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An Insider's Election?

Post-Conservative America(1982) By Kevin Phillips Vintage Books; 261 pp.; $6.95

By Michael W. Hirschorn

TWO DECADES AGO, when Teddy White was still more than a Jap-and gay-baiting retrograde, his campaign books constituted a revolution in political reportage.

His accounts, beginning in 1960, were the first to take us behind the scenes to reveal the inner workings of great men, their great strategists, plotting the conquest of the greatest office in the world. His premise--in the context of contemporary reporting, which recorded little more than the candidates' public appearances--was that campaigns were infinitely more complex, more sophisticated, and more fun, than previously assumed.

White was lucky. He caught the tailend of the proverbral era of back-room politics, when candidacies really were decided by stogie-munching moneymen, when what happened in the back room was both interesting and significant.

Since White, we have had swarms of imitators, spouting rich, majestic anecdote after rich, majestic anecdote, taking us behind the scenes for a romanticized look at the men who moved mountains. Joe McGinniss's wrong-headed and hopelessly dated Selling of the President 1968, which purported to expose the machinations of Richard Nixon's and men and their duping of an unsuspecting American public, has been typical of the genre. Packed with internal memos and insider information, McGinniss's book sought to convince the public that Nixon had won the Presidency because he manipulated his images at the expense of a thorough examination of the issues.

The notion that "insiderism" can expose the true campaign is peddled in two books by two quintessentially Washington institutions: Newsweek, and the columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover (Germond qualifies solo). Newseek commited at least seven top-flight reporters to the gargantuan task of placing you, the reader, in the hip pocket of the candidates and their aides. Germond and Witcover, who can't help but write from the perspective of politicians' hip pockets, exhaustively chronicle the motivations and actions of all the Democratic pretenders and give a detailed account of the President's reelection effort.

White could probably argue that his first insider accounts were more than good theater. But the last three elections have involved electoral forces that are so far removed from the back room as to render insider accounts almost irrelevant. It is a liberal conceit of these three accounts, especially Time's Henry's "outsider" history, that Reagan, like Nixon before him, had pulled a fast one on the public and the earnest but naive Democrats. Henry, waxing ominous, says of the President in one particularly overdone passage:

Reagan was a televised image, distant, serene. Like Big Brother, the leader in Orwell's 1984, Reagan manifested himself chiefly as an electronic impulse, an ionized, ethereal stream. He gave the illusion of closeness, familiarity, and all the while secluded himself.

In fact, Reagan's popularity is so easily explainable as to be utterly banal. As top campaign adviser Richard Darman noted at a post-election Kennedy School of Government roundtable, when the economy is prospering and you're at peace, you're 80 percent of the way there.

Reagan, noxious as he may be otherwise, had done little more than reconstitute JFK's rhetoric in his earnest BSing about "morning in America" and "America is back, standing tall." Tony Goldman's Newsweek book finds particularly significant a June 1984 Darman memo which advises

...Paint PR as the personification of all that is right with, or heroized by, America. Leave Mondale in a position where an attack on Reagan is tantamount to an attack on America's idealized image of itself--where a vote against Reagan is, in some subliminal sense, a vote against a mythic "AMERICA."

That Mondale, who was seemingly so proficient at the insider game of politics, could not grasp a fundamental reality of more than two decades of TV-age politicking says more about him than it does about Reagan's ethics.

Reagan's lowest-common-denominator approach to politics is the inevitable cost of the democratization of the electoral process. In the past two decades, a long string of insiders who have wooed the right special interests and nabbed the right endorsements have either been toppled in the primaries or have been so weakened in them that they lost the general election. The changes in the nomination process and the domination of television have forced candidates to communicate differently and, in a completely positive way, have taken the decision-making power away from the insiders. Is this so bad? The Democrats, instead of refusing to understand ignorant America's infatuation with a stupid president, should learn to adapt to some of the changes they helped bring about.

These changes have also rendered the traditional campaign tome largely obsolete. With tempestuous demographic and geographic upheavals in progress--i.e. Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, the fundamentalist Right, the Sun Belt majority--campaigns today are roughly analogous to surfing. Catch your demographic wave and hang on for the ride. The story of the Hart campaign was not how he won the New Hampshire primary, but how he failed to take advantage of the electoral groundswell in his favor. The story of Alan Cranston's failure was not his ridiculous one-note (later two-note) campaign, but the utter lack of a constituency for a nuclear freeze.

Henry seems to grasp this reality, at least in theory. He writes in his introduction: "The real campaign is the string of public events that voters observe, not the hidden web of strategy memos and fund-raising dinners and portentous telephone calls." Bravo. The problem is, Henry doesn't follow through. With few exceptions and obscured by his wonderfully elegant writing style, Visions of America gives us yesteryear's headlines with a dollop of conventional wisdom to serve as analysis. Since essay-writing appears to absolve him of the requirement to report, Henry can opine that "the most antagonistic major news organization was CBS, which had challenged Reagan's approach almost from its outset." He can make sweeping generalizations like: "Something ungiving, downright mean, seemed to have slipped loose from the darker corners of the nation's soul." Henry, to his credit, does take some risks. In an excellent analysis of Mario Cuomo's convention keynote address, for example, Henry dispenses with the rhetoric and the delivery and deals with the substance:

It was the classic New Deal argument, movingly spoken. But Cuomo took it too far...he evoked a nation reminiscent of 50 years before, at the height of the Depression, an America remembered from his own childhood. The scenes he described were distant from the lives of ordinary suburban Americans of 1984. The depression he so piously depicted seemed all but impossible in a modern prosperous welfare state.

At only one point does Henry leave the campaign trail to fulfill his promise to examine whyAmerica voted the way it did, rather than how the politicians convinced America to vote the way it did (the former, I believe, is significantly more interesting and important than the latter).

Starting from a description of July Fourth in a New Hampshire town, Henry gives us a whirlwind tour through American pop culture from pies and hot-dogs to Gremlins and Ghostbusters and "The A-Team." What all this means, he tells us, is that America in 1984 is at best individualistic and at worst selfish. These few pages of pop sociology are fine, but they are the only ones in the thousands of pages written about the 1984 election.

Newsweek reveals Nixon's significant role in the Reagan reelection campaign. Germond and Witcover unveil their requisite scoop, that Mondale's campaign staff engaged in some utterly irrelevant shenanaigans that bore a passing resemblance to l'affaire Watergate. To simplify, a Mondale staffer stole and then returned a book tabulating the flow of Pennsylvania labor money through the campaign apparatus to the ostensibly unaffiliated Mondale delegate committees. Though Germond and Witcover lack the requisite irony to appreciate it, the episode says much more about the idiocy of campaign finance law than it does about the ethics of the Mondale campaign.

The uneventful nature of the 1984 campaign should have led someone in the election book biz to look beyond the act of campaigning. In all likelihood that task will be left to Kevin Phillips, whose 1982 Post-Conservative America tells us more about the 1984 election than any work written after the game was played. Phillips pegged the rising influence of a New Right that was not interested in the "conservative" status quo but was instead populist-revolutionary. Given 40 years of New Deal politics, the New Right understood that the status quo was no longer sufficient, and Phillips argues that the coming electoral revolution will render traditional notions of conservatism and liberalism irrelevant.

Post-Conservative America still holds relevance for 1988, when a Republican lacking Reagan's personal charms will have to reconcile what are fundamentally two opposing political ideologies now subsumed under the umbrella of the Republican Party. Phillips does all this without any reliance on the presidential campaigns themselves, which, I think he would argue, are symptoms rather than catalysts of political change.

In terms of the rise of Black political power and the religious right, 1984 was an extremely important electoral year. But neither these nor numerous other political phenomena will be properly understood by readers of the old-fashioned campaign tale.

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