MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Commentator Mark Acito isn't a political pundit, but that doesn't stop him from following every step of the presidential campaign. For our reading series Three Books, he's been thinking about great political tales, real and imaginary.
Mr. MARK ACITO (Author, "Attack of the Theater People"): Hi. My name is Marc, and I'm addicted to politics. I admit, I'm powerless over campaign news. If I need an election fix, there are enough books on the subject to last me four more years.
The best is probably "What it Takes" by Richard Ben Cramer, an exhaustive but never exhausting analysis of the 1988 presidential race, the one that began with Senator Gary Hart aboard the aptly-named "Monkey Business" and just went bananas from there. Cramer's book weighs in at over a thousand pages, yet you can't put it down, mostly because you'd throw your back out if you tried.
But what impresses me most is the disconnect between the candidates' images and the candidates themselves. For instance, you learn how the first President Bush's awkwardness on camera, not going to do it, wouldn't be prudent, belies his gift for building relationships in real life. Indeed, Cramer relates how the George and Barbara Bush Christmas card list was so long, an entire team of volunteers in Houston began writing the cards in May. Or you see how the true grit of a disabled war hero failed to translate to the campaign. I'm speaking, of course, of Senator Bob Dole, who managed to distance himself from himself by constantly referring to Bob Dole in the third person.
But Cramer's not the only author who understands what it takes to be president. Indeed, you might recognize the candidates in Tom Perrotta's satirical novel, "Election," not just because it was made into a movie with Reese Witherspoon, but because there's something strangely familiar about the story. Tracey Flick is the presumptive winner in the campaign for senior class president. After all, she is the junior class president, assistant editor of the school newspaper, star of last year's musical, until she is completely overshadowed by a handsome, charismatic, and most infuriating to Tracey, inexperienced male rival. For Flick, it's a simple choice of competence versus popularity, qualified versus unqualified.
But the campaign gets complicated by sex scandals, dirty tricks, vote tampering, and most notably, another female candidate, this one even less qualified. This younger rival captures the student body's imagination with her populist message. Vote for Tammy, her campaign signs read. She's inexperienced and kind of lazy.
But the most intriguing analysis of the presidential personality comes from Sarah Vowell's "Assassination Vacation," a bizarre travelogue of sites associated with the first three presidential assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. If it sounds like morbid reading, that's because it is. But Vowell fascinates with her geekily obsessive historical details, like how John Wilkes Booth, an acclaimed actor, knew to mask his fatal shot in Ford's Theater with the biggest laugh line of the play but failed to understand that killing Lincoln on Good Friday might invite some comparisons come Easter Sunday? Booth also failed to anticipate his own place in history, seeing himself as did the assassins of Garfield and McKinley, as a patriot who'd slain a tyrant.
In revealing the peculiar psychosis of presidential assassins, Vowell also reveals something about their victims, that no matter how hard presidential candidates try to convince us otherwise, they are not like us. Presidential candidates are all elites, the kind of people who turn themselves into brands and myths and refer to themselves in the third person. They raise millions of dollars and point and wave a lot because that is what it takes.
BLOCK: Mark Acito is the author of "Attack of the Theater People." And he approves this message. His recommendations of political books are "Assassination Vacation" by Sarah Vowell, "Election" by Tom Perrotta, and "What it Takes" by Richard Ben Cramer.