"All Things Dull and Ugly," the title of a Monty Python song,
makes a tempting label for the 1996 presidential campaign. Each of
the three major candidates was a rerun, as familiar as a Python
routine but not nearly as funny. Ross "The Very Silly Party" Perot
managed the feat of turning clinical insanity into a cliché. Bill
Clinton made presidential sleaziness seem commonplace, even
acceptable: "Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more!" And poor Bob
Dole found himself in a political version of the Dead Parrot
Sketch. (This campaign is no more! It has ceased to be! It's
expired and gone to meet its maker!
It's kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleedin' choir invisible! This is an EX-CAMPAIGN!)
Writing a good, readable book about such an election is tough--but feasible. As Raymond Chandler said, there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. The 1984 election ended in a predictable landslide for Reagan, and it still yielded such worthy volumes as Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller's The Quest for the Presidency 1984 and Richard Brookhiser's The Outside Story. This time, however, the literary world has fared less well.
First and least among the campaign books considered here is Back from the Dead. It consists of a main text by five Newsweek reporters, a foreword by Joe Klein (the "anonymous" author of Primary Colors), an afterword by Peter Goldman, and 75 pages of memoranda, mostly by mid-level campaign trolls. Back from the Dead confirms an old bit of Hollywood lore: A long list of writing credits suggests that a production is a patchwork mess.
The book's brevity (only 214 pages before the memoranda) stems less from succinctness than from superficiality. The authors' implicit message is: "We'd rather be doing something else, so we're trying to finish this damned thing as fast as we can." Instead of coming to grips with the remarkable historical forces that resulted in the re-election of a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, they concentrate on trivial tittle-tattle. Does anybody really want to learn about the backbiting between Don Sipple and Scott Reed? Does anybody even care who those guys were? (They worked for Dole, if you're interested, which I doubt.)
The authors have odd priorities. They devote an entire chapter to Colin Powell, who chose to stay out of the race, yet they scarcely mention Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes, who actually won primaries. Their treatment of Forbes is especially deplorable. "The Forbes campaign deserves little more than a footnote in the history of politics," they say. "But it is worth looking back at as an object lesson in the effects of negative campaigning." That's nonsense. Alone among the GOP candidates, Forbes offered a program that was genuine (unlike Alexander's), coherent (unlike Dole's), and forward-looking (unlike Buchanan's).
When the authors do get the story right, they merely repeat
things that political
observers have long known. Over time, Clinton got better at acting presidential. Dole had honor but lacked vision. Gingrich made mistakes that hurt the GOP. And Dick Morris, the consultant who had guided Clinton since the early 1980s, gave cynical advice that enabled the White House to exploit Republican missteps. The book quotes Democratic pollster Pat Caddell: "When Clinton lost the [Arkansas gubernatorial] election in 1980, he sold his soul to the Devil, and the Devil sent him to Dickie Morris."
Perhaps he is not demonic, but Morris is definitely slimy. He originally signed a confidentiality agreement with the Clinton campaign, but right after it expired at the end of 1995, he weaseled his way out of signing an extension while secretly negotiating a $2.5 million book deal. When the deal became public, White House press secretary Mike McCurry said: "It does some violence to the concept of disclosure that we are attempting to establish." Ouch. Having "Stonewall" McCurry criticize your lack of candor is like having Mike Tyson disparage your table manners.
Morris's book, Behind the Oval Office,
is revealing in a peculiar, unintentional way. A notorious tabloid story about his relationship with a prostitute ended his formal involvement with the Clinton campaign in August 1996. Morris writes that the trysts began in mid-1995, after President Clinton gave a Morris-inspired address about fiscal responsibility. Feeling a "sense of triumph," he thought he "could get away with anything." Only in Washington could someone regard a balanced-budget speech as an aphrodisiac.
In the text, Morris tries to stay in the good graces of future Democratic clients by explaining away his past Republican involvements (political, not sexual). He says he worked in the Jesse Helms 1990 re-election campaign because he "misjudged" the North Carolina senator. Yeah, right. By 1990, Helms had served for 18 years and had established a reputation for consistency, if not rigidity. Anyone who can work for both Helms and Clinton cannot care about principle, which is why Washington insiders tell this joke: "Why didn't the prostitute charge Dick Morris for her services? Professional courtesy."
Morris is still trying to butter up
Clinton. Notwithstanding some mild pro forma criticisms, he heaps praise upon the president, including this jaw-dropper: "Lincoln and Clinton, it seemed to me, had a lot in common." That statement rings true only to those who can picture an evasive, lecherous, pudgy Lincoln.
Equally preposterous is this statement: "Race played no role in
the 1996 presidential election even though anti-immigrant and
anti-affirmative action ballot propositions threatened to make it
the most racial of recent contests." Race played no role? In a way,
it decided the election. According to the Voter News Service (a
polling service jointly used by many news organizations) exit poll,
non-Hispanic white voters favored Dole (46 percent) over Clinton
(43 percent). The president won because of overwhelming support
among blacks (84 percent) and Latinos (72 percent). In part, his
the longstanding Democratic advantage among ethnic minorities, but it also resulted from efforts to demonize opponents of racial preferences. While Democrats gained among voters who supported preferences, Republicans scored few points on the other side. Many stayed mum on the issue because they feared that Democrats would brand them church-burning bigots.
Morris is a man of some intelligence, and his book occasionally
offers insights. Democratic political operatives, he says, "don't
really know many Republicans well and often imagine them to be
secretly evil." With his bipartisan experience, Morris
understood how to flank Republican strengths and anticipate Republican weaknesses. After the 1994 election, he correctly argued that Clinton could dilute the GOP's appeal by embracing large portions of its policy agenda. And he also knew that Dole would flop with the tax issue--not because people liked taxes but because they doubted Dole would actually cut them.
Notwithstanding these spurts of straight political analysis, Morris's relationship with the truth was strictly a series of one-night stands. When he fell, many Democrats cheered. As Michael Lewis observes in Trail Fever, this response was "a reaction to being constantly told by people like Dick Morris that gray is white and two and two make five."
Based on a series of articles in The New Republic, Lewis's book is better than the Morris memoir or the Newsweek mishmash. Throughout 1996, Lewis hung around the edges of the presidential campaign, making witty, novelistic observations that other reporters envied. Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar "resembles a mechanical toy into which someone has inserted batteries one size too large." Alan Keyes, the black social conservative, "looks as if his joints could use a few squirts of WD-40." And Al Gore's conversation is "littered with `frankly's' and `to-be-honest-with-you's' and `it-is-my-understanding's,' all of which translate into civilian English as `I'm never going to tell you the truth about anything, so why on earth are you asking?'"
Lewis has a special affection for wheel magnate Morry "Grizz" Taylor, a minor candidate in the GOP primaries. Lewis calls the inarticulate Taylor "a truly representative citizen, who felt genuinely the same desires and ideals that motivate the mythical average American." Throughout Trail Fever, he uses Taylor's lack of political skill as a counterpoint to the more polished and manipulative figures in the campaign.