COOKING WITH GREASE

Stirring the Pots in American Politics

By Donna Brazile

Simon & Schuster. 338 pp. $23

Let's talk death threats. Call me laid back, call me a California chick who can't take that old Nixon adage ("When the going gets tough, the tough get going") appropriately to heart, but I think that after two or three dozen death threats, I might want to change my job and go lie down on a beach somewhere. Not so Donna Brazile, who, while she was managing Al Gore's campaign for president in 2000, got many more than her share: "One day the office was flooded with death-threat calls. . . . I had no security protection." So Brazile asked for more street lights (after someone tried to break into the Gore campaign's Washington office) and recruited friends and interns to drive home with her at night.

I live out here at the beach, teaching, writing novels. I've gotten some bad reviews but no death threats. I can't imagine staying in a job where death threats are all but part of the job description. But that's where Donna Brazile's path inexorably took her. Her life story, not surprisingly, is filled with ambivalence. Born dirt-poor, one of nine children, living in a mostly African American town outside New Orleans, she fell in love early with our nation's political process. All she wanted, she says over and over again, was a "seat at the table." She got to the table, all right, but when she did, the banquet turned out to be a little on the tainted side.

Brazile's mother worked as a maid. Her father toiled at assorted jobs. The family qualified for food stamps and government surplus cheese. Donna -- as she tells it, as we see her -- was an entrepreneurial child-ball of fire, going on errands for old folks in the neighborhood, recycling cans and paper and selling bait worms to fishermen. She was determined to succeed, even if she didn't quite know what success might mean.

When Martin Luther King Jr. came along, Brazile was still a little girl. Her mother whipped her and forbade her going to any meetings (even then, fear of death seemed destined to be part of her life concerns), but Donna ignored her mother: "I got tired of waiting to grow up," Brazile writes. "I joined the movement on Thursday, April 4, 1968," the day King was killed. She was 8 years old.

When she was 11, she was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by whites her first day at an integrated school, but she was smart and tough and interested in school government. She took advantage of every opportunity available to her. Soon she was out of high school and going to Louisiana State University, getting to travel on student jaunts to New York City and Finland. When she graduated, she went straight to Washington, to work for the National Student Education Fund. She was, by then, a totally committed activist. "I had become indispensable to the movement," she writes. Her forte was organizing: She worked on the Martin Luther King Twentieth Anniversary March and the Million Man March.

Brazile began to feel that her life's ambition was to be campaign manager for a presidential candidate. She held an adjunct position for Jesse Jackson's run, then in Mondale's campaign, then for Gephardt, then for Dukakis.

And so a counter-theme begins to run through this political autobiography: Be careful what you wish for. Because for all her competence in registering black voters and rounding up black demonstrators, Brazile became, of course, the token black. Susan Estrich, manager of the Dukakis campaign, was, according to Brazile's account, "insulting, condescending and patronizing" to her. "I was so embarrassed," she says, "by the arrogance of the Dukakis folks." Still (and to an outsider, inexplicably), Brazile continued to work as an organizer in national politics -- for little or no money, usually and again, by her own account, inhabiting the very worst office in the building.

She's there (wherever "there" is) to bring in the black vote. After she does that, she can cordially get lost, thank you very much. (But what did she expect? Kindness from these people? As my old Texan dad used to say, when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.) Brazile ended up in the Gore campaign, and things began to get rough. On the one hand, it was wonderful to be on the coveted inside of things. On the other hand, for all her efforts to turn out the black vote, on Election Day she discovered that hundreds, maybe thousands of blacks and other minorities had been turned away at the polls. As the Gore campaign alternately celebrated and mourned in the coming days, she felt more and more excluded and disillusioned. (As if those death threats weren't enough!) She still gives speeches now, about getting out the vote. But what's the point if your vote doesn't count?

"Soon after President Bush's inaugural in 2001, I called Karl Rove," she writes. "I can report that Karl is always gracious and has always returned my calls or responded to my letters." Every man to his own taste, the old woman said, as she kissed the cow. All I can say is, I'm glad I live on the West Coast, about as far from the seat of power as it's possible to be. Let someone else sit at that dratted table. I'm going to the beach.