You think you’re in shock?
The Clinton staff hasn’t come out of the fetal position. And I’ve gotta think the Goldman Sachs crowd poured an extra finger of the ’28 Macallan on Tuesday night and said, “Are we in trouble here?” (Around 9:30 p.m. I asked lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, who monitors online look-ups for Merriam-Webster, how “oligarchy” was trending. “Good call!! SPIKE,” he wrote back. If lots of Americans start looking up “tumbrel,” something big is happening.)
But there’s a group of people who are probably more gobsmacked by the Bernie Sanders "graniteslide" than anybody else: political professionals.
For their entire careers, every single one of them has advised every client not to speak his or her mind. It’s the one rule nobody breaks. Whatever your most closely held views are about the death penalty, taxes, transportation, sexual orientation, the defense budget, if you’re a candidate, you’re probably paying somebody a lot of money to remind you not to lay those views out starkly or bluntly.
There was always one taboo in American politics: plain talk. Hedge your bet. Thread the needle. Don’t leave anything hanging out there where an opponent can use it an ad. If symptoms persist, consult your spin doctor.
At the moment, that seems like terrible advice. Bernie Sanders is winning by speaking his mind. It turns out to be very useful to be known for having core principles. Who knew? Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, who has never thrown caution to the wind without consulting reams of NOAA satellite telemetry, is paying dearly for the fact that nobody can say, in plain English, exactly what she stands for.
In its own twisted way, the Republican field proves the same point. The first thing that pops into Donald Trump’s head is usually the next thing out of his mouth. In 2016, that translates into “telling it like it is.” Trump doesn’t really say anything specific. He doesn’t have policies the way Sanders does. But a big part of his appeal is the collective sense that, if he ever did think of anything concrete, he’d tell us right away. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio just got whacked for memorizing his lines. Well, line.
There has always been one place where politicians say what they mean and mean what they say. It’s called fiction. Remember when Josh Lyman on “West Wing” saw “the real thing in Nashua?” It was Jed Bartlet telling the truth. And “Bulworth” was a movie about a crazy candidate getting real in rap form.
In real life? Not so much.
For decades, nobody has questioned Michael Kinsley’s famous definition of a gaffe: “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth that he isn’t supposed to say.” The 21st century prom king of Kinsley’s Law has been Joe Biden, the guy who blurts out some truth that his boss – the spin-addicted and eternally careful Barack Obama – has kept under wraps.
The lasting “revolution” of 2016 may have more to do with the way candidates speak. What if candid is the new slippery? We’re handling it well so far. Long term, can we hold up our end of the bargain? One of the clichés of TV medical dramas is “Give it to me straight, doc.” In real life, we’ve shown a marked preference for weasel words. “Your cardio-vascular system is experiencing an unplanned slowdown which could be a possible game-changer.” Sanders uses straight talk. Whether the electorate can, as somebody once said, handle the truth is an open question. “Change we can believe in” may entail believing, for a change.
One afternoon in the Reagan years, I was sitting in a hotel room with the great Roy Rogers. I asked him if he ever thought about following his fellow TV cowboy into politics. Roy shook his head. “I couldn’t do it. If it’s a bottle with three rings on it, I got to say it’s a bottle with three rings around it. I can’t say something else.”
I found the whole bottle and ring thing confusing, but I knew what he meant. Maybe he underestimated us.