'Insider books': Blind in a country called Celebrity Politics: The writers don't look far beyond the self-absorbed gossip.

The Argument

August 18, 1996|By DAVID KUSNET | DAVID KUSNET,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jack Kemp didn't seek the Republican presidential nomination this year because, as he told friends, "he probably was not smart enough to be president." After Kemp announced he wasn't running, Bob Dole called his former rival. There's "this myth out there that Bob Dole and Jack Kemp hate each other," Dole said. Kemp agreed their hatred was mythical and "promised to come back and talk."

This anecdote comes from Bob Woodward's latest behind-the-scenes story of presidential politics ("The Choice," Simon and Schuster, 462 pages, $26). Now that Dole and Kemp are the Republican nominees, this story is sure to be retold. If Kemp doubts his own intelligence (although one wonders why "friends" would reveal his self-doubt to a journalist), then should he be the understudy for a 73-year-old presidential candidate? And now Woodward can claim credit for one more scoop: Dole and Kemp would be allies and even running mates.

If this tidbit is to your taste, then there's a feast for you in this year's insider accounts of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, and the machinations of political handlers in the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress.

While reporters once waited until after the election was over before presenting the inside story of the winners' brilliance and the losers' blunders, now we can read the behind-the-scenes accounts before the players have departed the stage.

Typifying this instant insiderism, both Woodward and his leading competitor, Elizabeth Drew, author of "On the Edge" and "Showdown," have each weighed in with two histories of the Clinton administration - the first volumes covering 1993 and 1994, the second 1995 and the beginning of 1996.

For all the anecdotes, what do these books teach us? Works like Woodward's and Drew's are notable for the nuggets of inside information they contain - Kemp's modesty about his intellect, Hillary Clinton's eclectic advisers, Bob Dole's reluctance to attack Hollywood for making movies he never saw, and Newt Gingrich's fatigue and dejection during the final months of the 1995 budget battle.

These and similar books by other national political journalists cover a terrain best described as claustrophobic: Except for airplanes or hotel rooms, most of the events they describe occur not only inside the Washington Beltway but within the 16 blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue that separate the White House from the Capitol. They quote the same public officials and political handlers but ignore one group of players in the process - the voters who elected Clinton, then turned against him and elected Republican Congress, and now have soured on the Republicans and softened on Clinton.

There is no mention of the social and economic problems that are shaking our society and shifting voters' allegiances: corporate downsizings, such as the announced elimination of 40,000 jobs at AT&T; stagnant wages, while corporate chief executives' salaries are skyrocketing; racial tensions, which Americans argued about on their lunch hours during the weeks when the O.J. Simpson trial and the Million Man March made headlines; and the sense of social breakdown, fueled by drive-by shootings and ultra-violent entertainment.

In fact, these books don't even cover the national political events that reflect these underlying problems. Woodward and Drew both ignore the debate within the Clinton administration between Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Labor Secretary Robert Reich about whether to take a tough line, in rhetoric and policy, against profitable corporations that are shedding workers and freezing wages. Yet the "Battle of the Bobs" - along with the Republican primary debate between populist Patrick Buchanan and flat-taxer Steve Forbes - reflected the political system's response to Americans' economic policy.

Similiarly, Woodward, Drew and other insider journalists don't discuss the upheavals in two powerful national organizations, the AFL-CIO and the NAACP and the growing influence of a third, the Christian Coalition - developments that underscore Americans concerns on economic, racial and social issues. To read their books, the most important events of 1995 and 1996 were Bill Clinton's late-night phone calls to political consultant Dick Morris and Bob Dole's deliberations with himself.

All this feeds the voters' sense that Washington is an insular environment of the interchangeable pols and pundits, isolated from the workaday world where most Americans earn their livings and raise their children. It's a feeling that's fed by much of Washington's literary output, from Newsweek columnist Joe Klein's formerly anonymous novel, "Primary Colors" (Random House, 366 pages, $24), to Republican operative Ed Rollins' tell-all memoir "Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms" (Broadway Books, 386 pages, $27.50). Is Klein a newsman or a novelist? Is Rollins a political tactician or a TV commentator? And do these folks ply their trade in America or a country called Celebrity?

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