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Review: 'Fire-Breathing Liberal' pulls no punches

Another name for U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler's autobiography could have been The Happy Warrior.

In his new book, Fire-Breathing Liberal, the Democrat from Boca Raton takes readers on a rollicking tour of politics in Florida, at the White House and in the U.S. Capitol — all from the view of the left, of course.

After six years in the Florida Senate and 12 representing parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties in the U.S. House, the self-professed loudmouth from New York has plenty of stories to tell and, heck, since it's his book, he might as well tell them all.

The book is part autobiography, part civics lesson and part excoriation of the Republican stewardship of Congress before the Democratic takeover last year. It's an ambitious mix, but it works, thanks to Wexler's conversational style, his varied experience and his penchant for landing in the middle of major news: the impeachment of President Clinton, who used to call at midnight to chat as Wexler hunkered down in the closet, trying not to bother his sleeping family; Florida's botched presidential election and recount in 2000; and his decision, unlike his fellow South Florida Democrats', to back Barack Obama for the party's presidential nomination over Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Liberals will love this book. They'll get a kick out of Wexler's pugilistic style — something that he claims, rightly, the Democrats have been missing — and the way he pokes at the conservative Republicans who used to rule the House with an iron fist.

"In order to truly understand the damage that George W. Bush and his neocon cohorts have done to our government, it's necessary to know how the process really works," Wexler writes at the beginning of Chapter 6, "House Rules: How a Bill (Rarely) Becomes a Law."

That sums up the tone. But even Republicans, if they can struggle through the potshots, can find value in Wexler's deft behind-the-scenes portrayal of how Congress really works. In this exercise, at least, he is an equal-opportunity critic, explaining how Democrats and Republicans alike use positions on certain committees to raise money, or force votes to embarrass political enemies or cover friends.

Political autobiographies (insert yawn here) are frequently bloated, lofty tomes designed mainly to lay the groundwork for a run at higher office. If that was Wexler's goal, he needs to find himself a new ghostwriter.

Although he portrays himself as a hard-working family man with the nation's best interests at heart, he is refreshingly self-deprecating and apparently unconcerned about how future opponents may use the book.

He cops to being a loudmouth. He cops to going negative, recounting how he used an unflattering photo of a then-friend and competitor in the Democratic primary during his first run for Congress.

He cops to promising President Clinton, after several high-pressure visits to the White House, that he'd vote for a trade bill that unions in his district widely opposed — in return for a high-profile, if superficial, role in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that might mitigate the political damage from backing the trade bill. (The bill never came up, so Wexler didn't have to hold to his pledge. But Clinton still sent him to negotiations in Europe with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.)

And he is unabashedly clear about the pivotal role that money and machines play in politics. A successful politician may need idealism and good ideas, but Wexler explains that winning often comes down to a guy named Trinchi.

That's Amadeo "Trinchi" Trinchitella, the late boss of the Democratic machine at Century Village (home to thousands of Democrats) in Deerfield Beach. As soon as the man who held the House seat before Wexler, Harry Johnston, announced his retirement, "My first phone call was to my wife, my second call was to" Trinchi.

As much as he tweaks Republicans, Wexler isn't above giving fellow Democrats a shove or two. Since taking over the House, the Democrats have governed mainly through moderation, keeping liberals like Wexler in check while nurturing an approach designed to govern from the center.

Wexler apparently thinks that's a bad strategy. "If Republicans govern from the right and Democrats govern from the middle, when does the left get to govern? As a progressive, I fear my party has become more docile in the majority than we were in the minority."

Coming from a sitting member, the book is shockingly candid. Then again, if anyone could be candid, it's Wexler — he represents a safe House seat where Bush received less than 40 percent of the vote in 2004.

If the book has one flaw, it's that in hammering home his points, he keeps hammering well after he has driven the nail home. We get it. The Republicans used their rule of Congress and the White House to marginalize Democrats and get what they wanted.

Just as the Democrats would like to do after the 2008 presidential election.

Wes Allison is a national reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.

Fire-Breathing Liberal:

How I Learned to Survive (and Thrive)

in the Contact Sport of Congress

By U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler,

with David Fisher

Thomas Dunne Books, 247 pages, $25.95

Review: 'Fire-Breathing Liberal' pulls no punches 07/19/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 19, 2008 4:30am]

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