Lawrence O'Donnell and Richard Stengel

Pander, Pure and Simple
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Aug. 9 2000 7:01 PM

Lawrence O'Donnell and Richard Stengel


Well, I think that's the idea, to seem brave without actually being so. What's the risk, really? Ten percent of U.S. senators are Jewish, yet Jews make up only 2 percent of the population. And these are senators in states that don't even know how to make bagels, I'm talking Minnesota and Wisconsin. Isn't that what politics--or, rather, campaigning--is all about, to seem bold when you are just being practical, to seem idealistic when you are being base, to seem statesmanlike when you are just angling for a photo op?


I saw that somebody did a Nexis search for how often the word "bold" came up in stories about the choice, and the number was in the hundreds. I think the press is just playing into the vanity of the candidates here. To bring up a subject close to my heart, this is a kind of media flattery of politicians.

One of the ways that politicians flatter themselves is to say, "I'm making hard choices," or "I'm giving you straight talk." This also flatters the voters because the politician is essentially saying, "Yes, you have the wisdom and the maturity to understand this." It's a counterintuitive pander, and the press fell for it with John McCain. The Straight-Talk Express, my foot. It was just the Talk Endlessly to Reporters Express, and the reporters' reaction was, "You like me, you really like me." President Bartlet would never pander in that way, would he, Lawrence?

Lawrence O'Donnell is a co-producer and writer on The West Wing and writes the "National Affairs" column for New York magazine. Richard Stengel, the editor of, is the author of You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery (click here to buy it). He was also chief speechwriter and senior adviser on Bill Bradley's presidential campaign.


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