Just fake it until you make it

THE CHOICE by Bob Woodward Simon & Schuster pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
According to Bob Woodward's prequel of the American Presidential election, the Dole campaign spent late January in pursuit of an endorsement from a leading, and former football-playing, supply-side Republican. This project having failed, Woodward has Dole brush off his lost prize with a curt "last time we're dealing with the quarterback". The quarterback was Jack Kemp, now Bob Dole's running mate. Such are the perils of writing instant history.

The Choice has been celebrated largely for its revelation that Hillary Clinton was advised by self-help counsellor Jean Houston to imagine herself in conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt. In fact, this seems a fairly sensible way of focusing an internal monologue (somewhat akin to prayer, and when Houston advises Mrs Clinton to talk to Jesus too, indistinguishable). The reason why this news was taken as evidence of wide-eyed loopiness in the White House was that it echoed the control of the presidential schedule exerted by Nancy Reagan's astrologer, and Richard Nixon's valedictory conversations with dead Presidential portraits (revealed by Woodward and Carl Bernstein in The Final Days).

Of more relevance to the rest of Woodward's book (which covers the period up to and through the presidential primaries) is a slogan Mrs Clinton picked up from a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous, "fake it till you make it", with its implication that internal change can follow and inhabit outward behaviour. This notion could equally apply to the efforts of the Dole and Clinton menders to correct the candidates' perceived shortcomings, from Clinton's failure to focus to Dole's tendency to sound and look mean (his speeches combed of harsh words on the grounds that his face would inevitably reflect their tone).

What Woodward exposes, however, is that the model of the victim candidate manipulated and moulded by men of the dark is now woefully unsophisticated. In the Sixties and Seventies, politicians were indeed prepped and crammed for debates, press conferences and speeches in a way that stifled and in some cases reversed their own personalities (the syndrome memorably dramatised in the movie The Candidate). Today, however, the dialectic between candidate and team is much subtler, and the tailoring a great deal more bespoke. Thus Bob Dole's meandering ("the message, whatever it is" on one notable occasion) was first countered by heavily rehearsed set-piece speeches. Later his team understood that despite the risks of tentativeness and fluff, Dole's somewhat submerged charms were more visible if he was encouraged to extemporise. True, there are the usual horror stories of focus groups being asked of what animal the Senate Majority Leader reminds them, and a crop of those generalised and superficially self-evident political saws ("whoever controls the agenda controls the outcome") much beloved of those consultants paid to rehearse them. But mostly one is impressed by the organic and considered nature of the campaigns fashioned round these personalities.

Woodward's project was to combine the detail of a 400-plus page volume with the immediacy of journalism. His policy of not sourcing his revelations raises questions about the extent of his imaginative extrapolation (on two occasions, he reports one-to-one meetings at which Clinton assures Dole that what is said will go no further). And in addition to failing to list Kemp among the Vice-Presidential prospects, Woodward picked up no hint of the scandal that was to lay campaign strategist Dick Morris low. The Choice emphasises on many pages the importance of Morris to Clinton's so-called "triangulation" strategy, which involves (in essence) moving to the right on Republican issues like taxes, crime and welfare, while staying close to home on Democratic properties like education, the environment and "compassion". As someone warned Morris, however, if you steal all the Republican issues away from them, their sole remaining strategy is to destroy Bill Clinton as a human being. He has been warned.