Simon's 'Show Time': Politics as a circus

March 08, 1998|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Show Time: The American Political Circus and the Race for the White House," by Roger Simon. Random House. 327 pages. $25.

If you enjoyed the most recent presidential election so much that you can't wait to read a behind-the-scenes account of it, "Show Time" is just the book for you. "Though the 1996 campaign was criticized for being dull," journalist Roger Simon maintains, "it was actually one of the greatest shows on earth."

As if to prove that point, he presents a mix of funny stories from the campaign trail and cynically detached observations about how politics has become entertainment - "show business for ugly people," in the words of Clinton strategist James Carville.

A talented tale-spinner, Simon is at his best telling surreal stories from the "road show" (the title of a similar book he wrote about the 1988 election). He offers devastating portraits of the egomaniacal show-biz types who increasingly dominate the political process.

Talk show host Larry King emerges as even more self-centered than he appears on camera, bullying candidates into appearing on his program but refusing to bone up on their records.

Television producer Harry Thomason earnestly explains: "TV shows and movies and political events are all the same. They are all designed to move people." And a host of lesser-known manipulators, including the fellow who put slogans on the bullet-proof walls that protect the presidential podium, tell Simon how they stage-managed the 1996 campaign.

If Simon's show-biz buzz is entertaining, his substantive revelations are two years too late. As an insider myself, I was fascinated by how the Clinton White House staff undercut Jesse Jackson's potential challenge to the president by cultivating Democratic mayors. But a more sensational story - how presidential confidant Bruce Lindsey warned women not to accept Clinton's invitations to "work out" with him at the Little Rock YMCA - has been overshadowed by recent allegations.

Meanwhile, little attention has been paid to the most revealing anecdote of all. William Daley, who coordinated the 1996 Democratic convention in his family's bailiwick of Chicago and now serves as commerce secretary, complains that he was asked to raise what Simon calls "astronomical amounts" of money.

"There's going to be a major scandal," Daley predicts, long before the campaign finance scandals made headlines. "Fund-raising has gotten out of hand. Today they ask for $100,000 like they used to ask for $100. It's got a smell to it that it never had."

So "Show Time" is a minor masterpiece of its genre - a little humor, a little news and lots of savvy-speak. But what does the prevalence of that genre say about what politics has become?

Years ago, insider accounts of presidential campaigns, most notably Theodore H. White's "Making of the President" series, emphasized the shifting alignments of political leaders and institutions. Then, in 1968, journalist Joe McGinnis broke new ground with "The Selling of the President," which exposed - and was appropriately appalled by - Richard Nixon's manipulation of the media and deception of the voters.

But now, chroniclers such as Simon are almost admiring in reporting how campaigns evade the issues. After all, it's "show time," and, if most citizens are reduced to spectators, at least they can enjoy the performance.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton fro 1992 through 1994. He is the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties" and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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