PROMISES TO KEEP A Call for A New American Revolution By Richard Goodwin Times Books. 177 pp. $15
FOLLOW THE LEADER Opinion Polls and The Modern Presidents By Barbara Hinckley and Paul Brace Basic Books. 243 pp. $25
TALKING POLITICS By William Gamson Cambridge University Press. 256 pp. $49.95 Paperback, $15.95
OFFICIAL LIES How Washington Misleads Us By James T. Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo Groom Books. 320 pp. $19.95
IN THIS year of dispiriting politics, a dyspeptic electorate and an election being organized around the vague semi-issues of change and trust without realistic hope that the outcome will, in any dramatic way, produce either, it would be nice to be able to say that these four books offer some guidance on either how we have come to this impasse or how we might get out of it. Alas, such is not the case.
The only thing that may be gleaned for certain is why the movement/candidacy of former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. failed. For Richard N. Goodwin was Brown's guru and his book, Promises To Keep, was Brown's bible and call to arms. Jerry Brown failed, in part, because of his multiple personas over the years and his opportunistic and impromptu selection of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as his putative vice president. But he also failed because Goodwin's ideas were an inadequate basis upon which either to build a movement or govern a nation.
Goodwin is perhaps best known as a permanent member of the Kennedy family court, perhaps the most eloquent of the speechwriters for Presidents Johnson and Kennedy and an originator of the idea for Kennedy's Alliance for Progress. In 1974 he wrote The American Condition, an eloquent, thoughtful, even, one might say, important book. But because Goodwin, in his drive to place himself in the national firmament, had alienated a few too many in positions of power, that book never received the acclaim it deserved.
Promises to Keep, however, fails to measure up to the promise of the earlier book. It is, instead, an outdated example of vintage 1960s speechwriting -- soaring rhetoric and tepid program.
The book is an argument that the heart of the great American experiment is democratic capitalism, that both parts of that experiment -- democracy and capitalism -- are in trouble and that nothing less than a grassroots movement to redeem them will put the nation back on track. So far, so good. But the premise is undermined by a derivative analysis of the problems of democracy and capitalism and defective approaches to their remedy.
For democracy's problems, Goodwin gives the reader a familiar litany of money in politics serving to undermine the time legislators have to give to public policy, focusing their attention on special interests at the expense of the general interest, leading to a Congress bloated in staff, permanent in their Washington residence (the last being somewhat dated in a year likely to see 100 to 150 new congressional members). For remedies, he offers a somewhat stale litany of campaign spending limits, smaller staffs, free television time and term limits for office-holders.
Such an analysis does an injustice to the overwhelming majority of legislators who are honorably addressing their responsibilities. But even if Goodwin's analysis were true, it is hard to see how campaign spending limits, which enhance the powers of incumbency (name recognition, staff, constituent service, the frank and media access), would increase competition or how free time could be meaningfully allocated among perhaps 120 candidates competing in each of many media areas. Or, perhaps most important, how democracy would be served by removing choice from the people or depriving them of the best of their leaders, who owe their skills to experience -- the Moynihans, Sanfords, Doles, Danforths or Kennedys -- and replacing them with raw rookies.
Similarly, while some of Goodwin's prescriptions for what ails the economy are unexceptionable -- a fairer, simpler tax code; incentives against non-productive conglomeration; investment in American infrastructure; the employment of inner-city youth -- other recommendations are inadequate, half-baked and wrong. A balanced-budget amendment could very well restrict the government's ability to promote the economic growth Goodwin seeks. Educational research centers do not deal with the central problem in American education -- the flight of middle- and upper-class Americans to private, parochial and the best of the suburban and exurban public schools. Conversion of defense industries to civilian production is not as easily done as said. And temporary protectionism to allow American industry to catch up with foreign competitors flies in the face of what has been happening through competition -- Detroit has finally gotten the message about quality, durability and safety and is increasing market share.
Goodwin has one of the finer political minds in America. This book is not worthy of that mind. IN WHAT is perhaps of more interest and with considerably more research and inventiveness, the authors of Official Lies assert that thousands of government propagandists provide the public and its leaders with selected and inaccurate information aimed at continuing and expanding government programs at the expense of wise social policy. They go on in 344 well-written pages to take on almost every area of public and social policy that government is engaged in.
And therein lies the rub. For had Bennett and DiLorenzo been more selective in the arenas in which they chose to do battle and more careful and honest in some of the issue areas they addressed, it would be less clear that they had a libertarian, anti-government agenda underlying their curmudgeonly analysis.
For portions of their expose are useful -- that the myth of the independent and needy family farmer serves to provide billions of dollars to rich agribusinesses to the detriment of the consumer, foreign trade and constructive land husbandry; that inaccurate alcohol, tobacco, and anti-drug propaganda feeds counterproductive government policies; and that statistics governing a variety of things from poverty to production are skewed to justify the programs government wants to promote.
But the authors go overboard. They accurately refer to a government-panel report that goes against the conventional wisdom on acid rain, showing that few lakes and trees have been destroyed (and that the lakes could be restored with $500,000 worth of lime rather than billions of dollars of pollution controls). But they fail to mention the real damage of acid rain -- to crops and buildings, which can only be addressed by pollution controls. They see the talk about holes in the ozone layer in terms of environmental extremists screaming, "The sky is falling," pointing out that throughout the world ultraviolet rays have diminished. But they don't tell you that where the ozone layer has been eroding, ultraviolet rays have increased and would, presumably, be expected to increase further were the holes in the ozone layer to expand, as they likely would without some governmental intervention.
All of which is to suggest that this book is interesting, lively reading; but if read, it should be read carefully, argued with often and the reader should have available to him or her several grains of salt. THE LAST two books, Follow The Leader and Talking Politics, demonstrate two of the principal weaknesses in the academy's demand for publication by its faculties.
Follow The Leader is a 243-page book that should have been a heavily footnoted 30-page paper. It is an attempt to show that presidential approval ratings follow predictable patterns and that certain presidential actions have predictable impacts on those ratings. It is also a warning that because of these findings we may face an increasing danger of presidential actions aimed solely at influencing these ratings.
Tracing approval ratings from Truman to the present, Hinckley and Brace attempt to show that presidential approval is at its highest at the beginning of a term, waning throughout the term before rising shortly before the next election. They also attempt to show that certain actions -- an international crisis, a major speech to the nation -- tend to influence approval ratings positively while domestic travel and legislative activity tend to produce declines in public approval. They also point out that events, luck and the business cycle can have major effects on approval. So, one might say, what's new?
One might also question whether their findings with regard to legislative activity are accurate because they are, in part, based on the two presidents who engaged in the highest amount of legislative activity -- Truman and Johnson, who might have been felled not by their activism but by the protracted and unsuccessful wars each was engaged in.
William Gamson's Talking Politics suffers from a different flaw. It is a study of several groups of poor and working-class Bostonians, aided by a facilitator, who discussed four issues -- affirmative action, nuclear power, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and industrial difficulties in the U.S. These discussions tend to show that semi-educated, ordinary people are able to integrate what they learn from the media, their own personal experiences and the experiences of others into a fairly coherent view of issues and into the ability to act on that view.
The problem with Gamson's book is that it is virtually unreadable. Any book with hundreds of sentences of the ilk of "There is no easy path between cold cognition of an overdetermined structural analysis and the hot cognition of misplaced concreteness" should not be published until the writer learns to write for someone other than himself. It would, in short, be better to perish than publish books that are either unreadable or unfathomable expansions of almost self-evident premises that could be encompassed in short papers.
But Gamson's book does return us to the central question. If people have the knowledge and willingness to act, why do we have a polity which presently seems so devoid of outlets and hope? For the answer to that, we will probably have to await other authors. Curtis B. Gans is director of the non-partisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.