Spin Out

One of the finest novels about American politics is Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, first published in 1946, the year that Bill Clinton was born in that little town called Hope.

Warren's book is built around the character of Willie Stark, the populist governor of a small, backward Southern state. Modeled on Louisiana's Huey Long, Stark starts out as a do-gooding, small-town idealist but ends up as absolutely powerful and absolutely corrupt, mercilessly destroying his enemies while bringing his state the highways and hospitals it lacked. He's nothing like Bill Clinton, the smooth conciliator, except in one respect: Stark is a man of large appetites, unbound by the conventions that govern others. All of those close to him eventually must pay for his recklessness.

The teller of Warren's tale, and the fulcrum of the moral crisis that frames the novel, is Stark's press agent, a onetime newspaperman whom the heavy-handed author named Jack Burden. He's one of Stark's fixers, and the governor assigns Burden the job of digging up dirt on one of Stark's enemies -- this was back before that task could be accomplished so easily with a well-placed leak to the media or by a special prosecutor with unbridled police powers. "There's always something," Stark tells Burden, presaging what surely must be Kenneth Starr's motto. As Burden acknowledges near the end of the book, after all is revealed, the story he's told is Willie Stark's, but it's Jack Burden's story, too.

The novel is flawed -- the twin narratives of Stark's rise and fall and Burden's search for his true father never quite fuse, and Warren lards his story with a windy philosophizing that can seem ponderous to the television-age sensibility -- but the plotting of Willie Stark's downfall is driven by the clean, solid lines of classic tragedy. Things end badly for Stark, of course --he's killed, literally, over an adulterous sexual affair. Those around him are stripped of all innocence, even the ones who thought themselves wised-up. Jack Burden survives the shipwreck, but just barely, to tell Willie Stark's story.

It was almost too easy to reach for All the King's Men after seeing Paul Begala and James Carville and the other Clinton apologists finally emerge from wherever they'd been and begin spinning furiously to save Clinton's presidency.

I'm sure they're well-paid, but loyalty is a two-way street, and for some reason I felt especially bad for Begala and Carville. I am acquainted with both men -- although I wouldn't profess to be friends with them or even really know them -- dating to their work on Lloyd Doggett's unsuccessful Senate campaign against Phil Gramm in the mid-1980s. Begala, who grew up in Missouri City and graduated from Dulles High School in Sugar Land, was then just out of UT law school, and Carville was a journeyman political consultant possessed of a personal brio not ordinarily found in practitioners of his trade.

A few years later, they worked for Fred Hofheinz's doomed comeback attempt against Mayor Kathy Whitmire, when Carville's too-real presence -- showing up at suit-and-tie affairs in his high-water jeans and black Chuck Taylor All-Stars -- was an affront to Hofheinz's chief money man, Joe Russo. Much has changed since then: Russo has served time in a federal pen, and Hofheinz has had troubles of his own, but Carville and Begala, after some successes electing Democrats outside of Texas, rose to the blue-hot center of power with Bill Clinton.

I rooted for them as they did. They are cut from a different cloth than a self-promoting sleazeball like Dick Morris: Begala always struck me as smart and unassuming, and on the public stage he's probably the most convincing of Clinton's advisers, while Carville's instincts about where the Democratic Party should be --it is always the economy, stupid -- have been and are right on the money. And I get a perverse sense of pleasure whenever I flip on a talk show and see Carville -- a guy who grew up in a speck of a town that was known in Louisiana as the home of the nation's only leprosarium -- ranting like some insane backwoods preacher.

But their most recent appearances brought to mind something I remember a perhaps more innocent Paul Begala saying -- and I remember it not because it was so brilliant or revealing, but because it was so perplexingly banal. It came after a debate between Hofheinz and Whitmire at, if I recall, South Texas College of Law, as an adrenaline-pumping Begala burst from backstage to tell the assembled media that Hofheinz's performance had been the greatest Begala had ever seen. Did he mean the greatest ever -- or just in this soon-to-be-forgotten mayoral campaign? The greatest ever, replied Begala.

Begala's experience was then somewhat limited, and I'm sure that just a few months later even Fred Hofheinz would have had trouble telling you what he did or said that was so brilliant. I remember idly wondering at the time, as I've often wondered about people who are paid to talk for and give advice to others, whether Begala just took me for a dope or actually believed his own bullshit.

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