Commentary Magazine

The Outside Story, by Richard Brookhiser

The Campaign Trail

The Outside Story: How Democrats and Republicans Reelected Ronald Reagan.
by Richard Brookhiser.
Double-day. 298 pp. $17.95.

Richard Brookhiser, the managing editor of National Review, has written a thorough and interesting account of the 1984 election, tapping the impressions he formed as one of the magazine's chief reporters on presidential races since 1980. In fact, Brookhiser's is probably the best book yet on the 1984 presidential race.

Unfortunately, considering the competition, that is not a high compliment. Last year, the syndicated columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover published Wake Us When It's Over, a cut-and-paste effort premised on the notion that the election was boring; the book certainly was. The election essays written by Newsweek reporters were also updated and republished last year, as were those by Elizabeth Drew of the New Yorker. All these books shared a dual bias: one against Ronald Reagan himself, and a second, deeper, and more serious one against the ideas which animate campaigns.

To Germond, Witcover, Drew, et al., the notion that Americans listened to what Reagan said and liked it is unthinkable. Hence they move from recriminations against the voters themselves, presumably duped by Reagan's warm smile and ingratiating voice, to accounts of palace intrigue: who wrote what memorandum, how it was leaked to the press, and so on. Like some of the Democratic candidates they write about, these reporters seem to view the electoral process itself as something badly in need of reform.

As against their “inside story,” Brookhiser sets out to record the “outside story” of the campaign. “In the last year of the campaign alone,” he writes, the candidates “spoke millions of words and made thousands of appearances. . . . Politicians, it turns out, are actually saying something; their antics have a purpose. The voters, it seems, pay attention.” So did Brookhiser, traveling extensively with all the candidates and listening carefully to their speeches.

After a quick background chapter on Reagan's first term, Brookhiser follows the Democrats—the Magnificent Eight, as he calls them—from the pre-primary season of 1982 to the convention in San Francisco. Then he turns to the Republican contest, a race not among men but among issues. Finally, Brookhiser traces the Reagan-Mondale race to its close and takes a look at the prospects of both parties for 1988.


Though Brookhiser is serious about ideas, he takes the candidates themselves with a pinch of salt. Thus Alan Cranston: “The freeze became his call letters, his watchword; the thing that accompanied him wherever he went, like Laura's Theme.” Thus Ernest Hollings, whose obsession was the federal budget deficit: “The Democratic party's Robert Dole, a zesty incendiary who could not resist a squib, even if it exploded in his own face.” And thus Walter Mondale, a man who in 1976 had “entertained presidential ambitions, but after trailing ‘Don't Know’ in early polls, dropped out.” Brookhiser is similarly lively in his descriptions of the campaign itself. Here he rounds up the field at the first Democratic debate, at Dartmouth College:

Glenn was the man carrying the hidden hardball that afternoon, though he did not pitch it for nearly two hours. . . . “When Glenn starts talking,” said someone in the audience, “that's when you need the sleeper seats.” . . . Askew had brought along a wrench which he had bought in a hardware store but which the Pentagon was purchasing for hundreds of dollars or more. . . . Hollings managed to hijack a discussion of the nuclear freeze. “I want to talk about the budget freeze, something I can do in four years.” . . . Cranston asserted that he had been opposing nuclear weapons since 1945. “I met Albert Einstein; he warned me of the danger.” . . . McGovern was the more attractive McGovernite. . . . “I don't know who my running mate will be,” he told [Ted] Koppel. “I want to make one pledge. This time I'll be careful.”

The Outside Story has its weaknesses, epitomized by the footnote section, which offers a total of 8 notes for 298 pages, and by the index, nonexistent. This, indeed, gives a fair impression of the amount of original research Brookhiser has done. Most of his raw information consists of one-liners and paragraphs spoken by the candidates that could have been gleaned from the accounts of major newspapers and magazines during the campaign. These are spliced with Brookhiser's ubiquitous asides: 28 parenthetical references in the first 15 pages alone. What we get is something like a slide show; Brookhiser is a wit, so the show is fun, but it is not very enlightening.

What is more, for the tales of insider intrigue written by others, Brookhiser too often merely substitutes his own inside story: what Richard Brookhiser thinks. We learn what he thinks about a U.S. withdrawal from NATO (“It is an idea so seductive there must be something wrong with it”); about Jimmy Carter's moralizing (“It was enough to make Francis of Assisi become a gangster”); about Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon (“. . . . not that Nixon deserved it, but the country deserved to be spared two-and-a-half years of partisan carnival”); and so forth. At times Brookhiser functions not as a reporter but as a heckler, interrupting when Walter Mondale, George McGovern, Gary Hart, or Ronald Reagan is trying to speak.

All this is unfortunate, since Brookhiser was in a position to uncover things left unmentioned by other observers. Where, for example, Hedrick Smith of the New York Times wrote the day before the New Hampshire primary that Mondale had an insurmountable lead, Brookhiser saw that Hart might successfully challenge him: “Hart had one insight, or at least a necessary prelude to an insight. He believed that the Democratic party had lost the 1980 elections for a reason. Its ideas had failed, and it needed new ones.” Brookhiser, seeing this, took Hart seriously. Yet this is only the first step to a convincing account of Hart's fate in 1984. Why, if Hart was only “a little to the Left” of Mondale on foreign policy and “a little to the Right” on economic policy, did he nearly defeat the eventual nominee? Why, if he “found Mondale's weakness,” as Brookhiser writes, and exploited it to a near-victory, did he then suddenly lose?

Brookhiser attempts an explanation, but it does not amount to much. He cites Hart's blunders—especially over the matter of his own name and age. But this is not persuasive. While Hart did blunder, so did every other candidate, from Jesse Jackson to Geraldine Ferraro to Ronald Reagan. He notes that not all of Hart's ideas were “new”—yet Hart was at least distinctive among the Democrats in opposing protectionism and supporting Bradley-Gephardt tax-rate cuts. On the other hand, he did not seem to talk about these ideas, or about his military-reform initiatives, in his campaign literature. Why not? In failing to raise or resolve such questions, Brookhiser misses a vital part of the “outside story” of the campaign.


Among the Republicans, a key 1984 battle concerned the shape of Ronald Reagan's platform and campaign. Would Reagan run a dry, four-more-years race extolling the status quo? If so, some Republicans argued, he would fail to give voters a reason to throw out Democratic congressional incumbents, and thus win insufficient seats to enable the President to press in his second term for deployment of Star Wars defense systems, for a Kemp-Kasten flattish tax, for aid to the Nicaraguan contras, and for other key objectives. These same advisers wanted Reagan boldly to outline his second-term ideas, à la Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, and thus solidify his party as the regnant majority.

The focus of this battle was the GOP's Dallas convention, an event which Brookhiser wisely considers more important than the press did at the time and than other books on the campaign did afterward. But he does not consider it important enough. All the major characters appear, but the account of their ideas, actions, and even their public statements is thin and sometimes inaccurate.

“The military planks of the platform,” Brookhiser writes, were “securely in the hands of the Pentagon.” Actually, there was a major fight, orchestrated by Jack Kemp, Phyllis Schlafly, and Daniel O. Graham, who wanted support for Star Wars to go beyond a call for a mere research program. Again, according to Brookhiser, the supply-siders “enjoyed total victory” on such issues as the gold standard and the flat tax (for) and a tax increase (against). But these ideas were never stressed in Reagan's campaign, nor was the reference to a gold standard anything but a hedged suggestion that it “might” be a useful idea. Brookhiser writes that it was only anonymous “White House aides” who suggested the President might endorse a tax hike after the election; actually, press spokesman Larry Speakes, top deputy Richard Darman, and Vice President George Bush all spoke Up by name in favor of a platform that would leave Reagan's “options open.”

By Brookhiser's own lights, such struggles matter. The battle over a tax increase concerned more than just taxes per se. What was also at issue was Reagan's leadership: was he rigorous enough to demand support from his aides, informed enough to see that his policies were implemented? The standard retort, that Reagan wisely concentrates on only a few essentials, is beside the point, for at Dallas even those essentials were up for grabs.

Brookhiser touches only briefly on the 1984 congressional races, though they arguably spelled the critical margin of Reagan's reelection effort. He does note, interestingly, that of the few congressional seats Reagan gained in 1984, a majority were concentrated in just two states: Texas and North Carolina. This is the kind of intriguing datum that cries out for analysis. Some would say that the difference in those states was made by the kind of agenda-oriented spot commercials featured in the campaigns of Senators Phil Gramm and Jesse Helms. If so, this means that Reagan could have picked up a solid ideological majority in the House and Senate had he taken the advice of the Dallas mavericks and run a similar campaign nationwide. Other explanations are possible; unfortunately, Brookhiser neglects to deal with the matter in any depth.


Still, Brookhiser observes with style and wit many major happenings that others missed. He rescues from oblivion such events as an “All Species Rally” in San Francisco and a clash between Ferraro staffers and right-to-life protesters, and observes the general rough-and-tumble of the campaign with a calm, curious eye. Brookhiser also shows there is method to this madness. The length and breadth of the process test stamina and imagination, exposing potential Presidents to a variety of revealing pressures. The tone of the campaign, though sometimes mean, nonetheless helps flesh out the ideas of those who wish to govern.

Unlike those of 1976 or 1968, but like that of 1980, the election of 1984 was supremely a race of ideas. Reagan's ideas won. Democrats and Republicans with an eye on 1988 ignore this fact at their peril.

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