Will's guide to campaign '88

The New Season: A Spectator's Guide to the 1988 Election, by George Will. New York: Simon & Schuster. 223 pp. $17.95. One would think the first question a book editor might ask when a manuscript comes flying over the transom is, ``Who will read this thing?'' Perhaps such reservations arise in inverse proportion to the author's celebrity. Consider the case of George Will and his latest book, ``The New Season: A Spectator's Guide to the 1988 Election.''

In ``The New Season'' Will's ostensible goal is to present the political and historical context of the ongoing presidential campaign for those who do not spend every waking moment pondering such things. Hence the subtitle, ``A Spectator's Guide.'' In four chapters, Will endeavors to explain who the players are in the quadrennial election saga and why they're doing what they're doing.

It could be a good idea - in someone else's hands. In Will's hands, it is primarily an exposition in florid prose. From the first page of ``The New Season,'' the inimitable Will style is out in force. That means the author writes as if seeking to prove he is smarter-than-thou, and most readers are likely to be crushed in the rhetorical juggernaut.

Will gets things rolling by comparing presidential campaigns to the fate of Prometheus. Puh-leeze. Within a sentence or two we've been hit with the first of a zillion of Will's too-clever-by-half metaphors that too-frequently evoke only a double take. (Presidential campaign ``committees have been organized to be wetted fingers in the Breeze of History and to be, simultaneously, dry fingers on the Pulse of the Republic.'')

By Page 3 we're muddling through the first of Will's habitual politics-is-a-lot-like-sports asides. (It's not that politics and sports don't have a lot in common. It's just that Will has a way of comparing the two that condescends to both.)

Soon we're knee-deep in the conservative sophistry that is Will's stock in trade. Will, for example, lambastes the Reagan administration for failing ``to dispel the superstition of arms control.'' Fair enough. Then he launches into a predictable harangue: ``After nineteen years of the arms-control `process,' all evidence is that the only Soviet aims are to use the process to disrupt US deployments and channel arms competition in directions disadvantageous to the United States.'' (``All evidence''?)

If one enjoys Will, one might just enjoy ``The New Season.'' He has an eagle's eye for nuance and brings to his work one of the most formidable intellects in the business. On the too-rare occasion when his writing does not get in the way, his analytical prowess can be breathtaking. He is also not a columnist too proud or too lazy to actually interview people. Consequently, Will comes up with some fresh insights on an intrinsically stale topic.

But he does not deliver enough insights in this slim volume to warrant its purchase. Beyond questions of style, I have qualms about this book's very conception. Quite simply, ``The New Season'' reads like a magazine article in search of an editor. It tells close observers of the campaign process nothing they don't already know. Meanwhile, it deluges lay people with detail they will probably soon forget. For the latter group, the book's 223 pages might seem very long indeed.

One could learn more by reading some of the superb articles on the election season by William Schneider that have appeared in The Atlantic. Or go to your local library and take a peek at the lyrical essay on presidential politics in ``The Almanac of American Politics: 1988,'' by Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa.

Peter Osterlund is on the Monitor staff.

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