Show Time: The American Political Circus and the Race for the White House
written by Roger Simon
published by Times Books, 1998
327 pages of text; 17 pages of notes and index


What is the difference between show business and politics?

The disturbing answer of Roger Simon is, "none." In his highly entertaining account of the 1996 presidential race, Simon focuses on how the process of electing a President has come to look more and more like the process of advertising a hit movie or television show. He credits Bill Clinton's consummate skill at show business (and Bob Dole's complete ineptitude) for Clinton's resounding win at the polls that November.

Simon writes an insider's view of the campaign process -- he appears to have given unlimited access by both major campaigns, as well as having had substantial interview time with several major players. He relates how campaign appearances are set up and tightly scripted, how the press is manipulated, and (in one of his best chapters) how audiences and other people in physical proximity to the candidates have become mere props used to influence the audience that really counts: the millions of people watching the events on television.

Simon's writing skill is most apparent in the personal profiles that make up much of the book. In addition to the obvious subjects -- Clinton, Dole, and Ross Perot -- he also provides insightful, lively, and sometimes poignant character studies of other people in the process, such as White House press secretary Mike McCurry, New Hampshire governor Steve Merrill, Clinton advisers Harold Ickes, Jr. and Bill Daley, and hapless Dole campaign managers Scott Reed and Nelson Warfield. These vignettes are the strength of the book, giving readers a sense of how the principles, emotions, needs, and foibles of individuals interact with and shape the political process.

Though he spends much of the book profiling personalities, Simon never loses sight of the main factor in the presidential race: power, and the ability to wield it. His accounts of how the Clinton team neutralized Jesse Jackson and how the Dole team used Steve Merrill are alone worth the price of the book for their unsentimental and fascinating look at hard-ball politics in action.

Entertaining and illuminating though it is, Simon's book is ultimately unsatisfying. His account of the 1996 campaign is a chronicle of Clinton's amoral brilliance at 1990s-style politicking and Dole's stubborn unwillingness to make any concessions to the new ways of politics. But why, if Clinton was so good and Dole so inept, did Clinton only win the race by 8.5 percentage points? And why did Clinton get only 49.2% of the vote? And why, with the economy as strong as it had been in a decade, did he win only a handful more electoral votes than he had in 1992? Simon's explanation of the 1996 race would lead us to think that Clinton would win in a 1984-style landslide, and Simon fails to explain why this did not happen.

Keeping the caveat in mind that there was more to the race than what Simon tells us, his book is well worth the time to read. Simon is an excellent writer who had good access to key people, and these strengths come through page after page. If you're looking for a good behind-the-scenes look at the 1996 presidential campaign, you won't do much better than Show Time.


Review posted: 16 June 1998