‘Anonymous’ on Banality

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“It’s wonderful to be back here at the last place where I was truly anonymous,” Joe Klein, C’68, was telling a modest-sized crowd at Penn earlier this semester. But since that anonymity took place during the sixties, he added, “I guess you could say I was oblivious as much as I was anonymous.”

Klein, the Washington columnist for The New Yorker, former columnist for Newsweek, and once-anonymous author of the best-selling political novel Primary Colors, spoke about his evolution from oblivion to anonymity and beyond as part of the School of Arts and Sciences’ Alumni Lecture Series. He also spent some time probing “the new consensual banality” of America’s political discourse and otherwise taking the pulse of the republic.

“What do you do when things are going pretty well?” asked Klein, wearing a dark gray pinstriped suit and an unseasonable tan. “Machiavelli had a word for it — I named a character in Primary Colors after that word: ozio, indolence. He said that indolence was the greatest threat to a republic. And how do we overcome that? Don’t these guys in Washington have a responsibility to challenge us, to challenge you? I think that they do — and I think that there are ways that we could be challenging you and each other that we’re not.”

Noting that societies have always had a point “where we asked children to become citizens,” Klein told the students in the crowd: “We do owe you, and you owe yourselves, the challenge of going through an initiatory ritual.” Although he did not claim to know exactly what that ritual should be, he did praise President Clinton’s original idea for a “rigorous” national-service program, since Klein’s own observations had convinced him that the programs that “always work” have been those in which “inspired young people made one-to-one contact with kids who needed it.”

He recalled a seminal event in his journalistic career, when he was challenged by someone in government to “do a piece about something that works” instead of the usual “negative crap.” As a result, he now writes a column at semi-regular intervals about something that works — and inevitably gets “ten times as much mail” when he does.

“Now, my editors usually weren’t all that interested in that,” he added. “My editors were always interested in, ‘See what’s going on with Hillary.'” And in constantly sniffing around for scandal, he said, “we have created a truly noxious atmosphere that is very, very dangerous.”

Noting that recent polls have convinced politicians “that you didn’t want them to be angry at each other; you didn’t want them to be talking about much of anything at all,” Klein argued that most politicians are now following, not leading: “If the politicians aren’t going to inspire and challenge us, then the journalists have nothing else to write about but scandal.” Since most recent scandals have been, in his view, fairly small potatoes, it was “kind of ironic that I became the subject of a scandal last summer, and that the press behaved toward me in a way that I described the press behaving in a book — and also in a way that I have been critical of for ten years in my columns.” And a hundred years from now, he suggested, “people are going to be sitting in a classroom like this and studying this period the way we look back on Salem in the 17th century.”

Throughout history, he added, “societies have needed ceremonies and rituals. A very important ceremony that we don’t have in this society is human sacrifice. And this kind of takes up the slack.”

But, he said, “When you’re on the other side of that, when you have the twenty cameras facing you, as I did briefly last summer, it is impossible to think straight. During my infamous press conference, I found myself saying things that I realized I didn’t truly believe. Because they were after me. There were twenty of them and me. They were screaming at me! I don’t see how people can think straight.”

Klein, who resigned from his political commentator’s job at CBS News and took a leave of absence from Newsweek in the wake of his “outing,” recalled that at the end of Primary Colors, “one of the characters asks [presidential candidate] Jack Stanton, ‘How can you get up every day and do this?’ And I think that’s a legitimate question. I don’t know how these guys do it. I have more respect for them. And I think we have to be a little bit more humanitarian to each other if this is going to hold together.”

Asked what had created the “noxious political atmosphere” in the first place, Klein suggested that his own generation — and the events of that era — had a lot to do with it.

“Vietnam was a pretty awful thing,” he said. “I remember getting in the caravan going down to the moratoriums in Washington, and we were right — the war was wrong. By the time I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, I felt my government was run by a war criminal. I think that that atmosphere has informed the journalism of my generation to a much greater extent than it should have. And it is something that I have had to work very hard to overcome. And the way I have overcome is by reporting it — by going out and finding the reality in the streets.”

The other combustible element in the current atmosphere is competition “so fierce that it leads us to lose our heads,” and he said that he had been “really distressed” when Newsweek, “a publication of which I was very proud, usually, reported that Colin Powell’s wife took drugs for depression. What the hell business was it of ours? But it’s competition, because if we didn’t report it, somebody else would have. I don’t know how we get out of this, but it’s something that you should all watch real carefully.”

Since his own integrity had been called into question last summer after he had spent weeks denying having written Primary Colors — an ordeal that “has to be one of the weirdest experiences that a writer has lived through in the media age” — Klein offered some explanations.

“At first it was just — I was chicken!” he said, drawing laughter. “I mean, I didn’t know I could write fiction. I thought it would be a hoot in a kind of Victorian way, and then I realized that the book would not get a fair read if my name were attached to it. I wanted it to be read as it was. An interesting thing happened: When it became a game for everybody else, this furious, intense witch-hunt of a game, it stopped being a game for me. I panicked. It got to be very scary.”

Klein acknowledged that he “probably made some mistakes in letting the game go on as long as it did,” and said he was “still kind of sorting through what it means, what it meant, what I experienced.”

But, he concluded defiantly: “I wouldn’t trade it, and for those of you in the Class of 2000, the one piece of advice that I’d give you is: Go for it — take chances. This is a country where failure isn’t the end of the road; it’s just the beginning of the next adventure. I’m really thrilled that I wrote the book, and I’m going to write more — this was a lot of fun. And maybe I’ll find another pseudonym.”

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