The Magazine

Living Politics

The downward spiral, from Lubell to Witcover.

Oct 23, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 06 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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Witcover, as well as Germond, did write about voters in their books--just not in a meaningful way. They rarely bothered to mention that voters cast ballots on various religious, ethnic, regional, and class considerations, let alone subconscious instinct. Indeed, as two of the original "boys on the bus"--the title of Timothy Crouse's account of the 1972 campaign press corps--they viewed presidential campaigns in a childish sort of way. The contests were portrayed as athletic contests, in the absence of fans. "Covering politics was a game much like sports," Witcover writes in The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch. His other books abound with analogies between politics and baseball games, prizefights, and marathons. Nor were Witcover and Germond alone in their top-down view: Walter Shapiro writes that "presidential politics seems closer in spirit to a sporting contest than a transfer of power that will bequeath the victor globe-girding military and economic authority."

Having contracted the Teddy White syndrome, Witcover and his heirs suffer its main side effect. They are blind to many of the biggest stories about presidential politics in the last three decades. To take one famous example, Witcover and Germond never adequately explained how Republicans rose to majority status: Aside from a few banal conclusions about the disaffection of southern whites, they never explored why millions of Catholics and northern working-class white voters did the same. It could not have surprised them. Their account of the 1988 campaign (Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars?) reported that Republicans took a focus group of voters in Paramus, New Jersey, and used their responses to attack Michael Dukakis as soft on crime and unpatriotic.

It might seem odd that recent campaign chroniclers, almost all of whom have been liberal Democrats, embrace a variation of the Great Man theory of history. After all, it's the progressive historians who are supposed to write about The People. But the corruption of the modern presidential campaign book suggests that conservatives had it right all along. Elite journalists aren't all that interested in things like the masses and representative democracy.

Mark Stricherz is working on a book about how secular, educated elites transformed the Democratic party.