'Deciding the Next Decider'

Calvin Trillin offers a delightful record of the 2008 presidential campaign in verse.

Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme; By Calvin Trillin; Random House, 118 pp., $14

For those of us suffering from Post-election Political Blog Withdrawal Syndrome, Calvin Trillin’s Deciding the Next Decider, a chronicle in verse about the just completed presidential race, is an irresistible shot of instant nostalgia.

Trillin started writing political poems for The Nation in 1990, setting the bar high for himself with “If You Knew What Sununu.”

Since then, he’s punctured the pretensions of politicians right and left, wielding iambic pentameter and inspired rhymes in the service of insightful, hilariously entertaining liberal-leaning commentary. His dogged doggerel has been collected in “Deadline Poet” (1994), plus two volumes about the Bush administration, “Obliviously On He Sails” (2004) and “A Heckuva Job” (2006).

One may wonder where Trillin will find humor in a no-drama Obama administration, but as these pithy poems about the 2008 presidential race show, he never has to look far for political punching bags: Trillin is an equal-opportunity critic.

His 26th book begins with the 2006 midterm elections and takes us through Iowa, New Hampshire, Super Tuesday and on, across the bridge to nowhere to Joe the unvetted plumber, the economic meltdown, slime ads, and Democratic neuroses, right up to Obama’s victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park: “Yes, here’s how presidents are meant to talk.”

Trillin is so good at zeroing in on key moments, it’s hard to believe he wrote these poems while events were unfolding rather than with the advantage of hindsight. Such adeptness is challenging enough in prose; pulling off incisive commentary in rhyming couplets is akin to dancing backwards in high heels.

Remember the crowded stage at the Republican debates during the primaries? It feels so long ago, yet Trillin’s lines bring it back sharply. Mike Huckabee? “He’s wacko, yes, but he’s sure pleasant,” Trillin writes in “The Nicest Republican.” He compares Mitt Romney to a Ken doll, “so slick of speech and slick of garb,” while of “almost-ran” Bill Frist he writes, “Some problems came along, the worst one being/ A blind trust that seemed capable of seeing.”

He describes the early criticism of Barack Obama: “Experience was what he seemed to lack./ And to be frank, they pointed out, he’s black.”

To the suggestion that the young first-term senator acquire more experience before running for president, he comments in a tart parenthetical aside, “Producing legislation at a trickle,/ Some Senate members don’t mature, they pickle.”

Harping repeatedly on John McCain’s moral compromises, Trillin stresses that not all change is good: “No longer did he seem the same man who/ Had charmed the voters (and reporters, too)/ With candor as he’d cheerfully express/ His willingness to call BS BS.”

He adds, “A maverick. Indeed, he’d earned that word/ ’Til, desperate to win, he joined the herd.”
Nor does he mince words about what he calls the distorted “Rove-o-Clone” ads and robo-calls released by McCain’s campaign: “McCain of old would not allow such scat./ His honor meant much more to him than that./ But into Bush’s role with Rove he’d slid./ What torture couldn’t do, ambition did.”

Several stanzas are set to familiar tunes, including “He’s Still My Bill,” an update of the “Show Boat” classic for Hillary Clinton, and “On a Clear Day, I See Vladivostok,” a fresh version of the Barbra Streisand hit for Sarah Palin.

Palin, of course, was a gift to comedians, but Trillin unleashes indignation along with zingers. He faults her for trampling on the truth, noting that when challenged, “She’d say it yet again, with no contrition,/ As if she’d make it true by repetition.” Alluding to her costly sartorial makeover, he concludes, “They dressed her all up. They could put her in Prada/But what she can say that’s of substance is nada.”

As fun as this is now – especially for Obama supporters – “Deciding the Next Decider” may prove even more valuable down the road as a concise reminder of this amazing chapter in American history.

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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