Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Book Review: The War Room by Warren Kinsella

If you are like me and think that, in spite of his irritating flaws, Warren Kinsella is one of the most engaging writers about practical politics in Canada today, you are probably already rushing out to buy a copy of The War Room, the latest installment in Kinsella’s “Kicking Ass” themed books for Canadian political junkies.

The term “War Room” was coined by a team of U.S. strategists; specifically James Carville, who worked on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in the early 1990s. It describes a political command centre where a candidate’s strategists and media consultants work to counter attacks by opponents and gather research to manage their offensive in 'real time' fashion.

In this latest book, Kinsella revisits the territory of his 2001 book, Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics. And what great territory it is – an over-the-top, direct, take-no-prisoners approach to winning in politics. It should be a hit. As Kinsella notes at the start of this book, the big problem Kicking Ass ran into was that it was released on September 11, 2001. The events of that day eclipsed what would otherwise have been a much more high-profile and successful release. Despite that, Kicking Ass lived up to its name in the opinion of Canadian political junkies. Now, with his new book, Kinsella is still kicking, reaching out to a much broader audience, not just political junkies but also people in NGOs and business.

But it's not for the Emily Posts among us. The War Room is vulgar, nasty, sometimes petty, always direct, most often quite astute and never for the faint of heart. In other words, it's classic Kinsella. Whether it's the original Kicking Ass, or Fury's Hour, his 2005 look at the punk rock phenomenon, or this new broader-based kick, Kinsella's style is to pretty much put his head down and run right, straight at the thing. To me, that is a recipe for a great read and I recommend this, especially for political professionals. There is even an element of gleeful exhibitionism in how willing Kinsella is to share details which he knows so well. So much the better for the reader.

At this stage in his career, Kinsella has been in the thick of a number of key political fights, most recently as a key strategist in Dalton McGuinty's successful bid for re-election. Consequently, his personal experience is worth writing about and worth reading. For political practitioners, Chapter Three: Get your message out for free! is certainly worth the read. In it, he walks us through not just the basics, but advanced techniques in how to effectively put out your message through earned media coverage. Sure, you can find this sort of content in higher profile, glitzier American writers. But Kinsella writes in a Canadian context, from a Canadian perspective, and with a style that resonates with the Canadian mind set.

The book flows from Kinsella's own extensive experience at implementing political strategy in the heat of combat. At one point he describes an event during the Ontario provincial election campaign of 2003, when it took his War Room team roughly 45 minutes to conceive, write and finalize a relevant press release and get it into the hands of reporters. (Apparently, the War Room was running behind that day, because they were well past their targeted 30 minute target. Still – 45 minutes flat!)

If The War Room suffers at all, it's from trying to be too many different things at the same time. It strives to be a practical how-to manual as well as a personal memoir, and that can get a book bogged down – as this one did in its chapter on the Gomery inquiry, an event for which Kinsella did not set up a War Room and therefore an event for which I could find no relevance in this book, except perhaps for the purpose of evening scores with his fight with Prime Minister Paul Martin people and Commissioner Gomery himself.

There was another disappointment, too. Kinsella writes one of the most successful blogs in Canadian politics, and because of his prominence as a blogger, I expected great things from his chapter on modern Internet techniques. They didn't quite materialize. Kinsella does talk about the new media, the Internet, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, podcasting, citizen media; all these Internet-based techniques. But for someone who has used blogging so successfully and with such fire, he is surprisingly without insight or introspection on the subject.

At the end of the day, Kinsella comes across somehow like that younger brother who is simultaneously irritating, brilliant and disturbingly articulate. His unwillingness to let past grudges go seems out of place for someone who has been so successful. But it's there, and anybody who has ever disagreed with Kinsella is bound to get a good shellacking somewhere in the book.

Still, I can’t name another Canadian political practitioner of these times who has shared so much good advice in print and in such an entertaining way. And I can't help but think that this country's political asses haven't felt the last of his boot.