Joe Klein, Idiot (and that's redundant)
I've been reading with interest the various denunciations around the blogosphere of Time's in house "liberal" Joe Klein. That's because I knew I was going to see him this weekend, at the LA Times Book Festival. He was on a panel with Ron Brownstein of the LA Times, the great Chris Hedges (Leaving Moses on the Freeway, War is a force that gives us meaning), and Caitlin Flanagan of the New Yorker (who's sharp-witted and a deeply committed liberal).
Seeing in person this jackass prattle on about the myth of radical centrism and authenticity in politics, toeing the Beltway line that makes him almost a caricature, made this too good to pass up. And if I was lucky, I'd get to call him on his crap.
Well, I didn't get a question in. But I'll have to leave here a somewhat complete laundry list of what I heard today.
Klein, as he does in his book, called for an end to the consultants and pollsters which have given way to an endlessly cautious, bland, and uninspired politics (on that point his book and Kos' isn't all that different!). He rightly derided the Kerry campaign for focus-grouping Abu Ghraib and then never bringing it up in his convention speech or the debates. He left out how his political hero Bill Clinton told Kerry he should come out against gay marriage and Kerry said "I could never do that." He tried to split the middle between Kerry's staff and his consultants, maybe trying to save his ire for Shrum and Devine and not his pals McCurry and Lockhart. He had no problem calling Kerry an idiot, however.
His thesis is that "authenticity," the willingness to call for shared sacrifice, the ability to point out things that might be inconvenient or to speak in front of hostile audiences, must be the standard for the next candidate in '08. I had to laugh when Chris Hedges said "Then it sounds like your ideal candidate is Ralph Nader." Which set Klein off to sniping "I didn't say inconvenient to reality." See, because Klein can't stand "the Left." But everything he wishes to see in politics is populist. He has to come up with this idea of "radical centrism" which doesn't exist. As Tom Frank put it:
Liberalism sucks, authenticity rocks: All else in Politics Lost (and, indeed, in all the Klein works I have read) can be extrapolated from these two fixed points. So: If someone strikes Mr. Klein as authentic, you can be fairly sure he’s not a liberal. And conversely: If someone is the “New” kind of Democrat who pooh-poohs economic liberalism, you can be similarly confident that within a few paragraphs, ol’ Joe will pronounce him to be a one-of-a-kind Turnip Day American, brimming with leadership and humanity.
This makes for a truly bizarre series of conclusions, the first and most important of which is the courageousness of centrism. Up until now, you have probably thought that when you saw Democrats dumping their traditional principles in order to run pallid, market-tested campaigns appealing to swing voters with rhetoric borrowed from the G.O.P., they were doing so because they had been listening to consultants, pollsters, focus groups and so on. Well—according to Mr. Klein, you have it precisely backwards. In Joe’s world, the consultants and the pollsters and even the money are all on the other side, forever driving the cowardly politicians to the partisan extremes. Consultants on the Democratic side seem always to turn out to be liberals in Mr. Klein’s telling, and liberalism itself is usually the sad result of a candidate listening to consultants. What the Democratic Party is in need of is what Mr. Klein calls a “radical middle” that talks truth rather than liberal platitude.
-And this up-is-downism manifested itself in a story Klein told about a trip to New Hampshire he made with Newt Gingrich. I guess he's told this story elsewhere, but I hadn't heard it. Apparently Gingrich was speaking at some conservative organization up there, and he was asked about intelligent design. And Gingrich said "I think it's a fine philosophy, you could teach it in a philosophy class, or comparative religion, but it has nothing to do with science." Klein beamed. "And the fact that he said this, and knew I was in the room, and knew I would write about it, which I did, and knew it would wind up the next day on the desk of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, that's courageous."
So let me get this straight.
A Presidential candidate who says something to an audience, WITH A REPORTER IN THE ROOM, who then tells the reporter (by proxy of the audience) exactly what he wants to hear, that guy's being courageous? Do you really think Gingrich would have said the same thing if it WASN'T going to be written about? Klein is completely blind to how politicians, particularly on the right, use the media to write their narratives for them. He's just happy that he got his belly rubbed by "Profiles in Courage" Newt Gingrich.
See, when you play to your audience, who is actually your constituency, the ones that vote for you to do their bidding in Washington, that's pandering. But when you play to JOE KLEIN, that's courage!
Similarly, Klein kind of praised John McCain (you know, the guy who said intelligent design SHOULD be taught in schools, but somehow that didn't get a mention) for going to give the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University. "I wish John Kerry would have gone into hostile environments like that, done a barnstorming tour of Mississippi and Alabama," etc. So, when a Republican like Gingrich upsets creationists on intelligent design, that's courage. When John McCain accepts an invitation to address one of the main outposts of the Christian Right, before one word of that address is given, that's ALSO courage, because the assumption is on the side of McCain (as if he's going to trash the religious right on the dais of their commencement stage). Republicans always get the benefit of the doubt from their useful idiot Joe Klein. Democrats never do. A perfect example is when he actually called for universal health care, though his idea of it is the kind of compromise worked out in Massachusetts, which he hailed as "Mitt Romney's plan" (because apparently there isn't a legislature in the Bay State).
I really wanted him to go off on "the segment of the left that hates the military" that he likes to talk about. I was all ready to go up there and ask "How does that statement fit with the fact that 53 Democrats challenging incumbents this fall, fully one out of every four, are veterans?" But that never came up, and the Gingrich thing just stunned me, and while I was formulating a question the line got packed and I was shut out.
So maybe if he's trolling tonight he can respond.
p.s. I strongly recommend Chris Hedges' book "Leaving Moses on the Freeway," if it's anything like the performance he gave today. He spent a couple years documenting the religious right in America, and he was as impassioned a speaker as I've ever seen about the dangers of this creeping totalitarianism to the fabric of our country. As someone who studied for the ministry he knows what he's talking about. At one point Hedges started to assail the Clintonite-era move away from the working class, and Klein butted in to say "I must be on another planet." Under my breath I said "No shit, it's called Washington." And Klein had the temerity to say "Bill Clinton won twice!" So selling out the middle class is OK as long as it reaches the end goal winning, which of course is what any consultant or pollster would tell you too, but the consultants and the pollsters are the whole problem, except for when they're not.