Election 1992 in Hindsight

By Scott London

A year has passed since the 1992 elections and already several books have appeared that tell the story. Campaign narratives seem to be a quadrennial ritual within the publishing world, despite what has become an axiom of the business during the last 20 years: campaign books don't sell. A sampling of this year's crop leads me to think that's just as well.

First of all, the story of the '92 campaigns is already well known, the characters all-too-familiar, the outcomes foretold. What more can possibly be said about the broken "read my lips" pledge, for instance, or the Gennifer Flowers controversy, or Perot's magic disappearing act? Secondly, in these sorts of chronologies, the stories are usually told in the words of the actors themselves: candidates, campaign managers, strategists, journalists, and so on. These are people with enormous stakes in preserving their own versions of the stories. These he-said-she-said accounts take us behind the scenes, to be sure, but generally have as much credibility as an authorized biography.

The greatest problem with this genre, however, is the presumption that the historical relevance of a campaign can be summed up a few weeks after its over. These sorts of books are usually delivered on a deadline set no more than a few weeks after the votes have been cast and in prose about as inspired as your typical Newsweek or USA Today story. Usually no more than loosely connected and quickly thrown together series of mini- reports, these books of routine journalism, in effect, masquerade as works of historical record.

Mad As Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992, the first campaign book to appear following the elections elections, was penned by veteran Baltimore Sun journalists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover. These political reporters have been at it for decades, and it shows. They churn out six columns a week, a weekly piece for National Journal, plus news stories. They also make regular appearances on TV's The McLaughlin Group and write an encyclopedic campaign book every four years. Considering that workload, it's no wonder their account seems street-weary, grumpy, and aloof.

For example, here is how the authors sum up the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas ordeal early in the campaigns:

Hill, who is black, faced extensive and at times abusive interrogation from the Judiciary Committee panel of eight white males who also heard flat denials from Thomas and his allegation that he himself was being victimized by the committee because of his race. Defenders of both Hill and Thomas testified, often emotionally, as character witnesses, and in the end Thomas was confirmed by a 52 to 48 vote, the closest confirmation of a Supreme Court justice in this century.

This sort of for-the-record chronology reads more like a police report than political journalism.

What is captured in these 500-some pages seems to be the national consensus of the 1992 campaigns in the view of strategists, pollsters and campaign handlers. This is, in effect, an anthology of conventional wisdom about the campaigns, imparted by the same pundits and analysts who gave us the blow-by-blow while the race was still on. Meanwhile, the spirit of the nation and the underlying theme of the campaigns has been all but lost.

The most dramatic thing about Germond and Witcover's book is the title. Yes, citizens were "mad as hell" about politics-as-usual, as the authors point out. And, yes, that was certainly a significant aspect of the 1992 campaigns. But they don't seem sure why. They quote polls and reports that indicate that citizens felt disconnected from politics and yearned for a more active role, but they never stop to examine the reasons. They even quote a study by the Kettering Foundation which indicates that journalism-as-usual is partly responsible for the public's rejection of today's politics. What the authors obviously don't realize is that citizens are "mad as hell" at precisely this kind of journalism!

I have no argument with this book on its own terms, I suppose, it is as good or bad as any compilation of news reports and port-mortem testimonies gets. What seems most troublesome in the end is that today this kind of political writing has become the rule rather than the exception. It's bland, predictable, and almost uniformly awful.

Since Theodore White's classic The Making of a President, 1960, campaign books have been in steady decline. I went back and reread it last week and was, once again, swept along by a political narrative so compelling, so insightful, and so enlightening about the workings of our great democratic process, that its no wonder White's successors seem shallow in comparison.

Germond and Witcover, writing in an age of television, three decades hence, don't seem to have any illusions about their art. In fact, in a rare moment of personal flourish hidden away at the back of Mad As Hell, they pay tribute to their mentor by citing the ever-quotable Dan Quayle. At a reception following the publication of their 1988 campaign book, Quayle evidently stood up and told them: "I knew Teddy White. Teddy White was a friend of mine. And believe me, you guys are no Teddy White."

For once, Quayle had it right.

Incidentally, that book — Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars? — while also fairly straightforward and dull, has a few redeeming passages. At several points in the narrative Germond and Witcover abandon their journalistic neutrality to unleash a string of acid observations about then- senator Albert Gore Jr. In a tone bordering on mockery, they describe him as "1988's chameleon candidate" and "this Nobody from Nowhereville." Needless to say, considering Mr. Gore current status, they have had to tone down their remarks about him considerably in their latest book.

Another recent edition to the mounting body of campaign literature is Tom Rosenstiel's Strange Bedfellows: How Television and the Presidential Candidates Changed American Politics, 1992. Rosenstiel is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who has been writing a column called "Media Politics" since 1988. He too acknowledges a debt of gratitude to Theodore White, but doesn't seem to have been particularly inspired by him. To the contrary, this is an unfocused and superficial account of the 1992 campaigns, written from a vantage point inside the ABC-TV newsroom. Almost completely narrative and anecdotal, written in a style perfectly in sync with the tube journalism it covers, the book never really answers the question posed in the subtitle.

Rosenstiel's instincts were good: Since modern presidential campaigns have become little more that TV extravaganzas, he set out to cover the race "from the other side of the camera lens," thereby providing both a compelling chronicle of events as well as a study of the notorious liaison between politics and the media. Little did he know that the essence of the 1992 campaigns would never be captured on ABC News, or any of the other big networks, but rather on MTV, C-SPAN, Arsenio Hall and Larry King Live.

He nevertheless delivers a perfectly readable account of the race, intermingled with engaging observations about the inner workings of network news. His behind-the-scenes glimpses at how news decisions are made are always revealing, as well as his portraits of such colorful characters as ABC News President Roone Arledge, the enigmatic Peter Jennings, and overnight TV celebrity Ross Perot, among others.

The line between politics and the media is of course a fine one. But just how fine is the subject of still another new campaign book, published this month, by talk-show icon Larry King. Titled On the Line: The New Road to the White House, it is written with Washington Post political researcher Mark Stencel. This book may not fall neatly within the category of campaign literature, for it is really an examination of that new phenomenon known as "talk-show democracy," but it further illuminates the basic argument in Tom Rosenstiel's book: the gap between political message and media image is closing fast because the driving incentive behind them both is one and the same — to create a compelling show.

King and Stencel's book may undermine the accepted wisdom that campaign books don't sell. With a first printing set at 150,000 copies and a promotional budget usually reserved for scandalous unauthorized biographies, it is likely to race up the bestseller lists. But I doubt it will reverse the downward trend of campaign literature in general.

It is fitting, perhaps, that this once-proud genre of political reporting should become dominated by image-makers, spin-doctors, and talk shows. That is, after all, what campaigns in the '90s are all about.

This essay appeared in the Dayton Voice, November 4, 1993.