Spinning a Tale of High-Powered Politics

TWO magicians take you backstage, explain how all the tricks work, show that you really can hide a rabbit up your sleeve. You're fascinated, but wary. After all, they're masters of deceit. Why are they telling you their secrets?

The price Mary Matalin and James Carville pay for being political ``spin doctors,'' experts at making their candidate look good and the other guy like a jerk, is that you don't know when to really believe them. Why are they telling us the ``inside'' story of the 1992 presidential race in which Carville ran the Clinton campaign and Matalin ``spun'' like a dervish on behalf of President Bush?

Well, OK, going on talk shows (fame) and receiving large fees from not one but two publishers (fortune) are significant attractions. But maybe, a reader suspects, another motive is involved: a chance to put a positive spin on ``spinning'' as a profession.

``All's Fair: Love, War, and Running for President'' is not an expose of their personal relationship, though they tease at that. We only get a few glimpses of their romance-put-on-hold-by-politics, mostly from Matalin.

As to its form, the book is a conversation between Mary and James (their first names are used throughout), each alternately giving a version of the events that led up to the 1992 presidential election. Thankfully, there isn't too much cloying, couple-ish banter, though at one point Mary does accuse James of ``spinning'' who was responsible for tipping over a canoe they were in: The ``cute meter'' momentarily swings wildly over the red line.

What the book does deliver are some solid insights into real-life American politics. Readers who want to know how big-time political campaigns really operate get an inside look. At least one myth is dispelled: Campaign directors don't invent candidates' positions; they refine and simplify the message. For a candidate, ``A political campaign is a constant quest to define yourself,'' James writes. ``An inability to define yourself lets others [read: your opponent] define you.''

Examples: Harris Wofford figured out that Pennsylvanians were worried about health care. James made it the winning issue in Wofford's Senate campaign. Clinton knew preaching economic recovery was important. James made it memorable by coining the phrase, ``It's the economy, stupid.''

Political ``spinners'' aren't hired guns without convictions, the couple says. Even though James works for the highest bidder, he has limits: ``I will work for a Democrat who I can get along with who is neither a bigot nor a crook.'' Mary is an unabashed Republican, a convert during college. They both speak glowingly of the sincere and honorable men for whom they labored. (Mary even cried when Bush lost.)

Unfortunately, rival politicians - obstacles to getting their guy elected - don't get the same treatment. Paul Tsongas was a nice guy with a good message, but James knew he'd have to attack and take him out. Negative campaigning is just part of the job.

Besides, ``[g]oing negative puts everybody in a mischievously productive and creative mood,'' Mary writes. ``For campaign junkies, it's a much more psychically rewarding challenge to slash the opposition than to cobble together another round of gushy, flag-waving, isn't-our-guy-great ads.''

It may win races, but in the eyes of voters it turns politicians into damaged goods who take office more as survivors than winners -

put through the spin cycle, so to speak.

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