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New Nastiness on the Rise in U.S. Politics, Panelists Say : Conference: Speakers ranging from McGovern to Herschensohn agree the venomous tone is destructive and unprecedented.

October 12, 1994|MACK REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Civility is dying in American politics and a destructive meanness has taken hold, said panelists opening a two-day conference Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley.

"There is, I believe, a new nastiness in politics, a venom that is loose that exceeds anything any of us old-timers in Washington can remember," said David Gergen, a key adviser to President Clinton and keynote speaker at the conference titled "What's Wrong With American Politics?"

Gergen recalled the heavy political and personal attacks that helped stop Judge Robert Bork's nomination to the U. S. Supreme Court and the sexual harassment charges that threatened to kill the appointment of Justice Clarence Thomas.

"It's become theater. It's become spectacle to bring down the nominees," Gergen said. "That's what we're experiencing, is the Borking of our presidency."

In panel discussions, politicians and pundits from both major parties agreed that the American political system is suffering from an attack mentality that has nothing to do with real issues.

"There's a spirit of negativeness and superficiality and downright meanness in American politics today," former U. S. Sen. George McGovern told the audience of about 250, among them former First Lady Nancy Reagan. "I can't recall a time when there was as much political distress in the country as there is now."

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Mean-spirited attacks began replacing more reasoned debate midway through the George Bush Administration, concurred the panel, moderated by TV host John McLaughlin.

Stoked by a scandal-hungry press and fanned by vengeful lawmakers out to thwart the other side at all costs, this harsh new atmosphere is disenchanting the voters and keeping qualified leaders out of politics altogether, said political scientist Norm Ornstein.

"American politics are probably less corrupt and our politicians are cleaner than at any other time in our history," Ornstein said. "But Americans are nonetheless convinced that it is more corrupt than it has ever been."

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Bruce Herschensohn, a commentator and former Republican candidate foS. Senate, said the press often ignores the issues in favor of covering personal attacks and political squabbles--and some politicians buy into that.

"If (politicians) tell you they're running because they want to stop the other person from getting into office, by and large it's a lie," Herschensohn said. "By and large, the person who is running for office wants to be in office."

Of reporters, he said, "they rarely ask you about the issues, and when they do ask you about the issues, it's the issues they want to discuss."

Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., former Republican National Committee chairman, said the press has been blamed more frequently in recent years for the malaise of democracy.

"The problem with the press in the last couple of years has only become a problem because the press is starting to beat up on liberals too," Fahrenkopf said.

But he also pointed out nonstop televised coverage of Congress provided by C-SPAN and CNN has exposed the often contentious process of lawmaking to the public eye--and further turned people against politics.

"Familiarity breeds contempt," he said.

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Ornstein added: "Now that they see it and they don't like it, what are they going to replace it with?"

Yet the public is also partly to blame for the negative atmosphere, said USC law professor Susan Estrich, former campaign manager to Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.

People revile negative campaigning, she said, but focus groups often rank negative ads as the most effective.

All of this is feeding an anti-incumbent fervor, she said.

"When you look at the polls, people don't seem to care whether you're a Republican or a Democrat," she said. "I get the feeling that every two or four years or so, we throw one set of bums out who are replaced with a new set of bums who become the next set of bums we throw out."

Herschensohn offered an unorthodox solution: Political opponents should campaign together, he said, so that "every person who has an interest in the issues would be able to hear what each candidate believes."

McGovern added that political debates can give voters a clear picture of where the candidates stand.

"I think it's better to put two candidates on opposite sides and let them have at each other," said McGovern, who campaigned unsuccessfully for the presidency against Richard M. Nixon. "One of my great regrets, aside from losing in 1972, was that I never got to see my opponent."

FYI

"What's Wrong With American Politics?" continues today at 9 a.m. at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour and former Democratic National Committee Chairman John White will discuss political parties. Then political consultants will discuss their work in a panel titled "The Handlers," featuring Republicans Mary Matalin, Stu Spencer and Richard Wirthlin, and Democrats Stanley Greenberg and Pat Caddell. Finally, former U. S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr., who was Senate majority leader and White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, will close the conference with a speech on "What's Right With American Politics." Lunch will follow Baker's address. A few conference tickets are still available to the public for $75 each. Call first at 522-2977.

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