Just Politics

JACK GANCE by Ward Just, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 279 pp. $17.95

IF you know your politics and you like political novels, you'll like this one. Not for what it says, but for what it doesn't say.

Young Jack Gance starts his career as a pollster in Chicago in 1960 during the national election. It was Kennedy against Nixon, and Gance dutifully turns in the results of his polling to the Chicago machine. They take it from there. But no mention is made in the book of the underlying mystery of how Kennedy won Illinois. To get the implication you have to know your politics.

This novel, his 10th, is Ward Just at the height of his powers - his powers of observation and narrative - all very subtle and based on the assumption that you know something of the finetuning of recent American elections.

His previous novels about politics, war, and journalism all seemed to lose the reader somewhere in the middle, but this one maintains its momentum and makes you pleased with yourself for remembering JFK's debt to his friends in Chicago.

Gance emerges through the artfully casual narrative as the soul of compromise, the basic ingredient of party politics. ``Smarter than a tree full of owls,'' one of the pols says in recommending him for a Washington slot. ``A Chicago boy,'' he goes on, ``so you don't have to finish every sentence you start.'' And they don't have to.

Gance's career, from the cold windy streets of Chicago where he polls the electorate face to face, to the City of Fear (read Washington), is the plot, but the real subject is the American political system, and what Just has learned about it. The system is alternately delicate and brutal, arcane, complicated, and sometimes destructive with its peculiar psephology of states, cities, wards and individuals.

Psephology is the study of elections, the manipulation of how people vote and why. Gance can do wonders with the numbers, but he knows that the truth lies, not in the raw facts, but in the shadows those facts cast. For example, ``the living voter can be a troublemaker,'' ``the middle class Jew who hated Nixon but was suspicious of Kennedy; his head belonged to Hubert, Adlai's surrogate,'' or ``the young mother, optimist by nature, but troubled. Nixon was crude, Kennedy slick.''

The author, who reported for Newsweek and the Washington Post, grew up in Illinois in a newspaper family. Like his character Gance, Just has only a limited respect for the press.

Just has the energetic isolation of the Midwest nailed down. He tracks the fears, prejudices and complacencies of the Midwestern voter and shows why Chicagoans love their sometimes unlovely city. You can feel the cold lake winds and smell the overheated city hall. ``The energy of the Loop was stupendous and seemed to implode, the blue industrial haze evidence of things turning and churning, grinding and clanking, neither neat nor elegant, the neon ambience of progress - the working of a clever brute's mind.''

And there are some very funny touches in Gance's career. As a White House staffer, he is always running off to BOGSATs. What, his brother finally has the nerve to ask him, is a BOGSAT? ``It's a Bunch of Guys Sitting Around a Table,'' Jack explains.

Gance's life is about how an intelligent man becomes a politician, a product of an electorate, not just as an official, but as a true representative, a man who can think as the aggregate thinks, and make them trust him. When he goes to Washington, Gance takes his skills with him, assessing the regional nature of the country, ``the South, warm and suspicious, the North, uninterested and self-absorbed.''

This is not a political thriller in the customary sense. The thrills are the thrills of realization of how politics works, of how Gance figures out the double helix of the electorate, and his own inheritance as well. Coming as it does, hard on the heels of one of the most cynically manipulated elections in America, the book is most instructive. Early in the book Gance explains, ``I had a theory that if you could identify the most basic aspirations of the population, then the campaign would write itself, so long as you had a hero to give it voice, and a villain to supply romance.... A successful campaign exploited the dream and suppressed the nightmare.'' He's talking about 1960, but it would have been good advice for the recent Democratic candidate.

Just's writing is crisp and restrained; he keeps power just offstage, right where a good political operative would want it. He also betrays an affection for the process and for most of the players, and he passes this on to readers. You are left with a mildly hopeful feeling about politicians and the entire whirling circus of ambition and influence. In a realistic novel, that's no small accomplishment these days.

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