Politics or media warfare? Three looks at '84 election

Visions of America, by William A. Henry III. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press. 275 pp. $17.95. Wake Us When It's Over, by Jack Germond and Jules Witcover. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 567 pp. $19.95. The Quest for the Presidency 1984, by Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller et al. New York: Bantam Books. 468 pp. $17.95. These books serve to remind us -- sometimes jarringly -- that the recent presidential campaign was not all it ought to have been. In particular, the Democratic caucuses and primaries dragged on remorselessly through four months of party infighting. And the news media's coverage of the campaign -- television must be singled out here -- was frightfully shallow, especially considering the election's profound importance.

By far the most interesting of the three books is Visions of America. William Henry does not detail day-to-day events and strategies, as the other books do, but writes an insightful overview.

Journalist Henry is an expert on the media. He is particularly adept here at showing how weak television's reporting of the election was. Commercial networks, constrained by ratings wars, report what they think viewers want to see, not what voters ought to know, Henry says. The result is, as a study by Public Opinion magazine found, over half the campaign news stories on TV contained no ``issue content.'' Even TV reporting on debates, ostensibly a forum where ideas are paramount, led with ``who won'' an d rarely went much beyond brief film clips of the most dramatic seconds.

This would not be so distressing were it not that a 1982 Roper poll found that Americans trust television news reporting over other media by a greater than a 2-to-1 margin.

Wake Us When It's Over and Quest for the Presidency 1984 both focus largely on the Democrats and their primaries. Both books are behind-the-scenes views of the candidates and their advisers.

The latter book is a compilation of what seven Newsweek reporters recorded during the campaign, often with the understanding that nothing would be published until after the election. It offers no thesis, but does include many conversations among top campaign aides. The last fifth of the book is devoted to campaign memos and papers.

What both books reveal is an election process that appears to have little to do with a competition among differing ideas and policies. In fact, as party politicians have become less influential in choosing the party's candidate, and delegates and TV coverage more powerful, candidates have become increasingly dependent on campaign professionals: delegate ``trackers,'' pollsters, and media specialists, among others. Their tasks rarely seem to pertain to convincing the electorate that their candidate off ers the most effective and meaningful agenda.

Rather, both books portray -- as Germond and Witcover explicitly sought to do -- campaign professionals engaged in activities that resemble not so much politics as warfare. We learn of the aides who ``load'' delegate selection rules, coach their candidates to assume a winning TV aura, and pressure their candidates not to address policy issues seriously, but rather to attack opponents with spurious fusillades that will make short ``sound bites'' for the evening news.

Rarely, if ever, does a reader of these books get the impression that he is observing a system that contributes to a better-informed electorate, or that encourages the best men and women to run.

Germond and Witcover are clearly distraught at what they saw in the long campaign, which they say was ``devoid of meaning.'' They call for reforms in their concluding chapter: new rules to shorten the period of pre-campaign fund raising and to balance TV commercial time, and a reduction in the number of days on which primaries and caucuses are held (from 15 in 1984, to four or five).

But the profound problems they uncover seem to call for more sweeping changes: Perhaps the parties should move toward nominating a candidate-leader long before the general election. That could provide an adequate time period to heal the wounds of internecine battling, demonstrate to the public a united party, and begin a meaningful, thought-through debate with the opposition.

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