"Divided We Stand: How Al Gore Beat George Bush and Lost the Presidency," by Roger Simon. Crown, 321 pages, $25.
Roger Simon's look back at last year's presidential election doesn't qualify as deep political analysis. Nor does it search for profound truth. Rather, it's a quirky, episodic set of tales from the front, spiced with barbed and sarcastic asides.
The most useful way of looking at modern campaigning, writes Simon, is as an attempt to make emotional connections with strangers. By that standard, he finds the class of 2000 a pretty pathetic lot.
Democrat Bill Bradley, to whom the word "diffident" became permanently attached, rarely even made an effort to connect. As the author notes, Bradley's behavior forced his campaign to do what any campaign does when it has "a candidate who has rough edges that cannot be smoothed: it calls the rough edges 'authenticity' and hopes for the best." Well put.
Only Republican John McCain consistently struck the appropriate chord. He did so by providing his listeners with practiced but understated remainders that he was an American hero who'd survived five-and-a-half years as a POW in North Vietnam. When asked why he was running, for instance, he would invariably reply, "My wife claims it was because I received several sharp blows to the head while in prison."
Foremost among the problems in writing an election book these days is that the wall-to-wall coverage of the cable and Internet age leaves little left to say, unless you're a tell-all campaign insider, as opposed to a mere reporter. To his credit, Simon, a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, does manage to find a few new crumbs.
The most fascinating by far comes not from the campaign itself but from the event that framed it, the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Simon reports that there were days in 1998 when Al Gore, then the vice president, allowed himself to ponder Bill Clinton's early departure from the White House and his own ascension to the Oval Office. Gore thought a lot about the first big decision that would await him, appointing his own successor.
And he had just the guy in mind: Joe Lieberman. Gore figured that selecting the morally correct senator from Connecticut would signal his desire to move beyond Clinton's transgressions. He also knew that Lieberman would win easy Senate confirmation. Interestingly, that did not mean that Lieberman was the obvious choice for running mate two years later. The Gore camp worried long and hard about how the electorate would react to seeing a Jew on the ticket.
I haven't mentioned George W. Bush yet, and that's not an accident. The man who emerged from the Florida recount as president of the United States is a not a particularly vivid character in these pages. Why that happened, I can't say. But I suspect it had something to do with the degree of access Simon was able to get from Team Bush, and the tell-no-tales-out-of-school nature of the Bush brain trust.
The most quoted and quotable character in the book is Gore's campaign chairman Bill Daley. On Simon's behalf, he provides the final answer to the central question. Did strangers ever feel an emotional connection with Bush or Gore? "To tell you the truth," Daley says, "I think they never really liked either one of them."
Larry Eichel, a political columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has covered presidential elections for the Inquirer and the Knight-Ridder newspapers since 1976, winning a national Sigma Delta Chi award for his reporting on the 1984 campaign. He is the co-author of two books, neither of which has anything to do with politics.