At least, closer to scratch. "The Running Mate" is the tale of a Midwesternsenator who looks and acts a lot like Nebraska's Bob Kerrey. Like Kerrey,Charlie Martin is a Vietnam veteran with a droll wit--an ironist. Afterrunning a risibly inept presidential campaign, where he faced charges ofsexual harassment, Martin discovers an illegitimate son and falls in lovewith a brassy swimsuit designer. And in the midst of a hard-foughtre-election campaign, he comes to a depressing realization about Americanpolitics: It corrupts all who touch it.
Even if the novel doesn't succeed wildly--it comes equipped with too manytransparent plot devices--it's still an important book. From his perch atThe New Yorker, Joe Klein's coverage shapes the debate. Hisdispatches from the campaign trail are among the best in the business, and he does far more than gauge the horse race. Before George W. Bushpronounced himself a compassionate conservative, Joe Klein toutedfaith-based institutions as an elixir for the woes of the poor. He haschampioned the importance of values in public policy.
It's interesting to consider, therefore, why he has such a dim view of thebusiness. The answer lies in "Primary Colors." In that book, he seemed tobelieve that politics can be noble. The goodness of the profession couldredeem even a flawed character like Bill Clinton (I mean, Jack Stanton).The politicos in "Primary Colors" may occasionally have done bad, but theymeant good. In "The Running Mate," the scoundrels have elbowed out thewell-intentioned guys. There is an army of heartless consultants, smarmylobbyists, and self-righteous zealots. They don't blink as they destroyreputations and ruin lives. Has politics changed that much in the five yearssince "Primary Colors" was published? Probably not, but Joe Klein has. Hehas gone through a very public disillusionment with the Clintonadministration, which seems to have turned him off politics.
But he may be too turned off. He has fallen for some clichés that don'tbefit a reporter of his sophistication. Take his depiction of Lee Butler,the fundamentalist muffler salesman who runs against Charlie Martin. He'severything that's pernicious in politics wrapped into one: the vulgarity ofRush Limbaugh meets the sanctimony of Pat Robertson meets the dishonesty ofRichard Nixon. He tours the state on motorcycle, with each day ofcampaigning capped by a Bible-study session. Butler's svengali is aconsultant named Ronny Bigler, nicknamed the "natural born-again" killer.Bearing a resemblance to Ralph Reed, Bigler claims that he models hiscampaigns on the crusades. Some of this is funny. Most of it isover-the-top. Washington is simply not this amoral. Our scoundrels don'thave the wax on the mustaches that Klein places there. (The staunchestevangelicals, for instance, tend to be some of the least flamboyantpoliticians in town. Think Steve Largent or Bob Inglis.)
Klein seems to mock Butler for believing that the 1960s were the decade whenAmerica went to hell-in-a-handbasket. This is a mockable position. But hethen goes on to posit his own declinist theory. Charlie Martin wonders onbehalf of Klein, "Hadn't there been a time when the stakes were only victoryor defeat? Now the losers ended up in jail or mental hospitals, exposed orhumiliated." In part, Klein seems to be buying the Whitewater-Vince-Foster conspiratorial view of the Clintons. And in large part, Klein buys a mawkish nostalgia for an age that didn't exist. (They just don't make honest politicians like Richard Nixon anymore.)
Of course, Klein's optimistic desire to have politics populated by heroes is anhonorable one. It enlivens his journalism, as it did in his delightfullyfawning coverage of John McCain. Klein has high aspirations for Americanpolitics. And he will undoubtedly produce another great novel about ourpublic life. "The Running Mate," though, is definitely not it.