The Book To Read Before You Vote


By Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster -- 439pp -- $26

Most books about Presidential campaigns are a notebook dump: After election day, exhausted political reporters speed-write coffee-stained notes into a book. The result is usually stale tedium.

Not this one. Instead of waiting until the campaign is old news, Washington Post Editor Bob Woodward begins his narrative in late 1994, as a dozen politicians were agonizing about whether to subject themselves and their families to campaign torture. The book concludes on May 15, 1996--174 days before the election--as presumptive GOP nominee Bob Dole quits as Senate Majority Leader to run full-time against President Bill Clinton.

This unusual timing makes the story far more immediate than a campaign rehash. In addition, the book contains headline-generating "revelations," such as Hillary Rodham Clinton's use of spiritual advisers who set up imaginary conversations between the First Lady and Eleanor Roosevelt.

But the most disturbing revelation turns out to be the overwhelming influence that campaign aides wield on policy decisions. Both Clinton and Dole zig and zag on taxes, welfare reform, and balancing the budget. Sometimes, the candidates themselves are confused about who they are. Dole's campaign staff writes major speeches, then demands that the candidate spend hours practicing on a teleprompter. They hope Dole will later automatically read to an audience portions of the speech with which he disagrees. Dole's highly successful May, 1995, attack on Hollywood values had to be practically programmed into a protesting Dole's brain before he would deliver it at a fund-raiser packed with movie and TV moguls.

Clinton is far more eager to reinvent himself. Mindful of the 1994 conservative shift of the electorate, he quietly hires Republican strategist Dick Morris to do the reprogramming. Morris refers to Clinton's staff as his "jailers," who lock the President into a prison of liberal dogma. Morris, "a shadowy master of circumvention," drafts major speeches, orders up reversals of long-standing foreign and trade policies, and rearranges Clinton's schedule. Puzzled staffers are referred by the President to the newcomer, a mysterious "Charlie" who's there to help organize things.

Woodward catches both the candidates and their staffs while they are under maximum pressure and at their most interesting. Clinton is reeling from the demoralizing 1994 rout of congressional Democrats, who lost the leadership of both Houses after Clinton campaigned heavily for many of the losers. Dole is still bitter about his 1988 primary defeat by George Bush and is worried that time may have passed him by. Avoiding references to his age, 72, is a preoccupation. An aide is instructed that his "number one job in the world is to make sure the guy never falls on ice."

Dole tends to make things worse for himself. He wanders off the message of the day, free-associates during TV interviews, and commits tremendous bloopers--such as telling a Republican audience: "I'm willing to be another Ronald Reagan, if that's what you want." The remark was interpreted as evidence that Dole was insincere. And no wonder. Dole's staff had great difficulty just to get Dole to articulate exactly why he wants to be President.

Since breaking the Watergate story more than two decades ago, Woodward has written a half-dozen other insidey books and has often been criticized for his omniscient style of narrative. The technique, which attributes actual thoughts to his subjects, is used throughout The Choice, which has no footnotes and few hints at sources. I was suspicious of this method until 1994, when he published The Agenda, the story of how Clinton formulated an economic policy during his first year in office. One White House aide who had agreed to talk to Woodward for the book confided to me that he and his boss had not planned to reveal much. "But when Woodward came in, it was with a briefcase full of confidential memos we'd written, and anytime we said, `No comment' to a question, he'd pull one of them out and say, `Didn't you write this?"' I found no one at the White House who disputed the book's details.

Perhaps The Choice's biggest flaw is its reliance on aides to tell so much of the story. Although Dole sat still for 12 hours of interviews, Clinton declined. And while campaign aides might profess loyalty to the boss, most are hired just for the duration, and it is to their advantage to exaggerate their influence. Morris evidently is Woodward's source for a meeting between Clinton and Morris. Morris recalls Clinton's angry reaction when he tells the President that his aides are leaking news.

Still, Woodward has a fine eye for details and character. For example, Woodward notes that Hillary felt "jerked around by the muddled role of First Lady, as she swung between New Age feminist and national housewife." Of the incredibly ambitious Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Woodward writes: "An almost coy smile often rose on one side of his mouth, his head poking out and forward awkwardly like a turtle.... His eyes, deeply set behind his glasses, roamed his surroundings eagerly." No one who knows Gramm could possibly fail to recognize the man immediately. Woodward is also dead-on in his depiction of the chaos, the drama, and the intrigue of an all-out Presidential campaign. It seems an odd way to choose the leader of the free world, but that is the game of American politics.