Picks and Pans Review: The Choice

updated 07/29/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/29/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Bob Woodward

Bill Clinton is prominent on the book's cover, and Hillary steals the headlines by communing with Eleanor Roosevelt. But Woodward's examination of early machinations in the 1996 presidential race is ultimately about Bob Dole, probably because Clinton declined to be interviewed, while Dole spoke at length with the Washington Post journalist.

To be sure, Woodward offers plenty of reportage—too much for most of us—on political fund-raising, polling and internecine staff warfare. Still, the end result is a nuanced, humanized portrait of the man lampooned by late-night comedians as a wooden politician speaking in the imperial third person. When Dole's nastiest critic in the Republican primaries, Phil Gramm, dropped out of the race, Dole called to commiserate, recalling his own failed campaign in 1988. "As he spoke about defeat and what it meant," Woodward writes, "Dole suddenly broke down. His voice choked and his body started heaving." As for his speaking about himself as "Bob Dole," he explains to Woodward that he reflexively balks at using "I" or "me" because his mother taught him never to brag. Perhaps not the best trait to instill in a future politician, but appealing all the same.

Indeed, Dole comes across as an awkward campaigner, mortified by the self-promotion it requires and chafed by top aides who vigilantly try to keep him "on-message." And all the while, they live in terror of Dole's showing his age by stumbling in front of photographers. When he took a tumble in New Hampshire last year, a local TV station shot a tape of the fall. Network news organizations clamored for it, but the state's Republican senator Judd Gregg put in a call to the station, Woodward writes, and "the tape never got out."

President Clinton may have committed a slip of his own in not talking to Woodward. Defined by others, including his own staff, Clinton comes-off as the consummate political creature, stalking a message, any message, that will help get him reelected in November. Lots can happen between now and then, but the election is clearly Dole's to lose—if only among readers who manage to finish this book. (Simon & Schuster, $26)

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