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Surfing the Campaign Trail

Parties Out of Bounds/My Publisher; Myself

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By Michael Miner

Some might say Stump Connolly's a hack long past his prime. Others might argue he's on journalism's cutting edge. Whatever. "He's worked long and hard out there on the campaign trail," said Scott Jacobs, who makes no apologies for his alter ego's inertia. "Now he sits back and watches his computer. None of those bad bus trips. He doesn't have to wake up in those rinky-dink hotels and go through that Secret Service stuff."

Then how does Stump get his material? I wondered, for every week he holds forth anew in "Stump, a Campaign Journal" on the World Wide Web.

Jacobs lapsed into the first person. "Let me read you the lead of my new story," he said. "Some days being a political correspondent is as easy as falling off a log. The idiots just come to you. A case in point is the letter that arrived today in the mail from Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee congratulating me on my nomination to the Chairman's Advisory Board at the Republican Convention in San Diego."

Stump's dispatch tells how he made a phone call and found out that accepting the nomination to the advisory board would cost him $5,000, with other substantial expenses to follow--such as $1,000 to attend the Republican Convention Gala. "A real bargain, a sort of political one-cent sale on clout," reports Stump, given that "Clinton's President's Advisory Council charges $50,000 and up."

Said Jacobs, "If you look around in the political world, we are all being solicited all the time to hold opinions. Stump has just taken up the challenge. And on a slightly more serious note, the real problem isn't to have an opinion. The real problem is to make an argument that is persuasive and is in fact true. I think that little thing I wrote on abortion is persuasive and is in fact true."

Jacobs was referring to a recent posting in which Stump declared voters need to see a "Fightin' Bob Dole" standing up on TV for abortion rights. "I think it is nuts," Jacobs told me, "for the Republicans to pretend they are going to pass a constitutional amendment in Congress and pass it through 50 states when one out of three pregnancies is terminated in abortion now. That is not a real issue. Let's separate real issues from the silliness--that's the point of what Stump writes about. But don't get rid of the silliness, for goodness sake. That's my bread and butter."

Jacobs scotched rumors that Stump Connolly is totally sedentary. His "Send Stump to San Diego" campaign is asking for $5,000 contributions, Haley Barbour having made it seem that "the fate of the nation" hinges on Stump's making the trip. And when Ross Perot came to Chicago for the American Booksellers convention Stump was there cocking an eye and taking notes. But no, he doesn't wander far from his chair very often.

"I'm not out on the campaign trail every day. I read the New York Times every day. I watch CNN, the general CBS news. I check pretty regularly the site called PoliticsNow. And HotWired runs a site called Netizen. And anytime I have a factual question I can search the Internet and usually find the answer. The stats I pulled up on abortion came from dialing in the Christian Coalition home page. If there's an article in any newspaper or magazine I haven't read I can do a general search on the Internet and probably get that article and read it. And once you start publishing your opinions on the Internet, all the other ranters and ravers start sending you theirs. There are hundreds of thousands of ranters and ravers."

Jacobs, a friend going back to our years together at the Sun-Times, is a video documentarian who watched the '92 campaigns from behind a camera. And he runs a business called Independent Programming Associates (IPA), which among other things designs Web sites for clients. "I believe good Web sites require changing contents to get people to come back and look at them. I wanted to demonstrate that, and the only way I could think of was to write something new and put it on our own site every week." This was during last winter's primaries, when Jacobs assumed mere punditry could ride the political wave for months to come. But within weeks the nominations were wrapped up. "So I had to broaden my approach and do a little research, which I always hated as a reporter."

Hence the surfing for abortion statistics.

"Speaking as Scott Jacobs, the publisher who's given Stump his forum [at www.ipahome.com/stump.html], I don't think public policy will change because Stump Connolly holds an opinion," Jacobs told me. "But I hope somebody will read it and think twice. It's a way to play. The deal is Stump's on a first-name basis with all the key players in the campaign, Bob and Bill and Ralph. Stump's the everyman of political campaigns.

"I mean, I'm deadly serious," he went on. "This is the opportunity Stump's been waiting for--ever since they beat me up in '68."

Parties Out of Bounds

This one I actually wrote," Jacob Weisberg was saying. "That was a pretty cheap excuse for a book."

Tell it to George Bush. Four years ago Bushisms did the worst thing you can do to some politicians: it quoted him accurately. A New Republic editor then, Weisberg compiled Bushisms weekly for his magazine and eventually put them between covers. The rest is history. The nation saw fit to spurn the man who said, "I know what I've told you I'm going to say, I'm going to say. And what else I say, well, I'll take some time to figure out--figure that all out."

In 1996 America again must choose. And Weisberg's back. This time he's published In Defense of Government: The Fall and Rise of Public Trust, hailed by its jacket as a "call to arms" and ridiculed by a Wall Street Journal reviewer who wrote he was obliged to "tunnel through four-fifths of Mr. Weisberg's tract before striking the vein of an argument."

That vein happened to be an ending I found myself in no hurry to get to. What the nation must do now is the worst part of most books of political analysis and it's not the highlight of Weisberg's. Most of his book is a concise, graceful survey of the shifting currents among Republicans and Democrats over the last hundred years--"a pretty good potted explanation of what's happened to the parties," as Weisberg puts it. He thinks that today neither wayward party knows how to make itself particularly useful to the country.

"I had the idea after the '94 election and wanted it out quickly enough to shed some light on this one," Weisberg said. "It's a short book [some 200 pages]. I'm a believer in short books. It's the return of the political tract, the 18th-century political pamphlet. The form here is really the extended polemical essay. There's some reporting in the book but essentially it's one coherent argument, with a few history lessons thrown in."

He went on, "There was a theory a few years ago when publishers were very infatuated with these doorstop books. They thought people liked buying big books. But now it's swimming the other way a little bit."

A New Yorker now and the national political correspondent for New York magazine, Weisberg grew up in Chicago, the son of Lois Weisberg, Chicago's commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Weisberg concludes by harking back 90 years, calling for a new progressivism, a term he would surely like to see enter the nomenclature. He means by this a government with a sense of ideals--liberal ideals--as strong as its sense of limits. He begins by telling a complex story with unusual clarity, the story of Chicago's Gautreaux housing program, which has moved blacks from Chicago's projects into white suburban neighborhoods. (His late father, Bernard Weisberg, was an attorney for the CHA tenant plaintiffs in the original suit.)

The Wall Street Journal reviewer argues that the Gautreaux case is irrelevant to serious government, as it "involved no lobbying, no legislative wrangling, no complicated rule-making, no tough budget decisions, no horse trading and no effort to win grass-roots approval." True, but beside the point. Gautreaux, writes Weisberg, "is a program with something to offend just about everybody's political sensibilities: a costly effort at social planning ordered by the federal courts and implemented over community objections." It's something done by government, yet it works.

"I have had a very good response to the book from Democratic officialdom," Weisberg said. "I got a letter from Clinton saying he agreed with most of it and he found the criticism of him constructive." My eyes were rolling, but Weisberg said the president's letter was heartfelt. "I had various moles in the White House, and I heard he was talking about it and when he had Gephardt and Daschle [the Democratic minority leaders in Congress] in he told them both they should read it."

Weisberg's decent to Clinton, though his book does call the president's attempts to explain himself philosophically "less than lucid." There won't be a friendly note from Lamar Alexander, whom you might still be able to remember as a Republican candidate for president. "His futile conversion from moderate Republican insider to a populist Beltway-basher in a lumberjack shirt," writes Weisberg, "was one of the more amusing episodes in the early presidential jockeying." A second dismissive reference seizes on a recent essay by Alexander denouncing "governmentalism." Weisberg comments, "It may be worth pointing out that Alexander himself was no stranger to such an inclination before the antigovernment bug hit the Republican water supply."

The Wall Street Journal review was written by Daniel Casse, identified as policy director of Alexander's presidential campaign.

"I wasn't very nice about Lamar Alexander, either in the book or in my campaign coverage," Weisberg admitted. "I think Lamar Alexander is a smart man who ran a kind of low-rent pandering campaign. When it's Dan Quayle you think this guy is operating at his level. But when it's Lamar Alexander, who is bright, you think it's a calculated down-market pitch."

Might Casse have been the ghostwriter of Alexander's essay?

"That's entirely possible," Weisberg said. "I was slightly at a loss to explain his animosity in that review, although maybe he just didn't like the book."

My Publisher, Myself

The back jacket of In Defense of Government sports "advance praise" from Weisberg's neolib fellows: former New Republic colleague Michael Kinsley, Charles Peters of the Washington Monthly, author James Fallows, Senator Bill Bradley.

They don't hold a candle to the roster on the back of Jack Clark's new book, Relita's Angel.

"I very much enjoyed its grit and pacing," Eamon Dolan, Harper-Collins. "I enjoyed reading Relita's Angel a great deal," Gary Fisketjon, Knopf. "Had a hard-boiled quality that I thought was very effective," Jamie Raab, Warner Books. "I liked this a lot," Peter Guzzardi, Harmony Books.

This is advance praise that really counts. Normally I don't write about books I haven't read, and I haven't read Relita's Angel, but why keep silent about a novel already hailed by editors at four major publishing houses.

All of which turned down Relita's Angel. Clark was quoting from their rejection letters.

"I published it myself," says Clark, a full-time Chicago writer and weekend cabdriver. "It cost me 1,200 bucks for 550 copies." Relita's Angel is a mystery novel, the amateur detective's a driver for "Sky Blue Taxi," and the setting's Chicago. The frontispiece identifies the publisher as "The Vanity Press."

"I didn't want to try to kid anybody here," says Clark. "I was going to call it Foot in Mouth Press, but I was afraid people would think it was a real publishing company. What if people started sending me their manuscripts? I've had this one manuscript I couldn't sell. I wouldn't want to have other manuscripts I couldn't sell sitting around my office."

After a year and a half of futility "I got rid of my agent and she got rid of me," Clark says. He sent out 25 letters looking for a new agent and got back two form letters. Both said sorry, too busy even to look at it.

So the novel sat on Clark's shelf for three years. In the meantime, "almost everything I wrote about has changed," he says. The Ogden Avenue bridge, where one scene is set, came down. West Madison Street was transformed by the United Center.

"So I thought I'd get it out there while people could still remember what I was writing about," says Clark. Barbara's carries Relita's Angel. So does Lincoln Park Book Shop.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Scott Jacobs by Lloyd DeGrane.

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