In today's bloodthirsty political sphere, it no longer seems sufficient for pundits to merely show that the other side is wrong, or that its reasoning is faulty. In order to be heard above the oppressive din of the culture war, it's become mandatory to illustrate that the opposing side is not only wrong, but also insane, treasonous, anti-American, and in the habit of performing cruel, unnecessary surgery on kittens.
The overheated terms of the national political debate make Primary Colors author Joe Klein both an anomaly and an anachronism. He's a raging moderate who writes reverently about both Robert F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. In his briskly readable new tome Politics Lost, Klein insists that much can be learned from the successes of both the left and right, and even more can be gleaned from their failures. His book is an engaging (though sometimes conceptually shaky) attack on the rise of polling and political consultants, and the disastrous effect they've had on politics. It's also a love letter to the lost art of political authenticity and what he describes as Turnip Day moments, after a comment made by President Truman when he called a special session of Congress in 1948. To Klein, Turnip Day moments constitute unguarded bursts of spontaneity or prickly humanity that often have little to do with candidates' substantive positions, but reveal a great deal about their characters.
Klein lays much of the blame for the decline of substance and authenticity in politics at the feet of consultants, and one superstar Democratic consultant in particular: Bob Shrum, whom Klein rips for essentially waging the exact same losing campaign over and over. Politics Lost works best as a juicy, richly anecdotal tour of how the Democratic Party became the not-so-loveable losers of American politics. Klein's arguments for political authenticity are weaker, in part because authenticity is a slippery concept. After all, to the untrained eye, authenticity and consultant-driven faux-authenticity (like Bush Sr.'s opportunistically populist love of pork rinds) look awfully similar. In spite of its title, Politics Lost isn't an angry jeremiad; instead, it's a substantive, responsible, and engaging—but occasionally maddening—plea for a more substantive, responsible political world.