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Pulp Politics

Interviewing James Carville for the BBC in Little Rock, I inquired about Rector’s mentally disabled condition and was told, with a directness that did not lack its element of relish, that “he wasn’t disabled when he committed the crime.” Yet no such crux, or any moral equivalent to it, is encountered in these pages. Instead, we are presented with the idea of a “tormented” candidate, made of human clay like the rest of us to be sure, but if anything slightly too high-toned for the sordid business of politics.3 Even the celebrated claim that the candidate “didn’t inhale” is reworked, when Governor Stanton is asked if he ever tried cocaine:

Yeah, once,” Stanton said. “Freaked me out. Made me too speedy. Also I have a kind of screwed-up, sensitive nose.”

(As one who was at Oxford at the same time as our current President, I can testify that marijuana was freely available in the chocolate cookie/baked goods form, which saved those with smoke-sensitivity a great deal of inconvenience.)

In the end, “Anonymous” has a brief crisis of conscience, caused by stress and burnout more than any consideration of principle, and is heroically talked out of it by the candidate himself. The language is precisely that crude, pragmatic, “lesser evil” dialect that we have been prepared for:

We live in an eternity of false smiles—and why? Because it’s the price you pay to lead. You don’t think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a president? He had to tell his little stories and smile his shit-eating, back-country grin. He did it all just so he’d get the opportunity, one day, to stand in front of the nation and appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

The “eternity of false smiles” is good. The argument is worn as smooth as a pebble. But it always succeeds, so that’s all right then. It qualifies this novel as a work, however slight, of verisimilitude.

A permanent subtext, which is also present in the other two novels of the season, concerns the role of the press and media. “Anonymous” takes the view that the “scorps” or scorpions of the Fourth Estate are forever on a blood-in-the-water alert. This opinion, very common in the political class, ministers to its mirror-image among the press corps, which is always ready, with a shy self-deprecating grin, to confess that if it has a fault it is an excess of the “adversarial” gene. Such poppycock, which is in reality no more than an exercise in mutual self-regard, has its usefulness for both parties. The politicians can claim to be held to an impossible standard (which they never are) and the pundits can hold seminars of introspection about whether they have gone too far (which they never do). Sidney Blumenthal of The New Yorker, whose germinal journalistic role in the Clinton campaign is very gently suggested in these pages, has written a most amusing play about the obsession of the Washington press corps with trivia and with inessential gossip.4 He seeks to capture the pack behavior which puts the same “herd of independent minds” either at the throat or at the feet of a given politician. “Anonymous” only understands this phenomenon in one dimension:

The second wave of scorps was heading my way now. They would want a react to whatever the opposing spinners had laid down. And now they were all over me, and the questions—it was weird—were about process: How would we be able to soldier on with the press all over us about [Flowers]? How would we be able to get our message out? Wouldn’t we just be on the defensive now? The press was asking this. It was surreal.

True enough, as far as it goes. Yet the narrator sees only half the irony in his later sarcastic commentary:

The scorps weren’t reporting the trash, but how we dealt with the trash. The story hadn’t really broken yet—and already it was one step removed: the press was reporting about how the candidate would deal with how the press would report about the story.

This is having it both ways. I remember “the bimbo explosion” very well from New Hampshire in 1992. But the Clinton operatives did not decline their share of the credit when the press decided to award Hillary Clinton the palm for her performance at her husband’s side, when she effectively bluffed on the Flowers flap and was not called on it—or on much else besides, including the Savings and Loan matter then current. The herd has this virtue; it can give you a bad press for getting a bad press but, out of sheer feeble fair-mindedness, it will also give you a good press for getting a good press. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan understood this perfectly and instinctively in a way that the Clintonoids, riddled with self-pity, do not.

Journalism and its “professional ethics” are at the center of the Greenfield and Lehrer fictions. In The People’s Choice, Greenfield annexes a familiar sports phrase—“full court press”—to make a happy metaphor for media frenzy. (Usually, it’s a bad thing when sports terms make their transition to the political vernacular, but the press has courtly qualities which justify this one.) And he tries to demonstrate that he has “seen through” the pretenses of the two professions—full-time politician and prestige journalist—which he straddles.

Mr. Greenfield is one of the ornaments of a television show that has made gurus out of Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Netanyahu. Can he afford to be candid? Well, here is how he describes the clout of his patrician vice-presidential character:

Block was one of the few people in public life who could, with a single phone call, arrange for a contrite New York Times editorial page apology for a reporter’s acerbic observation the day before—an accomplishment usually available only to bankers with a net worth of more than one billion dollars, or corpulent, Teutonic ex-secretaries of state.

Then there is his mordant description of “the campaign universe” as seen by the journalistic establishment:

It started with The Summer Before, with long conversations with the potential candidates and their handlers, and you went to conferences in executive retreats and academic seminar rooms, talking about how the campaign would be covered differently this time, with depth, context, substance, perspective.

Not bad, as we brace ourselves for another go-around. Nor does Greenfield take refuge in the false professional excuse that “the media” only reflect reality rather than condition it.

There were the early trips into Iowa and New Hampshire, and self-conscious jokes about how ridiculously early all this was. There were chats with the concerned citizens of Dubuque, Waterloo, Concord, Keene, who seemed every four years to try harder and harder to sound like the down-home, commonsense folks whose faces were most likely to pop up on the TV screen.

He also captures deftly the collective mind of the media in time of crisis. Here is a network vice-president laying down the law at a news division meeting.

I am speaking at the express request of the chairman and CEO of this organization. So listen to me. Very carefully. The whole country is in a state of shock. If the market had been open these last two days, it’s a safe bet that hundreds of billions of dollars in equity would have been wiped out—which would have left millions of people in this country, and most of you in this room, who hold our stock, significantly poorer…. Above all…and these are the chairman’s words, we must do everything we can to convey a sense of stability in these uncertain days. No one is to do or say anything—anything—that would undermine this critical work. We must be the voice of reason and reassurance here.”

Mr. Greenfield works for ABC. The above tone of voice was exactly the one conveyed by the editor of its corporate and opinion poll affiliate, The Washington Post, in October of 1988. The stock market was commencing to fall, on the circulation of a rumor that the Post was about to publish a scandalous fact about George Bush. In order to allay concern and to save the market, Ben Bradlee broke a long-standing rule at the paper and announced (without saying what the scandalous allegation actually was) that the paper was not going to publish it. We live in a time and culture when it is considered the height of statesmanship to inveigh against “the politics of division”—as if politics was not division by definition.

At another moment, Greenfield shows guilty knowledge of that supreme instrument of surreptitious consensus-building, the instant opinion poll:

According to a flash poll we just completed, sixty-four percent expressed ‘serious reservations’ about Theodore Block’s qualifications to be President.”

How many people could you call in an hour?” Sharon Kramer asked.

Twenty-two,” the pollster said. “But it was a very tight screen.”

All of this flapdoodle is generated by a crisis of legality which is, in the opinion of some constitutional scholars, actually waiting to happen. Once the voters have chosen the Electoral College delegates, those delegates are, in law and in theory and in fact, free to choose the President. If the candidate with the most votes should die or become incompetent before being inaugurated, then his political heirs and assigns have no right to determine his successor. The Electoral College does not have to accept, for example, the nonentity who ran in the vice-presidential slot. It is, for its brief life, sovereign.

In 1823, Thomas Jefferson exclaimed that: “The Electoral College is the most dangerous blot on our Constitution, and one which some unlucky chance will one day hit.” The College is part of the reserve strength of anti-democratic entrenchment which (like the laws on ballot access and voter registration) prevent American voters from being faced with an embarrassment of choice. Like much else, the College favors small and monochrome states. In 1968, a total of 73,123,490 American voters went to the polls. Exactly 55,458 of them—less than one tenth of one percent—made it Nixon over Humphrey in Ohio and Missouri. If they had voted for Humphrey instead, then Nixon would have been deprived of thirty-eight electoral votes. “That would have left Alabama governor and third-party presidential candidate George Wallace with the balance of power, able to deal his votes to the highest bidder, or plunge the election into the House of Representatives, gumming up the political machinery of the United States for months.” Greenfield’s book is educational, both for those who think the president ought to be elected by a popular vote, and for those who mistakenly think that he already is.

Richard Gere’s 1986 movie Power, one of the few “Washington insider” pictures to capture anything of the process, has a hapless candidate from a western state. Forced by his handlers to mount a horse and don a cowboy hat, he is ignominiously thrown while trying to keep his hat on. But the “still” photograph of the fiasco, cropped from the aborted campaign video, nonetheless shows him atop a rearing steed while waving his Stetson in the air. Greenfield’s President-elect is killed in the course of making just such a futile gesture. The Vice-President, a Dan Quayle-like figure, is depicted with some gift of parody as believing that “the unexamined life was damn well worth living,” and as trusting to Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” since hands such as these have attended him since birth.

In general, Greenfield keeps up a good, breezy, sarcastic style, though there are occasions where the word-processing breaks through. In one chapter, the childhood of a crucial Elector in Michigan is well evoked until we learn that volunteer tasks “did put her in places where it was likely that, sooner or later, the sound of laughter was likely to be heard.” In another, the Vice-President has been out running, “although only a thin sheen of sweat covered his lean chest and bright blue running shorts,” which must have been disgusting for the shorts. Places that feature on the campaign trail and then vanish are more than once described as “Brigadoon.”

But there is compensation in the small and clever revenges that Greenfield takes on the idiocy of his own profession. How many wasted days and nights must have gone into his depiction of the time-honored practice whereby a reporter rushes from a televised press-conference, seizes the phone and calls the news desk with the very information that they have meanwhile absorbed from the TV set. (This version of Nitwitness or Halfwitness News, which tends to intensify with the electoral cycle, has anchor-persons being interviewed live from scenes which they are unable to describe because they cannot see the television monitor.)

The difficulty with this genre of political fiction is that it must, for purposes of mise en scène, propose a huge disturbance in the “natural” order. Thus the selection of titles, from Jeffrey Archer’s Shall We Tell The President? onward. “The Grand Clong” might itself make a fine title, except that it suggests an office-bearer in the Ku Klux Klan. Greenfield has proposed the grandest of clongs; the one that Jefferson presumably feared after his grueling contest with Aaron Burr; the coincidence of a presidential death with a crisis of legitimacy. It is much easier to get into these crises, as a matter of literary form, than it is to get out of them. Primary Colors stops almost in mid-sentence, on a note of modified uplift. The People’s Choice merely peters out. Having proposed and disposed of a series of back-room deals, most of them played out by a series of burlesque characters—such as the black opportunist Dixon Mason—Greenfield achieves resolution by way of an orgy of bipartisan good manners. This makes the novel rather a long run for such a short slide.

Jim Lehrer’s ninth fictional effort takes another aspect of the presidential campaign apparatus—the climactic “debate” between the rival candidates—and locates it at the precise point where the curves of journalistic narcissism and political theater intersect. Everybody knows the high moments, which have sometimes been credited with altering the outcome: Nixon’s damp and darkened jowl; Bernard Shaw’s outrageous question to Michael Dukakis about the putative rape of his wife; the moment when Ronald Reagan took a drive in memory along the Pacific Coast Highway and nearly ran himself off the road.

There are reputations to be made as well as lost; those who find the success of Fred Barnes to be mysterious can trace his upward arc to the point where he represented The Baltimore Sun on the Carter-Reagan questioner’s panel.

With the debate the three unities of the drama are present in time, place, and action. The five reportorial baseline questions—Who, What, Where, When, and Why?—are naturally latent. Everything will be decided within an hour. Lehrer opens by presenting the journalistic selection process. He offers a joke within a joke, since his narrator-voice is also a reporter “covering” the story, and this reporter achieves true Bob Woodward self-importance by claiming in his preface to have interviewed “178 persons,” and by promising “to turn over the tapes as well as my notes to a suitable academic depository for use by scholars at some future date.” And he makes it fairly clear that the time is the present, since he coins the term “clownalist” for those scribes who act like performing seals on weekened TV, and has one character say: “It started with Broder, then Eleanor Clift and that clown from the San Francisco paper—I’ve already forgotten his name—and then the other bureau chiefs and news-magazine types.”

As ever, the main political antagonists are drawn from stock. Paul L. Greene is a lackluster Democratic loser and David Donald Meredith is a nativist demagogue with the minatory slogan “Take It Back, America.” The journalistic actors are slightly ahead of their time: it will be a little while before we see a panel made up of a white male hard-news type, an ambitious female anchor, a young black woman, and an aspirant Hispanic. But this does allow Lehrer a slight subplot about “bean counting” and the fierce journalistic envies that arise from affirmative action (and are the fiercer for being repressed). With him, also, the word processor is an enemy whose measure he has yet to take:

Barbara was terrorized by him and by deadlines, the coming of which in her weekly life everybody said she would eventually either get used to or perish from.

It’s not all like that, but too much of it is. The famous four decide, in the privacy of their very first meeting, that the vile Meredith must be prevented from taking the oath of office. They seed the carefully scripted debate with deadly and novel questions, none of them to do with politics or ideology. Not only do they unhorse the front-runner Meredith, but they are hailed for doing so. Some of them, indeed, go on to achieve the acme of professional ambition, which is a Carville-Matalin type chat-show: “a two-person, left-right, one-call-does-all commentary team.” One bows the head at such an apotheosis.

Lehrer, too, joins the happy-finale club. But in order for his Saturnalia to “work,” it might be noted, he has to indulge the idea that “the media” is (or more properly are) at once too liberal and too powerful. This is of course an idea which is only believed by those who wish it true and by those who have made it nature. It amounts to an easy option for conservative liberals. It surfaces frequently. In Primary Colors, as the Clintonesque spin-doctors enter a press enclosure in New Hampshire, they are described as “triangulating.” This is the term of choice—it’s too much to call it a term of art—coined by our President’s new favorite, the apolitical “consultant” Dick Morris. If you desired to summarize his strategy and tactics in one old routine, you might inquire: “Why did Bill Clinton cross the road?” The answer would be: “Because he wanted to get to the middle.”

These three authors belong to the world of “Politics” rather than “politics.” They are themselves a part of the apparatus, of those who “do” elections every four years; taking the polls and conscripting the wisdom and then, as if to save valuable time, “projecting” the result. This permanent class of the permanent campaign needs an occasional holiday, and also an outlet for the stories it was once told “on deep background.” But the excursion is a safe and controlled one, before the resumption of business as usual. That’s why all these holiday narratives follow Miss Prism’s maxim and take care that the good end happily, and the bad unhappily, which is (after all) “what fiction means

  1. 3

    The assumption is the commonplace about “lesser evil,” as if Clinton offered the only home to dissent. There is no Jerry Brown among the field of imagined rivals.

  2. 4

    Sidney Blumenthal, This Town: A Play of Manners (Los Angeles Theaterworks, 1995). Those Washington journalists in the play who use high-profile “scandal” to increase their speaking fees are shown up as innocents at home by a New York muckraker who, flatteringly soliciting their “Beltway knowledge,” uses it to expose them as short-term predators. Even so, Mr. Blumenthal might be rethinking his notion of the Whitewater Clintons as the victims of a mere media canard.

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