that it’s the rare person who’s without faults or regrets, and asks, “Why are you so hard on yourself?”

Although Klein was critical of the campaign John Kerry waged against Bush in 2004, he admits that initially he was inclined to support him. “I had known Kerry a long time,” he writes, “[and] I felt close to him in the same way I felt close to McCain, [Bob] Kerrey, [Chuck] Hagel, and the other combat vets I so admired.” Klein, like so many journalists who became young adults during the Vietnam War, didn’t serve in the military, a “blemish” that many have come to regret.

Politics Lost isn’t a worthless book—anytime a writer slams the unctuous Frank Luntz and Bob Shrum some truth is being told—and Klein is correct that far too many polls are conducted today. But by refusing to include the media, which salivates at attack advertisements and injects its own political views into allegedly objective news stories, Klein sacrifices the validity of his very premise.

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