“I want to talk about politics,” said Paul Begala, political consultant and commentator for CNN and former adviser to President Bill Clinton. “I love politicians, and I love politics.”
Sharing his “experience born out of many years in the political trenches,” as Hobart and William Smith Colleges President Mark D. Gearan said, Begala took the stage Wednesday night as the last President’s Forum Series lecturer of the fall semester.
The Democratic strategist and political contributor’s lecture, “American Politics: Too Important to be Left to the Politicians,” was infused with many current events, including the recent gubernatorial and congressional elections, the healthcare reform debates and Afghanistan, as well as the 2008 presidential election and the role of the media, explaining the many influences that the public has on politicians and politics.
Drawing laughs from the audience, Begala said, “We need to get our news from as many sources as possible; we can’t use the news like a drunk uses a lamppost-for support instead of illumination.”
Discussing partisanship, he said that many times, despite mistakes politicians make, “We voted for them; we’ve made these judgments, and we stick with them.”
Begala entered the national political scene after the consulting firm he and fellow Democratic strategist James Carville started, Carville & Begala, helped Bill Clinton win the presidential election in 1992. Serving in the Clinton administration as counselor to the president, he was a close adviser to Clinton and helped define and defend the administration’s agenda, serving as a principal public spokesman.
From his perspective as a spokesman, he said that image is a huge factor in a politician’s success, citing President Barack Obama’s consciousness and management of his image. “How many people know President Obama put up a swing set at the White House?” he asked the crowd. “How many people know he got his daughters a dog? It’s the most famous dog in the world. We want our president to be a pater familius. Image is a big part of leadership, an important part of leadership.”
But, he reminded, “No matter the image or how gifted the orator, we judge our presidents on their results.”
Closing out the speech before a question and answer session with students, faculty and Geneva community members, Begala returned to the issue of political image and presentation: “Reagan said that you have to be an actor to be president, but I think even more than that you can’t be president unless you are an American exceptionalist-you have to believe that amazing things can happen; that up from nothing, miracle is the American Dream.”
“I thought he gave a good speech,” said Professor of Political Science Iva Deutchman. “He does a wonderful imitation of Bill Clinton! The best (i.e., smartest) thing he said was about the original Social Security bill, which we needed to know about, and how it was not the Social Security we know today – and thus, his point was that a number of today’s anti-health care Democrats would have been anti-Social Security Democrats in the 1930s. He’s right, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try real hard you may just get what you need! Legislation gets improved over time. We need to remember this.”
Jenna Levita ’08 said she was intrigued by Begala’s comments on the image of politicians. “I’ve noticed, and I’m glad he said it, that politics is very much about image and perpetuating that image. Like Begala said, many times politicians get so overcome with the image they forget about the ideas.”
Begala is currently an affiliated professor of public policy at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute. He is not a paid political consultant for any politicians or candidates for office. Begala earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Texas, where he taught before his work at the White House.
The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000 by President Mark D. Gearan, is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty, staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members. President’s Forum events are open the public; all are encouraged to attend.