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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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06/16/2004 Archived Entry: "Book Review: "One-Car Caravan""

One-Car Caravan
By Walter Shapiro
Publisher: PublicAffairs Books; 1st edition (November 4, 2003)
ISBN: 1586481878

Reviewed by Julia Hendricks

Let's start with who, what, where, when, why and how.

Walter Shapiro is a political columnist for USA Today. He decided at the beginning of the runup to the early primaries to write the untold story of the candidates and their campaigns before everyone starts to pay attention, and he took off for New Hampshire.

That, for better or for worse, is not what the book turned out to be about. There are some interesting, somewhat limited character studies - Edwards is charming and has been tested, Lieberman reminds Shapiro of his relatives, Dean is fractious, Kerry can be poked into losing his composure in a reserved way, Gephardt never had a chance and Al Sharpton (who Shapiro does not approve of) is not a stupid man. There's one juicy detail here which, although it was only mentioned in passing, I'm surprised we haven't heard about elsewhere, considering - according to Shapiro, Joe Trippi tried to talk Dean out of opposing the war. He didn't think it would be a popular stand.

So, you know, as a politics junkie, I'm enjoying this material immensely, even if I'm not learning a great deal about the candidates as potential presidents. Shapiro doesn't believe that the candidates' stands on issues are all that important to the story.

No, really, he said so. This is from the chapter where he explains that reporters on the campaign trail shouldn't pay so much attention to the candidates' proposals or, apparently, the contrast between the record and the candidates' proposals:

"...Somewhere amid the endless spools of TV tape and the gigabytes of text devoted to chronicling the 2004 campaign, we desperately need to find a way to make the daring leap from the realm of fact into the admittedly speculative world of presidential possibility.

"I write this keenly aware of my own deficiencies as a prophet of presidencies. As a USA Today columnist covering the 2000 race, I was gulled by Bush's bland public pronouncements and this moderate record as Texas governor onto badly misreading the far-reaching extent of his unswerving conservatism. I also neglected to fully appreciate the way that his Harvard MBA training and his post-drinking-life sense of discipline would contribute to what is unquestionably the most orderly, leak-proof and on-message White House in modern history...

"...But the roots of my errors in forecasting the contours of future presidencies was that I placed too much emphasis on the lessons of the campaign trail and spent too little time speculating about the essence of the candidates. As I have belatedly discovered, a slavish fidelity to so-called journalistic truth is ultimately little help in predicting how any new president will weather the transition from the confetti-cannon exuberance of campaign rallies to the sobering rigors of the Oval Office".

OK, how profoundly wrong is this? Let me count the ways.

The reason the press got Bush so catastrophically wrong is not that they were bound to "a slavish fidelity to so-called journalistic truth." The reason the press got Bush so catastrophically wrong is that they had long since taken "the daring leap from the realm of fact into the admittedly speculative world of presidential possibility."

You were not gulled by his bland public pronouncements. You were gulled by your own refusal to accept that the guy you found so affable was the man who was responsible for all the spectacularly nasty things his campaign did on his behalf. If you got through South Carolina with the impression that Bush was a bland and moderate candidate, you did it by sheer force of will, and you passed that blatantly contrafactual assessment on to the people who read your paper looking for information they could use to judge the man they had to vote on.

They didn't get that from you.

You were not gulled by Bush's moderate record as Texas governor. You were gulled by accepting what his campaign told you was his moderate record as Texas governor. His record in Texas was a very neat foreshadowing of what he did when he got into office. He campaigned in the center, and he went as far right as the little power he had allowed him to. He gutted any environmental regulations he could get his hands on. Poor people got poorer and sicker. He fought like a wildcat to keep the people of Texas from getting a Patient's Bill of Rights. He used his power to make money for his friends, and the property-rights Governor used eminent domain to do it, in a manner so blatantly illegal that the courts had to step in. All of that information was available. You ignored it.

Harvard MBA training? Discipline? The man has spent more time on vacation than any president in American history, and his cabinet has spent the past three years knifing each other with gleeful abandon.

This is a level of tunnel vision I find extremely disturbing in someone who seems to be a respected figure in political journalism (there's quite the glittering list of logrolls on the back cover).

I was much happier when reporters at least pretended they were trying to do the right thing. Vice can spare the occasional tribute to virtue, I think. It's doing so well these days.

***

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