APRIL 24, 2006
Ten years ago, Joe Klein published Primary Colors, a roman a clef
about Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, and it was a massive sensation.
For months, the chattering classes in Washington and New York
chattered about little else, and the anonymity of the author
sparked a Deep Throat-like manhunt. (The Washington Post unmasked
Klein after tracking down a manuscript with the author's
scribblings in the margins and having a handwriting expert match it
with Klein's.) The book was a runaway best-seller, earning Klein
more than$6 million in royalties, including a lucrative movie deal. It was
not mere gimmickry that made the reception so rapturous. In many
ways, it has held up as the defining book about the Clinton era,
capturing the combination of idealism, personal weakness, charisma,
and fierce intelligence of the forty-second president--and the
tortured loyalties of those around him.
Klein has just published another book, Politics Lost: How American
Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid, which
may, in its own way, be the defining book of the Bush era. It will
not immediately strike readers thusly. Indeed, Klein's latest book
has very little to say about the defining traumas of the last five
years: the bungled Iraq war, the disdain for expertise and
qualifications in government, the corruption of public policy. But
these omissions are, in a perverse sort of way, precisely the
reasons for the book's significance. It is an inadvertent
description of the news media's disengagement in the age of Bush.
The theory outlined in Klein's book will be familiar to readers of
his Time columns or watchers of his regular appearances on "Meet
the Press." Politics, he writes, "has become overly cautious,
cynical, mechanistic, and bland." It needs less boredom and more
spontaneity, color, and charisma. The bulk of the book consists of
his recounting of various presidential campaigns over the last
three decades. The highlight is Robert Kennedy's moving,
off-the-cuff speech in Indianapolis announcing the assassination of
Martin Luther King Jr. The low point is John Kerry's dismal, overly
scripted 2004 campaign. (Unfortunately for Klein's premise, which
postulates a steady decline, the two most spontaneous campaigns he
describes--John McCain in 2000 and Howard Dean in 2004--took place
within the last two election cycles.) He closes with a rousing call
for a politician "[w]ho 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 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." In fact, we have a president right now who does all
those things. (There's hardly a Bush idea these days that does crack
40 percent in the polls.) Somehow, though, these are not the best
of times in American politics. Which suggests that having
authentic, regular-guy candidates may not be the cure-all that
Klein envisions it to be.
Again and again, Bush has exposed the limits of Klein's
theater-critic interpretation of politics. In 1999, marveling over
Bushian slogans like "no child left behind," Klein gushed in The
New Yorker that the Texas governor represented "the first
significant Republican rebellion against the Reagan template." In
Bush, he found the Republican counterpart to the Clintonian Third
The evidence might not have been obvious, but Klein was discovering
signs of it everywhere, however subtle they may have been. Take,
for instance, a missive Klein filed for The New Yorker from the
2000 GOP convention. He began by describing a dull foreign policy
panel discussion, in which the members all "bore a slight
resemblance to the caricatures of snooty, fur-collared bankers"
from the 1930s. Klein then broadened out to his larger point:
The panel was reassuring on several counts. For one thing, it was
too dull to be anything but real. Furthermore, unlike many
Republican policy forums in recent years, it wasn't at all angry.
But, most important, it revealed an essential truth about the
current Bush project. This is not a new Republican party but a
souped-up version of a previous one: the very proper, mostly
eastern-establishment party of the Eisenhower era.
It may have seemed like a stretch to infer some deeper conclusion
about the GOP's ideological direction from the looks of some
panelists at a nominating convention. And, if one was to draw such
an inference, it's puzzling to interpret a resemblance to snooty
Depression-era bankers (who, after all, had notoriously reactionary
political views) as evidence of moderation, rather than the
Yet nothing could shake Klein from his theory. Not even Bush's
decision to bring on non-compassionate conservative Dick Cheney.
"Anybody who tries to take a really strong position on [Cheney]
from the left or from the right seems kind of silly," Klein said of
Bush's vice presidential selection on a "Meet the Press" panel.
"We're all Clintonians now. Everybody is a Third Way Democrat or
Republican, you know, and I think that that's one of the central
problems that politicians in both parties face right now, is that
there are no huge differences, or at least very few."
And then, after the election, Klein predicted that the result would
be "a quiet, patient, and persistent bipartisanship," with no big
tax cuts or Supreme Court ideologues. Klein suggested helpfully,
"Bush could easily retain Lawrence Summers at Treasury and Richard
Holbrooke at the United Nations." And this scenario could have
easily come to pass, provided every other Cabinet-eligible American
citizen had been wiped out in a nuclear holocaust.
How could Klein, and the other centrist pundits who argued along
similar lines, have misjudged Bush and Cheney so badly? The answer
is a disdain for policy details. In his book, Klein describes
pollster Mark Penn as a "drop-dead policy wonk." That a pollster
like Penn is his idea of a policy wonk reveals a lot. Klein swooned
over Bush's "faith-based initiative," though the program's pitiful
scale should have made it obvious that it did not amount to any
serious break with the party. Klein is more idea-driven than most
of the centrist pundits, but his interest in ideas is confined to
abstractions and symbolism. He is Karl Rove's ideal mark.
There are also Klein's ideological prejudices, which pop up
throughout his book. Like other centrist pundits, he has a disdain
for populism. Unlike the others, he makes his disdain explicit
rather than simply assuming it as an unquestionable truth. "The
least successful form of populism," writes Klein in his book, "is
[Bob] Shrum's economic class warfare, which has only received
majority support during tough times, like the Great Depression."
(Harry Truman? Lyndon Johnson? Al Gore plus Ralph Nader?) Klein
argues that Democrats would win more elections if they focused on
gun control and global warming, favored issues of the latte set.
I'm tempted to suggest that the set of issues Klein derides in the
book as "jobs, health-care, and blah-blah-blah" has some resonance
with the segment of the voting public that doesn't lead the
privileged lifestyle of a multimillionaire author and TV pundit. But
that would sound populist.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with a little healthy skepticism of
the redistributionary impulse. Unfortunately, Klein doesn't
distinguish between populism and mere opposition to oligarchism.
When Gore tried to make a campaign issue of his opponent's
attachment to "Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the
pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs," the centrist pundits derided
him as a latter-day William Jennings Bryan. ("Gore has been forced
into this weird people-versus-the-powerful kind of populism,"
complained Klein at the time.) As it happens, though, Bush has
given all those industries enormous influence over public policy,
as manifested in the energy and Medicare bills, which amounted to
exercises in corporate welfare of unprecedented scale. Klein's
ideology, while not entirely wrong, has come at the worst possible
time. The economic anti-populist in the age of Bush is like the
pacifist during the 1940s.
Indeed, Klein's pious calls for moderation on all sides have a
certain disembodied, Neville Chamberlain feel. "Both parties swan
toward their extremes, " his book laments, which would come as a
shock to anybody who compares the Democrats' 2004 platform to the
1980 or 1972 version. In Klein's worldview, it's almost as if the
Bush presidency never happened. And, given Klein's record of
reading the forty-third president, you can't blame him for wishing