Anonymous no more
Author and journalist Joe Klein talks politics, pollsters
By Saundra Sorenson 10/04/2007
Joe Klein, reporter and columnist, is a controversial figure in journalistic circles.
When he published Primary Colors and identified himself only as “Anonymous,” he vehemently denied that he had written the roman à clef detailing what was widely believed — and what he now acknowledges — to be an account of President Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the White House.
Klein spoke to a crowd at California Lutheran University on Sept. 27 not as a secretive novelist, but as a keen observer of decades of the American political machine, which he describes as “a history of mediocrity interrupted by moments of utter, sheer brilliance.” It is this observation that spurred his latest book, Politics Lost, and which inspired his talk, “Inside Washington: American Politics & the Politicians.”
Klein detailed what he called the loss of spontaneity in presidential campaigning.
In an interview with the Reporter, Klein said he lives for the rare but inevitable moment when a candidate speaks from the gut. Democratic candidate Barack Obama had it when he told the American Federation of Teachers that he favored merit-based pay for teachers, said Klein; it was an opinion not popular among all educators.
During his presentation, Klein told the story of a 1968 appearance by Robert Kennedy when it fell to the then-presidential candidate to inform a church full of black voters in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated. Although Kennedy’s aides and the local police discouraged him from doing so, Kennedy gave an off-the-cuff speech wherein he quoted a classic Greek poet and, by Klein’s estimation, mentioned President John F. Kennedy’s death publicly for the first time, saying, “My brother, he was killed by a white man, too.”
Now, Klein said, politics has been overrun by pollsters, marketers and consultants, making that kind of “creative innocence” impossible.
In a talk that touched on more than 40 years of presidential politics, Klein enumerated on the watering-down of political discourse, with such highlights as Patrick H. Caddell’s 1976 memo (“Initial Working Paper on Political Strategy”) to Jimmy Carter, wherein Caddell instructed him to consider his presidency a “permanent campaign.”
Klein said this philosophy persists.
“Labor Day Weekend, I spent Sunday with [Democratic presidential candidate] Hillary [Clinton], Monday with Obama. Judging by the issues they emphasized, these were two very heavily focus group campaigns,” he said
Turning his eye to the 2008 election, Klein had plenty of good to say about the candidates themselves. He noted Obama’s “sheer political talent.”
“It’s talent I haven’t seen since Bill Clinton,” Klein said. “In terms of working at issues, Hillary surprised me. When I talk to generals, the intelligence community, and say, ‘Who knows your stuff?’ They say, ‘Hillary.’”
“By the way,” Klein said in an interview with the Reporter, “the Republicans? Total mess. It’s so un-Republican! They’re usually so orderly.”
Klein, once the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker, returned to the world of politics and punditry six years ago after retiring to write novels. His focus shifted back, he said, when nine of his neighbors were killed in the World Trade Center attacks.
Klein said he expected a “serious conversation” to result, but the 2004 campaign “came down to one statement. For the Democrats, it was ‘I voted for [the war] before I voted against it.’ With the Republicans, it was, ‘You may not agree with me, but you’ll know where I stand.’ You can’t run a democracy very long at that level of banality.”
After outlining the failings of the Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns — which he said hinged on their refusal to speak on their strong points, the environment and the war, respectively — Klein weighed in on current Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s chances at the White House, and what he sees as the public’s perception.
“We’ve had 20 years of Bushes and Clintons,” Klein said. “Do we want to keep trading our most precious office back and forth between these two prohibitively weird families?”