Nixon was right when he said, "You won't have me to kick around any more" and then promptly stepped off the political carousel. Politics can be rough sport. These five books amply illustrate the point.
White House Habitues
During an April 1987 press conference announcing his presidential exploratory committee, Al Gore was asked whether he was running so he could later be considered for vice president. In retrospect, Gore's reply was nothing short of delicious: "I have no interest in it. Vice President Bush will demonstrate once again this year it is a political dead end."
Bob Zelnick's success in digging up this quote for Gore: A Political Life (Regnery, $24.95) -- I've never seen it in any of the countless Gore articles I've read over the years -- captures why Zelnick's biography deserves to be read by anyone who wants a thorough history of the man likely to be the Democratic Party's next nominee for president. For the book skillfully stitches together many of the stories you've probably heard about Gore over the years, as well as many you probably haven't.
Zelnick, a former ABC News reporter, has occasional praise for Gore, calling him at one point "a good and decent family man." But most of what he uncovers is not particularly flattering. Indeed, much of the book is devoted to highlighting instances in which Gore has resorted to what one might call Clintonesque tactics in order to advance his career or score political points against his opponents. There's the obligatory recounting of unseemly fundraising over the past few years, but more illuminating are stories about Gore's switch from pro-life to pro-choice, his selling out environmentalists in the 1988 presidential campaign, and his attempts to curry favor with those on both sides of the Gulf War debate.
This book is not, however, a hatchet job. The research is thorough, particularly on Gore's life before winning election to Congress in 1976 (though Zelnick's decision not to use footnotes is a mystery). And while Gore did not speak with the author, a number of his associates and former aides did. Thus the inclusion of some amusing personal stories about the vice president, such as his endorsement of a pre-intercourse routine to improve the likelihood of one's wife giving birth to a boy.
The past few months suggest that Al Gore will have a more difficult time succeeding Bill Clinton as president than once thought. Zelnick's book isn't going to make it any easier.
Verity and Verisimilitude
For Lanny Davis to write a book about the importance of telling the truth -- Truth to Tell: Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself; Notes from my White House Education (Free Press, $25) -- is akin to Elizabeth Taylor writing a book about the importance of monogamy.
From the moment in January 1998 when Monica Lewinsky became a household word until Bill Clinton admitted to an "inappropriate, intimate relationship" with her seven months later, Davis was a fixture on television peddling the president's sophistry. I was hoping to find in Truth to Tell some reflections on how he felt about being used like this, but the book gives no hint that it bothered him in the least. Indeed, the book actually has little to say about the Lewinsky saga, perhaps because Davis was already scheduled to leave his job as special counsel to the president when the story broke.
Truth to Tell is primarily a story about a subject that now seems ancient and positively pedestrian: how the White House, in 1997, responded to questions from Congress and the press about its campaign-finance abuses. If this continues to interest you, you should read this book (all three of you). Otherwise, the book's main selling points are a few juicy nuggets about the Clinton White House's vaunted spin machine (i.e., where to leak stories so as to minimize their long-term impact) and Davis's occasional candor (confronted with allegations that the president sold plots in Arlington cemetery to campaign donors, Davis admits he couldn't immediately deny it because "when it came to the Democratic party's zealous fundraising practices during the 1995-96 election cycle, almost anything was possible"). Readers other than the author's parents will want to skip over the recollections of his moot-court sessions at Yale law school.
Davis's book is destined to have a short shelf life in Washington, but I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes popular with political science professors who want their freshmen to read a "what-it's-really-like-in-Washington" tale. They could do better than Truth to Tell. They could also do a lot worse.
If Tolstoy had moved to Washington in mid-life, become a policy wonk, and written his memoirs, he might have penned a sentence like the one Jeremy J. Stone uses to open his "Every Man Should Try": Adventures of a Public Interest Activist (Public Affairs, $27.50): "My decade-long odyssey in search of a U.S.-Soviet treaty on anti-ballistic missile systems began in 1963 with an electric thought whose arrival in the attic of my home in Elmsford, New York, I can still vividly recall."
Stone's book is, thank heavens, not entirely about anti-ballistic missile systems. They just happen to be the first stop on a whirlwind tour of his life as a "public interest activist." And his opening sentence notwithstanding, the breadth of Stone's activities, coupled with his unflinching earnestness, makes "Every Man Should Try" a surprisingly enjoyable read.
Stone comes across as a figure found in few places outside Washington: the persistent, idealistic, behind-the-scenes operative who regularly influences policy at the margins and who occasionally scores a momentous victory (his perch was the Federation of American Scientists). He covers so much territory in "Every Man Should Try" that keeping track of his successes and failures is no small achievement. Perhaps in recognition of this, the book's final chapter amounts to a scorecard of his activities.
This chapter occasionally had me laughing out loud. Stone writes, for example, that his labors on the ABM Treaty "deserve high marks in all three categories: conception, enterprise, results." He's not so proud of his efforts to create a legislative check on the first use of nuclear weapons -- "my ideas here were not as well conceived as I thought they were at the time" -- but he does take credit for helping keep Cambodia out of a second Indochina war and for defeating a Maoist insurgency in Peru.
Nice work if you can get it.
Dancing With the Devil
Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson (HarperCollins/ Zondervan, $19.99) is the story of two charter members of the religious right with an announcement: Their fellow religious conservatives are playing with the devil as they stake their hopes for America's salvation on politics. "If people who claim to follow Jesus and his kingdom get too cozy with government," writes Thomas (he and Dobson write their chapters separately), "it won't be the government that gets injured. It will be the church that is compromised."
There's a man-bites-dog quality to this book, given that both of the authors once worked for an entity drenched in politics: Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. But this is not a publicity-seeking kiss-and-tell; it is, rather, a well-intentioned criticism, and trenchant analysis, of a political movement they believe to be failing.
Blinded by Might is informed by the authors' front-row perspectives on their subject. They describe their euphoria following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 but also how the Moral Majority's access to the White House left the organization compromised (its failure to join other conservative groups in opposing the Supreme Court nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor, who lacked a strong anti-abortion record, is cited as an example). They also include disarmingly candid criticisms of everything from apocalyptic fundraising letters to the presumptuousness of the Christian Coalition.
I think Thomas and Dobson are a bit too pessimistic about the religious right's failures over the past 20 years. But that doesn't detract from their real achievement: writing an eye-opening, thought-provoking book about the struggle to balance religious values with the messy realities of electoral politics.
Lady of the House
There comes a point in Joyce Milton's The First Partner: Hillary Rodham Clinton (Morrow, $27) when it becomes painfully obvious that while she's tried to write a comprehensive Elizabeth Drew-style book, the final product is closer to Gary Aldrich on steroids. The clincher for me came on page 215, when Milton rehashed the story that Bill Clinton may have sired a son with a black prostitute. The story, as we learned earlier this year, turns out not to be true (as Milton herself eventually acknowledges). But her decision to devote two pages to it, along with countless other unsubstantiated allegations of hanky-panky by Bill and Hillary, will only help buttress the claims by James Carville and other partisans that the Clinton critics are a reckless bunch.
The First Partner is not without its strengths. It's well written and may be the single best compendium of every charge of malfeasance, true or false, that's ever been hurled at the Clintons. But as a biography ostensibly devoted to Hillary, it fails to enrich our understanding of her (or her husband, who looms large throughout the book). Instead, the reader is subjected to caricatures that will be familiar to anyone who's taken a passing interest in American politics over the past seven years.
One suspects that Milton, the author or co-author of works on Charlie Chaplin, the Lindberghs, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, could have written a better book. Given the likelihood that a Senate race will keep Hillary in the spotlight for at least the next 18 months, it's too bad she didn't.
Matthew Rees is a staff writer for the Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.