Book review: Off Script by Josh King

Title: Off Script: An Advance Man’s Guide to White House Stagecraft, Campaign Spectacle, and Political Suicide

Author: Josh King

Publisher: St. Martin’s

Published: 2016

Version reviewed: Audiobook from Blackstone Audio, read by the author

Politicaldictionary.com defines an advance man as, “A staffer sent ahead to prepare for the arrival of a politician at a campaign rally, media appearance or other large event” (http://politicaldictionary.com/words/advance-man/). In Off Script, advance man Josh King takes the reader through the good, bad, and ugly of presidential advance work in what he calls the Age of Optics, from Michael Dukakis’ failed campaign in 1988 through the early days of the Trump campaign in 2015.

King started his career in advance work with the Dukakis campaign, served as Director of Production for Presidential Events in the White House Office of Communications during most of the Bill Clinton years, and created the Sirius/XM radio show Polioptics. He shares his wealth of experience and war stories in Off Script and lets readers (and voters) go behind the curtain to see how campaign events are scripted and candidate images crafted. Spoiler alert: if you think every move a candidate makes is carefully planned, you’re right. King will show you how and why those plans are made. He will also show you lots of instances when a seemingly small incident had a huge negative impact: Dukakis’ tank ride, George H. W. Bush’s encounter with a supermarket scanner, the Howard Dean scream, and John Kerry’s windsurfing–to name a few. Having followed politics since the late 80s, I’ve often found it disturbing how silly things like these could make or break a campaign for the highest office in the land. King’s book helped me understand why that happens–though I still find it disturbing.

The biggest downside of Off Script is its slow start. King spends the entire first section of the book–at least 2 or 3 hours of the audiobook, maybe more–on Dukakis’ tank ride. Yes, really. It may have been the biggest campaign failure in modern presidential history, but I’m not convinced it warrants that much page time. But if you’re interested in either politics or marketing (and sadly, they’re becoming so intertwined, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes), it’s worth persevering through the seemingly-endless tank ride. King’s book will help you understand how optics trump (no pun intended) substance in modern presidential campaigns and therefore make you a more informed–if also possibly more disillusioned–voter.

And if you’re wondering who the heck Dukakis was and what the heck he was doing in a tank, congratulations on not being older than dirt. Here’s a little history lesson, courtesy of Politico:

And here’s the infamous George H. W. Bush campaign ad that effectively ended Dukakis’ chances:

One final note: you’ve probably guessed that King is a Democrat, since he worked for Dukakis and Clinton. In the book, though, he is refreshingly unbiased. He speaks respectfully of presidents and candidates from both parties; if anything, he’s more critical of his own party’s candidates. He shows no partisan intent in Off Script–just the intent to explain and educate.

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Book review: A Life on the Road by Charles Kuralt

Title: A Life on the Road

Author: Charles Kuralt

Format: Hardback, Putnam

Published: 1990

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Some of us are old enough to remember when most people got their news from the evening news on one of the big 3 networks. We trusted anchors like Walter Cronkite to report the news of the day–wars, political scandals, natural disasters–with truth and gravitas. Charles Kuralt was a newsman of this era, but he was best known not for the big serious stories but for for finding the unique and fascinating people and stories hiding in small towns all across America. In A Life on the Road, Kuralt tells the story behind the stories, chronicling his career as a newsman in the glory days of TV news as well as some of the people and events he discovered on the back roads of America.

It’s fitting that I found this book serendipitously–specifically, on a dusty shelf at an estate sale in Phoenix–since Kuralt and crew relied on plenty of serendipity (he called it dumb luck) when searching out stories. In a time before cell phones and the Internet–heck, some of us didn’t even have a private phone line (raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember party lines)–Kuralt and crew would roll up to a farmhouse in a rickety old RV and ask to do a story about whatever interesting thing the family was involved in. No appointment, no string of emails explaining exactly what and where and how, in some cases no advance planning at all beyond, “Look, a story!” and off they would go, RV trundling down a country road toward the nearest local color.

The stories themselves were (and are still) interesting, but part of what made them so was the warmth and wit of Kuralt the storyteller. Those traits are evident in A Life on the Road. Kuralt blends his own story and that of his crew with the colorful characters he encountered. Here’s a sample:

We went to Sopchoppy, in the Florida panhandle, to look into a story about worm grunting. Worm grunting is not practiced just everywhere. Maybe I’d better explain it.

You go out into the woods and pound a hardwood stake into the ground, preferably using a heavy truck spring to do the pounding. Then, you rub the truck spring sensually, but with a certain pressure, across the top of the stake. This sets up a vibration in the ground which you can feel in the soles of your feet. Earthworms must find the vibration disagreeable, for to escape it, they wriggle to the surface; whereupon, you pick up the worms and go fishing.

I didn’t believe this when I first heard about it, but it turns out that some people around Sopchoppy make a living at it, selling their worms by the canful to Mr. M. B. Hodges’s bait store. It will not surprise you to learn that if you go worm grunting in the National Forest, you have to have a federal Worm Gathering Permit displayed in the window of your pickup truck. (p. 149)

If you’d like to see as well as read, some of Kuralt’s pieces are on YouTube–just search for charles kuralt on the road.. Here are a couple to get you started (unfortunately the one about worm grunting doesn’t seem to be available):

 

So if you get a chance, pick up a copy of Kuralt’s book and lose yourself in another time, a time when people still watched the same news–and some of them even made a living selling worms. Kuralt’s pieces may have seemed like fluff next to the tumultuous events of the late 1960s-1980s, but they are a reminder–then and now–that the United States is a rich tapestry of quirky places and resourceful, creative, diverse people. 4 out of 5 pages.

 

Book Review — Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Author: Edward Abbey
Format: Paperback
Published: 1968

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Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paxson Woelber. Creative Commons licensed.

A colleague at work was shocked that I’d never heard of Edward Abbey, so she gave me a copy of Desert Solitaire. I read all but the last few pages and wrote most of a draft of this review before I looked him up in Wikipedia and discovered that Desert Solitaire is, “regarded as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature.” So now I feel ignorant, but at least this review is a genuine reaction to the book, not influenced by its reputation.

Desert Solitaire chronicles Abbey’s experiences as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) in 1956-1957. “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” That’s the opening sentence of the first chapter, and Abbey spends the rest of the book showing the reader that beauty. His prose is as poetic and vivid as John Muir’s but with more snark and bite. Abbey was a philosopher, an environmental activist, and an anarchist; all three of those identities are on display here. He blends rhapsodic odes to the beauty of Utah’s canyonlands with misanthropic rants about the evils of cities, cars, development, tourists–and especially the Glen Canyon Dam, which was being built during his time at Arches and which he considered an abomination.

Even if you don’t share Abbey’s environmental views, Desert Solitaire is worth reading if you have any interest in the stark, stunning landscape of the Four Corners region (Confession: I live near there, so I’m biased. This region is breathtaking. You need to see it. Start packing.) Whether describing a cattle drive or the Colorado River rushing through narrow red rock canyons, Abbey immerses you in the otherworldly beauty of the canyonlands. He’s also one heck of a storyteller, regaling you with hair-raising tales of him doing extreme (and occasionally really stupid) things like sliding down waterfalls or hiking into The Maze (now part of Canyonlands National Park) with little more than a bottle of water and some trail mix.  My favorite chapter is also the longest: Abbey’s tale of rafting Glen Canyon, which was later flooded after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. I’ll never see Glen Canyon as he did, because much of it is at the bottom of Lake Powell, but at least I got to see it through his eyes and prose.

I’ll leave you with two passages from the book, which, taken together, will give you a sense of Abbey’s writing style. The first is from near the end of the book, as his time at Arches is coming to a close:

October. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom. The tumbleweeds on the move (that longing to be elsewhere, elsewhere), thousands of them rolling across the plains before the wind. Something like a yellow rash has broken out upon the mountainsides–the aspen forests in their autumn splendor. Sunsets each evening that test a man’s credulity–great gory improvisations in scarlet and gold that remind me of nothing so much as God’s own celestial pizza pies.

Now whenever I look at the aspens on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks in fall, I’ll think of a yellow rash. Thanks, Mr. Abbey.

The second passage is from the end of the introduction:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

I disagree with Abbey on at least one point: I think you should hop in your car and get out here, and seeing this area from a car is better than not seeing it at all. But if you can’t get here–or you’ve been here and want to relive the experience–pick up a copy of Desert Solitaire and let Abbey be your cranky, crotchety, yet oh-so poetic guide.

Rating: 5/5 for people who enjoy nature writing; 3/5 for everyone else.

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