Political insiders spin chilling, improbable campaign scenario

1988, by Gov. Richard Lamm and Arnold Grossman. New York: St. Martin's Press. 264 pp. $15.95. It is 1988, and out of the imagination of two Colorado politicians-turned-novelists looms the first independent ticket seriously to threaten to win the United States presidency in 200 years.

Stephen Wendell, former Democratic governor of Texas, is the challenger who promises to save jobs and fight crime by closing America's borders to all immigration. Jerry Bloom, a liberal media consultant, is the clever imagemaker propelling Wendell to a lead in the polls over major-party nominees Jack Kemp and Gary Hart as election day nears.

Riding into office with them will be the first black woman vice-president and a secret cadre of foreign and domestic financiers who wish America ill.

In the imaginative literature of governance, ``1988'' aspires to no particular excellence. The two rookie novelists drop a self-mocking wink to the reader when they have one of the protagonists remark that it's all beginning to sound like a Robert Ludlum thriller. (Dick Lamm, maverick Democrat and public philosopher, has been governor of Colorado for more than a decade. Arnold Grossman has been a media consultant in Lamm's campaigns and in Gary Hart's senatorial and presidential runs.)

By entertaining us, however, Lamm and Grossman hold our attention long enough to conduct a lively three-ring seminar of ideas they could never get away with in a campaign platform:

In the center ring, see exotic issues on parade. Could the incoming tide of Hispanics and Asians strain the US economic and social fabric so dangerously by the end of this decade that the immigration crisis would totally distract national attention from the federal deficit and the Soviets?

In the ring on your left, see the democratic process fight to keep predatory beasts at bay. Could electronic-age campaign techniques take advantage of lax election laws to render our elections a mere charade, vulnerable to manipulation by the likes of the PLO, South African racists, Texas oilmen, and the paramilitary right?

And in the third ring, watch individual characters perform under stress. Can the image man from the committed '60s and the woman pollster from the jaded '70s keep their integrity in the corrupt '80s?

Jerry Bloom's stumbling yet dogged assertion of patriotic, professional, and marital scruples -- nagged by a hunch that something is rotten in his candidate's campaign -- rings true with a number of real-life profiles in courage that this reviewer witnessed in the Watergate affair. But relationships among all the leading characters are poisoned with duplicity, betrayal, and Machiavellian guile. And nearly hopeless stupidity is attributed to the voting public.

This misanthropic hyperbole undercuts the book's warning of grave threats to our electoral process. For if the virtuous founders who elected George Washington in 1788 have really been replaced, 200 years later, by the gullible, mean-spirited citizens and amoral leadership elites who populate ``1988,'' then no amount of campaign reform legislation can save the republic.

On the other hand, if there has been any validity to this country's wrenching era of moral introspection and self-correction over the past 30 years, then perhaps both our idealism and our institutions are less in need of drastic overhaul than the authors suggest.

Equally implausible is the immigration crisis that is supposed to catapult Stephen Wendell into the White House. The authors twist today's mixed and manageable reality into an unreal, unmixed bugaboo, then show how this could be exploited by a clever demagogue.

For what purpose? Not, evidently, to explore measured, politically feasible approaches to immigration reform -- the book offers none. But not to knock down the straw man of nativist fears, either, for nothing in the book takes seriously the notions of America as the land of refuge and human capital as the ultimate resource.

This reviewer came away less disturbed about wickedness in high places, dirty money in campaigns, or illegal aliens than about Richard Lamm's and Arnold Grossman's seeming lack of genuine seriousness in dealing with any of the three. In the next few years that lack may have political as well as literary significance.

For on the deepest level, this appears to be a piece of futuristic autobiography, the real governor and his consultant creating a fictional governor and his consultant and ``gaming'' them through a scenario of how and how not to seek high office. And as the real 1988 campaign takes shape, both Lamm and Grossman are likely to be in the thick of someone's Democratic or independent candidacy.

John K. Andrews Jr., president of the Colorado-based Independence Institute, was a White House speech writer in 1970-73.

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