Early-Bird Strategy Pays Off: Close-Ups of 2004 Candidates

One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In, by Walter Shapiro. Public-Affairs, 215 pages, $26.

With fewer than 90 days until the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the blob of TV cameras and political reporters that quadrennially descends on the two first-in-the-nation states has begun growing faster than the nation’s G.D.P. When I traveled to Iowa last week for a look at Dick Gephardt’s Presidential campaign, I was shocked to find that 19 other journalists from national media outlets had decided to join us. Just a couple of days earlier, only three national reporters had been trailing the man from Missouri.

Already, in late 2003, the “bubble” that has begun to surround the Democratic candidates means that the campaigns become more stage-managed and the candidates more remote; interviews get parceled out to reporters in 10-minute segments. That’s why USA Today political columnist Walter Shapiro decided to begin his coverage of the 2004 Presidential campaign earlier than ever, in 2002 and early 2003, when the candidates launched their bids for the White House. Before the frenzy of the Boys on the Bus, Mr. Shapiro elected to be the solitary Man in the Van, riding along through Iowa and New Hampshire to enjoy the “enforced intimacy” that a long car ride permits between two men-even two men as wary as a Presidential candidate and a journalist. The result is One-Car Caravan, a slender, breezy, entertaining account of Mr. Shapiro’s travels with the Men Who Would Beat Bush (and they are all men-Carol Moseley Braun has been left out of the picture) and his impression of them.

The idea behind the early-bird strategy is that “the best way to gauge their personalities, their intellects, their motivations and their aspirations is to be there at the beginning when everything seems possible, even the Presidency itself.” But there are also drawbacks to arriving on the scene during the “opening-gun” phase of the contest. Wesley Clark’s candidacy is almost entirely absent from the book, and what little time Mr. Shapiro spends with Bob Graham seems a little pointless (if still amusing) now that Mr. Graham has dropped out of the race. And save for a quick chapter on Al Sharpton, Mr. Shapiro chooses to spend no time considering the role played by Dennis Kucinich and other minor players.

There aren’t a lot of surprises in Mr. Shapiro’s portraits of the candidates. Howard Dean comes across as both a shrewd politician and a frugal one-he stays overnight in supporters’ homes rather than hotels, he frets over the cost of a campaign pamphlet, and he flies Southwest Airlines. Mr. Shapiro does worry, however, that Dr. Dean, to put it charitably, prefers “powerful narrative over literal truth.” Dr. Dean tells a “partially deceptive” tale (which he still uses on the stump) to explain his opposition to parental notification for abortion: When he was a doctor, he treated a 12-year-old girl who he believed had been impregnated by her father. But Dr. Dean omits a critical element of the story: Though the girl was sexually abused, Dr. Dean ultimately discovered that she wasn’t abused by her father. In a more worrisome moment, Dr. Dean tells a story to Mr. Shapiro in September 2002 that he flatly denies 11 months later to Larry King. Mr. Shapiro likes and admires the former Vermont governor, but the episode leaves him queasy about “the candidate I probably agree with the most on the issues.” (Also, a note to Dr. Dean: tell your fund-raising director to take down the 1984 “Mondale for President” poster in her office.)

As for the other candidates, Dick Gephardt lacks the charisma of a Dean or a John Edwards, but he compensates for being boring (“Bob Dole without the humor, Lyndon Johnson without the earthiness”) with the “Old Economy virtues” of “solidity,” “good spirits” and “loyalty.” Joe Lieberman’s appeal is his “balanced temperament,” but he’s also “strangely impenetrable,” a man who “brandishes his surface affability as a weapon to keep other people, especially reporters, at a distance.” Mr. Edwards (“his whole being a study in inchoate charisma”) represents the “beguiling Democratic myth” of a Southern white knight, but he’s agonizingly indecisive-when he’s fretting over whether he’s up to the job of the Presidency or when he’s hiring campaign staff.

John Kerry is the candidate whose up-close persona contradicts his media caricature, Mr. Shapiro writes. Rather than a “haughty, overly ambitious patrician who is a bit too slick in his eagerness to exploit his heroism in Vietnam,” the Massachusetts Senator turns out to be the candidate Mr. Shapiro personally likes best-the one “with whom I would most enjoy going out for a beer.” Although it’s true that Mr. Kerry can be “tense, defensive, and curiously tone-deaf,” he’s also “a hands-on candidate, a toucher.” Most important, the wistful and cerebral Mr. Kerry seems “just depressed enough to be interesting.”

His position on the Iraq war turns out to be not quite as tortured and shifting as it’s frequently made out to be, though it is difficult to sum up in a sound bite. Mr. Kerry himself may have put it best when he tried to explain his vote for the Congressional war resolution in October 2002: “My vote was cast in a way that made it very clear, Mr. President, I’m voting for you to do what you said you’re going to do, which is to go through the U.N. and do this through an international process. If you go unilaterally, without having exhausted these remedies, I’m not supporting you. And if you decide that this is just a matter of straight pre-emptive doctrine for regime-change purposes without regard to the imminence of the threat, I’m not going to support you.” By the same token, Mr. Dean’s position on the war is more subtle than you might think-witness his statement from February 2003: “Remember, I did not say that I would not use unilateral force against Saddam. What I said was, ‘He is not an imminent threat to the United States.’”

The best parts of One-Car Caravan come during Mr. Shapiro’s brief ruminations on the election process and the press. He wonders why political reporters, in a tell-all culture, don’t explore the effect that a parent’s death has on a candidate; he supposes that most political reporters are too young to understand “how the mid-life loss of a parent can tilt one’s inner world off its axis.” (Both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Gephardt lost their mothers in late 2002, and Mr. Dean decided not to seek re-election as Vermont governor in August 2001, the same month his father died.)

In a modern Presidential race, Mr. Shapiro points out, candidates are “self-nominated” rather than chosen by party insiders and bosses. His exploration of the fund-raising “money primary” turns up the insight that campaign-finance reform, by doubling the individual campaign-contribution limit to $2,000, probably made the Democratic field larger than it would have been otherwise. Without the increase, Messrs. Gephardt, Lieberman and Edwards would all likely have been forced to drop out for lack of funds. (During the first quarter of 2003, Messrs. Gephardt and Lieberman “received more than 85 percent of their funding in increments of $1,000 or more.”) Mr. Shapiro’s examination of the hiring of campaign staff, and how the process is a window into how the candidates would operate their administrations, is an astute treatment of an underexamined subject.

Mr. Shapiro says he was inspired as a teenager to become a political reporter by reading Theodore White’s The Making of the President: 1960. Teddy White this isn’t, but One-Car Caravan is artfully written and at times laugh-out-loud funny (“Edwards’ use of the phrase ‘regular people’ was so incessant that it inspired mocking comparisons to a TV pitchman hawking a new over-the-counter remedy for constipation”). And it was an ingenious idea to put out the first “instant book” about the 2004 campaign in 2003.

The ending is unsatisfying, simply because the story hasn’t ended. But the book can give you an odd feeling, especially if you’re a political junkie who’s excited about the 2004 whirlwind-a kind of false nostalgia, a wish that the campaign in progress hadn’t started yet, that it was all just beginning and you could be there, along for the ride, in a one-car caravan.

Chris Suellentrop, Slate’s deputy Washington bureau chief, has been covering the Democratic candidates since July 2003.