The Republican California political guru who crafted four successful Ronald Reagan campaigns, two for governor and two for president, does not watch Fox News or its conservative bobblehead pundits.
Fox News has an agenda, 82-year-old Stuart Spencer said over breakfast in Palm Desert, where he and his wife make their home. Same is true of MSNBC, he said. One goes right and the other goes left, and Spencer doesn’t see why those interested in educating themselves on matters of national importance would turn to either for reliable information.
Spencer can’t watch the maudlin Fox host, who blubbers over the destruction of the nation by a president he calls a racist.
Keith Olbermann of MSNBC?
Spencer wants reason, not rants. He wants substance, not smirks. He has no interest in watching one side lob grenades at the other in nightly warfare that further divides the nation along cultural and political lines.
It annoys him that Fox can’t admit that Sarah Palin was a cynical and preposterous choice as a VP candidate (“she just wasn’t qualified”), and MSNBC can’t admit that President Obama is too reliant on government cures or that he’s tall on rhetoric and short on details.
Spencer said the last time he appeared on “Hardball” with motormouth Chris Matthews, the host asked a question and then interrupted before Spencer uttered two sentences. So he’s scratched that show too.
Spencer, who estimates he ran 400 political campaigns in his career, said he reads the L.A. Times and the Desert Sun, and sometimes adds the Wall Street Journal or New York Times to the daily mix.
“If I watch TV news, it’s usually CNN,” Spencer said. “Not that they don’t have their own agenda. Or I’ll watch the Jim Lehrer show for something more solid.”
I knew I could count on Spencer for a good dose of common sense, and that’s why I drove out to see him. It’s always been clear to me that while most Americans are somewhat reasonable, a good 10% to 15% of partisans at either end of the spectrum are out of their minds. But the wackos are wackier than ever.
First it was scary people on the left who insisted 9/11 was an inside job, and now the right is carrying that flag. Then we’ve got those who go on believing Obama is a Muslim or a communist when he’s not busy being a racist.
Such craziness might die quietly, except that there’s around-the-clock punditry and Internet delirium to fuel the paranoia, and the daily national conversation is framed at the fringes. Instead of talking about healthcare, we talk about the congressman who interrupted Obama’s speech on healthcare to call him a liar.
It’s hard, Spencer said, to pinpoint exactly where we went off the rails. There have always been cultural and social changes in the nation, he said, and over time the differences of various regions became more pronounced. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and cohorts exploited that when they tried to commandeer the policy agenda by acing out Democrats, Spencer said, and he thinks current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is doing the same to Republicans.
I asked Spencer if part of the problem is the growing influence of money, which makes politicians more beholden to special interests and therefore more divided. Maybe, he said, but money was always a factor in politics. Today there’s also a different kind of money in play: the fortunes that TV and radio broadcasts make by having gas bag commentators fan the flames day and night.
It’s more than a little interesting, isn’t it, that Spencer has such contempt for the media megastars who often invoke the name of his former boss as their supreme being?
“When I had a place in Oregon, I’d drive 25 minutes and [Rush] Limbaugh would be on three different stations,” Spencer said. “I couldn’t get rid of the son of a. . . .”
Acquaintances would ask Spencer about Limbaugh’s brilliant observations, and Spencer would politely say he never listened. His astonished pals, knowing how close he was to the Gipper, would demand to know why not.
“Because he’s an ass,” Spencer would say, only he added a second syllable that makes the insult unprintable in a family newspaper.
Reagan was himself at times a divisive and hypocritical leader whose debacles, including the Iran-Contra scandal, have been obscured by years of myth-making. But he was civil to his political foes and built lasting relationships, political and social, with the Kennedys, among others. He worked closely with Sen. Ted Kennedy on budget matters and international disarmament, and with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on the end of the Cold War.
The tenor was different then, Spencer said, recalling that on Thursday nights, Reagan invited Democrat Tip O’Neill, the House speaker, to the White House for hours of storytelling and problem-solving.
It was a time when you sat down with your political counterparts and tried to find common ground. If the other guy got the best of you, you would look him in the eye and say, “OK, you win. But I’m going to get you next time.”
In Sacramento, Spencer said, “you could fight all day and then go have a cocktail with the other side at night.” His fix for California’s intractable budget mess would begin with redrawing legislative districts.
“The first thing I used to tell a candidate was that he had to fit his district,” Spencer said, but the districts are now drawn to be safely to the right or safely to the left, so moderates never get out of the blocks and Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on the time of day.
Ordinarily, a plate of pancakes puts me in a good mood. But Spencer was in an even better mood than I was as we finished our breakfast.
“I’m Irish and I’m an optimist,” he said.
In his lifetime, he’s seen inventions and advances he never could have imagined, and he still likes to think anything is possible. The TV and radio pundits he loathes are capitalizing in part on national dissatisfaction with political leadership, and that just might lead to better representation.
Spencer’s not ready to put money on it. But he’s not giving up hope.
“It’s all cyclical in politics,” he said, and then he headed home.
With his TV and radio turned off, and no computer skills to speak of, Spencer has an easier time than the rest of us believing that better days are just down the road.