Holy soapboxes! Presidential election year books yield details, details and some insights

July 07, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff

As metro editor of the Washington Post, Bob Woodward used to exhort his young charges to produce stories so astonishing that readers would cry "Holy Sh**!"

Woodward has passed the "Holy Sh**!" test numerous times himself. The reporter who almost singlehandedly brought down the Nixon presidency is now an enormously successful author. His behind-the-scenes Washington blockbusters typically yield a slew of astonishing revelations.

His latest, "The Choice" (Simon & Schuster. 426 pages, $26.), is about the 1996 presidential race. By coming out before the election, it breaks the pattern of campaign books and, as the title implies, may help voters make up their minds in November. In this regard, however, there are many other useful books, two of which, cited below, merit special attention.

When word got around that Woodward would be writing about the presidential contest, campaign circles reacted with a mixture of fascination and dread. Its publication was an uncontrollable event, one with the potential to alter the course of the race, like a stock market crash or the outbreak of war.

Some of the key players, including President Clinton, declined to cooperate (his refusal to grant an interview didn't prevent Woodward from revealing Clinton's private thoughts and feelings throughout the book). Others tried to inoculate themselves by leaking details.

Vintage Woodward

In fact, "The Choice" turns out to be "The Cable Guy" of this campaign season. Like comic actor Jim Carrey's latest movie, it fails to live up to advance billing.

"The Choice" is vintage Woodward: great access to sources, lots of news magazine-style color ("Dole was dressed in a long blue dress shirt. With cufflinks! And his Tommy Hilfiger shorts. Purple Nikes and white socks."), plenty of profane quotes (mostly reconstructed from the memories of others).

The book details the stealthy White House effort to boost the president's popularity by launching a TV campaign far in advance of the election. And Woodward deserves special credit for a brilliant job of marketing. According to a Newsweek poll, a clear majority of adult Americans is aware of the book's most embarrassing disclosure - that Hillary Rodham Clinton, under the prodding of a New Age guru, acted out imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi.

Overall, though, "The Choice" is a letdown. It suffers from multiple maladies, not least that it is a conventional campaign book, which is to say, full of inside baseball. Campaign junkies will find juicy tidbits about intrigues within the Dole and Clinton camps, the sort of machinations that mean nothing to most voters, or to the outcome of the election.

There are other notable omissions. In retelling the story of the Republican nomination fight, for example, Woodward also skips over the Dole campaign's intensive use of push-polling - telephone calls, disguised as opinion polling, designed to spread negative information about rival candidates - the most novel, and some would say troubling, development of the race. (Cynics would claim Dole gained favored candidate treatment by lavishing more than 12 hours of interview time on Woodward.)

No advice for the undecided

The biggest disappointment, though, is the author's studied refusal to share his insights into the campaign and the candidates, beyond letting us know that both Clinton and Dole have a hard time making decisions. The journalistic hero of Watergate all but ignores Whitewater and releated Clinton scandals. Woodward acknowledges the lack of perspective in his book, explaining that the more he learns about a subject the less he really knows. "Action is character, I believe," he writes, "and when all is said and sifted, character is what matters most."

If so, readers interested in learning more about the choice they may face in November (there isn't much in the book about Ross Perot, or whoever runs as the candidate of his party) would do better to skip "The Choice" and spend their time with two remarkable biographies.

"Bob Dole," by Richard Ben Cramer (Vintage paper, 165 pages, $11.), remains the definitive portrayal of one of the most complex personalities in American politics. Cramer, who clearly admires his subject, did a better job than Woodward of crawling inside Dole's head, though this book, mainly excerpts from his 1988 campaign chronicle, "What It Takes," offers little from the current race.

"Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America" by Roger Morris (Henry Holt, 526 pages, $27.50) is an unsparing, if flawed, look at the roots and rising of the first couple, as well as a blistering indictment of the U.S. political system in the last quarter of the 20th century. It portrays Clinton as a shallow thinker tied to reactionary economic and political forces and, in that, finds the source of Clinton's failure to initiate any really new policies or achieve major successes as president.

Morris, author of an acclaimed biography of Richard Nixon, relies on unnamed sources for his most sensational charges. Like Bob Woodward, he demands that we accept his information on faith. Among the most startling, and highly controversial, allegations: that Bill Clinton was a battered child, that he has secret ties to the CIA going all the way back to his student days at Oxford and that Hillary Clinton carried on a lengthy affair with her law partner, Vince Foster, who supposedly paid frequent visits to the governor's mansion in Little Rock when Bill was out of town.

Holy Sh**!

Paul West is The Sun's Washington bureau chief. Before joining the paper in 1985, he was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and Dallas Times Herald. He will be covering his fifth set of national conventions this year.

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