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PUNDIT PAINTS BIG PICTURE OF CAMPAIGN FROM THE FRINGES

Looking Forward to It

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process

By Stephen Elliott

Picador, 303 pages, $14 paper

Over the last year, Americans have been paying more attention to national politics than at any time in recent history. Their information comes from cable and network news channels, magazines and newspapers, all of which have presented a somewhat standardized image of the campaigns. We've heard all about John Kerry's talking points, the final screech of Howard Dean, the hopelessness of Dennis Kucinich. But it's doubtful that we know, really, what any of it signifies.

Stephen Elliott doesn't know either, but that has not stopped him from trying. It also hasn't stopped him from writing one of the most essential pieces of political journalism in the last decade. And since this election is arguably the most important in recent American history, it is vital to an informed political discourse.

Leave Jon Stewart and company's "America" for after the election. This is a wry, no-nonsense Cliff's Notes for the 2004 political season, and well worth the time.

Just as Hunter S. Thomson journeyed into the vortex of the American dream in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Elliott journeys into the fluttering heart of American politics in "Looking Forward to It." But Elliott never stays long in one place. To do so would be to deny the transient, intangible, ephemeral, ungrounded, free-flying nature of the political landscape, and Elliott doesn't miss an opportunity (or adjective) to point that out. He shows us how the body of American politics works, what it's capable of, what it might mean. He comes closer than anyone else has to peeling back the curtain of mainstream media to reveal the inner workings and rehearsals for the grand political play that is the 2004 election cycle.

This book is no way straight political analysis, but it is better informed than many stories in highly respected media outlets. That's because it's informed from the periphery of the political machine as much as from its heart. Elliott spent a year on the campaign trail to produce it, hobnobbing, hitchhiking or otherwise transporting to all the campaigns at not the most conventional times. That's how he avoids the traps laid for the media by the candidate's media "people." He is of the media but not "in" the media. He is on the outside, physically, of the circle of New York Times, Newsweek and even local reporters. But Elliott's quasi-media status translates, beautifully, into an essential perspective about what the candidates and their campaigns have been trying (or failing) to accomplish.

His style is simple and his logic stunning:

If we are morally deficient, and we are, and if all people are created equal, which is probably true, then all people are morally deficient.

With this and other basic statements, Elliott forms the basis of the political scene he has set out to describe. Every few pages there is a lucid paragraph proclaiming, in some way, what politics is.

Politics is everything, we discover, but the way we are led to that conclusion is complex and satisfying.

Elliott uses a great deal of humor to make his points ring true. For instance, a section heading early in the book reads, "What about health care?; Oops, I Broke a Sodomy Law; Seriously, Health Care."

Here, Elliott elucidates the absurdity of the Republicans' use of gay marriage as a wedge issue while breaking down each candidate's position on health care with uncanny simplicity. We get the idea, as Elliott desperately wants us to, that the health-care debate is more important than the gay marriage debate, but that few are paying attention to it.

The book is littered with sardonic nuggets of truth -- frustrating, brilliant conclusions that evoke the image of the author rolling his eyes, shaking his fist at the screwed up state of the political world.

The insecurity of Elliott's writing comes through in every page, which endears him to the reader. But there's nothing insecure about his brief conclusions, which read like poetry and resonate with truth. They're small, but have an amazing impact:

The Republican Party has shifted to the right since 2000 and the left has moved with them, crumbling on the edges and falling into the sea.

Liberals don't even want to begin to start thinking that something to the right of George Bush exists, but it does.

Part of being political, really political, is being wrong a lot of the time. You have to put yourself out there, take a stand on unlikely issues, and fervently believe things that are almost certainly untrue.

When something is true it doesn't matter if it makes sense.

But despite his knowledge that politics is the great unknown, despite getting the cold shoulder from the Dean campaign for no discernible reason, Elliott takes every disappointment as an opportunity to show us what politics really is -- though he'll admit readily that no one really knows, least of all himself.

After this book, Elliott shouldn't have to lie about his press affiliations ever again. He now stands on his own as a powerful force of political journalism.

Colin Dabkowski is a frequent News reviewer.