Chuck Todd, the new host of Meet The Press, seems like a regular guy. He's likable, normal, one of us.
This has as much to do with perception as reality.
As The Washington Post's Dana Milbank recently noted, "Todd has been a Washington denizen longer than" many journalists perceived as consummate Beltway insiders, "working as a political reporter here for 22 years."
It doesn't feel that way. And Todd seems to know it. Here's Milbank on Todd's embrace of his humble roots, which certainly seems to fuel his everyman image, even as he has vaulted to the most elite ranks of the Political Media Industrial Complex:
"I'm not trying to Horatio Alger," Todd told my Post colleague Ben Terris. "But it's an advantage that I grew up middle class in South Florida" — where, he said, his father wasn't always fully employed and the whole family at times shared a mattress. "I feel like I understand that resentment that can build when the New York perspective or the Washington perspective doesn't seem to understand what's going on in America." [Washington Post]
Obviously, the perception/reality divide on insider-ism isn't confined to Chuck Todd, or journalism. Think of it this way: Who's the biggest "outsider" in American politics today? At or near the top of the list is Ted Cruz, the government-shuttering, Tea Party-backed junior senator from Texas. But as a senator, Cruz is already a member of the most elite club in America, the U.S. Senate. He also went to an elite Ivy league school, served in the Bush administration, and is married to a Goldman Sachs executive. And yet, America thinks of him as an outsider, and in a way, he is.
This has been going on forever. Silver-spoon scions FDR and RFK became men of the people, while some of their contemporaries and adversaries (many of whom actually came from humble or hard-scrabble upbringings) were cast as plutocrats or insiders.
So why do we so often confuse insiders for outsiders, the phonies with the authentic, the ruling class with the country class, and so on? Sometimes the distortions are perpetuated by savvy players who know how to spin public narratives to their advantage. Consider the case of Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier. As USA Today noted:
Ali had gotten under Frazier's skin leading up to the [so-called "Fight of the Century"], [when Ali] called him such names as "Uncle Tom"... [USA Today]
Some of Ali's taunts were more stereotypically racial, but his casting of Frazier as an "Uncle Tom" was the legendary boxer's most harmful, egregious, and frustratingly ironic attack. Frazier grew up a poor black kid from Beaufort, South Carolina, who made his name on the mean streets of Philadelphia, working at a meat packing factory. Ali, conversely, was from a relatively middle-class (some would say working-class) family. Frazier's experience was likely much more similar to the experience of most American blacks of his era. Yet he was portrayed as the "Uncle Tom."
Ali was able to cast himself as the authentic hero of the black community in no small part by employing marketing and public relations tactics. Politicians have long used similar tactics to create narratives that help their careers, which often means trying to shed their more privileged backgrounds and portray themselves as heroes of the downtrodden. People rewrite their own histories for personal gain, and America often falls for it.
In other cases, sometimes things simply change. Sometimes rich kids get polio and learn to overcome obstacles, helping them identify with down-on-their-luck Americans. Sometimes kids from Illinois grow up to become Hollywood movie stars before being elected president. Their changing circumstances help them connect with average Americans, even though they are also the very definition of elite.
Now, overall, the system is undeniably rigged to make it very difficult for outsiders who become successful to remain outsiders. A lot of people who come from humble beginnings have to work very hard to make it to the top, and along the way, have to leave behind the very things that made them outsiders. Sometimes they wake up one day utterly disconnected from their past. We would all be wise to remember Joan Didion's admonition that "we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends."
It is not uncommon for people to compromise away their histories, to cease being regular people out of necessity, only to forget how to be regular. Dick Morris has said a lot of silly things, but this one was all too true: "The hardest thing to do in politics is to think like an outsider when you've become an insider." It's also hard for America to tell the difference between the two.
This happens in politics all the time. As David Brooks noted, "Occasionally you get a candidate, like Tim Pawlenty, who grew up working class. But he gets sucked up by the consultants, the donors, and the professional party members and he ends up sounding like every other Republican." Is he an insider or an outsider? Sometimes it seemed like Pawlenty himself didn't know. No wonder the rest of us were confused.