Germond and Witcover look at the what and why of 1992 presidential election

July 18, 1993|By Ronald Walters



Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

Warner Books

518 pages, $24.95

More than a simple review of the 1992 presidential election, "Mad As Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992" goes behind the scenes of the major political events to provide a first-hand account from the campaign operatives who were responsible for addressing them. As such, this book by Sun political columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover covers not only election year issues, but traces their roots so the reader can understand how they emerged within the context of the campaign.

Thus, we are better able to understand such issues as the focus on the middle class as having been reflected first in the 1991 senatorial campaign of Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania. The media interpreted Mr. Wofford's victory as the "warning shot" of Republican vulnerability over the issue of health care, but the authors show that Mr. Wofford's managers -- James Carville and Paul Begala -- also interpreted it as a referendum on the neglect of the middle class.

There is common agreement that the central issue of the presidential election was the lackluster performance of the economy, with an unemployment rate of nearly 6 percent and strong feelings among voters that "America was on the wrong track." Mr. Germond and Mr. Witcover address this early on as the predicate upon which the election would produce competition for George Bush.

Mr. Bush's lack of action on the "cultural agenda" favored by the right wing of his party also attracted Patrick Buchanan into the race. Most important, they found that Mr. Bush's turn-about on his 1988 campaign pledge -- "read my lips, no new taxes" -- was the issue that fractured the Republican coalition, helping to make possible the political adventures of Ross Perot.

The authors' deft probing of possible motives in Bill Clinton's reactions to events such as his Vietnam draft crisis and the Gennifer Flowers situation help fill out our picture of his character. Mr. Clinton appeared to have been preparing to be president all of his life, but what comes through this account is his amazing ambiguity and "evasiveness" on these issues and others -- such as whether he had smoked marijuana -- all of which appeared to confirm the "Slick Willie" tag given him by the Arkansas press.

But internal campaign discussions also show that how Mr. Clinton eventually countered the negative character impression was through the determination of both Bill and Hillary Clinton to find a way out of the morass, the success of which allowed Mr. Clinton to dub himself "the Comeback Kid." In particular, Ms. Clinton's combative attitude in the Flowers crisis and the strength of other women around Mr. Clinton undoubtedly helped insulate him against vulnerability to the female portion of the electorate.

On the whole, Mr. Perot's emergence is presented as we generally know it to have happened -- as an outgrowth of his appearance on Larry King's TV show -- but we also learn of the early roles of businessman Jack Geargan and John Jay Hooker, a colorful Tennessean, who separately launched campaigns to draft Mr. Perot. Given Mr. Perot's reluctance to get into the race, the prairie fire evoked by the public response to his appearance was all the more remarkable, and deserved considerably more explanation than the authors provide.

Perhaps a shortcoming of the insider's-account approach is that it may often limit the range of analysis. For example, one implication of the break-away candidacies of Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Perot was the fracturing of the Republican coalition that Ronald Reagan had held together, immediately making a Democrat viable in a three-way race. And although the campaign -- or anti-campaign -- that Mr. Perot waged contained a constituency of both conservatives and liberals, it was essentially a populism of discontent. The political pot boiled in the manner suggested by the authors' "mad as hell" theme, but the depth of this dissatisfaction was seldom fathomed.

Further analysis also might have been needed regarding assertions by Mr. Clinton's staffers -- apparently accepted by the authors -- that the selection of Al Gore as a running mate had nothing to do with breaking the Republicans' lock on the South. A minimal breakthrough in the South was anticipated in the Paul Tulley strategy, especially in Tennessee and Georgia. The importance of overtures to the white South is that their votes might make up for low black turnout as the campaign turned further to the right, toward "new Democrats."

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