THE SINFUL JOYS OF CAMPAIGN BOOKS AN AMERICAN IN WASHINGTON
(FORTUNE Magazine) – President Clinton's reelection campaign seems to have it all: expert advance work, nimble use of focus groups, sophisticated polling in real time. Along one small battlefront of the larger electoral war, though, it is fighting a desperate rear-guard action. Clinton may be ahead in the polls, but he is behind in campaign books. Way behind.
Campaign books come in many shapes and forms--ghostwritten memoirs and hack biographies, policy tracts and picture books. Sometimes they are the product of a publisher cashing in on a newly prominent pol; more often they are orchestrated by the campaigns themselves. They usually share the common purpose of convincing the public that the candidate is a rare man: as learned as Gibbon, yet as earthy as a plowman; as tough and resourceful as Rambo, but with the gentle touch of Mr. Rogers.
Such characters don't exist in the real world, thank God, and that may be why campaign books can be so perversely irresistible. Alas, 1996 is turning out to be a dreary year for those of us who find them amusing. We glance at our dusty bookshelves and wonder: Where are the successors to such classics as The Real Spiro Agnew (with a foreword by Al Capp); A Time for Action by LBJ; Why Not the Best? by Jimmy Carter, and--of course--the deathless Where's the Rest of Me? by Ronald Reagan? Where's the rest of them, indeed?
Campaign books as literature evanesce like the mayfly. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne couldn't put the stamp of immortality on the genre. Perhaps the most unlikely campaign-book author of all, Hawthorne wrote a biography of his school chum Franklin Pierce, which in hindsight seems like asking Schubert to write songs for Chynna Phillips. As a campaign device, the book did the trick: Pierce went to the White House (where he earned a scarlet N for "nitwit"), and Hawthorne got the diplomatic job he craved. He was out of the country for several years, waiting, no doubt, for critics to forget he'd written the book.
Already this year we've seen several campaign books so exquisitely awful that they should have gone straight from the printer to the dumpster. Lamar Alexander's manifesto took its title from his campaign slogan, We Know What to Do. Unfortunately for Lamar, one of the things we knew not to do was buy his book--or vote for him. Phil Gramm's campaign was heralded in Gramm, by Richard Nadler, which sports a cover painting that makes the senator look like a nearsighted Baby Huey. The book is almost 200 pages; you could read it in a couple of days, or about as long as the Gramm campaign took to fold.
So what about Dole and Clinton? Well, campaign books sometimes actually say something profound about the candidates, in spite of themselves, and that's the case today. The Bob Dole books I've seen, for instance, are all biographies, while the signal book from Clinton's 1992 campaign was Putting People First, a policy tract of promises and prognoses that became a best-seller. Think how nicely that contrast sums up the candidates in '96. One, accused of having no ideas, offers us his life story. The other, made uncomfortable by scrutiny of his life, proffers his political ideas.
When a voter visits the bookstore in search of Bob Dole, what he'll find probably won't hurt the candidate, and may even help. Dole's life story--the Dust Bowl origins, the war heroism, the struggle against crippling disability--is, after all, the stuff campaign biographer's dreams are made of. It has even inspired that rarest literary creation, a good campaign biography: Richard Ben Cramer's stylish and penetrating Bob Dole--must reading, even for those of us who might secretly prefer Al Capp on Spiro Agnew.
The other Dole books are more traditionally terrible. To do the genre justice, a campaign book should do several things at once. It should be badly written, inoffensive to the point of banality, and--as it piles truisms upon platitudes-- create the illusion of saying something grave while saying nothing at all. A campaign book, in other words, should read like this (from Bob Dole: The Republican's Man for all Seasons, by Jake H. Thompson): "Over the last 35 years in Congress, Bob Dole has taken political stands on his terms, based on his evaluation of political realities and facts assembled, categorized and sifted in his mind..." Just try to argue with that.
The Doles: Unlimited Partners, a joint effort by Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, is even lamer. Bob sounds suitably laconic, but Mrs. Dole proves that even a two-time cabinet secretary can sound silly in print. Of her husband's 1980 presidential bid she writes: "A national political campaign, with all its potential for growth as I discussed issues across the country with the press and the public, would be an unparalleled learning opportunity." Campaign as self-esteem class!
As for President Clinton, this year's harvest offers nothing like the rosy wonkery of Putting People First or the glow of 1992's The Comeback Kid. No, a Clinton supporter will search the bookstalls and wince. Here's The Agenda, by Bob Woodward, and On the Edge, by Elizabeth Drew, which show White House policymaking as a carnival of incoherent vacillation. David Maraniss's First in His Class is seen as the definitive Clinton biography; the President probably wishes it weren't. And the biggest-selling Clinton book of the year is James Stewart's Blood Sport, which traces the unattractive tentacles of the Whitewater affair.
No one can gauge the effect of campaign books on a campaign, of course, but the Clintonites should be uneasy. The President may not have reinvented government, but he's reinventing a literary genre: the campaign book that makes the candidate look bad. What he needs is a Nathaniel Hawthorne. John Updike, maybe?
REPORTER ASSOCIATES Sheree R. Curry, Lenore Schiff, Tricia Welsh, Wilton Woods