Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bernstein, O’Rourke, Politics, and Zero Sum Games

Had Richard Nixon in mind yesterday, the anniversary of the “Checkers” speech. Was thinking about Nixon again today thanks to a visit to the campus of UNC-Charlotte by Carl Bernstein and P.J. O’Rourke. The pair appeared as part of UNC-C’s Chancellor’s Speakers Series, with the event called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House.”

Bernstein, of course, is half of the famed journalist team with Bob Woodward heavily involved in reporting on the Watergate case as detailed in their All the President’s Men and depicted in the film of the same name. O’Rourke, meanwhile, also has a four decade-plus career writing about politics, dating back to the early 1970s when he was part of the National Lampoon.

O’Rourke was there with Nat Lamp when they were doing a fave of mine, the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which ran from late 1972 through the end of 1973, a period exactly corresponding with the evolving Watergate scandal. Thus did the NLRH often feature Nixon and Watergate-related material, with The Missing White House Tapes LP (released in early 1974) compiling some of the best bits.

The presentation was pretty wide-ranging, and while I was disappointed there was very little said about Nixon or Watergate during the 75 minutes, there were a lot of interesting points made by both, most of which concerned contemporary politics and the current presidential race.

O’Rourke arrived late, actually, which gave Bernstein a chance to talk about Pope Francis’s current U.S. visit and contrast his message of humility with the “grandiosity” of current politics. Once O’Rourke showed up, though, he grabbed a lot of attention with various one-liners such as “I’m not stupid, but I’m a student of stupidity... I’m a political reporter.”

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton got a lot of attention during the discussion. Bernstein’s latest book was a biography of Clinton, and so he had a lot to say about her “server issue” (although made no comparisons to Nixon and the tapes, which many others have). Meanwhile O’Rourke made the point that Trump can’t be called a demagogue, because “a demagogue is someone with a bad idea who is good at selling it, and Trump has no idea.”

The only time Watergate came up at all was after a questioner asked how the scandal would be covered today amid all of our social media, the internet, and other differences since the 1970s.

“The web is a fabulous reportorial platform,” said Bernstein (with some surprising optimism), who describe the current era as a “golden age of investigative reporting.” O’Rourke’s rejoinder was that while there’s a lot of reporting being done, it has become harder to decide about how authoritative it is. O’Rourke also added that if Watergate happened today, he guessed the scandal might have been discovered sooner since “the conspirators would have been more leaky.”

O’Rourke made one other point about politics I found interesting, describing it somewhat cyncially as a “zero sum game” in which no one benefits without someone else suffering. “What I got is something you can’t have,” is the phrase he used to describe the politician who has earned a vote or some other bit of power via whatever means are at his or her disposal. Nixon most definitely thought of politics in this way -- as a “zero sum” game -- which for me makes it all the more inviting to compare Nixon’s politics with his poker playing (as I have been doing in earnest for some time now).

Bernstein wasn’t as ready to give up hope when it comes politics and the possibility of good leadership, even though he largely agreed with O’Rourke that the crop of presidential candidates at present leaves a great deal to be desired. And in the end Bernstein’s liberal leanings and O’Rourke’s conservative coloring were mostly balanced out, which made for a thought-provoking afternoon on campus.

(EDIT [added 9/29/15]: If you are curious, you can watch the event yourself by clicking through to UNC-Charlotte’s website where they have archived it.)

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