The Dullest Show on Earth: Inside Politico's 'Inside the Circus'

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The new Politico ebook offers the illusion of insider access, but contributes little actual perspective on the presidential campaign.

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Reuters

Back in a distant, gilded past, the circus was magical, enthralling, and exotic. It featured marquee names like P.T. Barnum, James Anthony Bailey, and the Ringling brothers. Perhaps most importantly, it was a rare event -- with its annual arrival whipping local children into a frenzy. Today, the circus is rather more passe: a grimy spectacle of down-on-their-luck carnies and worn-down animals, with cotton candy as big draw as the shows. With the exception of the Cirque du Soleil's acrobats, the great showmen of yore are gone, and the once mighty organizations of the old circus have been combined, their appeal weakened by a century's novel entertainments.

That may be a simplistic view, but it's a handy metaphor for assessing Inside the Circus, the new ebook by Mike Allen and Evan Thomas. Like the consolidated (and cumbersomely named) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it's a hybrid of Allen, the supercharged Politico reporter, and Thomas, who for years wrote a post-campaign book under the auspices of Newsweek, his erstwhile employer. But like the circus, this is a diminished franchise, and far less satisfying than its forebears.

The main flaw is conceptual. Just as months of anticipation heightened excitement for the circus, Newsweek's series kept its readers waiting. Reporters went out on the trail with the campaigns, but they were sequestered from the magazine's staff and their reporting was strictly embargoed until after the election, which gave their sources cover to speak more freely. It also meant that the story was written only once the results were in, putting the narrative in perspective. After the troubled magazine (where I last worked, though not on this project) announced it wouldn't do the project for the 2012 election, Politico stepped in to save it. The editors opted to turn it into a series of ebooks written as the campaign went along; this is the second.

That episodic approach is where things go awry. While Inside the Circus is impressively up-to-date -- the book reaches up to late March -- it's lacking in perspective and fresh revelations. That seems to be no fault of the authors: Allen is one of the most dogged and well-sourced reporters in Washington, and Thomas is an expert crafter of prose. But without the benefit of hindsight, there's no chance to draw out the really fascinating stories -- and in fact there are fewer and fewer juicier details as the book nears the present day. The book too often reads like a particularly well-written summary of news reports since the Iowa caucuses. The informed reader (and really, who else is going to rush to their Kindle for this volume?) knows the dramatis personae: Mitt Romney, steady, analytical, and robotic; Santorum, devout, prickly, and persistent; Newt Gingrich, rotund, orotund, and professorial. (The fourth remaining candidate, Ron Paul, merits fewer than 100 words except as a supporting character -- although the one passage dedicated to his campaign does manage to point out that a crowd of his supporters in Nevada "reeked of marijuana smoke.") And the reader will also know the narrative contours: Santorum surprises Romney in Iowa; Romney wins New Hampshire; Gingrich slams Romney as a vulture capitalist and wins South Carolina; then Romney outdebates Gingrich and wins Florida, etc. If you're looking for a new framework to understanding the race, the real story behind the frenzied 24-7 coverage, this isn't it.

At one point, the authors remark, "In retrospect, it's not clear why reporters had essentially ignored Rick Santorum in the fall of 2011." Their reporting actually goes some way to answering the question -- they cite many GOP insiders who were incredulous that the former Pennsylvania senator was doing so well. But the book also demonstrates the auhtors' ignorance: It seems that Santorum aides Hogan Gidley and John Brabender are really their only sources on the campaign (in fairness, it's not a very large campaign). Meanwhile, they're clearly well-sourced in the Romney campaign, but the results are unsatisfying. A story published Tuesday as a teaser demonstrates the problem. It offers the illusion of going deep inside the Romney braintrust:

Aides continue to debate whether they should seize even tighter control of the former Massachusetts governor or yield to the push by some advisers to "let Romney be Romney" -- but they have yet to crack the code. "They haven't been able to grapple with the central issue and central challenge they face as a campaign," one Romney adviser lamented. "In the absence of a candidate who has any poetry -- who has any ability to connect on an emotional level -- how do you create a bond?"

....Romney's agenda, the adviser said, is "warmed-over oatmeal" and needs to be bolder.

So Allen, Thomas, and Co. got an insider to trash his candidate anonymously on the record. Juicy! But the anecdote actually says nothing that we don't know already. Anyone unaware that Romney has struggled to define himself and to connect with Joe Sixpack hasn't paid any attention to the race.

That isn't to say that there aren't some fascinating nuggets in the book (there are good round-ups here and here. Take, for example, this vivid illustration of just how rattled Mitt Romney has been by his repeated verbal missteps:

Romney has become gun-shy about getting overheard saying the wrong thing, or saying something unguarded into an open mike. A political adviser recalled chatting openly with Romney, confident that no reporters lurked nearby, when Romney pointed to a sound boom some distance away and said, "Careful."

We learn that his campaign had no opposition research on Rick Santorum before the Iowa caucuses. We hear a Romney aide avowing, "This is impregnable. We will never lose in Colorado" -- a day before losing the state. And there's excellent insight into how he was able to motivate the establishment, business wing of his party to line up behind him:

These true-believer conservatives are averse not only to Romney but to semi-reasonable types like Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels. As a result, said [a Romney] fund-raiser, the 'responsible Republican guys' are 'starting to realize' that at a brokered convention 'it's not going to be Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan, a ticket they could really love. It's probably Huckabee-Palin or Palin-Huckabee.' That was enough to scare the Wall Street crowd into getting out their checkbooks."

There are also fresh details on the disintegration of the Huntsman campaign -- aides felt Huntsman wasn't really trying, Huntsman and his family didn't really like the aides -- but it's hard to imagine many people care at this point. The leak that got the most attention prior to the book's release on Tuesday was about how Rick Perry was taking serious doses of painkillers prior to debates because a bad back made it tough for him to stand for two hours -- one possible explanation for his unfocused performances. This reportedly led to a strange encounter in a men's room:

The manager of a rival campaign was at a urinal in an empty bathroom in Hanover, New Hampshire, before the Bloomberg News debate on October 11, when he heard someone come through the door loudly singing "I've Been Working on the Railroad." Wondering who was making all the noise, the campaign manager turned his head and saw, to his surprise, the governor of Texas. Perry came down the row of about twenty urinals and stood companionably close by. Nonplussed, the campaign manager made a hasty exit; as the bathroom door closed, he could hear Perry still merrily singing away: "I-I-I've been working on the ra-a-i-i-l-road, all-l-l the live-long day . . ."

This is a hilarious incident (and one that the Perry campaign denies occurred). But does it really tell us much about the Perry candidacy that we didn't already know?

There are other minor flaws. Donald Trump inexplicably appears (and is given more column inches than Paul, in fact). A Romney adviser is allowed the cover of anonymity to question former RNC Chair Michael Steele's appetite for a brokered convention, even though it's an uncontroversial and commonsensical critique. There are frequent arch mentions of how "bloggers" affected the race (e.g., "The bloggers immediately cried, 'There he goes again!'"), which is a bit rich given that Politico thrives on breathlessly reporting each morsel of trail news as it happens.

But these are minor objections. The book's real problem is that as pleasant a read as it is, it's an answer in search of a question. Inside the Circus seeks to emulate John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Game Change, down to the novelistic, behind-the-scenes tone. But without the race anywhere near completion, it's simply too early to tell what the game is -- or whether it has changed.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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