Why bad things happen to good people in politics

A veteran of America's political trenches explains why public service has become a dirty term -- and how we can clean up the system

Published May 21, 1996 4:12PM (EDT)

Fred Branfman has worked in American politics for 25 years, beginning with the war in Southeast Asia when, after serving there as an educational advisor, he helped expose the secret U.S. bombing of Laos. He subsequently worked with Tom Hayden to found
the grassroots Campaign for Economic Democracy in California, and served
as research director for Governor Jerry Brown, helping shape the Brown administration's innovative policies in technology, education and job training. He also
served as research director for Sen. Gary Hart's think tank, co-writing the main economic plank of Hart's promising 1988 presidential campaign before it was sunk by the "Monkey Business" scandal. Branfman has worked on campaigns for city council,
state Assembly, the U.S. Senate and U.S. President.

In 1990, following his father's death and his mother's stroke, Branfman dropped out of politics and began a spiritual journey that took him from India, where he worked briefly at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying; to Hungary where he studied with spiritual teacher Laszlo Honti; to Jerusalem, where he lived and studied with Hasidim; and to six months of silent meditation, including a three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA.

Branfman is currently directing For Generations to Come, a San Francisco-based project that supports people grappling with the meaning of life in the face of their own death.

how is it that most of our politicians, left or right,
start out well-motivated -- a teenaged Bill Clinton earnestly
pumping John F. Kennedy's hand, an idealistic Newt Gingrich
visiting European battlefields and vowing to end war -- and
turn years later into the paunchy, cynical and compromised pols that we have come to so distrust?

We tend to blame the politicians themselves, focusing on Clinton's indecisiveness or Gingrich's
pettiness. But in fact, our present system would
corrupt even Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama, were either to run for office in America.

To a young person asking me for advice about getting into politics today, I'd say you must be prepared to confront the Four Iron Laws of political

Law #1:
Money talks, bullshit walks.

Congressman Ozzie Meyers of Abscam fame was right.
Your main activity in politics, for the rest of your
, will be raising money. And raising it from total
strangers, many of whom you will neither like nor respect,
and who are mainly interested in having their egos stroked
and/or getting something out of you.

The chief personal trait you will need to succeed is
insincerity. We're talking a dozen or more phone calls a
day, as you exude warmth to disembodied voices, no matter
how tired, distracted or miserable you actually are.

We're talking an endless round of cocktail parties,
breakfasts, lunches and dinners, making small talk with
strangers, laughing at their jokes, learning to tell little
stories with a wink of the eye and pat on the shoulder,
communicating how much you really like and value people for
whom you feel nothing.

Why bad things happen
to good people in politics, page 2

i remember sitting in on a little
tete-a-tete&nbspbetween Gary Hart, who just hated this kind of
thing, and two major donors. It was excruciating to watch
Hart, who is basically uncomfortable around other human
beings, do his best to perform: taking two extra drinks in
an attempt to become more sociable, his face reddening,
searching desperately for some anecdote to lighten things
up, trying to fill the increasingly long silences.

In real life, a Hillary Clinton wouldn't spend five
minutes with people like the MacDougals. In political
life, they become part of her extended family.

I remember once talking to a millionaire who doled out
$1,000 checks to various politicians. He smiled happily as
he listed, one by one, the various politicians who had
trooped to his home for personal visits -- Congressional,
mayoral, gubernatorial candidates. "They come to me, someone who has barely a high school
education!" he said. "I don't understand how they have all
this time to visit a crummy $1,000 contributor. Don't they
work for a living?" What did he get out of it? I asked, since I knew he had no interest whatsoever in issues or legislation . "Ego," he laughed, "what else? I
mean they're coming to my house, I'm not going
to theirs."

Once in a while the politician gets tired of playing the game. Long
negotiations once ensued, for example, between the Jerry
Brown campaign and a major contributor, who had just one
little demand: that Jerry attend his daughter's wedding.
Governor Brown finally agreed to put in a phone call that
would be broadcast to the 1,000 assembled wedding guests. The moment
came. The crowd hushed. The host stood before his guests
speaking into a telephone. "Hello, Jerry!" he boomed. Oops, no Jerry. The governor, who was staying at Linda Ronstadt's house
at the time, simply did not come to the phone.

But that was the exception. Michael Berman, who
managed California Congressman Mel Levine's primary race for the
1992 Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, finally reached the logical
conclusion. Since only money for TV commercials mattered in
a statewide race, his candidate would not waste time on
irrelevant matters like making campaign appearances or
meeting with the press. The congressman would spend the election season in a room, dialing for dollars. He would only be
allowed out for the unavoidable: casting a vote, visiting a
particularly wealthy contributor personally or going
home to sleep. Levine agreed and succeeded in raising a record
amount of money for the Senate primary.

It turned out, however, that Berman had made a major
miscalculation. The public and media are unwilling to admit
this dirty little secret of American politics. Decorum must
be maintained. The candidate's refusal to appear in public became
the issue in the primary -- he was tagged the "Stealth Candidate" by the press -- and he was defeated by Barbara
Boxer, who went on to win the Senate seat.

Berman was just being honest. Politics is primarily about raising money for TV
commercials. Campaign appearances and media interviews are
mere window-dressing. If you enter politics, raising money
will consume the single largest portion of your time -- far
more than the combined time you will spend learning about the issues, formulating policy, enjoying your family and simply thinking.

Law #2:
The media rules.

The second iron law of politics is that you will
inevitably become obsessed with seeing your name in print or
appearing on radio or TV. You will much rather be mentioned
in a story that opposes your beliefs than ignored in a story
favorable to them. Other than raising money, nothing will
matter more to your political future than this "free media" exposure.

The moments before the Normandy Invasion were pleasant
compared to the nerve-twisting mornings when then-Congresswoman
Bella Abzug's staff arrived at the office to find the
morning papers waiting. Trembling, they opened the pages to
stories on the Vietnam war, abortion or other issues that Abzug
was identified with. If she was not mentioned, a gloom
settled over the office so thick that one would have thought
a close relative had died.

Sure enough, the congresswoman would enter her office
and, a few moments later, a bellow would issue forth from
the inner sanctum: "Smith (or whatever the names of the unlucky
aides of the moment were), get the fuck in here!" The next 15 minutes would feature some of the most
creative use of profanity this side of Texas. The storm
over, the red-faced aides slunk back to their desks,
trying to regain some composure and remember what it once
felt like to be a human being.

Bella, another good person to whom bad things happened
by being in politics and who mellowed considerably
afterwards, was only a slightly extreme example of what
dependence on media does to politicians.

The media is never good for a politician's character development. The press will
only consistently cover you if you are shrilly negative, constantly carping about your opponents' failings.
And it will never give you the benefit of the doubt. The
assumption whenever a politician goes into a press conference or other media
event is that he or she is a self-aggrandizing, ambitious,
hypocritical human being who is motivated only by the desire
for power.

Your success in this profession, in short, will
largely lie in conforming to the values of journalists who
lack the slightest respect for yours. Your ability to think,
reason or reach wise decisions will become much less
important than your ability to create soundbites and spoon-feed reporters. But no matter how hard you try to ingratiate yourself with the media, they are always poised to lunge for your neck. The press pack is never happier than when blood is in the air. And don't ever forget -- you are the prey.

Which brings up the next law.

Law #3:
There really is someone out to get you.

That's right -- you're not paranoid. And not just someone. Lots of people are out to get you. Every candidate
you will ever run against, backed by an army of
researchers, media specialists, even private detectives. And
if they don't get you, you know the media will.

Know now that every action you take for the next 50
years, in public or in private, at three in the afternoon or three
in the morning, may someday be publicized to everyone you care about, and twisted
luridly out of shape to boot.
As a politician
you have no right to privacy, no right to fairness, no right
even to the safeguards we grant a criminal.

I remember, for example, a terribly nice
Republican mayor who made the
mistake of challenging California Democratic Assemblyman
Richard Robinson. Robinson sent his research "hit
man" to the mayor's city to gather dirt. It turned out
that the mayor, a conservative family man, had attended a
national mayor's meeting in Denver, where his host had
invited his fellow mayors to a harmless luncheon
at the local Playboy club. Without thinking, Robinson's future opponent filed a receipt from the luncheon with his
trip expenses. Wrong move.

During the election every household in his district
received a mailing in big, bold letters, entitled "YOUR
PLAYBOY MAYOR!," implying that the mayor was a sexual
libertine who was unfaithful to his wife and worse. He lost
the election. Years later, he still got tears in his eyes
describing the pain his daughter had suffered from the
taunts of her classmates as well as the shame and embarrassment it had
caused his wife.

What will it do to your own capacity to grow, to
lead an authentic life, if you must live in fear that any
risks taken, harmless or not, will one day be used against
you? And what will it do for your soul to authorize,
election after election, the same kinds of petty, vicious
attacks on your opponents that they are unleashing on you?

Law #4:
Your brain will drain.

Perhaps the most important impact on you personally
will be the loss of your ability to focus or concentrate.
Kept running from event to event like a rat in a cage, your
mind will fragment, to the point where you'll find it difficult
to read a book, reflect or just sit quietly. Your most
important survival trait will be mastering the art of
simultaneously thinking four or five things, while giving
others the impression that you are following what they say.

If you are a member of Congress, for example, you will
run from committee hearing to press interview to fundraising
lunch to floor vote. Wherever you are, you will
often need to be somewhere else.

Thoughts will flit continuously through your mind at
any given moment: what position you should take on an issue,
how to find time to call an important contributor or
journalist, how to deal with your family's demands for more

The most dramatic examples of this phenomenon are President Clinton and his predecessor George Bush. Bush was literally unable to sit still.
"Gotta move, gotta move" was one of his well-known expressions,
uttered on vacation, as he careened from speedboat to
jogging track to tennis court. And one of our most vivid images of Bill Clinton is of the President sitting in the Oval Office,
simultaneously eating a big meal, conducting a phone
conversation, reading a policy memo, tracking CNN and
interacting with family, aides and friends. Political mind
fragmentation is bipartisan.

While the media presents this as a positive trait --
how wonderful that our man can get so much done -- you
may not find it so enjoyable from the inside. There are few
politicians who know the joys of contemplation
and inner peace -- let alone have the ability to write a decent speech of their own.

After Clinton moved into the White House, his staff quickly realized they needed to focus him on a few key issues, to maintain a "theme for a day."
But our fragmented President could not comply. He had long
ago lost the ability to concentrate or focus.

I remember meeting with then-Governor Bill
Clinton, to recruit him for the board of directors of an economic competitiveness organization. I described our
activities for 15 minutes or so. When I paused, he responded
by describing in intimate detail his work on welfare reform,
an interesting topic but one that had no relevance to the
point of our meeting. He then agreed to join
our organization.

I wondered afterwards why he had gone on about
welfare. Then I realized that his goal was to impress me with
his grasp of policy, and he probably hadn't heard a word
I'd said about competitiveness. Since he agreed to join
our board, I didn't take it personally. He was just
another politician with attention-deficit disorder.

Perhaps this is why you will probably find yourself
talking far more than listening if you enter politics. It's
so much easier to talk than to pull the mind together and
hear what others are saying.

So are we doomed to live out our days in a political system that keeps churning out morally and intellectually stunted leadership? Not if we begin to seriously confront the roots of the problem. I'd begin with these three sweeping reforms:

1. Public financing of all elections, a ban on all lobbyist and large donations
to the political parties, and a ban on self-financed campaigns.

Politicians can neither deeply understand issues
nor maintain their integrity if their major waking activity
is sucking up to the rich. Nor do Steve Forbes-style vanity campaigns elevate the political process. Level the playing field by financing elections with taxpayer dollars. There is nothing wrong
with a millionaire or celebrity running for office, as long as they win on their own
merits and not on their bank accounts.

2. Strict term limits.

It is critical that our politicians have real lives before and after entering politics. Tough term limits will force them to pursue other careers and interests, during which they may even develop the habits of reading, thinking and spending time
with their families. No politician should be allowed to serve more than 12 years in public life.

3. Reject media cynicism and negative campaigning.

A free press is critical, and democracy will not
survive with government-imposed or legal constraints on the media. At the
same time, however, democracy cannot thrive in a
media environment that degrades politicians and patronizes voters.

We've already seen signs of a growing public
revulsion against media excess and negative campaigning.
Steve Forbes' key loss in the Iowa primary, for example, was widely
attributed to public distaste for his vicious attack ads.
Groups like the Common Ground coalition are working to
encourage politicians to campaign on their ideas, and recent
decisions by major networks to let the candidates directly
address the voters is a big step in the right direction.

As millions of voters, particularly swing voters who
determine elections, change their values, so too will the
media and political campaigns.
The public clearly wants
substantial political reform and, sooner or later, the
system will respond.

Until then, however, voter beware.

By Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman can be reached at Fredbranfman@aol.com. His Web site is www.trulyalive.org.

MORE FROM Fred Branfman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Newt Gingrich