A middling treatise on the virtues of centrism, “putting patriotism before partisanship and the national interest before special interests.”
Speechwriter Avlon, who worked on the 1996 Clinton reelection campaign and for New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, offers an unremarkable thesis: Americans prefer to blend idealism with realism, and in so doing tend to arrive at centrist solutions to political problems that do not wholly please purists on either side of the party divide. Avlon imagines that these purists represent the “far left” (though does anyone still believe that Adlai Stevenson was a Red?) and the “far right” (though how representative is his anticentrist exemplar David Duke?). If that is so, then it’s small wonder that Americans honor the bell curve and cluster middleward. Upon this thesis, Avlon layers profiles of American leaders who supposedly represent centrist values—Richard Nixon, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and the like. In the discussion, Avlon acknowledges that the definition of “centrism” has to be bell-curve broad to accommodate most of these men (women scarcely figure here), but he sometimes misses the point. Nixon, for example, was a centrist less by disposition than self-interest, having been a keen reader of the political winds and knowing that his support lay with “the silent center.” Wilson inclined to the hard right on labor and civil-rights issues. Theodore Roosevelt can rightly be called a centrist, but only if the center line is moved significantly to the left to fit the era of progressivism and trade-union socialism. And so on. Avlon’s portrait of Jimmy Carter is right on the money, though, and the best part here: Carter, he writes, may have inclined to moderation, but “the ultimate absence of unifying leadership within the Carter administration descended directly from the absence of a unifying idea bigger than Jimmy Carter himself.”
A useful handbook, then, for those who run down the middle of the road.