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Willie, We Too Much Knew You : ROAD SHOW By Roger Simon (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $19.95; 356 pp.) ; SEE HOW THEY RUN By Paul Taylor (Alfred A. Knopf: $22.95; 305 pp.) ; PLEDGING ALLEGIANCE By Sidney Blumenthal(HarperCollins: $22.50; 320 pp.)

October 14, 1990|Christopher Matthews | Matthews, the Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of "Hardball: How Politics Is Played--Told by One Who Knows the Game" (Summit Books/HarperCollins)

"He was big. He was black. He was every guy you ever crossed the street to avoid, every pair of smoldering eyes you ever looked away from on the bus or subway.

"He was every person you moved out of the city to escape, every sound in the night that made you get up and check the locks."

This is Roger Simon's literary mug shot of the man he calls the "most valuable player" of the 1988 presidential campaign, his post-office portrait of one William Horton Jr., the convicted first-degree killer who, having been "furloughed" from one of Michael Dukakis' Massachusetts prisons, "went to Maryland, broke into a home and tied a man to a joist in the basement, slashed his chest and stomach with a knife, then beat and raped his fiancee while she screamed and screamed and screamed."

"Willie Horton was a killer, a rapist, a torturer, a kidnapper, a brute," Simon writes in his searing account of the 1988 presidential campaign. "In other words, he was perfect."

The book is "Road Show." It does to George Bush's victory what "The Selling of the President" did to Richard Nixon's belated election to the White House in 1968: It rubs some of the gloss off. Like Joe McGinnis, Roger Simon goes where reporters are not expected. He catches his subjects when they're not wearing their makeup, then turns the lights up. He makes the reader feel as though he's just spent the night at the police station, looking through a two-way mirror at one ghastly lineup after another.

There are two other just-released books on the 1988 presidential race: "See How They Run" by Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor, which gives a big-time reporter's look at the '88 campaign coverage, and the big-picture "Pledging Allegiance" by the New Republic's Sidney Blumenthal, which describes the 1988 presidential campaign that might have been, but never was.

Each of these books attempts to solve the central riddle of the 1988 campaign: how Michael Dukakis, leading the polls by 17 points in late July could lose the election by eight points on election day; how a man viewed as a triumphant leader could so quickly become the target not only of rejection but ridicule.

A clue to this riddle lies in the sentiments of those millions of voters who have roots in the Democratic Party but tend to vote for Republican presidential candidates. These include the two big blocks of "swing voters"--Southern whites and northern Catholics. In Massachusetts, this disaffected group is labeled "the Ed King vote" after the conservative Democrat who ran against Michael Dukakis twice for governor. In 1978, this group defeated him. In 1982, it lost to him. But it never made peace.

As hinted above, Simon believes a big reason for this group of conservative Democrats going to Bush can be traced to Willie Horton. He tells us how the Horton case came to the attention of the Bush campaign's "Nerd Patrol," the Republicans' crack cadre doing negative research on the other side.

Simon shows us how the Bush team pre-tested the Horton case with a group of Catholic, middle-class, "Joe Sixpack" voters in New Jersey. He describes the impact of the "Revolving Door" commercial, which he calls "the kind of ad Bubba would watch without a cattle prod." Last but not least, Simon describes how Vice President Bush's media advisers convinced him that he must either go with the Willie Horton issue or face inevitable defeat.

Paul Taylor, author of "See How They Run," offers a much less Runyonesque take on the '88 campaign. Right up front, he makes it clear that he doesn't like this new brand of TV politics that promotes off-stage characters like Willie Horton to such overnight infamy.

Taylor is the Washington Post reporter who asked Gary Hart: "Have you ever committed adultery?" His readers have known him far longer as a first-rate reporter of the political clubhouse, a journalist who knows the players and loves keeping score. What Taylor doesn't like is the state-of-the-art, poll-inspired, media-driven campaign of 30-second bites that proved so powerful in 1988, a phenomenon he calls "McPolitics."

"Today's campaigns, because they are waged in a society that lacks strong political parties and clear ideologies," he writes, "must carry more of the burden of democracy. They must serve as the glue that connects our individualistic, disaggregated, depoliticized electorate to public life. At the moment, they are serving as a wedge."

The fault, Taylor argues, lies with the TV consultants like Roger Ailes, who ran the Bush campaign.

"They are the ones," he writes, "who had reduced media-age politics to a dismal science: Take a poll, find a 'hot button' issue, feed it back to the voters in the form of a picture, a symbol and a pre-masticated attack line. Repeat again tomorrow."

Here's what he says Bush's media handlers did on Michael Dukakis:

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