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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Review: Daschle vs. Thune -- 2004 Over and Over

Why yes, it is rather long. Jon knows how to get me thinking....

The salient and essential questions coming out of the campaign of 2004 is whether the people were being told the truth and whether they were being subjected to Orwellian mind-manipulation that fed on their fears, bigotries, and ignorance. A comprehensive review of Jon Lauck’s book will address those issues of accuracy and veracity.It is part of the campaign material that needs a definitive analysis. And some of us are still waiting fo such a review.
--David Newquist, "Book on Daschle/Thune Race Is Still
Not Reviewed
," Northern Valley Beacon, 2007.12.02

Let me know if you vote for the AFF or NEG and who should get the most speaker points.
--Jon Lauck, inscription, 2007.10.23

This review will disappoint both Newquist and Lauck. Newquist desires a thorough study of the claims made in Lauck's second book, Daschle vs. Thune: Anatomy of a High-Plains Senate Race (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007). Alas, I was in Canada during the height of the Daschle-Thune battle. From Vancouver, BC, I browsed Jon's blog occasionally, but I didn't get that on-the-ground sense of the ebb and flow of the campaign. And I won't pretend to do from my couch the sort of nitty-gritty history that would meet Dr. Newquist's standards and properly respond on a documentary level to Lauck's historical effort. I choose instead a literary perspective: how well does Lauck's history work as a literary work? Is it a book worth reading?

That literary perspective will disappoint Lauck, too. In asking for the Affirmative or Negative ballot, Lauck refers to the distant history we share as fellow Madison Bulldog debaters and my continued work as a high school debate judge. But before I can vote AFF or NEG, I need to hear both cases. Daschle vs. Thune offers Lauck's case -- formally AFF, since he's spoken first and advocates the 2004 change from the status quo, but textually NEG, since the book is more argument against Daschle than for Thune. But Lauck's participatory history offers only that one side, and no one from the Daschle camp has offered the opposing case in similar published form.

I thus cannot render an AFF/NEG vote. I can, however, give "speaker points," my assessment of the literary merit of Daschle vs. Thune.

That assessment: Daschle vs. Thune starts and ends well, but in different places. And the big in-between fails to deliver the real gory "anatomy" that the title promises and that a participant ought to be able to give.

Lauck launches Daschle vs. Thune in his best polemical form, anticipating in his Preface the predominant criticisms that his book has faced:

  1. Lauck worked as a paid research consultant for the Thune 2004 campaign and now serves as a senior advisor to Thune; how can Lauck offer a history of any objective value?
  2. Lauck published this book just three years after the focal events of the text; don't we need more time to pass to allow a better perspective on 2004?

Lauck shows his sharp rhetorical skills here, deftly arguing that his participatory history is part of a long tradition of the finest historical works. Thucydides, Churchill, Schlesinger -- all participants in history, all writing close on the heels of the events they record, all providing works of lasting historical value. Lauck has fun citing defenses of participatory history from "leftist" historian Jesse Lemisch and "socialist" Michael Walzer. While laden with quotes (two pags listing 42 citations for six pages of prefatory prose -- I would expect nothing less from a good policy debater), Lauck's prose still flows along smoothly and vigorously in a persuasive argument that a book like his can matter.

I'm just not sure Daschle v. Thune does matter, not in the way the title and Preface promise.

Lauck paid attention to our history prof Dr. John Miller at SDSU. He writes his history in context, showing the connections between what happened in South Dakota and what was going in the US and the world. Lauck reviews the salient points of the latter half of the twentieth century to prepare us for a discussion of the Daschle-Thune contest as an expression of the battle between 1960s McGovern liberalism and 1980s Reagan conservatism. Lauck sees "the politics of association and memory" (that's Chapter 5) as a vital current in the 2004 South Dakota Senate race and the broader politics of the United States. Lauck is looking for the underlying theory explaining how history flowed in 2004 -- Dr. Miller surely approves, as do I.

However, as Lauck moves into the specifics of the South Dakota campaign, the book falters. He offers history of the candidates themselves (but note that Lauck gives Daschle's father one sentence, while Thune's father gets a page of gentle hagiography and their respective rises in politics. Lauck discusses the interesting dynamics of South Dakota politics that have less to do with the grand cultural battle of the 1960s vs. the 1980s and more to do with our unique history and personalities: the Janklow-Daschle alliance, the confusion of political fortunes caused by Janklow's manslaughter conviction, the Herseth legacy, the Indian vote. Lauck even offers those little bits of South Dakotiana that add the right small-town flavor for our out-of-state readers (like the 25-below windchill the night Thune announced, and the populations of the small towns the candidates pass through).

These specifics fade, unfortunately, as the book gradually turns into a mere rehashing of the campaign against Daschle. Not the "campaign for Thune," mind you: After the recap of Thune's entry into the race and visits to the reservations in the spring, Thune becomes nearly invisible. Even in his own staffer's telling, Thune is little more than the guy running against that two-faced liberal Daschle. In the central chapters, "The End of the Beginning" and "The Fall Offensive," great swaths of text go by with no mention of Thune's actual policy positions, let alone a picture of the critique against them. We hear what Daschle stood for (and against -- Lauck cites Daschle's obstructionism agaisnt the Republicans as a key factor in his downfall) and the criticisms heaped upon him by the blogs and some political leaders. But aside from the introductory discussion of Thune as an Abdnor-Reagan disciple, we get no continuing analysis of what policies and values made Thune the winning candidate he was to counter Lauck's running criticism of the policies and values that made Daschle the loser. Lauck draws more vivid pictures of Argus executive editor Randall Beck and political editor Patrick Lalley. Were Lauck crafting a novel, he could have replaced Thune with any Republican in the state -- with a pet rock, for that matter -- and not changed the plot at all. The text reads more like Daschle and the Argus Get a Whoopin' than Daschle vs. Thune. Leaving Thune, one of this history's title characters, so underdeveloped is a serious literary flaw.

(Reviewer's partisan jab: Could it be that Lauck focuses on the politics of association and memory because Thune offered no real policies of change and needed to coattail his way into office by associating himself with fond memories of Reagan and faux-conservatism?)

As a participatory history, Daschle vs. Thune could have offered a real insider's story of campaign strategy, tensions in the Thune war room (Lauck probably wasn't going to get any face time with the Daschle people), the buoyancy at various campaign events and the weariness of the umpteenth road trip across the state. Lauck was there. He witnessed the campaign firsthand, and he has daily access to and the trust of the people who could tell him about what he didn't see from behind his blogging screen. But we get none of that rich insider's perspective. About the Thune campaign, we learn the following:
  1. Thune hired Dick Wadhams as campaign manager.
  2. Thune visited the reservations in the spring.
  3. Thune held off on TV ads until the summer.
  4. Thune challenged Daschle to many debates and was mostly rebuffed.
  5. Thune won.
Such basic details hardly bear the marks of a participant in the making of this history.

After proclaiming in his Preface the vital nature of a participant's perspective, Lauck disappears almost completely from the narrative. Amid his discussion of the evolution of the Dakota Blog Alliance, he says simply, "In Janaury 2004, I started Daschle v. Thune to track the daily happenings in the Senate race" [Lauck, p. 114]. The only other places where Lauck explicitly figures himself into the narrative are a couple hometown mentions (Dave Kranz's pretty accurate labeling of the Madison Daily Leader as "a glory and praise pamphlet for Republican policy [117] and Thune's appearance in Madison for his final campaign event [186]). Lauck cites other bloggers specifically for their contributions -- notably Steve Sibson's unearthing of previous charges of partisanship in his reporting for the Mitchell Daily Republic and connections with Daschle. But Lauck gives little if any detail about his own writing or other participation in the Thune campaign. This literary choice, perhaps stemming from Lauck's Midwestern humility, denies us the full "passion" and "strife of experience" that Charles Beard mentions in Lauck's Preface. Lauck's participatory status colors our perception of the book, but it doesn't appear to contribute to the richness of the book itself.

If anything, Lauck's participatory status appears to detract from the richness of Daschle v. Thune. Lauck's attention never turns to the people around him in the Thune camp, except for the occasional pithy jib from Wadhams. Perhaps Lauck was thinking of a line from Doctor Zhivago:

Consciousness is a light directed outward, it lights up the way ahead of us so that we don't stumble. It's like the headlights on a locomotive--turn them inward and you'd have a crash [Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, 1957].

On the off chance Lauck remembers that line from Martin Connor's MHS world lit class, I note that we turn to participants to get exactly that sort of inward focus, to learn what only they can tell us about their feelings and motives. But rather than risk turning the lights of consciousness inward on the Thune campaign, Lauck can only look outward, fixated on Daschle, on making the argument that Daschle should not be re-elected, even three years after he helped successfully make that argument.

Why this constant rehashing of Thune talking points? Perhaps Lauck himself reveals his motive when he speaks of bitter Daschle disciples continuing to wage a "permanent campaign" against Thune:

By defeating the Democrats' leader and the chief opponent of the GOP agenda, Thune earned permanent foes. A Democratic strategist, according to Roll Call, said that the "party cannot afford to wait until 2009 to go after Thune." The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also criticized Thune in 2005, and Jim Jordan, John Kerry's first campaign manager, announced the formation of a new 527 organization to keep a "six-year drumbeat" on Republican senators. Conservative leader Paul Weyrich noted that Thune was "being attacked daily by the organized left," which was set on "avenging" the defeat of Senator Daschle. Daschle campaign manager Steve Hildebrand vowed that Thune would "have to watch his back." For some, the Daschle-Thune race would never end [Lauck, 213].

Lauck appears to be one of those for whom the campaign will never end. Lauck bristles at the possibility that history grant Daschle his wish that it judge him well. Referring to critics on the left who argue Daschle lost because "'$20 million worth of lies was dumped in his lap'" [210], Lauck cites Grant:

Popularizing the view that Daschle was simply smeared might have long-term utility [for his supporters], however. "Wars produce many stories of fiction," Ulysses S. Grant once warned, "some of which are told until they are believed to be true" [211].

Daschle vs. Thune appears determined to make sure Thune's story -- but not really the Thune story, just the anti-Daschle story, with a dash of a nice guy from who vaguely reminds people of Reagan, hot dogs, and apple pie -- does not fade from political memory in the face of nefarious lefties out to take away his Thune's big win. Daschle vs. Thune is not an anatomy of the Daschle-Thune Senate race of 2004: it is one participant's repetition of the main arguments made against one candidate in that campaign, now in hard copy for the library shelves and more respectable bibliographical citation than those unsightly gobbledygook blog URLs.

The book does have a rather blog-like read. One gets the impression from various repetitions of events and descriptions of characters that text was assembled from several separate blog posts written to stand on their own. Perhaps that was an intent with each chapter, to permit easier and broader excerpting in the popular press. But to get to page 208, for instance, and to see Dave Kranz appositively described as "the Argus Leader reporter criticized by bloggers for his past relationship with Daschle," creates an impression of redundancy and a text assembled somewhat piecemeal.

His text also never flows as well as it does in the Preface. Lauck, the good historian and policy debater, always includes lots of evidence, and that is essential. But where in the Preface Lauck does a fine job of incorporating various sources into his own enjoyable rhetoric, as the books wears on, many paragraphs become lists of quotations -- serviceable, for documentary history, but lacking, just a bit, Lauck's own rhetorical flourishes and sense of the whole. To put it in terms we debate alumni would understand, Lauck shows some Lincoln-Douglas flair in that Preface; he needs to incorporate that more to leaven the policy-style delivery of the body.

As mentioned, Lauck does cap his rehash of the Thune camp's arguments with a reasonable historical theory -- 1960s vs. 1980s, McGovern/McCarthy vs. Reagan. He even marks himself as perhaps the only historian writing for popular consumption in 2007 to use the word synecdoche (see Chapter 10: "Daschle versus Thune as Synecdoche"). Seeing the Daschle-Thune race as an element representing the whole of contemporary American politics
is a clever conceit. But if it is accurate, what does the current state of affairs with Daschle and Thune -- a lingering sense of bitterness and vengefulness, a refusal to let the 2004 campaign go, and a Republican senator once touted as the "new national spokesman for Republicans" [189] now relegated to minority status and relative inaction -- say about the bigger political picture? If Thune's victory is Reaganism triumphant, Lauck's Epilogue, a whirlwind tour of national politics since 2004, does little to explain what Thune has done with that victory. Lauck tells us much about the rightward drift of the Democrats (certainly evidence for the victory of conservatism Lauck hopes for), but the only concrete thing he shows us his boss doing since 2004 is casting the deciding vote for now-Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

Even on blogging, Lauck misses a chance to really connect the dots. Chapter 6, "Disintermediation," will be a great resource for historians interested in one of the first manifestations of blog power in American politics. But in the Epilogue, while noting the ultimate defeat of the Ned Lamont Senate campaign by Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, Lauck fails to discuss what the Dakota bloggers supporting Thune did right that the blog activists supporting Lamont did wrong. Reaganism won in 2004, but the Dems took the Senate in 2006; blogs beat Daschle in 2004, but Lieberman beat blogs in 2006. Both connections need more exploration than Daschle vs. Thune's Epilogue.

Daschle vs. Thune starts well, promising passionate argument and a valuable participatory perspective. Then the participant virtually disappears, and Thune almost does as well, as the author doesn't so much relive or dissect the campaign as simply recount arguments against the other guy. The body of the book does little more than provide a dead-tree blog archive, reprinting arguments available to all of us online in 2004. Daschle vs. Thune then drifts away from Daschle and Thune, concluding with what could be read as an affirmation or a repudiation of the meaning of Daschle-Thune 2004 race:

The Reagan position still held in 2004 in South Dakota, but its strength remains to be determined in the varied fronts of American politics. Historians will wait to see whether the Democratic breakthrough in 2006 would mark the beginning of the end of the Reagan era or whether Republicans could stand their ground [Lauck, 251].

Lauck's conclusion suggests that his synecdochification of the Daschle-Thune contest is more wish than historical assessment. Reagan never went out of style in South Dakota; South Dakota was Reagan before Reagan was Reagan. But Lauck's words suggest that South Dakota is not the whole country, and the dynamics that unseated Daschle and sent Thune back to Washington don't really conform to a nationwide political trend.

Perhaps I'm too hard on Lauck. Perhaps I'm wishing for a kind of book that Lauck didn't set out to write. ("If you're so smart, write your own dang book" might be a perfectly appropriate response from Jon.) But participatory political history, justified as it may be, should give us more insight into the who, the how, and the why of events the participant helped shaped. If Daschle vs. Thune really is participatory history, I want more, not less, of Lauck on the pages. Lauck shouldn't be afraid to turn that light inward on himself, on Thune and his fellow campaigners, to give us a richer history of what was indeed a historic campaign. Instead, Daschle vs. Thune remains focused on beating Daschle, over and over, and thus offers us little but a repeat of the 2004 playbook.

Sorry, Jon, can't vote AFF or NEG until I hear the other team's case. But speaker points? On a 30-point scale, I'll give you a 24. Participatory-history style not followed through on; 1960s-vs-1980s thesis weakened in the Epilogue; Thune and other characters not sufficiently developed. But high points for lots of evidence and sources; bonus for using
synecdoche. I look forward to the next round!

10 comments:

  1. CAH--This post was of Sibbian length. Short is good. Shorter is better. I'm just sayin'

    ReplyDelete
  2. 24 points!!!!?!?!?! I certainly hope you aren't that harsh with my little policy kids from Vermillion! pwt

    ReplyDelete
  3. But he mentioned my favorite History prof at SDSU, Todd, so I'm gonna cut Cory some slack!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Paul, sshhh... people outside our world don't know about speaker-point inflation! Your kids are safe... until they start running disaster-porn kritiks.

    Besides, Jon and I are old school. Speaker points never bugged us. Back in our day, we debated with stone knives and bearskins. And we had to walk to Speech Fiesta, uphill, both ways.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It seems to me your review does fact check Lauck's overall premise that Tom Daschle was brought down by the great sweep of history termed the "Reagan Revolution". Or, at least it states what a load that assertion is:

    "Lauck's conclusion suggests that his synecdochification of the Daschle-Thune contest is more wish than historical assessment. Reagan never went out of style in South Dakota; South Dakota was Reagan before Reagan was Reagan."

    Indeed, Daschle built much of his political carreer during the "Reagan Era" including winning his senate seat from a Republican incumbent while Reagan was still president. He was not "swept" out of office by a mass movement toward a political ideal. Rather, he was narrowly defeated after enduring a relentless onslaught of personal attacks perpetrated by the likes of Lauck and Bush henchman, Karl Rove. For Lauck to claim otherwise seems no more than a self-aggrandizing attempt to make his own slime-mongering role in Daschle's defeat something more lofty than the vitriolic character assassin he played.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Cory:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read the book seriously and for offering a sophisticated response to the book. An author could ask for no less. It's much preferable to the Newquist/Kos line of thought, i.e. "if he doesn't agree with me he must be a fascist." Yes, the book is heavy on evidence and footnotes. But remember, I was a policy debater with 8 briefcases of evidence and you were the more elegant and polished LD debater who understood style and passion better than us policy wonks with the 15-step nuclear war disads. Anyway, I take your point, but don't you find it a little annoying when authors just go about about themselves? It's too offer a distraction for me as a reader when I want to know the basic facts of a historical event. Finally, it was great to see a Martin Connor reference. Truly a great man, a lover of literature, a wonderful teacher, and a Fenian patriot that students at MHS were lucky to have. Thanks again Cory.

    Jon

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you, Jon, for taking honest criticism as intellectual discussion and not personal attack.

    Your heavy use of evidence is a point in your favor. The more endnotes and citations, the better! And your Preface shows you are perfectly capable of balancing policy-style citations with LD-style rhetoric to argue a point. (John Miller's successor in SDSU's History department should include that preface in the history methods class!)

    You're right: history and autobiography are different genres. Your book doesn't need an account of your career as a Bulldog debater or a description of the lucky stripey underpants you wore on election day. But as a participant, you have a unique perspective -- not just "I wanted Thune to win, so I'm going to recap why we were right," but "I helped form the Dakota Blog Alliance. I co-ordinated with Thune. Here are the discussions we had. Here's what didn't make the news or the blogs but played a key role in forming our decisions and shaping South Dakota and U.S. history." More of that perspective would give historians a richer picture of why 2004 turned out as it did.

    Martin Connor -- a fine scholar indeed! I wonder how he'd review your book?

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've read the book and the facts and research are rock solid. Not even a left-winger like you Corey can deny that. Your comments are about style and are based on you wanted more of Lauck discussed in the book. I think it's fine to focus on the main story. But I think it is very telling that NOBODY had disputed what Lauck said, not Kranz, not Newquist, not Clean Cut Kid...NOBODY

    ReplyDelete
  9. It's more than wanting more of Lauck, Ronnie. It's wanting more of the unique participatory perspective that the participant himself vigorously justifies but does not deliver. Even without any more personal details about the author himself, the text could have provided more insight for future historians as to how things actually happened, more about Thune's record and his decisions.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I just finished the book and thought it was really quite good. The way the liberals were attacking the book I thought it was sacreligious or something. It was very balanced, very factual, and just plain air (even though it didn't need to be against a congenital liar like Daschle).

    ReplyDelete

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