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Slate's Field Guide to the Candidates 2004
William Saletan and the staff of Slate.com
PB, 124 pg. US$8.99/C$13.50
ISBN: 0-4522-8499-6

Getting ready for 2004

By Steven Martinovich
web posted December 15, 2003

Slate's Field Guide to the Candidates 2004It seems like it was just yesterday that Americans defined by states colored either red or blue were engaged in the debate whether George W. Bush was selected or elected. In less than 12 months Americans will either confirm Bush as president or replace him, which either way ends that tiresome debate. Of course, casting that ballot next year in an informed manner depends on having the right information and not surprisingly the first of a tide of books all promising the right answers to the questions of Americans will be asking has arrived.

Slate's Field Guide to the Candidates 2004 is one of those resources that has leaped into the breach. Billing itself as "the resource for every American who hopes to be truly informed" about the candidates, Slate's effort touches upon each of Democratic hopefuls and President Bush. Key positions, flip-flops, buzzwords and personal history are explored in concise sketches that flesh out the nine (Ten actually -- Bob Graham is included as he exited the race after the book went to print) hoping to win in November.

The book's strength -- its accessibility -- is also its primary weakness. At a slim 124 pages, each candidate receives a brief treatment though arguably in an entertaining and reasonably fair manner. Each profile opens with basic information about the candidate (full name, age, religious affiliation, military experience, etc.), then continues on with the basics of their agenda and worldview, the buzzwords they typically employ and what they mean, their best and worst moments, policy flip-flops and embarrassing gaffes. Body language is also explored in an interesting manner before each section closes with an essay on the candidate.

It's all done with humor and education in mind but one shouldn't expect any grand examinations from the book. Major policy positions receive at best a single paragraph, which only serve to describe what the candidate believes and fail to offer any substantive analysis outside of occasional quips. Policy flip-flops and verbal gaffes are handled somewhat better with explanations placing them in context. The essays, which seem to be recycled from Slate's web site, offer little in the way of new information and also fail to deliver substantive statements about the candidates.

That said, Slate's Field Guide to the Candidates 2004 doesn't pretend to be encyclopedic and it does offer interesting tidbits about the candidates, such as what prominent Democrat received a medical deferment from serving in Vietnam and then went mogul skiing. As the book's back cover promises, you'll find out that four of the candidates are divorced and one of them threw someone else's medals at a protest against the Vietnam War. You might also be surprised how many of them went to law school, which may confirm your worst thoughts about who the political process tends to attract.

Slate's Field Guide to the Candidates 2004 isn't a replacement for carefully weighing the platforms of the various candidates, nor should you turn off your TV and rely on the book as it suggests. As a quick guide, however, it does a decent job of introducing the candidates to people who haven't been obsessing about the 2004 election since the day after Bush's inauguration. Doubtless in coming months more substantive analysis of each candidate will appear but until then Slate's Field Guide to the Candidates 2004 will at least allow the reader to become more familiar with the people they will be increasingly seeing on their evening newscasts.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Buy Slate's Field Guide to the Candidates 2004 at Amazon.com for only $8.99

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