Sunday, November 05, 2006

Do politicians realize how slimy they become to get elected, and does it bother them personally?

Who's asking: James Lamb, Virginia Beach, VA

My brother James says he has gone on a news fast until after the election, but still can't avoid the advertisements on the History Channel. "This whole election has really started to bother me," he wrote. "I am going to vote because I feel it is my duty but I don't want to vote for any of them."

I feel the same way, and I think a lot of people do -- but to answer your question, no, I think most politicians don't feel they're being "slimy" on the campaign trail. If they felt that way, they couldn't keep campaigning; self-consciousness and shame would overwhelm them, and they'd have breakdowns on the trail.

Most politicians start out idealistic and become pragmatic, even cynical, over time, as their political careers become not callings but jobs. Many, if not most, politicians look at political campaigns as extended job interviews, and what we see on a campaign trail is interview behavior, magnified to a grotesque degree.

Experienced politicians often end up sounding just like each other because they all hire the same small group of media consultants, who coach them on their public appearances. Each consultant has his or her different style, but their wisdom boils down to a few bits of practical advice you can see on every Sunday morning TV show:
1) Look directly at your interviewer, but try to show a three-quarter profile to the camera, because that's most flattering.
2) Keep your chin and your voice down.
3) Begin each interview knowing one to three points you want to make, and don't let the interview end until you've made those points.
4) If you get a question you don't want to answer, answer the question you wish they'd asked instead.

There, I've just saved you all $500 in media training expenses. Feel free to send me a check.

But the result of all this media training is that we rarely see candidates have an actual conversation with anyone. Candidates' public appearances become interesting only when they forget their training and make a mistake -- so reporters, bored out of their minds at the 20th robotlike stump speech, fall all over each other to hype the smallest gaffe. This just makes candidates even more determined to stay "on message," offering no sign of weakness or originality.

It's a bad system. I wish we could go back to the old days of politics as live entertainment, when people would turn out for debates on a Sunday afternoon instead of staying home to watch football on TV.

Sorry I didn't post yesterday, but it's not going to get any better over the next several days. This week is a perfect storm of overcommitment, and posting will be haphazard. I've tried to figure out how to activate the RSS feed option, but it didn't work -- if you know how, send me an e-mail.

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