VISIONS OF AMERICA: How We Saw the 1984 Election. By William A. Henry III. The Atlantic Monthly Press. 275 pp. $17.95; WAKE US WHEN IT'S OVER: Presidential Politics of 1984. By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover. Macmillan. 567 pp. $19.95; THE QUEST FOR THE PRESIDENCY 1984. By Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller with Thomas M. DeFrank, Eleanor Clift, Lucille Beachy, Joyce Barnathan, Vern E. Smith. Newsweek/Bantam. 468 pp. $17.95.

AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL elections are not exactly underreported. Those who spent 1983 and 1984 in a Tibetan lamasery, or who were otherwise outside the reach of the mass media, now have a choice of three books to fill them in on the Wisconsin straw poll, the AFL-CIO endorsement, the Dartmouth debate, the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, The Right Stuff, Super Tuesday, the "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak flap, Super Saturday, the "Hymietown" furor, the "red telephone" spot, the Roger Mudd interview, the Bert Lance affair, the Ferraro nomination, the Cuomo speech, the Dallas prayer breakfast, the Louisville debate, the "bear in the woods" ad, John Zaccaro's tax returns and the final anticlimax, Election Day.

When I taught college some years ago, I used to warn students that, if they weren't careful, an exasperated reader would get to page 25 of their term papers and scribble in the margin, "Why are you telling me all this?" Why, indeed, are the authors of these three books telling us all this?

It turns out that each book tells the same story from a slightly different vantage point. You can choose among them according to which point of view you prefer.

William Henry, the media critic for Time magazine, prefers the outsider's perspective: how we saw the 1984 election. Henry does a good job of capturing the changing rhythms of the campaign:

"Jackson, the arrogant self-promoter of January, the loose- tongued bigot of February, the Great Black Hope of the South in March, had become through April and May a kind of statesman, inspiring his neglected people. Hart, the bold new leader of February and March, the empty bubble of April, had metamorphosed by late May into the gallant underdog. Mondale, the arrogant overlord of January and February, the stunned victim of March, the admirably manly Fighting Fritz of April, had reverted by May to the would-be king who claimed his throne by divine right rather than conquest."

It is Henry's thesis that every candidate has two campaigns going on simultaneously, "the private campaign, the behind- closed-doors maneuvering over money and endorsements and strategy, and the public campaign, conducted in and for the news media." In his opinion, the only campaign that matters is the one the public sees, which is to say, the one the press reports.

Th author demonstrates just how erratic and manipulable that reporting can be. Consider the expectations game. Because Mondale was expected to win the Iowa caucuses, his spectacular 3 to 1 victory over his nearest challenger meant little. Measured against expectations, "Hart and McGovern won the Iowa caucuses, Mondale broke even and Glenn lost dismally." After Hart's impressive upsets in New Hampshire and Maine, the conventional wisdom was that Mondale was in danger of being shut out on Super Tuesday. As it turned out, Hart won seven out of nine races and, by taking Florida, Massachusetts and several Western states, demonstrated that his appeal was truly national. Nevertheless, Mondale's victories in Alabama and, narrowly, in Georgia, led the networks to call the results a "tie." Much to the Mondale campaign's astonishment, they were seen as having made a comeback.

Other examples:

* The press' dismissal of Jesse Jackson after the "Hymietown" episode, only to discover to their surprise that "Jackson's black constituency did not share the white journalists' reverence for the pious niceties of political speech."

* The orgy of Hart-bashing that broke out after Super Tuesday, which Henry describes as "the arrogant exercise of conscience by the news media, who dared to presume that they had created Hart and so were obliged to challenge him."

* The irrelevance of Hart's smashing June 5 victory in California because the votes could not be counted in time to meet news deadlines ("If the sun set in the East," Frank Mankiewicz said, "Gary Hart would have won the nomination").

* The tendency to report Geraldine Ferraro's August 21 press conference as a performance rather than a serious investigation of financial improprieties (as Anne Wexler put it, "The networks pronounced her innocent").

* And the ganging up on President Reagan after the first debate, even though, as many in the press knew, "the contrast between the scripted Reagan and the impromptu Reagan had always been dramatic, and not much had changed."

There is a tendency in Henry's book to take cheap shots at the press. Actually, the press is more often the object than the perpetrator of manipulation. To find that out, you have to go to the other two books, which give the "inside" story of the campaign.

JACK GERMOND and Jules Witcover have written the complete insider's account of the 1984 campaign. The word "complete" is intended as both praise and criticism. Reading the book is very much like reliving the campaign -- sometimes exciting, often tedious. But everything important, and quite a bit besides, is here.

Thus, we get a fascinating discussion of Gary Hart's reluctance to run a negative campaign, even though it became increasingly clear that most of the votes he was getting were anti-Mondale votes, and that he won only when he made Mondale's "old politics" the issue. There is also the wonderful story of Mondale's freied efforts to line up a majority of delegates before his self-imposed deadline, noon on the day after the California primary. To do this, he had to convey the somewhat misleading impression that his majority was already secure. "I think the premise that he based his calls on was that the person getting the calls believed that Mondale was the nominee," a campaign staffer said afterwards.

We also find out that the Reagan campaign saw Mondale's tax increase proposal as an effort to snooker them into categorically ruling out any tax increase. The Democrats could then argue that the administration would have to cut Social Security or Medicare in order to reduce the deficit.

Germond and Witcover uncover one big scoop. They find out that a Mondale campaign operative stole the financial records of a theoretically independent delegate committee in Philadelphia at the request of high-ranking national campaign officials. Though in retrospect the event seems minor (the records were returned the next day, afterthe head of the Pennsylvania committee complained), I tend to agree with the authors that the discovery of a Watergate-style operation might have been devastating to the Mondale campaign at a point when it was just building up a decisive lead in delegates. Everything Hart was saying about Mondale and "the old politics" would have rung true.

To be sure, the Watergate mentality was not limited to that episode. The day before the second debate in October, Lee Atwater, the deputy director of the Reagan campaign, wrote a shocking memorandum entitled "The Great American Fog Machine" recommending a strategy for the Reagan campaign in case the president bombed in the second debate. The memo talked about using current and former secretaries of state and defense, as well as "top Pentagon brass," to make the national security argument for the president's reelection. It talked about putting former President Gerald Ford on television to remind the Americanpeople what a mistake they had made after he lost the 1976 debate to Jimmy Carter. It talked about scapegoating the press. It talked about polarizing the country, South against North, East against West. Finally, it talked about Reagan going to Grenada on October 25, the first anniversary of the intervention.

This is manipulation of the highest order, and Germond and Witcover work themselves into quite a state about it. They claim that "today's combat for the American presidency generates forces, mechanisms, ambitions and deceptions that threaten the integrity and effectiveness of the political process itself." They blame both parties for running "mindless" campaigns that refused to deal with the issues and gave the voters no clue as to what what either candidate intended to do during the next four years. They depict the voters as "brainwashed, misled and deceived," with "their trust in public officials and their enthusiasm for the electoral process" diminished by a deplorable campaign.

These objections are, in my opinion, overwrought. Time and again, the book shows how difficult it is for campaigns to manipulate the electorate. Consider the Reagan campaign's "feel-good" commercials ("It's morning in America"). They worked because they tapped a genuine sentiment in the electorate -- that things were getting better under Reagan's leadership. Those commercials would have looked ridiculous in 1982, when things were very bad. Remember what happened to Hubert Humphrey in 1968 when he talked about "the politics of joy"?

As for the issues, the voters knew perfectly well what they were being asked to choose between. The Reagan administration had a four-year record, and its policies were no great mystery. Unfortunately, Mondale and the Democrats also had a record, and they presented no convincing evidence that they intended to do things differently.

Perhaps the press felt brainwashed, misled and deceived, but there is no evidence that the voters did, or that the campaign caused them to lose faith in the electoral process. Bored, yes, and sometimes annoyed, but never deeply demoralized. "What do we need an election for?" a woman in Los Angeles asked. "We've already got a president." My guess is that Germond and Witcover talked to so many professional manipulators that they ended up with a cynical and manipulative view of the system.

WHEREAS Germond and Witcover try to be high-minded about the process, Peter Goldman, Tony Fuller and their colleagues at Newsweek get down and dirty. "We have not attempted a detailed analysis or a moral commentary on the 'issues,'" they write. "A position on the issues counts for little in the media age if it cannot be simply and catchily stated in thirty seconds on the evening news."

The Newsweek team used an unorthodox journalistic technique. They were able to observe the behind-the-scenes campaign first- hand by assuring participants that all information would be held in strict confidence until the election was over. (Their work was kept separate from that of regular Newsweek correspondents.) This method raises some important questions of journalistic ethics. Suppose they had discovered the theft of the delegate committee records in Philadelphia? Would they have been obliged to keep such information out of the magazine, even though it may very well have changed the course of the campaign and, in fact, might have involved criminal activity?

The authors tell us, "Nothing withheld under embargo was of such great moment as to have altered the outcome of the election; people who impart such information to journalists almost always intend it for immediate publication, precisely in the hope that it will change votes." Indeed, Germond and Witcover came up with more hard, factual material using their conventional approach. What Newsweek managed to get, however, was a sense of intimacy.

Thus, we get the story of Mondale pleading with Edward Kennedy for an endorsement after the New Hampshire primary. We see Bob Beckel trying to explain to an uncomprehending Mondale what "Where's the beef?" was all about. We watch Beckel, Jackson and Lance meeting over dinner at a rib joint in Kansas City while hundreds of local black residents gather outside the window to get a glimpse of Jackson. We read about Reagan and Roger Ailes, the coach brought in after the disastrous Louisville debate to give the president encouragement instead of treating him like a refractory schoolboy. We read about the delicate decision to keep the first lady away from the president during the final days of the campaign because her anxieties were spooking him. What we get, in other words, is outtakes from the 1984 campaign.

Unfortunately, the Newsweek book is marred by an irritating style -- smart-alecky and insiderish, with too much superfluous profanity and too many nudging italics. The stories are great, but you miss the seasoned political judgment of a Germond and Witcover.

In the end, one is left to ask, what does it all mean? The 1984 campaign saw the mobilization of women, blacks, baby boomers and organized labor as new, or newly revitalized, forces in American politics. But look at what happened on November 6. Reagan carried a solid majority of women, doing 10 points better than he had done in 1980. Black turnout was up only slightly, and 60 percent of all newly registered voters went Republican. The GOP made substantial gains among young voters. And white union voters went for Reagan.

The central issue in the Democratic primaries turned out to be Walter Mondale's record. The civil war between the old politics and the new politics that had been going on in the Democratic Party since 1968 continued unabated. The central issue in the general election was Ronald Reagan's record. As pollster Bob Teeter put it, Fortress Reagan was so strong that everyone in the campaign except the candidate could have abandoned it on Labor Day and gone to the beach instead. The outcome would have been the same.

It is these contextual forces that insiders usually fail to understand. They believe they can manipulate the electorate. And when they win, they think they did it all themselves. Among the dozens of insiders interviewed in these books, only two turn out to have had a grasp of the big picture. One is a Republican, the other a Democrat. Both are controversial figures. And both are experienced: Richard Nixon has been through five presidential campaigns and Patrick Caddell, four.

Nixon's role in the Reagan campaign, as described in the Newsweek book, was to calm everyone down whenever there was a tendency to panic. "Nixon had become a prime resource for the campaign, a store of experience and wisdom at both the mechanics and music of presidential politics." The former president knew that the election was about Reagan's record. He knew that economics was Reagan's strong suit, foreign policy was a wash, and the religious issue, "unfortunate." He knew that the nomination of Ferraro was a problem for the Democrats, not because she was a woman, but because she was a Northern liberal. He took a tactical, not a substantive, view of the debates. He advised Reagan to stay cool after the first debate. He said the polls would bounce back, which they did, and he knew that all Reagan had to do in the second debate was appear competent, which he did. Nixon's "Final Predictions" for the 1984 election turned out to be amazingly accurate, right down to the number of states Reagan would carry and the number of House seats the Republicans would gain.

Caddell's role, first in the Hart campaign and later in the Mondale campaign, was to create panic whenever people were tempted to calm down. According to one Hart staffer, "Caddell's brain was the only strategic core the campaign had." Caddell started with an idea, not a candidate, and he later mused in retrospect that Hart had failed to see that "the issue was the empowerment of a generation and not a single man pretending to its leadership. . . . Gary thought it was me instead of us." In the fall, Mondale brought Caddell into the campaign -- against the wishes of many on the staff -- to advise on debate strategy. His tactical analysis was remarkably close to Nixon's. "(Mondale) had prepared himself to debate the issues, Caddell thought, when the real strategic imperative was to show up a president as an uninformed and unengaged old man."

In the appendix to the Newsweek book, you will find 1984 campaign memoranda written by Nixon and Caddell, among others. Until someone has the courage to edit all of Caddell's memos, and until Nixon stops writing books about foreign policy and tells us what he knows about politics, these campaign documents will stand as the best sources available on the 1984 campaign.