All Things Dull and Ugly
Back from the Dead: How Clinton Survived the Republican Revolution, by Evan Thomas, Karen Breslau, Debra Rosenberg, Leslie Kaufman, and Andrew Murr, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 289 pages, $24.00
Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties, by Dick Morris, New York: Random House, 359 pages, $25.95
Trail Fever: Spin Doctors, Rented Strangers, Thumb Wrestlers, Toe Suckers, Grizzly Bears, and Other Creatures on the Road to the White House, by Michael Lewis, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 299 pages, $25.00
Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America, by Elizabeth Drew, New York: Viking, 294 pages, $24.95
"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 margin reflected 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.
Unfortunately, Lewis carries this shtick too far, failing to note that Taylor simply did not know what he was talking about. He touted a demagogic protectionism: "Fair trade, not free trade--look out for Americans first!" And his "plan" for balancing the budget consisted of a proposal to fire one-third of federal managers, "starting at the top, but not anyone who is doing the work." In 1996, personnel costs for all civilian employees of the executive branch came to $73 billion, so he could not have balanced the budget even if he had sacked everyone down to the lowliest clerk. Taylor made Perot look like the patron saint of exactitude.
In contrast to his gushing treatment of Taylor, Lewis heaps scorn on the other self-financed millionaire candidate, Steve Forbes. Belittling Forbes's support for supply-side economics, Lewis says the Reagan tax cuts "had no measurable impact on the economy's growth rate." Huh? Where was Lewis during the longest peacetime expansion in American history? Even if he had been in a coma throughout the 1980s, he still could have looked at Lawrence Lindsay's 1990 book The Growth Experiment for a thorough account of how the tax cuts stimulated economic expansion. Guess he was too busy reading Morry Taylor's wisdom.
Lewis makes fun of Forbes's nerdy manner without understanding that it was a tremendous political asset. After all, we nerds are the sleeping giant of American politics. Not only do we cast millions of votes, but we rule large sectors of the economy, such as computer software and biotechnology. Every time Forbes flashed his awkward smile on television, we saw our champion. Each one of us could shout, "I am somebody!"
Apart from its economic illiteracy and anti-nerd prejudice, Trail Fever is generally amusing. Alas, it is no more than that, since Lewis aspires only to serve up a plateful of smirks. In Whatever It Takes, Elizabeth Drew takes a different and more satisfying approach. At the outset, she explains her purpose by quoting anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist (See "Happy Warrior," February.): "This is not going to be a Presidential race--it's going to be a race for the House, the Senate, governorships, the state legislatures--and some butthead who wants to be President."
Instead of focusing on the campaign for the White House, Drew examines the struggle for control of Congress. Her main characters are the party leaders and their interest-group allies. The Republicans worked with organizations ranging from Americans for Tax Reform to the Christian Coalition to the National Beer Wholesalers Association. (If you wonder why the beer wholesalers are in the mix, remember that they work in just about every district and suffer badly when federal excise taxes go up.) The Dems had the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters, and Emily's List, a feminist group that "bundles" campaign contributions.
Drew's key insight is that the interests of the presidential candidate may clash with those of the party. By mid-autumn of 1996, it was clear that Bob Dole was crashing and that he could take congressional Republicans with him. At this point, Drew reports, Republican leaders and their coalition partners explicitly decided to ditch Dole and concentrate their resources on holding Capitol Hill. In the final days, the Republicans produced an ad that took Clinton's re-election for granted, warning voters not to give him a "blank check" by electing a Democratic Congress. Says Drew: "It was as close as the Republicans could come to not garrotting Dole publicly." On the Democratic side, President Clinton did eventually decide to devote party resources to congressional races--but only after his own re-election was certain. Congressional Democrats grumbled that an earlier and deeper commitment could have put them over the top.
Drew is generally fair, but her own political biases peek out at times, especially in her account of Dole's acceptance speech. He issued a rebuke of Boutros Boutros-Ghali that "was code for racism," and he "inexplicably attacked teachers unions." Drew's criticism rests on the dubious assumption that the world is better off because of the U.N.'s socialist bureaucracy and the NEA's choke hold on American education.
A more fundamental problem with Whatever It Takes is that it overemphasizes Washington. Drew does offer sketches of the national political conventions and the re-election races of a few House members. But most of the book describes who said what to whom at which meeting inside a Washington office building. If Drew had really taken Norquist's comments to heart, she would have gone to places such as Tallahassee and Sacramento, so that she could explain the historic shift of power in America's statehouses. Republicans made massive advances in the 1994 state legislative elections, in some states winning their first majorities since Reconstruction. In 1996, despite setbacks in California and a few other places, they kept most of these gains. And the GOP trend is even more striking at the gubernatorial level. Republicans now hold governorships in 32 states, comprising three-fourths of the nation's population.
The statehouse shift is crucial. With at least some federal power devolving to the states, Republicans are now in a better position to shape domestic public policy. And unless they suffer unexpected reversals, they will have enormous influence over the redrawing of congressional district lines after the next census.
What accounts for the depth and breadth of these changes? None of these four books comes close to answering this question, because they're mainly about personalities instead of ideas. A far-reaching account of recent elections would explain why Americans grew weary of government intervention and how Republicans appealed to that sentiment. It would also take a hard look at how Republicans are using their newfound power in Washington and the states, and ask whether they are botching their chance to bring about real reform.
To paraphrase an apocryphal Yogi Berra quotation, one can hear a lot just by listening. In the 1996 campaign, you didn't need to be an investigative journalist to tell that Bob Dole's brain was an idea-free zone: All you had to do was catch his disjointed speeches and shallow policy proposals. So here's an idea for would-be chroniclers of the next campaign: Forget about tracking the turf wars among staffers or finding clever ways to describe cheesy political rallies. Instead, just heed what the candidates actually say. When they make sense, explain why. When they engage in flim-flams, expose them by checking their facts and analyzing their logic. Even the most insincere speeches are worth noting, because they have a way of haunting candidates after they take office. If you didn't get that, read my lips.
Contributing Editor john ]. Pitney ]r. (email@example.com) is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.