Oxford University Press, $24.95, 384 pp.
Review by Claude R. Marx
Dual biographies are a tricky subgenre of nonfiction to pull off. Striking the right balance between offering straight biographical information and shedding light on the dynamics of the subjects’ relationship requires both prodigious research and a great flare for storytelling. The challenge is especially tough when you’re trying to tackle two such paradoxical, larger-than-life people as former President Bill Clinton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Fortunately, University of Oklahoma history professor Steven M. Gillon pulls it off. He has done a solid job of navigating their lives and careers. Much of his new book synthesizes the existing material on the subject, with a few new quotes tossed in for good measure. Those who have read Clinton’s memoir (My Life), John Harris’ biography of him (The Survivor) or one of several books by and about Gingrich will find much familiar material. What makes Gillon’s book worth reading is his analysis of the nuances of their relationship and his ability to look at his subjects in the context of the 1960s, when they came of age politically.
Gillon, the resident historian for the History Channel, argues that the men respected and liked, but often distrusted, one another. They were able to work together because both were willing to go against the wishes of their respective party’s most ideologically fervent members. But Clinton bested Gingrich much of the time, Gillon writes, because “Clinton possessed a much higher emotional intelligence. The president peeled Gingrich like an onion. … Gingrich lacked Clinton’s human touch. He could read a roomful of people but became tone deaf when it came to one-on-one encounters.”
The book’s most interesting revelation is the extent to which Clinton and Gingrich had planned to work together on a compromise that would have put Social Security and Medicare on firmer financial footing. Their meetings took place without the knowledge of members of their parties, whom they were afraid would object to giving the other side a big win on such an important issue. But then two words changed all that: Monica Lewinsky. The revelation made most policy progress all but impossible.
Readers will learn a lot about policy, politics and psychology, but will have to wade through Gillon’s often pedestrian writing style to do so. At times, The Pact reads like a doctoral dissertation that was turned into a book. Yet that’s a small shortcoming in an otherwise insightful and enjoyable examination of two of the most important political leaders of the late 20th century.
Claude R. Marx is author of a chapter on media and politics in The Sixth Year Itch, edited by Larry J. Sabato.
Quick PicksAlpha Dogs: The Americans Who Turned Political Spin into a Global Business
By James Harding
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 272 pp.
Alpha Dogs is about the formation, high points and ultimate demise of Sawyer Miller, a public relations consulting firm that was one of the first professional political consulting firms in the 1970s and 1980s. Sawyer Miller helped create the modern negative ad, and saw “spin” as an essential part of the firm’s work. Harding describes Sawyer Miller’s national and international campaigns, from the speeches it crafted to how its principals badgered candidates into taking advice. Harding tells the stories of clients like President Cory Aquino of the Philippines, and what the firm had to do to not only win over the Filipino people,
but President Ronald Reagan as well.—Corinne MinardWomen for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns
By Erika Falk
University of Illinois Press, $19.95, 192 pp.
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama announced their presidential candidacies the same month. According to Erika Falk, Obama received far more news coverage, although he trailed Clinton in the polls. Falk looks at eight women who ran for president through 2004, comparing their media treatment with their male opponents. She concludes that the press often portrayed women as unviable candidates, while ignoring their ideas and intent. Falk argues that this different treatment challenges the assumption that men and women have equal access to power.—Lauren Zingarelli
The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns
By D. Sunshine Hillygus and Todd G. Shields
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 268 pp.
Are swing voters really swayed by wedge issues? In this political game-theory exercise, Hillygus and Shields argue that “cross-pressured partisans” are a more complicated voting bloc than previously thought. With a look at microtargeting data and historical examples of campaign strategy, the authors conclude that candidates use controversial issues like abortion and immigration more often when they know what swing voters are thinking about.—Ryan Reeh