Sunday Book Reviews – 9/27/20

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

Sneaking Into the Flying Circus by Alexandra Pelosi (2005, Free Press)

This wasn’t going to be my review book this week. That was going to be the new P.J. O’Rourke book, which provides a needed boost of humor in these times and which will be reviewed for next week. The upcoming debate inspired me to change that plan.

Sneaking Into the Flying Circus was written by one of Nancy Pelosi’s daughters, a professional journalist who first came to national prominence with her home movie-turned-documentary Journeys With George, a film cobbled together using footage from her time on the press bus following Presidential Candidate George W. Bush. In the movie she exposes much of what it’s like being on the campaign trail, but from a perspective other than the one typically used for campaign documentaries. It’s not as much about the candidate as it is the interaction between the candidate and the media.

In this book, created to supplement a 2004 documentary titled Diary of a Political Tourist, she approaches the same subject from a different angle. This time, instead of following around a candidate she finds herself slowly liking personally while strongly disagreeing with his politics, she attempts to track all the main contenders for the Democratic nomination.

She fails. But the book succeeds because of that failure. As the daughter of the Speaker of the House who was of the same party as the targeted candidates and a creator of a then-recent award winning political film, Pelosi had access that few others could have hoped to receive. What she found was that she was stymied by the same system she was trying to present.

Because of the film, every time she met with a candidate, they were “on”. Gone were the people she knew from casual gatherings, replaced by carefully managed presences whose every word was vetted beforehand by their campaign organizers. She was potentially useful, so she was to be treated accordingly.

The value of Journeys With George is the candid, behind-the-scenes view of what humanity on the trail. In 2004, that was no longer possible. The same staged photo ops she reported on were now being crafted for her.

Absent the chance to get behind the scenes with the candidates, she instead focuses her attention on the process itself and the media figures who help perpetuate it. The reader is presented with an explanation of exactly how and why the candidates act as they do, and because Pelosi is friendly with many of them and partial to their political views, the spotlight is turned on the campaign managers and the news editors.

It’s instructive. An old admonition remains in common use today: people don’t want to see how the sausage is made. This book provides that view, and I suspect many people would, in fact, appreciate such knowledge. More than anything else, a reader can’t help but come away with a central fact: it’s all staged.

All of the interviews, the photo ops, the casual jokes to admiring children who are nearby… everything is staged and arranged for maximum effect, and on the rare instances where something isn’t staged, the campaigns are in a panic to control the deviation immediately.

This is not to say that the candidates aren’t necessarily sincere in their beliefs. Pelosi certainly believes that they were in 2004, and she had a similar read off of Bush in 2000. But the actual political contest isn’t between two candidates, it’s between two campaign managers. The candidates are merely the kings on the chessboard, placed and moved for maximum effectiveness. The candidate starts as a person with a string of policy positions and allows himself to be turned into an actor for a few months, trusting their handlers to present their best face to the country and trying desperately not to go off script.

The book is available on Kindle. If you have the opportunity to pick it up either there or at a local used bookstore before the debates, it’ll provide you with some comfort in the upcoming event… because Biden is an old hand at this type of politicking, while Hillary Clinton was not. It might cause a little distress if you consider that the Biden that matters to gauge a potential Presidency is the Biden that was seen for years before he assembled his exploratory committee and allowed a new image to be crafted for him, but that bit of insight can be quickly bypassed with the realization that under these circumstances, Biden’s chances in November are greatly enhanced. He can work with his campaign manager. Trump works against his.

I’ve been saying that this campaign can’t be won by Trump, it can only be lost by Biden and the Democrats. This book is one of the reasons I can make that statement confidently… and why I think it’s unlikely that Biden loses.

Instant Lives by Howard Moss (1974, Saturday Review Press)

Any book which was illustrated by Edward Gorey is likely to be a bit odd, and this is no exception. Instant Lives is a series of vignettes featuring famous musicians, artists and authors which parody the lives and creative styles of the subjects.

It’s clever, urbane, and pleasantly timeless. Rarely are any works more than three pages long, and each entry is granted an original Gorey illustration for accompaniment.

A familiarity with the subjects will be helpful, but not absolutely necessary. Eschewing the mechanics of farce, the author relies on wit and familiar social conflicts to generate his humor. It works well enough on its own, but when elements such as writing styles are being skewered it’s best to recognize the works being parodied.

It’s a Thurber-esque trip across a century of prominent artists, and holds the possibility of some genuine smiles.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.