• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Pulp Politics

Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics

by Anonymous
Random House, 366 pp., $24.00

The People’s Choice: A Cautionary Tale

by Jeff Greenfield
Putnam, 309 pp., $22.95

The Last Debate

by Jim Lehrer
Random House, 318 pp., $23.00

In 1971, Jerry Bruno and Jeff Greenfield jointly wrote a book called The Advance Man. Bruno had been “advance man” for the John F. Kennedy campaign when the techniques of spin and momentum were in their relative infancy, and Greenfield had performed something of the same office for the Robert Kennedy campaign in 1968. (Bruno had also been the “advance man” for the presidential trip to Dallas in November of 1963, and in this memoir he vividly described the atmosphere of hate and venom in that city, rightly locating it not on the Birchite fringe but in the pitiless conflict between the Connally and Yarborough wings of the Texas Democratic establishment. It was their vicious squabbling, for example, that led to the fatal change in the route of Kennedy’s motorcade.

If you care to take up and read The Advance Man today, you will be struck above all by the atmosphere of amateurism and voluntarism that it conveys. In the crucial Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries which gave John Kennedy the nomination, politics was still being contested at the front-porch and saloon-bar level and (though his father, Joseph, left nothing to chance on the fund-raising and fund-distributing fronts) the candidate was compelled to engage directly with the voters. In one West Virginia town, where the issue of popery was still a heated one, a woman came over to Bruno while he was taking the measure of the place for a potential Kennedy visit:

I’d like to see you alone,” she whispered.

We sneaked off somewhere.

I overheard that you’re going to have Kennedy here,” she said. “I just want to tell you that I’m for him.” It was like she was offering to sell atomic secrets. “I have a tip,” she went on. “Don’t put up any signs until an hour or two before he comes. Otherwise they’ll tear them all down.”

Bruno’s response was to get highschool students to pass out handbills door to door “so that nobody could keep the news of a Kennedy visit from people.” And such techniques had their usefulness elsewhere, and for other reasons:

In Wisconsin, at the urging of Joe Kennedy, we had hundreds of people distributing a tabloid newspaper about John Kennedy. It would have been cheaper—certainly easier—to hire a distribution company, but by using volunteers, it meant all these people and their families felt a commitment to the campaign. They were thinking about it. They were arguing the case for Kennedy to their friends. They were certain to vote on primary day, and to get out their friends.

The Advance Man contains tips on everything from how to deal with assassination threats (“Those who write don’t shoot,” Bobby Kennedy was fond of saying, “and those who shoot don’t write”) to the tactics required for filling a football stadium in Nashville. The aspirant advance man is advised to make friends with a local labor committee, and to “Give 50 housewives the title of ‘hostess,’ and give them the job of inviting 10 people, with calls to be made from their homes (saves money).” Touchingly, Bruno and Greenfield think to include some counsel on what to do to keep a crowd of potential voters amused and sympathetic:

Some local talent has to keep the crowd’s enthusiasm up, especially if it’s possible the candidate will be an hour or two late. There are always enough budding rock bands or folk singers around.

Moments of unscripted fiasco take up a certain amount of the narrative. “For example, this rule: do not separate a candidate from a speech writer if the speech writer has the speech.” In Cincinnati, Kennedy was separated from Ted Sorensen by a vast throng of well-wishers. Sorensen was in possession of a text which the candidate had not yet seen. By better luck than management, the speech and the speaker were united with five minutes to go, and “the next morning a Cincinnati paper noted how important Kennedy’s speech was, since he read it word for word to make sure he wasn’t going to be misquoted.”

And then there is “Grand Clong,” a term of art coined by Frank Mankiewicz. It occurs “when things get hopelessly loused up and you suddenly feel a rush of shit to the heart.” Grand Clong may strike in a variety of ways. It struck Mr. Bruno in Ohio when he heard John Kennedy intone the words: “I would rather light a candle than curse the darkness,” and registered automatically that the last line of the standard speech had just been delivered. Exiting the hall the requisite few moments ahead of the candidate, however, he found that the car pool had been moved without notification. The amazed JFK found himself hitching a lift from some college students to the next stop; an episode of unfeigned informality which would, these days, be written up either as incompetence or as a cynical attempt to demonstrate a popular touch.

The Advance Man is not prescient. (Its closing chapter is devoted to a confident analysis of the way in which John Vliet Lindsay—for whom Greenfield once toiled—will outclass Richard Nixon to become the next President of the United States.) But it has a distinct retrospective charm. Even those of us who feel immune to the alleged Kennedy “charisma” may turn from a contemplation of the 1960 West Virginia primary to the 1995 “Iowa straw poll”—opening barrage of this current campaign—and feel that political participation has become a touch emaciated. In Iowa last fall, every round was won by those who could pay for expensive television slots and lavish, open, local hospitality. Anyone, whether a resident of Iowa or not, could vote for the Republican of his or her choice on production of a voucher for $25. Public spirit was limited to this for-sale electorate, and to those who could afford—in the confusion between “franchising” and “the franchise”—to indulge or commission it.

At one stage, perhaps the most pointedly derivative of the Eatanswill style, the workers of an Armour meat-packing plant (a concern in which Mrs. Wendy Gramm holds an interest) were brought by bus-convoy from out of state to cast a ballot for the senior senator from Texas. So blatant was the Tammany nature of the business that most newspapers wrote, in advance of the “straw poll,” that it was not “really” a “poll” at all, let alone a caucus or a primary. But after the “surprise” showing of the aforesaid senior senator from Texas, it was not long before reporters began to write of “the Iowa caucuses” as if they had been a real thing; a supplier of momentum and a challenge to the axiomatic incumbent, Robert Dole. Up-ticks in opportunist opinion polls were solemnly noted in consequence. Two quite serious candidates for the Republican nomination—Governor Pete Wilson of California and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—both had their subsequent withdrawals from the race partly attributed to a “poor showing in Iowa,” as if the commentators had quite forgotten their having earlier sworn off this degraded piece of commercial show biz. Their departure opened the door for Steve Forbes, who in an admittedly more fastidious form still exemplifies the Gramm dictum that “money is the mother’s milk of American politics.” The irony is not only at the expense of Senator Gramm.

In a piece of what must have been unashamed rigging, the Iowa organizers declared a dead heat between Senators Dole and Gramm—a hucksterish means of keeping the balloon in the air. And now we read almost daily of state legislatures voting to advance the date of their own primaries, so as to challenge the traditional preeminence of the conservative eccentrics of New Hampshire. As politics decays into a spectator sport, we face a political season where neither major party seems capable even of putting on much of a show. American political life is crowded with color and incident and drama, from the Million Man March to the militias, and from insurgents in the AFL-CIO to the “national socialists” of the Buchanan campaign. But American politics is monochrome and predictable; the province of the lobbyists and donors and pollsters and those who pay or are paid by them and who hope to deal in negotiable security. (To this list must be added the major media outlets, who are the recipients of the advertising and polling dollars and who have every interest, latent as well as explicit, in presenting the “race” as a Herblock-style knockabout between a large, rich donkey and a large, opulent elephant.)

To judge at any rate by the crop rendered this spring, the general enervation has settled like a blight on the national talent for pulp fiction. Here are three novels—two of them by experienced practitioners and one by a presumed insider—which seek to catch the supposed wave of interest that carries the civic-minded reader through the year of a general election. And, by a happy chance, each of them treats of a discrete moment in the process; in one case the eliminating primaries, in another the set-piece debate between the successful candidates for nomination, and in the third the ultimate authority conferred upon an incoming chief executive by the Electoral College.

Novels like this have to be recognizable, in the sense of dealing in familiar and reassuring concepts. But with the political landscape as flat as Noel Coward’s Norfolk, they must also contain some elements of shock and surprise; the more shocking and surprising for their occurrence in just that familiar and reassuring scene. In order to infuse drama, Jeff Greenfield has gone for the double crown in proposing the death of the President, and further proposing that his death should strike during the period of the constitutionally mandated interregnum. Jim Lehrer has been less daring, perhaps, in suggesting a conspiracy among journalists to upset the balance of a televised presidential debate. While “Anonymous” has contented himself (if he is a he) by reconstructing the last successful presidential bid as somewhat nearer to the heart’s desire.

These choices may be more subversive and transgressive than they appear. Reporters who remember the brave days of Jerry Bruno may chafe at the requirement to cover routine and manipulated events as if they were “real” or genuine. Those who have read An American Melodrama,1 probably the best journalistic narrative of an actual campaign, may feel the same. This team-book still has the power to move readers, because it summons the atmosphere of the 1968 election and actually does keep the unfulfilled promise of most campaign volumes in digging below the surface and behind the scenes. Nineteen sixty-eight was probably the last election year in which “Politics”—the world of the manager and the fixer—was forced to intersect and engage with “politics,” otherwise the realm of human struggle and tragedy. The fixers won in the end, as the authors unsentimentally record. It is an especially useful book for those who have just seen Oliver Stone’s new Nixon or “new Nixon.” Today the need for a deus ex machina, or for the intervention of something remarkable and fantastic like the eloquent cat in The Master and Margarita, increases in some proportion to the dreariness and officialdom of the allegedly real thing.

  1. 1

    Godfrey Hodgson, Lewis Chester, and Bruce Page, An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 (Viking, 1968).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print