A Loyal Soldier’s Campaign Journal
November’s Gladiators , by Terry Baxter; Langdon Street Press, 274 pages, $27.95
The vast piles of books generated by political campaigns tend to be about the decisions of strategy and tactics that led to victory. All those books are one of the many reasons to stay clear of reporting on politics. Having read a few of them, the idea of picking up another makes my eyes roll back in my head.
So Lyme resident Terry Baxter’s book November’s Gladiators raised more than a little skepticism. It bears the unpromising subtitle, Inside Stories of White House Advancemen, the Road Warriors of Presidential Campaigns. But as a memoir of political activity, Baxter’s account is less a story of intrigue than a time capsule, filled up with odd bits from days that seem impossibly distant, when men were cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking men, and women were lasses. It’s the account not of an operative but of a loyal foot soldier whose beliefs are so ingrained that they need never be stated outright. As such, November’s Gladiators is a book likely to be relished only by hard core political junkies, and Republican ones at that. It’s an inside account of people who are on the outside of the campaign.
Baxter was an advanceman — a campaign worker who set up events either on the trail, or for a sitting president or vice president — for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The advancemen, and they were mostly men, took care of setting up the site, bringing in the crowds, cueing the music and arranging the seating, among many other details of a presidential or candidate visit. In a couple of days, a small team of people working with local party volunteers would whip up a Potemkin village of campaign fervor, the vessel that would contain and amplify the enthusiasm surrounding the revered leader for a day or an hour, then move onto to another city to do it all again.
“In forty years of business and government experience, I have never met a more able group,” Baxter writes in the book’s prologue about his fellow advancemen.
At the same time, Baxter fell in with Jack Byrne, the legendary insurance executive, at GEICO, where Baxter got a job in 1972 after spending five years racing cars. In 1976, Baxter was director of communications at the foundering insurance giant; Byrne had been hired to rescue it. About this time, Baxter talked to a connection in the White House and found himself volunteering for the team that shepherded the celebration of the nation’s bicentennial.
From there, Baxter rose through the ranks until he was part of a team arranging events for President Reagan. He alternated his advance work with his job at GEICO.
Any reader looking for insight into what made Reagan so magnetic for Baxter and his colleagues will be disappointed. Baxter describes his feelings about the 1980 GOP primary like this: “I watched the emergence of Ronald Reagan as a candidate for the Republican nomination with pleasure and excitement.” Why Baxter connected with the Gipper we never learn. Once Reagan won the nomination, Baxter did a little work for the campaign. “To my delight,” he writes, “Reagan won in a landslide. I could return to GEICO with the glow of being part of the winning side, however small my role had been.”
Baxter then went on to help organize a key event at Reagan’s inauguration, a role he reprised at subsequent inaugurations.
Baxter’s book is not without its charms. When he does reflect on his career, he seems genuinely humbled by his good fortune. Although his background isn’t spelled out, one suspects that Baxter was fortunate from early on: Five years racing cars after graduating from the University of Maryland is hardly the occupation of someone who started life far below the top rungs of the socio-economic ladder.
Since winning is what the book is about, it’s only right that some of the stories Baxter tells have a winning way about them. His account of punching a Connecticut GOP operative in the face is amusing, for example. (The hot-headed wrangler of a congressional candidate had the nerve to refer to Reagan as “the damned president,” an offense that moved Baxter to pour a couple of cold beers in the guy’s lap.)
But too often, the book is devoid of the tension that generally characterizes good writing about politics. Baxter moves his narrative along, but is a master of neither metaphor nor description. The main conflict in his stories tends to be between whether an event will come off well or turn into a fiasco. It can be hard to care about something so trivial, even if it were written better.
Baxter, who followed Jack Byrne to the Upper Valley 20 years ago to unwind a fund that would become White Mountains Insurance Group, writes with a gee-whiz earnestness that at times is grating, but that never comes off as a mask. He is a true believer, and there isn’t a cynical word in the book, which is part of its odd, throwback charm. In the hands of a wry wit, these stories might be intolerable, unless that wit was Hunter S. Thompson. But that would be a different book entirely.
Ultimately, Baxter isn’t writing to explain himself, just to share his account with people who might appreciate it. He’s had a lucky life and a lucky few will read of it with satisfaction.
Alex Hanson can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3207.