Low-grade fever

Michael Lewis finds the faint pulse of presidential politics.

Published June 19, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

In searching for the soul of the '96 presidential campaign, journalist Michael Lewis (New York Times, New Republic) came up empty-handed. His new book, "Trail Fever" (Knopf, 299 pages) follows the marginal candidates who made for the most exciting copy and critiques the cynicism of the major-party candidates.

Salon spoke with Lewis about life on the trail, what to expect in the 2000 election and what it felt like to have his love life analyzed by Vanity Fair.

It seems like President Clinton is on a perpetual campaign. His commencement speech last weekend in San Diego about race relations was particularly campaign-y, offering broad solutions -- in this case "town hall meetings" -- for complex problems.

Clinton governs when he campaigns and he campaigns when he governs. This speech on race relations -- that is the kind of speech he should have given during the campaign but he didn't because he didn't want to take any risks. From the inside, the campaign looked like one long television commercial. The idea of the campaign was to keep Clinton out of harm's way, to minimize the number of questions he needed to answer, minimize the number of speeches he would give that could stir up any kind of trouble, and maximize the amount of money spent on TV commercials and in events that look a lot like TV commercials.

You say in the book, "The problem with embracing Clinton is that you know you'll come to regret it." Do you think that when he's out of there in a few years, that most people are going to come to regret that he was our president for eight years?

Clinton's OK -- I don't hate him or like him very much. He's being set up as a Watergate-like president, but I don't think anything can bring him down completely. No one has that much interest in doing it. They have an interest in keeping him crippled and weak, which is what he is. I think he's just going to be remembered as a mediocre president who couldn't really do very much. So much of that office, the power of that office, is just the power to persuade. It's just moral authority. Which is why it's kind of smart that he's onto race, because this is one area where he retains moral authority. On so much else, he doesn't have it. He has a hard time getting anything done because of it. He's changed people's notion of that office, all by himself. Made it much more normal, like the president's just the president.

I also think there are so many crazies out there who are after him that they discredit the sane people that are after him. They all get lumped together. You can't figure out what's true and not true. I think that saves him too. He's been very lucky in his enemies, that so many of them are unhinged. There is always that thing about how he's cursed because he came from Arkansas because he has a sordid past, but he's also blessed because there are all these crazy people coming out of the swamps and nobody really wants to associate with them.

In the book you talk about how unscripted and spontaneous many of the more marginal candidates were.

Yes, and they were more interesting for that reason. But Clinton wasn't scripted in '92, so it's not the way it has to be. Both the major campaigns in '96 were so removed from life. They were such marketing events. That's one of the big reasons why nobody paid much attention -- because it was so dull. I mean, Ted Koppel walked out of the Republican convention! And many more people would have done it if they had the nerve. Everybody's now acutely aware that viewership is down for these conventions and for the debates. I think we're going to see some sort of response to that in the next campaign.

How so?

There's kind of a reformist spirit in the air, and there are candidates that are likely to capitalize on it. What you're seeing now is noise from more authentic looking candidates -- Fred Thompson, John McCain, Bill Bradley. All three are process people. They think that the way we elect presidents sucks. And they're not like Buchanan, they're insiders in a way. But they're going to be attacking from the inside. And that didn't happen in this campaign. All the attacks came from the outside.

Is Gore electable?

You know as well as I do. Why would I know?

Well, you watched him close up.

He's really boring. There's nothing exciting about him. And he's really wooden. You can't get elected president making fun of how dull you are. You can get elected to Ed McMahon's job, but not Johnny Carson's. Jesse Jackson points to the basic problem about Gore -- that when he actually gets out and has to win votes for himself, he doesn't excite people. And I wouldn't be surprised if Jesse Jackson is out mixing it up again. I think four years from now is going to be a really ripe election.

In the book you write that Pat Buchanan will be back in 2000.

He'll be back because he's the anger candidate. He's gotten bigger each time. And he did what he did when there wasn't all that much to be angry about. You couldn't ask for a better economy. We don't have a war, we don't have any big macro problems. Buchanan is proving that you can actually build this political base as host of "Crossfire." He's on TV all the time. He's talking to his people. And he's been taking names. I mean, that organization is slick now. They were not slick going into '96. He's got a database of a million names.

You found a lot of cynicism on the campaign trail, and you say that it was somewhat justified, given how uninspiring the race was.

I think it's unfair to say that people are cynical. The people who are cynical are the people who are running these campaigns. It's cynical to hire telemarketing firms to push polls. It's cynical to have Dole give speeches about movies he hasn't seen. It's manipulative. There are two responses when you know you're being manipulated: One is to be outraged and suspicious. The other, which seems to be the common response, is to say, "Oh, what a waste of time. It's boring. What if I don't pay any attention at all? It's not real."

Did the media contribute to the cynicism?

My only complaint about the media is how boring it is. I think politics, when it's done well, should be entertaining. It's about conflict, like literature, and so when it's covered properly it should be entertaining. There's this bias against entertainment -- that if something is entertaining it can't be serious. I think that's stupid.

In Washington it is completely acceptable for journalists to churn out boring, unreadable copy. I think that should be regarded as a sin! You have a responsibility to engage people, to drag them into this process. What's the public virtue in writing a very worthy piece on welfare reform that no one reads? It doesn't matter that it was written.

I also think this business of going on television and shooting off your mouth about everything you don't know about is stupid. When I started covering the campaign, I got calls from David Brinkley, Charlie Rose. And I called back and said, "Why would I want to go on your show?" When I could spend that time sleeping, having fun, finding something out ... But there's this understanding that that's what you're supposed to want -- to get to a level where you're vital on these shows. I don't understand it.

Why don't you understand it? It seems to me that being a talking head in some ways is a natural extension of being a part of the Washington press corps. Besides, television is great exposure.

But they look like assholes. The more scorn that is heaped on the people who do that, the better it is for the world. I think it's embarrassing. This whole thing that if you're on TV you're successful is really stupid.

Haven't you ever been on TV?

All the time. But for the book stuff, to sell books.

Your love life was recently dissected in the pages of Vanity Fair. What did you think of the article?

Not much. It was just an ugly piece of journalism. I knew what she [Vanity Fair writer Marjorie Williams] was doing right from the beginning. I didn't like her. She called me for the piece she did on [former New Republic editor] Andrew Sullivan and she handled the information I gave her very dishonestly. I talked to her for an hour and reflected on what I feel about Andrew, all of which was very positive.

But she managed to cull quotes that made it look negative. She was out to get Andrew and she was calling his friends and getting them to turn on him. It was especially gross because she kept trying to get me to go off the record. But I insisted on remaining on the record. I think she's a dishonest person. The one thing she quoted me as saying -- in an e-mail message -- was off the record. I just don't understand why she would think that my love life would be of interest.

It's dish. You're a media personality. What do you think of the connection Williams made between your personal life and the way you write?

She wanted to write about my personal life and she needed an excuse. So she said it had some connection to the way I write. She doesn't know anything about my personal life, that's the amazing thing. But I can't really do anything about it.

Did this piece make you more cynical about your profession?

It didn't tell me anything about Vanity Fair, or journalists, that I didn't already know. I think it's very useful, especially for someone who writes, to have critical things written about them. It makes it all more honest in a way. I know what it's like.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------