'A new species of politician'


A vacation rumination...

On my final day in the mountains - the usual writing regimen resumes next Tuesday - I am reading the Jan. 13, 1970 edition of Look magazine, which I found at an antique show. For those of you too young to know, Look was a powerhouse in pre-wired America. It had seven million readers, and competed fiercely with its chief rival, Life magazine. The way it worked was, you flipped the pages with your forefinger, discovered lavish photo spreads and long, long articles on a range of general-interest subjects, and you didn't have to wait for a download.

Nevertheless, viewed through a contemporary prism, the issue in my hands seems as antique as the furniture in the musty shed. And I'm not referring to the retroactively hilarious ads for airlines ("the Economy seats are almost as roomy as ordinary First-Class seats...and more stewardesses than you've ever seen"), booze ("Grab for all the gusto you can"), cancer sticks ("Longer - Yet Milder"), and General Motors cars that look to be as spacious as yachts.

I'm actually referring to the magazine's sunny predictions of what life will be like in America during the 1970s and beyond. In retrospect, the wild optimism is almost touching. Particularly on the subject of politics.

The magazine predicts that "a new species of politician will soon arise." This species will put a greater premium on "honesty, intelligence, independence, courage, self-sacrifice and vision." This new species will replace the late-60s species that practices "the old politics of insult, gut-fighting and invective. Such tactics are euphemistically called 'going on the attack,' meaning the advance of the warrior-orator who disembowels his adversary and hoists the shredded corpse on a victory pike."

Yep, that old species will surely be doomed during the 1970s; after all, the magazine said, "the governed have become increasingly alienated, confused, and frustrated," and will no longer tolerate the gut fighters who "don't really care about us," and whose bad behavior "masks a poverty of understanding of us and the vast problems that confront us."

Take heart, said the magazine; some "powerful new forces" will help produce the "new political breed." Television, for instance. Television will nurture the new breed, at the expense of the old: "We do not like guests who shout, rant, and harangue us, who insult us or who strike a know-it-all stance in our living room. We expect the guest to converse with us, to seek to persuade us in conciliatory tones and to concede that he is less than fallible."

That forecast turns out to be as quaint as those old '60s sketches that show urban Americans in the year 2000 riding around on monorails. Imagine the despair of Look's forecasters had they known that television would become the home of the 30-second attack ad, in which gentle-voiced female narrators would intone lies and half-truths, with the tab paid by shadowy donors and special interest groups.

And speaking of donors, the magazine lamented about how the old species was beholden to "wealthy individuals and special interest groups, almost all with an economic ax to grind...As long as private money talks, politicians must heed the big talkers." But fear not, said Look, the sun was on the horizon: "There are indications that some kind of public financing of election campaigns is in the offing. If that occurs, the new politician, unfettered by campaign-fund ties to special economic interests, will flower."

Turns out, we got public financing of presidential campaigns in 1976, and today the whole system is basically kaput because the spending limits are too low and because the vast majority of Americans refuse to finance it by checking a box on their tax returns. The special interest money flows unabated, through the legal political action committees, and, meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is reportedly considering an autumn ruling that could make it far easier for corporations to directly spend money on political candidates.

It appears that we will have to wait a bit longer for that new species of politician.

And Look won't be around for that elusively distant day. It died in 1971.

But, for a bit of perspective, consider this anniversary:

Seventy years ago today - on Sept. 3, 1939 - Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany, in the wake of Hitler's invasion of Poland. Hitler welcomed the opportunity, declaring in his Sept. 3 proclamation that God was on his side and that anyone who threatened his government "need expect nothing else than annihilation." Such were the remarks that led to the deaths of 50 million people.

So while we grouse about health care and whatever, it's worth remembering that things could be far worse. Enjoy the holiday weekend. Back here on Tuesday.