Joe Klein on the State of Democracy in America

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Joe Klein, from a publicity photo.

Joe Klein's novels include 'Primary Colors,' which he famously wrote as Anonymous. This time he's offering non-fictional insights about American politics. hide caption

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Author Joe Klein (Primary Colors) says U.S. politicians' reliance on focus groups and political consultants threatens genuine leadership and trivializes democracy. Klein and Scott Simon discuss the state of politics in America.


Some of Joe Klein's best friends are political consultants, but Mr. Klein, a political columnist for Time Magazine and the author of political novels including Primary Colors and the Running Mate, says that the United States is now governed by what amounts to a permanent campaign season that over-simplifies issues, twists positions, sanctifies polling, nourishes deceits and discourages courage, spontaneity and genuine leadership. But Joe Klein also loves politics and politicians. His new book is Politics Lost: How American Democracy was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid. He joins us from New York. Joe, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JOE KLEIN (Author): Good to be here.

SIMON: You and politics is a little bit like the Corleone Family, right? Every time you try and go straight and get out, something pulls you back.

Mr. KLEIN: Yeah, you know, as I say in the book, there are no 12-step programs for political junkies, and I think the thing that keeps on bringing me back is my kind of eternal hope that I'll watch them do something noble and take an inconvenient position, come up with just a wonderful turn of phrase, some spontaneity that reveals their true character.

SIMON: You were witness to what may count, at least in your estimation, as one of the last large examples of that, and I wonder if I could get you to tell the story about Robert F. Kennedy being informed of the death of Martin Luther King in 1968 when Senator Kennedy was running for president.

Mr. KLEIN: Well, when I first started thinking about writing this book, I tried to search my memory for an example of real true political nobility, and this came to mind immediately.

It was the night that Martin Luther King was killed. Kennedy was supposed to speak in the Indianapolis ghetto that night, and he lands in Indianapolis, the police chief tells him we're not going to be able to protect you because we're going to protect the rest of the city from the African-Americans who they assume are going to start rioting as soon as they find out that Martin Luther King has been killed. Well, Kennedy goes in there anyway, and members of his staff scribble some notes, some talking points for him and he just dismisses them with a curt wave of his hand and he gets up in front of this audience, which still hasn't heard about Martin Luther King's death, and he tells them that King has died.

Senator ROBERT F. KENNEDY (Democrat, New York): I have very sad news for all of you and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

(Soundbite of people screaming)

Senator KENNEDY: Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, it's pressed well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. You can be filled with bitterness and with hatred or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land with compassion and love.

Mr. KLEIN: Gradually, he senses how respectful they are of him, I think. I think it's very clear when you listen to it. And he does something that his staff is completely amazed by; he talks about the death of his own brother, which is something that he had never done in public. And you know, I can't tell you it was directly related, but Indianapolis was one of the very few American cities that didn't explode in flames over the next few days.

SIMON: Joe, in your estimation, why is it difficult for politicians to have moments like that?

Mr. KLEIN: It's difficult because of television. When politicians began to see that every last thing that they did in public could be broadcast to a mass audience, the fact that the stakes were so much higher now that every moment became fraught caused them to become more cautious, and the consultants very gradually but inevitably became literal reactionaries. They reacted to the numbers in their polls and the people they met in focus groups and became very wary of anything that they hadn't tested in advance.

SIMON: I want to get you to talk about what you call banana peel words, or I guess a gentleman you interviewed once called banana peel words.

Mr. KLEIN: Well, it was actually a gentleman in a focus group that the Democratic pollster and focus group that Diane Feldman(ph) interviewed, and you know, she showed him one of those standard Democratic Party issue statements and the guy said, I don't like that, that's filled with banana peel words. And she said, what are those? And he said, They're the kind of slippery words that politicians use instead of, you know, talking straight with us.

And the interesting thing that's happened is even though the American people couldn't tell you the details of a prescription drug plan or perhaps even the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni, they do have a very good sense of the human qualities of the people who would lead us, and they've come to understand what market-tested language sounds like. They've come to understand when politicians are sounding like politicians.

SIMON: What, for example, is a market-tested phrase?

Mr. KLEIN: Healthcare is a right, not a privilege. Clinton wasn't going to spend more money on education, he was going to invest in education. You know, when George Bush talks about freedom not being America's gift to world but God's gift to all humankind, it smells like market testing to me.

SIMON: It's an old game for people to say if Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address these days, people wouldn't know where the soundbite is, people would say you can't use language like fourscore and seven years ago. I'm interested in what you suggest the press might've said.

Mr. KLEIN: Well, I mean there's the classic, what's now become the second paragraph in any given political story in print. You know, a consultant suggested to me that this is the analytical paragraph, President Lincoln was trying to win the veteran's vote and experimenting with a new short form of speaking style.

SIMON: Interestingly enough, when you talk about politicians who have had an authentic political style, one you mentioned prominently, the late President Reagan, who in a sense, because he was an actor, you suggest he knew how to be genuine.

Mr. KLEIN: I think that if you make a strong statement of principle, even if the folks disagree with you, people will respect you for it. And the interesting thing in Reagan's case is that he had a core set of beliefs that were very simple and easy to understand: strong defense, low taxes, traditional values.

SIMON: Do you there's anything rattling around in the political environment now that will encourage candidates to be challenging?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, I think it's in the water right now. I think it's in the air. The early reactions I've been getting from consultants and pollsters to this book is: you're absolute right. And I think that they're beginning to understand that we're in a new era, and it demands -- we're in a more interactive era for sure, because of the impact of the Internet. And that's going to change the way politicians present themselves to the public.

Now, you can just imagine a group of consultants and pollsters sitting around a room with a candidate planning spontaneous moments. But I think it's going to have to transcend that. And I'm not talking about anything really radical here. But I do think that the political marketplace is ripe for a product, where the candidate has a fair amount of faith in himself, or herself, and has a fair amount of faith in the public, and is willing to say when he or she says, you know, has something painful to say, like I know you're not going to agree with me on this, but let me tell you why I think we should do it.

And you know, by the way, I disagree with the President on a lot of things. But I have to say that he has conducted his presidency in that way on a great many issues: Immigration right now; the Dubai ports deal; Social Security reform. You could agree with it or not, but the numbers were running against him when he introduced it; and above all, the war in Iraq.

SIMON: Joe, thank you very much.

Mr. KLEIN: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Joe Klein, his new book is Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You're Stupid.

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