Yesterday, Bob Greene – the veteran journalist, not Oprah’s trainer – wrote a column for CNN.com about the nation’s winter of partisan discontent. (Well, yes, it is September, but the air did get perceptively colder this morning.)
For decades, Greene’s column at the Chicago Sun-Times, then the Chicago Tribune, was syndicated across the country, and many of his two dozen books were bestsellers. Seven years ago this week, a scandalous incident from 1988 involving a female high-school reporter surfaced and resulted in Greene’s dismissal from the Tribune. Since then he has maintained a much lower profile, but from time to time he still has unexpected and fairly perceptive things to say.
Sunday’s column opens with a reference to high-school “chicken” races. As longtime readers of Greene know, the days of his adolescence in the early 1960s, and his childhood memories of the 1950s, are never far away from his mind, so the allusion to Rebel Without A Cause is not unexpected. Then he draws a comparison between teenagers frantically racing toward a collision, and the intensity of the current debate over health care and “big government.” Greene expresses the view that when compared to the feelings generated in the last few months, even the arguments surrounding the 2008 election seem to evoke a vanishing atmosphere of civility.
To prove this point, he tells of traveling the country last fall, asking various ordinary Joes (plumbers or not) and Janes whether they planned to vote for then-Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain – and then asking them what they found to admire in the man they did not plan to vote for. He quotes an Obama voter who, not unexpectedly, admired McCain’s fortitude as a POW in Vietnam, and a McCain voter who observed that Obama was energetic, charismatic, intelligent. “People seemed to welcome this exercise,” says Greene, but then he glumly muses: “Somehow, it feels that a similar experiment would be doomed to failure now,” and that “it feels like we’re all in one of those old hot-rod movies[….], speeding straight toward each other’s headlights.” And then he wonders what can be done about it:
One answer may be found in an unlikely place — in words spoken by the most divisive political figure of his era.
Richard Nixon, in his first inaugural address during a time of widespread public rage in the United States, talked about “reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth.”
Nixon’s presidency would end in shambles. But on its first day, here is what he said about how to soothe the anger that was consuming the nation:
“To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves. … To lower our voices would be a simple thing.”
Some people’s feelings about Nixon undoubtedly cloud their opinion of everything he ever did. Yet what he said as he took office in a time of nonstop partisan conflict is worth considering as we pass through similar days:
“In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading.
“We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another — until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”
Bob Greene has thought about RN’s life, and the lessons to be learned from it, for a long time. Indeed, in his mid-twenties he covered the 1972 campaign and wrote a book about it, Running. a decade later, he scored a one-on-one interview with the ex-President, which stretched over several of his columns and is included in his 1985 book Cheeseburgers, and extensively excerpted in his 2004 book Fraternity: A Journey In Search Of Five Presidents.
In that interview, Nixon reflected at some length about how a President should be perceived by the public. He told Greene: “A president must not be one of the crowd. He must maintain a certain figure. People want him to be that way. They don’t want him to be down there saying, `Look, I’m the same as you.’ . . .In all the years I was in the White House, I never recall running around in a sport shirt, let alone a T-shirt. Or sneakers and the rest.”
When RN said this, he had in mind leaders he greatly admired like Charles De Gaulle of France, Konrad Adenauer of West Germany, or Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore – men whose rather austere and remote personal style nonetheless commanded enormous respect and admiration from their countrymen (or, as would be said now, countrypersons). While this sort of political style has generally been less admired by American voters, as the careers of John Quincy Adams – or Richard Nixon – demonstrate, there’s no doubt that most Americans do want their Presidents not to be too folksy or too accessible to the public. Dwight Eisenhower certainly struck the right balance. He was from middle-class, heartland America – but he was not “the same as” the ordinary voter. Ronald Reagan, as “down-home” as he could be, was always meticulous about keeping a certain mystique around his personality.
In the case of Barack Obama, the mystique has started to fall away, in a rapid and, for many of his followers, disillusioning manner. Twelve days ago he delivered a speech before Congress on health care which, in itself, was a good effort at rallying the nation to his cause, though far from a grand slam or a home run – more like a double. Then the Congressional leadership became preoccupied with punishing Rep. Joe Wilson for shouting “You lie!” during the address, and forced a vote on the matter which seemed to many Americans like an exercise in pointless overkill. Obama’s latter-day Brain Trust seemed aware of this, but no one in the Capitol Hill Democratic leadership was bothering to take heed of their concerns.
Today, Newsweek.com has a blogpost about the latest poll data. It turns out that most of the surveys do find an increase in Obama’s favorability ratings following the speech – but by one or two or, in CNN.com’s survey, five points, from 53 to 58. Compare this to the polls following Richard Nixon’s November 3, 1969 speech on Vietnam, when 77 percent of Americans expressed support for his policies – a spectacular rise from the President’s numbers before the speech. Even Jimmy Carter’s notorious “malaise” speech in 1979 temporarily lifted his approval rating from 25 to 37 percent, before the Iranian hostage crisis lowered it for good.
Last weekend President Obama, evidently wishing to build on what small momentum his speech generated, took the unprecedented step – for a President, anyway – of appearing on five Sunday-morning talk shows on the same day: NBC’s Meet The Press, CBS’s Face The Nation, ABC’s This Week, CNN’s State Of The Union (formerly Late Edition) and Univision’s Al Punto.
This garnered the President the distinction of having achieved something approaching what media folk call a “full Ginsburg.” Back in 1998, in the first frenzied Sunday after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, that ex-intern’s attorney, William Ginsburg, appeared on the first four of the aforementioned shows as well as Fox News Sunday. This achievement remained unique for about five years, then Vice President Cheney duplicated it, to be followed by then-Senator John Edwards (during his weeks as Sen. John Kerry’s running-mate) and then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. The last to manage it was then-Senator Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2007 when she was still the Democratic presidential nominee-apparent (and, in the minds of many in the media, virtually the President-elect).
But it’s one thing for even a Vice-President to undertake such a feat – and another for a President to think he has to make the rounds of the talking-heads programs. (Or, for that matter, the talk shows – if the Chief Executive feels he needs to make his case on The Late Show With David Letterman as I write this, can Carson Daly or Chelsea Handler be that far behind?) When that President pointedly declines to appear on Fox News Sunday, apparently because the network decided not to broadcast his speech to Congress, the semblance of a mystique certainly diminishes, and some, like Dwight Schwab of examiner.com, are even ready to compare Obama’s quarrel with Fox to Nixon’s difficult relationship with the networks. (For me, another analogy comes more readily to mind – former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura’s honeymoon with the media in 1998 that so rapidly turned sour. But that’s a subject for another post.)
So it makes sense for President Obama to try to follow in the path RN outlined in that first inaugural – a path RN himself found difficult to follow, because of the polarization that he inherited – and also to maintain an image befitting a President instead of a Sunday-morning regular. The right approach for him is not to start thinking about going on Olbermann, Matthews, King and Maddow – or Conan, Colin, and the two Jimmies – on the same night, but instead to focus on the effectiveness of getting his message across on the stage that only a President can command.