PLEDGING ALLEGIANCE

The Last Campaign of the Cold War

By Sidney Blumenthal

HarperCollins. 386 pp. $22.95

"DUKAKIS DOESN'T even have the guts to call himself a liberal!" roared my disgusted host, surveying America's bleak future beyond the grimy window of his Greenwich Village apartment. "Bush or Dukakis! It's a contest between two media machines, one smart and one dumb. Absolutely no human beings are involved! It's a non-event." I agreed, a cynical foreigner, visiting New York in October 1988, it all sounded much like Nixon versus Humphrey in 1968 -- but without the false dawn of Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy. Sidney Blumenthal's Pledging Allegiance scarcely alters this verdict.

Blumenthal, a senior editor of The New Republic, is a commandingly expert and eloquent observer of the higher American politics. Reading his meticulously researched report on the 1988 election, I am again reminded of the Shakespearian quality of the American presidential cycle. Royal pretenders, barons, knights and retainers gallop across the country during the primaries, raising local levies and promising burghers and serfs fine weather, plus law-and-order, in return for unconditional allegiance. As in "Richard III," it's politics from the top down -- "Read my lips".

In modern America, of course, there are local caucuses and union bosses whose endorsement is worth a horse. But the political party itself, whether Republican or Democrat, seems -- despite the ritual, populist theatricality of the nominating conventions -- to be entirely at the mercy of the triumphant Pretender as he and his feudal retinue seize the convention. The platform, although a compromise designed to unite the leading factions, is forgotten the day after it is cobbled together. From the moment of nomination, the two protagonists are off on their own, like Arthurian knights, feinting and slashing according to the polls and the advice of their hired knaves -- what Blumenthal calls their "handlers." For us of the wider world, who must live, or not live, with the upshot, this televised tournament is a chastening spectacle.

Starting with the primaries, Sidney Blumenthal's favorite son is clearly Gary Hart. With regard to the jargon-addicted "Tolstoyan" senator from Colorado, Blumenthal's habit of knee-capping aspirant presidents yields instead to something close to awe: Here, at last, is a well-informed candidate capable of thinking his way into a post-industrial, post-Cold War future. When Hart climbs into an army tank he looks the part, "a rugged film star," while Dukakis resembles a flying squirrel. "Hart had spent years developing policy positions about tanks . . . Hart knew what he was talking about."

Blumenthal documents Hart's bizarre stuff about "myth is suprarational, metarational," and his "paradigm shifts," but when Hart talked to Gorbachev he knew who he was talking to and he was as much at home in a think-tank as in the other kind. This low-browed reader wanted the full stuff on Hart's fatal sexual lapses, but Blumenthal is too fastidious about private lives and the frontiers of legitimate muckraking to go into that.

Enter (or re-enter) Jesse Jackson. Blumenthal sketches his career vividly enough, alert to the social profile of modern black politics and to Jackson's appeal to the idealist white vote. But Blumenthal also scores points against Jackson all the way from his self-serving fantasizing at the time of Martin Luther King's assassination through to his comments about Jews. "Reflexive anti-Semitism" is Blumenthal's judgment on Jackson's blaming Jews for the dismissal of Andrew Young in 1979, following the exposure of secret talks between the PLO and Carter's black ambassador to the United Nations. But why did successive American administrations refuse to talk to the PLO? On page 195 Jackson is accused of "racial mysticism, thinking with the blood." So tell me about Shamir, Kahane and the settlers spreading their biblical heritage across the West Bank.

Now comes Michael Dukakis, the perfect laboratory product of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, revealing a computer where the heart should be, dedicated to dispassionate managerial competence and conflict-resolution, heir to the "strategic hamlets" approach to Vietnam conceived by Kennedy's own Pentagon appointees in the 1960s. Blumenthal, who cannot forgive Dukakis for betraying the Kennedy heritage by craven silence, romantically quotes JFK's own, boldly spoken vision of what it is to be a liberal. In reality there were two JFKs: the one you quote and the one who forgot the quotations when turning the underlying assumptions of the American Century on Latin America and Vietnam. I suspect that Dukakis's reluctance to declare the Cold War off or on was a sound one.

Blumenthal's portrait of the governor of Massachusetts and his lackluster caution is meticulously researched -- but despairing. "Dukakis did not see the ideological dimension of issues . . . He did not even understand his own liberalism as liberalism, but as rationalism." No one can dissent from Blumenthal's final verdict that, "As the Dukakis campaign poised for an ascent to the nomination, it refused to take off, lumbering down an endless runway, mile after mile." Blumenthal's beguiling sketch of Mario Cuomo, the Hamlet who said only "not to be," fills one with regret.

Blumenthal doesn't care for George Bush and mocks him relentlessly for his "vision thing," his calculating career, his crass tendency to say "So I -- but if the -- in the -- I want to avoid words like Cold War . . ." As Blumenthal notes, Bush's final campaign was conducted in the "paranoid style" of "pseudo-conservative" rhetoric, "but executed on a rational, calculated basis, aided by all the tools of modern political technology." Blumenthal's description of the Bush campaign makes the stomach heave, not least the soft-on-Willie-Horton-black-rapist theme; vile stuff. But here again, Blumenthal is less than fair to Dukakis. When the Democratic candidate finally goes on-air to stress his own lifelong opposition to the death penalty, Blumenthal pounces: "In an instant Michael Dukakis inhabited the weak, unfeeling image of Michael Dukakis projected by the Bush campaign."

Why? To concretize one's liberalism is surely more important, in a mature democracy, than to proclaim it. Michel Rocard (perhaps Dukakis's closest cousin in European politics) offered France hard policies, not steaming rhetoric. Obviously Blumenthal is right that Dukakis was stubborn, blinkered, locked into his own sense of rectitude, but the real tragedy, as revealed by this fascinating book, is America's tendency to back Julius Caesar during the electoral campaign, even though the long, subsequent accommodation with Congress and the world requires a Marcus Brutus.

David Caute is the author of "The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Campaign Under Truman and Eisenhower" and "Sixty-Eight: The Year of the Barricades." His most recent book is the novel "Veronica or The Two Nations."