Book Review: Ambling into Nonsense

Ambling into History: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush

By Frank Bruni. HarperCollins, 278 pages, $23.95

New York Times reporter Frank Bruni has written an instructive, important book about the state of modern American political campaigns and American democracy. Unfortunately, he appears to have done so by accident. Bruni's Ambling into History purports to be a laser-like examination of President Bush's character through the eyes of his most prestigious and perhaps most intimate campaign chronicler -- a Teddy White for our time. And while it's not without insight into Bush the person, it's more valuable as an exhibit -- rather than a study -- of the dangerously degraded state of our political debate.

Bruni's field of study is an inch wide and an inch deep. As difficult as it may be to imagine, this Times reporter has written an account of the 2000 presidential campaign that contains nary a word about health care, Social Security, tax cuts, the Middle East conflict, missile defense or, God forbid, global warming. Genuine issues are apparently better left to the wonks at the Brookings Institution. We learn precisely how many seconds the Bushes danced at each of the inaugural balls but precious little that would prepare us to understand what the president might be doing the next day when he went to work. We get an awful lot about Bush advisers' secret smiles, nods, and winks laden with deep meanings, and a near-semiotic reading of the syllables uttered by the book's subject in the presence of the author.

Candidate Bush puts his arms around "Panchito" Bruni and coos, "You know we love you." He looks across a crowded room at the author and mouths, "I love you, man." Rarely in political history have the sounds of sweet seduction been so richly rewarded. The Bush team got what it wanted from the national media in 2000, which would be amazing if we had not been somehow complicit in allowing it to happen. The Bush campaign boiled down to a single message that went something like this: "Forget all that stuff about qualifications, experience, intelligence, politics, records, issues, etc. Ignore the fact that these two candidates represent significantly different political philosophies and have, on many key issues, conflicting views on how to approach our problems as a society, or on just what constitutes a problem. And especially forget the fact that on most of these you agree with Al Gore. Remember only this: Our guy may be a little bit of a moron when it comes to the serious policy stuff, but if he came over to your house for dinner, he wouldn't bore everybody at the table trying to prove that he was smarter'n you were…."

All that was necessary for this strategy to succeed was for the most prestigious American news outlets to treat the race for the most important -- and potentially most dangerous -- job in the world as if it were a race for prom queen. In Al Gore the Democrats had chosen one of the most singularly stuck-up stiffs that Harvard, with its considerable standards, had managed to produce. But Gore knew what he was talking about when discussing the problems of the presidency, as Bush did not. What's more, his views happened to coincide with a significant majority of Americans'. The media's all but issueless coverage of the campaign -- reproduced in microcosm in Bruni's book -- could hardly have served Bush's purposes better if it had been mapped out by senior adviser Karl Rove and dictated by White House Counselor Karen Hughes. The Bush team's "message discipline" is, indeed, its most impressive characteristic. A close second is its ability to turn a healthy percentage of supposedly independent-minded observers, consistently accused of exhibiting unreconstructed liberal bias, into little more than ventriloquists' dummies.

Once can blame the voters for their gullibility, and Bruni does. "Modern politics wasn't just superficial because the politicians made it so," he argues. "It was superficial because the voters let it be." But of the press's responsibility to cover the race independent of what the candidates want -- to ignore the irrelevant and focus on what informed citizens need to know -- we hear not a word in this book. If Bush wants to spend his day traveling from one misleading photo-op to another, well then Bruni, you can be assured, is going to feel compelled to tell us how the candidate looked and pretended to feel as he did it. (And by the way, that usually turns out to be "resolute," "humbled," or "grateful.")

Bruni seems to think that in covering the tightly choreographed pseudo-events that make up a present-day presidential campaign, including especially the even more tightly choreographed "spontaneous" encounters he enjoyed with Bush, he has gleaned something of significance. His self-delusion on this point is mind-boggling. Bruni quotes from Bush's ghostwritten campaign autobiography as if it actually reveals something about the man's inner life. He cites Bush's feigned anger that Chris Matthews, the host of NBC's Hardball and a known Winston Churchill buff, thought Bush studied up on Churchill just to impress an interviewer: "Do you think," Bush complained, "that I'd take time out of my life to research what the hell you like?" Does it really tax anyone's belief that one of the thousands of people whose labor, paid or otherwise, was available to Bush might have taken the time to research a famous Matthews passion and pass it along to the candidate? Bruni decides that contrary to popular belief, Bush "was, in fact, a pretty steady consumer of books." His evidence? Bush was able to name a few. Later, Bruni seems mightily impressed that Bush is aware of a book by neoconservative intellectual Gertrude Himmelfarb, who happens to be the mother of William Kristol, a key Republican strategist who worked in the Bush-Quayle administration. It is inconceivable to Bruni in any of these instances that a well-briefed candidate is spinning him silly.

The style in this book, moreover, is unfortunately appropriate to its meandering message. Bruni is a newspaper writer trapped in a form that demands more, and the results can be cruel. I didn't think it particularly clever of Bush to call out "Hello, Landslide" to Tony Blair during the 2001 NATO meeting in what Bruni, in the newspaper and then again in the book, calls "a towel-snapping" reference. I really cannot imagine why he thinks it a line worth repeating, practically verbatim. (Now if only Blair would call Bush "Landslide" one day, that might be funny.) And perhaps a perceptive reader might be generous enough to enlighten me as to the meaning of Bruni's description of Barbara Bush as "benignly malicious or was it maliciously benign?" Because, reading it over and over, it strikes me as meaningless nonsense (or is it nonsensically meaninglessness?).

Bruni's account also suffers from its aggressively ahistorical approach. The book contains no source notes, so its value to historians is problematic at best. And Bruni is hardly the most reliable narrator. He repeats the canard that Bush appeals to voters because of the "the dearth of scandals in Bush One." Someone at his publisher's office, at least, might have mentioned that the Clinton-era Whitewater investigation resulted in a grand total of zero indictments, and that only two members of the Clinton administration were ever indicted. The Reagan-Bush administration, meanwhile, managed to rack up a full 32 indictments, many of which were disposed of by presidential pardons. (A few of these very same scandal-free figures, including Elliott Abrams, Otto Reich, and John Poindexter, are currently serving in the Bush administration.) It was Bush's role in the Iran-contra scandal, as revealed by Caspar Weinberger's notes, that seemed responsible for pushing Bill Clinton over the top in 1992 -- something Bush seemed to acknowledge when he pardoned some of the evildoers immediately after the election. Nowhere, moreover, do we get a sense of the significance that G.W. Bush actually lost the popular vote in 2000 and would have lost Florida but for the incompetence of Gore's lawyers before the U.S. Supreme Court.

What's weird is that Bruni understands on one level how strange and skewed his perspective is. He notes at one point, speaking of himself and his colleagues, how "We were prisoners in a gilded cell, which we called 'the bubble' because it was so separate from everyday life and had an atmosphere all its own….We were following, not leading -- herded like sheep, lured like lemmings. Small wonder that we got so cranky. Small wonder still that we got so silly." He even takes cognizance of his own agenda-setting role, as a Times reporter, to shape the rest of the coverage in the media. When, in the final moments of the campaign Bush's drunken-driving episode is revealed -- revealing that he had indeed misled reporters on a matter of fact about himself, something that "liar" Al Gore had not been proven to do -- Bruni decided to minimize its importance. "You're a good man," Bush told him. Perhaps, but readers and citizens both would have been better served by a skeptical reporter.

The only time that Bruni gets bitchy in these pages is toward The Washington Post's Mike Allen, who joined the crew from the Bradley campaign and filed a dispatch contending that "after five months in firm command of the presidential race, George W. Bush suddenly finds himself on the defensive, behind in the polls and struggling to fend off attacks." Bruni is merciless toward Allen, who apparently failed to appreciate the magnificent couture of the emperor's new clothing and thus found Bush's demeanor and confidence "off-kilter" at a time when Bruni did not. Even worse, the others briefly ignored Bruni's sympathetic coverage and began "following suit" with Allen, as this is how, the author contemptuously notes, "tough-minded, keen-eyed reputations are made." The new flavor of Kool-Aid briefly proved so addictive that even our hero found himself "rejoining the pack, because the assertion that Bush was flailing was so rampant in the newspapers and newscasts that it had transmogrified into the fact that Bush was flailing."

There you have it: The man doesn't even have the conviction of his own cowardice. Bruni had stuck with Bush through peanut butter and jelly only to slam him because everybody else was doing it. Such is the power of the cult to which he still professes his fealty, on every page, in this horridly fascinating book. My guess is that one day, when a genuine historian takes a Robert Caro-style look at the campaign that Bruni is professing to chronicle, there will be nothing left of the George W. Bush that Bruni has worked with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes to construct. But then again, no president would ever tell a Robert Caro how much he loved him.

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