Quest for the Presidency: 1992.
It is fashionable to disparage book-length retellings of presidential campaigns. Ever since the great Theodore White died and mainstream journalism got more nosy, the genre has fallen into disrepute.
On its face, Quest for the Presidency 1992 doesn't do much to reverse this trend. First of all, it is painfully late. The team of Newsweek reporters and writers that produced it was able to churn out an abbreviated version almost immediately after the election was over. But the whole book took two additional years to publish.
And the volume itself, at nearly 800 pages, is twice the length of a standard marketable work on the subject. No doubt that is part of the reason Quest has been published by a university press rather than by a more established New York-based house. The result will probably be that few copies will be sold, and that future books like it will face an even harder time finding a mainstream publisher--and audience.
That is too bad. In a steady, unsensationalized way, Quest paints portraits of the 1992 contestants, especially Bill Clinton, that are more insightful and, in many ways, more disturbing than the ones the public was privy to before the election. The pictures are not cartoons or quick sketches written on deadline in the haste of a campaign. So perhaps this result--the longer, more elaborate profiles of the men who ran for president--is what makes the Newsweek project most worthwhile.
Quest's rendition of the Clinton campaign in particular, reported by Mark Miller, is stingingly accurate and prescient. The quotations from the people Miller encountered in the Clinton hierarchy are not reconstructed; he wrote them down as, or shortly after, he heard them himself. Like the other able reporters on the project, Miller had remarkable access to the campaign's inner sanctum. He was credentialed as a Clinton staffer, wearing a coveted "hard pin" on his lapel, which got him backstage and at times on stage for the most significant dramas of the year. In many ways, Miller was treated like a staffer, sitting in on major meetings between Clinton and his top advisors, in exchange for embargoing what he heard until after the election.
That kind of proximity inevitably led to carping by his fellow reporters on the campaign trail. Why should he get in there? some of Miller's colleagues wanted to know. Oh, sure, others groused, Newsweek doesn't know what Miller is hearing in those meetings--give me a break! And then there was: He's just too inside; he's one of them.
The product, though, should put an end to any such complaints. Miller and the other Newsweek reporters who watched the Perot, Bush, Tsongas, and Kerrey campaigns for Quest may have lived in a journalistic gray area in 1992, but it was all for a good cause. Quest is chock-full of nuggets and stands as an eloquent argument that the Teddy White genre should not be allowed to die. What Miller and his cohorts have collected is valuable now for everyone who cares about Washington and the presidency, and will be treasured by historians and political buffs. Some examples:
* President Bush was told as early as August 1991 that the economy might falter and that his distance from ordinary people could hurt him. Fred Malek, a business executive and later a campaign chieftain, wrote Bush a memo that said the economy was slipping into recession and "you are perceived as somewhat detached from the problem." Bush wrote a thank you note to Malek and ignored the warning.
* Barbara Bush called James Baker the "Invisible Man." And after the Houston convention went so badly, George Bush himself said aloud of his friend of 30 years, secretary of State, and campaign manager: "You can bet your life Jimmy Baker won't be left holding the bag."
* In a secret program they dubbed the "Manhattan Project," Clinton's handlers conducted a series of focus groups that detailed how deeply voters distrusted their candidate. When a group in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was asked about their doubts about Clinton, the reactions included: "Two-faced"; "He just goes with the flow"; and, "If you asked his favorite color, he'd say, `Plaid.'"
All too often, Washington journalists strive only for the quick hit, the spicy, high-impact story. The key nowadays is to write something that is so devastating that it will be picked up by the wires and competing newspapers and run with attribution. Quest has an element or two that fits this description, and Newsweek was quick to capitalize. To highlight the book's publication, the magazine excerpted the book's tale about how close Dan Quayle came to being dumped as vice president in favor of Colin Powell, including efforts in that direction by both George and Barbara Bush.
For the most part, however, Quest makes its points by unfolding one good anecdote after another, and placing them in context. Each of the stories might not make big news on its own, but together they convey a broader and in many ways truer sense of the men and the circumstances that so dominated the events of the time. Journalism surely could use a little more of the patience the authors of Quest displayed in constructing their narrative. The reading public might also be less cynical and better informed if they were able to see more books like it.
Take the many ways we learn in Quest that Clinton is not the upbeat, touchy-feely guy he would have us believe he is. Instead, he was--and is--prone to brooding and near-violent flashes of temper. On one flight during the primary season Clinton is described this way: "His voice, raw with overuse, was a furious whisper. His fist pounded the armrest in time with each hoarse word. In the seats nearest him, Paul Begala and George Stephanopoulos sat, looking blank and saying nothing; it was useless to argue with Clinton when he was in one of his moods; it was best to shut up and let him ventilate."
We also see how depressed and moody the president can be. At one point, in fact, "his moods become a matter of active concern within the campaign. Robert Reich, a key economic adviser, wrote him a letter urging him to let go of his sense of personal grievance and Stan Greenberg [the pollster], always the bravest of his strategists, scolded him to his face. `You're feeling sorry for yourself,' he told Clinton bluntly on primary day in Pennsylvania. You're too self-absorbed. People aren't going to vote for someone to bring about change unless it's for them, not for you.'"
Even when Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination, according to Quest, "there was something hollow in the celebration--for his handlers and, apparently, for him. His campaign was becalmed, his image tarnished, his message bluffed. Through the long spring, he sank deeper and deeper into that dark mood his people referred to as self-absorption.... He turned inward, cultivating his sense of victimization." This sense, and his mood swings, continue to this day, affecting the way the president governs.
The most significant revelation of the book is that despite the Clinton camp's spin that it was consistently disciplined, the campaign and the candidate lacked a coherent direction for all but the closing moments of the 1992 race. Every time we turn a page, Clinton is berating his consultants about the need for a strategy and--here's the most overused word of that year--a message. It can now be seen that this tendency toward ill-focus was no aberration, but rather a trait of the man that has carried over, to occasionally disastrous effect, into his presidency.
Overall, a reader of Quest cannot help thinking how shallow, manipulative, and inherently dishonest the whole enterprise was. We also are reminded how little voters really know about who it is they elect to the highest office in the land. The smoke machine of the Clinton campaign clearly cared more about pleasing focus groups and other modern gauges of the popular whim than in allowing voters to see Clinton for who he is or in laying a serious groundwork for his new government.
Even the grand master manipulator, James Carville, is quoted as saying, "I've had blind dates with women I've known more about than I know about Clinton." Another aide referred to the Clintons' secretiveness as "arrogance" and felt betrayed by it.
Clinton, a control freak, and his equally demanding wife insisted on micromanaging things from the earliest days in the presidential campaign, just as they do now in the White House--with the same ill effects. At one point, "the candidate was serving de facto as his own manager, scheduler and political director, and the resulting organizational problems only got worse as the campaign grew in size. No one was really in charge. The Clintons, by chance or design, had seen to that."
The president's hatred of the national press is also etched in excruciating detail. Clinton and his handlers once worried that journalist Ken Bode would ask tough questions about Gennifer Flowers. "I think I ought to kick his brain hard," Clinton is quoted as saying. "Kick him hard," Hillary Clinton says, encouragingly. And later, when The New York Times wrote its first Whitewater piece, Hillary Clinton and others believed that the Times was simply out to destroy the campaign, and that should be the Clintons' only response to the story.
Clinton is still complaining about the press, and he also is still fighting the major underlying problem that plagued his campaign: Many people don't trust him. Even Clinton's advisors referred to him among themselves as a "flawed" candidate and worried, just as they do today, that he seems too eager to be all things to all people. "People don't trust Bill Clinton," the campaign chairman, Mickey Kantor, acknowledged during one strategy session. And the candidate himself once conceded, "All people know about me is I'm a jerk."
Now, very few of these stories merit a front-page headline. But that doesn't mean they are not worth reporting, worth reading, or, more important, worth remembering. To the contrary, a well-reasoned, well-paced narrative like Quest is a wonderful way to present a vital, dynamic story like the 1992 presidential campaign. It also is an effective way to wring out its lessons. No doubt, the book will be used by students of U.S. politics for years to come, no matter how few might read it today.
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|Author:||Birnbaum, Jeffrey H.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1994|
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