Joe Klein, acclaimed writer and political columnist for Time magazine, spoke the evening of November 27 to a capacity crowd in Hooker Auditorium. Earlier in the day he had visited the journalism class taught by the magazine's executive editor, Priscilla Painton '80. Introducing Klein, Painton described him as "a man who loves politics, politicians, and his country. He has an extraordinarily romantic view of what politics can be in this country. He always believes that the next election can surprise him."
In a talk that was part history lesson and part prescription for the future, Klein discussed the origins and impact of the most recent political era and expressed hope that it will soon be behind us. In his view, the era began in the late 1960s, when national television transformed politics from a local affair into a national spectacle. Under increasingly intense public scrutiny, politicians yielded their "creative innocence" to the control of consultants and pollsters whose exclusive goal was to win voter support in the short term, often not looking beyond the immediate news cycle.
As an example of "creative innocence," Klein told a story about Robert F. Kennedy campaigning for president in Indianapolis the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. According to Klein, Kennedy ignored the pleas of his advisers to cancel an appearance in a poor, African American neighborhood because there was no police security in the area and went ahead with his plans. Speaking without notes, he announced to the crowd--which was largely unaware of the news--that King had been shot earlier in the day. Urging the crowd not to turn to hatred, he spoke about his own loss of his brother and quoted a passage from Aeschylus about grief and healing. "Kennedy did not know too much about his audience, but simply showed his humanity and connected with theirs," said Klein. Unlike many urban areas that erupted in violence in the next few days, Indianapolis remained calm. Klein commented that such an event would never happen in today's political world. "Kennedy would have had a coterie of advisers and pollsters telling him 'Can the Aeschylus--it's not gonna work with this crowd!'"
Klein decried the excessive influence of consultants and pollsters for having "twisted, distorted, and demeaned" politics. He said that with consultants like Karl Rove controlling government policy, our country has no vision for the future. "That's the most important thing for the president to do. It's at the heart of statesmanship, to consider the impact of his decision on your and your children's lives." Klein blamed Al Gore's loss of the 2000 presidential election on campaign advisers who refused to let him talk to voters about his personal passion for the environment because "the subject didn't poll well."
Klein also pointed to Bush's concern for poll popularity as a primary source of the present chaos in Iraq. He said that in June 2003, just as the insurgency was gaining power after Saddam Hussein's fall, the president and his advisers were too distracted by potential embarrassment over the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to focus on the politically volatile situation brewing there. According to Klein, while Bush's intelligence officials combed Saddam's personal papers for evidence of secret weapons caches they passed over critical information about insurgents.
Turning to the recent elections, Klein summed up the public sentiment that put Democrats in control of Congress as "disgust over Iraq and projectile vomiting over the state of corruption in the Republican Congress." He believes that "voters rewarded candidates who seemed to be on the level and authentic," like Montana's new senator, rancher John Tester, who took time out from campaigning to bring in his hay. Klein hopes that the American public and the media are beginning to demand real character and courage from politicians. With so many dire problems facing the country, he said, "I'm going to demand to hear things from politicians that make me uncomfortable. If I don't hear that something is being demanded of me, I won't believe them." He added that the country is ready for this. "The time has come for us to be citizens again," he said.
Klein addressed his final remarks to the students in the audience. He noted that his own generation, the baby boomers, had grown up in a period of enormous prosperity that had engendered a spirit of indolence and complacence. "We lost the habit of citizenship," he said. Unlike the previous generation who had served and sacrificed for the public good, "we have been lousy in public leadership." He said that for him, the sense of ease ended with the events of 9/11, which had an immediate and direct effect on his life and the lives of his neighbors just north of New York City, some of whom did not come home that night. He urged students to emulate their grandparents rather than their parents. "Go out and do something. Don't go right into law school or medical school. Do Teach for America, or be a cop for a few years," he said. "You need to be involved. The world did change on 9/11, and the rest of us need to catch up with that."