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Politics Unusual


Take a few minute, all you folks who have nothing but contempt for politicians, to consider the work being done by the 9/11 commission, more formally known as the National Commission On Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
Think for a minute about what they have managed to accomplish. And yes, some of it was obvious and many of us knew what was going to be said. But with steady pressure, applied privately and publicly, low-key but insistent demands, and almost complete lack of name-calling, the group led by former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean has managed to demonstrate two things. One, the Bush Administration was looking in the wrong direction when it came to state-sponsored terrorism (they were looking for a state – states are easy). And two, when it comes to being questioned or challenged, these people are babies. They have to be right. They can never be wrong. It’s hard to say which is more troubling.

Now consider this. Kean is a Republican. Listen to his comments, his deliberate style, his almost but not quite self-effacement, his calm tone and you’ll be reminded that politics, well, it used to be dignified. Or at least adult-like. Keane has managed to get a White House that would rather he and his little band go away – go far, far, far away – to do what they should do. Which is answer a lot of questions. In public. Under oath. So watch the 911 Commission on April 8 when National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice is scheduled to testify. If Kean keeps to the moderate, intelligent tone he’s set so far – no histrionics, no favoritism (he leaves that to former Reagan Navy Secretary John Lehman) – he could do a lot to change the tone in Washington with only a little bit of pressure.
UPDATE AND CORRECTION: I was too hard on Lehman. He hit Charlie Rose on Thursday night – hey, I have a TiVo and I live on the West Coast. I watch TV when I want to, not when they want me to – and struck the same open-minded “just the facts” tone that Kean has maintained through this thing. So did his Democratic colleague, former Congressman Tim Roemer who went out of his way to describe Lehman’s questions to Clarke as tough but fair. The recommendations that Roemer and Lehman hint at — and the scope of what they think needs to happen and what they think they’ve managed to accomplish — really does mean this commission might be doing some — maybe even a great deal of good.
This could be quite an accomplishment. Even for a cynical former inside-the-beltway type like myself, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that somewhere along the way, politics took a wrong turn. It decided to forget about those breathing things out there – the voting ones — and started concentrating on the insider’s game. The Left’s demolition of Judge Robert Bork – confusing scholarship with politics – was probably the start. The televised backbench tactics that Newt Gingrich used to claim Republican control of the House of Representatives ratcheted things up one more notch. The Clinton administration’s insistence on its inherently higher – i.e. Liberal – virtues (remember the “politics of meaning”?) only made matters worse when it was shown that, well, a lot of those virtues were self-conferred. And Florida? Well, let’s just say that everyone got what they deserved: A disengaged electorate – it’s not a 50/50 nation if 30 percent of the country doesn’t vote, dammit — got leadership that flaunts its contempt for any one who disagrees with them. They figure, correctly so far, no one cares too much one way or the other.
It ain’t just the pols, though, who are to blame. This whole scenario was made worse by TV journalism and its demands for action: When people are talking, this means yelling, so political discussions became battles. TV also put insiders – consultants paid by television to understand television — on the public stage so politics turned into conversations about the details that make up campaign strategies and structures. So politicians started playing the news cycle by releasing information timed to do the most, or the least good, getting your guy to go after their guy on background, of course, with a juicy tale about a girlfriend or drinking or oh, whatever you could throw that didn’t matter but would stick. With such trivia, both parties have turned the Washington press corps into little more than a stenographer’s pool. So most people aren’t listening to politicians any more and they think press people are just politicians with day jobs.
There are plenty of signs that everyone thinks this thing is broken. The Dean campaign and the anger at mainstream political reporting was one sign. So is the success that a non-politician like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has had; his contempt for the working political press is positively heart-warming. But here’s the ultimate trouble sign: Two nights in a row, political insiders went on Jon Stewart’s self-described “fake news show” and talked about cynicism and the need for people to be involved in politics and government. They were – in order and this isn’t a joke – Richard Clarke, the former national security advisor whose testimony has so roiled the White House, and long-time Bush political advisor Karen Hughes.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 11:35 AM | Permalink

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