Convention, by Richard Reeves; Marathon, by Jules Witcover
by Richard Reeves.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 246 pp. $10.00.
Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976.
by Jules Witcover.
Viking. 684 pp $14.95
Anybody who says that the American political system is hopelessly mired in the status quo cannot have been paying much attention to presidential nominating politics. When Aaron Wildavsky and I wrote the first edition of our book, Presidential Elections, in the early 1960′s, we were able to rely on all sorts of conventional wisdom about the nomination process. Primary elections were still, mostly, “eyewash” (in Harry Truman’s phrase). The last big change in the rules of the game had occurred about three decades earlier, when the Democrats got rid of the two-thirds rule in their national convention. It still made sense to dredge up colorful quotations from Moisei Ostrogorski and Frank Kent, who had written with insight about campaign politics at the turn of the century.
In the intervening dozen or so years, the face of American politics has been remade. Primaries have come to dominate the delegate-selection process; there is public financing of elections; the mass media are far more active in covering—and influencing—earlier and earlier phases of the process; national conventions, despite efforts to resuscitate them by rewriting party rules, have become nearly moribund as decision-making bodies; the power of party organizations and leaders has been greatly reduced. With the establishment of a network of federal rules and a Federal Election Commission, presidential nomination politics has become a nationally regulated industry, and the balance between state parties and the national parties has for the first time in our history tipped decisively toward the center.
All these changes, along with their precursors and consequences, add up to a revolution in the presidential selection process. Figuring out what it means is an intensely interesting exercise, and the newness of it all certainly justifies the rising tide of books on the subject. Sooner or later, no doubt, somebody will paint a sufficiently compelling portrait of the emerging process—as Theodore H. White did in 1960 for the earlier situation—to establish a new, if temporary, conventional wisdom. In the meantime, more and more chroniclers are trying their hand.
Richard Reeves, a political writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and New York magazine, does not describe the considerations that shaped his decision to assemble a team of reporters and participant observers to cover the 1976 Democratic national convention, but it is not hard to invent a rationale for what he did. The Democrats had rewritten their rules so as to provide for split delegations to the convention and to encourage multiple candidacies. There was no incumbent Democrat in the White House, and, early on, no obvious front runner. So the chances were moderately good that for the first time in a long time a convention would be the locus of some real politicking and hence repay intensive study. The Democrats are always quite a lot of fun anyway, and as America’s majority party, could be expected either to nominate a winner or to commit suicide in some colorful fashion. Since a convention is a multi-ring circus, defeating the best efforts of the most energetic single reporter, the idea of enlisting a number of collaborators made sense, opening up the possibility of a narrative that would reconstruct events from a number of different angles, Rashomon-style.
These intelligently laid plans went mostly for nought when Jimmy Carter and the mass media short-circuited the process and wrapped up the nomination ahead of the convention. It was the Republican convention of 1976 that turned out to be the more politically exciting, even given an incumbent President seeking to keep his job. Stuck with a substantial investment in a story that never quite materialized, Reeves has nevertheless managed to put together a pastiche of vignettes that captures some of the human interest of the Democratic party and some of the theatrics of politics. Thus, we read about what happened when an usher tried to persuade Mrs. Robert Wagner to take a back seat; and when a phalanx of Alabama state troopers, moving Governor George Wallace through a crowd, almost smashed Jacqueline Onassis against a wall; and when state Senator Manfred Ohrenstein of New York tried to get more tickets to the convention than Robert Strauss thought he deserved. We learn that it costs $40 to change a light bulb in Madison Square Garden, and that the entire building has only four drinking fountains, none of them accessible to the public. We also learn that New York was chosen as the convention city more or less by default, after Governor Jerry Brown of California (described here by a number of his senior colleagues in the party as “that little bastard,” or worse) offended the site-selection committee of the Democratic party by suggesting that delegates sleep in church basements rather than hotel rooms.
Readers who share Reeves’s view that politics is best understood as a mosaic of small incidents will enjoy Convention, and will admire the skill with which he has embraced the minuscule, the comic, and the routine when events conspired to deprive his vantage point of the grand vistas and heroic moments with which political reporters generally like to fill their books. Since most of his stories are trivial, the issue of whether they are true or not—and some may well not be—on the whole does not arise; it suffices that they are well told.
Jules Witcover’s is a more ambitious, less relaxed book that undertakes to describe the main events of the entire presidential election season in rough chronological order and discuss the strategic calculations of the major politicians—the whole lightly mixed with Witcover’s own commentary. This is, of course, more or less the Theodore White formula, and Witcover, a well-known political journalist, executes it with enormous diligence. His prose is more staid and workmanlike than White’s, making copious use of the passive voice and of constructions like “the people seemed to be saying” and “somehow, it was believed.” There are no Oscar Hammerstein lyrics extolling the romance of politics, no purple moments of sports-page hyperbole such as White occasionally provides. Some readers will find this a relief; others will get bored slogging through Witcover’s recapitulation of the 1976 campaign, as seen from the perspective of an indefatigable infantryman of journalism.
Quite sensibly seeking to turn the sheer length of his story to account, Witcover at appropriate places proposes a theory that the mediocre record of voting participation which Americans have lately compiled is somehow related to the enervating prolongation of the election campaign. Unfortunately, Witcover presses rather than pursues this point. I know of no real evidence that presidential campaigns turn more people oil than on; if anything, campaigns tend to activate people who are ordinarily marginally attentive to politics. The recent reforms, which Witcover evidently approves of—reforms that have cut back on the amount of money available for campaigning—may well have actually contributed to the problem by reducing the volume of candidate-generated publicity about the upcoming election and starving local voluntary efforts.
Witcover’s taste for the encyclopedic contrasts with Reeves’s fondness for the chaotic to produce some variation in the two men’s descriptions of what happened in the campaign. Witcover, citing a lengthy interview with Hamilton Jordan, says that Jimmy Carter’s strategy was from the start a “run everywhere” plan, and he identifies it (erroneously, I think) as “the same one that Muskie had used in 1972, and that had helped to bring him down.” Reeves, on the other hand, writes:
The strategy was to show well in the Iowa precinct caucuses . . . to stimulate press interest in Carter, and then spend as much money as could be raised and borrowed . . . to win the New Hampshire and Florida primaries. Despite innumerable reports of Carter master plans and organizational genius, there was no plan and precious little organization after the Florida vote on March 9.
I have no infallible method for reconciling these two accounts, except to say that on the whole I think that Reeves has in general written a more credible book. Witcover is selectively opinionated in annoying little ways, frequently reflecting a bias in favor of nothing more elevating than the convenience of journalists. Thus, a major basis for his defense of the emphasis our system places on the New Hampshire primary is that the state is “manageable” for “veteran political reporters.” Out of this unpromising soil grows a hymn of praise to the typicality of the state and its electorate, “whose roots are so deeply entrenched in the early history of the nation.” This is a peculiar description of the heavily French Canadian voting population in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, and it hardly does justice to the unique influence of the Manchester Union Leader, one of the few newspapers anywhere to blanket an entire state with what may gently be described as idiosyncratic news coverage.
Witcover’s lapses of judgment are not frequent in a very long book, but they do occur with sufficient regularity, along with patches of labored and incoherent writing, to suggest that Marathon was put into print a little hastily, not only ahead of the competition but also before sober second thought could ripen some of his opinions. In their more spontaneous form, however, these opinions give an alert reader useful guidance to attitudes that are widely shared among political journalists, and hence they have documentary value quite apart from the issue of their plausibility or cogency.
It is, for example, useful to know that Witcover regards President Ford’s wooing of convention delegates from the White House as “demeaning,” as “relentless pandering,” and as a series of “indignities.” His view is that the business of the press is to hold the feet of aspiring politicians to the fire, and consequently an “adversary relationship” between the two camps is inevitable. This, however, does not prevent Witcover from praising politicians who break out of the “adversary” mold in order to do favors for journalists (so that the latter can get “scoops”), even though he is quite severe with those, such as “Nixon and his communications henchmen,” who are “ruthlessly effective” at keeping the press at bay. President Ford is criticized for adopting the strategy of campaigning from the White House where he could protect himself from pugnacious coverage, but Witcover praises the media for doing their best to “minimize” the effect of his incumbency on voters. It appears, in short, that what Witcover has in mind as a suitable “adversary relationship” is a highly opinionated and self-righteous press corps arrayed against supine or compliant politicians.
“Over the last four years,” Witcover opines, “America hungered for somebody new, and honest, in government.” This, apparently, is Witcover’s warrant for dismissing George McGovern, Edmund Muskie, and Hubert Humphrey as “a hapless trio of burned-out national power-seekers,” for viewing Terry Sanford as “a voice out of the past in a year in which voters seemed to be looking for new voices,” and for judging that Morris Udall “somehow failed to transmit certainty about where he was going.” It is a time-honored custom among American political journalists to become cheerleaders for winners and to heap scorn upon losers in electoral politics. Later, of course, reporters regain their franchise for “objectivity” by making a ritual feast upon the carcasses of incumbents of high office. There is room, in my opinion, for political analysis that does less of this, that glorifies less and denigrates less, and treats politicians as the ordinary human beings they so frequently are. But this would require some changes in the ground rules of American political journalism, probably in a direction in some respects suggested by Reeves, and away from the tradition exemplified by Witcover.