As an unabashed Michael Lewis fan and reader of most of his published work, I was surprised that I had never heard of his book on the 1996 elections, which I discovered after it was namechecked by Ezra Klein as a favorite book of his in a podcast interview with Lewis (recommended).
The book is written as a chronological diary as Lewis follows aspiring Republican candidates, and then the eventual nominees around the country to caucuses, conventions, and other campaign events. While at first blush this seemed like a lazy attempt to turn a series of musings into a published book, once I begin reading the format makes enough sense, given the relatively mundane day-to-day nature of a Presidential campaign, in which any scandals can consume a series of news cycles, “momentum” is mostly an illusion, and both the micro and macro aspects of the election process end up being lost to memory.
Trail Fever, by Michael Lewis (later republished as Losers: The Road to Everyplace but the White House (Knopf 1996)
In the book’s introduction, Lewis recounts the remarkably low stakes of the 1996 US Presidential Election due to the backdrop of the United States as a country “on autopilot:” steady (but not spectacular) economic growth, no major conflicts or international conflicts, and a relatively uneventful first term from President Clinton, despite attempts from his adversaries to expose malfeasance and scandals. In short, a comfortably numb state of affairs.
Lewis begins in the early stages of the Republican primary, introducing us to obscure characters whose names have been lost to history (Alan Keyes, Bob Dornan, Lamar Alexander, Phil Gramm), or individuals that elicit a “yeah, I think I know who that is” in 2019: Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and the eventual nominee, Bob Dole, who Lewis struggles to kindly portray (or portray at all) throughout the book.
Among this pool of uninspiring professional politicians is one candidate that stands above the rest in the eyes of the story-starved Lewis. On a whim (lore states that one of his factory-floor employees implored him to run), Maurice “Morry” Taylor, the millionaire CEO of the now-absorbed tire manufacturer Titan Tire, was met with the question that prods at the most ego-driven among us: “why not me?,” before putting his own name in the running to represent the 1996 Republican Party as an heir to his billionaire businessman predecessor, Ross Perot.
As opposed to most businesspeople-turned-politicians (and fiscal conservatives), Taylor’s preoccupation with “managing the government like a business” did not begin and end with balancing the Federal Budget. Employing a tactic revived by Trump in 2016 (though actually carrying it out, in Taylor’s case), Taylor funded his own campaign, and in the absence of “rented strangers” (Lewis’ term for the campaign staff that surrounds a candidate and President), spent more than $6 million of his own funds on a series of innovative (and questionably illegal) stunts to rally the vote: running $5,000 raffles in early-election districts, flooding potential supporters with free swag, and holding a rally of over 6,000 motorcyclists in a party organized for the Republican party.
Taylor’s irreverence and ingenuity hardly ended at his electioneering: Taylor’s ideas stood far apart from his Republican competitors, who he claimed were just as poisoned as Clinton’s Democrats and the broader two-party centrist system. Some of Taylor’s ideas were on the sensible, everyman side, such as implementing term limits (one) for all politicians, advocating for more States’ rights and a smaller government, simplifying the tax code, and removing money from politics. The ones that Lewis, and Taylor’s enthusiastic (but small) electorate tended to veer towards entertainingly implausible, including putting a 10-year moratorium on law schools (to prevent lawyers from entering the DC fray), closing all embassies around the world (“international business is done over the phone and fax”), and shutting down the Pentagon ( and turning it into a hotel for visiting Representatives and Senators, who would no longer be able to maintain a separate home away from their district.) Ironically, Taylor’s brutal and symbolic approach to cost-cutting the White House is reminiscent of the extreme cost-cutting currently underway in Mexico under newly-elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
As the campaign drones on and the more entertaining candidates make way for the purposefully staid Dole vs the incumbent Clinton, the book loses much of its momentum, and Lewis palpably struggles to continue to create momentum all the way to the end of the election. At this point, Lewis introduces many then-readers to Senator John McCain of Arizona, then on the campaign trail for Dole. McCain, along with Taylor, come away as the other two figures unscathed by Lewis’ cynical and honest take on politics (an aside: Lewis’ recounting of McCain’s humility, open candor, and heroics as a POW for over 5 years only serve to further inflame Trump’s deplorable treatment of McCain in his final months.)
The 1996 election, and Lewis’ coverage, touch on certain issues that proved prescient and have turned front-and-center as Trump has risen to power, namely a visit to the Mexican border, where Lewis marvels at the mass of Mexican hopefuls doggedly risking it all to reach the US, as well as meeting incipient morals-based Evangelicals and their faith leaders in Colorado Springs.
Lewis grows increasingly frustrated with the minimal ideological space between the two candidates in an attempt to win over Centrists, and the broader two-party system in general. His most pronounced contempt is held for the “rented strangers” and pollsters, the career servants of the political class, who shape the opinions and image of the mainstream candidates to broaden their appeal to the largest possible population, muddying their appeal and held views beyond all recognition in the process.
Lewis comes away more or less disgusted with the entire political class (excluding McCain and a cameo from Green Party candidate Ralph Nader), and closes the book with a call to action for a reform of campaign finance and the broader influence of money in politics, a similar (and hopefully not altogether hopeless) call to action we’ve heard from Bernie Sanders and others over the past decade or so.
Given Lewis’ soft re-entry into politics writing this past year, the Fifth Risk (reviewed here), which essentially calls for sanity and basic competence in politics, it is incredibly entertaining to see a younger Lewis provide a much more unhinged and inflammatory take on politics, one where he vacillates between Republican and Democrat, Dole and Clinton, seemingly on a whim, ultimately casting his vote for Nader and his reputed $5,000 Presidential campaign. Given the massive, 24-person Democratic Party Primary, as well as Trump’s continued bloviating from the White House, one wishes that a less reformed Lewis might return for one more bite at the apple.