Sunday, April 30, 2006
Reading American pundit Joe Klein makes me want to grind my teeth -- hardly an original position for anyone who reads American blogs. Forgive this rehash of the 2004 presidential election. But one moment in his radio interview with Michael Krazny (thanks to Pacific Views) stands out because it's one thing that lazy pundits like Klein repeat ad nauseum and never get called on:
Klein: I do believe, on the other hand, that Americans are pretty good judges of character and in the 2004 election, they are not going to vote for someone who says I voted for it before I voted against it. You know, in the lesser of two evils, they're going to take someone they disagree with go with but they know where he stands. Now that was on John Kerry, by the way. After he said that, by the way, and after it became the heart of the Republican advertising campaign, he said it to camera. John Kerry had a responsibility as a politician and as a candidate to go to the places where Americans don't watch politics, to go on the Tonight Show, and to make jokes about how stupid a statement it was, the way that Bill Clinton did after he gave that long boring speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention. You know, creativity is not forbidden in Politics, and also, self-deprecating humor will get you a long distance. You have to be able to communicate with people in ways that doesn't involve dental drilling. You know, you have to try and make yourself entertaining, because you are going to be living in their kitchens, as I said before.
Good God. Leaving aside how astonishing this paragraph is coming from the author of a book called Politics Lost : How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You're Stupid, Klein is wrong. When Kerry made his "voted for" ramark, he didn't "say it to the camera". If I recall correctly, he actually said to to an audience member at a rally, as part of a longer explanatory quote about the votes for the appropriation. But more important, Kerry never said "I voted for it before I voted against it." The famous quote is "I actually did vote for the 87 billion dollars before I voted against it." Democrats all know the story -- Kerry voted for the bill in which the money for "the troops" was offset by a tax hike, and voted against an alternate Billionaire Protection Bill.
You can say -- correctly I think -- that it's a trivial misquotation, compared to groaners like "invented the internet" from 2000 or "who amongst us doesn't love Nascar" from 2004. You can say -- correctly I think -- that the Kerry campaign and its surregates did a piss-poor job of making Americans understand the distinction between his votes on the different appropriations. But the fact remains: (1) it's never ok for professional pundits to paraphrase what politicians actually say into nicer-sounding soundbites in order to enhance whatever narrative is going about said pol. And (2) The quote in question was an attempt by Kerry to justify what actually happened in the Senate. By dropping "the 87 billion", Klein like so many before him, drops the substance of the question altogether. We're left with awkwardness -- which Klein demands be dealt with by having the overspun pol in question yuk it up on the Tonight Show (being creative by immitating Bill Clinton). This is the same guy who, later in the interview, rhapsodizes about "our most precious institution, the presidency". Good. God. Banging. Head. On. Wall.
Klein is so full of shit it's amazing that he can walk. Anybody who followed the 2004 campaign knows, as Klein surely must, that the Kerry campaign was roughly the opposite of "trivial". Kerry was in many ways (and for reasons I think largely beyond his control) an abysmal nominee. But he was an extremely substantive candidate. His platform was capped by a complicated public-private hybrid health care plan that Kerry explained at length to audiences on the trail, even when pundits complained he ought to be spending his time engaging with Bush in meaningless brinksmanship over Osama bin Laden. It also contained a few brave surprises, like the reneging of support for the domestic death penalty and a strong, essentially unbidden labour plank (the unions, except the firefighters, hadn't supported Kerry in the primary; and the campaign was already overflowing in GOTV cash. One might surmise that Kerry's support for labour was -- gasp -- genuine. Part of that "authenticity" Klein says he likes so much when it involves riffing to sympathetic crowds about state holidays, the sort of thing -- come to think of it -- Kerry did a lot of too. In fact, Kerry's refusal to just recite his talking points was criticized at length by carping pundits.) Moreover, the people who fed him or indulged that diet of substance were the very same consultants that Klein rips in his new book for "trivializing" politics.
Sadly, Klein is right about one thing: most voters, in the US or Canada, aren't political junkies and candidates do need to reach them where they're not looking for politics and get into their heads in unconventional ways. The problem is that Klein takes it as given that Americans who don't follow politics approach politics exactly as he does -- as theatre critics searching for thematic cues. But isn't it more likely that people who don't follow the news and write blogs and grind their teeth listening to Joe Klein also don't have the same minute emotional reactions to candidates' performances that Klein, a political junkie, has? Isn't it more likely that trivial, awkward comments by politicians wouldn't matter to voters if opposition operations, abetted by pundits like Klein, didn't fetishize them... for the simple reason that voters wouldn't catch them and, if they did, wouldn't think to read so much into them? Most voters weren't fully aware of the Kerry campaign's substantive approach because they didn't watch Kerry rallies or read the 200-odd page "Kerry-Edwards Plan for America". And because Joe Klein is allergic to substance, he wasn't likely to help them understand. Maybe that's because Klein is stupid. But I don't actually believe the author of Primary Colors is stupid in the conventional sense. I think it's more likely because he thinks you're stupid.