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Originally published Friday, December 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

An insider takes the Democrats to task

"Heroes, Hacks, and Fools: Memoirs from the Political Inside" by Ted Van Dyk University of Washington Press, 306 pp., $24.95 "Heroes, Hacks, and Fools"...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Heroes, Hacks, and Fools: Memoirs from the

Political Inside"

by Ted Van Dyk

University of Washington Press, 306 pp., $24.95

"Heroes, Hacks, and Fools" is about Democrats. It is a well-written and detailed autobiography of a man from Bellingham who became an adviser to Democratic candidates from the 1960s to the 1990s. It is partisan but professional, frank but not nasty.

Readers who remember Ted Van Dyk as a sometimes-conservative voice on the editorial page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer might be surprised at his identification as a "visceral Democrat." Van Dyk campaigned for John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Ted Kennedy and Paul Tsongas — Democrats all.

In 1996, Van Dyk broke ranks with the Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and endorsed Bob Dole. But that was about Clinton, whom Van Dyk saw as reckless and self-absorbed.

To Van Dyk there are politicians with big things to do and politicians who want to be in charge. Hubert Humphrey had things to do. So did Ronald Reagan. But in 1976, Van Dyk says, Jimmy Carter was about himself. He offered "a campaign without a core" and put together an administration "run and staffed by people the president did not know and who did not know him." In 1992, the narcissistic Bill Clinton fooled the media into declaring him a policy wonk when actually, Van Dyk says, "he often made it up as he went along."

"Democrats today revere a President Clinton who never was," he says.

The best inside stuff comes earlier in the book, when Van Dyk was speechwriter and scheduler for Vice President Hubert Humphrey. I recall Humphrey as a wishy-washy apologist for President Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam. Van Dyk says Humphrey opposed the war but could never say so bluntly. In 1968, Humphrey announced for president — and remained under Johnson's thumb. Van Dyk recalls writing Humphrey's major speech on the war and having to take out his proposal for a bombing halt because it would undermine Johnson's negotiators in Paris.

Still, the speech was enough of a departure from Johnson's position to revive Humphrey's campaign — but not enough to win.

Three years later, with the war still raging, Humphrey told Van Dyk, "I should have stuck with Johnson." It was a stunning statement. Van Dyk expresses his disappointment with Humphrey but is too kind to his old boss.

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In 1972, Van Dyk was part of the ill-fated McGovern campaign, in which the candidate was hammered for suggesting a $1,000 tax credit for every American. The Nixon people painted McGovern as a socialist; Van Dyk says McGovern had no ideas about economics. McGovern cared about ending the war. It was almost the only thing, and it was not enough.

"Heroes, Hacks, and Fools" is a book written by a man in his 70s and is a book of mature judgments. For example:

• "We should beware future presidential candidates billing their inexperience as their principal virtue." Good candidates come with experience and have "spent many years of their lives thinking about" why and how they want to run. Still, he is for Barack Obama; he has had his fill of the Clintons.

• It is a mistake to give the vice president specific authority because then he can no longer face the president as "the only person in government with no bureaucratic or turf axe to grind." He does not mention Dick Cheney, but he might have.

• It is wrong for Democrats to launch populist attacks on foreign trade and the insurance and drug companies. Van Dyk wants a party that offers government programs to help people without opposing the essential qualities of capitalism.

Particularly in Seattle, where he lives, Van Dyk now finds himself on the right of his party. It changed, but maybe he did, too. His story, particularly of the Humphrey-McGovern years, is one of the best accounts of that era in a long time.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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