Smashmouth: Two Years in the Gutter with Al Gore and George W. Bush

by Dana Milbank

Published by Basic Books

399 pages, 2001

Buy it online






Speaking the Unspeakable

Reviewed by Patrick A. Smith


In the interest of full disclosure, I'll state right off the bat that 1) I have been a resident of Tallahassee, Florida, for four years; 2) I am, by nature, a highly a-political being; 3) I believe that, as surely as aliens crashed in the New Mexico desert in 1947 and Roger Patterson filmed bigfoot loping through the northern California backwoods in 1967, the conspiracy that brought down the nascent Gore Empire in the latest presidential election was orchestrated in the great State of Florida, one of whose cities exhorts its civic-minded inhabitants to "Vote early, vote often"; 4) I am not a crackpot.

That said, Dana Milbank's Smashmouth: Notes from the 2000 Campaign Trail is probably the closest one could come in the short three months since the greatest debacle in made-for-television politics to giving a readable summation of the events -- both the Tussle in Tallahassee and the two years preceding, when the groundwork for all this nonsense was laid by an Internet inventor with a knack for hyperbole and a professional frat boy who uses words like "subliminable" and "Kosovian." By "readable," of course, I mean putting enough of a fresh spin (forgive the word) to make palatable one more time stories that have, in record time, become part of a culture's collective unconscious. The trick is a tough one -- like trying to convince someone at a Sunday buffet that the peel-and-eat shrimp is fresh -- but the subject matter is handled admirably and with a sharp eye for the inane.

Milbank's opening lines recall Ishmael's plight in Moby-Dick, though the author of this political treatise has significantly less about which to be optimistic than the shipwrecked sailor:

I write this from a dreary hotel room in the Tallahassee Radisson. This is not how the 2000 presidential election was supposed to end. I was to be in Argentina by now, exploring the wilds of Patagonia and strolling the boulevards of Buenos Aires.

Instead, I have become a war correspondent.

At least Ishmael got some closure when Queequeg's coffin fortuitously popped up from the briny deep. The author of Smashmouth, like everyone else in the United States (nay, the world), hasn't been quite so lucky.

Smashmouth could have been team-written by Bob Woodward and Joe Ezterhas. Milbank, a White House correspondent for the Washington Post and previously a senior editor at The New Republic, dishes the insider information that, in the reader who can still stomach such things, will strike a chord.

Some of the observations the author brings back from the road are downright humorous, even for the most avid hater of politics: For all the criticism Al Gore took for being wooden, Bill Bradley puts Notre Dame's president emeritus Theodore Hesburg to sleep with a high-concept speech titled "Meaning in American Politics." Milbank describes Bradley's campaign kickoff as a disaster, from the singer who botched the lines to the national anthem to Bradley's stumbling on the final words of his speech -- words that were meant to bring his supporters to their feet and jump start his run for the White House. Instead, Bradley sounded "like a foreign student of English."

(In all fairness to Bradley, though, intelligence doesn't play well in presidential elections. Witness Alan Keyes, a Republican aspirant to the throne whose intelligence got him in dutch with the voters. Too, the plight of Al Gore, who lost to a guy whose driving under the influence conviction seemed to help him gain support in the late stages of the campaign. Enough said.)

There are plenty of similar stories in this book about the other candidates who aspired to POTUS (a cool acronym, meaning President of the United States, that is gaining currency), most of whom, with the exception of John McCain -- who has managed to keep himself in the news in recent weeks -- became footnotes to history faster than you can say "Donna Rice." Steve Forbes is here, as well as Lamar Alexander; Liddy Dole and Orrin Hatch not to mention The Donald -- of course -- and Gary Bauer.

As if we didn't know enough about the foibles, generally, of the candidates, we are assailed with the kinds of details that bring home the realization that, but for a measurable conscience and a dearth of soft-money sugar daddies, any one of us might be backing a U-Haul up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The result of such stories in Milbank's book is largely entertaining and informative, though these all-access-in-the-name-of-the-story routines can fall flat if the author isn't always cognizant of how the audience might react to a particular bit. The last one of its type that I read had Tommy Lee (the erstwhile Mr. Pamela Anderson Lee) doing drugs with former Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Ozbourne. The two were trying to outdo each other with ridiculous schoolboy stunts and Ozzy won the contest in a convincing fashion when he performed a rather undignified act on the floor of his hotel room and expected Lee to stick around to judge the proceedings.

The point, of course, is that presidential politics are not significantly different from what a couple of road-weary rock-and-rollers do in their spare time. Sure, Dubya doesn't do drugs anymore and Al would have stuck around to watch Ozzy if he thought it would bump him up a 10th of a point in the latest poll (Milbank makes much of Gore's insatiable appetite for numbers). Still, when Milbank describes Gore's going to Dairy Queen and dragging 85 members of the entourage in 29 vehicles along with him, the story is somehow superfluous to the "reality" of the campaign as we would have scripted it: two adults giving their best shot to articulating their differences and their vision for the future of the United States and letting the democracy of this great country do the dirty work of electing one of them.

Right. That's exactly the way the system works.

Instead, Milbank calls it out for what it is, adults playing children's games (or is it children playing adults' games?). The reality that Milbank portrays is much less savory than our notion of the ideal campaign, including a story that has one of Gore's aides reducing the length of the VP's stum speeches by caffeinating him and giving him extra-tight underwear.

So you want to run for high office?

The result of all this insider information is a somewhat unsettling view of the whole process of presidential politics. Sure, we're not naïve enough to think that what we see on television is all there is to the quagmire. But this? There are people in this country who compare Ralph Nader to Diogenes, for God's sake.

The sum of these vignettes says much about the vagaries of the campaign trail and the whoreishness of the combatants. Too, Milbank's research and writing, both of which are quite good, moves things along nicely. The rationale behind Milbank's presentation of his experiences over the two years leading up to the election is simple enough, almost necessary given what he was witness to on the road:

Our problem is not negative campaigning but an increasingly puritanical press that often makes no distinction between negative comparison (which are common and useful) and gratuitous personal attacks (which are harmful but rare). The result is that journalists are the ones poisoning public opinion and injecting cynicism into the electorate by making people think politics is much uglier than it is.

Milbank uses the term "smashmouth" to denote the style of in-your-face politics that gets candidates elected in an age when a person so inclined could watch 38 political ads in a half hour period, as Milbank did in Lansing, Michigan, during the height of the campaign season.

Even the book's cover photo -- a close-up of a tongue with an American flag painted on it -- conjures images of the taunting and name-calling that have become the stock-in-trade of the country's most recent contact sport. It also brings to mind the glitz and glamour (and kitsch) of the old Rolling Stone album covers. Make no mistake, Mick and Keith have got nothing on Al and Dubya when it comes to giving attitude and strutting like bantam roosters.

All seriousness aside, though, this book, "is a treatise on political toilet humor. These pages contain an exclusive account of Muffie, the dog who soiled Al Gore's pant leg in New Hampshire, and the story of how Gore introduced frozen bull semen to the Iowa electorate. You'll learn why Gore slept around with public school teachers..." Etcetera.

Never fear, Al Gore devotees. Dubya gets a similar treatment. In fact, Milbank relates that he had managed to alienate the eventual winner before he ever met him simply by virtue of the fact that he used to work for The New Republic, a magazine that is owned by Gore supporter Marty Peretz. Milbank has difficulty gaining direct access to Bush; he finds out, however, that such evasiveness is the norm and raises questions early on that would become issues much later: Bush's "reluctance to talk (or his staff's reluctance to put him in harm's way) raises doubts. A wide range of reporters have begun to grumble about their lack of access to Bush -- even those from some of the mass-media outlets Bush needs. Why is he hiding?"

For all the interesting information in the first 350 pages of Smashmouth, who could resist skipping forthwith to the last three or four chapters, the ones that describe the election itself and the aftermath? Understandable, certainly. And who could resist savoring sordid tales of hanging chads, political intrigue that describes how one absentminded poll worker drove home with a box of ballots in his backseat, the high drama of Secretary of State Katherine Harris' single-handedly deciding the election's outcome and even one of the great quotations of all time, given by a man high in the echelon of Florida State University football. When Milbank asks him about the upcoming Florida/Florida State football game (the real event in town on that or any weekend, the making of history notwithstanding and the reason that many journalists had to give up their hotel accommodations), the source replies, "Candidates will come and go, but your record against the opponent [on the football field] is written in stone and will be talked about in legend and song far longer than the election of candidates who just pass by."

Knowing the source of the quotation, my guess is that he said it without irony.

That's scary.

That's the 2000 presidential election in microcosm, at least in Tallahassee. For all their caring, no one cared. The society in which the 2000 election took place is no more ready to deal intellectually with the ambiguities of smashmouth politics than it is to solve the divisive issues that fueled the campaign in the first place.

Implicit in the notion of representative politics is the imprecision with which these contests are very often carried off. Milbank is at his best when he points up the absurdity of what goes on behind the scenes (since we hardly need be reminded what went on in front of the cameras). Milbank discusses the nature of the campaign in terms of its deliberate, plodding nature: no one seizes the advantage or loses the election overnight; the outcome is an accretion of events and a groundswell of public opinion that moves like a giant slug across the country and ends (usually) on election night.

The concept is similar to one of the pet theories of Hans Hoffman, who influenced many of the Abstract Expressionists in this country in the 1950s with his notion of the "push and pull" of the image on the canvas. Hoffman described the inner workings of paintings that, on the surface, are nothing more than paintbrush strokes and drips (the work of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, for example). Politics is like that, the constant give and take of campaigning and polling and judging the audience's reaction to what you've put on the canvas, even if none of it makes sense at first glance.

In both cases -- the 2000 presidential election and Abstract Expressionist art -- it looks like somebody threw up on the canvas. And in both cases, it cost somebody a lot of money for a work of art that very few people will appreciate.

Perhaps Milbank's most apt observation is that the time of the Big Idea in politics has passed. One need only read this book to find out how true that statement really is. | March 2001


Patrick A. Smith lives and writes in Tallahassee, Florida.