In their strange new book, veteran Democratic campaign strategists James Carville and Paul Begala implore their readers to never stop taking risks. “Success breeds risk-aversion,” they note, smiling brightly upon those “people who experiment and dare greatly—and sometimes fail greatly.” Original members of the Clinton “War Room,” Carville and Begala themselves know success well; the business of politics has brought them fame, wealth, and the enduring status that comes from having whispered into a president’s ear. Now that Bill Clinton is a private citizen and they are looking for new directions, perhaps they thought a zany self-help book would be just the sort of risky experiment they so admire. Unfortunately, they have failed—but not even greatly. What they have produced feels like little more than an excuse for the pair to sound off about politics, sports, movies, their lives—you name it. In other words, it’s just the sort of book successful people produce when they’ve grown self-satisfied, complacent, and risk-averse.
Buck Up, Suck Up is less a book of “secrets,” which might excite political junkies and insiders, than one of some fairly elementary rules of thumb for politics and life. These are fleshed out by a sloppy Cajun gumbo of anecdotes, observations, and short portraits of such famous winners as Teddy Roosevelt, Muhammed Ali, and Bill Clinton. The prose sounds as if it had been dictated at a Ramada Inn lounge, and the jokes are terrible (“The War Room was designed for action. No, not that kind of action. Stop snickering.”) The 12 secrets the subtitle (including “Kiss Ass,” “Kick Ass,” and “Work Your Ass Off”) amount to nothing more than basic principles like hard work and clear communication, with a special emphasis on playing rough and tough. “The bottom line,” they write, “is that if you’re faster, smarter and more aggressive than the other guy (or gal), you’re going to win more often than not.” Who knew?
There are a handful of insights sprinkled through this book, however, especially on the specific turf of campaign strategy. For instance, Carville and Begala argue that campaigns must always be predisposed towards bold action, warning against what Jesse Jackson once called “the paralysis of analysis.” During the 1992 Clinton campaign, they would fire off ideas at 7:30 a.m. meetings in the War Room and vow to implement them “absent some compelling reason not to” by 9 a.m. “And a compelling reason is not, It might not work.’ No shit, it might not work. Let’s make it work.”
They also warn of how campaigns fail when they become hung up on micro-details, like how to answer the phones or what sort of yard signs to use. Many candidates, they note, spend all their time on these diversions and never think about how average voters are perceiving them. (Al Gore is tweaked here for caring too much about the design of his campaign logo.) “Too much of the energy of a campaign goes into the small questions, the how’ questions. Not nearly enough goes into the big, existential questions like What are we doing?’ Why are we doing it,’” they write. “Our experience has been that those simple questions are the hardest to answer and the easiest to avoid If you as a leader lose sight of your strategic objective for even a single moment, you will be astonished by how quickly everyone under you begins to focus on the most inane, irrelevant, goofy crap imaginable.” Gore isn’t mentioned in this passage, but his tortured campaign again comes to mind.
The book’s other saving grace lies in the few fresh and colorful campaign anec-dotes it offers. For instance, there’s the tale of how Carville encouraged Lloyd Doggett, a 1984 Texas Senate candidate who was derided by a more experienced rival as a “little leaguer,” to embrace the term and reinvent himself as “Little League Lloyd.” Soon Doggett, outfitted with baseball bat and cap, was holding press events at ballparks around the state to rail against arrogant Washington insiders. He won the primary. There’s also a fascinating account of the near-implosion of a Carville/Begala client, Georgia Democrat Zell Miller, in his 1990 campaign for governor. Miller admitted to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’d told a significant lie in a debate. But after a brutal headline (“Miller: I Lied”) appeared in the first, midnight press run of the paper, the story was gone from morning editions. “To this day we don’t know exactly why the paper saved Miller’s butt,” Carville and Begala write. It’s stories like this that offer a respite from the rest of the book’s stale insights and wearying goofiness. But they’re too few and far between to save it.