An Early Look Inside The Presidential Race

THE CHOICE

By Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster

462 pp. $26

Bob Woodward's latest effort, "The Choice," is a new type of political-campaign book. While readers interested in politics have grown used to after-the-campaign tell-alls (here's how we won/here's why we lost), Woodward presents an inside look at both campaigns during the race.

"The Choice" is a classic reporting job by The Washington Post writer and editor of Watergate fame, with lots of paraphrases and reconstructed conversations based on personal observations and hours of interviews with inside sources.

As one plows through what must be some embarrassing revelations for everyone concerned, (Hillary Rodham Clinton was particularly damaged by the publicity over her "conversations" with Eleanor Roosevelt) some obvious questions present themselves, whether the reader is in the camp of President Clinton or of Republican challenger Bob Dole: Is there no discretion any more? Can't anybody keep his or her mouth shut? Should campaign workers be revealing all their cards in real time? And how do subordinates' desires to look good slant their recollections?

Campaigns cannot function under the spotlight's glare: There are positions to hammer out, compromises to be made, options to examine. Hard decisionmaking can't take place in the public eye.

Woodward tells a significant part of the story, but not the whole story. Or rather, he tells significant parts of several stories. His access to the Dole campaign reveals a lot about its attempts to get its act together for the Iowa caucuses, but he's a lot weaker on the pre-primary campaigning in New Hampshire.

The portraits of Clinton and Dole and those around them are not particularly flattering. Dole's senior campaign staff is shown in a constant struggle with him to stay "on message," that is, to focus on the policy points he is trying to make, instead of wandering around off-the-cuff in his public statements.

Dole's stumbles in TV interviews during the past month show that this is still a problem.

President Clinton is shown trying to figure out how to do a deal with the congressional Republicans to reform welfare and cut the deficit, while at the same time personally approving a cynical, $18 million ad campaign attacking the GOP as extremist, which was run by consultant Dick Morris and paid for by the Democratic National Committee, not the Clinton-Gore campaign. Eventually, Woodward says, Clinton had use of $25 million in DNC money plus the $37 million that the Clinton-Gore campaign was authorized to use during the primary campaign, even though the president had no primary challenger. A large portion of it was used to bash the GOP.

While Woodward interviewed Dole several times for the book, Clinton refused to be interviewed.

This book was published in a hurry, as several factual errors show. Recounting the GOP nomination, Woodward also takes a peek at several other Republican hopefuls. Woodward's penchant for irrelevant detail appears frequently. His characterizations of Dole's speech patterns and habits border on the ridiculous: At one point, speechwriter Mari Will (commentator George Will's wife) is proposing an attack on liberal education elites. "Hhhhmmmm, Dole said. Hhhhmmmmm," Woodward writes - presented, by the way, as an indirect quote. What's the point?

Still, if you follow politics or you're interested in knowing more about Clinton, Dole, and the people behind their campaigns, "The Choice" makes for an interesting, often entertaining, read. And it says a lot about the state of American politics today.

*Lawrence J. Goodrich is a Monitor editorial writer.

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