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Review: 'Smashmouth' a rough chronicle of 2000's bare-knuckle politics


By Dana Milbank
Basic Books
288 pages

In this story:

Same stories, different point of view

In the questioner's seat

Rushing to the end

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

(CNN) -- History teaches us that the United States electoral system is a grand and noble experiment in democracy that gives voice to all the people. Theodore White teaches us that a presidential campaign can be the stuff of grand drama. Hunter S. Thompson teaches us a campaign can be the stuff of low farce.

Dana Milbank wants to teach us a presidential campaign is a food fight.

He means that both literally and figuratively. In Iowa, presidential hopefuls lure support at a straw poll by offering free ribs and corn on the cob. Milbank calculated how much each candidate handed out, and used the results to predict the outcome. But the writer, a reporter for the Washington Post, is less interested in watching Iowans consume pork than he is in watching the candidates eat each other for lunch.

"Smashmouth," Milbank's first-person account from the trenches of Campaign 2000, is a celebration of bare-knuckle politics. He makes no excuses for being drawn to the down and dirty side of presidential campaigning.

Quite the contrary.

"It's time to stop equating the negative with the bad," he writes. "There's a huge difference between purposeful comparisons and frivolous attacks. What matters is not whether a campaign claim is positive or negative, but whether the claim is relevant. Let the candidates fight it out. Candidates who cross the line tend to be punished. Voters are smart enough to distinguish between fair criticism and unfair abuse."

Same stories, different point of view

All campaign books are, to some extent, alike. They collect colorful, poignant or bizarre stories about the men and women who keep candidates and their campaigns running. Milbank promises those same stories, but with a different point of view.


First of all, much of the book is written in first person. Also, Milbank isn't just tracking the nuts and bolts of how men get elected president. He's also on the lookout for those moments when politics becomes theater of the absurd.

There's Al Gore's quick stop at a Dairy Queen -- 29 vehicles (including a helicopter) descending on the unsuspecting fast-food restaurant, 85 people elbowing aside the locals so the Vice President of the United States can satisfy a sweet tooth. There's Tipper Gore, observing a campaign tradition that dates back at least to Nancy Reagan, stepping onto a serving tray as her husband's jet lifts off and surfing down the aisle. There's Lamar Alexander, getting a lot more attention for his piano playing than for his education plan. There's Gary Bauer, the diminutive conservative, marching down a street in the shadow of an oversized elephant. And there's George W. Bush, mangling his syntax to the point that he earns the nickname "The English Patient."

Some of the stories are outright funny. Other stories get a funny take from the author (as, for example, when he recounts the times Bush "inappropriately" touched him -- repeatedly). Occasionally, though, Milbank is simply a smart aleck. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.

In the questioner's seat

It's Smart Aleck Milbank who prowls the Republican National Convention, trying to catch sight of House Majority Whip Tom Delay in fund-raising overdrive. It's the same Milbank who takes a turn in the questioner's seat at a polling operation, and asks questions that aren't in the script.

He has a sharp eye and turns it mercilessly from candidate to candidate:

  • "By speech's end, Gore was almost singing. 'This land is your land,' he said ... Any day now the vice president will pull out a harmonica and strip off his dress shirt to reveal the tie-dye beneath, ready to roam and ramble across this nation of subdivisions. And all around him, a voice will be saying, this issue was made for wonks like me."

  • "The Nader campaign is based on a simple premise: there is no difference between the two major parties. This is true if you stand far enough away from the two parties -- in the same way New York and Tokyo would look similar if you were standing on the moon."

  • "Some of Bush's errors could happen to any person under pressure and public scrutiny, particularly when their off-the-cuff remarks are transcribed for posterity. Surely it was an honest mistake when he chanted: 'If you're sick and tired of the politics of cynicism and polls and principles, come join this campaign.' Obviously, he knows it's not correct that he said, 'I understand small business growth -- I was one,' and 'There is madmen in the world, and there are terror,' and 'Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?' "

    Rushing to the end

    It's slightly amazing "Smashmouth" is reaching bookstores now. Little more than a month ago, Milbank was still writing the final act -- the Florida recount. Perhaps that explains why parts of the book seem rushed. The second page of the preface, for instance, is missing several lines of text.

    The haste is evident in other, more subtle ways. Much of the book is assembled from Milbank's political reporting for the Post and The New Republic. The sections sometimes seem stitched together. The chronology gets jumbled in the process, as when he mentions potential candidate John Kerry's prospects precisely 10 pages after explaining why Kerry isn't running.

    For all his sardonic humor and precision lampooning, Milbank is still a journalist. He doesn't veer into Hunter S. Thompson's surreal landscape nearly as often as he swerves toward Teddy White's insider viewpoint of the campaign. So "Smashmouth" is not quite the wild romp it is billed to be. It has moments of comic absurdity and an author who comes across to politicos -- and the reader -- as a wiseacre. In the end, though, the first book to be published about the 2000 election can be regarded as a relatively serious campaign journal -- one that doesn't take itself, or its subject, all that seriously.

    Bush, now president-elect, signals will to bridge partisan gaps
    December 13, 2000
    Gore concedes presidential election
    December 13, 2000
    Presidential candidate totals change as Florida recounts votes
    November 8, 2000

    RELATED SITES: - News Front
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