Folksy and friendly political portraits. Campaign biographies

By

AMONG the flummery that presidential elections generate is the campaign biography/autobiography. A biography can help dignify the meager record of the McGoverns and Carters - and of a John F. Kennedy, whose campaign biography in 1960 by the authoritative James MacGregor Burns helped establish the genre. Yet such books, though destined ultimately for remainder tables or yard sales, should not be ignored. This is not truth but mythology, revealing how Candidate X or Y hopes to be perceived - and admired. So the books reviewed here are strong on folksiness and friendliness, on small-town childhood and supportive marriages, on optimism and good cheer. Of introspection and self-revelation there is little.

George Bush does tell us about repressing his youthful anger, and Pat Robertson - predictably - discourses on the ``emptiness'' that brought him to fundamentalism. Only Bob Dole lets the mask slip, mentioning the despair caused by his war wounds.

The ideal is a forthright, laissez-faire, authentically American problem-solver and nice guy, who prefers barbecue to pesto and Peoria to Paris - or even Washington. The reality is prosaic men with vast ambitions and some competence but little vision or imagination.

Recommended: Elizabeth II: 3 biographies about the reigning monarch

Consider George Bush. His problem is clear: patrician behavior. In Looking Forward, by George Bush with Victor Gold (Doubleday, New York. 270 pp. $18.95), no amount of fudging of stories about the Navy and Texas can fully camouflage his background, his distance from ordinary people, and his paradoxical combination of ambition and diffidence. Ambition has spurred him toward the Oval Office since 1976. Throughout his career, diffidence and amiability have made him a loyal and hardworking - if overly cautious - team player in one tightly structured organization after another.

It began in a large, competitive family in the classic bedroom suburb of Greenwich, Conn., with wealthy, traditional parents who ruled firmly, demanded achievement, and bestowed little praise. ``Poppy'' Bush didn't disappoint, doing all the right things from early on. He went from Phillips Exeter into Navy combat flying in the Pacific during World War II. Married at 20, he galloped through Yale by 1948; of ideas, courses, teachers, he says nothing, of his college baseball career, far too much.

Soon it was off to west Texas and big money in oil. It wasn't easy for an outsider, but Bush is skilled at adjusting to hierarchical situations where loyalty, hard work, and self-discipline are crucial. So he chokes off with a few platitudes about Tex-Mex cooking what might have been a solid story of risk, grit, and guts by a Yankee on the rise. It doesn't wash: The true George Bush remains an establishment type, only mildly successful in elections (two congressional terms from a wealthy Houston suburb, followed by a defeat in a Senate race), but much more so on the appointments ladder from 1970 to 1976. It was as United Nations ambassador, Republican National Committee chairman, head of the liaison office in China, and CIA director that Bush acquired experience and prominence.

About his accomplishments, there are self-effacing banalities: Do Mother Bush's admonitions about modesty still prevail? If most politicians take themselves too seriously, Bush seems just the opposite, a man with reasonable instincts, but a narrow, unimaginative sensibility.

So it is with Bob and Elizabeth Dole, though The Doles: Unlimited Partners - written by the Doles, with the experienced political biographer Richard Norton Smith (Simon & Schuster, New York. 287 pp. $19.95) - is better focused, better written, and more comprehensive than is Bush's. The equal billing and substantial space accorded Elizabeth Dole are a clever bid to women and Southerners: If Bob Dole is a flinty populist, Elizabeth Dole is warmer and more relaxed, the child of a wealthy, small-town North Carolina family.

Nevertheless, she has pushed her way up the political ladder: Why? We learn nothing.

This is a predictable book, though something can be gleaned between the lines. Bob Dole grew up with the tough-minded verities of Russell, Kan.: population 2,000. But he also saw it all nearly collapse, as the Depression and dust bowl hit Russell - and the Doles - very hard. They survived through shrewdness and hard work; so did Bob after his right arm was permanently injured in the Italian campaign.

While George Bush was receiving a prestigious education and the teen-aged Pat Robertson was learning to party as the scion of a prominent family in Lexington, Va., Bob Dole was spending three years in veterans' hospitals, contemplating a possible future as the town cripple, selling pencils on street corners.

That fate he escaped. He gained a legal education through the GI Bill, was backed by his family and neighbors, married (there was a divorce in 1972; Bob and Elizabeth Dole married in 1975), entered politics, and began winning elections. The Russell virtues helped: canniness, ambition, hard work. So did the courage and self-confidence of one who has overcome disaster.

Whether the angry, almost ruthless side of Bob Dole also has been overcome is an unanswered question. Though his Washington career is handled in detail, there is no mention of the deals struck, the enemies made, the fear of retribution that he stirs. Only in a back-handed apology for his notorious attack - in the 1976 presidential campaign - on the Democratic Party for having presided over four wars in this century, is there a hint of Bob Dole's zest for hardball.

Of Pat Robertson: The Authorized Biography by John B. Donovan (Macmillan, New York. 214 pp. $14.95), less need be said. The question here is to make a former television evangelist with no electoral record seem a credible candidate for the most powerful office in the world. The answer is to treat the spiritual power Robertson insists he symbolizes as the golden key that will unlock all doors. The troubling ambiguities of daily politics are simply ignored, while platitudes rule.

Robertson - whose father was a Republican senator - is no neophyte in the great world despite his protestations of distance from Washington.

His campaign biography is slick and disingenuous.

Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...