1996: Bill, Bob, Lamar And Grover?


The Real Struggle forPolitical Power in America

By Elizabeth Drew

Viking 294pp $24.95


By Michael Lewis

Knopf 303pp $25.00


On the way to the Republican National Convention last August, I met a young Texas delegate who was a committed member of the Christian Coalition. He gave me an insight into the state of the GOP that I have carried with me ever since: Bob Dole's success or failure in the '96 Presidential campaign was utterly irrelevant to him. The delegate's real goal, and that of many of his fellows, was to help the hard right consolidate power within the party.

In their own different ways, veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew and New Republic writer Michael Lewis got the same message. Drew, with her rich insider's detail, and Lewis, with his arch outsider's observations, bring that phenomenon into focus in their new books, Whatever It Takes and Trail Fever. In 1996, everything that mattered was going on somewhere other than the Presidential race.

Once Drew realized that the Dole-Clinton race would make a boring book, she shifted her focus to a handful of Republican ideologues, and to how money, organization, and inside-the-Beltway networking helped the GOP hang on to its House majority.

The headline from Drew's book is that she got Clinton strategists to admit that disclosure of--and public revulsion over--the President's fund-raising escapades may have cost the Democrats their shot at the House. But Drew's real story is about how a cadre of obscure lobbyists and conservative-movement apparatchiks influence American politics.

The personification of all this is a man named Grover Norquist, who weaves a tangled web indeed. A lobbyist, fundraiser, confidant to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and self-described journalist, Norquist runs something called Americans for Tax Reform. ATR is supposed to be a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to the goal of restructuring the nation's tax laws. But, as the centerpiece of Norquist Inc., it turns out to be much more. By sorting through all this, Drew answers the question, "Who is Grover Norquist?" in much the same way that the The Wall Street Journal editorial page asked and answered similar queries about, say, the late White House counsel Vincent Foster.

Back in 1994, Norquist helped put together a loose coalition of small-business groups and conservative organizations representing causes as varied as home schooling, gun ownership, and school prayer. At first, the group helped develop grassroots support for the Gingrich revolution. In '96, it shifted into campaign mode. Its goal was not to send Dole to the White House--coalition members felt early on that he was unelectable. Besides, many felt that he was part of the problem, not the solution. Their aim, rather, was to keep GOP control of the House. They did it by providing energy, organization, and both money and fund-raising expertise. Drew shows how the cash flowed from businesses to conservative groups to the Republican National Committee (and its various fronts) and then--sometimes--back to the right-wing organizations themselves.

This money machine gave GOP House candidates a huge advantage in the last few weeks of the campaign. In many races, they outspent Democratic challengers 2 or 3 to 1 down the stretch, often buying attack ads that their opponents could not rebut.

Drew describes how Democratic House candidates blew a big lead in the last weeks of the campaign. Strangely, she blames the collapse entirely on the White House's Donorgate scandal. After describing the power of the Republican money machine, she is unwilling to give it credit for the GOP's narrow House victory. It's hard to fault her reporting, but I'm not sure I agree with her conclusion.

Drew, a workmanlike writer at best, is heir to the Theodore H. White school of campaign journalism. Whatever It Takes is a serious look at what makes backroom, modern American politics tick. Lewis, on the other hand, is a direct descendent of the Bard of Woody Creek, Colo., Hunter S. Thompson, whose manic chronicles of the Presidential campaigns of 1968 and 1972 are unforgettable.

To his credit, Lewis doesn't try to copy Thompson's madcap style. Who could--without the benefit of controlled substances? But in its own dry, deadpan way, Lewis' Trail Fever reveals the sheer nuttiness of a Presidential campaign.

A bond trader turned journalist, Lewis created a memorable look at a Wall Street trading room with his 1989 book, Liar's Poker. Here, in a series of essays written originally for The New Republic, Lewis takes his best shot at the 1996 campaign.

Lewis cares nothing about issues. He ignores all the serious stuff about the money chase. He just wants to talk about life on the road, though he lacks Thompson's uncanny ability to make campaign madness a sort of metaphor for the national mood. And while Thompson could work off the likes of Richard Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, and G. Gordon Liddy and the plumbers, Lewis was saddled with Bob Dole and Bill Clinton.

Hence, the book's strength lies in the early chapters, which focus on the GOP primaries. Those races, populated with an extraordinary collection of Presidential wannabes, were far more fun to watch than Bob Dole's depressing fall. There was Steve Forbes--a cross between Mr. Magoo and supply-sider Arthur B. Laffer. Lamar Alexander traversed the nation in a flannel shirt and insisted on calling himself "Lamar!" Pat Buchanan, a "nostalgia salesman," is described by Lewis as an enormously likable man peddling ugly and hostile policies. And then there was conservative talk-show host Alan Keyes, whom Lewis found to be a mesmerizing speaker with the misfortune of being a religious fanatic.

Of all possible candidates, Lewis glommed onto Morry Taylor, a mid-Western tiremaker whose campaign fell, uh, flat. He is portrayed as a happy, bellicose naif among cynics. When the other GOP candidates were stumbling over themselves to attend a gay-bashing rally at an Iowa church, Taylor refused to go. A stand for libertarian principle and individual rights? Sort of. Coming as close to a statement of tolerance as anybody could muster in that GOP campaign, Taylor said: "Who gives a s---. If you want to be a tooty-fruity, so what?"

Unfortunately, as the GOP field dwindled to the tragic Dole, Lewis' account runs out of steam. He goes to the news clips to find some profound insights into Dole running mate and former footballer Jack Kemp from, of all people, O.J. Simpson. And he makes a valiant attempt to get George McGovern and Michael Dukakis to talk about what it is like to lose a Presidential election--succeeding with McGovern but failing miserably with the unyielding Duke.

Lewis also provides a taste of the grind experienced by pols and journalists alike on the campaign trail. Time spent following candidates is what I imagine jail to be like, but with fewer regular meals. It is a brutal existence--every moment is managed, all spontaneity surgically excised, and contact with real people banned. Says Lewis after a few days with Dole: "The disjuncture between the world as we know it and the world as constructed by a political campaign leaves me gasping for reality."

Drew and Lewis are the yin and yang of campaign journalists. The one, deadly serious and important as only a Washington pundit can be, offers readers a detailed look at the Darwinian hard edges of modern American politics. The other, blissfully ignorant of all that, simply paints an irreverent picture of what all the money and backroom dealing really buys. Either way, it isn't pretty.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.