The 2006 Election: End of 'Gotcha!' Politics?

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NPR's Scott Simon talks to former Clinton advisor Lanny Davis about his new book, Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics is Destroying America. Davis says the midterm elections represented a revolt against the divisive, take-no-prisoners political approach of both Republicans and Democrats.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the changing faces of garbage collectors in Paris.

But first, ever since the midterm elections, official Washington, D.C. has seen Republicans and Democrats munching together - lunch, coffee and breakfast between Republicans and Democrats who not so long ago would've seen more inclined to bury their pastry forks in each other.

Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Clinton, has written a new book that's received endorsements from professional politicians in both parties. The book is called "Scandal: How Gotcha Politics Is Destroying America." Lanny Davis joins us in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. LANNY DAVIS (Author, "Scandal: How Gotcha Politics Is Destroying America"): Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Kind of convenient for you to write this book, have it in print before...

Mr. DAVIS: I think I can say that I saw it coming about a year ago, recognizing that there was vitriol on the left and the right unlike anything seen in America for many years. I saw a revolt of the center, and I think we've seen the great center of American politics coming back together again.

SIMON: You suggest in this book that politics is often scandal driven, and you're hard on the press for aiding and abetting this.

Mr. DAVIS: I'm hard on the press for being complicit with what politicians want the press to do, which is to use negative and attack-oriented strategies to destroy opponents, and the press loves those stories.

SIMON: But is that a bit like saying that the press also has an interest in murder because we report murders. I mean...

Mr. DAVIS: Sure. Reporters do their jobs. And when I was at the White House working for President Clinton, I thought they did pretty good jobs of reporting facts. But then they get carried away trying to be first rather than being right because of pressures from the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle, which were the two technological changes that occurred under President Clinton that made the scandal machine much worse than ever before in American history.

SIMON: You believe that independent councils are often a mistake, and you cite several names. I'm going to rattle off, I think, three, because they're both Republican and Democratic. Ed Meese, who was President Reagan's attorney general; Burt Lance, President carter's council; and Raymond Donovan, secretary of labor who uttered a very famous line.

Mr. DAVIS: The famous line was, after seven years of being hounded and investigated by three independent councils, driven by Democrats, cheered on by people like me, Raymond Donovan was finally acquitted after he had his day in court. And he was congratulated on that acquittal and he said, thank you, where do I go to get my reputation back?

We Democrats forget that we created the independent council over the objection of conservatives. When we were in the Clinton White House, when this all happened to us, we all thought it was all a result of the vast right wing conspiracy. We now know there really was a vast right wing conspiracy, but what we didn't know is we started it and the gotcha politics cycle continues to this day.

And in the last election, the American people are starting to say, we need to do it differently.

SIMON: I'm interested in what you say in your book, in the way in which you identify intolerance, not just between Republicans and Democrats, but on certain issues in both the Republican and Democratic Party. And you don't spare your own party on this one.

Mr. DAVIS: No, I don't. We Democrats have been intolerant. Remember the current senator-elect from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, Jr.? His father, the governor of Pennsylvania, in 1992 was refused the microphone at the Democratic National Convention because he was pro-life.

This is a party that values free expression and civil liberties and Bill Clinton was in control of that convention. And yet we still, all of us, were complicit in denying that microphone. That's intolerance. Now look at it on the right.

You have people who talk abut individual freedom, avoiding government interference, trying to dictate people's individual morality from the religious right's agenda. So both parties have to leave people alone, go back to the fundamental values of individual freedom and liberty, and then have a great center debate between the left and the right about issues.

If you ask the average American what they're worried about, they're worried about terror, they're worried about paying their bills, they're worried about putting their kids through school, they're worried about public safety. If we can get this country for once with politicians in Washington debating those issues and looking for solutions - there may be liberal solutions using government, there may be conservative solutions using the private marketplace.

What the American people are angry about is that we can't even get those issues debated anymore because we're so subsumed under this scandal culture. I think 2006 may have been the breaking point. I think 2008 is going to be the big test as to how our presidential candidates conduct themselves.

SIMON: Mr. Davis, thanks very much.

Mr. DAVIS: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Lanny Davis, former council to President Bill Clinton, now a Washington, D.C. lawyer. Author of the new book "Scandal: How Gotcha Politics is Destroying America."

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How "Gotcha" Politics Is Destroying America

by Lanny J. Davis

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