< It's the Narrative, Stupid

Transcript

Friday, August 17, 2007

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
The 2008 Presidential election will be the first since 1952 without a sitting President or vice-president on the ballot, which may explain why candidates are in the midst of one of the most protracted job interviews in campaign history.

But it's not enough to simply tout your resume and bullet-point your plan for the future of the country. According to Paul Waldman of the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America, if you want to be President you have to have a story to tell. And Waldman believes the best Presidential stories come in three parts.
PAUL WALDMAN:
Well, what the three-part narrative does is it tells voters first what's wrong with the country or wrong with the government. The second part is what the fix is for that problem and what the country will look like after the problem is solved. And the third and most important part is why that candidate and only that candidate is the one who can get us there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You wrote that Jimmy Carter, though widely viewed as a failed president, was an adept Presidential candidate, at least in '76. What did his three-part narrative sound like?
PAUL WALDMAN:
Well, the first part was obvious. We were coming out of Watergate and the big issue was corruption in Washington. Carter defined that as the problem, and then what he did in his campaign was he campaigned not wearing a suit or a tie. His ads showed him in these kind of pastoral settings, out in what seemed to be a park or the woods. And he said he would never lie to the public. And his campaign slogan was "A Government as Good as its People.”
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
JIMMY CARTER:
I'm a Southerner and I'm proud of a heritage that shows concern for the working men and women, for the backbone of our great nation. These are the people forgotten by the President and the administration. When I'm elected President, that will change.
PAUL WALDMAN:
Now, if you fast-forward four years later, the economy wasn't going well. We were being held hostage in Iran. And Reagan very skillfully defined himself as the one who could cure all of those ills that he really defined as an illness of the spirit. What Reagan said was that we could bring America back to this place of glory.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
What he literally said was, "It's morning in America."
PAUL WALDMAN:
Well, the "morning in America" theme actually came four years later, in 1984, which people generally look back on now as one of the most skilful campaigns ever. And what we see with successful incumbents, what Reagan did is define the good times as being tenuous. And so people remember those "morning America" ads, you know, people raising a flag, kids running down the street, a couple going into their first new home -
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MALE ANNOUNCER:
It's morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is brighter and stronger - and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?
PAUL WALDMAN:
The message was that there was a danger - that times were good and if we made the wrong choice that we would fall back into the terrible times of four years before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Well, what was the third part of Reagan's story? What made him the man for the job?
PAUL WALDMAN:
Really successful Presidential candidates, like Reagan, they understand that the vote is an expression of who we are, our own identity as voters. So when people cast their ballots for Reagan, they wanted to see themselves as patriotic and optimistic and strong and willing to overcome these problems.

Back, let's say, in 1968, when people voted for Richard Nixon, they were proclaiming their own membership in the silent majority, that group of Americans who didn't like the hippies and was concerned about crime and unrest in the cities. Nixon framed that vote as you proclaiming your own identity in that group of Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So what you basically said is that these votes are symbolic as much as they are practical.
PAUL WALDMAN:
Absolutely. Democrats in particular in the last few years have been laboring under the misconception that politics is about issues. Politics is not about issues. Politics is about identity. It's about who candidates are and who we are as Americans.

Just to get back to Reagan for a second, he had this kind of citizen hero shout-out where they'd bring in some ordinary American who had done something heroic and put him in the audience of the State of the Union. Reagan was the first one to do that.
RONALD REAGAN:
Just two weeks ago, in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest, the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. And we saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.
[APPLAUSE]
PAUL WALDMAN:
The message was, for Reagan, that we as ordinary Americans are the heroes of our story. People who voted for him could see themselves as heroes who just hadn't had the opportunity yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I hear echoes of that in both of Bush's campaigns, the current George W. Bush, a sense that we were heroes by dint of being American. I mean, even after 9/11 he never asked us to do much but shop.
PAUL WALDMAN:
[LAUGHS] That's right, although I would say that he was the real hero of his reelection campaign. But even in 2000, when he first ran for President, George Bush employed this three-part narrative very skillfully, too. He said that he wasn't part of the bickering that had taken place over the impeachment scandal, and because he was a devout person and an honest person full of integrity, he would bring dignity back to the Oval Office and get us past - with his compassionate, conservative, post-ideological ideology - he would get us past all those arguments.
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PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:
I think there's a lot of cynicism today in America because of broken promises. I believe most people expect the best out of elected officials, and when elected officials disappoint them it creates a cynical environment.
PAUL WALDMAN:
And so people who wanted to cleanse the country of all the bitterness and rancor of the 1990s could see in him a vehicle through which they could get that accomplished.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So let's go now to the current field of candidates. I know that among all the candidates that you've considered, you think Barack Obama has had the best story to tell, and it really sounds like the story you described for George W. Bush is the one that Obama's telling.
PAUL WALDMAN:
It's slightly updated. First of all, he's only 45 years old. That means that alone among the candidates he is not a Baby Boomer. He was not old enough in the '60s to have burned his draft card. He's neither a hippie nor a square. He's not on either side of those arguments.
BARAK OBAMA:
When I talk about holding America up to its ideals of opportunity and equality, this is not just the rhetoric of a campaign for me. It's been the cause of my life, and it's a cause that I will work for each and every day as President of The United States on behalf of all people, not just some people, but all people.
[APPLAUSE]
PAUL WALDMAN:
Also, people still feel that whatever the persistence of racism is and how much people acknowledge it, they would like to transcend race, and Obama, of course, is a multiracial person. And so he is embodying the things that we want the country to be in that sense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And so his vote has that feel-good factor that Reagan's vote had.
PAUL WALDMAN:
Exactly. And almost none of the other candidates running this time have constructed that kind of a narrative. The one who comes closest is John Edwards. He has this narrative about the two Americas, saying that the rich have kind of left everyone else behind.
JOHN EDWARDS:
But I want to be clear. When I'm talking about two Americas, I'm not just talking about the difference between the rich and the poor. I'm talking about the very rich and everybody else. That's the two Americas.
[APPLAUSE]
PAUL WALDMAN:
If you vote for him, it's a vote, kind of an affirmation of that story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But you think Edwards's story is vulnerable. How come?
PAUL WALDMAN:
It's vulnerable because there seems to be a real antipathy toward Edwards among the press corps. The prevailing feeling, if you want to make an inference from the way he gets covered, seems to be that he's a phony. Recently he went on a poverty tour. They can write the lead of their story on that event by saying, in an effort to overcome the problems that he's had with his $400 haircut and his 28,000-square-foot house-
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Right.
PAUL WALDMAN:
- John Edwards embarked on a poverty tour. At that YouTube debate, each candidate has the opportunity to put up their own video. Edwards' video was set to the tune of Hair from the Broadway show.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MAN SINGING:
Give me a head with hair. Long, beautiful hair. Shiny -
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
PAUL WALDMAN:
What he seemed to be doing was, first of all, picking a fight with the press, which Republicans do all the time but Democrats don't do very often, and trying to change the associations that people had with the $400 haircut. And if every time a reporter drops in the line about the $400 haircut into a John Edwards story, what it evokes in voters' minds is, oh, why are they picking on him, why can't they write about something substantive, then he will have been successful in beating that back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So let's talk about some other candidates - a Republican, Mitt Romney.
PAUL WALDMAN:
Romney has a message that's kind of out of the 1980s.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MITT ROMNEY:
It is time to cut out the mountains of waste and inefficiency and duplication in the federal government. I've done that in business. I've done it in the Olympics. I've done it in Massachusetts. And frankly, I can't wait to get my hands on Washington.
[APPLAUSE]
PAUL WALDMAN:
His persona that he's trying to get across is that he's this sort of can-do business leader who will come in and clean everything up. I don't know how compelling it is, because it's hard when you want to make experience the basis of the message that you have, as opposed to something that's kind of more fundamental about who you are.

And this is the problem that some other candidates have, too - for instance, Hillary Clinton. When she gets asked why she's the best candidate or why she's running for President, what she says is that she has the most experience.
HILLARY CLINTON:
I've been fighting for more than 35 years on behalf of poor people and children and women and families. I worked in Arkansas with my friends from Arkansas to reform our schools and to reform rural health care. I have worked across our state in New York to bring economic opportunities to our smallest villages and help our farmers while dealing with the aftermath -
PAUL WALDMAN:
Now, that's not a story. That's more a description of a resume. If you ask people, if you're going to vote for Hillary Clinton, what does that say about you? - I'm not sure what the answer is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Let's talk about Rudolph Giuliani. Quickly, his narrative has to do with helping to clean up New York and being America's mayor during 9/11. Now, what is the job he's going to clean up and why is he the man to do it?
PAUL WALDMAN:
You know, we talked about what a vote for a particular candidate says about me. A vote for Rudy Giuliani seems to say, I'm scared. [BROOKE LAUGHS]

When you listen to him talk on the stump, it's really apocalyptic - that the terrorists are packing up their boats to come over to get us, and if we don't elect somebody who is strong and will keep fighting them, were all going to die.
RUDY GIULIANI:
The lesson that I learned coming out of September 11th, 2001, is never, ever again will this country be on defense waiting for them to attack us. The United States of America will be on offense.
[APPLAUSE]
PAUL WALDMAN:
There was a headline in the satirical newspaper, The Onion, that said, Rudolph Giuliani to run for President of 9/11.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] Exactly.
PAUL WALDMAN:
And he got mocked for this, but it really has been extraordinary. There was a story in New York Magazine where the reporter was with him at an agricultural event in California. And, you know, he comes from New York. What does he know about agriculture?

And he said, well, I don't know a lot about agriculture, but I learned the importance of agriculture on September 11th, because [BROOKE LAUGHS]
we are all connected and we need food. And it's -
[LAUGHTER]
- or something like that. But it just goes to show the lengths to which he was going, at least in the early days, to shoehorn September 11th into any discussion - that, you know, in the face of danger he helps us get through it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Paul, one last question. Come election time, you're going to vote presumably for the candidate with the best platform, not for the one with the best story, right?
PAUL WALDMAN:
That's true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Is that because you're smarter than most Americans? [WALDMAN LAUGHS] Let's just be out there on the record. You're suggesting that people are more influenced by what their candidate represents symbolically than what they're saying practically in a program, that bullet points really don't hold the day. So I'm asking is that true of you?
PAUL WALDMAN:
I think for my own choice - which I really haven't made firmly yet, I'll say - it's a combination of both of those things. Even for people who are political junkies, a lot of your decision ends up being on a kind of gut feeling. How am I going to feel when I pull that lever for them?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Paul, thank you very much.
PAUL WALDMAN:
It's been my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Coming up, a reporter who lost his religion on the religion beat. This is On the Media from NPR.