The Book Club

The Media Is to Blame, Too

Dear Stuart,

I don’t fault you for defending political consultants. I wouldn’t have expected anything else. But there’s no doubt that consultants do their best to strip politicians of anything that might turn off some focus-group-tested demographic. Too often that means scrubbing candidates clean of their humanity and spontaneity, and all that’s left is, well, what we see running around in politics today. So, to answer your question, I don’t see how Kerry’s inability to articulate a coherent position on Iraq absolves his consultants of anything. They were scripting him to a “t.” His answer on Iraq was their answer on Iraq.

But I don’t think Klein tells the whole story. The media have played a huge role in delivering us to where we are, too. In fact, I don’t see how any criticism of political consultants avoids implicating the media as well. The media shapes how the public perceives candidates, and consultants will work to mold as favorable a perception as possible.

One of the most common refrains I hear about politicians today is, “He’s really fun and engaging in person.” I myself alluded to it in a recent Washington Post op-ed, in which I wrote that the cold, distant public persona of Hillary Clinton didn’t mesh with my impressions meeting her. In person, she really is one of the warmest politicians I’ve ever met. And what about the “wooden” Al Gore? He’s quite the different man today than the one the public knew (or thought it knew) in 2000—passionate, eloquent, and utterly suffused with energy. Of course, people on your side of the aisle and their media enablers cackle about the “wild-eyed Al.” He had a beard, and beards are craaaaaazy! And he spoke to those extremist radicals at MoveOn! And he criticized the president! Oh, what a freak show he has become!

But that Al is human, and nowhere near crazy as his critics have suggested. In fact, he is now quite engaging, and his passion is genuinely refreshing from a national public figure. Yet if he was running for president, you better believe that this humanity would be attacked not just by your Republican clients but also by media blowhards, like, well, Joe Klein, who wraps up his book with a misty-eyed look at his ideal candidate:

A politician who refuses to be a “performer,” at least in the current sense. 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. Who believes in at least one idea, or program, that has less than 40 percent support in the polls. Who can tell a joke—at his or her own expense, if possible. Who gets angry, within reason; gets weepy, within reason … but only if those emotions are rare and real. Who is capable of a spontaneous, untrammeled belly laugh. Who indulges a guilty pleasure or two, especially ones that may not “test” well. Who isn’t averse to kicking his or her opponent in the shins, but does it gently and cleverly. Who radiates good sense, common decency, and calm. Who is not afraid to deliver bad news. Who is not afraid to admit a mistake …

Many of us will read that passage and think about the most genuine politician on the scene today: Howard Dean. He isn’t a performer and doesn’t grandstand with bullshit photo ops at military bases or flag factories. He supported same-sex civil unions, which polled under 40 percent, gets angry, isn’t averse to kicking his opponents in the shins, radiates good sense, and isn’t afraid to deliver bad news (that Saddam’s capture didn’t make America safer, for example) or admit a mistake.

Yet Klein opposed Dean’s presidential bid—not on policy grounds, but for having the very qualities he now exalts in his book. In January 2004, as Democrats prepared for the Iowa caucuses, Klein wrote in his Time column:

There is a recklessness about the man, an adolescent screw-you defiance that runs much deeper than the steady stream of gaffes produced by his projectile candor. In Exeter, N.H., last month I watched as he called the moderate Democratic Leadership Council “the Republican wing of the Democratic Party.” I could see the “Republican wing” dig occur to him as he was talking about the need to bring Democrats together. His face lit up, his eyes danced, and he couldn’t resist the pleasure of the zinger, even though it undercut his intended message and might cost him support down the road.

Dean was spontaneous, unscripted, showed a sense of humor, and said something that might actually cost him support. Ahh, but you see, Dean was a bad candidate, as Klein explains, because “Dean’s brand of straight talk leaves little room for complexity,” and because Klein doesn’t see how the “pieces of [Dean’s] personality fit together.” It is interesting that Klein doesn’t include such caveats in his book’s description of the ideal candidate.

Now, in his book, Klein says Dean was uninformed on some issues and that his campaign successes were more about process than politics (with lots of talk about the campaign’s revolutionary use of the Internet)—all valid criticisms and perfectly compatible with Klein’s vision of the perfect candidate. But Klein’s writings at the time didn’t focus on those more substantive complaints. In fact, he wrote, “My Dean problem … runs deeper than policy.” Klein’s problem was those traits that made Dean refreshingly human. By using words like “reckless” and “angry,” to characterize Dean, Klein reinforced the impulse of every political consultant to avoid seeing their clients similarly labeled. And how do candidates avoid such labels? You script them to death.

For all his waxing nostalgic about those great, human politicians and their moments of authenticity, Klein fails to acknowledge his complicity, and the complicity of his colleagues in the media world, in the trivialization of American politics. Stuart, I don’t think any criticisms of the consultant class can be divorced from the media. Wouldn’t you say the two are symbiotically attached?