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David EggersTerrible title for a great book. Trail Fever? Hardly. Michael Lewis' account of the 1996 Presidential campaign is anything but feverish. Bemused maybe. Hilarious, unsettling, absurd even. But not feverish. In the book, collected from the journal he kept for the New Republic, Lewis takes the stance of a detached, bewildered outsider, interested less in who wins the race than why the candidates run in the first place. "A serious Presidential campaign is no place for anyone who cares about anything," he writes, setting the stage for the exit, one by one, of all the candidates with conviction.
On the campaign trail, Lewis is helplessly drawn to the also-rans, particularly the truly hopeless ones. He's fascinated by their oddness, their idiosyncrasies, the hopes/dreams/delusions/Messianic complexes that spur them to torture themselves and their followers and to spend tens of millions of other people's dollars. He is in awe of the eloquent but perhaps unstable Christian moralist Alan Keyes ("What he and his followers want is not to be elected but to be among the elect"); respects the unwavering zeal of Pat Buchanan ("like all romantics, he is more deeply attracted to failure than to success"); and is fascinated by the quixotic puzzle that is Ralph Nader ("The impulse to suppress appetites and sympathies in the name of principle is the mark of a radical").
But Lewis reserves his greatest affection -- what amounts to little short of an outright endorsement, really -- for Morry Taylor, a tire industry mogul who spent 6 or 7 million dollars of his own money to throw his hat in the ring. Because he speaks his mind and is beholden to no one, Taylor (who insists on calling himself "The Grizz") becomes the book's most compelling character. Even after Taylor withdraws from the race, Lewis finds himself repeatedly abandoning the campaign to find out what Morry's up to. Their relationship, and Lewis' role as objective recorder of events, etc., takes an odd turn when Taylor, obligated to speak at a gathering of manufacturing executives the same day he's to have tests done on his liver, asks Lewis to fill in for him and read his speech. In a decision that illustrates how unconventional Lewis' approach is to his job, Lewis flies to Palm Springs and does it. "This is the natural conclusion of politics; the follower seeks to meld himself into the leader. When he appears onstage or on television George Stephanopoulos becomes Bill Clinton. I have become Morry Taylor."
Written in diary form, Trail Fever is loosely gathered but wonderfully observed. And although Lewis is savvy and superficially cynical, the great thing about seeing the campaign through his eyes is how closely he mirrors the American electorate in his aching desire to believe -- in anything. And this is why he's attracted to the outsiders. "The Outsider is by nature indiscreet, unstable and risk loving ... To succeed an Outsider must grab for what he knows he cannot have. He'll probably never get it, but he might knock it loose so that someone else will, one day."
Word is that the original title of Lewis' book was Losers, scrapped for marketing reasons by the folks at Knopf. (No one wants to read about losers, right?) Too bad, but also sort of fitting: The title of a book about how the selling of candidates strips them of their integrity was watered down because it wouldn't sell. Politics as usual, no? -- Salon