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Searching for a pol with a pulse

April 23, 2006|Joe Klein | Joe Klein is a columnist for Time magazine and the author of five books, including "Primary Colors" and "The Natural." His sixth book, "Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid," is due out this month.

ACOUPLE OF years after the 2000 election, I asked one of Al Gore's top advisors why, if his client was such a passionate environmentalist, he had spent so little time during the campaign discussing the environment.

Because we told him not to, explained the consultant. It wouldn't have helped him win.

"I said to him, 'Look, you can do that, but you're not going to win a single electoral vote more than you now have,' " said Tad Devine, a partner in the consulting firm of Shrum, Devine and Donilon. "If you want to win Michigan and western Pennsylvania, here are the issues that really matter."

In the end, Gore won those two states but lost the race -- and he lost it on intangibles, on qualities that were difficult to quantify. He lost because he seemed phony, still and awkward. And why wouldn't he? Virtually every word he uttered before election day had been market-tested in advance.

I asked Devine if he'd considered the possibility that Gore might have been a warmer, more credible and inspiring candidate if he'd been permitted to talk about the things he'd really wanted to talk about.

"That's an interesting thought," Devine said.

I've covered all or part of eight presidential campaigns as a political reporter, and with each one, I have grown increasingly 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 postmodern public life has caused many Americans to lose the habits of citizenship.

Of course, I'm aware that the good old days weren't so terrific either. After a founding generation populated by geniuses, the majority of American presidents have been overmatched mediocrities. Eloquence and honor have rarely been the coin of the realm. Bloviation and expediency were more like it. And although there has been nonstop 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, the truth is there have always been toads and rodents like Jack Abramoff eager to spread money among morally retarded elected officials.

The intellectual elite's pristine disdain for the tawdriness of politics and disgust with the egomania of politicians has been a long-running American theme. One hundred years ago, Henry Adams -- who lived across the street from the White House -- dreaded the pure gust of testosterone that marked the arrival of Theodore Roosevelt, who frequently wandered over to chat. And the disdain has always been mutual, although politicians usually came up with the better names for their detractors: "mugwumps" in the late 19th century, "goo-goos" and "nattering nabobs of negativism" in the 20th.

In recent years, however, it's become worse. This is an era when the electorate can be -- and routinely is -- scientifically sliced and diced by pollsters, the crowds fragmented and objectified by all those numbers and data, dissected by focus groups. Each group and subgroup is viewed as part of a demographic sliver to be courted in a certain way; the candidate is made specifically aware of the words and issues he has to avoid in order not to alienate any of the slivers.

Consider the following words:

"All my life I have stood up for people who do the right thing and play by the rules.... These are my values. And they are the values of the forgotten majority -- the hardworking men and women who make up the backbone of our country. These families abide by the law, they take responsibility for themselves and they teach their children to respect others."

These words could have been uttered by anyone. As it happens, they were written for Michael Howard, leader of Britain's Conservative Party, for delivery on April 19, 2005, in the midst of his dismal campaign for prime minister -- by which time they seemed hilariously banal. Why? Because they smack of the synthetic market-tested language peddled by two generations of political consultants.

Howard's "forgotten majority" is an amalgam of Richard Nixon's "silent majority" and Bill Clinton's "forgotten middle class." It was Clinton, I think, who first spoke of "people who do the right thing and play by the rules." Words like "responsibility " and "respect" and "values" are beloved by focus groups everywhere. They may have been effective once, but they are easily spotted now -- they are, in fact, rhetorical snooze buttons: clear signals that the politician speaking has absolutely nothing of interest to say. And they are what passes for political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 21st century.

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