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Unconventional Wisdom: Candidates, Media Face Absolute Uncertainty in Campaign's Final Week

Aired October 30, 2000 - 8:30 p.m. ET


JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: Tonight, it's something we journalists aren't used to admitting to: absolute uncertainty.

ANNOUNCER: UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM, with CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield in New York.

GREENFIELD: Good evening, and welcome to the first of our nightly half-hour versions of our Friday night ventures into unconventional political conversation -- not arguments, not talking points but conversation.

We've tried to bring some new voices into the mix, but the voice who might be most useful tonight has unfortunately been dead for almost 25 years. He's Werner Heisenberg, the famed physicist who came up with the uncertainty principal. Reduced to laughable simplicity -- remember, I was a liberal arts major -- it says, sort of, that no matter how closely you think you're observing something, you may not be able to predict its movement.

Well, welcome to the 2000 campaign, where assumptions fall like stocks. Could Bush lose Florida and still win? Could Gore lose his home state of Tennessee and still win? Could a president with high job-approval ratings be hurting his party's candidate? Maybe, maybe, maybe.

We'll talk about this with journalist Christopher Caldwell of "The Weekly Standard" and with Rick Stengel of, and we'll be joined by actress/playwright/author Anna Deavere Smith, who has literally given voice to major political players.

We'll start it up in just a moment.


ANNOUNCER: UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Here again, CNN's Jeff Greenfield in New York.

GREENFIELD: And welcome back to this unconventional look, we hope, at election 2000. I'm Jeff Greenfield.

Joining me here in New York, you've seen him on Friday nights, editor Rick Stengel, a former senior adviser to Bill Bradley in his campaign. In our Washington bureau, Christopher Caldwell, senior writer for "The Weekly Standard." And from Washington state, Seattle, to be exact, actress and author Anna Deavere Smith. She is the author of "Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines" and she also appeared as press secretary in the 1995 film, "The American President."


ANNA DEAVERE SMITH, ACTRESS: At 5:45? Five forty-five doesn't do me any good, Louis. Five forty-five, network news is in makeup.

MICHAEL J. FOX, ACTOR: You have 12 people working for you. Why do you have to...

MICHAEL DOUGLAS, ACTOR: Guys, do I have to be here for this meeting?


GREENFIELD: She may, however, be best known for a series of one- woman plays, including "Fires in the Mirror," about the riots in Crown Heights, New York, and most recently "House Arrest," about the presidency in American life. In these one-woman plays, she "channels," if I can use the word, the words, the actual words, of politicians and journalists.

And, Anna, I guess you could call that, "Miss Smith Went to Washington" after a Frank Capra movie of a slightly more ancient vintage.

But you made this point, and since we're going to talk a little about uncertainty, I want to begin with it. You wrote -- you write in your book, "Washington is full of people who's business is to know everything. What they lack is the ability to identify with anyone other than those just like themselves."

Now after all the money that politicians and journalists spend trying to divine what's on the minds of the American people, how did you reach that conclusion?

SMITH: Well, because first of all it's a very enclosed environment, as you know. It's a very small world. So that given the kinds of responsibilities that everybody has, the deadlines they have to meet, they tend to be interested only in what is closest to them. So it keeps them away from us.

But, you know, you said something very interesting in the lead to this show, which was about the Heisenberg principal, which also came up for me in my time in Washington. Ben Bradlee, former editor of "The Washington Post" referenced the Heisenberg principal to say that it teaches us observing the phenomenon changes the phenomenon.

And one of the things, of course, that's extraordinary about Washington is the extent to which the president is under watch, some would even say a death watch, so that the presence of the media and the pundits and everyone, if Heisenberg is correct, changes the very nature of the phenomenon. GREENFIELD: Christopher Caldwell, in this campaign -- and I don't want to turn this into a physics seminar since I almost flunked the damn subject a couple of times -- is that working? Can you actually see the candidates for office changing by the very fact that they are observed so intently and persistently by the press?

CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL, SENIOR WRITER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Absolutely. You know, there are predictable types of bumps in popularity when the press gets on a bandwagon, like after the conventions. But as we went from August into September and for most of September, there was a real hardening consensus in Washington that this race might be over, that Gore had it. And I think it had to do with something that Anna was saying, that Washingtonians are in the business of knowing everything.

And Bush's particular weakness, a shakiness on intellectual matters, seemed to be more dire than Gore's, which was an insincerity, which is I think is because the media resembles Gore more than it resembles Bush.

GREENFIELD: Rick, you worked for a candidate who certainly had a different said series of expectations once the press got a look at him. Could you feel this happening? Did the Bill Bradley you went to work for actually change under this process of the press focusing this million megawatt light on him?

RICK STENGEL, EDITOR, TIME.COM: I think he had to, like everybody else. But I would actually put a kind of caveat to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, which is that politicians when they're campaigning for office exist to be observed. They have no existence outside of being observed in this bubble. I mean, how would they even get their message out if it weren't for television, if it weren't for the media? So this idea that there is in fact some genuineness that is not being observed, doesn't exist at all.

GREENFIELD: I'm glad you have raised that because, Anna, you also write, and I would say that it's observation that I think you share with many people that -- you are talking the language of Washington -- you say that "people speaking are speaking to us in such planned designed language that a free flow of ideas is harder and harder to find. We are being given packaged discourse."

Do you think at any sense that it could ever have been different? I mean, is this a new phenomenon about politicians?

SMITH: Well, I sure think it's -- no well -- let's go back to Jefferson. Roger Kennedy, who wrote the wonderful book on Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson, said to me in an interview that he was very frustrated that he was unable to ever find Jefferson in verbal undress. And in fact, most of the Jefferson historians that I talked to were very frustrated that after years and years of study they never knew the man.

So I think that, you know, politicians are not profits. We have yet, to this day, have a poet president, although it's happened in other nations. So I can understand how they come to us covered. The problem is the extent to which everything is planned now means that there is no possibility for that unplanned moment where a leader could become a vehicle for us, not just for the people who are teaching them how to talk and walk, but a vehicle for us. That's only going to happen in an unplanned moment. And I think the people are very frightened of what's unplanned.

The other way you started us off, Jeff, just talking about oh, my God, we don't know. I think it's great we don't know. It's more likely that a lot of us are going to watch the elections if we don't know.

GREENFIELD: Well, speaking selfishly, Anna, I think it's great we don't know too because, you know, we don't have to sit there until 1:00 in the morning, vamping when people know what the story is.

Look, let me just suggest to you, at least a couple -- one of the things about Bill Clinton I think is he may be responsible, for good or ill, for a series of unplanned moments. I mean, the most recent of which I would suggest to you is that "Esquire" cover that caused great amount of discussion, where he certainly is not posing in the way that say George Washington posed with Gilbert Stewart.

Christopher Caldwell you know that picture that I'm talk about with legs splayed, tie pointing in a particular direction. Isn't that a kind of moment that certainly no spin doctor would have planned?

CALDWELL: Yeah, but some photo shoot consultant planned it. I think there's nothing spontaneous about that. I think Clinton was being glib, and I he's probably hurt Gore by that.

One of the striking things about Clinton's roles in the last few days in the campaign is how little of the feel for his own campaign he's bringing to this one now that he doesn't have something personally at stake in it.

GREENFIELD: A kind of telling point there, Rick, in that you would think, if Anna is right, and most people would agree to her that politics is nothing but a series of highly structured moments, you would have thought that the Gore and Clinton folks might have worked out this rather major issue before the last eight days of the campaign.

STENGEL: Well, I guess the thing is what you try to strive for in a campaign is to plan for the spontaneous, to make something that is actually planned seem spontaneous. That is what campaigns are all about. The problem with Bill Clinton campaigning, and the reason why he is a great campaigner for himself is he has to be the bride at the wedding and the corpse at the funeral. It is all about Bill Clinton, everything that he campaigns about is about Bill Clinton.

It is kind of hard for him to get off that horse, where he's the center of attention, and actually say: You know this guy actually merits something.

Look at his speech at the convention, he barely mentioned Al Gore.

GREENFIELD: And Anna, you had a moment, I guess it was during the period of Lewinsky and pre-impeachment, when you got I thought a pretty unplanned moment from Bill Clinton when you just asked him a simple question about how he felt; right?

SMITH: Yeah, I went to see Clinton. I thought I was going to have 10 minutes walking down hallway and ended up 35 minutes in the Oval Office, although people kept knocking on the door and saying: Mr. President, you should rest your voice. And the question was: Mr. President, do you feel like you're being treated like a common criminal? And he was off and running.

This was before the Lewinsky drama actually hit us. This was in the fall of '97. And the president spoke a kind of jazz. It seemed very unplanned, although I must tell you that some of the same things he said to me did show up in Joe Klein's article in "The New Yorker" several years later.

GREENFIELD: We're going to take a break now. When we come back I want to pursue another notion, not just that you have stressed, Anna, but in fact that that self same Joe Klein has written in the new "New Yorker" about whether or not either of these candidates, Gore or Bush, are appealing in any sense to a more generous instinct of the American people, and whether they should.

We'll be back in a minute. So please stay with us.


GREENFIELD: And welcome back to our unconventional look at election 2000. We will be here every night at 8:30 Eastern this week. I am, indeed, Jeff Greenfield. And my guests, more importantly: editor Rick Stengel in New York; Christopher Caldwell, senior writer for "The Weekly Standard," is in Washington; and actress, playwrite, author Anna Deavere Smith is in Seattle, Washington.

Let me pick up this conversation with something that Joe Klein, who has been in here many times, writes in the new "New Yorker" magazine, and he talks about leadership. And he says that "leadership often requires asking people to grow, make a sacrifice of some sort, and that it is something that focus groups can't teach you."

He says, "Each man in this campaign, Bush and Gore, has chosen to run a narrow, tactical campaign, a campaign of tax cuts and pandering to the elderly, a campaign far too small for so grand a country."

Now, Rick, your candidate Bill Bradley, at least seemed to be suggesting that he was asking people for bigger things. And it's pretty safe to say that campaign was not a success. Is that because the public doesn't want to hear it?

STENGEL: Well, I think the fact that Bill was talking about doing big things again, that now is the time you fix your roof, when the sun is shining, actually moved Gore to talk about bigger things, certainly talked about them in the primary. But I think, when you look at the general election, and look at what George Bush is talking about, I mean, he actually had -- is trying to appeal to the better angels of the American nature, simply as a Republican talking about inclusion, even all the fact that commentators joked about the fact that what was going on at the Republican conviction, in terms of African-Americans on stage didn't reflect the audience. I thought, wow, well, it's aspirational what they're doing.

I think he is going for something that is a little bit untraditional for a Republicans, which is to be expansive, to be generous. And I think Gore is often a populist who doesn't talk about the people. So I think that is a little bit unfortunate.

GREENFIELD: Christopher Caldwell, could the line that John Kennedy made famous 40 years ago, you know, "Ask not what your country can do for," could that resonate in the year 2000 with this populous?

CALDWELL: It might be able to, but not with these candidates. You get that sort of welling up of patriotic feeling only rarely. I think FDR had it when he took the country into war. JFK had it through a certain type of charisma.

But I think Rick is right, the big development in this campaign is, you usually have one party, the Democrats, who are trying to bribe the polity with benefits, and one party, the Republicans, who are trying to schmooze them by flattering their patriotic sense.

In this campaign, you've seen Bush take a much more Democratic tact in two ways: first, promising more benefits; second, promising to be more inclusive. That is the only news, but I think it is pretty limited news.

GREENFIELD: Now, Anna, you also have written in this book that you raised the question, "Maybe the very help politics needs could come from some place other than the halls of Congress or on the desk tops of the punditry, maybe our leader need more voices from outside."

There are those folks, you know, within the system who will say to you, that's naive. What people really want is to be told what we, the people leaders, are going to do for them. They don't want to ask anything of us except more comfort. What's your take on that?

SMITH: I think that's a very cynical attitude. I think...

GREENFIELD: It is cynical. The question is, is it accurate?

SMITH: I don't know. I think it's cynical. I'm not sure that cynicism is accuracy.

You know, when Rick was saying in the first segment that politics is planning for spontaneity, but I wonder just how often then are we hearing from the public? Even in the debates with the town hall people stood up with their questions on cards. well, it would be naive to say why. Well, obviously because we have to count the minutes on television. But on the other hand, why didn't the people know these questions on their heart?

You know, for the time that Gore spends in the black church and the time that Clinton did, too, I wish they came away with some of the lessons about the way the audience in the black church participates. It's not that the preacher has the hotline to God, everybody does. And I think we all have a hotline to democracy. And I would like to see more spontaneity from us.

GREENFIELD: But let me push you on this a little bit, Anna. The question is, if a politician got up and said, look, folks, the only way to reform Social Security down the line is we're either going to have to delay the retirement age, trim the benefits, means test it, you know, somehow, you can't -- you can't have a hot-fudge Sunday diet that the public would say, we don't want to listen to you.

SMITH: You're right. I think that's true. But we're waiting for that person who's going to come forward and be willing to tell us the good news and the bad news in such a way that we've got to say, hey, we kind of know that deep down inside...


SMITH: ... We kind of know it.

SMITH: Christopher, are we waiting for that as a country, or are we waiting for that person to come along so we can say, that's very nice. Now get out of my face and tell me what you're going to do for me?

CALDWELL: Well, I sure hope we're not waiting for someone to just break the political system, because that's the sort of thing that happens in highly unstable, dangerous political systems.

I think what we have, though, is we have a kind of political complex where the candidates are wrapped up in these huge advertising machines. They're in a sort of perverse symbiosis with the media. You have the media watching candidates every step to see if they trip. And if they trip, the media jumps all over them. But then in the meanwhile, the media asks why politicians don't want to take any risks.

I think you do need to have -- you need more frankness in politics, but it's going to come through gradual reform of both campaign finance...

SMITH: Right.

CALDWELL: ... and the media.

GREENFIELD: Go ahead, Rick.

STENGEL: I'm just not sure that we blame the voters enough. I'm glad I'm not running for office, because here I am blaming the voters. They would vote against me. But we don't blame the voters enough in the sense that they don't want to hear hard truths. I mean, Paul Tsongas when he ran, he said -- you know, remember, his motto was, there is no Santa Claus, right? Voters do not want to hear that there is no Santa Claus. Voters want Santa Claus. I mean, even when we talk about pork, pork is when the government gets money from somebody else. Bringing home the bacon is when they get more money for us, for me.

So the problem is here that the voters themselves are not actually asking to hear hard truths, and politicians don't tell them hard truths.

And remember, in a democracy -- we can't really function as a pure democracy. That would be like you and I having a chance to talk to every politician. Politicians learn what we think through polling, and polling tells them that we want things that we want. And they give them to us.

GREENFIELD: You know, Anna, in a 1992 town hall debate, one gentleman got up and said to the candidates, you know, we are in effect your children. And somebody wrote, I thought quite wisely, it would have been fascinating if one of the three candidates running that year had turned to this guy and said, no, I'm not your daddy. You're not my children. We're grown people, and we've got to work for ourselves. And yet, I must say, I don't mean to sound cynical, but I think Rick's on to something, that candidates who actually speak frankly and openly to voters, maybe John McCain was an exception, usually gets their hats handed to them -- heads handed to them.

SMITH: No, I couldn't agree more. I think both Rick and Chris are correct. You know, if the press doesn't get them, the voters are. But that doesn't mean, you know, how -- we've got to ask Rick -- how do we ask more of the voters? In blaming the voters, how do we activate them? Is it that this is something that has to happen on a smaller level, on a grassroots level? Is it something we have to start to do in the workplace, in our schools? Is it that it can happen in this huge theater that is so overly observed there where all of us are self-conscience? It may be that.

GREENFIELD: We've got about a minute left.

Rick, Christopher, are either of these candidates going to end the last week with anything other than telling the voters what they're going to do for them?

STENGEL: I think not. I think Bush is going to end with something uplifting, and Gore is going to end with something saying watch out.

GREENFIELD: Christopher?

CALDWELL: Yes, I think that throughout this campaign you've had Bush trying to prove his confidence, Gore trying to proving his sincerity. Bush has in general done a better job of fulfilling his task. And I think in the last week, where you're running on two hours sleep and talking to 12 groups a day, Gore has the longer road to hoe. GREENFIELD: Well, I should just point out that it's, you know, in the early days of television, when hosts like me always said thank you for letting us into your living room, when televisions were only in the living room, Ernie Kovacs, the great comedian. once said, thank you for letting us into your home, but couldn't you have cleaned it up a little bit? Obviously not a panderer.

With those inspiring words, we have to wrap up this part of the program. My deep thanks to editor Rick Stengel, Christopher Caldwell of "The Weekly Standard," and to actress and author and playwright and a national treasure, if I may say so, Anna Deavere Smith. Thank you for joining us.

Next, uncertainty and the electoral map and election night.

Please stay with us.


ANNOUNCER: UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Here again, CNN's Jeff Greenfield in New York.

GREENFIELD: I began this broadcast by talking about uncertainty, so let me flesh this out for a minute. Because if there's one thing that this campaign has taught us, it's just how much we don't know -- or rather what we know that just ain't so.

For instance, we all knew that Al Gore's electoral map had to begin with the District of Columbia and the 10 states that Michael Dukakis carried in 1988. And if he couldn't count on those states, he was out of the race. Well, Gore is running no better than about even in six of those states, and he's very much in this race.

We all knew that Bush could not possibly win without Florida. Well, he's running behind in the most recent poll in Florida, and he could well win this race, because he's running even or even ahead in such slam-dunk Democratic states as Minnesota and West Virginia.

What this means is that there's a chance that Election Day as well could be surrounded by uncertainty. For the last 20 years, the first wave of exit polls, known to journalists and political operatives but not the public, have appeared shortly after lunch on the East Coast. And then we'd all wait around for the six or seven hours until we could let you folks in.

This year? We may have to wait until the votes are counted. We may have to ask questions we haven't asked in a generation, like, well, what about the rural vote? What's happening in Macomb or Oakland or Cuyahoga counties? In fact, we don't even know whether the guy who wins the most popular votes will win the presidency, thanks to the mechanics of the electoral college.

Just think of all that we don't and just imagine how certain we will sound when it all unfolds.

That's all for tonight. Tomorrow, my guests will include novelist Anne Rice. After all, it is Halloween.

I'm Jeff Greenfield in New York. Stay with CNN. "LARRY KING LIVE" is starting right now.



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