Joe Klein Speaks at Oxonian Society on Democracy
|Joe Klein speaking at the Oxonian Society (photo by Rebecca Letz)
Recently, Joe Klein, the prolific writer of Time Magazine and acclaimed author of numerous works of political commentary, including, most notably, Primary Colors, addressed a packed audience at the Cornell Club. The event was sponsored by the Oxonian Society, a not for profit organization founded after 9/11 by a group of liberal-minded politicians, with the expressed goal of “changing the political discourse and stimulating meaningful and crucial dialogue.” Each year the organization provides a unique platform for leaders in different fields to speak on something they are passionate about, and creates a new dialogue in the United States.
Founded after September 11, 2001 by Her Royal Highness Princess Badiya of Jordan, Louise Bagshawe (famous best-selling author), and Joe Pascal, the Oxonian Society makes leaders accessible to the public.
Among the crowd who came to hear Klein speak was Shelia Flazman, an active democrat, former candidate for public advocate in New York City and speech pathologist with the Department of Education. In addition to regular Oxonians, the audience was a mix of teachers, young professionals, and Cornell alumni.
As he opened his talk, Klein, who has been covering politics for over 37 years, joked that the book took him just as long to write. He refers to the opening scene of Politics Lost, in which he describes the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the moment when Robert F. Kennedy, delivered the news in Indianapolis. Discarding the prepared notes of a speechwriter, Kennedy disregarded warnings of police and advisors and announced King’s death. Consoling the crowd with his own tales of loss and a quote from of Aeschylus, Klein recalls how the dramatic bitter cries of anguish and shrieks of the audience dissipated almost as quickly into dramatic and poignant silence. Klein goes on to describe how, in the weeks following the assassination, Indianapolis remained quiet as cities all around the country erupted in chaos and rioting.
Klein points to this as one of the last authentic moments before politics was hijacked by the television age. We live in an age, Klein argues, where the messages and policies of politicians are defined entirely by consultants, pollsters and focus groups. Rather than spontaneous messages, today’s politicians deliver pre-packaged and pre-fabricated sound bites. The carefully crafted messages of leaders have been pre-screened by “quantifiable” tests to ensure that they will impact and reach the appropriate demographic. As a result politics today has become more concerned with style over substance. He attributes this trend to the moment when politicians figured out “that anything they said would be held against them.” As technology expanded the reach of communication, politicians began to use the media as a tool to weaken the campaign of one’s opponent. Politicians and presidents yielded their authority to the influence of advisors and consultants.
Historically, Klein traces this pattern back to Pat Caddell, Jimmy Carter’s 26-year-old pollster, who was the first to write a sophisticated memo advising Carter on how to govern. Caddell’s 10,000 word memo transformed the role of the presidency from a platform of leadership into a continuing political campaign.
Klein points to Karl Rove as the latest consultant in this trend, whose preoccupation with image and style over substance, has refocused the political agenda of the presidency on winning the news cycle, and formulating the “message of the week.” The consequences have been policies that concerned themselves less with long-term and substantive effects and more with style of delivery and the short-term impact these policies have on the polls.
He refers to President Bush’s statement “you may not agree with me but you will always know where I stand,” as an example of the most perfectly crafted focus group-driven political message. His deceptively simple language was reassuring to Americans and taught them that the clarity of the President’s message was more important than its substance.
Now Klein urges Americans to choose leaders who confront rather than comfort them; leaders who demand sacrifice and challenge and who are unafraid to give honest realistic policies. Klein states that the responsibility for recovering politics and restoring democracy is in the hands of every American citizen. In the words of John F. Kennedy “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”#