. . . Witcover does the Democrats

Books: Lives of the parties

November 02, 2003|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,Books Editor

Random House signed on to publish in tandem what may be taken as the definitive, bookend biographies of the two political parties that have dominated U.S. political spheres for a century and a half. Lewis L. Gould's work on the Republicans is ably reviewed by Paul West on this page. Following my practice of writing on books by Sun authors myself, rather than put to test the objectivity of others, I have just finished reading Party of the People: A History of the Democrats, by Jules Witcover (Random House, 800 pages, $35).

Witcover, of course, labors in and from The Sun's Washington bureau and writes a regular column on our op-ed pages that is widely syndicated elsewhere -- which he did for 24 years in partnership with Jack Germond, who retired at the end of 2000. Witcover has been a newsman for 53 years and has covered the last 10 Democratic national conventions. He has written seven books on presidential elections and seven others. This volume moves with a flowing, straightforward swiftness of style that is both comprehensive and pleasing. There is no vestige of the work that academic historians often produce --casting the concept of scholarly prose into often-impenetrable shadows.

Witcover calls it "the world's oldest existing party." He begins with the intensely ideological Federalist / anti-Federalist battles that preceded the establishment of the Constitution and Washington's becoming president. Alexander Hamilton led the Federalists and Thomas Jefferson the anti-Federalists. The Federalists stood for national unity and the predominance, if not supremacy, of a privileged class. The antis held fast to states rights.

Jefferson worked to draw together the populist masses of America -- tillers of the land, artisans, shopkeepers, veteran foot soldiers of the Revolution, and, with strong Southern roots, slaveholders. He labeled the emerging force the Republican Party -- in the European and especially the French sense of that term.

One of the greater ironies of the party, and the book -- indeed, of U.S. political evolution -- is that the anti-Federalists were passionate enemies of powerful, centralized government. Responding to populist interests against the sometimes monarchical and generally pro-British policies of the Federalists, the Jeffersonian forces were devoted to thwarting the development of a strong central government -- more or less the precise opposite of the tilts of today's two parties.

Over the years, this "Republican" party gradually came to be designated Democratic-Republican. Many but not all its activists were anti-Federalists to the core. The election of 1796, after Washington's two terms, pitted them against the Federalists, and so it went on into the election of 1800, when the Federalists were defeated. The label was formally changed from Democratic-Republican to Democratic at the party's convention in Baltimore in May 1840. By then, the party was brutally torn internally by the issue of slavery.

Witcover's book is a magisterial tracing of the evolution of the party -- and far more. It's a fascinating tale, which by necessity weaves the history of the nation together with the evolution of the Democratic Party. It is a history of far more than that -- or even the party's dynamics. It's a human tracing of presidencies, particularly Democratic presidencies, of course, though the entire history of the Republic.

In convention after convention, election after election, through two centuries of leadership intrigue, Witcover provides dramatic, blow-by-blow details of issues and resolutions, infighting and public posturing.

The Democratic convention of 1932 -- which my faded memory of history had left me believing was a fairly routine choice of Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- is revealed by Witcover as an intense, bitter, vividly dramatic battle that took four ballots to give the nomination to FDR.

Immediately after his selection, Witcover writes, Roosevelt "took a chartered plane from Albany to Chicago to accept the nomination in person. The long and bumpy flight, arranged well in advance in a calculated move to project the nominee as a man of action in times demanding action, captured the public's imagination. So did an expression he used in his acceptance speech: 'I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.' Thus was a name attached to an unprecedentedly progressive agenda for the Democratic Party."

The book abounds in such snapshots and profiles, and careful, vivid explorations of shifts and changes in the party's purposes and destinies.

One caveat: Witcover's work is immensely detailed, and the intricacy of politics may not excite every general reader. Yet Witcover's style moves us along with ease: He has the energy, the vocabulary, the sense of motion that is characteristic of fine journalism. His book is constructed in relatively short sentences and paragraphs, with rhythms and in the style of top-rate newspaper writing.

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