Politics Lost – Joe Klein (all) – Audio Book
There are perils to writing a book about the decline and trivialization of American politics. The good old days weren’t so terrific, either. Political greatness has always been the exception to the rule. After a founding generation populated by geniuses, the majority of American presidents have been overmatched mediocrities. Happily, the greatest of leaders—Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt– rose to the occasion at the most crucial moments; indeed, it is inherent in our extremely conservative system of checks and balances that “greatness” is near impossible absent a crisis. In any case, eloquence and honor have rarely been the coin of the realm; bloviation and expediency were more like it. And while there has been non-stop bleating in recent years about how politics has gotten so much worse because of the vast sums of money and the smarmy influence of lobbyists, this is not a particularly corrupt era of American history. Indeed, we have moved past the days of cash on the barrelhead bribery; politicians solicit contributions to fund the television advertising in their next campaign, not—with certain exceptions—to aggrandize their lifestyles. Doubters should compare latter day power-brokering with the 19th century Washington described in the wonderful novel, “The Gilded Age,” by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner.
The intellectual elite’s pristine disdain for the tawdriness of politics and disgust with the egomania of politicians has been a running American theme since the early 19th century. A hundred years ago, Henry Adams would dread the pure gust of testosterone that marked the arrival of Theodore Roosevelt, who often walked across Lafayette Park for dinner at the adjoining townhouses of Adams and John Hay. The disdain has always been mutual, and politicians usually came up with the better names for their detractors: “mugwumps” in the late nineteenth century, “goo-goos” and “nattering nabobs of negativism” in the twentieth.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found rogues more fun, and often more useful, than reformers. The efforts of reformers—especially their muddled attempts to cleanse and regulate the campaign finance system—have resulted, as often as not, in unintended consequences that have made public life more perverse and corrupt. A vibrant democracy is a messy spectacle, dependent on grease, horse manure and prestidigitation. Furthermore, and to lay all my cards on the table: I am a pro-peccadillo journalist. I want a President who has intimate, personal knowledge of human frailty, who has been humbled by what Woodrow Wilson once called his own “imperious passions,” who has the wisdom that comes from failing, falling down and getting up again. Consequently, I have usually taken the side of the fox and not the hounds in the post-Watergate run of scandalettes and circuses, regardless of partisan disposition—from Justice Clarence Thomas to President Bill Clinton, from Speaker Jim Wright to Speaker Newt Gingrich. These witch-hunts threaten to drive everyone interesting, and anyone you’d want to have over for dinner, from our public life. This will not be a book proposing the sterilization of politics; quite the opposite, in fact. I abhor the prospect of government by goody-goodies.
Another problem with books lamenting the sad state of American public life is that they are mostly written by losers. That means they’ve tended to be written by Democrats in recent years, especially by academic sorts blind to the achievements of the conservative revolution led by Ronald Reagan (which is not to say Reagan was perfect, or even close, but he did get some very important things right). Inevitably, such books decry the shallowness of American public life because mainstream candidates refuse to talk about such high-minded, vegetarian notions as state-run health care and the imperialistic cruelty of the American empire. There are plenty of issues that have been insufficiently or stupidly discussed in recent years, but the covert thesis of this book is not that American politics has fallen on hard times because the last 35 years have been dominated by conservatives. Some of the finest moments I’ve witnessed in politics—the moments of passion and courage and conviction—were provided by Republicans.
But this book is a lament, nonetheless—and perhaps a bit of a screed, too. I am fed up with the insulting welter of sterilized speechifying, insipid photo-ops and idiotic advertising that passes for public discourse these days. I believe that American politics has become overly cautious, cynical, mechanistic and bland; and I fear that the inanity and ugliness of post-modern public life has caused many Americans to lose the habits of citizenship. This lack of interest may have been understandable during the half century of unprecedented prosperity that followed World War II, although public lassitude was briefly replaced by passionate involvement during the civil rights movement and war in Vietnam: Robert Kennedy’s time. But lassitude is not an option now. Big changes are afoot—the economic changes wrought by globalization, the demographic changes made possible by miraculous medical developments, the probability of a long-term, slow-burning war against Islamist extremism—and big decisions have to be made about the nation’s future. In order to make the right decisions, we are going to need citizens who see politics as something more than a distant cloud marring the eternal sunshine of the American day.