Road to the Nut House

It was 1976 and I was interviewing Democratic presidential candidates as they came through Boston for the Massachusetts primary. One of them was Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who came into our radio studios with a small entourage. The Washington state Democrat talked about his issues, mostly national defense. He was an intelligent and accomplished man, a serious one, but that day he was very dull. He just repeated what he always said. This was in the early days of soundbites, when candidates had first twigged on to the fact that whatever they said, in speech or interview, TV and radio producers were going to cut it down into a 14-second snip, so they might as well dictate the soundbites themselves.

Whenever I hear broadcast journalists complain about candidates’ prefabricated talking points I think: Don’t only blame them, you did it too, they’re just trying to fit their candidacy into your reality.

NuthouseSo Jackson was repeating the same things he said everywhere, and I, mesmerized, struck dumb by boredom, began to daydream. I noticed he had a scratch on his face. He’d cut himself shaving. I imagined him looking at his face in the mirror that morning, lathered up, wielding a straight razor and thinking, “I’m the man who should be president.” What a funny thing to think, I thought. Hey, that might be an interesting question.

So I asked him why he wanted to be the leader of the free world, as we used to say and no longer do. Why would he want to command the U.S. nuclear arsenal, why should the weight of so much potential history be on his shoulders? I think I asked it badly. There was silence when I finished.

He blinked, startled. “I’m not crazy, you know!”

I said I didn’t mean to suggest he was, only that it took a certain interesting, even outlandish confidence to think you should be president.

He nodded, and began again to repeat his rote stand on the issues.

Only now do I realize I had a story: Presidential Candidate Insists He’s Not Mad!

But lately I think maybe they all are.

The recent spate of political books says they are. In “Game Change,” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, almost all of the 2008 candidates appear to be truly barking mad.

“Game Change” came out two months ago, but I can’t stop thinking about it. It is written and reported by rigorous and believable reporters who are professionals. They didn’t make it up. They know the rules. Their prose is sometimes bodice-ripping and over the top, sometimes thumpingly clichéd, but no one to my knowledge has come forward to say, “I didn’t say that!” or, “That’s a lie!”

And really one wishes they had.

Not only do staffers turn on candidates in this book, but candidates turn on staffers. At times you get the impression people were wearing wires. But the overwhelming fact the book communicates is that our candidates for president are emotionally volatile, extreme personalities. They spend a lot of time being enraged. They don’t trust those around them. They desperately want power and want to be celebrated, but they don’t know what they want to do with power beyond wield it, and they seem incapable of reflection about why they need to be admired. Most seriously, they show little interest in, or even awareness of, the central crises of their time.

Hillary Clinton, made wild by her snake-bit campaign, has temper tantrums, fires staffers, weeps, rehires them. “Let’s talk turkey,” she says to one. “Let’s talk ham. Let’s talk tortillas.” She considered her husband’s administration “soft.” Her presidential operation would be staffed by the “hardheaded and hard boiled” who “embraced her conception of politics as total war.” When she won the New Hampshire primary, she declared in a victory speech, “I come tonight with a very, very full heart. . . . I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice.” Minutes later, with a “puffed out chest,” she high-fives her staffers and explains her victory: “I get really tough when people f— with me.” When offered the vice presidential nomination, she is ambivalent. “I’ve already done that job,” she told her pollster, Mark Penn. She had already been vice president, in her husband’s presidency.

John McCain, too, is extreme. At one point he screams 12 f-words in a 13-word sentence. He is speaking to his wife. In a key pre-2008 planning session, everything is discussed—operations, organization, budgets, office space, proposed logo and state-by-state strategy—everything except the meaning or purpose of Mr. McCain’s run. He presides looking “vaguely bored,” his detachment “striking but not entirely unusual.” During the financial crash, he boldly suspends his campaign and calls for a White House meeting with the leadership of both parties. When called on to speak, he has, actually, nothing to say. In the harried days after Sarah Palin is chosen, she turns to a McCain aide with an urgent question: “My brand is hair up, isn’t it?” During debate prep, Mrs. Palin shuts down, “chin on her chest, arms folded, eyes cast to the floor . . . lost in what those around her described as a kind of catatonic stupor.” Mr. McCain’s four top aides hold a conference call to discuss whether she is “mentally unstable.”

Barack Obama, who interestingly gets the best treatment in the book—protect those sources!—is not immune. He is smart, “and he not only knew it but wanted to make sure that everyone else knew it.” In meetings with aides, he controlled the conversation by interrupting whoever was talking. He is boastful, gaudily confident. Before his 2004 convention speech, a reporter asked him if he was nervous: “I’m LeBron, baby,” he answers. “I got some game.”

Messrs. Heilleman and Halperin speak of what they call postmodern politics as “a meat grinder/flesh incinerator.” It is that. Perhaps now only the deeply strange apply for entrance.

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A companion volume, “The Politician,” is not a history but a memoir about working for John Edwards, of whom nothing can be said that does not feel like pile-on. Author Andrew Young seems to be trying to be truthful within the limits of his ability to observe and understand, which appear to be real limits. His centerpiece is the Rielle Hunter scandal, but more interesting is the sheer, extraterrestrial weirdness of John Edwards’s mental processes. On the morning of 9/11, in the midst of Washington’s chaos, Young runs into Mr. Edwards leaving the Dirksen Senate Office Building. He calls the capitol police to find out where to take the senator. “They were overwhelmed,” writes Mr. Young. Yes, they would be. He is told only senators “in the direct line of succession” get Secret Service protection. Mr. Edwards, when told this, is “angered” and drives home to be with his family. At an early campaign meeting, he gives a set speech to potential supporters. One, political veteran Erskine Bowles, asks Edwards why he should vote for him, what makes him qualified.

“The room fell silent.” The senator “struggled to answer.” “I realized,” says Mr. Young, that in all the hours of talk, no one had said anything about what an Edwards presidency would mean for America.”

It would mean we had a president with shiny hair.

The shallowness, the lack of seriousness of modern presidential candidates is almost unbelievable. It is also a mystery: How could this be? If today a candidate told me he was not crazy, I will go with it, for it would be news.