by Michael Lewis

Lewis is one of those guys who has inadvertantly become — I would never call him a favorite author per se of mine, in that I rarely read him or think about him. Instead I just keep stumbling across him, often by chance or by surprise. I think I first read him back in the very early nineties when Liar’s Poker came out, and demonstrated that he was easily readable, a bit superior (I don’t mind, I admit to feeling that way on a number of things), pretty intelligent and often incredibly funny, especially in his ability to capture conversations and frame them in retrospect in a way that makes you wonder what on earth was going on through the other person’s head. Read The Money Culture as well sometime back, while my dad, thanks to a reading club he belongs to, read what I gather has become its own minor classic The New New Thing, a study of Silicon Valley in the nineties and that there dot.com thang.

As you might guess, he’s predominantly known for writing on matters financial, but he’s also done a study of the Oakland A’s on the one hand, and on the other wrote a book I hadn’t even realized existed until a few days ago, namely Losers, originally published (over his objections) as Trail Fever. But it crossed my path at the library and first I was amused by the cover, then I recognized the author and thought, “Son of a gun, him again…well presumably it’ll be as entertaining as the other ones.” And it was, the more so because it’s coverage of a Presidential election year that in retrospect is easily the most unmemorable of the past, let’s say twenty and maybe thirty years, namely 1996. Ask anyone offhand what they remember and probably there’ll be a scratching of heads, a knowledge that Clinton beat Dole, a vague memory that Perot ran again…and that was about it. Compared to the car-crash conclusion of 2000 and the year-long agony of 2004, it’s already ancient history.

Since he wrote the book at the time, though, there’s no way of comparing ahead, though Lewis fully recognizes that the election was going to be a dud from the word go and essentially captures a time of sheer entropy, when political forces of the future were gathering on the horizon but weren’t yet ready, and when a period of peace and apparent economic good times plus one hell of a politically-savvy incumbent set meant that there weren’t going to be many surprises. And there weren’t. So instead Lewis, in a slightly dilatory but actually pretty involving fashion, details his work that year on the trail — working for The New Republic officially but just as often pursuing his own impulses — focuses in on everything from an already forgotten minor GOP candidate Morry Taylor, a businessman who was in the race early on, to quick, sharp observations on the state of modern media coverage of the race to visits to places like Colorado Springs, Ground Zero for the political evangelical movement that wasn’t quite yet ready to make its mark fully known.

That sense of unintended prescience lingers throughout the book — not completely, it should be noted. George W. Bush, Cheney, none of that crew even figure in as a factor. But Alan Keyes — arguably the man who just won’t go away — gets some coverage as well as something rare — an actual appreciation of his abilities as a speaker, as opposed to the nature of what he is speaking about. Ralph Nader’s tentative stabs towards a presidential run via the Green Party in 1996 get discussed, as Lewis meets with him and observes him speaking as well. John McCain, somewhat to Lewis’s surprise, becomes a friend and confidant over time, discussed in even more detail in the afterword from 2000, while a section detailing the death of a confidant and friend of both McCain and Clinton to cancer unexpectedly humanizes all three men in ways that I think might never quite be captured again. Lewis is cynical, sharp, untrusting, contemptuous in general, someone who shakes his head at much of what he sees and the posturings of political life, but he yet leaves room for surprising even himself, I think.

As a postscript, I was eternally surprised to find out — especially given Lewis’s brief discussion of MTV’s somewhat sputtering 1996 voter-enrollment effort and an acknowledgement of Clinton’s ‘boxers or briefs?’ q&a on said channel in 1992 — that Lewis is now married to none other than Tabitha Soren!

The Brown Wedge