I have no personal contacts with anyone in power in Washington; none. "Out of the loop" means me. All I know about the movers and shakers is what I read in the newspapers and hear on the talk shows. Nonetheless, I have always suspected that what these people say in private is different from their public pronouncements.
Why do I think that? Because that has been my experience in every job I have held since I was a teenager. I don't think I am alone in this regard. I suspect that nearly everyone can tell tales about colleagues who project a public image starkly different from what they are like in private, cynical, self-centered misanthropes who sound like a cross between St. Francis and Mother Teresa when a reporter is in the room; people whose public pronouncements elicit groans and raised eyebrows from those who work with them and know what they are really like.
Well, if I am out of the loop, David Brooks is in the middle of it. He knows many of the key players in Washington on a personal basis. He is a New York Times columnist who appears regularly on the evening talk shows. That gives him entrée. In a column in early February, he let us in on a secret of sorts. He informed his readers that there is indeed a difference between what politicians say in public and what they really think. And guess what? He says that many of the pols are actually better people than we think, that they are actually "reasonable in private." Brooks calls them RIPs.
He writes, "I have been in the Senate dining room and heard senators, in whispers and with furtive glances, acknowledge the weaknesses in their own arguments and admit the justice of some of the other side's points. I have seen politicians fess up to their own evasions and acknowledge the trade-offs inevitable in tough decisions."
Why do they say these things only in private? Because, says Brooks, "If it ever got out that these pols were sensible and independent, it would ruin their careers. If it ever got out that they could think for themselves or often had subversive and honest thoughts, they would be branded as traitors to their party and uncertain champions for their cause."
Brooks uses the debate over Iraq to make his point. He contends that everyone in Washington "senses that we have reached a crucial juncture" in Iraq; that "in private, everyone acknowledges how complex the choices are. Everyone senses that the policy being promoted possibly won't work and could have ruinous consequences." He assures us that "the mood — in private — is sober and serious."
Yet, he continues, "The politicians have completely failed to institutionalize that sense of sobriety in the public sphere. Instead of having a serious debate, the Senate disgraced itself with mind-bendingly petty partisanship." The party line prevailed, as it did with the "Democratic presidential candidates," who "engaged in an unholy bidding war to get out of Iraq soonest, which had nothing to do with realities in Iraq and everything to do with applause lines in Iowa." "The Democrats ignored the intelligence community's warning about withdrawal after spending three years blasting the Bush administration for ignoring intelligence." In turn, the "Republicans maintained near lock-step solidarity even though privately, Republican opinions are all over the place."
So rather than providing the country with a serious debate over what to do in Iraq, we get "transcontinental cattle calls," in which the politicians competed "to most assiduously flatter the prejudices of their most febrile supporters. They traffic in pre-approved bromides while searching with their hyperattenuated antennas for their party's maximum sweet spot of approval, love and applause." We are left with the country's most important business being conducted "in the land of SIPB (Self-Important Pathetic Blowhards)."
A few months back I was talking to an intelligent and thoughtful person who does not follow politics closely. (News junkies should keep in mind that there are such folks out there, people who spend their time on their jobs and families, and things such as good books and music, rather than with the talk shows.) He made a point much like the one Brooks is making: "I don't get it. The Democrats act as if nothing Bush does is any good. I mean, there has to be something he proposes that they can work with. They just seem to want to bash him. And the Republicans were the same when Clinton was in office. All they wanted to do was tear him down." You can see his point, no?
And not just about Iraq. It makes you wonder about what other issues the pols talk about differently in private. For instance, might it be that everyone in Congress agrees that Hillary and Nancy Pelosi went to Iraq a few weeks back for nothing more than photo ops, and that Hillary's flip-flopping on Iraq has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with her presidential ambitions? Do the pols all joke in private over the strange turn of events that has led to Scooter Libby being on trial while Sandy Berger goes along his merry way? Do they all agree that minorities will remain in poverty, no matter what the government does, as long as minority children continue to have children out of wedlock?
Do the Congressional Democrats and Republicans all nod in agreement that they are irresponsibly ignoring the coming crisis in the Social Security system because they want the other party to take the blame for the pain that will be involved in fixing it? Do the politicians who glad hand each other at the State of the Union address, after calling each other liars and cheats and frauds all year long, act that way because they understand the heated rhetoric they use in public is just part of an effort to pull the wool over the voters' eyes?
Do the Republicans who piled on Joe Biden for his description of Barack Obama, and Barbara Boxer for her statements about Condoleezza Rice not having a family member in Iraq, nudge each other playfully over how they are taking advantage of Biden's and Boxer's sloppy syntax to misrepresent what they were actually saying? Do the Democrats shake their heads and chortle over how Ted Kennedy was able to get away with his shameful misrepresentation of Robert Bork's views during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court?
One other thing: Do you wonder who some of the better-known SIPBs, who are actually RIPs, might be? Me too. Brooks does not name names. Which is also part of the story. There may not be many things the media hold sacred, but the off-the-record comment is on the list. It all reminds me of a comment made by talk show host Chris Matthews during the height of the brouhaha over Monica Lewinsky.
There was a long line of Clinton apologists who routinely appeared on the talk shows, including Matthews' show Hardball, to try to explain away Clinton's behavior. Remember the lines they used in that effort? "Everyone lies about sex." "This is private misbehavior; it has nothing to do with Clinton's public duties." "He's a good man who had a lapse in judgment." One night, while engaged in some give-and-take with some reporters, Matthews shook his head and made a comment I suspect he would like to be able to take back. He confessed, "You know the quip about a diplomat being someone hired to lie for his country. Well, a lot of people who come on this show are like that. They admit to me after the show that they don't believe a word they say when the cameras are on."
There is a lesson to be learned here the next time you see a politician stride to the microphones: Odds are you are about to enter the land of the SIPB.