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The Theater Critic

[ 8 ] April 19, 2006 |

Ah, that’s more like it. As is generally the case when not writing about John McCain (which, alas, I may have to come back to for another round) or Iraq, Jon Chait remains very acute. His evisceration of the odious Joe Klein is terrific. First of all, Chait notes the wages of making judgments about politicians based on superficial gestures and meaningless attributions of “authenticity.” Klein thought, of course, that the Bush era would be one of competent, managerial continuation of Clinton’s policies. No, really:

The theory outlined in Klein’s book will be familiar to readers of his Time columns or watchers of his regular appearances on “Meet the Press.” Politics, he writes, “has become overly cautious, cynical, mechanistic, and bland.” It needs less boredom and more spontaneity, color, and charisma. The bulk of the book consists of his recounting of various presidential campaigns over the last three decades. The highlight is Robert Kennedy’s moving, off-the-cuff speech in Indianapolis announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The low point is John Kerry’s dismal, overly scripted 2004 campaign. (Unfortunately for Klein’s premise, which postulates a steady decline, the two most spontaneous campaigns he describes–John McCain in 2000 and Howard Dean in 2004–took place within the last two election cycles.) He closes with a rousing call for a politician “[w]ho believes in at least one idea, or program, that has less than 40 percent support in the polls. Who can tell a joke–at his own expense, if possible. Who gets angry, within reason; gets weepy, within reason … but only if those emotions are rare and real. Who is capable of a spontaneous, untrammeled belly laugh.” In fact, we have a president right now who does all those things. (There’s hardly a Bush idea these days that does crack 40 percent in the polls.) Somehow, though, these are not the best of times in American politics. Which suggests that having authentic, regular-guy candidates may not be the cure-all that Klein envisions it to be.

Again and again, Bush has exposed the limits of Klein’s theater-critic interpretation of politics. In 1999, marveling over Bushian slogans like “no child left behind,” Klein gushed in The New Yorker that the Texas governor represented “the first significant Republican rebellion against the Reagan template.” In Bush, he found the Republican counterpart to the Clintonian Third Way.


It may have seemed like a stretch to infer some deeper conclusion about the GOP’s ideological direction from the looks of some panelists at a nominating convention. And, if one was to draw such an inference, it’s puzzling to interpret a resemblance to snooty Depression-era bankers (who, after all, had notoriously reactionary political views) as evidence of moderation, rather than the opposite.

Yet nothing could shake Klein from his theory. Not even Bush’s decision to bring on non-compassionate conservative Dick Cheney. “Anybody who tries to take a really strong position on [Cheney] from the left or from the right seems kind of silly,” Klein said of Bush’s vice presidential selection on a “Meet the Press” panel. “We’re all Clintonians now. Everybody is a Third Way Democrat or Republican, you know, and I think that that’s one of the central problems that politicians in both parties face right now, is that there are no huge differences, or at least very few.”

And then, after the election, Klein predicted that the result would be “a quiet, patient, and persistent bipartisanship,” with no big tax cuts or Supreme Court ideologues. Klein suggested helpfully, “Bush could easily retain Lawrence Summers at Treasury and Richard Holbrooke at the United Nations.” And this scenario could have easily come to pass, provided every other Cabinet-eligible American citizen had been wiped out in a nuclear holocaust.

And in addition to his personality-obsessed vapidity and attachment to meaningless symbolism (which, as Chait notes, makes him Rove’s ideal mark) is his tendency to project millionaire pundit values onto a populace that wants little part of them:

There are also Klein’s ideological prejudices, which pop up throughout his book. Like other centrist pundits, he has a disdain for populism. Unlike the others, he makes his disdain explicit rather than simply assuming it as an unquestionable truth. “The least successful form of populism,” writes Klein in his book, “is [Bob] Shrum’s economic class warfare, which has only received majority support during tough times, like the Great Depression.” (Harry Truman? Lyndon Johnson? Al Gore plus Ralph Nader?) Klein argues that Democrats would win more elections if they focused on gun control and global warming, favored issues of the latte set. I’m tempted to suggest that the set of issues Klein derides in the book as “jobs, health-care, and blah-blah-blah” has some resonance with the segment of the voting public that doesn’t lead the privileged lifestyle of a multimillionaire author and TV pundit. But that would sound populist.

Yes, the most “liberal” Time columnist thinks that typical people don’t care about jobs and health care. What a world we live in.


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  1. […] in defense of Ryan are an object lesson in why 99.9% of theater critic analysis of politicians is useless. First of all, once a reporter has a narrative of authenticity or genuineness about a political […]

  2. […] with a presumably wide variety of evaluations on the Clinton/Gore record. Not just Naderites but prominent centrists and Manhattan liberals advanced the argument that the 2000 election was a boring affair with […]

  3. […] the character of politicians by reporters is right or wrong, the more fundamental problem is that the theater critic approach to political analysis is worse than […]

  4. […] is a useful document, in that it shows how easily many of our journamlaists can be manipulated by cheap and sometimes fraudulent symbolism. And the belief of so many of our nation’s elites that any non-too-liberal affluent […]

  5. […] armchair psychology has much value anyway — the idea that pundits should be theater critics brought us such classics as “Dick Cheney — what a sensible moderate.” But even if you think this stuff matters more than I do, she has nothing to say about it.  As I […]

  6. […] Hmm, if only Joe Klein has been around to cover another reactionary son of George W. Bush so we could see how valuable evaluating politicians by their tone is.  Oh wait, he has: […]

  7. […] fact that the theater critic school of political journalism survived 2000 says a lot about the norms of American political journalism, none of which is […]

  8. […] Know Herself And Would Scold You For Having A Beer. (Theater critic analysis of political figures, among its many other problems, has a strong tendency to be preoccupied above all with the concept of Authenticity, which is even […]

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