Why Robert Scheer's New Book, Playing President, is Sheer Delight: A Seasoned Journalist Shares His Take on Six Presidents And Presidential Campaigns

By JOHN W. DEAN
Friday, Jul. 28, 2006

When a friend sends you a new book - even when it is his seventh - it is always a difficult situation. What if you don't like it?

As I flipped through the pages of Robert Scheer's latest, Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan and Clinton - and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush, I feared I would be in just that situation.

I immediately realized that Playing President was largely a cut-and-paste work, a repackaging of Scheer's earlier articles and interviews. It was a paperback original - never a good sign -- and it had been published by a small publishing house, Akashic Books, along with the imprint of the new website Scheer is now editing and guiding, truthdig.com. All of this was off-putting.

Add to these negatives what I believe to be a near-fatal flaw in any non-fiction work. The book had no index. Today, authors must themselves pay to have an index prepared, and authors who have few expectations about the potential sales of their work are seldom willing to come up with the $500 (roughly, unless one does it on his or her own) necessary. Non-fiction books without an index are user-hostile; you cannot get back into them without a lot of digging (and wasting time) when looking for something you recall reading.

But Bob Scheer is a friend, and he was interested in my reaction to his book. And he is certainly no slouch - quite the contrary. He is an award-winning journalist and nationally-syndicated columnist who has been reporting on presidential politics for three decades for Ramparts, the Los Angeles Times, Playboy, the Nation and the San Francisco Chronicle. Some six years ago, I started speaking at the popular class he teaches as a clinical professor of communications at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, where he is giving future generations of journalist and media executives real world insights into the communications business.

So, I figured, I would give the book a look-see while traveling this summer. I am delighted that I did -- for I had misjudged the material, and I certainly had not expected to find a book worth recommending to others who are interested in how the system really works. I read a couple of books a week, and this is the best summer read I have found. Allow me to share a few insights and nuggets that Scheer offers -- but only a sampling. This is a treat to be enjoyed in full, not merely nibbled at.

Scheer's View of Modern Presidential Campaigns and Presidencies

For "politicians with presidential aspirations," Scheer begins, "the experience of running for one office after another until they obtain the final prize informs as well as deforms their conduct." In our system, "the presidential candidate's performance is a solo act . . . and a largely untutored electorate … is his jury and his audience." (Unlike parliamentary system where the leader emerges from among professional peers.)

Scheer is not directly calling for a change in the system, but rather describing its impact. Still, readers may have their own thoughts about change once they've digested his work.

Based on witnessing election after election up close and personally, Scheer believes that the process "is intellectually dishonest and inevitably deleterious to the best interest of the voters." Why? Because it results in the "numbing effect of a modern mass media-observed campaign that requires such an incredible high-wire act - balancing fundraising with integrity, superficial sloganeering with profound commitment, and homogenizing the entire unwieldy package into a marketable commodity - that in the end, the candidate is transformed into a caricature who has difficulty remembering from whence he came."

If anyone has more succinctly stated and summarized the folly we call presidential campaigns, I am not aware of it -- and I read widely about the subject.

Scheer's Presidents

In Scheer's report on his personal interviews with Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, he corroborates his conclusion, over and over.

In many ways Scheer appears to go to extra effort to be fair to Republican presidents, with whom he philosophically disagrees. For example, with Nixon, whom he interviewed during his post-presidential years, in 1984, Scheer explains how only twelve years after Nixon resigned from office in disgrace, historians were "trying out a Nixon revisionism in the classrooms" - a revisionism that has been recently accelerated because of the extremism of the Bush/Cheney presidency. Scheer perceptively notes Nixon's image-consciousness, which has today become the norm. And he leaves no doubt that it was Nixon, not Henry Kissinger, who was responsible for Nixon's China initiative

Scheer clearly liked Ronald Reagan as a person, but like all those before and after him, Scheer is not able to divine the "real Reagan." He first interviewed Reagan when Reagan became governor of California -- after the former actor defeated one of California's truly great governors, Edmund "Pat" Brown. With respect to Reagan's presidential run against President Jimmy Carter, Scheer shares interesting stories I had not heard before -- stories about how Reagan's campaign handlers tried to hide the dysfunctional Reagan family from the press. Scheer himself, however, got access - and offers magnificent anecdotes about Reagan's children, whom he understandably found more interesting than the candidate.

Of the Republicans with whom Scheer has had personal contact, he appears least impressed with George H. W. Bush. He finds Bush I highly competent, but something less than a fun guy: "a thin-skinned over-protected politician who, despite his occupancy of a Texas seat in the U.S. Congress from 1966-70, had never been forced to mix it up very much." Scheer, fortunately, likes to mix it up -- and he shows, as well as I have seen done, precisely why Bush I, was, in fact, a wimp.

The presidents Scheer comes down hardest on are those of his own political persuasion: Carter and Clinton. Take Clinton first. His sexual peccadilloes are not of interest to Scheer, but his policies surely are -- for Scheer believes policy was what really drove Clinton's libido.

In the end, generally speaking, character and policy interest Scheer more than electoral process and politics. He's impressed with Clinton's knowledge and intelligence - even defeated by it: Scheer is no intellectual slouch, yet after days of boning up on Arkansas issues, he notes, "it was all too easy for Clinton to snow me [in an interview] with a blizzard of details that I could not challenge."

Scheer, actually, is harder on himself than he is on Clinton - blaming himself for failing to really get much insight into the then-Arkansas governor's strengths and weakness in running the state. (Such candor is rarely found in national reporters, and such deficiencies are seldom recognized by local reporters, so this admission is truly a rare and laudable one. Every journalist has an Achilles heel, but Scheer readily exposes his own.)

Jimmy Carter's Lusting

I am, of course, merely gliding over the surface because the book contains one anecdote after another that I delighted in learning. But let me share one of Scheer's true journalistic coups: It was Robert Scheer who broke the story that almost cost Carter the Presidential election - and shattered the image of his "too-good-to-be-true" purity.

In general, I found Carter-the-candidate, as depicted by Sheer, insightful and remarkably perceptive. For example, Carter told Scheer (well into his campaigning) that "the national news media have absolutely no interest in issues at all . . . the traveling press have zero interest in any issue unless it's a matter of making a mistake. What they're looking for is a forty-seven-second argument between me and another candidate or something like that." But in the end, Carter's intellect was hardly the main facet of him that Scheer's journalism revealed.

Scheer enjoyed the company - both on the campaign trail, and down in Plains, Georgia -- of Carter's top staffers: Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, and the other young men. (They drank, did some drugs, and chased skirts - behavior that the "family values" Carter simply chose to ignore, even when his staff showed up in an elevator in a hotel, when Jimmy and Roslyn were going to their rooms, with women not their wives, and headed for rooms not on their floor.)

Scheer tracked Carter all over the country, interviewing him a bit at a time for months on end. It is doubtful any other reporter got access to candidate Carter that equaled Scheer's. Carter, and his aides, gave Playboy access because they wanted to show he was not a prude, and that this born-again Christian evangelical would not impose Puritanism on the nation. They wanted to show, instead, that Carter was a regular guy - one who just happened to want to run the country as president.

There has long been debate about what exactly happened during the interview that was read around the world. Scheer -- who had been joined by Playboy interview editor Barry Golson -- traveled to Plains, Georgia to conduct the final session. At the end of the last visit, when Carter would later claim he believed the recorder had been turned off, the candidate began waxing long about his religious beliefs. (In fact, the recorder was on, and the transcript reflected that Scheer and Golson conspicuously said so.)

The words that would almost sink Carter's campaign came toward the very end. He was explaining that he tries not to commit sins. Yet he acknowledged, "I'm going to do it anyhow, because I'm human and I'm tempted. And Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. Christ said, 'I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust in his heart already committed adultery.'"

Carter paused, and continued. "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I committed adultery in my heart many times."

Cater does not deny saying this, but denies only that he knew it was being recorded. It, of course, gave Playboy the biggest scoop of the 1976 presidential campaign, when it was published in the campaign's final months.

This is a typical example of Scheer's perseverance as a reporter. I hope he indexes the next edition of this book of treasures, so it will get the widest use by researchers. Meanwhile, it is a great summer read - one I heartily recommend.


John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.