Spin versus Spin Strange Bedfellows Offer an Inside View

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ALL'S FAIR Love, War And Running For President By Mary Matalin & James Carville with Peter Knobler 493 pages, Random House/Simon & Schuster, $24

THE OSTENSIBLE PREMISE of this book is to share behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns of 1992, while at the same time giving inquiring minds their fill of gossip regarding the authors' unlikely romance.

James Carville, chief strategist for Bill Clinton's successful run, and Mary Matalin, political director for George Bush's losing effort, somehow managed to sustain an intimate relationship under highly contentious circumstances. The two were married Nov. 25, 1993.

Fortunately for readers, both writers are so utterly enamored with the political process that they devote most of the text to chronicling their respective campaigns. In alternating voices, the duo fills page after page with extensive passages that contain little more than passing reference to their courtship. Curious observers expecting a kiss-and-tell memoir would be better off looking elsewhere.

Carville is still on the Democratic payroll as a highly compensated consultant, and Matalin works as a political commentator for NBC and CNBC. They may be clever campaigners, but both register rather low on the charisma scale. This mutual deficiency seems especially ironic when viewed in a campaign context, a setting in which a candidate's perceived charm may count more with voters than the substance of his or her platform.

Carville, perhaps sensing his inadequacy in this area, colors his conversation with forced folksiness. This tendency manifests itself most often in double negatives, as in "I just can't think about it no more, man."

Still, Carville is able to produce timely thumbnail sketches with cutting clarity. Consider these gems inspired by Ross Perot's quixotic candidacy: "As far as being a man of substance, he wasn't that much of a man." And, "Perot is very astute politically, but he has a coordination problem: He can't talk and tell the truth at the same time."

Matalin comes off as a quick thinker with a knack for formulating caustic phrases. Thus the Democrats become "pandering purveyors of empty emotionalism," and their leading candidate a "silver-tongued straddle pander."

The buzz words both authors spout with regularity amount to a rudimentary primer in spin doctoring. Phrases such as "off message," "talking points," and "stepping on your story" appear as regularly as some of the real-life figures in "All's Fair."

For Matalin, George Bush's defeat can be blamed on a number of factors, foremost of which was a schism between the White House staff and campaign operatives such as herself. This split was exacerbated by then-chief of staff John Sununu, who, says Matalin, "had the political acumen of a doorknob."

After the GOP convention, Matalin writes, the Republican moderate majority failed to contain damage caused by Pat Buchanan and his fellow "proponents of jihad rhetoric. …