Wit and wisdom of presidential race

Any Barack Obama supporter looking to reminisce about the entire 2008 presidential campaign should read
Calvin Trillin’s book, Deciding the Next Decider.

In his typical fashion, Trillin, The Nation’s “deadline poet” and New Yorker essayist, recounts the election cycle in verse, with wit and without any apologies for his liberalism. For a 116-page collection of poems, the book also feels surprisingly comprehensive and full of spot-on analysis.

The crux of the book is a narrative that begins before the barnstorming in Iowa and ends on election night with Obama’s victory. Early on, Trillin’s rhymes are able to make any political junkie smile. He finds ways to use names of also-rans: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) (rhymes with “spinach”), former Sen. Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) (with “mam’selle”) and even ex-New York Gov. George Pataki (R) (with “Rocky”).

But it’s his trenchant take on the candidates and their campaigns that carries the book.

Here’s Trillin on Bill Clinton’s effect on his wife’s bid: “Hillary dillary dock/Hil ran into Barack/So Bill got shrill/Defending Hil/Hillary, dillary dock.”

In that 16-word, ear-pleasing passage, Trillin sums up one of the major dynamics of the Democratic nomination fight.

Later, he compares Obama to 1984 insurgent candidate Gary Hart and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to more seasoned favorite Walter Mondale. The analogy serves both as candy for political junkies and fodder for cheeky turns of phrase. Trillin writes: “Obama’s rhetoric, she said, was lofty/But unsubstantial air, like Mister Softee/Unanchored to the details it omits/Precisely what was said of Hart by Fritz.”

Trillin’s poetry, particularly his take on the primaries, serves as a great reminder of more fun times past. The early part of the campaign, when Obamamania exploded and when both sides had a plethora of candidates, seemed less fraught than today, when the nation is stuck in a deep recession.

To be sure, the book isn’t for most diehard Republicans. In one short poem about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), Trillin depicts Palin responding to four media questions about different topics with the same phrase she used to skewer earmarks: “Thanks, but no thanks.” Trillin isn’t as tough on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom he depicts as a good man torn between winning and keeping his honor. While Trillin praises McCain for tamping down on rowdiness in Republican crowds, he notes that Palin did nothing of the sort. “Her rallies fed red meat without remission/Their underpinning was a definition:/Americans are small-town folks and such./The people in big cities? Not so much.”

More anodyne verse can’t be expected from Trillin, who has been writing poetry about current events for The Nation, that proudly liberal journal, since 1990. Earlier this week in The New York Times, another 70-something New Yorker, Dick Cavett, wrote that “great humorists are great insulters.” His point was that the best way to take someone down a peg is to do it deftly, with a smile. In this book, Trillin again shows that he’s nothing if not a great humorist, especially when it comes to Republicans.