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Pssst! Who’s behind the decline of politics? [Consultants.]

13 minute read

On the evening of april 4, 1968, about an hour after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy responded with a powerfully simple speech, which he delivered spontaneously in a black neighborhood of Indianapolis. Nearly 40 years later, Kennedy’s words stand as an example of the substance and music of politics in its grandest form and highest purpose—to heal, to educate, to lead. Sadly, his speech also marked the end of an era: the last moments before American public life was overwhelmed by marketing professionals, consultants and pollsters who, with the flaccid acquiescence of the politicians, have robbed public life of much of its romance and vigor.

Kennedy, who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, had a dangerous job that night. His audience was unaware of King’s assassination. He had no police or Secret Service protection. His aides were worried that the crowd would explode as soon as it learned the news; there were already reports of riots in other cities. His speechwriters Adam Walinsky and Frank Mankiewicz had drafted remarks for the occasion, but Kennedy rejected them. He had scribbled a few notes of his own. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, rather formally, respectfully. “I’m only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening because I have some very sad news …” His voice caught, and he turned it into a slight cough, a throat clearing, “and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.”

There were screams, wailing—just the rawest, most visceral sounds of pain that human voices can summon. As the screams died, Kennedy resumed, slowly, pausing frequently, measuring his words: “Martin Luther King … dedicated his life … to love … and to justice between fellow human beings, and he died in the cause of that effort.” There was near total silence now. One senses, listening to the tape years later, the audience’s trust in the man on the podium, a man who didn’t merely feel the crowd’s pain but shared it. And Kennedy reciprocated: he laid himself bare for them, speaking of the death of his brother—something he’d never done publicly and rarely privately—and then he said, “My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote, ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart,'” he paused, his voice quivering slightly as he caressed every word. The silence had deepened, somehow; the moment was stunning. “‘Until … in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'”

Listen to Kennedy’s Indianapolis speech and there is a quality of respect for the audience that simply is not present in modern American politics. It isn’t merely that he quotes Aeschylus to the destitute and uneducated, although that is remarkable enough. Kennedy’s respect for the crowd is not only innate and scrupulous, it is also structural, born of technological innocence: he doesn’t know who they are–not scientifically, the way post-modern politicians do. The audience hasn’t been sliced and diced by his pollsters, their prejudices and policy priorities cross-tabbed, their favorite words discovered by carefully targeted focus groups. He hasn’t been told what not to say to them: Aeschylus would never survive a focus group. Kennedy knows certain things, to be sure: they are poor, they are black, they are aggrieved and quite possibly furious. But he doesn’t know too much. He is therefore less constrained than subsequent generations of politicians, freer to share his extravagant humanity with them.

“Television,” Walinsky said many years after his Kennedy apprenticeship, “has ruined every single thing it has touched.” There was some puckishness to this—he was talking about professional basketball, if I remember correctly—but Walinsky is a serious man and he wasn’t really joking. Yes, television has been a wondrous thing. Vast numbers of people now watch presidential debates, State of the Union messages, prime-time press conferences, not to mention terrorist attacks, hurricanes and wars in real time. But television also set off a chain reaction that transformed the very nature of politics. “This is the beginning of a whole new concept,” said a very young Roger Ailes as he stage-managed Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. “This is the way they’ll be elected forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers.” Television brought other changes as well. Suddenly, politicians were able to use televised advertising to communicate in a more powerful and intimate (and negative) way than ever before—and suddenly politicians had to raise vast sums of money to pay for those ads. Television demanded transparency, and so the rules of politics had to change as well: no more selection of presidential candidates in smoke-filled rooms.

Hubert Humphrey, in 1968, was the last Democrat to win his party’s nomination without winning the most votes in the primaries. Most politicians tend to be cautious, straitlaced people. Confronted by the raging television torrent, by the strange new theatrics of public performance, which makes every last word or handshake a potentially career-threatening experience, they sought creative help to navigate the waters. And so, the pollster-consultant industrial complex was born. By 1976, the process had been turned upside down. A politician most Americans had never heard of—Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia—won the Democratic nomination, and then the presidency. Ronald Reagan nearly defeated the incumbent President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Carter’s pollster, a 26-year-old named Patrick H. Caddell, gave him precise poll-driven instructions about how to conduct himself as President. To be successful, Caddell wrote, Carter would have to run a permanent campaign.

Some of my best friends are consultants. They tend to be the most entertaining people in the political community: eccentric, fanatic, creative, violently verbal and deeply hilarious—the sort of people who sat in the back of the room in high school and shot spitballs at the future politicians sitting up front. But their impact on politics has been perverse. Rather than make the game more interesting, they have drained a good deal of the life from our democracy. They have become specialists in caution, literal reactionaries—they react to the results of their polling and focus groups; they fear anything they haven’t tested.

In early 2003, I had dinner with several of the consultants who advised Al Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign. I asked them why Gore, a passionate environmentalist, had spent so little time and energy talking about the environment during the campaign. Because we told him not to, the consultants said. Why? I asked. Because it wasn’t going to help him win. “He wanted to talk about the environment,” said Tad Devine, a partner in the firm of Shrum, Devine & Donilon, “and 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. If you want to win Michigan and western Pennsylvania, here are the issues that really matter—this is what you should talk about.'”

Gore won Michigan and Pennsylvania, but he lost an election he should have won, and he lost it on intangibles. He lost it because he seemed stiff, phony and uncomfortable in public. The stiffness was, in effect, a campaign strategy: just about every last word he uttered—even the things he said in the debates with George W. Bush—had been market-tested in advance. I asked Devine if he’d ever considered the possibility that Gore might have been a warmer, more credible and inspiring candidate if he’d talked about the things he really wanted to talk about, like the environment. “That’s an interesting thought,” Devine said.

But apparently not as interesting as all that: Devine, Bob Shrum and Mike Donilon fitted Senator John Kerry for a similar straitjacket in the 2004 campaign. In some ways, the Kerry campaign was even worse. After all, the Senator was a student of politics. He had spent his entire life hankering for the presidency. And then he proceeded to make precisely the same mistake as Gore, allowing himself to be smothered by his consultants. Perhaps the worst moment came with the Bush Administration torture scandal: How to respond to Abu Ghraib? Hold a focus group. But the civilians who volunteered for an Arkansas focus group were conflicted; ultimately, they believed the Bush Administration should do whatever was necessary to extract information from the “terrorists.” The consultants were unanimous in their recommendation to the candidate: Don’t talk about it. Kerry had entered American politics in the early 1970s, protesting the Vietnam War, including the atrocities committed by his fellow soldiers in Vietnam. But he followed his consultants’ advice, never once mentioning Abu Ghraib—or the Justice Department memo that “broadened” accepted interrogation techniques—in his acceptance speech or, remarkably, in his three debates with Bush.

“We’re going to meet the voters where they are,” Shrum had told me early in the Kerry campaign, which sounded innocent enough—but what he really meant was, We’re going to follow our polling numbers and focus groups. We’re going to emphasize the things that voters think are important. In fact, Shrum had it completely wrong. Presidential campaigns are not about “meeting the voters where they are.” They are about leadership and character. Mark Mellman, Kerry’s lead pollster, figured that out too late. “If you asked people what they were most interested in, they would say jobs, education and health care,” he later said. “But they thought the President should be interested in national security.”

In Austin, Texas, the political consultant Mark McKinnon watched the Gore and Kerry campaigns from a unique perspective. He had spent his life as a Democrat and now he was working, as a matter of personal loyalty, for his friend George W. Bush. Very much to his surprise—and to his wife’s horror—McKinnon was in the midst of a conversion experience, not so much to the Republican philosophy but to the Republican way of doing campaigns. It was so much simpler. Maybe it was because Republicans were more businesslike and saw their consultants as employees, rather than saviors (and paid them accordingly—with a flat fee, rather than a percentage of the advertising buy). Maybe it was just the way Bush and Karl Rove went about the practice of politics. But this was, without a doubt, the tidiest political operation he’d ever seen. There was none of the back biting, staff shake-ups or power struggles that were a constant plague upon Democratic campaigns. There was little of the hand wringing about whether the shading of a position would offend the party’s interest groups. Issues, in fact, seemed less important than they did in any given Democratic campaign. And McKinnon had come to a slightly guilty realization: maybe that was a good thing. Rove’s assumption was that voters had three basic questions about a candidate: Is he a strong leader? Can I trust him? Does he care about people like me?

Politics was all about getting the public to answer yes to those three questions. Of course, an integral part of the job was aggressively—often stealthily and sometimes disgracefully—painting the opposition as weak, untrustworthy and effete. McKinnon was amazed the Democrats had never quite figured this out. In fact, they had it backward: the character of their candidate, they believed, would be inferred from the quality of his policies. But in the television era, fleeting impressions mattered far more than cogent policies. Presidential politics had been reduced to a handful of moments and gestures. In fact, the 2004 campaign came down to two sentences. Kerry: “I actually voted for the $87 billion [to fund Iraq] before I voted against it.”

Bush: “You may not always agree with me, but you’ll always know where I stand.”

Presidential campaigns are, inevitably, about character. In 2004, at a moment of real national consequence for the United States, character was expressed in the most limited, nonpositive way imaginable: I know you don’t agree with me—in fact, most polls showed the public thought that Bush had taken the country in the wrong direction—but at least I’m telling some version of the truth as I sort of see it. Oh, and by the way, you can’t trust a thing the other guy is saying. This was the clinching argument at a time of war in the world’s oldest and grandest democracy.

Roger Ailes was right when he predicted at the beginning of the television era that in the future all politicians would have to be performers. But politicians are, for the most part, lousy performers.Their advisers are pretty awful at what they do too. In the absence of inspiration, they have fixed upon the crudest, most negative and robotic forms of communication. They’ve made moments like Robert Kennedy’s in Indianapolis next to impossible.

Consultants are unavoidable, given the complexity of modern communications. But I have a vague hope that the most talented politicians now realize that the public has come to understand what market-tested language sounds like, and that there is a demand for leadership, as opposed to the regurgitation of carefully massaged nostrums. To be sure, the old tricks—the negative ads, the insipid photo ops—still work, but only in the absence of an alternative. What might that be?

I hate predictions. Most pundits, like most pollsters, get their information by looking in the rearview mirror. But let me give 2008 a try. The winner will be the candidate who comes closest to this model: a politician who refuses to be a “performer,” at least in the current sense. Who speaks but doesn’t orate. Who never holds a press conference on or in front of an aircraft carrier. Who doesn’t assume the public is stupid or uncaring. Who believes in at least one major idea, or program, that has less than 40% support in the polls. Who can tell a joke—at his or her own expense, if possible. Who gets angry, within reason; gets weepy, within reason … but only if those emotions are real and rare. Who isn’t averse to kicking his or her opponent in the shins but does it gently and cleverly. Who radiates good sense, common decency and calm. Who is not afraid to deliver bad news. Who is not afraid to admit a mistake. And who, above all, abides by the motto that graced Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Oval Office: let unconquerable gladness dwell.

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