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Monday, 17 December 2007 20:29

A BuzzFlash Interview With Paul Waldman on How the "Narrative Story"in Mainstream Journalism Shapes Our Political Outlook

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One of the points I made in Fraud is that Bush's lies are different qualitatively from those of other presidents that we remember. If you look at the kind of big lies that we remember -- Nixon saying, "I'm not a crook," Reagan saying that we didn't trade arms for hostages, and Bill Clinton saying, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" -- they all happened at points where the president was in a crisis, when he had been caught doing something that he wasn't supposed to do. His back was to the wall, and he was trying to get out of it.

Bush's lies, on the other hand, are a part of the plan. It's when he has something that he wants to sell the public, but he doesn't think they're going to go along with it, and so the truth has to be concealed. A different story has to be told in order to get the public to go along.

-- Paul Waldman, Media Critic, Political Consultant, Senior Fellow at Media Matters

* * *

Paul Waldman wrote the single most succinct title for a book about Bush of the last seven years. He simply called it "Fraud."

Nothing more accurately describes the charade, lies, deception, dishonesty, false humility, and manufactured image of a "down home" man than the word "Fraud."

Over our 7 1/2 years of publication, BuzzFlash has frequently offered interviews with and books by authors who discuss the role of narratives, storylines, and "frames" in the way in which corporate news is now covered. Beyond the concern of big media not to offend the Republicans upon who they are dependent for deregulation, tax relief, and anti-trust exemptions, they are deeply involved in the merger of news and entertainment, which means actual news can get in the way of the entertainment, dramatic storyline.

Paul Waldman is one of the experts we occasionally turn to on this subject, as we do in the following interview.

From his Media Matters biography: Paul Waldman has authored and co-authored a number of books on media and politics, worked in electoral campaigns and political consulting, and edited an online magazine. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America. His latest book is Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

* * *

BuzzFlash: Paul, we've talked before and we've followed your work as a fellow at Media Matters. Before we go into a larger discussion of what makes a successful presidential campaign, I want to go back to your book Fraud, which we just loved and felt should have received more attention from the progressive book-buying public. There doesn't seem to us to be a better one-word description of the Bush administration than the word "fraud." What do you think now? You've had some perspective since you wrote that book. Is the American public on to the fact that this administration is a fraud? Or do they just feel it's a failure?

Paul Waldman: We've come a long way on that question. When I first wrote that book, and I was shopping it to publishers back in 2003, the initial round of responses was, oh, nobody's interested in that. Everybody loves Bush.

People began slowly to wise up, little by little, and now the public doesn't trust him on just about anything. For instance, a poll from CNN asked people if they thought General Petraeus was going to tell the whole story or not in his Iraq report. The majority said no, and this is a guy who gets better press than almost any Bush administration figure we can think of.

After everything that's happened -- not only the failures, but the revelations of all the dishonesty, and all the politicization -- I think there's a majority of the public that approaches everything the administration does with skepticism. Most of the public has come to see him not only as a failure on things like the war and Katrina, but also they don't believe that he's being honest.

When we think back on how he sold himself originally, that was really kind of the essence of it: unlike Bill Clinton, he was going to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office. He was the man of integrity. He was devout. He came from good stock. He wouldn't be engaging in that kind of behavior. He was supposed to be the one who would tell us the truth.

During the 2000 campaign, the press just hammered away at the idea that Al Gore was a liar. Well, we found out who the real liar was.

Even the Republican candidates today are trying to figure out ways to distance themselves from George Bush. And one of the things we'll see from any Democratic presidential nominee is a lot of comparing of the Republican candidate to George Bush. That's going to be very damaging.

BuzzFlash: BuzzFlash was around during the 2000 campaign, and during that campaign, we called Bush "Eddie Haskell." For those who are too young to remember "Leave it to Beaver," Eddie Haskell was a disingenuous, smarmy sort of high school friend of Beaver's older brother. He would always butter up Beaver's mother and really was a calculating liar, basically. And that was our opinion of Bush in 2000. Do you think the American public now has caught on that he's more Eddie Haskell than the church choir boy?

Paul Waldman: I think so. You know, Paul Krugman has said that when he first started writing for The New York Times during that campaign, he was told by his editor that he was not allowed to use the word "lie" or "liar" to refer to George Bush and the things that he was saying. If you look back at the things that Bush was saying in that campaign, there were lots and lots of lies, and they were about consequential things. But there was a feeling, even in a place like The New York Times, that that was just sort of out of bounds, it was just name-calling, and it was inappropriate. According to Krugman, that restriction was later lifted. I think it really is true that you can only fool the people for so long. It got to a point where the weight of the lies piled up so high, that it just became too much.

One of the points I made in Fraud is that Bush's lies are different qualitatively from those of other presidents that we remember. If you look at the kind of big lies that we remember -- Nixon saying, "I'm not a crook," Reagan saying that we didn't trade arms for hostages, and Bill Clinton saying, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" -- they all happened at points where the president was in a crisis, when he had been caught doing something that he wasn't supposed to do. His back was to the wall, and he was trying to get out of it.

Bush's lies, on the other hand, are a part of the plan. It's when he has something that he wants to sell the public, but he doesn't think they're going to go along with it, and so the truth has to be concealed. A different story has to be told in order to get the public to go along.

After being sold that bill of goods too many times, even people who were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt aren't anymore. Now he keeps saying that he's going to be vindicated by history. I don't think anybody seriously believes that. If anything, history is going to judge him to be even worse than we see him today.

BuzzFlash: You mentioned General Petraeus. He was supposedly the person who was going to give an independent opinion about Iraq. A lot of generals turned Bush down. People have resigned from the Pentagon, criticized the Iraq operation -- people who were heavily involved with it.

They found Petraeus, who is a loyal "yes" man, and clearly was heroic in combat. He signed on to the Bush "surge." The narrative set up Petraeus as this completely independent operator. Well, The Washington Post revealed that the White House was going to write his report, and then give Petraeus a crack at it after the White House had written it. And also there was some back-and-forth into how much public testimony he would actually give, as compared to the administration. The report was being orchestrated out of the White House, yet the narrative continues that Petraeus is an independent agent, uninfluenced by the White House. That's the way George Bush wants us to see him.

I don't know what could be more of a fraud than this narrative that is undercut by actual press reports. Bush continued with this narrative that he was going to wait and hear from Petraeus before he made up his mind.

Paul Waldman: Yes, and what would happen if, privately, Petraeus said to Bush, "Mr. President, there's no way we're going to win this war, and we have to get out"? Do you think that Bush would then say, "Okay. You're the commander on the ground. I've been saying that I'm going to wait to hear from you. And this is your assessment, and so we're going to get out."

Of course not. As far as Bush is concerned, leaving means defeat. If Petraeus had, by some miracle, come out and said that we can't win, he would be out of his job, and Bush would find somebody else.

And inevitably all the war supporters in the media will say in unison: Oh, see, the surge is working. We heard it from the mouth of David Petraeus and therefore it's true. Anyone who disagrees just hates America and hates our soldiers. It'll be the same story again and again, just as we've heard it before.

BuzzFlash: I want to emphasize that we have a dual narrative here. We have the official narrative, that he is the independent guy. But we have an admission by the White House that they're writing the report.

Paul Waldman: The press reports "stories." They have protagonists and antagonists, and they always want to focus on some kind of individual. David Petraeus needs to be the hero of this story. The fact that you can look at it as his being manipulated by the White House, or being at the mercy of the White House, or that he has just signed on with their program -- however you want to think about it -- if it's reported at all, it'll be down low in the story. The main story will be about the glorious general whom everybody respects and admires, coming forward to offer the truth about what's really going on.

The thing is about the propaganda that the Bush administration has been so deft in foisting on the public for all these years -- it can work for awhile, but there are limits. When you see this relentless barrage of death every single day, that eventually turns people against what the propaganda is trying to tell them.

I just saw a reference somewhere to a study about what caused Congressional districts to flip from Republican to Democrat. One of the factors that had an influence was how many soldiers from that Congressional district had died in Iraq. That's an immutable fact that you can't spin very many different ways. The fact that the more people there are from a district that end up getting killed, the more likely those voters there were to vote Democratic in the 2006 elections, tells you that propaganda has its limits. When it bumps up against what people are seeing on TV every night, and what's actually happening in their communities, their patience is not unlimited.

BuzzFlash: That's why we feel that your book, Fraud, in particular, characterizes this administration so well. They just continue with the fictional narrative. They steamroll over reality.

Paul Waldman: Shamelessness can have great political uses. Look at the whole U.S. Attorneys scandal. It was understood that these were political appointments. The people who share your basic outlook are the ones who get chosen for U.S. Attorney positions. Republican presidents didn't generally choose Democrats, and vice-versa.

But there had been an understanding that once they got in that job, and they were acting on behalf of the public to prosecute crimes, they wouldn't just become an arm of the party that had put them into power. That didn't stop the Bush administration from deciding to forget that. They are going to become part of the Republican National Committee. We're going to essentially order them to undertake prosecutions designed to help get Republicans elected. And if they refuse to go along, we're going to fire them.

On top of that, you have Alberto Gonzales, who gets in front of Congress and time and again just lies about it. We also have an understanding that if you get up before Congress and, if you lie, you probably will go to jail because that's perjury. But they don't care.

BuzzFlash: And this is the top law enforcement officer of the United States.

Paul Waldman: Exactly. Think back for a moment to the Clinton administration. Republicans used to complain all the time, and the press did, too, that Janet Reno was not being vigorous enough in investigating the Clinton White House. She wasn't independent enough from the Clinton White House, and that was a real problem as they saw it. Today, the idea that Alberto Gonzales would actually exercise any independence from the White House and would vigorously investigate them is so ridiculous that nobody even bothers to bring it up. So the shamelessness of this administration actually has been of great political benefit to them.

BuzzFlash: You did an interview with NPR talking about the upcoming presidential campaign. What sort of narrative does a successful presidential candidate need to have, and what leads voters to relate to the identity of the candidate? On NPR, you gave some great examples of narrative and outlined three stages of narrative: One, basically the problem; two, the solution, and three, what salespeople call "the close." Can you talk a little bit more about the narrative?

Paul Waldman: We've seen again and again that the presidential candidates who are successful have this three-part narrative. The first part is, what's wrong with the country, or perhaps what's wrong with the government? The second part is, what is the solution, and how we're going to get to this sort of better day that's being offered. The third and most important part is why that candidate, and only that candidate, is the person who can bring us to that better day.

One of the examples I use was Jimmy Carter in 1976. The problem there was obvious, coming out from Watergate. The problem was political corruption. He offered himself as someone who was an outsider. He campaigned in these kind of pastoral settings, as far away from Washington as he could get. He didn't wear a suit. His slogan was, "A government as good as its people." The idea was that because he was not from Washington, he could cleanse the city of its corruption.

Four years later you have Ronald Reagan, who says that the problem with the country is this poverty of the spirit -- that we've grown weak, and we're battered by a poor economy, and by the hostage crisis in Iran. If we're just confident and optimistic and strong, qualities which he argued that he embodied himself -- then we could get America back to where we wanted to be.

Even George Bush in 2000 did a very good version of this, coming out of the Clinton impeachment. He would basically say, I have no dog in the fight that's in Washington. I have no grudges. I'm not looking to defeat anybody. I'm a different kind of Republican, a compassionate conservative, this kinder, gentler version of conservatism can help us get beyond the ideological battles. And because I'm a person of such high integrity and morality, I'll be able to bring dignity back to the Oval Office. It was, to a great number of people, fairly compelling.

Looking back, obviously, you'd shake your head at that. But those candidates very successfully framed the election as having those three parts -- the problem, the solution, and why their candidate is the only solution. One reason I decided to write about that was that I didn't see too many of the current candidates using any kind of version of that, which was sort of remarkable.

BuzzFlash: You're speaking about the Democrats, the Republicans, or both?

Paul Waldman: The Republicans are really having a hard time, because they're the incumbent party. It's hard for them to talk about the problem because the natural solution is to throw out the guys who are in charge. It's very difficult for Republicans particularly when their current standard-bearer is so disliked.

On the Democratic side, the person who has the most complete version of this narrative is Barack Obama. The interesting thing is that he makes an argument that no one else is making, and that no one else really can make. When you hear him talk about unity and bringing people together, what you don't hear -- and I think this is what some progressives mistake it for -- is something that is akin to Clintonian triangulation. If you listen to Barack Obama, he's not talking about a unity that comes from moving to the center on policy issues. He' s not saying that my policy on X, because it's more conservative than that of other Democrats, is going to bring people together. He's talking about something that's much more vague and spiritual, if you will. If you listen to his rhetoric, it's about leaving behind these arguments that go back to the 1960s -- these culture war things. And if we want to get past them, then we want to elect him.

And why is he the only person who can do this? Because he's younger than everybody else. He's a post-boomer. He's only 45 years old, so he wasn't around for those conflicts of the Sixties. He wasn't subject to the draft, so he wasn't someone who either went to Vietnam or avoided going to Vietnam. He's beyond all that.

Also, his racial background is a critical part of his message. In his Convention speech in 2004 that really made his career, one of the things he said was he was talking about hope, and he had this litany about hope. And the last line of it was about the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. And that, obviously, is the kind of America we all want to believe in. We want to believe that a skinny kid with a funny name can find a place in America. By voting for Obama, we can help to create and sign on to the vision of this America as we want it to be, an America that can get beyond its history of racial strife. Since he's biracial and he's younger, he personally embodies all of these different things.

What then happens -- and I think the candidates that do this successfully understand -- is that voting is an act of identification. People don't go into a voting booth with a checklist of issues -- and this is the great Democratic mistake that people are recognizing now. They don't say, well, I agree with the candidate on choice, and I agree with the candidate on the economy, but I'm a little concerned about his healthcare plan, and he's got, you know, four pluses and two minuses, and the other candidate has three minuses and two pluses, and so I'm going to vote for the first one. That' s not how people vote.

People vote based on the identity of the candidate and their own identity. Voting is an act of identification. So, for instance, what Reagan understood was that people wanted to feel like they were optimistic. They wanted to feel like they were strong. One of the interesting things about Reagan's rhetoric was that, throughout his presidency, he always talked about ordinary Americans as heroes. All of his rhetorical high points were about ordinary people who had done something heroic. It was all about who we are as Americans, and he was saying essentially that Americans are heroes. We're the heroes of our own story.

That was something very, very powerful, because when you voted for him, you were declaring yourself to be a potential American hero. You may not have a chance yet to scale the cliffs at Normandy, or anything like that, but that was the kind of identification Reagan wanted people to make.

Going back a few more years to Nixon we had "the silent majority." When people voted for Nixon, they were declaring their membership in the silent majority. They were saying, basically, that they hate hippies, too, and they didn't like all those black people running wild in the cities with all the riots that happened in the mid and late 1960s. So they were declaring their own identity by voting for Nixon.

A smart presidential candidate understands what a vote for him or her is supposed to mean about me as a voter. And I think that what Obama is arguing is that if you vote for him, you're declaring your desire to get past our racial history, to kind of emerge from the culture wars that started in the 1960s, and to have a more optimistic vision, where the partisanship of the past is not necessarily a bar to solving problems in the future. That's the kind of statement that you're making about yourself when you vote for him.

The interesting thing is, with most of the other candidates, it's hard to discern exactly what they want people to be thinking about themselves when they vote for that candidate. Edwards has a fairly complete version of the story. His "two Americas" argument that he's been making since 2003 is that if you vote for him, you're declaring your interest in solving these problems, and your belief that America can be a more egalitarian society.

But with the other candidates, it's really hard to tell. If you vote for Mitt Romney, what is that supposed to say about you? I don't know what that's supposed to say about you as a person, if you vote for Mitt Romney. He has an identity of his own that he's trying to sell, which is basically that he's a can-do business leader that can solve problems. But until he or any of the other candidates can define exactly what a vote for that candidate is supposed to say about me as a voter, I think that, ultimately they're not going to be successful.

BuzzFlash: Isn't there also a narrative or subtext that's going on with the Iraq war, which is an identification with Bush, particularly among white males? It basically goes like this: We aren't arguing anymore about why we went into Iraq, of the merits of being in Iraq, or what might be gained by being in Iraq. What we're arguing is that America cannot afford the humiliation of losing to a ragtag group of dark-skinned Arabs.

Paul Waldman: I think that's a very powerful idea. There is a story that is already being written, and that will be written in the next few years, about this. The question is, what is that story going to be? A lot of people have talked recently about the "stabbed in the back" narrative. There was a terrific article in Harper's a year or two ago about this that laid it all out. This has essentially been the conservative narrative about every foreign policy failure that we have had. Vietnam is the prototypical case, although it started much earlier, even with Yalta in 1945. It goes like this: America was going to win this war (in Vietnam) because of our strength and prowess and everything, but we lost because we were "stabbed in the back" by the traitorous fifth column of whiners and naysayers and liberals here at home who prevented us from winning.

Now, just recently, Rudy Giuliani wrote an article for Foreign Affairs, which got a lot of ridicule, and justifiably so, in the left blogosphere, because it's absolutely infantile. And I have to say, just as an aside, when you watch Giuliani and the things that he's saying -- particularly with regard to terrorism and what we do about the Middle East -- the level of ignorance that he displays is just shocking. And he's always been understood, even by his political opponents, as a pretty smart guy. In any case, in this Foreign Affairs article, he basically argued that the United States was about to win the Vietnam war in 1972, when we pulled out precipitously. And if we had only stuck it out, then we would have won the war in Vietnam.

It's shocking that in 2007 there are people who still believe that. But that's part of that "stabbed-in-the-back" narrative. Victory is always just waiting around the corner, were it not for all the naysayers and the liberals who want to drag America down. That's the story that conservatives are going to be telling about Iraq in the years to come.

The story the press is going to be telling is, obviously, that this war was, start to finish, an enterprise of the conservative movement and of George W. Bush. All of the responsibility lies at their feet. I think that that's going to be an easier case to make than it was with Vietnam. And we still are a little bit conflicted about Vietnam. There's still people who hold to that stabbed-in-the-back narrative. But let's remember Vietnam was a war started by a Democratic president and then it was a bipartisan enterprise for much of its time. The person who was most responsible for it has to be Lyndon Johnson, for all of Nixon's enthusiasm for carpet bombing. But there's no question of whose war Iraq is. I think even to the Americans who are kind of in the middle, who aren't partisans in any intense way, the idea that the fault for the disaster of Iraq lies with anybody but the Bush administration is just ridiculous.

That doesn't mean there isn't going to be a battle over how we remember it, or that the conservatives aren't going to do all that they can to try to convince people that it wasn't George Bush's fault. It wasn't Don Rumsfeld's fault. It wasn't Paul Bremer's fault. It wasn't the fault of all the people who started the war, and lied about the war, and mishandled the war. It was the fault of the people who were right about things from the beginning carping from the sidelines. That's whose fault our defeat was.

There's this real kind of fetishizing of strength and resolve. And you hear it in Bush's rhetoric every day -- that if we can only stay strong, and have our will be firm, then that will ensure victory. It doesn't matter how ignorant you are, and how stupid you are, and how little you understand about the place that you're invading, and how little planning that you do, and how incompetently you manage things. The only thing that matters is being strong and having a will. That, in the end, will ensure victory. That may be the way things work in comic books, but it's not the way things work in the real world.

BuzzFlash: Isn't that a problem narrative for the United States, particularly regarding masculinity and the white male? If we look back at the theory of manifest destiny and the conquest of the west, the killing and subjugation of the Native Americans, the "white man's burden" was essentially that the enterprise was noble, and therefore victory was a worthy pursuit, regardless of what transpired to achieve that victory. The cliché, of course, is that the ends justify the means.

But in the case of Bush, and in the case of our westward expansion as a nation, there was a belief that this is "divine" manifest destiny, and the role the U.S. is to play in the world is a manifest destiny of sorts. Once you commit to a war -- this seems to be where we're at now, even among many Democrats who still vote for funding the war -- it doesn't matter how it started. We can't afford to lose because it's our manifest destiny to win.

Even the argument about Vietnam seems to go back to that. There are echoes of it in what Giuliani said -- and in what Bush said when he was in Vietnam briefly. He made a rather strange and bizarre statement, about commerce and what is essentially now the use by multi-national corporations and U.S. companies of cheap labor in Vietnam. Bush said it's opening up as a society to capitalism as a result of our involvement in the Vietnam war, and that this showed that the Vietnam was a noble cause. But in reality, it showed that it was an entirely wasted effort, because we pulled out of Vietnam, and now Vietnam's evolved into an offshore source of cheap labor for the capitalist economy. So, why did we have to be in Vietnam in the first place? What it's become is a result of us pulling out, not of us being there.

Paul Waldman: You can see the same arguments being bandied about now. -- In Vietnam, the argument was always that if we pulled out, then Armageddon would ensue -- that would be the first domino, and the entire world would turn communist. Of course that didn't happen.

And now we're hearing the conservatives saying very similar things in Iraq -- that if we pull out now, they'll see us as weak, and that will embolden them. There's this obsession with whether terrorists are being emboldened, with how they feel -- because they look like they're pretty bold right now. I don't think they need any emboldening.

That idea is extremely powerful in conservative circles -- the idea that they're going to think that we're weak. And you brought up masculinity. It's extremely important in the entire conservative mindset -- this idea that you have to constantly prove that you're a man. And anything like admitting a mistake and, say, leaving Iraq, or admitting any kind of mistake, shows weakness. Then your masculinity is in question.

Why do you think it is that they labor so hard to paint any Democratic candidate as weak and effeminate? They're doing it to John Edwards. They did it to John Kerry. They did it to Al Gore. They did it to Bill Clinton. They do it to every single Democratic candidate. That is always part of the Republican rhetoric is that that guy is weak and effeminate. If you vote for him, well, maybe you're weak and effeminate, too. Maybe your masculinity is in question. That's the argument that they make to male voters. And you can see it in almost any issue that you can think of.

BuzzFlash: But now that Sarkozy is Bush's best buddy, they can't pull the "he's French" thing anymore, like they did with Kerry, because Sarkozy is so pro-American. They used the fact that Kerry speaks French as an indication that somehow he's effeminate.

Let's look at the Kerry campaign, returning to presidential narratives. What went wrong there? Clearly, the swift boating, when he didn't respond, when he didn't show assertiveness, when he let that go for weeks without responding, the Republicans kind of proved their point. They set him up. He showed himself to be weak on his strongest suit, which was his heroism in Vietnam. He backed off while they attacked him, and he looked weak, as though he was guilty as charged of lying about his heroism in Vietnam, and the Republican claims cooked up by Rove that he had actually not really done what he had done there.

Paul Waldman: You're right that he actually did prove that point. When people voted for Kerry in the primaries, the big argument was about electability. Kerry was supposed to be the electable one. And the number-one reason was that he had this stellar war record. Democratic primary voters thought, well, they would never attack a Vietnam war hero. A couple of draft-dodgers like Bush and Cheney? They'd never attack him on his war record. They'd never call him weak and effeminate.

Well, of course they would. They're going to do it to anybody. And that gets back to what we were talking about before -- the shamelessness. I think any Democrat who thinks the Republicans are not going to be shameless enough to do whatever, is making a mistake. And the Kerry campaign didn't understand that politics is not about issues. Politics is about identity.

Kerry understood a lot about issues, and when he would talk, it was all about how his plans were superior, and he knew how to do things better. Meanwhile, what George Bush was saying about him was that he was weak and effeminate, and a Northeastern elitist, and he didn't want to protect us from terrorists, and he didn't believe in God with the same fervency that Bush did.

Those arguments are all about identity, not about issues. People agreed with John Kerry on the issues. One of the things that's a strange handicap for Democrats is that the country is actually quite progressive, if you go down a list of issues. Almost everything that's on the progressive agenda, the public wants. They want a national health care plan. They wanted an increase in minimum wage for the entire ten years that it took. They want strong environmental protections. They want a less bellicose foreign policy. The entire progressive agenda are things that the majority of the public wants.

So what happens in an election when the Democrats see that? They say, we'll, go out and talk about the issues. They talk about the issues, and the Republican talks about identity. The Republican talks about why that Democrat is not like you. He's not one of us. We hear that over and over and over again. He doesn't have the right values. And then the Republican wins the Democrat says I can't believe it. We had the advantage on the issues. How did such a thing happen?

BuzzFlash: We were at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and Kerry began, I believe, his acceptance speech by saying this is Lieutenant John Kerry reporting for duty. He saluted, and the Convention went up for grabs. It was plain to many of us that this was coming -- the swift boating was coming. They nuked his narrative.

He didn't have a strong narrative, but he did have the Vietnam narrative. He played that heavy at the Convention, and he played it heavy in his ads with the members of his squadron arrayed around him. Rove and the Bush consultants just nuked Kerry's narrative.

Paul Waldman: They did. And Kerry didn't respond quickly enough when they started to do that.

One of the things that I think Republicans have understood better than Democrats is that the best kind of narratives have to have two equal and opposite sides. The one thing that Bush wanted you to know about Kerry and about himself was that Bush was strong and Kerry was weak. Bush would protect you from terrorists, and Kerry wouldn't protect you from terrorists. That Bush was firm and resolved, and Kerry was a flip-flopper. It was all part of one big thing, and that's essentially about strength and weakness.

The story that Kerry was telling about himself -- well, what did that really come down to besides the fact that he had been heroic in Vietnam? What did that tell you about Bush? Really nothing. They didn't talk all that much about Bush getting out of his war service. They didn't have that one thing that they wanted you to know about John Kerry, and one thing that they wanted you to know about George Bush.

You may look at the kinds of campaigns that the Republicans run, and sort of dismiss them for their simplistic nature. Not just that they're simple, but that they're simplistic. Bush gave the same speech every single day -- same laugh lines, same phony ad libs, every single day on the campaign trail. And it was very tiresome, but it got the message across.

Kerry had a hundred different messages. Who knows what it was that he was trying to get across? I still don't know to this day what exactly his argument was about why he should be elected and George Bush shouldn't. They had a hundred different arguments. They may have all been good, from a substantive standpoint, but they weren't persuasive in the same way that Bush's were.

BuzzFlash: When you were being interviewed by NPR, the reporter said, "Well, who are you going to vote for?" You said, "Well, quite honestly, I don't really know myself yet in terms of the Democratic primaries. But I know when I get in there, I'll vote by my gut."

Paul Waldman: Yes. She was basically arguing that you are not going to vote on some sort of vague and mushy narrative. You're going to vote on issues, because you're someone who is involved in politics, a political junkie who knows all about the issues. Therefore, that's how you're going to vote, right?

My answer was no, not really, actually. Especially in a primary, the differences on issues are not all that substantial. I may think that one health care plan is a little bit better than another one. Or one idea about how to handle Iraq and get out is a better idea than another one. But ultimately, even those of us who are involved in politics are voting in a large sense on how we feel about the candidate, how the candidate makes us feel about ourselves, and what kind of a statement we're making about ourselves if we vote for that candidate.

Here in Washington, I know a lot of people who are professionals in politics in one way or another. And I've never met anybody who's said, you know, I've gone over all their plans, and I just think that Hillary's plan for this or that is better, or John Edwards' plan for this or that is better, and that's why this is the person I'm supporting. Everyone that I know, no matter how much they know about politics, ultimately goes on kind of a gut feeling that, you know, Barack Obama makes me feel hopeful. Or, I feel assured about Hillary Clinton because she's got so much experience. It's not about a list of issues. It's about who that person is, what their identity is, and what my supporting them makes me think about my own identity.

BuzzFlash: We interviewed Drew Westen not long ago. As you know, he wrote The Political Brain. I'm always careful when I say this, because I can't speak for other people, but I think many of his thoughts are consistent with yours, particularly with the emphasis on the fact that voters, regardless of education, often respond to the emotional. The Democrats, as you say, think this is an exercise in comparative sales -- in who can get the best grade on public policy. But we respond emotionally to candidates who we identify with, who we have the most comfort level with.

Paul Waldman: Absolutely. Westen talks about this a lot, and this is something I talked about in my book, Being Right is Not Enough. It actually goes all the way back to Aristotle.

He said that there are three parts of persuasion in politics -- legos, pathos and ethos. Legos is what Democrats have been too concerned with in the past -- that's logic and facts. Pathos is the emotions. And ethos is the character of the speaker -- who he is.

What Aristotle said is that the most important thing is ethos. It's, do you trust that person, do you believe that person? And then you will be persuaded about what they have to say. That's why Republicans attack the identity of their opponents -- because they understand that ethos is the most important thing. That's why they're not attacking John Kerry's plan for getting out of Iraq. They're attacking him for being a flip-flopper. That's about who he is, not about what he wants to do.

BuzzFlash: One of the amazing things was that Karl Rove said what he was going to do to Kerry, before he did it. He openly bragged about it. He didn't try to keep this secretive. He went to fund raisers and said, this is what we're going to do. Yet the Kerry campaign thought: Oh, the public's not going to buy that.

Is that elitism? Sometimes our BuzzFlash readers write in when we post a particularly snarky irreverent headline that gets personal issues -- like Giuliani's family issues. The other day, he said in kind of Mafioso style, don't talk about my family; I won't get into your family. Some people argue that we shouldn't stoop so low, as Democrats. That's what Republicans do. That's beneath us. Is there some elitism there, that we're above dealing with personality and identity?

Paul Waldman: I think there is. The fact is, those things are important. They can be looked at in a right way and a wrong way. But character is extremely important in evaluating people who are going to be president.

I mean, what's George Bush's biggest problem? What's the thing about him that has led to the most disastrous consequences about his presidency? I don't think it's that he is dumb, or that he didn't have enough experience or knowledge. Those things may be true, but that's not the cause of the real problems. The real problems are things like his Manichean world view -- that he only sees things in black and white, and that he thinks that whatever he's doing, he's on a mission from God. That has had far more disastrous consequences, and that's not something that you can read in a line on a resume.

So, I think it's perfectly legitimate to look at the fact that Rudy Giuliani is a sadist. We can look not at the fact that he's had three marriages, but at, for instance, the way that his second marriage dissolved -- and the incredible cruelty with which he treated his wife, and by extension, his children, during the dissolution of that marriage. I think it says a lot about what kind of a person he is.

And frankly, that sadism -- that part of his character is also reflected in how he acted as Mayor of New York. I think it raises some questions about what sort of a president he would be. That's a legitimate question to ask. Because we're not just electing a program when we elect a president -- we're electing a person. The fact that George Bush had such a willingness to eviscerate the Constitution and the fundamental American values that we've accepted for two hundred years -- you couldn't have read that on a line on his resume, or in the programs that he was suggesting. But you might have been able to tease it out, based on the kind of person that he was, and how he talked about things.

Now, obviously, that idea and the focus on character can be terribly abused. The reporters were trying to focus on character when they insisted over and over again on saying Al Gore was a liar. They were attempting to get at fundamental questions of character. So it can be done rightly or wrongly, or accurately or inaccurately, but it's not an illegitimate question to ask.

BuzzFlash: Well, there is an argument to be made that maybe the media is biased in some ways against the Democrats. Howard Kurtz just defended a Washington Post column about the so-called cleavage and low-cut outfit of Hillary Clinton by pointing out that other candidates had been attacked for personal characteristics -- like Edwards for his hair. But all the candidates Kurtz named were Democrats.He didn't even perceive the irony of that in terms of the press assaulting them for their personal characteristics. He didn't name one Republican that the press had done this to. But are the Democrats negligent if the press plays this game and they don't play it, too?

Paul Waldman: I think they have been negligent in the past. But I've been very encouraged by a lot of things that have happened in the last couple of years.

Even with before the 2006 election, for instance, there were a lot of the same old people who were making the same old arguments to Democrats. You can't stand up to George W. Bush too strongly. The way to show that you're strong is to go along with the war, and not raise too many questions. And you shouldn't be too partisan. And you shouldn't oppose the White House too much, because people don't like partisanship.

Fortunately, the Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress rejected that advice. They ran in 2006 against the president in the strongest possible terms, and what happened? Well, they took back both houses of Congress. It worked. So I really do see a different kind of spirit that's certainly coming from Capitol Hill, but especially from the new progressive movement.

It's a movement that's still evolving, and obviously has a lot of different parts, but the parts that are the most vital -- the blogosphere and organizations like Media Matters -- they're the ones who are unapologetic about what they believe and extremely aggressive about taking on their opponents. I think the success that the progressive movement has had in building itself over the last couple of years, and the success that Democrats have had in the last couple of years, shows that that's the path to victory.

So I'm very encouraged by what's happened on the left. Even for all the problems that the Democrats have had in the last few presidential elections, I'm extremely encouraged by what's been going on of late.

BuzzFlash: Let's talk about the role of television. Forget narrative -- Bill Clinton had charisma. That came across on television, it came across when you met him in person. I met him several times, and this is a guy who totally focused on you as an individual. He just had it. Whatever charisma is, Bill Clinton had it on a personal level. It also came through on television.

Bush also came across well on television. There, his contrived, folksy charm came off as natural. What about the candidates that don't have charisma but could be effective leaders? Aren't they sort of doomed in this age of television, because virtually the entire country gets to know them through television, unless they're in an early primary state.

Paul Waldman: I think the unfortunate answer is yes. The television aspect of it has become a larger question of what politics requires. I mean, let's take somebody like Al Gore. If you look back now, it really seems like a tragedy that he never got to be president. His whole career, he was incredibly smart, a real visionary in a lot of different ways, on the environment, on technology, on the Internet. And he was right about Iraq. Fom the standpoint of 2007, Al Gore looks like he would have been an extraordinary president. But he didn't get the chance, in no small part because he was never all that great at the politics part of politics. And he acknowledges it.

BuzzFlash: Right now, he says I really don't know if I can be a politician. I'm too honest. Of course, he's been to the mountaintop since 2000, and that's affected him, too. But in a way, he's saying I can't play the game. I can't be a Mitt Romney and go, oh, golly, oh, gee.

Paul Waldman: Yes, for a long time the Democrats have had leaders who are really smart and know a lot about policy, but they aren't that great at giving speeches, aren't that great at the backslapping, aren't that charismatic. Bill Clinton is the one example of somebody who was extraordinary at both -- he really knew as much about policy as anybody, and he was also the best campaigner that anyone has ever seen. But it doesn't happen very often.

But I think that's just a reality that has to be accepted -- that the people who don't have charisma and who don't do well on television are just not going to get the chance to lead. That's unfortunate, but I don't think there's anything that can be done about it.

BuzzFlash: Well, I can't resist one final question, going back to Reagan. First of all, I think you pointed out that in the '84 campaign, the Morning in America ads were key. But the other thing was that when Reagan was speaking to Congress, he drew attention to a government employee who had saved a woman who was nearly drowning after a plane crashed into the Potomac in the middle of winter.

Paul Waldman: Right. It was Lenny Skutnik. Reagan brought him to the 1982 State of the Union and told his story. I was talking, before, about how Reagan used to find heroism in ordinary people and define us as heroes simply by virtue of our being Americans. And the way he did it was by stories like that one -- just a regular guy who saw this plane crash into the Potomac, jumped into the water, and saved someone. Reagan was the first person who did that.

Every single State of the Union in the 25 years since then has featured some kind of regular person whom the President calls out and says this is a wonderful, great guy. And that was a core part of his rhetoric, and the Reagan people knew exactly what they were doing when it came to the kind of speeches that he made, and what that rhetoric was. They had it very carefully planned out and consistent. Reagan always talked about not just who he was, not just who his opponents were, but who we were as Americans.

So this gets back to what we were talking about -- about that act of identification. When you became a Reagan supporter, you signed on with that vision of America, and it was a very, very powerful vision.

And this gets back to what Obama is doing, too. He has a kind of vision of America, and who we are as Americans, that he's trying to persuade us to sign on with. If you declare yourself an Obama supporter, you're declaring your support for a particular kind of America.

Obviously, primary campaigns are extremely complicated, and this stuff, in many ways, matters more in the general election. Primary campaigns are a hundred times more complex than general election campaigns. But I think that the successful candidate is the one who understands what he's trying to tell people that their vote means about themselves, about their country, and how they view themselves in the context of their country. Right now, it looks like Obama, among the candidates, is the one who's doing it best. But I think we'll have to wait until the general election to see if you're going to have two candidates that do it well, or maybe none.

BuzzFlash: In Reagan, you had a guy who was an actor, he was picked up by wealthy Californians to be their standard-bearer -- the conservative way back in the late Fifties, after he did "Death Valley Days" and so forth. He literally acted his way to the presidency. Of course, he was Governor of California and did have governmental executive branch experience. But I think most people admit that he pretty much read the scripts and went about his way, and was the opposite pole of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton in terms of involvement with the daily details of the presidency. Nonetheless, even if you didn't agree with Reagan's policy, as you and I didn't -- his policies, which really commenced the Republican revolution we're still living under -- what you're saying is, with someone like Reagan, regardless of whether you agreed with him on his policies, he made you feel good and virtuous about being an American. He brought out the best and recognized the best characteristics of what individual Americans did, regardless of his policies, and so that he could bring people to his side based on their gut feelings that Reagan recognized what was good and virtuous in the American people and give him a pass on some of his public policies.

Paul Waldman: Absolutely. And that is because he helped people to see how they could make an expression of their identity through joining on with him.

I think for progressives, one of our challenges is to be able to tell our story of America, the progressive story of America, that allows people to sign on and feel good about themselves as Americans. And that is absolutely within our reach. In my book, Being Right is Not Enough, I basically describe the progressive master narrative of what America could be.

And I think there are candidates who do it, too. Barack Obama does it. In the commencement speech that he gave a couple years ago at Knox College, he lays out a progressive vision of America that paints the whole history of our country as a story of progressive triumph. We can tell a story about America, too. You know, the things that Reagan extolled in people -- some of them came from progressive, not conservative, principles. The most powerful speech he ever gave was probably the one he gave in Normandy, on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day.

BuzzFlash: Right.

Paul Waldman: It was about the heroism of the men who scaled the cliffs. He managed at the end of the speech to turn it into an argument for his defense policy, but the main part of the speech was just about those individuals. It was because he focused on them, those ordinary people, and not on the generals, it fit in with that tale that he was always telling about the heroism of ordinary Americans.

So it's absolutely possible for progressives to tell the same kinds of stories that situate each one of us in this progressive story of America that allows us to understand where we fit in in our country, and feel good about being Americans. It's important for us to do that. And hopefully more of our candidates will begin to do that effectively.

BuzzFlash: Paul, thank you so much. You're a great asset to Media Matters and to the progressive movement in terms of understanding how to communicate our values and policies to the American public. Thanks again.

Paul Waldman: Thank you, Mark.

* * *

BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.


Media Matters Home Page


Remarks of U.S. Senator Barack Obama at the Knox College Commencement [and the video]

Elections aren't about issues (Paul Waldman, The Boston Globe, 9/6/06)


Read 2904 times Last modified on Wednesday, 19 December 2007 21:15