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BOOK REVIEW

Political pioneer Brazile sheds convention in a spicy memoir

Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics, By Donna Brazile, Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $23

When Donna Brazile recalls how criticism from a black Republican friend made her yearn to "slap the very black off his ass," you sense this is not your conventional political book. Indeed, from Ulysses S. Grant to Bill Clinton, I don't know of another memoirist who concluded a tome with a four-page recipe for a mother's seafood gumbo.

When Al Gore named her to manage his White House bid in 2000, Brazile became the first African-American to run a major presidential campaign, and ultimately a participant in one of the most disputed presidential elections in the nation's history.

Yet with all the food metaphors seasoning the prose, you might be forgiven for thinking you'd picked up chef Paul Prudhomme's memoir. Shedding convention is the book's strength. By turns confessional, polemical, and spiritual, "Cooking With Grease" conveys everything about Brazile, gumbo to gumption, in her unmistakable voice.

Hers is a politics of the heart, not the head, a faith-based initiative born of her impoverished, Roman Catholic, big-family upbringing in the sweatbox of segregation-era Louisiana.

The 2000 race -- the dramatic climax and heartbreaking disappointment of both her book and her career -- left Brazile traumatized, not just because her side lost, but because she's convinced it really didn't lose.

"Republicans stole the election," by intimidating blacks into not voting, she says, though she doesn't spend a lot of time documenting that. She sees Gore's loss as the defeat of people whose cares fueled her activism: "The people who lived on a minimum wage would lose. The people living in poverty would lose. They were my people. This was my journey and my mission to help the poor." Helping them did not involve expending gray matter on weighing complex, alternative solutions. "Sometimes I did not want to grow up and learn the minutiae of public policy," she says. On occasion, this reluctance crimps her credibility.

There's a fleeting admission that Gore "was prone to making mistakes," but nothing about his deliberately misleading attacks on Bill Bradley during the Democratic primaries.

Still, Brazile's big heart and usually blunt talk make up for the absence of policy sophistication. Dismissed by Michael S. Dukakis's campaign after spreading uncorroborated rumors of adultery by the elder George Bush, she sought a priest's mediation to apologize to the Bushes.

While other Democrats regard Karl Rove as Satan, Brazile has kind words for George W. Bush's political mastermind, acknowledging his talent and his graciousness toward her. She slaughters sacred party cows: Having been shuttled as a child to white schools far from her neighborhood, she says: "Busing was one of the worst public policy decisions ever made." (The passages in which white parents pelt Brazile and other black children with eggs, venting hatred on the most blameless of innocents, boil the blood.)

You can't help but cringe with her as Brazile discusses the NAACP official, Lee Alcorn, head of the Dallas chapter, who, notified that Gore had chosen Senator Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate, rued the choice of "a Jew person . . . because their interest primarily has to do with money." The comment led his organization to suspend him.

She isn't sanguine that the disastrous election gaffes of 2000 have been corrected. The states "not only need money to upgrade their voting systems and set uniform national standards for election procedures, they need resources to help update their voter registration lists."

Given that The New York Times recently reported on glitches with Florida's new voting machines, one tends to believe her.

Yet there's much joy in this book. Brazile's love of family, food, and faith are endearing, her life story is inspiring, her anecdotes about political figures are entertaining. Policy wonks need not read "Cooking With Grease," but for those interested in the human story of what it's like to be black in America and what it takes to hurdle disadvantage, Brazile -- to paraphrase her -- will give you a bracing slap on the rear end.

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