George Plimpton in pursuit of excellence


"The X Factor: A Quest for Excellence," by George Plimpton. 170 pages. New York: W. W. Norton. $18.95

George Plimpton, like Ecclesiastes, has noticed that the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong.

Mr. Plimpton thinks he knows why that is so. Successful people, he says, have access to what athletes call the "X Factor," a fundamental psychological component that carries one beyond the limits of one's natural gifts. The athletes and business people he consults in his quest to describe that factor believe in it and describe it variously: Moxie, grit, singleness of purpose, toughness, refusal to give up, controlled rage, detachment, a sense of invincibility and even unselfishness figure in their explanations.

By the end, we haven't gathered much more about the X Factor than we knew at the start, except that the famous people Mr. Plimpton consults do not agree on its composition.

Mr. Plimpton acknowledges at the outset that this book is the expansion of a magazine article about two games of horseshoes he played with George Bush, the first shortly after Mr. Bush's election to the presidency, the second before Mr. Bush's defeat in 1992. The scrappiness of the book betrays its origins: the two horseshoe chapters bracketing miniature interviews with sports celebrities and business executives, a mock interview with a pompous, fictional subject, a comic interlude with cemetery plot salesman and motivational speaker Peter Buterakos and the inevitable mention of Ernest Hemingway. A short coda attempts to explain away why the X Factor Mr. Plimpton ascribes to Mr. Bush was not effective in the president's re-election campaign.

It is difficult to gather for whom this book is meant. There is not enough sport to appeal to readers who have followed Mr. Plimpton's participatory ventures with the Detroit Lions, the Boston Celtics and others. There are not enough business bTC bromides to appeal to the apparently voracious audience for books on the secrets of management.

Perhaps the reader is merely meant to enjoy the genial, $l self-effacing company of the author. George Plimpton, playing horseshoes with the president-elect, taking off his muddy loafers to reveal that he has a hole in the toe of a sock. George Plimpton taking his 13-year-old son Taylor to Camp David for the rematch. George Plimpton achieving celebrity himself through mildly comic encounters with celebrities. Rather thin stuff.

Finally, one cannot help but wince at minor errors throughout the book: "Solomon Bros." for Salomon Bros., "Gannett CEO Allen Newhart" for Newharth, "Babe Didriksen" for Didrikson, "Cacotin State Park" for Catoctin, Martin Van Buren as "the first vice president to be elected president" (he was the third). It appears that very little of the $18.95 purchase price will make its way into the pockets of a competent copy editor. Excellence is ever elusive.

John McIntyre has worked on The Sun's copy desk for eight and a half years. He is now the deputy chief of that desk. Before that he worked, for six and a half years, on the copy desk at the Cincinnati Enquirer.

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