- By Keith J. Henderson
- Keith J. Henderson is the Monitor's assistant American news editor. In 1976 S. I. Hayakawa was a semantics professor known to voters primarily for his toughness in dealing with student protesters at San Francisco State College. He was given little chance of defeating incumbent Sen. John Tunney, a much younger man with the Kennedy elan and a polished public image. But Hayakawa had a ''secret'' weapon -- a team of political consultants who spotted Tunney's Achilles' heel and knew how to exploit it. The year 1976 was a year when people were fed up with government, when any incumbent -- particularly one with the ''establishment'' trappings of Tunney -- could be vulnerable. Hitting hard at this fabricated ''issue,'' plus such other targets as Tunney's alleged poor attendance record in the Senate, the Hayakawa team pushed to an impressive victory. A shocked Tunney charged dirty campaigning. But the fact remained: Astute political management coupled with an understanding of what voters will do and why had won the day. And a pair of relative newcomers, Jack McDowell and Dick Woodward, had made a name for themselves in one of the lesser-known ''growth'' industries: political consulting. The Tunney-Hayakawa race is one of many electoral sagas recorded in David Chagall's book, ''The New King-Makers.'' He also narrates, in detail, the last two presidential campaigns. The reader is given a feel for the texture of the political consultants' world. He's taken into their offices for intimate chats and allowed to eavesdrop, it seems, on the consultants' strategy sessions with famous political clients. Particularly enlightening are some of the consultants' own comments on their jobs. Larry J. Sabato's book takes a more detached look at political consultants and their work. As a professor of government, Sabato is above all interested in the broader implications of the consultants' rise to power. He deals primarily with three dominant areas of consulting activity -- the media (especially TV), the polls, and direct-mail fund-raising. The chapter on the role played by the electronic media in today's political campaigns is nothing short of illuminating. After reading it, one is bound to watch televised political pitches with a fresh eye -- looking for the deft hand of the ''media masters,'' as Sabato terms the consultants who specialize in creating TV spots. At the heart of both books are a host profound questions suggested by such quotes. Here are just a few: * Is the move toward ''packaged candidates'' - those more concerned with style than substance, more taken with camera angles than with issues - gradually eroding the quality of leadership in the United States? * What about the parties? As many of the planning and coordinating functions formerly handled by party leaders are absorbed by the media-wise consultant, what happens to the traditionally stable two-party system? * Are public opinion polls assuming too much importance? After all, pollsters themselves admit that the best they can provide is a snapshop of feelings that keep changing. And in any case, do we really want candidates who are tutored to be mere reactors to the polls? * And how about the consultant himself? He needn't answer to any constiuency except his satisfied customer - the winning politician. Should such political ''free-lances'' wield the power they do virtually free from public scrutiny? Dr. Sabato would like to see the profession held accountable for a code of ethics. For example, when a consultant signs on as a lobbyist to influence an office holder he helped elect, there is a clear conflict of interest, Sabato asserts. Such practices should be roundly condemned.
The Rise of Political Consultants, by Larry J. Sabato. New York: Basic Books. 376 pp. $12.95.