Friday, December 3, 2010

A Meditation on Politics, Part 3: Idealistic Pragmatist? Or Pragmatic Idealist?

From the late 1970s onward, in my days of working for daily newspapers, I took the ethical admonition to stay out of political activism very seriously. So I would follow political campaigns on my own time, and I would vote my hopes (and my fears), but I stayed away from any deeper involvement.

In graduate school in 1982, students were assigned to one of several teams producing a newspaper or other news product covering the November '82 elections. Since we were in New York, the lead story was the govenor's race to succeed Hugh Carey. In that extraordinarily tight race, Democrat Mario Cuomo defeated Lew Lehrman, a Reaganite Republican who, if memory serves, funded much of his campaign with his own money. I think there was little doubt that many of us in the grad school privately preferred Cuomo, but I also would argue that, for the most part, the stories we produced for our journalism "laboratory" were fair and largely unbiased. (I do recall one of our number, however, speaking disparagingly of "all the cheering from the pressbox" -- a probably accurate if a bit hyperbolic assessment. And I don't even know that that guy was anti-Cuomo -- it's as likely that he, who like me had already worked in the business, just felt his professional ethic of objectivity tainted.)

In elections that followed, my choices at the ballot box reflected an evolving and not particularly organized or disciplined political outlook. In 1984, living and working in New York State, I was intrigued by Gary Hart's desire to modernize the Democrats' image, but in the primary wound up choosing Jesse Jackson, knowing full well that the vote was symbolic. That fall I voted for Mondale, hoping against hope that he might actually win. Four years later I voted for Jackson in the primary again, admiring his effort to add struggling blue collar workers -- whose travails I was covering in my daily newspaper assignments -- to his Rainbow Coalition. Yet when I pulled the lever for the Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis that fall, I was not merely choosing some lesser of two evils or acting out of loyalty to the Democratic Party -- the practical, pragmatic, and technocratic ethos of his campaign appealed to me as well. It honestly struck an idealistic chord in me.

In 1992, after considering Tom Harkin, who had the strongest pro-labor message, I voted for Jerry Brown in the primary -- skeptical of his flat tax, but appreciating his outsider argument and his zeroing in on big money. I thought Brown had done a credible job, too, of speaking to workers and voters being displaced by the economy. It remains fascinating to me that his appeal fell flat with many blue-collar voters while capturing the interest of those of us with higher incomes and with college or professional degrees.[Here's an interesting summary, from two years ago, of Wisconsin's pivotal role in past Democratic primaries.]

Very soon after Brown narrowly lost the primary to Bill Clinton, I happened to travel to Peoria, Illinois, to cover the Caterpillar strike. While I was there that week, Clinton came in, met both with company and union officials to urge them to settle, then shook hands along a picket line and held a news conference at an airport hangar. Sometime before I'd heard on the radio some of a fairly lengthy talk Clinton had given at some sort of policy-wonkish forum and been impressed by his rhetorical skills. But I hadn't been especially impressed by him in the early rounds of the primary campaigns and was embarrassed by the emerging Gennifer Flowers scandal. All that changed in Peoria, where in just a few superficial hours -- and with no one-on-one exposure to him, just the news conference as well as a few brief opportunities to observe him close-up as he spoke with individual voters -- I had found him to be mesmerizing. The day after his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, I called up a former Democratic legislator in my community and privately asked how I might get a job with the campaign. He gave me some contacts, I faxed a resume, but I heard nothing and decided not to pursue it further. As the polls that fall showed a likely Clinton-Gore win, I started keeping track of the predictions in a file, mostly with the suspicion or fear that the Democrats might pull defeat from the jaws of victory and there might be a story to write in the aftermath about the inaccuracy of polls.

In fact, of course, the polls were largely accurate. And pretty much from then on, I've been inclined to believe them, whether I wanted to or not.

I found the Clinton presidency maddening. I admired his rhetorical skills and his gift for outwitting his ideological foes. I was frustrated by -- yet, paradoxically, I fundemantally empathized with -- his tendancy to compromise with conservatives over policies such as the admission of gays and lesbians to the military. I distrusted his free-trade economic philosophy but recoiled from the anti-foreign (in this case, meaning anti-Mexican and anti-Asian) language of some of free trade's harsher blue-collar critics. And I admired his choices for the National Labor Relations Board, for Labor Secretary (Robert Reich), and his appointment of a commission to examine labor law and policy -- a commission whose ultimate recommendations for easing the ability of unions to organize were a dead letter after the GOP takeover of Congress in the 1994 mid-terms. And don't even get me started on the Lewinsky/Starr episode.

Midway through the Clinton years I went from being a full-time newspaper employee to a full-time freelancer. Because I still wrote stuff that touched on politics at least some of the time, I continued to restrict myself from political activism. But I also continued to vote from a peculiar place of idealistic pragmatism.

When Bill Bradley sought the Democratic nomination in 2000, I found myself really excited -- and voted for him in the Wisconsin primary even though he'd already dropped out. (I had no interest in the Nader Green Party run, despite having several acquaintances who thought it was time for a real third party. I wasn't happy with the Florida outcome,of course, but I was also not as reflexively inclined to blame Nader for that as others were.)

You might think, based on the history I've already taken far too many electrons to lay out, that in 2004 I would have supported Howard Dean. Yet for reasons I'm not even sure of, he didn't really grab me. In the fall of 2003, I was far more interested in Wesley Clark, seeing him as a candidate who could more skilfully navigate the treacherous waters of an opposition presidential campaign in wartime. We all know how that worked out. But Dean? Nah. Dennis Kucinich? With sincere apologies to my dear sister, who was a Kucinich supporter that year, not a chance.

DairyStateMom and I were dating by this time, and a niece of hers (whom I'd met at Christmas 2003) was a campaign staffer in Iowa for John Kerry. But when the Wisconsin primary rolled around, John Edwards was still a contender, and I liked his economic message. As it turned out, both Edwards and Dean lost to Kerry in this state.

That fall, heartsick over the Bush presidency, I for the first time put a presidential campaign sign in my yard, for Kerry. In the days leading up to the election and election day itself, I forgot my polling lessons from 1992 and convinced myself -- along with millions of Kerry voters across the country -- that he really might win. In the personal depression that followed the outcome, I was all but immobile for days. But that, too, passed, and soon after the election I was on my way to Washington to profile an up-and-coming young member of Congress from my state.

And that is where I'll pick up the story next time.

PS: On February 26, 2011, I went through and edited the titles of this series slightly.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I got lots to say on this brief political autobiography. But since I have been taught recently by friends ("Whenever you think of a smart & sassy thing to say - think again!") to exercise some degree of caution, I'll curb my tongue. Somewhat.

    Still, I have to make a few comments, IMHO:

    1. Robert Reich is the number one under-recognized genius of our time. I always read what he has to say and often plagiarize him in commenting on other blogs.

    2. Congratulations for not voting for Nader Green Party in 2000. For that you escape certain opprobrium and censure.

    3. Howard Dean & Wesley Clark are my heroes. Spurning General Clark from his inner circle was the first sign of Barack Obama's betrayal of Progressives' trust. (I don't mean to imply you're a Progressive; don't think you are.)

    My political voice is muted, now. Partly from my age, partly from my disgust.

    An old friend of one of my sons was accustomed of saying, "We are entering the final stage". I think we are there.


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