One-Car Caravan

One-Car Caravan

by Walter Shapiro

PublicAffairs

There are many would-be presidential biographies, as-told-to volumes, recent histories, autobiographies and collections of political columns currently floating around amazon.com and up and down the best-seller lists. But by chronicling the early days of campaigns that had more than two years to go at the time of writing, USA Today political columnist Walter Shapiro had to his advantage the one-on-one access to the candidates which diminishes as walls go up to protect them from wily reporters like him.

What makes One-Car Caravan a rare if not unique book for its time is Shapiro’s focus on what is called the Invisible Primary. This was defined (it says here) in Arthur Hadley’s 1976 book of the same name as “that period of political time between the election of one President and the start of the first primary to determine the next political candidates.”

Trying to take the pulse of men who either by natural inclination or learned behavior are trained to control their heartbeats was never going to be easy. But Shapiro’s informal portraits strike notes of recognition and familiarity in the reader, even if his book sometimes raises the skeptical question of whether his subjects are alive at all. (For heaven’s sake, Mr. Lieberman, modulate your voice! Raise an eyebrow! Do something!)

Shapiro writes, “The conventions of political journalism contribute to [an] artificial separation between the campaign and the Oval Office… missing is that all-important future tense — how a candidate will handle the strains and stresses, the pressures and the pifalls, if the voters elevate him to the highest office on the planet.” What these stresses will be, of course, is the thing we cannot know. People who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 did so, I hope, because they believed he was better suited than Al Gore to engage those pressures, etc as then known. But I have to believe many if not most of them would have thought twice if they had known 9/11 was coming.

Now, if I read the news stories correctly, as I write this George W. Bush is still vulnerable on at least a couple of fronts, Saddam’s capture notwithhstanding. But there has not yet been an anointment of the “white knight” fantasized by the Democrats who can win against him.

No, not even Howard Dean. This book has helped me to clarify a few reasons why I have trouble getting excited about a Dean candidacy, for all his success at fundraising, Al Gore’s endorsement, and for all that I may agree with him on some 77% percent of the issues. The thing is, I don’t think he’s who his most fervent supporters think he is. He strikes me as a pragmatist whose perceived ability to win may blind Democrats to the fact that he’s not necessarily all that Democratic.

Granted, similar accusations have been made against General Wesley Clark, who I like. Clark, incidentally, had not formally announced his candidacy in the period covered by this book, so he remains a peripheral figure in its pages. But Dean may also be at least somewhat ignorant of his own culture, which isn’t cool. For someone who has raised unprecedented amounts of money via the Internet, he is revealed here to be a technophobe. And despite having been endorsed by Martin Sheen of The West Wing, he didn’t realize his own campaign slogan was borrowed from Sheen’s show.

While there’s no question that Dean’s early and consistent stance against the war in Iraq touched a big and raw nerve in his supporters, as Shapiro points out, “if he (veers) further left, he (risks) plunging into the McGovernite black hole reputed to doom dovish Democrats to irrelevance.”

Joe Lieberman is shown to possess a commendable personal loyalty and command it in others — though not apparently in Al Gore. But, if the rap on the former Vermont Governor is that he’s too much of a dove to be elected President, Senator Lieberman is too much of a hawk to receive his party’s nomination at this time. And unbidden, images of a Dean/Lieberman ticket flash before my eyes and make me want to shoot myself. This shouldn’t be that difficult, given Dean’s position on gun laws.

If there is a hero of this book, as I read it, it is John Edwards. Though he may not be “the white Jesse Jackson of politics,” as black conspiracy theorist Daryle Lucas describes him herein, I knew from early debates that he is uncommonly impressive as a speaker. Shapiro broadens that impression, presenting him as an adept, analytical, unaccountably optimistic and admirable man. With great sensitivity and in a not at all explotative manner, Shapiro touches on one possible reason for this when he quotes pollster Harrison Hickman on the subject of the 1996 death of Edwards’ 16-year-old son. Hickman says, “After you have to get up on a table in a medical examiner’s office and hug your son good-bye, there isn’t much they can ever do to you.”

Edwards current standing in the polls (he’s not that far above Carol Mosely Braun) at time of writing suggests that 2004 will not be his year, but I’d watch his career closely in the future, I suspect he’ll be back.

John Kerry comes across as an appealing candidate who certainly looks the part of a President, but who may lack the ability to settle on a decision and stand by it. Gephardt, as the old-school Democrat who knows how to trigger an enthusiastic response among his core supporters, but who may just be too old-school for this new class of election.

Author Shapiro admits, “As a political columnist, I am prejudiced against vanity-driven candidates like… Dennis Kucinich, who deliberately clutter up a presidential race that they have no chance of winning.” Kucinich watchers who would debate this can watch here as their candidate uses up valuable debate time to launch into a rousing chorus of “This Land Is Your Land.”

Shapiro offers two unconvincing explanations for the lack of an index in this book. One is that he wanted it regarded as more of a “good read” — which it is, compulsively so — than a reference book. The other is to prevent politicos doing the old ego-scan from looking themselves up. It still seems to me a needless complication of his readers’ lives. However, the good people at ABCNEWS.com have prepared such an index, which you can access via the link below.

One-Car Caravan Index: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/Politics/shapiro_index_031107.html/

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