September 12, 2003

Knight '73 Speaks on Politics, Campaigns

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Peter Knight ’73, a senior advisor to several Democratic presidential campaigns, gave a lecture yesterday to an overflowing Kaufmann Auditorium, in which he discussed changes in American politics over the past thirty years.

After discussing his experiences as a student at Cornell, Knight divided the main part of his lecture into four topics: the evolution of money’s role in politics, the changes in the political atmosphere in Washington since he became involved in politics, the difficulties campaigns face in communicating effectively with voters and a shift in key underlying structures in American politics.

In his lecture, Knight addressed the ever-growing role of large amounts of money in politics over the course of his career and its effects on government and campaigns. According to Knight, many candidates for major offices are forced to spend 75 percent of their time raising money in order to remain competitive. He talked about a friend’s California congressional campaign, in which money dominated the race.

“There was nothing [the candidate] could do in terms of talking with voters that would be as influential or effective as raising money,” Knight said.

In the second topic of his lecture, Knight discussed what he sees as a near-total breakdown of across-the-aisle relationships and dialogue in Washington in the past decade.

When he first came to Washington, Knight said, “After debating a bill in Congress with your opponent, you could go out to dinner together afterwards. This is no longer the case.”

“We have gone from daily discussions to nothing at all,” he added.

Knight attributed the deterioration of bipartisan relations in part to the increasingly aggressive media following the Watergate scandal and Republican resentment of the Democrats’ 40-year hold on the House of Representatives, which ended in 1994. However, in Knight’s opinion, the breakdown of discussions between the parties stemmed largely from Newt Gingrich’s tactics in the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. According to Knight, these tactics were reflected in the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.

While Knight conceded that both Clinton’s policy and his personal affairs merited a certain amount of criticism, he said that in his opinion the former president did nothing that should have been construed as an impeachable offense.

“It was the Republican political machine and the Republican political machine alone that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton,” he said.

Changes in the media industry and its audience over the past three decades have made it more difficult for candidates to get their message across to voters, Knight continued, noting that viewership of the nightly news has dropped from 92 percent in the mid-1970s to 19 percent today. Additionally, according to Knight, the three major networks at one time reached 80 percent of American viewers, but today seven networks compete for just 40 percent of news viewers. Candidates face additional difficulties due to the high cost of advertising on numerous stations in major markets.

Knight does see one positive opportunity arising from these changes. He believes that candidates will have to learn how to conduct effective campaigns at the grassroots level.

“The hero of the 2004 campaign is going to be the field manager,” he said. “The key to success in 2004 is making politics local again.”

In his discussion of how some of the underlying structures of American politics have changed over the past three decades, Knight pointed to the success of conservative individuals and corporations in setting the current political agenda. He detailed the development of the modern neoconservative movement, tracing it to a 1971 memo written by soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, who was attempting to rally conservatives against a perceived increase in threats against the American enterprise system by pro-consumer, anti-corporate crusaders, most notably Ralph Nader. Knight described a system of “strategic philanthropy” employed by conservatives to create an effective counterbalance to liberal influence.

“There was a long-term investment in their own [conservative] scholars and ideas,” Knight said, referring to the establishment of conservative think tanks and legal foundations that began at that time.

“These conservative foundations set out to change the world — and they did,” he added.

When asked why no similar development has taken place on the liberal side, Knight replied that in his opinion the Democrats are well behind the Republicans in terms of “clarity of purpose,” and that there are lessons to be learned from the success of the Republicans in recent history. He urged the audience to become involved in politics, saying that the only way change has ever occurred is through the actions of “small groups of thoughtful people.”

Knight was inspired to become involved in the political arena by listening to the speeches and reading the work of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. In the mid-1970s, Knight worked with then-Congress member Al Gore, who was a member of the oversight subcommittee of the Commerce Committee. In this capacity, Knight and Gore investigated business practices in several major industries, notably tobacco and oil. Knight formed a close relationship with Gore and went on to manage Gore’s unsuccessful 1988 campaign for president. Knight achieved greater prominence as the chair of Gore’s vice-presidential campaign in 1992 and as the manager of Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. More recently, Knight headed fundraising for the Democratic National Committee in 2000 and is now the managing director for MetWest Financial, a large asset management corporation.

Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education, reacted positively to the interest Knight’s lecture attracted.

“I was very pleased at the student turnout,” Kramnick said. “It was moving to hear his mixture of personal and political discussion and his years at Cornell when the campus was alive with passionate debate.”

He added, “It would have been nice if there was more of a conservative turnout,” referring to what appeared to be an almost exclusively liberal audience judging from the lack of debate during the question-and-answer session that followed the lecture.

Casey Holmes ’06 reacted positively to Knight’s lecture, seeing it as a call to arms for Democrats to get involved in politics and advance their ideas and candidates.

“I think Democrats are going to be very adamant in [their efforts to] defeat Bush in 2004,” Holmes said. “[Knight’s] conclusion about the power of small groups of people having an effect on the world was inspiring.”

Archived article by Daniel Palmadesso