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Blame The Consultants

Joe Klein of Time Magazine gestures as he speaks on NBC's 'Meet the Press' during a taping at the NBC studios March 6, 2005 in Washington, DC. Klein spoke about the reform of the social security system. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Dotty Lynch is CBSNews.com's Political Points columnist. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points.

My name is Dotty Lynch and I am a political consultant. Actually, I am a different type of political consultant from the ones that Joe Klein blasts in his new book, "Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You Are Stupid."

I now consult with CBS News, which basically means that I write my column and find out things as a consultant rather than as a staffer. But 20 years ago, I was one of those dastardly folks who advised candidates on campaign strategy. Even worse, I was a political pollster – a creature Klein thinks should be relegated to the lowest place in hell. Pollsters, he believes, have destroyed leadership and spontaneity in American politics. They test every word a candidate might utter and then advise them to spew back to voters what voters already believe.

Klein yearns for what he calls Turnip Day moments in campaigns, referring to Harry Truman's 1948 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, where he urged Republicans to pass civil rights legislation by Turnip Day in Missouri (July 26), which was 15 days later. Klein says that was a spontaneous throwaway line which reminded voters that Truman was an "average guy, a man of the soil," who planted a small seed in the public's mind which blossomed into the "Give 'em hell, Harry" persona that helped him pull off his big political upset.

Some may argue that image creation is what political consultants are all about and that often it is the candidates who are dull and cautious, and that they need consultants to jazz them up and help them create such personas. And that the problem is that political reporters want candidates who are performers, while voters are looking for someone who will help them with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Recently I told former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who directs the JFK Institute of Politics at Harvard, where I am now a fellow, that I thought a candidate was too prosaic. "Voters like prosaic," she said. "It's reporters who don't."

Since candidates have to go through reporters to get to the public, keeping the "beasts fed" with new titillating sound bites is what many campaigns have become about. Klein quotes Adam Walinsky, former adviser to Robert Kennedy, as getting to the root of the problem. "Television ruined every single thing it has touched," Walinsky said, although he was talking specifically about basketball at the time.

Klein, like many political reporters, appears to be a frustrated political consultant himself, and many of the examples of "bad" consultants in his book are ones who didn't take his advice or agree with him about what candidates should say. For example, Klein, a self-described New Democrat who is passionate about national service, blasts Kerry media guru Bob Shrum for obliterating a speech about the New Patriotism and changing it to a set of proposals about traditional Democratic programs like jobs and health care.

In fact, Klein actually seems to approve of a number of "prudent consultants," like Mandy Gunwald, Jim Margolis, Mike Deaver, John Gorman, and two who are rarely seen in the same sentence with the word prudent, James Carville and Lee Atwater. He even congratulates Roger Ailes for running a "brilliant advertising campaign" in 1988, including his work on the Willie Horton ads.

But forget the fact that this is not a perfectly reasoned book and one which is more about Klein's personal beliefs than about the plague of consultants. Politics Lost might just be the best book of war stories about modern campaigns ever written and demonstrates the color and craziness of the band of consultants who constitute the Permanent Campaign.

Klein does what the best reporters do: he tells great stories. His tales about Joe Trippi getting fired over and over by Bob Shrum, once for talking to Wilt Chamberlain on an airplane, are laugh-out-loud funny. And he documents the struggles of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Al Gore and John Kerry to wrest control of their own campaigns from the clutches of savvy pollsters and media advisers.

Klein makes some serious points about problems of modern campaigns and the need for strong candidates to take charge of their consultants. That, in fact, may be the ultimate test of leadership.