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A couple of years ago, a cable company in New York devised a fiendish punishment for deadbeat customers. When someone failed to pay the bill, the cable company stuffed his cable box with C-SPAN, on every channel from 1 to 99. Floor votes, AARP conferences, subcommittee markups—24 hours a day, seven days a week, 99 channels. The check is in the mail.

Last week, I experienced something similar. I read all the books written by presidential candidates for the 1996 campaign, cover to cover, from windy introductions through mendacious appendices.

I read Between Hope and History: Meeting America’s Challenges for the 21st Century by Bill Clinton.

I read Trusting the People: The Dole-Kemp Plan to Free the Economy and Create a Better America by Bob Dole and Jack Kemp.

I read My Life and the Principles for Success by Ross Perot.

I read Why Government Doesn’t Work by Libertarian candidate Harry Browne.

And I lived, barely, to tell the tale.

Like other evils of contemporary politics (notably the “town meeting” and Larry King Live), the current plague of campaign books can be blamed mostly on Clinton and Perot. Presidential candidates have published manifestoes before—Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative is the most famous—but the 1992 presidential campaign routinized them. This year there’s an infestation. The candidate book has become a necessity, a prime recruiting tool for the Borders/espresso crowd. It proves that a candidate is more than his soundbites, that he’s A Thinker, A Writer, A Man with Ideas.

All this presidential literary ambition suggested that perhaps America has entered a golden age of political writing. I decided to read the campaign books less as policy briefings than as literature. Which of our candidates is a writer? Can any of these books match the anxious grace of the Federalist Papers? The beauty and rage of While England Slept?

The answer, which will surprise no one, is: no.

I begin, optimistically, with Between Hope and History. This book meets the first test of campaign literature: It’s on message. Its 175 pages brim with the modest proposals that have characterized the Clinton campaign—a “hope” scholarship here, a tax credit there, responsibility everywhere, “opportunity” for all and malice toward none.

The prose is a different matter. Journalists have written extensively and meanly about Between Hope and History, but they have not done it justice. Nothing could. The obese awfulness of its prose boggles the mind. It is a fog of “community” and “common sense,” of “we” and “us” and “our.” Consider this passage, chosen at random:

We don’t want government in our face, but we do want it on our side when we need it, and quickly. We don’t want, for example, a weak Federal Emergency Management Agency when there’s an earthquake, a flood, or a horrible tragedy like Oklahoma City. We don’t want a gutted Occupational Health and Safety Administration when the place where we work is unsafe. We don’t want a Food and Drug Administration that can’t guarantee that the food we feed our children won’t harm them.

The real issue isn’t big government versus small government.

I believe America needs a government that is both smaller and more responsive. One that both works better and costs less. One that shifts authority from the federal level to states and localities. One that relies upon entrepreneurs in the private sector when the private sector can do the job best. One that has few regulations and more incentives. One, in short, that has more common sense and seeks more common ground.

The best that can be said for this writing is that it sounds like Clinton: heartfelt, humorless, diarrheal, and vague. The passage bows and scrapes through 165 words, and what does it convey? The revelatory idea that government is OK but needs improvement. The rest is grandiose filler, sometimes contradictory, always nebulous (and always infected with the presumptuous, ingratiating first person plural). What does it mean to have “government in our face”? Or, for that matter, “on our side”? How exactly can government simultaneously work better, cost less, be smaller, be more responsive, have fewer regulations, rely more on the private sector, shift power to states and localities, have more incentives, and have more common sense? How can government seek “more common ground,” yet still “be on our side”?

As for the rest of Between Hope and History, it begins with this bad sentence: “This book continues the conversation I have had with the American people about our destiny as a nation,” and ends with this bad sentence: “Our best is yet to come.” I certainly hope so.

After the communitarian pileup of Between Hope and History, Trusting the People has two distinct virtues. First, it’s simple. It was conceived four or five Dole strategies ago, and it bleats the supply-side nostrum over and over. Where Clinton’s book promises 158 different little things, Trusting the People promises one big thing, 158 times. The first six chapters are titled: “A Vision of Freedom: Highlights of the Dole-Kemp Economic Growth Plan,” “The Impact of the Dole-Kemp Tax Cuts,” “Tax Relief for American Families,” “End the IRS as We Know It,” “Replace the Tax Code,” and “Cutting Taxes: The Right Thing to Do.”

Get the idea?

The second virtue of Trusting the People: brevity. The book clocks in at a mere 106 pages—not including five appendices—and is inflated by graphs, large subheads, and filler quotes.

Where Between Hope and History sounds all too much like Clinton, Trusting the People sounds like nobody. It lacks Dole’s wit and Kemp’s warmth. It rings with all the poetry of a press release. The same six “facts” appear in every chapter (such as: Dole tax cuts = $1,689 per family). The prose consists largely of populist clichés and canned phrases: Government “punishes” taxpayers, the IRS imposes “tax tyranny,” the “D.C. elite” wages “war on small business,” the bureaucrats have a “vise-like monopoly” on public schools. The Clinton economy? “Anemic.” The Dole/Kemp economy? “Vibrant.” Clinton’s promises? “Hollow.” The Dole/Kemp tax plan? “Good sense” or, sometimes, “common sense.”

I arrive at Perot’s My Life and the Principles for Success with a sense of hope (and history). Four years ago, Perot published United We Stand, a provocative, simple-minded economic manifesto that harmonized perfectly with his provocative, simple-minded presidential campaign. I’m expecting a repeat performance. I am sorely disappointed. In 1996, Perot is running an idea-free vanity campaign. He has written an idea-free vanity book to match.

My Life and the Principles for Success divides into two parts: an abbreviated autobiography (My Life) and a compendium of Perotian wisdom (The Principles for Success).

A capsule summary of the autobiography: Ross grows up in Texas, loves his parents, stars at

the Naval Academy, becomes the best salesman at IBM, founds a fabulously successful company, and makes history. Awards and honors ensue. The way this tale is told—and there is no kind way to say this—is an embarrassment. Perot seems uncomfortable with the

English language.He writes in a style best described as sixth-grade book report. A typical passage:

The great benefit I gained from visiting with the Kitchens is that all of them were so smart and talented. They had received virtually every gift. Mrs. Kitchens really was instrumental in tapping the full potential of her two daughters and, for that matter, helping to develop the full potential of all the children in the neighborhood. Dr. Kitchens was a wonderful man who would also pick me up as I walked to school. I have many happy memories of my visits with him.

Modifiers interest him only if they dangle. Verbs are best when passive. If a banal phrase can appear once, why not twice, three times, even four times in the same chapter? Dr. Kitchens is not the only “wonderful” person Perot knows; in just two pages, Perot describes his “wonderful parents,” William Brown and his “wonderful family,” Mrs. Neef and Ann Neef, “wonderful people,” and the Hickersons, also, you guessed

it, “wonderful people.”

Or “adventure,” another favorite expression. Founding a business was a “great adventure,” traveling to Hawaii was a “great adventure,” serving on the USS Leyte was a “great adventure,” working at IBM was both “one of the great adventures of my life” and an “incredible

adventure,” installing a 305

RAMAC computer was “one of my greatest adventures.”

But what can you expect from a man who named his collie “Lassie,” his chow “Chang,” and all his German shepherds “Shep”?

And what of the The Principles for Success? You can’t argue with them: “Employ a first-rate accountant,” “Always be prompt,” and “Treat everybody as equals.”

At last, irrefutable evidence: With wealth comes wisdom.

Finally, the good news: Libertarian candidate Harry Browne, whose book is neither ill-written, ghost-written, nor inane (though it is irrelevant, given that Browne will win about 500,000 votes. But that’s another story). Why Government Doesn’t Work is a densepack of libertarian crankiness. Browne insists that America must abolish the FDA, income tax, welfare, drug laws, foreign aid, Social Security, etc. Then the deficit will vanish, justice will be restored, freedom will ring throughout the land. Hallelujah! And if you don’t believe it, Browne has charts—oh boy, does he have charts—that prove, beyond a sliver of a shadow of a doubt, that the U.S. government has failed and libertarianism will save America.

Browne is a bully and a zealot. He bites. He batters you about the head with sticks. He demands unconditional surrender:

You may feel you’d like to take the best part of what I’ve suggest—get rid of Programs A through J, but perhaps only reform Programs K and L, while keeping programs M and N as they are. But I’m afraid that can’t be done. There is no middle ground—no slower transition, no moderate compromise.

No compromise! Forget mealy-mouthed hymns to community. Away with orisons to “our America.” This is what a manifesto should be. The prose is vituperative, hyperbolic, and sarcastic. Browne labels Social Security “a fraud that can never be fixed,” sneers at “Soviet-style 5-year and 7-year plans to balance the budget,” rails at politicians “pandering as shamelessly as any streetwalker,” and denounces “the dismantling of the Bill of Rights.”

Like most people obsessed with a Big Idea, Browne writes somewhat like a lunatic. His text runs nearly to the margin. He eschews the oversize print of his competitors; his typeface is small, the typeface for quotations even smaller. The footnotes are almost illegibly tiny.

But even at his worst, Browne is blessed with one crowning virtue: a sense of humor. And after 450 pages of blather from Perot, Clinton, Dole, and Kemp, that redeems all flaws. Who would not cheer a paragraph such as this?:

So what is government? Very simply, it is an agency of coercion. Of course there are other agencies of coercion—such as the Mafia. So to be more precise, government is the agency of coercion that has flags in front of its offices.CP