Brookings Institution think-tanker Stephen Hess has stumbled into either the most perfect, or the worst imaginable, time to release The Little Book of Campaign Etiquette (Brookings, $14.95). Copies of the small, cheekily un-Brookings-like volume rolled off the presses just as Bill Clinton was rewriting the rules on “Lying,” “Sex Scandals,” and several other chapter headings in Hess’ book.
“It’s a little stunning to see what he did, and what he thought he could get away with,” Hess says. Even Watergatea scandal Hess witnessed from inside the Nixon White House as an urban affairs adviser to the presidentnever prepared Hess for this one. “I don’t think there’s a precedent for it,” he says.
His book, featuring an introduction by Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, takes on 40-plus topics”Debates,” “Focus Groups,” “Talk Radio”and suggests how to make each of them less corrosive to political discourse. Naturally, some of his suggestions are quixotic (fewer anonymous sources in media accounts, more opportunities for targets of talk-radio assaults to respond to accusations), while others are sensible almost to the point of being no-brainers (more coverage by local news outlets of elections they currently ignore; an end to “push polls,” the fleeting, scurrilous attacks carried out by campaigns under the guise of conducting public-opinion surveys).
Having been a speechwriter for President Eisenhower, a U.N. appointee of President Ford, and a consultant to President Carter, Hess claims he’s undaunted by the immensity of the task of reforming a troubled political system. “My approach is like the ‘broken window’ theory of crime,” he says. “Once you stop the kids jumping turnstiles, you can start making a difference on a lot of the more serious stuff.”
Hess’ whose previous books have been translated into 30 languages, says that Clinton’s fibs are at least helping him secure some TV and radio bookings that enable him to proselytize good-government ideas to a receptive, scandal-weary audience. But he doesn’t really have any advice for the prez himself, he says: “My book is not the Little Book of Campaign Etiquette for Brazen Liars.”