Burn the briefing books

Why I would never, never, never, never be a politician. Did I say never? Good.

And I won’t recommend that sort of life to you, either. Not unless you are happy to hand over one of your basic freedoms. The freedom to say what you want to say.

Yes, I bet you pull your punches around Aunt Gert. You won’t tell her what you really think. Because she might box your ears. And you maybe don’t really tell the boss you think his ideas on taxes qualify him for an asylum. Because he might sack you. Or worse.

But if I phoned you right now and asked your opinion, you are free to give it. On taxes. Social Security. The Iraq War. Healthcare.

Run for the White House and you give up that freedom. Suppose we phone one of the candidates right now. He or she is not going to give us an opinion.

The candidate will give us a scripted, rehearsed message. His or her staff has worked out answers for the big questions. Months ago.

Worse, the staff has come up with most of the questions and answers. Candidates ask “What is our position on this?” The team comes up with the official answer. They script it. They stick it in the prep book. The candidate memorizes it.

In the last debate Tim Russert asked Hillary if she favored Governor Spitzer’s plan to let illegal immigrants get driver’s licences. Asked her twice. She muffed it twice.

One of her aids explained why. Said it was the fault of the briefing books. Hillary’s briefing books let her down. In other words, the staff never anticipated that question. Did not prepare for it. Did not work out a position. Did not stuff it in the briefing book.

And so the candidate did not have an opinion. Because none had been prepared for her.

I am not picking on her. All the candidates operate this way. They have no opinions. Cannot afford them. Except for what is in their briefing books. And if you believe the opinions in their briefing books are those of the candidate I will sell you my Enron stock.

What a breath of fresh air it would be to hear a candidate speak the way your Uncle Harry does. “Congress? Bunch of crooked bums. We oughta fire the lot of them. Taxes? Too damn high, that’s what they are!”

Imagine a candidate who said things like: “Did I say that before? I guess I made a goof.” “Well, I changed my mind.” “Dunno. I’ll have to read up on that before I figure out where I stand.”

I would welcome that. But somehow “Dunno” is not going to win too many votes.

Another reason why I avoid politics. Candidates have to lie. This is a tradition that goes back to the first election. Make that the second election.

It started with the first guy who was out of office trying to get in. He had to convince voters his opponent was doing a rotten job. So sometimes he had to lie.

Politicians cannot say the current guy is doing all right. Not if he is in the other party. So they lie. Their staff comes up with phrases like “Worst economy since the Great Depression.” “This economy makes more jobs for Chinese than for Americans.” They stuff that garbage into the briefing books. And that’s what we hear in the next debate.

The current batch of candidates knows that when they rubbish the economy they are lying. If you could burn the briefing books. If you could peel away the layers of briefing, the scripts, the rehearsals. If you could get down to how they truly feel they would say things like “The economy has chugged along nicely. Tax cuts worked. Economy held up after 9-11, the dot com bust, Enron scandals, housing bust and lots of other stuff. Created lots of jobs. Average income is climbing now. Deficit has shrunk. I would have done things differently. I will make some changes here and there. But, truthfully, this is a pretty decent economy to inherit if I win.”

Now that ain’t gonna win any election. But it is probably closer to the truth than anything you will hear in the debates between here and next November.

Which is why I will never be a politician. And I recommend that career to you like I recommend the plague. You will express more of your own opinions at the dinner table tomorrow than most candidates will express in public in a lifetime.

From Tom ... as in Morgan.

For more columns and for Tom’s radio shows (and to write to Tom): tomasinmorgan.com.

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