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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.

But first to Primary Colors, which takes the opposite route of escape, and attempts to redo the immediate past. I’ve done my best to identify the author, whose name is being closely held by Random House. The narrator, at any rate, is a young black male (actually the child of a black father and a white mother) who is urged by the candidate and his wife to forsake his current day job and join the crusade of a Democratic, technocratic, Southern, horny, greedy, draftdodging governor who wants the top job. I think that this rules out Christopher Buckley. (Though one should perhaps not forget that Harold Evans’s most recent stealth candidate for the highest office was a black man successful principally with whites.) It’s too well-phrased to be by James Carville, whose last book, “written” with Mary Matalin, gratified all those who believe that the two main party establishments are literally in bed with each other. It could conceivably be by Eric Tarloff, the screen-writing free spirit who is married to Laura D’Andrea Tyson, chair of Clinton’s National Economic Council. And there is always Malcolm Gladwell, the witty Washington Post New York correspondent, who is (as we used to say) of mixed blood and who can make with the words. But the search for an “insider” may be pointless, because the book describes the Clinton campaign in very much the terms that most people remember it, from the vicissitudes of early New Hampshire to the gradual “front-running” status that succeeded the New York and Florida primaries.

Yet though it would not be necessary to have worked “on campaign,” or to have “covered” same, it would certainly be a help. “Mammoth Falls” is obviously Little Rock, and Bill and Hillary are drawn from the evident life, but it still takes a little acquaintance to summarize the fledgling and initiating hotel-suite launch of a presidential bid in this knowing vernacular:

It was generic; it existed outside time. I was, at once, vaguely depressed and entirely comfortable. There was a handful of pols in shirtsleeves, working the phones, hammering laptops, nibbling off platters of fruit and cheese, chugging Diet Cokes. No smoke, no booze anymore. But a haze of ill health just the same; sycophancy frays the nerves, clogs the arteries. I didn’t know most of them. There were a couple of bodyguard, trooper types. There were a couple of Handi Wipes with wispy mustaches—state-house sorts about to be paved over.

There is a gift of slang and lingo in this novel—“Handi Wipes” for disposable appointees; “muffins” for young and impressionable volunteers; “scorps” for reporters—that in its automatic callousness bespeaks the real thing. As usual, though, the apparently hard-nosed carapace conceals an almost puerile sentimentality. Or do I mean nostalgia? In any case, it concerns guess who. This is the hardboiled narrator speaking:

The thing is, I’d kind of like to know what it feels like when you’re fighting over…y’know—historic stuff. I’m not like you, I didn’t have Kennedy. I got him from books, from TV. But I can’t get enough of him, y’know? Can’t stop looking at pictures of him, listening to him speak, I’ve never heard a president use words like ‘destiny’ or ‘sacrifice’ and it wasn’t bullshit. So: I want to be part of something, a moment, like that. When it’s real, when it’s history. I…” I had let things slip a little bit. That wasn’t good. I was interviewing for a job where my primary responsibility would be to not let things slip.

Oh, dry up. This is exactly the combination of the “tough” and the “tender” that plays to perfection. Anybody who remembers the last Democratic Convention remembers the moment when the now-exiled Harry and Susan Bloodworth-Thomason produced the weathered film clip of the boy William Jefferson Clinton shaking hands with John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It was the only thing about which all delegates agreed, even those who were unsure about both actual persons. Always the same yearning, it seems; the kind that is evoked by reading the Bruno-Greenfield memoir. A yearning, however ill-spent on an undeserving recipient, for authenticity. The narrator (who shifts from gruff to moist with such unsettling speed partly because he is addressing a future First Lady with whom at one point he shares an illicit bed) hits the same key when he says:

Well, y’know, I wonder: It couldn’t always have been the way it is now; the feeling of—of blah. Swamp gas. Stagnation. There had to be times when it was better. The other guys had it with Reagan, I guess.

Indeed they did. But Mr. Reagan was never happier than when citing Mr. Kennedy; proof enough that myths are rightly so-called. Still, we should note that even among the hard-boiled there persists a half-formed wish that the whole business be “about” something more than itself.

This is, like Henry Adams’s Democracy, another book that was first published by “Anonymous,” a novel about “process.” Governor Stanton loves “process,” as does his real-world model. In 1972, Bill Clinton and Taylor Branch were sent down to Texas by the George McGovern campaign. Unpromising territory for anti-war and civil rights activists at the best of times, Texas that year was the scene of the same envenomed Democratic factionalism that Jerry Bruno remembers from a decade earlier. Taylor Branch, since celebrated for his marvelous biography of Dr. King, recalls that “politics” down there consisted of no issues or principles, but rather of an endless series of log-rollings, accommodations, back-scratchings, and ego-stroking deals. He was dispirited beyond words. But he suddenly noticed something. “Bill really loved that stuff.” And he was good at it, too.

I consider this the encapsulating anecdote about Clinton, and one merit of Primary Colors is its unsparing focus on the small change of politics: the backroom and back-slap aspect. Here is the Guv as he mounts a charm offensive on a necessary bigwig in New Hampshire (a state, by the way, that is tellingly and aptly described as having a meteorology “both suffocating and freezing”):

And I know,” Stanton continued, “that your endorsement means a lot—it’s your word of honor, it’s your bond—and that it would mean the world to me here in New Hampshire. You have it in your power to make the next president of the United States, and I know you don’t take it lightly. Everyone knows the respect that people have for you here. But listen, Barry: We are going to do great things. We are going to make history. You want to be part of that. You want to be part of it now—and next year in Washington, after we win. We’ll make a place for you, an important place. I’m not the sort who forgets who brung him to the dance. We take care of our friends, Barry. You know what that means, right?”

This book might be filmed as All the Governor’s Men. Governor Huey Long is supposed once to have summoned a meeting of the Louisiana “business community” to discuss his reelection prospects. “Those of you who come in with me now,” he said softly, “will get big pieces of pie. Those who come in with me later will get smaller pieces of pie. Those who don’t come in at all will get—Good Government.”

Mastery of axioms like these is not as easily acquired as it is easily described. But Stanton has it. Unfortunately, his initial takeoff is impeded by a series of Grand Clongs and rushes of excrement to the heart. The depiction of these does not put “Anonymous” to the trouble of very much fictional artifice. Ward Just entitled one of his Washington novels Honor, Power, Riches, Fame and the Love of Women, and it has often been remarked that the most ambitious politician will jeopardize all of the first four ingredients for a relatively meager cinq à sept‘s worth of the latter. The Gennifer Flowers flap is retold in very much the terms we remember from “real time,” with the Governor being saved by two strong women. The first, his wife, agrees to deny that he has been having an affair on condition that he breaks off the having of affairs. The second, a titanic Sapphist damage-controller from back home who speaks almost entirely in capital letters, is one of the character triumphs of the book, and may indeed be one of the reasons for the author’s anonymity.

The draft-dodging Clong also resounds, as does a paternity suit from a black family close to the Governor, and as do various descriptions of Neronian temper and Falstaffian gluttony. The warts are all on show. Yet it gradually emerges that the whole intention of the story is a lenient and exculpatory one. In mid-narrative, nonfiction is dropped and fiction, so to speak, kicks in. A scandal about down-home Tobacco Road real-estate corruption, which is given the generic name of “Tidewater,” is attached to a rival candidate. The Governor, who is given the goods on his opponent, declines to make use of the “opposition research” on general grounds of decency and public civility. Other moments of wishful thinking make their appearance. Of the rival we are told:

Picker wasn’t acting like the sort of politician we were used to. He hadn’t brought on any consultants; in fact, he’d let Paul Shaplen go. He had announced, on Larry King, that he wouldn’t do any thirty-second spots. Or polling. Or focus groups. “I’m not going to hire a bunch of folks to tell me what you’re thinking and how to get at you,” he’d said.

This is like giving the Lord of Misrule a free hand. Yet it is well-balanced with some acute observation of what the “campaign trail” is really like:

I walked across the plaza, past scraggly, newly planted linden striplings, toward a vacant store-front where two mayoral security guards framed the door. The area was empty in the distinctive, depressing manner of overly optimistic urban renewal cityscapes; it had recently been spiffed up—brick walkways, an Africa Pride mural—and teetered at a sterile apogee of nondecline.

If “Anonymous” is really a black or half-black man (and he might be well advised to be, since he throws the word “nigger” about fairly freely, and affects some knowledge about the special quality of the African-American experience) then it is odd that he avoids completely the subject of Rickey Ray Rector. Here was an actual moment of definition in the Clinton campaign, when it was necessary for the Governor to decide whether or not to grant clemency. Rector, an admitted cop-killer, had lobotomized himself in an attempt at suicide and was so far unable to understand his own plight that he saved his pecan pie dessert (“for later”) on the very day of his execution by lethal injection. That execution went forward, at Clinton’s direct insistence, in the middle of the New Hampshire primary campaign.2 It was made as clear as could be that Clinton would not allow himself to be “Willie Hortoned,” or otherwise depicted as “soft” on the race/crime phenomenon.

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. 1

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

  2. 2

    See Marshall Frady, The New Yorker, February 22, 1993. Also Christopher Hitchens, “Minority Report,” The Nation, March 2, 1992.

  3. 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.

  4. 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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