Roger Simon on the 1988 campaign

October 07, 1990|By WILLIAM PASCOE

Road Show: In America, Anyone Can Become President, It's One of the Risks We Take.

Roger Simon. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 356 pages. $19.95. Inside every modern political journalist is a frustrated campaign manager of "the old school." You know -- the kind of campaign manager who worried more about voter identification and turnout operations than the latest tracking poll results, who spent more time worrying about corralling big-city party machine bosses than trying to control the "spin" reporters put on a particular episode.

You can tell these reporters by the books they write, for they always have a simple message underlying it all: "The old way of electing presidents was better. And pretty soon you silly voters will figure that out. But until then, jeez -- look at these bums we're electing."

Roger Simon's new book about the 1988 presidential campaign is the latest example. Mr. Simon, a columnist with The Sun, argues in an engaging and entertaining way that presidential campaigning is now an enterprise much more concerned with high-tech marketing and advertising schemes than with old-fashioned canvassing and get-out-the-vote operations. And he argues this in the somewhat smug and cynical tones of a man who just knows what's best for us.

Thus, the first lines of the introduction read: "We are taught as schoolchildren that choosing a national leader is about issues and politics and agendas. But then we are taught a lot of nonsense as schoolchildren."

To Mr. Simon's credit, he specifically denies that this is a "campaign book." Instead, it seems to be more a collection of random samplings of the campaign -- the Bush campaign in New Hampshire here, the Democratic primary in New York there -- with just enough of an overview to keep an informed reader on track. Many of these episodes (coincidentally?) offer Mr. Simon an opportunity to editorialize on what he believes to be obviously demeaning campaign practices.

For instance, this on Roger Ailes, Bush's media consultant: "Ailes had told Advertising Age that the difference between selling

a candidate and selling cookies is that 'cookies don't get off the ++ TC shelf and hold news conferences or make gaffes or go on "Meet the Press." ' "

The problem with Mr. Simon's thesis about changed campaign techniques as a result of television is simple: It may be true, but, as John Sasso said about Joe Biden, haven't we heard this somewhere before -- like in virtually every campaign book published since Joe McGinnis' landmark "The Selling of the President, 1968"?

Besides, what difference does it make how we elect our leaders now, as opposed to before? Is Mr. Simon really going to argue that the nation would have been better served if the losers of the last three presidential elections -- Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis -- had won?

So we are left wondering why Mr. Simon feels this disdain about the process -- until, in one particularly revealing passage, he reveals why campaign journalists feel the way they do about the campaigns they cover: Roger Ailes says to Mr. Simon, "See, I am just the flip side of journalists. I get up and try to figure out to make my client look better. You get up and try to figure out how to humiliate him in front of his family. And I sleep at night and make more money than you and you hate me for it."

Despite the author's moaning about the perversion of the process, and despite his smugness, there are some awfully good things about this book.

Like the interviews, many of which are terrific. The best come from Mr. Ailes, Jesse Jackson, Michael Dukakis and Bernard Shaw, the CNN anchorman who leveled Mr. Dukakis in the final debate with Mr. Bush

with his opening question ("Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the murderer?"). The most revealing by far is Mr. Jackson, who explains in detail his long-term plans for the Democratic Party (and who reveals that his choice for the vice-presidential nomination would have been House Speaker Jim Wright).

The worst interview, by contrast, comes from an unnamed woman who had an affair with Gary Hart. Mr. Simon wastes an entire chapter with her explanation of Mr. Hart's psyche, as if it's something readers will care about three years after his withdrawal from the race.

Moreover, Mr. Simon's writing style is very readable; at times, it's downright hilarious. But all the while, Mr. Simon is arguing his case about the perversion of the process. Thus, in explaining how Mr. Dukakis had blown his chance at Mr. Shaw's famous question, he writes: "This is what campaigning had come down to. Anyone who wanted to be the leader of a great nation and do great things first had to deal with furloughs and flags and bodybags. He had to show emotion. And in order to be likable, he had to tell people that yes, he would want to take a human life."

Enough. "Road Show" is not the first book one should read about the 1988 campaign -- that honor still is reserved for "Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars?", by Evening Sun columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover. But it is a good companion piece, chock-full of the kind of interesting anecdotes that serious campaign books just don't have time for. And it reads well.

Especially if you're a frustrated campaign manager of "the old school."

Mr. Pascoe is a Washington-based political consultant. During the 1988 presidential campaign, he served as the Bush-Quayle campaign's liaison to the conservative community.

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