From my aunt’s paperback collection, comes 1988!
1988 is a novel about the 1988 Presidential election. It was published in 1986 so, when it first came out, it was meant to be a look at a possible future. But read today, it’s more like a work of alternate history. What if, the book asks, the 1988 election had been disrupted by a third party candidate?
That candidate is Stephen Wendell, who is the governor of Texas. You can tell that this book was written a long time ago because Wendell is described as being a Democratic governor of Texas. There hasn’t been a Democrat elected statewide in Texas for a while and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. (Sorry, Beto, but it’s true.) Wendell is also a conservative Democrat, which is yet another reminder that we’re dealing with an old book. With neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate exciting the country, Wendell sees an opening for his populist, anti-immigration message.
Jerry Bloom is a former 60s radical who now works as a campaign consultant. At first, he resists Wendell’s attempts to hire him but Bloom finally gives in. Some of it is because Wendell seems to be more reasonable than Bloom originally assumed. A lot of it is because Bloom wants the challenge. As a result of Bloom’s hard-hitting and frequently viscous commercials, Wendell starts to rise up in the polls.
Bloom’s conscience is bothered, however. He used to believe in stuff but now he finds himself as just a political mercenary, turning the country against itself. Plus, Bloom comes across evidence that there’s a secret conspiracy behind Wendell’s campaign, one that could put the future of the Republic at stake!
1988 is an okay political thriller. The plot isn’t particularly surprising and you’ll figure out what’s going on long before Bloom does but, for the most part, it’s a well-written book and Jerry Bloom is an interesting character. I do think that the book overestimates that power of Bloom’s commercials. For the most part, they sound like the type of stuff that The Lincoln Project posted throughout 2020, commercials that would speak to the already converted while turning off the undecided voters. Bloom’s commercials sound like they would be popular with Wendell’s base but they don’t sound like the sort of thing that would make him a potential president.
The book also makes the mistake of including a character named Harrison Chase, who I guess is supposed to be some sort of Edward R. Murrow type. He gives commentaries on the evening news and 1988 devotes page after page to Harrison Chase bitching about the election. Most of the commentaries come across as being pompous and self-important, which might be the most realistic part of the book. But it still doesn’t make them particularly interesting to read. They slow down the action and they also contribute to the book ending on an annoying ambiguous note.
Political junkies will enjoy counting up all of the real-life politicians who are mentioned in the book. (Joe Biden gets a shout-out because he’s been around forever.) Some may also find it interesting that one of the book’s co-authors was governor of Colorado at the time that he wrote the book. One has to wonder how much of that experience contributed to the book’s portrait of the electorate as being easily led and intellectually vapid.
1988 is okay. It goes a little heavy on the “political consultants are bad” angle. It’s not a bad message but it’s hardly a revolutionary. Still, it’s always interesting to read older political books and see how much things have changed and also how much they’ve remained the same.