SMASHMOUTH by Dana Milbank


Two Years in the Gutter with Al Gore and George W. Bush
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A political reporter documents the campaign he thought would decide the presidency.

Occasionally in the sports section one reads an account of a baseball game that the reporter, rushing to make a deadline, wrote while the game was still in process. Normally this is no big deal, but occasionally something happens at the last minute that changes everything. The result is an article describing how the Red Sox marched to victory, capped by a paragraph saying something like, “and then the Yankees scored five runs and won.” That is the sensation one gets when reading Washington Post political reporter Milbank’s account of the 2000 presidential campaign. Poor Milbank spent two years following the campaigns and had his chronicle substantially complete by election day, expecting only to have to add a final chapter—not available at the time of this review—telling us that either Bush or Gore had won. So much for that plan. In the rush to print, there was never going to be much time for hindsight anyway: More than a retrospective analysis, this is really a compendium of the articles Milbank wrote about the campaigns, placed in roughly chronological order. But given the post–Election Day fiasco, the strategy is a disaster. The author’s thesis is that the employment of “smashmouth” politics (hard-hitting, “dirty,” combative tactics) is both good for democracy and necessary for a candidate to succeed—but his story takes place before any of the real mouth-smashing began. His attempts to make the campaign look more exciting than it was, mostly unfulfilled promises of sexual titillation, thus end up sounding silly. And the carnival atmosphere he strains to create rings phony, given that the carnival was only about to get started. Instead of an account of how two years on the campaign trail influenced what happened next, we get what sound like willfully blind irrelevancies.

Decent writing, bad luck, terrible timing.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-465-04590-1
Page count: 380pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2001