Why Politics Ain’t Fun…Anymore
Germond, who died this week at age 85, was definitely of the “old school.” He knew how to change a typewriter ribbon and I’ll bet he once had a bead on every pay phone in Iowa and in New Hampshire. Germond once said that he covered politics like a horse race because, while most voters do want to know what a candidate stands for, they also really want to know who has the best chance to win an election. But Jack was also old school in that he wanted to know about candidates as real people. What motivated them? What did they really care about? Could they think?
When the gruff, opinionated, smoking, steak-eating, Martini-drinking reporter hung it up in 2001 he told NPR’s Bob Edwards that he had grown “sick of politics.”
“I got sick of politics, Bob,” Germond said. “I particularly got sick of these two candidates this year. You know, you get to the point — you know, you’re 72 years old and you’re covering George W. Bush and Al Gore and you say, ‘How do I explain that to my grandkids?’ I mean, that’s terrible.”
Like a lot of us, I suspect, ol’ Jack grew tired of the phony rituals of modern politics, the lack of authenticity and the campaigns that have become almost completely driven by too young men (and some women) in suits and iPads who think they know everything there is to know about survey research, but have never met a sheriff or walked a precinct for a state legislative candidate.
Candid, Opinionated, Unpredictable
Ask any reporter – or voter – the type of politician they most appreciate and you’ll often hear that they like the candid, opinionated guy (or woman) who isn’t over programmed and not completely predictable. But increasingly we get just the opposite. If you’ve heard one Mitch McConnell speech or one Harry Reid soundbite you’ve pretty much heard all they have to offer, or at least all they think they can offer safely. The typical modern politician is so scripted, so committed to “staying on message” and so determined not to offend “the base” that they often say virtually nothing of importance. In place of real thinking that might generate a new idea the typical pol – the guys Germond got sick of – falls back on the safe and practiced. It may be boring, but it’s poll-tested.
Germond told the Washington Post that he got pretty stiff drinking Scotch with presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy during a plane ride in 1968. “We started talking about the kids we’d seen in the ghetto that day,” Mr. Germond said years later. “He wasn’t trying to plant a story. He was really interested in the subject and really affected by what he’d seen.” Imagine that. A politician letting the human side show through. It used to happen, but not much anymore.
The statute of limitations has long since expired so I can safely reveal that former Idaho state senator, Lt. Governor and eventually Gov. Phil Batt used to drink with reporters. He actually seemed to like it, too. Years ago when Idaho Statehouse reporters were first consigned to quarters in the deep basement of the Capitol Building, Batt would often come down on a Friday night when the business of the legislative session was done for the week and have a pop or two with the scribbling class. As I remember it Jim Fisher, then a political reporter for the Lewiston Tribune, had a deep desk drawer that could accommodate a bottle of something that was technically illegal to consume on state property. Those of us fortunate enough to sit in on Phil Batt’s off-the-record “news conference” quickly discovered all the stories we’d missed during the week, the latest lobbyist out of favor and which legislator with a wandering eye was hitting on which committee secretary. I don’t remember that any stories were planted, but much insight was gained.
Politics was fun then, but rarely is anymore.
Obama the Predictable
The cerebral and increasingly buttoned-down Barack Obama seemed about as fun as a root canal when he took questions from the White House press corps before flying off to his Martha’s Vineyard vacation the other day. Obama was asked about Republican threats to shut down the government or even default on government obligations rather than approve funding for the hated Obamacare. Obama, of course, gave a completely predictable response.
“The idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea,” the president said. “What you should be thinking about is how can we advance and improve ways for middle-class families to have some security so that if they work hard, they can get ahead and their kids can get ahead.”
“Middle-class families” must be the most focus group tested terminology in American politics, but it has almost nothing to do with what you know Obama is really thinking. Regardless of what you think of Obamacare wouldn’t you like the Commander-in-Chief to show a little emotion just once in a while? Imagine the cool POTUS popping his top with some Harry Truman-style rhetoric.
“Let me tell you what I think of this kind of threat: let them try it,” Obama might have said. “The Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – is the law of the land. John Boehner has tried more than 40 times to undo it, but he can’t and he won’t. Shutting down the government or defaulting on our debt is just plain crazy. If my GOP friends want to be out-of-power for a generation, I’d advise they listen to the crazy caucus on the fringe and shut down the government – again. It worked so well for them last time.
“And while I’m on the subject, the next time a Republican says they want to do away with health insurance for all American ask them what they intend to replace it with? Does the Speaker or Sen. Rubio or Sen. Cruz have an answer to millions of Americans without health insurance? Do they like the idea that we have the most expensive health care in the world and far from the best health care in the world? What do they suggest would happen to the hospitals, doctors and insurance companies who are months into implementing a law that Congress passed and the United States Supreme Court reviewed and upheld? Boehner and Rubio and Cruz are without ideas. All they are sure of is that they don’t like me. I’m used to it. Now they should get used to the idea of me being in the White House for another three years.”
OK, I made all of that up, but you get the point. Authentic can’t be polled tested. You can’t easily fake being steamed. Candor in our politics has become as rare as Scotch in a desk drawer.
FDR is Still the Gold Standard
In her excellent new book – 1940 – FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler and the Election Amid the Storm – historian Susan Dunn tells the gripping story of one of the most consequential presidential elections in our history. With war raging in Europe, the 1940 election came down to two issues – a third term for Franklin Roosevelt and the direction of the nation’s foreign policy. Late in his campaign against businessman Wendell Willkie, FDR took on his opponents with candor, humor and their own words. It is what politicians used to do.
“For almost seven years the Republican leaders in Congress kept on saying that I was placing too much emphasis on national defense,” Roosevelt said in an October 1940 speech at Madison Square Garden. “And now today these men of great vision have suddenly discovered that there is a war going on in Europe and another one in Asia! And so, now, always with their eyes on the good old ballot box, they are charging that we have placed too little emphasis on national defense.”
Then, to use his word, FDR indicted his Republican opponents using their own words and their own votes. Roosevelt listed by name the GOP leaders, including Willkie’s running mate, who had voted repeatedly against defense appropriations. Then, with perfect timing, the president made his audience laugh along with him at the poetic mention of three of his most partisan and obstructionist opponents.
“Now wait,” Roosevelt said with a big smile, “a perfectly beautiful rhythm – Congressmen Martin, Barton and Fish!”
Willkie later said, “When I heard the president hang the isolationist votes of Martin, Barton, and Fish on me and get away with it, I knew I was licked.”
The old school politics that Jack Germond loved have gone the way of the pay phone, replaced by 30 second attack ads, robo calls and bland and completely predictable rhetoric that is virtually devoid of passion, substance and humor. No wonder Jack got sick of politics. He could remember when it was fun and better.
Politics shouldn’t be blood sport, but having a little blood flowing in your veins is entirely appropriate. Modern politics would be a good deal more interesting and a lot less dysfunctional if politicians quit thinking that authenticity, candor, a little fire in the belly and a dose of humor were somehow political liabilities.
How about a little more passion like “Martin, Barton and Fish” and a little less babble about “middle class families.”