Low expectations

MISUNDERESTIMATED: THE PRESIDENT BATTLES TERRORISM, JOHN KERRY, AND THE BUSH HATERS

by Bill Sammon, Regan Books, Harper-Collins, $27.95, 351 pages

In doing research for this book, Bill Sammon interviewed President Bush.During the course of the interview, the president invented a new word when he told the author that the media and his political opponents had constantly “misunderestimated” him. Despite the flawed vocabulary (probably deliberate), the body count of Bush foes who have misunderestimated him has risen in a manner proportional to British casualties on the Somme in World War I. Hence, the premise and title of Mr. Sammon’s latest book.

Like Bob Woodward, Mr. Sammon had unusual access to the president and his inner circle in doing his research. Not surprisingly, Mr. Sammon, the White House correspondent for The Washington Times, has a very different interpretation from that of Mr. Woodward. In “Misunderestimated,” he portrays Mr. Bush as a “hands on” political operator and not the passive mouthpiece of his staff that many of his adversaries accuse him of being.

Along the way we get a “warts and all” portrayal of Mr. Bush and his staff. The book opens with a fund-raising trip that — through a series of gaffes between the White House, the Secret Service and the police in Portland, Ore. — resulted in the Bush staff spending a night under siege, locked down in their hotel with a homosexual softball league. Despite the fact that the situation was potentially explosive, Mr. Sammon recounts it with wit and in a smooth style that permeates the book.

This is a compelling account of the 18 months of the Bush presidency during which Mr. Bush led the country into two wars. Along the way, we get the inside scoop on such events as the president’s handling of the capture of Saddam Hussein, his surprise visit to Baghdad last year and his take on the U.N. Oil for Food program.

Mr. Sammon feels that there is a very real leftist plot in the press and among Democrats to get Mr. Bush. He documents this with quotes from the alleged perpetrators at press conferences. The quotes are damning. Some of the participants are very senior and respected White House and Pentagon correspondents. The reader suspects that Mr. Sammon’s relations with some members of the White House press corps will be frosty at best now that this book has been published.

This is a highly readable book; in this, it is subversive. It may open up the market to folks who wouldn’t normally pick up a book by Richard Clarke or Mr. Woodward. It puts a more human face on the sometimes mischievous and always wry president, who has had to subdue himself in public in the post-September 11 environment.

“Misunderestimated” is not entirely flattering to the Bush camp. That may be its main advantage to Republicans and to conservatives. In a nasty political year, depicting a candidate as human and fallible can be a plus. The author’s bias is clearly with Mr. Bush, but with a Bush persona that sometimes gets lost in the gravitas of the post-September 11 scene.

At this point, John Kerry, after such debacles as publicly humiliating a Secret Service agent and the self-inflicted wound of his foreign endorsements, will need a champion as well. That champion had better be able to sell books to the swing voters. As the nation becomes nearly equally polarized between the “reds” and “blues,” books like Mr. Sammon’s, Mr. Clarke’s and Mr. Woodward’s will become increasingly important.

Hard-core true believers in the Republican and Democratic camps will have made up their minds. Nothing will change them. But swing voters are open to influence, even though many of them don’t read political books. If the publishers market it right, “Misunderestimated” may make a difference because of its combination of anecdotes and serious policy discussion.

This will be one of the most polarized elections since the Civil War. A political book that isn’t read by swing voters is like a tree falling in the forest. Mr. Sammon has done his job in writing the book; it is now up to the publisher to sell it.

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