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From RFK to W: How Politicians Have Become Less Courageous and More Interested in Keeping Power than in Doing What's Right for America

Written by Joe KleinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joe Klein



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On Sale: April 18, 2006
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

People on the right are furious. People on the left are livid. And the center isn’t holding. There is only one thing on which almost everyone agrees: there is something very wrong in Washington. The country is being run by pollsters. Few politicians are able to win the voters’ trust. Blame abounds and personal responsibility is nowhere to be found. There is a cynicism in Washington that appalls those in every state, red or blue. The question is: Why? The more urgent question is: What can be done about it?
Few people are more qualified to deal with both questions than Joe Klein.
There are many loud and opinionated voices on the political scene, but no one sees or writes with the clarity that this respected observer brings to the table. He has spent a lifetime enmeshed in politics, studying its nuances, its quirks, and its decline. He is as angry and fed up as the rest of us, so he has decided to do something about it—in these pages, he vents, reconstructs, deconstructs, and reveals how and why our leaders are less interested in leading than they are in the “permanent campaign” that political life has become.
The book opens with a stirring anecdote from the night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Klein re-creates the scene of Robert Kennedy’s appearance in a black neighborhood in Indianapolis, where he gave a gut-wrenching, poetic speech that showed respect for the audience, imparted dignity to all who listened, and quelled a potential riot. Appearing against the wishes of his security team, it was one of the last truly courageous and spontaneous acts by an American politician—and it is no accident that Klein connects courage to spontaneity. From there, Klein begins his analysis—campaign by campaign—of how things went wrong. From the McGovern campaign polling techniques to Roger Ailes’s combative strategy for Nixon; from Reagan’s reinvention of the Republican Party to Lee Atwater’s equally brilliant reinvention of behind-the-scenes strategizing; from Jimmy Carter to George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton to George W.—as well as inside looks at the losing sides—we see how the Democrats become diffuse and frightened, how the system becomes unbalanced, and how politics becomes less and less about ideology and more and more about how to gain and keep power. By the end of one of the most dismal political runs in history—Kerry’s 2004 campaign for president—we understand how such traits as courage, spontaneity, and leadership have disappeared from our political landscape.
In a fascinating final chapter, the author refuses to give easy answers since the push for easy answers has long been part of the problem. But he does give thoughtful solutions that just may get us out of this mess—especially if any of the 2008 candidates happen to be paying attention.

Excerpt

1

The Burden of Southern History

As Robert Kennedy campaigned through Indiana in the days after Martin Luther King was killed, a precocious and passing-strange high-school senior named Patrick H. Caddell was going door-to-door in the working-class neighborhood of north Jacksonville, Florida, asking the residents about their presidential preferences for a poll that he had devised as a class project. There was a lot of support for Alabama governor George C. Wallace, which was no surprise: north Jacksonville was deep, deep South, pickup-truck-with-a-gunrack country. But Caddell was stunned by the number of people who said they supported Robert Kennedy or "Wallace or Kennedy, either one."

Caddell had no precise sense of what pollsters did--what sort of questions they asked or, more important, didn't bother to ask (in fact, very few people did at that point)--and so he invented his own rules as he went along, asking open-ended questions, having conversations really, digging deeper, probing the nuance and intensity of the responses. Why did they support Wallace? Was it because he had supported "segregation forever" in Alabama? And what was it about Kennedy that they liked? And what on earth did they think Wallace and Kennedy--who had battled each other, famously, over the admission of black students to the University of Alabama, and who now were taking opposite sides on Vietnam--had in common? The answers came in blunt, simple sentences:

"They're tough guys."

"They protect the little guy."

"You can believe 'em."

Hmmm. Caddell began to understand that there was more to the Wallace phenomenon than racism--although there was certainly plenty of that. Wallace voters also were classic, gutbucket Southern populists, angry at the bureaucrats and stuffed shirts and big corporate guys and the intellectual elites who ran the show. "But, you know," Caddell told me years later, "the thing that really blew me away in north Jacksonville was when I'd ask them about the war. They didn't see themselves as hawks or doves. They weren't part of the elite conversation that was taking place in the media. It was their kids who were over in Vietnam bleeding to death. And so it was, 'Stop this horseshit! Either go all out and win the damn thing, or get out and bring the boys home.' It was mind-blowing, and it made perfect sense. The people who were polling the war had it all wrong. 'Are you in favor or are you opposed' just wasn't the right question."

And so, even before he had graduated from high school, Pat Caddell had begun his quest: to find a way to speak to those alienated Southern populists, to lure them back to the Democratic Party despite their essential cultural conservatism. This would also become a central question in the life of the Democratic Party, which began to experience a deep electoral swoon as it was abandoned by middle-class white voters, first in the South in the 1960s, then across the country in the 1980s. Furthermore, Caddell had intuitively grasped an aesthetic truth about the sampling of public opinion: "It is not a scientific process," he told me thirty-seven years after he had first walked the north Jacksonville precinct. Poll results were not to be taken literally; they were to be read--and there could be a variety of readings. "I could get a fucking monkey to draw a sample. But that's the end of the science," he said, referring to the statistical models used to approximate the demographic composition of the public. "The rest is . . . is . . . I mean, it's a crude tool. You're trying to apply a linear measurement to something nonlinear: how people think, their emotions, the whole thing."

Crude or not, it was a powerful tool--almost magic. And fun, an incredible parlor trick. On election night in 1968, Caddell had entertained the local political crowd by sitting in the Duval County courthouse with a big old adding machine, cranking in the data precinct by precinct, and announcing--in advance of the final tallies--who had won. A crowd of candidates who were looking for the latest results gathered around him as he peremptorily delivered thumbs-up and -down: "You're in," he told one Democrat. "You just carried the most Republican precinct in town." Every one of Caddell's projections turned out right that night ("Some within half a percentage point!" he later said), and the story about the high-school kid with the political magic show spread quickly. The local newspaper featured Caddell a few days later: "Meet Mr. Prediction."

Mr. Prediction was soon hired by a local politician named Fred Schultz, who was about to become Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives; within the year, Caddell--who pretty much took up residence in Schultz's home--was summoned to Tallahassee where he solved a major political dispute by concocting a redistricting plan for Duval County that somehow satisfied both Republicans and Democrats. Then he was hired by the local Washington Post-owned television station to poll a special referendum held to determine whether Jacksonville and its surrounding communities would combine as one governmental unit. "The station sent me up to New York to have Lou Harris check me out and see if I knew what I was doing," Caddell recalled. "He said yeah, I was doing fine."

Caddell pretty much looked the part of a wizard--especially a few years later when a lightning bolt of white hair prematurely struck his goatee and completed his thunderous visage: dark hair, dark lowering brows over dark eyes, a hawklike nose, a splutter of words, a thermonuclear temper. He crackled with static jitters; he seemed to exist in a perpetual state of self-electrocution. The brilliance was manifest, though, the thoughts and ideas torrential. He seemed old for his age--his wisdom was well beyond his years--but there was a stubborn puerility as well: the lack of social experience that came with being a classic outsider, a nomad, the son of a Coast Guard officer who moved from base to base along the East Coast. Caddell seemed, in fact, just barely civilized--sloppy, rude, forgetful, tempestous. It was as if he had been raised by wolves. Idealistic wolves: he was ferociously in favor of the civil rights movement, ferociously opposed to the war in Vietnam. He loved baseball statistics--he didn't know much about the game or the players, but he loved the stats--and he had loved politics ever since he and his mother had made pilgrimages to the PX at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod where they would occasionally see John F. Kennedy landing in Air Force One. And so it seemed natural, when confronted with the need to do a senior math project, that he combine his two loves--stats and politics--and do a project on polling. He convinced his classmates to go door-to-door with him on weekends (within the year, he was paying them $20 for their services).

On to Harvard. By late 1969, the middle of sophomore year, Caddell had his own polling firm--started with two classmates, John Gorman and Daniel Porter, and funded by a $25,000 loan from Fred Schultz--with clients in Ohio and Florida. "Pat was taking a seminar with Helen Keyes, who had been treasurer of the 1960 John F. Kennedy presidential campaign," Gorman recalled, years later. "The course was an excuse for Keyes to bring a lot of her old pals to Harvard, to gossip about politics. John Gilligan, who was running for governor of Ohio, spoke to the class and afterward Pat starting telling him about the sort of stuff he had done in Florida. Gilligan decided to hire us–as did John Glenn, who was running for the Senate from Ohio that year."

Caddell's talent wasn't statistical. Gorman and Porter did all the number crunching and regression analysis--usually late at night when they could get access to Harvard's Aiken Computer Laboratory. ("The Gilligan polling took three hours to process," said Gorman. "Nowadays it would take three seconds.") Caddell's real expertise was in sales, in political strategy, and in the front end of polling: figuring out which questions to ask and how to ask them. Over the next eight years, he would be the front man for Cambridge Survey Research, while Gorman served as the designated adult, managing the company and riding herd on Caddell. (Porter--universally described as "the sane one" and the most natural politician of the three--was murdered, along with his girlfriend, on a camping trip in 1973.)

A good deal of Caddell's intellectual energy early on was devoted to finding new ways to burrow beneath the apparent apathy of middle-class Americans. He would not take "undecided" or "no opinion" for an answer--he needed to know exactly who the undecideds were, how wealthy they were, how much education they'd had, their marital status, race, religion. He was curious about the intensity of their feelings and the general quality of their moods. He liked to use the "ladder" methodology: Is this year better or worse than last year for your family? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future? He used a seven-point scale to measure intensity ("On a scale of one to seven, with seven being the highest, how do you feel about . . ."). Working for Westinghouse Corporation on a study of attitudes toward nuclear power in California, he and Gorman were able to figure out, for example, that while black women were opposed to nuclear power, they felt more intensely about the need for cheaper energy--an angle that proved the best way to change their opinion.

But Caddell's real innovation was a newly aggressive type of questioning, designed not only to test existing attitudes but also to figure out ways to change them. He would test different versions of the precise wording that a candidate might use. On abortion, for example, the winner was: "Abortion is a decision of a woman, her clergyman, and her doctor." In essence, Caddell helped transform the nature of polling from the mere reporting of public opinion into an active, strategic weapon. His purposes were evangelical, not scientific: he was probing for new ways to frame the debate and, ultimately, to move his beloved "alienated" voters back to the Democratic Party.

While George Gallup had been conducting public opinion surveys since the 1930s, and a handful of others--Louis Harris, Oliver Quayle--had done national polling on presidential preferences and broad questions like the popularity of the war in Vietnam, the sort of intensive local, and highly partisan, polling that Caddell offered candidates like John Gilligan and John Glenn (and Fred Schultz, who was running for the Senate from Florida) was practically unknown in 1970. "Most of our clients, even in 1972, had never done a poll--and these were statewide candidates, for senator and governor," Gorman recalled. Caddell and Gorman were not alone, of course. The Republicans Bob Teeter, Richard Wirthlin, and John Deardourff were testing new methods as well. "I was working with Deardourff in New Jersey in the 1960s, and we were asking those same sort of probing, predictive questions," recalls Andrew Kohut, who later became the director of the Pew Research Center, "but Caddell was the first to really take this stuff to the national level, to a presidential campaign."

As it happened, Mr. Prediction reached the pinnacle of his profession before he graduated from college. He was polling for George McGovern's presidential campaign, hanging out with celebrities, and blowing away everyone he met with a gale-force spew of data and ideas. "He was a rock star," recalls Dotty Lynch, a young political researcher for NBC who was introduced to Caddell in the spring of 1972 by McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart. "Gary said I had to meet this guy--and so I go to dinner, and there's Pat, sitting with Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine, holding forth. Gary clearly thought he was a genius." And more, Caddell seemed the embodiment of the idealistic college kids who were running McGovern's guerrilla campaign in New Hampshire and around the country--the veterans of the antiwar and civil rights campaigns, the first wave of the demographically enormous generation born after World War II, the baby boomers, to get involved in politics. It was absolutely clear to Hart--a matter of faith, not even worth debating--that these kids were going to change the world. (As one of those kids, I can say that it was absolutely clear to us, too.) They certainly were changing the Democratic Party: McGovern was the first nominee in history not chosen by the party's leaders.*

Caddell was also telling the McGovern advisers something that they were desperate to hear: that the senator's appeal wasn't merely to the college-educated elites, that he also could move working-class folks. Indeed, the morning after McGovern shocked the world by winning the New Hampshire primary, Caddell called a press conference at the Queen City Motor Inn in Manchester to explain the miracle. "It was, shall we say, a selective briefing," Gorman would recall. "McGovern had cut into Ed Muskie's strength in some working-class districts but the truth is, he won New Hampshire because of the support he got from middle-class white women. But then, the actual data were never so important to Pat as Pat's reading of the data."

Gorman was being snippy but, in the end, Caddell agreed with him. "The data was a prop," he would later say. "I surfed the data." In the New Hampshire primary, Caddell was more excited by a possibility--that McGovern could attract working-class voters--than the already proved reality that McGovern was popular among peaceable women. Evangelism, as always with Caddell, trumped science.

Gorman was beginning to understand that he and his partner were very different breeds of political cats. Gorman came from Illinois and was steeped in traditional "Chicago school" politics. The game was about concrete issues: who gets what, who pays for it--solid stuff like taxing the rich and employing the poor. The basic political question was "Where's mine?" Caddell was something new under the sun--a political Freudian, or maybe Jungian, or something like that--a luftmensch, a man of the air rather than of the pavement. For Caddell, politics was all about moods and symbols, about manipulating emotions and changing attitudes. It was about feelings rather than "where's mine?" Gorman kept trying to pin Caddell down on alienation--define it, quantify it, come up with a typology. "Was someone who was alienated because he hated racial preferences for blacks in the same category as someone who was alienated because he hated the military-industrial complex?" Gorman wondered. "It was something Pat and I argued about throughout the 1970s, until we stopped talking to each other."

Gorman, embittered by his eventual split with Caddell, was being slightly unfair here: by the 1976 Florida primary--in which Jimmy Carter confronted George Wallace on Caddell's home ground--Caddell had sliced and diced and segmented the Wallace vote to a fare-thee-well.


From the Hardcover edition.
Joe Klein

About Joe Klein

Joe Klein - Politics Lost
Joe Klein, a journalist for nearly three decades, is currently Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. In addition to Primary Colors, his previous books include Payback: Five Marines After Vietnam and Woody Guthrie: A Life.
Praise

Praise

“Invigorating. [A] high-spirited and morally serious book.” —George Will
 
“One of the current generation’s best political reporters.” —David Broder

“Highly entertaining. Again and again [Klein] uncorks one-liners so good that the reader stops to savor.” —Washington Post Book World

“A book about American politics that anyone who votes should read.” —The Washington Times

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